Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Sam Harris on the Innocence of Muslims affair

I see that Sam Harris has published a post on the violent responses to what he calls “an unwatchable Internet video titled ‘Innocence of Muslims.’”

There is much in the post to agree with. For a start, I agree that Innocence of Muslims, or the trailer for it, or selection from it, or whatever the hell that was, is (pretty much) unwatchable. I did actually force myself to watch the damn thing (you can find it easily if you really must), but it is atrocious in every possible respect – bigoted, scurrilous, disjointed, and suffering from the most abyssmal production values since Plan 9 from Outer Space (I know I’m not the first to make the comparison, so apologies to whoever was).

Harris dismisses as “obscene” such questions as, “What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book?” I think that’s going too far. It does appear that the film was deliberately created to express hatred for Muslims and to provoke a violent backlash. In the circumstances, we can ask these questions about it, especially when we add in further issues such as (apparently credible) claims of actors being conned into thinking they were involved in a very different project. There is much to discuss about the film itself and the circumstances of its production, even if, at the end of the day we agree with Harris that:

Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.

Yes, that’s right. We do get to express our repudiation of belief systems, including Islam, without being constrained by the power of the state, or so I want to argue (and have done in the past). We can go on to criticise prophets or anyone else. Harris is pretty much correct when he says:

The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance.

Yes, pretty much right. Only “pretty much” because there’s an element of exaggeration to quibble about, the way it’s been worded. The problem is not so much that we can’t “think aloud” on certain topics as that we cannot publish those thoughts widely, once we’ve sorted them out, should we take certain strong stances. But even when the point is expressed in a less rhetorical way, it’s true that an important freedom has been lost, not through the actions of the state but through the willingness of some Muslims to resort to murder in response to what they see as insults to Islam or their prophet.

How should the state and its officials respond – and how should we request that they do so? They may be tempted to suppress some kinds of anti-religious speech and to demonise the speakers as racists and criminals … and in some cases they may even be correct that they are dealing with racists or something very similar. Even leaving aside basic concerns about freedom of speech, however, this response can be counterproductive. If an impression is created that political power is being used to silence opposition to Islam, this will merely add to the resentments against Islam that are already present in Western societies, and which have now been fueled by the violent, in some cases murderous, responses to Innocence of Muslims. More generally, when religious leaders and organisations try to prevent certain speech from being heard or certain images from being seen, this adds to the layers of distrust and resentment. The effect is exacerbated if governments get in on the act, actually assisting to suppress speech and images.

We would all do well to scrutinise ourselves as individuals, and to be alert to possible racism, even unconscious, somewhere within our motivations. It is best, however, if the state adopts a strong stance of insisting on freedom of speech. As I say in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, a liberal attitude might permit some ugly speech, and Innocence of Muslims is a very good example, but the long-term effect will be salutary:

…the long-term effect would be to reinforce a valuable lesson: ideologically opposed groups of whatever kind — religious, political, or philosophical — must make their own way, enduring criticism, and even satire, from their opponents, without asking the state to interfere.

But will that just make extremist more likely to resort to self-help in the form of violence? I doubt it. As Kenan Malik has argued, a political culture that defends freedom of expression removes some of the resources that extremists draw upon. If we seriously maintain a highly liberal political culture, we make it more difficult for extremists to take, much less justify, violent offence and react with violent action. We deny the extremists the false moral legitimacy that they claim.

Yes, Innocence of Muslims is pretty much as bad as you can imagine it to be, and that is worth discussing – along with whatever fraud may have been involved in the production of the film. We should feel free to say all that, but then move on. It in no way justifies violence, and nor does it justify any withdrawal by the state from a strong emphasis on freedom of speech.

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On Torture, Ticking Bombs & Sam Harris

I’m sure most people reading this will be aware that Sam Harris has received quite a lot of pushback for his views on torture – see here & here for recent examples (plus read the comments), and see here and here for Harris’s and Richard Dawkins’s response to the often vitriolic nature of the pushback.

I don’t particularly want to get into the debate here – though if other people wish to do so in the comments below, no problem – but I thought it might be interesting to flag up some data I’ve collected via this activity at my Philosophy Experiments web site:

Should You Kill The Fat Man?

This activity has been completed by more than 100,000 people, and it includes a “ticking bomb” torture scenario that people are asked to judge. (If you haven’t completed the activity, I suggest you do so now before reading any further). I’m not going to detail the scenario here – it’s fairly standard – but what the responses show is that given this particular setup a large majority of people think that torture should be used (75% say “Yes”, 25% say “No”). This is the case for males and females, and across different countries.

