Trying to Defend Sam Harris

Militant atheist Jerry Coyne recently promoted an article by militant atheist Jeffrey Taylor.  The shared theme was to defend militant atheist Sam Harris (something Coyne apparently discussed with militant atheist Peter Boghossian).

Coyne’s defense of Harris is pathetic.  He complains:

I’ve long pondered why people make such vicious and unwarranted criticisms of Harris, even compared to other New Atheists like Hitchens or Dennett. I think there are two reasons.

Here is his first reason:

First, Sam asks hard questions, and people don’t like to think about hard questions. Should we ever lie? Is torture ever justifiable? Is it even possible to even imagine a first strike against Islamic enemies? Is it possible that religion can really be a strong motivator for bad acts, including Islamist terrorism? Is our notion of “free will”—of agency—a complete illusion? Is it justifiable to profile people at airports based on their religious beliefs?

Okay, so “Sam asks hard questions.”  Coyne then compares Harris to…well,…..Socrates( I kid you not):

Socrates was given hemlock for making Greek youth think about questions that were deemed dangerous. Harris has been given verbal hemlock for doing the same thing. 

Oh, please.  Coyne ignores the fact that Sam’s “questions” come with Sam’s answers.  Have a look:

Is torture ever justifiable?

Sam says yes.

Is it even possible to even imagine a first strike against Islamic enemies?

Sam has.

Is it possible that religion can really be a strong motivator for bad acts, including Islamist terrorism?

Sam says YES!  In fact, it’s more than possible.  Sam routinely preaches this is the case.

Is our notion of “free will”—of agency—a complete illusion?

Sam says yes.

Is it justifiable to profile people at airports based on their religious beliefs?

Sam says yes.

There is no mystery here, folks. None of these are open-ended questions designed to provoke thought.  Harris is simply advocating for his own anti-religious views while clumsily trying to disguise them as mere questions.

So Coyne has completely missed the target.  People are reacting to Sam’s answers and extremism, not his questions.  And the reason so many on the Left get angry with Sam is because Sam’s answers are mostly the same you would get from someone like Ann Coulter or Donald Trump.

Coyne’s next reason is just as bad:

Which brings us to the second reason people dislike Harris. It’s not a reason people like to discuss, as it shows a darker side of human nature. It’s jealousy. Sam is a public intellectual and has achieved considerable popularity (and notoriety!) in his writing about diverse religious and philosophical topics. …..I think it’s undeniable that many people who criticize Sam are jealous of his success. …..I think it’s undeniable that criticism of Sam from some quarters is based largely on jealousy. If you claim that can’t possibly be true, I’d argue that you don’t know much about human nature.

Oh boy.

Imagine a mean-spirited, snooty, arrogant cheer-leader who is part of a cheer-leader/jock clique. Imagine she is strongly disliked by the rest of the student body (and even a few of her fellow cheer-leaders).  How does she explain the fact that so many of her fellow students dislike her?  Because they are jealous!  Jealous of her looks and jealous of her social standing, of course!

So Coyne is defending Harris with cheer-leader logic.  Look, while many New Atheists may be greedy and desire much fame, they shouldn’t project such attitudes on others.  The students don’t dislike the cheer-leader because of her looks and social-standing.  They dislike her because she is mean-spirited, snooty, arrogant, and is constantly putting people down who are outside her clique.

Coyne had two reason why people criticize Sam Harris.

And they both failed.

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2 Responses to Trying to Defend Sam Harris

  1. Dhay says:

    Let’s change a word or two:

    Which brings us to the second reason people dislike Coyne. It’s not a reason people like to discuss, as it shows a darker side of human nature. It’s jealousy. Jerry is a public intellectual and has achieved considerable popularity (and notoriety!) in his writing about diverse religious and philosophical topics. …..I think it’s undeniable that many people who criticize Jerry are jealous of his success. …..I think it’s undeniable that criticism of Jerry from some quarters is based largely on jealousy. If you claim that can’t possibly be true, I’d argue that you don’t know much about human nature.

    No, it just doesn’t work with Jerry Coyne’s name in there, does it. And I don’t think it works any better in its original form.

  2. Dhay says:

    From the link > … Even Sam’s neo-utilitarian views on ethics get unwarranted criticism, I think. I myself take issue with some of his views on morality, but the ways they are criticized are all out of proportion to what was, in effect, a calm ethical treatise. After all, you don’t see philosophers going after Jeremy Bentham with the same vigor, even though Sam’s views are an updated version of Bentham’s.

    Why ever should philosophers “go after” Jeremy Bentham and his ideas with any vigour? Bentham was dead long before Jerry Coyne or Sam Harris were born, so is not exactly pushing his ideas out there for criticism, and his ideas were criticised and rebutted as inadequate long ago. Why flog a dead horse?

    But Harris has recently been publishing similarly inadequate ideas — “an updated version of Bentham’s”, as Coyne puts it — and must expect the vigorous criticism which Bentham himself would receive if publishing his ideas today.

    Coyne is ignorant of philosophy if he fails to understand that Harris’ re-hash of Bentham’s already-discredited ideas has not been singled out for unfair treatment, but has instead received the criticism which any “neo-utilitarian views on ethics” can rightly expect to receive.

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