Sam Harris Criticizes Religious Moderates and Misses the Target

Sam Harris writes about “The Problem with Religious Moderates.”

He sets things up as follows:

People of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. However, religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance-born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God-is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.

Note that while Harris admits of a continuum, he focuses solely on the two extreme ends of the continuum.  At one end, we have the “religious extremist” – someone who is willing to destroy the planet if it helps imposes his/her religious belief.  At the other end, we have the “religious moderate” – someone who adheres to the dogma of tolerance and diversity to the point where they think we all need to respect unjustified belief, including, I suppose, the apocalyptic views of the extremist who would “burn earth to cinders.”

What becomes immediately obvious is that this population of religious extremists + religious moderates represents a tiny percent of “people of faith.”  That is, Sam Harris’s descriptions fail to accurately capture of the beliefs and positions of the majority of religious people.  No one here, for example, would qualify as an example of Harris’s two categories.

If Harris’s argument is intended as some type of critique of religious people or religion, it is a textbook example of a straw man argument – a logical fallacy.  The rational thing to do is thus dismiss Harris’s argument.  Try again.

Harris’s argument actually has a second fatal flaw – he misuses the word “moderate.”

According to Wiki:

In politics and religion, a moderate is an individual who is not extreme, partisan, nor radical.

That’s how most of us would define moderate, which is why his whole argument comes across as confused.  What Harris describes as a “religious moderate” is actually an extremist – someone who’s commitment to diversity and tolerance is so extreme that they oppose criticism of any unjustified beliefs, including the belief that we should burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.

In other words, Harris’s “The Problem with Religious Moderates” fails to even discuss religious moderates.  Couple that with the straw man nature of the whole argument and you have an embarrassingly bad argument.

But it gets worse. Harris also writes:

Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each.

Just as an extreme devotion to tolerance and diversity at all costs is not a defining feature of religious moderates, neither is the belief that all faiths are equally valid.  This belief sounds more like something from an extreme religious liberal.  Or perhaps an omnist.  It is simply misleading to represent a “religious moderate” as such.

Finally we get this:

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.

The desire to censor sounds more at home on university campuses saturated and marinated in political correctness.

Okay, I think we are now in a position to reemphasize the two fatal flaws in Harris’s position.

  1. Whoever, these “religious moderates” are, they represent a teeny tiny percent of religious people. For these are a fringe element that a) believes all religions are equally valid; b) commit so strongly to tolerance and diversity that they c) attempt to censor any criticism of religion, no matter how extreme the position. Who are these people?
  2. The features of these “religious moderates” are much better represented by extreme leftists. That’s why he ends his essay with “But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.” Political correctness, expressed as the extreme devotion to diversity/tolerance/relativism, coupled with censorship, is something that defines the Extreme Left.

Harris is able to smuggle these fallacies into his argument because he also fails to cite any examples of these religious moderates.  No names. No quotes. No sources.  Nothing more than vague generalities and clever little phrasing.  Why is that?  Without names, quotes, and sources, it’s a little harder to determine that he is mislabeling leftist extremists as “religious moderates.”  It’s harder to determine that he is talking about tiny, fringe populations.

In the end, we are left wondering how anyone can write and promote such a bad argument?  If we replace “religious extremist” with “radical Islamic fundamentalist” and “religious moderate” with “the Extreme Left” (or Regressive Left), his thinking seems less confused.  Harris criticizes Radical Islam, as he sees it as something that will “burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy,” but when he does, the Far Left tries to shut him down (“it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism”) with accusations of Islamophobia (political correctness).

Fine.

But where Harris errs, and errs gloriously, is when he tries to extrapolate his dilemma as some type of generalized, universal problem caused by “people of faith.”  To get there, his extrapolation must be purchased with straw man fallacies, an abuse of the English language, and a total avoidance of supporting empirical evidence.  Essentially, Harris took an argument in his head (born of his personal experiences) and tried to impose it on reality with nothing more than the sheer force of his rhetoric.

It’s not surprising that Harris’s fans would lap this up, as they willingly embrace any argument as long as it serves to bash religion.  But those of us who value reason and critical thinking can only shake our heads that a guy actually wrote and promoted an argument against religious moderates without ever addressing the religious moderate views that exist in reality.  The guy didn’t just miss the bullseye.  His arrow landed three miles from the target.

failure-man-arrow-bullseye-miss

And his fans cheered.