Here’s a link to the data (which also shows details the precise form of the scenario).

A few points:

1. The only significant difference in how people respond is between males and females. More males than females think torture is justified given this particular setup (77% to 71%) – this difference will be statistically significant (albeit I’ve not actually done a chi-squared test).

2. I’m fully aware that people will consider my ticking bomb scenario – and maybe all ticking bomb scenarios – to be unrealistic. My view is that this criticism misses the force of the “ticking bomb” thought experiment. I think it is best understood as a “wedge” that attempts to show that whether torture is ruled out on any particular occasion is an empirical question rather than a matter of principle.

3. It’s almost certainly the case that nothing follows about the morality of torture from the fact that the practice is endorsed by a large majority of people in some particular (hypothetical) circumstance – not least, because it’s easy to think of examples where a large majority of people endorse some practice we’d consider to be immoral (think slavery, for instance).

4. However, this data does show that most people do not find the sorts of views espoused by Sam Harris to be particularly counterintuitive.

A word in defence of Sam Harris

I’ve been involved in some online debates with Sam Harris, notably this one. I’ve also been rather critical of his views on free will.

I also think that Harris ultimately comes off second best in this debate with Bruce Schneier, in which they are talking about the moral and practical justification for a system of airport security that involves a degree of positive profiling (of likely Muslims) for extra attention, and “anti-profiling”, i.e. declining to take give an extra layer of attention, of people who are, supposedly, obviously not Islamic terrorists. Harris wants to introduce a profiling element, while Schneier argues that this would, contrary to any immediate intuitions, be counterproductive and morally problematic.

All that said, look at what happened on PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, recently. I can’t blame Myers this time – he merely drew attention to an offer by Harris whereby you can get his little book on the evils of lying for free. I don’t see anything objectionable in the post.

But the thread is another matter. It quickly devolves into accusations that Harris is an outright racist, and at least one person makes the same accusation of a fellow commenter. Never mind the fact that there is no evidence at all that Harris is motivated by some sort of racial hatred or racial supremacism or anything of the kind. Again, I think that Schneier is pretty convincing in his response to Harris’ views about airport security, but the actual debate is interesting, and Harris has some persuasive things to say. Importantly, both of them show intelligence, civility, and mutual respect.

If you actually want to argue about airport security in your response to this post, I probably won’t take part in the debate. I’m not an expert; from the little I do know, I don’t support the profiling approach that Harris appears to advocate (so it’s no use trying to persuade me of its evils); and I even tend to think that Harris overreached in having such definite views on something where he’s not an expert either. But a racist? Come on. There’s no basis for that at all. It seems that a lot of people these days throw that word around at the drop of a hat.

And yes, this sort of thing can corrupt discussion.

Eddy Nahmias reviews Sam Harris

The newest issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine contains a review by Eddy Nahmias of Free Will by Sam Harris. (For those who’ve missed my own discussions of Harris earlier this year, a good place to start would be this long reflective essay published at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.)

I’m a bit free-willed out from writing earlier posts in this series, not to mention the abovementioned ABC Portal piece. Still, I’m largely onside with Nahmias, and in any event this review of Harris by a philosopher who has important and original peer-reviewed publications in the field is worth drawing to the attention of … well, whichever of this blog’s readers might still be interested.

In the end, Nahmias makes a point about how this is not all-or-nothing. We can study what people seem to think free will is, what free will talk is actually conveying when ordinary folk engage in it, and then we can study to what extent we actually have such a capacity.

This sounds like a plausible position to me: “Unlike the impossible self-creation and self-knowledge Harris foists upon free will, a more reasonable and accurate understanding of free will is amenable to scientific study. Science is likely to show that we have less free will than we tend to think, and learning this may move us towards Harris’s practical goals.” Or maybe it won’t. At any rate, I look forward to Nahmias’ own (long-awaited) book on the subject.

And while I’m here, there’s lots of other good stuff in the new TPM, especially relating to the institution of sport: philosophers scrutinising it from many angles just in time for the Olympic Games.

On Sam Harris on free will

Over on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, I’ve written a long response to the new book, Free Will, by Sam Harris. I say “response” rather than “review”, because much of it discusses my own reflections on fate, free will, determinism, and the long cultural conversation that we’ve been having about these things in the West, going back for thousands of years.

My problem with the Sam Harris book is not so much that I disagree with his conclusions – although I do disagree with some of them – so much that I disagree with the way he approaches the problem. First, he uses a rather idiosyncratic definition of free will that doesn’t have much to do with definitions that have been used by philosophers or with whatever intuitive idea of free will the folk might have (if, indeed, they even have a unified idea of it – I suspect that the folk talk past each other on this to a large extent). Thus, much of the book has an air of attacking a straw man.

Second, and worse, Harris responds to compatibilists by accusing them of changing the subject (notwithstanding that attempts to work out what it might be for actions to be “up to us”, including the plausibility of compatibilist accounts, have been part of the conversation at least since Hellenistic times) and of writing like theologians (whatever that actually means, it is not likely to be true of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, A.J. Ayer, Daniel Dennett, or other leading compatibilists). There’s a certain insouciance, at best, about all this.

As for whether “we have free will”, I remain of the opinion that libertarian views of free will are ultimately unintelligible – this seems to me the case with agent causation views, and I doubt that event causation views of libertarian free will, such as Robert Kane’s, can fare any better. Indeed, I’d argue that they eventually rely covertly on agent causation intuitions to give themselves any plausibility. About the best libertarians can do is claim, rather lamely, that all ideas of causation are mysterious when pushed far enough.

I agree with Sam Harris on the non-existence of libertarian free will – if the idea even makes sense – though Harris shows no sign of having read at all deeply in the literature. I also think that compatibilists have enough problems to make free will, at best, a matter of judgment and degree. But the naked claim, “You do not have free will,” uttered to ordinary people, still seems to me more false than true. More research is needed on what this claim actually conveys to people (and it may convey different things to people from different social classes, educational backgrounds, parts of the world, etc. (experimental philosophers take note)), but it looks to me that what is likely to be at stake for many people is not so much the truth or falsity of something like agent causation but the truth or falsity of some kind of fatalism. Saying “You do not have free will,” is likely to convey, to many people, in many circumstances, the false (and perhaps demoralising) message that some kind of fatalism is the truth of it.

I’m painfully aware of a similar issue in metaethics. I deny that there are objective moral truths of the form, “X-ing is morally wrong.” That’s because I take a particular view as to what this conveys, and I consider what it conveys to be false. On the other hand, I’d want to explain myself very carefully before saying to the folk, “Torturing babies for fun is not morally wrong.” That can all too easily convey the false message that torturing babies for fun is not, in my evaluation, bad. And when I say bad, I don’t mean as in, “That was baaaad, dude!”

Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris on free will

Jerry Coyne has an interesting article on free will in USA Today and a follow-up post at Why Evolution Is True. It all seems to be triggered by the publication of a new book about free will by Sam Harris.

Both Harris and Coyne point-blank deny that free will exists. The USA Today piece is well worth reading, but the passage quoted from the Sam Harris book, in the post at WEIT, doesn’t impress me. In particular, I disagree about the “changing the subject” claim as a way of dismissing compatibilism. Come on, Dr Harris, that is a rhetorical tactic to put down thoughtful and intellectually honest opponents, rather than trying to appreciate the real strength of what they are saying. (Of course, you may not have any choice as to whether or not you argue like this.)

It’s just not at all clear that the original “subject” was some spooky power to act contrary to our own desires and whatever physical substrate they supervene on. In fact, I doubt that any serious philosopher thinks of it quite like that, and I doubt that ordinary people do either – though the attempts by some libertarians (in the sense relevant to this debate) to preserve our motivations while giving us a radical power to act independently of the causes that shaped our personalities are, indeed, sometimes baffling. It seems that they want to have it both ways, which places them in danger of saying something incoherent. As for what ordinary people think about all this … well, it’s likely to be very confused.

I agree that there is no free will in any spooky libertarian sense. I don’t think the idea can be rendered coherent, whether physical determinism (at the level of the brain’s functioning, say) is true or not. But this is all a very modern way of thinking about it. It may be what’s bugging some people, but historically the questions were more along the lines of: “Am I a plaything of fate or destiny or necessity or mere chance or the will of the gods?” “Is it rational to deliberate about what I do, if the outcome is fated anyway (or, conversely, a matter of mere luck)?” “Are my attempts to shape my own life and to make a difference to the world all futile?” These are the questions that are at stake in the traditions of myth, literature, and even, to a large extent, philosophy.