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17 Responses to Sam Harris Criticizes Religious Moderates and Misses the Target

  1. Just Wondering says:

    I’m not at all sure how Harris would categorize me. My faith is the most important thing in my life. I follow St. Paul’s admonition to “pray constantly”. I study the scriptures every day, several times per day. I give away a considerable percentage of my income to others who need it more than me. I weigh my every action in the scales of “Is this what God wishes me to do?” Worst of all, I am confident that my faith (Catholicism) is the “correct” one (i.e., it’s actually True).

    But… I don’t begrudge anyone else their own faith, and (unless they show signs that they wish to be) I make no attempt to “convert” anyone. (Excluding my children, In my entire life I have brought only 1 (one) person to the Faith through example, argument, and persuasion – ever.)

    So am I a moderate, or an extremist?

  2. Kevin says:

    By his definitions, you apparently don’t exist. So I guess he would say you are either a liar or you don’t know what the Bible actually says, since according to him the violent ones have it right.

  3. Regual Llegna says:

    “Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each.”

    A posible onminst? or humanist?, but so extreme in their self absorbed moral relativism (A.K.A. that want to make no enemies of any kind, so focus in please any and everybody even if is obvious bad for me/”we”/”my country”, i wish to be the most “pious”), that can’t be in fact religious or devout to any specific religion or have a unnegotiable conviction.

    From wikipedia: “Contemporary usage” *check the end of the second paragraph
    “Contemporary usage has modified “belief in all religions” to refer more to an acceptance of the legitimacy of all religions. The OED elaborates that an omnist believes “in a single transcendent purpose or cause uniting all things or people”. That is not necessarily the conclusion of those who describe themselves as omnists. Some omnists interpret this to mean that all religions contain varying elements of a common truth, or place omnism in opposition to dogmatism, in that omnists are open to potential truths from all religions. However, as with modern physics, this does not mean that there is a single transcendent purpose or cause that unites. There may indeed be an infinite number of possibilities, or a deeper form of uncertainty in reality. There may be an influence more akin to existentialism in which consciousness is a power or force that helps determine the reality, yet is not a divine influence.”
    “In this regard, omnism does not appear to be a form of theology, as it neither espouses nor opposes particular beliefs about God. Instead, it affirms the necessity of one arriving at an understanding of reality based on personal experience, engagement, and inquiry, and an acceptance of the validity and legitimacy of the differing understandings of others. In this, there is, however, an implied system of values or ethics.”

    “… Implied system of values or ethics.”
    Neither the relativism highly political Far Left (Regressive Left) and the form of “Atheism” preach by gnus atheists have no “Implied system of values or ethics”, what is laughgable is that they are proud of it and, for the gnu atheist mainly, is a form of blame, shame and responsability deflection
    when they talk about atheism/anti-theism (A.K.A. the alredy old atheism don’t have (“with some posible ideas for them”): dogma “scienctism?, never doubt SCIENCE tm” /traditions “happy holydays?” /rules “REASON tm and SCIENCE tm exclusivity?” /commandaments “… Mock Them. Ridicule Them. In Public. With Contempt.?, especificaly in public and political arena as revenge?” /observations “relious people are mentally ill, only religious people?” /philosophy “religion is The Root of All Evil?”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Root_of_All_Evil%3F /laws “secular/comunist goverment” /values “muh critical tinking?” /leaders “nobody talk for me?, exept others atheist that are with you when you are in public?” /hierarchies “there is no atheist movement?, no social justice, yeah right” /societies “secular-comunist-monarchy-democratic, they actually claim anything that is not a theocracy only cry when you point out the deaths?” /heaven “some atheist profess that unnexistence (existencial nihilism) is better that any heaven, evolutionist: they can only say leave offspring/s?” /hell “the life is the hell (existencial nihilism), living in a “theocracy”?” /goal “muh atheism utopian dreams for humanity?”/ end of the world situation “global warming alarmism, all humans will become dust and nothing will be left (existencial nihilism)”).

  4. pennywit says:

    Hmph. In my experience, “religious moderates” don’t “assert the equal validity of all faiths,” but instead recognize that others have the right to believe in whatever faith they choose. There’s a difference between the two stances.

  5. pennywit says:

    I went through Harris’s argument. He makes a wonderful cogent argument …

    ….

    … against his chosen strawman of religious “moderates.” Reality is a little more complicated.

    In terms of getting along as a society, a lot of religious doctrine and behavior is largely irrelevant to getting along in a pluralistic society. If you believe in a monotheistic deity, or a polytheistic deity, or in Dianetics, it’s really your personal belief, and it doesn’t really affect other people. Similarly, if your religious faith dictates that you wear a particular piece of clothing, grow out a beard, abstain from alcohol, follow a particular diet, or not go see a psychiatrist, again, it’s not really relevant to a pluralistic society. It just affects your own life.