Even now, much popular fiction involves themes of, “Can I overcome my destiny?” “Can I forge a better life for myself?” This kind of thing, arguably, is what gnaws at ordinary people outside of any formal theological or philosophical context. Do we have the power (or some power, at least) to shape our lives? It seems obvious that we do, or why bother making decisions at all (unless we simply can’t help it, right?). Why deliberate about what career to pursue, if it’s all controlled by God or the stars, anyway? But we do, ordinarily, think it’s worthwhile deliberating about what career to pursue, what skills to develop, etc. Deliberating certainly doesn’t seem irrational or futile.

This obvious appearance is challenged by various plausible-looking arguments, ranging from arguments about the foreknowledge of God, to arguments about physical determinism, to arguments about living in an Einsteinian block universe, to arguments based on the law of excluded middle (after all, all statements about the future are either true or false … aren’t they?). And doubtless many others. These arguments suggest that our sense of having some ability to shape our own lives is an illusion. That is exactly what Harris and Coyne think it is.

Well, perhaps one of those arguments works, but if you’re going to show why they probably don’t, and why the everyday appearance that we can make decisions, act on the world, and, to some extent, shape our own future lives, is not just an illusion after all … well of course you’re going to have to do what philosophers do. I.e. we make distinctions, try to clarify issues, etc. That isn’t arguing in a contrived or dishonest way, or “changing the subject”. It’s our job. It’s how we earn our supper.

When philosophers try to clarify, and perhaps dissolve, these concerns, showing, perhaps, that the concerns don’t make good sense on closer analysis, we are playing a time-honoured role. Indeed, the Stoics (or certain of them) gave a “compatibilist” answer to the question of whether outcomes can be up to us, in some sense – despite there also being some truth about what we will decide – way back in Hellenistic and Roman times.

The issue of free will in the specific sense that I mentioned in the third paragraph above becomes important in debates about whether God could be absolved of responsibility for evil actions by us. If some sort of spooky free will exists, it’s thought by some theologians and philosophers that this creates a gap between the creative activity of God and the evils perpetrated by us, thus solving the ancient problem of evil.

Others may try to argue for spooky free will in an effort to preserve moral responsibility. They think that we can’t be (morally) responsible for our actions unless we are somehow responsible for them all the way down. Thus, they want to create a gap, not between our actions and God but between our actions and whatever events formed us as we are. Indeed, this issue has become central in the contemporary debate about free will among professional philosophers. It’s now largely a debate about whether and when we are responsible for our own actions.

But once again, compatibilists who are involved in this debate are not engaging in any dishonest or contrived reasoning. It is strongly arguable that no spooky gap between us and the events that formed us is required for us to, quite rationally, hold each other responsible for our choices and actions. You may disagree with this, but it’s inevitable that a question like that is going to require both sides to engage in attempts at conceptual clarification. This is not “changing the subject”.

Jerry Coyne rightly points to these – i.e. theodical reasoning and arguments about moral responsibility – as two areas of discourse where a spooky gap is invoked. Since he evidently thinks that spooky gaps are needed for moral responsibility, he denies, if I read him correctly, that we have moral responsibility.

Let’s set aside the theodical arguments. I agree that the free will defence is unpromising as a solution to the problem of evil. But what about (moral) responsibility? Surely getting all this clear requires that we examine what the concept really amounts to – and that is a non-trivial exercise in conceptual analysis, since the concept of (moral) responsibility, as it appears in everyday discussion, does not look straightforward, or even coherent, and it is tied up with many other difficult concepts, such as concepts of fairness, justice, and desert. There’s conceptual work to do here, and the best approach is simply not obvious.

Morality, whether you want it or not

People worry. That is, sometimes people worry about whether or not morality is real. If morals were real, then it would mean that there are facts about the world that, by their very nature, motivate us to do good. We would know right and wrong by our instincts.

If morals were real then we would not have to worry about relativism. For if morals were real, then they would be inevitable — we could rest assured that justice will be served in the long run, and it will be served for the right reasons. If morals were not real, then (as Ophelia Benson put it succinctly) it would turn out that it’s a contingent fact that we care.

This is a mind-bendingly, gut-wrenchingly difficult issue. But the thing that makes it difficult is that we are lacking information about human nature, and not because we’re conceptually confused about what makes a thing “real”. In the present essay, I’m going to argue that it is an empirical question whether or not morals are real. Specifically, I’ll argue that, if morality is real, then that means that being witness to suffering is inherently motivating.

Here’s the Coles Notes version:

  1. There are some good reasons for us to use the concept of “moral realism“.
  2. Moral realism asks us to think of morality as independent of the will.
  3. Moral realism entails moral optimism — that all other things equal, the interests of the right will triumph.
  4. Some interests are objective because we didn’t choose them. If moral claims are “real”, it’s because they have a force whether we want them or not.
  5. If moral regularities are “real”, it is because it derives from instincts (sympathy and resentment) that are independent of the will.
  6. Instinctive sympathy and resentment are more important than the other abilities. Consider the psychopath and the autist.

Read more »

Defining a Belief System

Cults and new religious movements in literatur...
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One rather interesting problem is determining who or what determines the true tenets of a belief system. While this is an important matter in many fields, it seems especially important in regards to religion. To use a current situation, there is considerable debate over the true nature of Islam.

When Muslims commit acts of terror, moderate Muslims and others often argue that these acts of terror do not represent the true tenets of Islam. However, there are those who refuse to accept this defense and instead claim that such acts are perfectly in accord with the true tenets of Islam.

While some people make this claim without grounding it in reasons, noted atheist Sam Harris makes a case for his view.  As he sees it:

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations. If they are “extremists” who have deformed an ancient faith into a death cult, they haven’t deformed it by much. When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith. Granted, one path out of this madness might be for mainstream Muslims to simply pretend that this isn’t so—and by this pretense persuade the next generation that the “true” Islam is peaceful, tolerant of difference, egalitarian, and fully compatible with a global civil society. But the holy books remain forever to be consulted, and no one will dare to edit them. Consequently, the most barbarous and divisive passages in these texts will remain forever open to being given their most plausible interpretations.

While Harris makes a clear case, some analysis of his argument is well worth the effort.  His view is quite clear: the alleged extremists are, in fact, acting in accord with the tenets of Islam. As evidence, Harris notes that the Koran, hadith and Muslim jurists clearly support the “extremist” views.

This seems to be quite correct. However, it is hardly unique to Islam to have wicked tenets. For example, most modern liberal democracies have had rather horrible laws on their books in the past. To use an obvious example, slavery was once legal in the United States and the United Kingdom. Even today there are laws that seem to be morally incorrect.

He does concede that mainstream Muslims could solve this problem by ignoring these true tenets of Islam and then deceiving the next generation into accepting mainstream Islam as the true version.

This certainly seems appealing. After all, one might argue, a system of beliefs need not be eternally fixed in place, unchanging and never evolving. Just as , for example, the United States abandoned its acceptance of slavery and racism, Islam can also change.

Harris, however, sees this as an impossibility. He claims that the holy books will remain forever and forever unedited. Thus, he contends, the passages in question will always be available and the opportunity will always be present to give them “their most plausible interpretations.”

This, then, is presumably the critical distinction between other belief systems (like the legal system of the United States) and Islam. That is, Islam can never change its tenets and the worst practices in these tenets define the faith. To use an analogy, this would be as if a country could never removes evil laws from its books and no matter what was done, those laws could always be interpreted and acted on. Further, those acting on the most plausible interpretations of those laws would be acting in accord with the true tenets of the law.

In regards to the first part of the claim, it is not clear that Islam cannot change. One avenue for change is that, as Harris himself concedes, the passages are interpreted. While he regards the most plausible interpretations to be the ones that are the worst, these are not the only interpretations. In principle, there seems to be no reason why the more moderate interpretations cannot be regarded as the correct ones. Of course, that is a rather critical matter: what is the correct interpretation (and who decides)? In the case of law, the correct interpretation is set by the relevant authorities. If religion functions the same way, then the religious authorities could thus legitimately rule in favor of the more moderate interpretations and could even rule that certain tenets no longer apply. But perhaps religion is more of a democratic system in that its tenets are set by the majority of believers. If so, if the majority of Muslims are moderate and interpret their faith moderately, then this would be the correct interpretation. In any case, one might wonder why an atheist who is clearly hostile to religion has the authority to rule on the true tenets of a faith. A more cynical person than I might suggest that he sees the worst as the most plausible interpretations because of his view of religion and not on the basis, say, of more objective evidence. Since that would be mostly just criticizing the person and not the argument, I would never entertain such a view. That said, a due consideration of bias might be legitimate in this situation.

In regards to the second part of the claim, it is an interesting matter as to whether the worst tenets of a belief system define that belief system or not.  It is also interesting to consider whether or not a member of a belief system must accept all the beliefs of that system.