    In a pluralistic society, the problem is when one person attempts to coerce another — within the faith community or outside it — into following religious doctrine, when one person’s religious doctrine demands the harm of another person, or when one person’s doctrine encroaches on another person’s rights.

    And that’s where Harris really goes off the rails. He fails to distinguish between relatively harmless religious behaviors and harmful religious behaviors.

  6. FZM says:

    In a pluralistic society, the problem is when one person attempts to coerce another — within the faith community or outside it — into following religious doctrine, when one person’s religious doctrine demands the harm of another person, or when one person’s doctrine encroaches on another person’s rights.

    I suspect this problem can occur with the secular philosophies and belief systems that are present in pluralistic societies as well.

  7. FZM says:

    So I guess he would say you are either a liar or you don’t know what the Bible actually says, since according to him the violent ones have it right.

    I was reading Harris’ short article about religious moderates that Allalt posted the link to on Jerry Coyne/leftists thread where he does seem to assume that he is The Authority on the correct use and interpretation of the Bible for Christians.

    Then, according to Harris the correct interpretation is apparently an ultra-literal one. However since using the Bible in this way would probably just produce confusion, it looked like his view of the correct interpretation is actually one that involves emphasising all the violent and intolerant bits and ignoring all the others. That turns out to really useful for his rhetorical, anti-religious purposes, surprisingly.

  8. pennywit says:

    I suspect this problem can occur with the secular philosophies and belief systems that are present in pluralistic societies as well.

    I supposed it can, although the topic du jour was religious doctrine.

  9. Dhay says:

    FZM > … according to Harris the correct interpretation [of the Bible] is apparently an ultra-literal one.

    Here’s the opening of the Mahayana Buddhist text, the Avatamsaka Sutra; it doesn’t get any less floridly absurd thereafter:

    Thus I have heard.

    At one time, the Buddha was in the country of Magadha. [The Buddha was]…at the bodhi field of aranya-dharma, upon initially realizing Proper Enlightenment. The ground was adamantine, firm, and solid, adorned with sublimely wonderful precious wheels, multitudes of jeweled flowers, and immaculate mani gems. An ocean of various colors and forms appeared in boundless manifestations. Banners made of mani gems constantly poured forth bright light and wondrous sounds. Jeweled nets and exquisitely fragrant flowers were garlanded all about. Regal mani gems wrought transformations with ease, endlessly raining down treasures and multitudes of wondrous flowers, which scattered and fell to the earth. Jeweled trees were lined up neatly, their branches and foliage verdant and luxuriant. It was due to the Buddha’s spiritual power that all such adornments manifested within the bodhimanda.

    http://www.cttbusa.org/avatamsaka/avatamsaka1.asp

    The correct interpretation of a sacred text is an ultra-literal one, is it?

    *

    Sam Harris is for practical purposes a Tibetan Buddhist, he’s been a Buddhist for decades and has spent time studying advanced Tantric Dzogchen (aka Mahamudra) practices in one of those intense guru/disciple relationships.

    Harris is not pontificating from some disinterested position detached from the fray of competing religions, but is very much part of the fray: he’s a Buddhist; and he’s an evangelist ** for Buddhism.

    ( ** The term is ‘Bodhisattva’, one who intends to bring all beings to Buddhist Enlightenment; by the time an adept has advanced – as Harris has – to receiving such advanced Tibetan Tantric Buddhist teachings as Dzogchen – also called Mahamudra – vowing the Bodhisattva vows is par for the course.)

    Even when railing against ‘religious moderation’ as a ‘virus’, Harris cannot resist a plug for Buddhism; I suspect that for Harris the problem he has with religious extremists and religious moderates alike is that the Abrahamic religions “close the door” to what Harris would like to evangelise in their place:

    In so far as religious moderates attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, they close the door to more sophisticated approaches to human happiness.

    https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-virus-of-religious-moderation

    The “more sophisticated approaches to human happiness” are of course the Buddhist approach which Harris has being following and advocating for at least a couple of decades now; I understand that in his recent book, Waking Up, he recommends seeking discipleship to Buddhist Dzogchen masters – submission to the guru is how you traditionally obtain Dzogchen teaching – and Harris himself has had a guru/disciple relationship with one such Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen master, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche ** (P. 122 of Waking Up).

    Harris complains in Waking Up that:

    … Buddhism offers a truly sophisticated, empirical approach to understanding the human mind, whereas Christianity presents an almost perfect impediment to such understanding.

    https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/chapter-one

    It is plain to me that Harris would like us all to become Buddhists, and complains that the other religions get in his way.