Suppose that the worst beliefs define  belief system, that believers must accept all the tenets of their belief system and the the laws (and interpretations of them) of a nation define the belief system of the citizens (just as the religious tenets are supposed to define the belief system of a religion). This would seem to entail that the belief system of Americans is a rather evil one. After all, there are laws on the books that seem to be rather immoral and there are many that seem unjust and unfair. No matter that some people oppose these laws and associated practices-by being Americans they must accept that they are defined by the very worst aspects of their system of belief. Even if an American claims to oppose a specific law she regards as wicked, by Harris’ logic  it would seem that she cannot. As an American, she must accept it as a true tenet. This seems rather absurd. The same seems true of the claims that a member of a religious faith must accept all the tenets of the faith and that the faith is defined by its worst elements.

Naturally, this does not just apply to Islam, but other belief systems as well.

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No Such Thing as Islamophobia?

Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock

A phobia is, obviously enough, a fear. What distinguishes a phobia from other fears is that a phobia is persistent, intense (though the intensity can vary) and irrational. Having a rational fear is not a phobia. For example, a person who is momentarily afraid because he discovers a black widow on his arm does not have arachnophobia. Someone who lives in ongoing fear of spiders even when they are not present might well have arachnophobia.

Interestingly, the term “phobia” is often used to indicate dislike, prejudice or discrimination rather than fear in the strict sense. For example, people who dislike homosexuals are often labeled as being homophobic. Perhaps this is based on an underlying assumption that there dislike or prejudice is based on fear. In any case, using the term “phobia” seems to be intended to convey that someone who has the phobia (such as homophobia) is irrational in this regard. So, in the case of homophobia the idea is that the person has an irrational dislike of homosexuals.

Not surprisingly, this usage of “phobia” is generally intended to be judgmental and critical. To be labeled as having such a phobia is, in effect, to be accused of being both irrational and prejudiced.

Just as there are rational fears, there are also rational dislikes. For example, pedophiles are reviled and disliked. But to claim that people who dislike them have  pedophilephobia would be an error. This is because the label would imply that disliking pedophiles is a prejudice. However, this does not seem to be a prejudice but a correct moral view. As such, if a “phobia” of this sort can be shown to be rational and correct, then it would not be a phobia at all.

One recent example of such an argument  is from Sam Harris, the famous atheist. He writes:

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.

In the light of the above, Harris’ claim can be backed up by two arguments. The first is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is an irrational fear. This is because Islam is a special threat and hence being afraid of it is not irrational. The second is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is a prejudice or bias. This is because  people should dislike Islam for its tenets.

One obvious reply is that some people do seem to have an irrational fear and bias against Muslims. Of course, Harris would have an easy reply to this. After all, he notes that being prejudiced against people who are Muslims “by accident of their birth” would be despicable. He is, apparently, distinguishing between the sin and the sinner (so to speak).

One reply worth considering is that people can have irrational fears even in regards to things that are rational to be afraid of.  For example, consider terrorism. While it is rational to be afraid of terrorism, there is a point at which such a fear becomes irrational. Likewise for Islam. It seem clear that a person could have a fear of Islam far out of proportion to the threat it poses (assuming it poses a threat) and that this fear could be irrational, persistent and intense. That is, it could be a phobia.  As such, there would seem to be such a thing as Islamophobia (at least in theory).

But this seems like it might be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris is probably not claiming that an irrational fear of Islam is not possible. Rather, he seems to be making (a bit dramatically) the point that it is rational to be afraid of Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. To settle this point requires determining whether Islam is, in fact, a threat of the sort alleged by Harris.

Another reply worth considering is that people can be biased or prejudiced even when there are rational reasons to dislike something. This is because a person could dislike (or even hate) something or someone on the basis of insufficient reasons. Thus, while the object of the dislike might be such that it is worthy of dislike, a specific person’s dislike might not be adequately grounded. As such, it would seem to be a bias or prejudice rather than a sound judgment.

In the case of Islam, there seem to be many people who hate or dislike it without knowing much about it. For example, someone might know that some terrorists are followers of Islam and that the 9/11 attackers were followers of the faith. However to dislike Islam on this basis would be like hating the United States military simply because  one knew that Oswald was  a Marine and  Timothy McVeigh was in the Army.  As such, this sort of Islamophobia also seems to be a real possibility.

Again, this might seem to be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris seems to be making the point that there are rational grounds to dislike Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. As before, the heart of the matter is whether Islam is something that should be disliked or not.

Harris, obviously enough, contends that Islam should be feared and disliked. If he is right, then it seems that there would be no such thing as Islamophobia. Or, to take a more moderate approach, that the term is being misused. This then is the crux of the matter: is it rational to fear and dislike Islam?

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