    So, too, does commercial materialism get in his way: Harris can and does appeal to the modern self-centred individualist materialist consumer by offering a stripped-down Buddhism, sold as meditation for health benefits; but whereas the Eastern Wisdom traditions prepare their students with a solid ethical grounding – in Yoga it’s the Yamas and Niyamas (Do’s and Don’ts), in Buddhism it’s the Vinaya – Harris’ meditation for health includes no ethical grounding whatsoever.

    There is a danger, when freeing people from their attachments, that you also free them from their morals. Harris is aware of this, for on P.162 he says, in turn quoting the notorious Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

    What one encounters in a person like Trungpa is a mind impressively free of shame. This can be a good thing, provided that one happens to also be committed to the well-being of others. But shame serves a crucial social function: it keeps us from behaving like wild animals. Believing in one’s own perfect enlightenment is rather like driving a car without brakes—not a problem if you never need to stop or slow down, but otherwise a terrible idea. the belief that he could live beyond conventional moral constraints is explicitly put forward in Trungpa’s teaching:

    [Morality] or discipline is not a matter of binding oneself to a fixed set of laws or patterns. for if a bodhisattva is completely selfless, a completely open person, then he will act according to openness, [and] will not have to follow rules; he will simply fall into patterns. It is impossible for the bodhisattva to destroy or harm other people, because he embodies transcendental generosity. He has opened himself completely and so does not discriminate between this and that. He just acts in accordance with what is. . . . If we are completely open, not watching ourselves at all, but being completely open and communicating with situations as they are, then action is pure, absolute, superior. . . . It is an often-used metaphor that the bodhisattva’s conduct is like the walk of an elephant. Elephants do not hurry; they just walk slowly and surely through the jungle, one step after another. They just sail right along. They never fall nor do they make mistakes.

    ( ** A Rinpoche is a Buddhist Abbot.)

    I see this echoed — it’s not just the twisted imaginings of one man — in that Tibetan Buddhist classic, The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa:

    For him who keeps the tradition of the Lineage
    All errors vanish in the Ultimate,
    All things come with ease at the right time.
    He who acts like this is a true yogi.
    In the practice of Mahamudra
    There is no room for thinking with a clinging mind.
    When Realization of the State-Beyond-Playwords arises
    There is no need to chant or keep the rules.

    “All errors vanish … All things come with ease at the right time” [like that elephant] “… no need to keep the rules.”

    So beware the fruits of even traditional Buddhism.

    Even with a solid grounding in ethics such as the young Trungpa will have received, the path of non-discrimination and freedom from attachments is fraught with dangers, especially dangers to other people: the meditation-for-health-benefits Buddhism-lite which Harris advocates for, lite not only of Buddhist supernaturalisms (eg “Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus”) but also of ethics, looks yet more dangerous.

  10. Dhay says:

    Harris pushes yet another form of Westernised Buddhism-lite in addition to his meditation-for-health-benefits Buddhism-lite. He pushes certain psychedelic drugs, yet certainly not for their mental health benefits, though with typical weasel-wording he calls them “physically well-tolerated.”

    Not DMT, which apparently typically convinces its users they have received instruction from incredibly wise elves or aliens ** but is — or so Harris allege — safe, but drugs he acknowledges are risky.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2015/12/16/new-atheists-fading/#comment-10766

    ( ** I guess if you have incredibly wise elves or aliens teaching you wisdom, you have no need of Harris or a Tibetan Rinpoche to teach you a presumably lesser wisdom; nor, if DMT is indeed safe, any need to “find ways of practicing that do not present the same risks” as the drugs Harris does recommend, and no need to follow even Harris’ Buddhism-lite path of mere meditation.)

  11. Nolan says:

    You’re going off material that is 13 years old. If you want to know Harris’ current thinking then you could read Islam and the Future of Tolerance which he co-wrote with Maajid Nawaz, a moderate Muslim. For instance Harris was recently on Maher’s show saying, “We should be desperate to have moderate Muslims in this society. We want moderate Muslims.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV7eVvph69Y

    If I run into 2004 Sam Harris I’ll pass on your message, though.

  12. TFBW says:

    So has he retracted his earlier work, or merely contradicted it?

  13. pauli says:

    Hi, in your post you said
    “No one here, for example, would qualify as an example of Harris’s two categories.”
    Huh? If you aren’t an extremist, by definition you are in fact a moderate.
    If you aren’t a moderate, you’re either even more moderate (which is still a moderate!) or you are a more extreme…
    Not sure what your point is in this article, other than you don’t seem to understand that a moderate covers pretty much the entire religious group of say, catholics, who for example are not extremist in the sense that they use birth control even though the church forbids it

    You don’t like binary “moderate or extremist”. But, that’s what composes religious groups: you are either very moderate, moderate, extreme or super extreme… and all of those options involve two binary choices: moderate or extreme. What’s dangerous is the people who pose as moderates, but are actually deep in their heart extremists just waiting to happen. That’s why people join ISIS or become abortion clinic bombers, or join extreme cults. At some point in their life they were in fact moderate, likely. AFAIK you aren’t born into extremism, unless you’re an ISIS baby, nazi babi, or the product of intercourse between two extremist soup eating only cult members (no solid food, no solid food, WE only eat SOUP)

  14. pauli says:

    Response to FZM:
    “I suspect this problem can occur with the secular philosophies and belief systems that are present in pluralistic societies as well.”

    Yes they can. As an example, a psychiatrist, can force you to take medicine at gun point (involve threats from police or mandatory injections from a court order ) without any religion being involved. So if you are misdiagnosed and they give you a “court order” to take certain medicine, the secular state can force you to do something against your will, coerce you, etc. And then you may end up with diabetes because of side effects of the medicine or even die 10 years earlier. But is that even a secular society, is the question – or a state religion society (State is the God).

  15. Dhay says:

    Nolan > For instance [Sam] Harris was recently on Maher’s show saying, “We should be desperate to have moderate Muslims in this society. We want moderate Muslims.”

    He does indeed say that, and within the first two minutes; the context is the war of ideas; the message is, if we are to win the war of ideas against Islam we have to empower the moderates, Muslim moderates, they are the only people who can realistically effect change because they are accepted within Muslim communities (which Harris isn’t.)

    I suspect that empowering moderate Muslims against more extreme Muslims is but a first step, a tactical step, and that should the moderate Muslims ever succeed, Harris will then go full-frontal on moderate Muslims; that is, that it will turn out to be a strategy against all Muslims; but we will have to wait and see.

    There’s a brief mention of the KKK as an example of a Christian extremist group, only to have them dismissed as basically insignificant compared to “whole armies” of Islamist extremists.

    OK, let’s cut to the chase: Harris wants to empower moderate Muslims as a bulwark against more extreme Muslims; unfortunately, I missed hearing Harris tell us his current policy regarding encouraging and empowering moderate Christians; it’s the same, is it? Is it?

    I’ve not spotted any change of heart and mind by Harris regarding moderate Christians; I probably eventually get to read everything Harris publishes on blog or paid media article, but so far I haven’t noticed that change in print.

    I’m certainly not prepared to trawl through hours of Harris’ podcasts and YouTube videos, he’s pretty boring — but it seems you do do that, so if you disagree and think that Harris has changed his mind to being favourable (or even just less unfavourable) towards moderate Christians, please do link to the appropriate site and provide approximate start and finish times for the relevant section.

  16. Michael says:

    Hi, in your post you said
    “No one here, for example, would qualify as an example of Harris’s two categories.”
    Huh? If you aren’t an extremist, by definition you are in fact a moderate.
    If you aren’t a moderate, you’re either even more moderate (which is still a moderate!) or you are a more extreme…
    Not sure what your point is in this article, other than you don’t seem to understand that a moderate covers pretty much the entire religious group of say, catholics, who for example are not extremist in the sense that they use birth control even though the church forbids it

    I was pointing out that even though Harris used the word “moderate,” his binary choice was that of two different types of extremists:

    That’s how most of us would define moderate, which is why his whole argument comes across as confused. What Harris describes as a “religious moderate” is actually an extremist – someone who’s commitment to diversity and tolerance is so extreme that they oppose criticism of any unjustified beliefs, including the belief that we should burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.

    In other words, Harris’s “The Problem with Religious Moderates” fails to even discuss religious moderates. Couple that with the straw man nature of the whole argument and you have an embarrassingly bad argument.

  17. Kevin says:

    “Huh? If you aren’t an extremist, by definition you are in fact a moderate.”

    Assuming this is true, then Harris doesn’t know what a moderate is. Some of his qualifications for a religious moderate include believing that all faiths are valid or not really taking your religious beliefs seriously. This leaves out everyone who is very serious about his faith, yet is not dangerous in any way – is he an extremist, since he takes his faith seriously, or is he a moderate because he isn’t a danger? It’s a very hard call to make, given Harris’ definitiona.

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