Tuesday, 25 August 2009

In Defence Of The New Atheists.

Since 9/11 there has been a growing body of literature testifying to the detrimental effects of religious faith; equally, there is now an ever increasing chorus of voices devoted to saying - that it aint so: that religion is rather benign; that it isn’t a wellspring of human ignorance, superstition and intolerance; furthermore, these defenders of dogma charge the “New Atheists” of “intolerance”, “damaging science” and, incredibly, fuelling religious mania.

Religious apologists generally come in two stripes: the deeply religious themselves; and the religious/agnostic or “woolly minded, secular liberals”. An example of the first kind would be someone like William Lane Craig or Dinesh De Souza; the latter, consisting of: Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong, Madeline Bunting, Robert Winston, and, finally, the new kids on the block - Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney. It is, this latter “troupe” that I will be reviewing here. Admittedly, among the people I mentioned, there is diversity of opinion, but I would argue that we can safely ignore this. The criticism they make generally pertain to three lines of thinking: that the New Atheists have caricatured religious faith; that they misuse science for their own ideological purposes; and that they are every bit as fundamentalist as they people they criticise.

Firstly, lets take this charge of caricaturing religion. This comes down to two specific charges: that they widely misrepresent the texts of the Bible and the Koran; that they exaggerate the numbers of people who believe in things like virgin births, angels, and the belief in the sacredness of martyrdom. There can be little doubt that the God of the Old Testament or the Koran is not a moderate- self described as a “jealous” “wrathful” male - yes male - who engages in a fair bit of “ethic cleansing”, advocates slavery when not smiting people for heresy, who floods the world in anger when his new toy displeases him. In the two thousands years or so since these barbarism were first set down - many, it would seem, think that God has somehow evolved - tracking, rather suspiciously, the moral progress we have made in the time say - since we thought it was acceptable to stone a woman on her fathers doorstep for not being a virgin on her wedding night. Many, mistakenly, have thought that Jesus did away with all this absurdity and cruelty; nothing, however, could be further from the truth, early on Jesus “states” that every “jot” of the law shall be fulfilled. Indeed, on many occasions Jesus preaches that unbelievers are heading for hell “the burning lake of fire”, the sinfulness of adultery and divorce - yes, divorce, a decree that almost everyone - including Catholics (in their moral “backsliding” ignores. ) Finally, the latter books of the bible prophesy a angry Jesus - returned to judge the living and the dead - raining down wrath on the unbelievers and unrighteous.

One could go on with such examples - Paul railing against homosexuality, endorsing slavery, telling women to obey their husbands and keep quiet at the back of the church. If we were to listen though to religious apologists like Eagleton, all this does not matter: “God created the world for “love and delight”; Karen Armstrong, presumably after endorsing the “apophatic” tradition would state that we can say “nothing” on religious questions - that we practice “negative theology”. This now, is where theory meets practice, where religious obscurantism meets intellectual dishonesty. How many American Christians believe the statement: “we cannot say anything of God”. How many Muslims, at the very least, don’t believe that the Koran and the Hadith are best guide we have to living through this veil of tears? How many Christians - don’t think that faith in Jesus will someone save them and not others - lifting them up to a celestial paradise after death? Not many, not many at all, and that is the only honest answer that one can give.

Let me be charitable. Lets say, for the sake of argument, that the theologians are right, that God is some disinterested “entity” the “ground of all being”, that the Bible and the Koran has been greatly, vastly misinterpreted, it would not subtract - not a “jot” - from the fact that millions of our credulous neighbours believe the preposterous. A Harris poll taken in 2007 showed that “79 percent of Americans believed in miracles”, belief in hell and the devil got a confident 62 percent, belief in the theory of evolution limped in at 42 percent. A few years ago, the British newspaper The Telegraph conducted an ICM poll which found that four out of ten British Muslims wish to see Sharia Law in the UK, a footnote to this cheery finding was that twenty percent had “sympathy” with the July 7 bombers. Consider, finally, this nugget from a Pew poll on Islamic extremism, while it reported that support for terrorism and violence had decreased, many still had love in their hearts for Bin Laden and the aspirations of Al Qaeda:

In Indonesia, the public is now about evenly split with 35% saying they place at least some confidence in bin Laden and 37% saying they have little or none, a major loss of confidence from the 58% to 36% split recorded in May 2003. Among Indonesians, confidence in the Al Qaeda leader is lower among older citizens but is higher among the more affluent. Among those ages 18-34, 39% express a lot or some confidence in bin Laden compared with less than a third of those 35 and over. However, while only 32% of people in the bottom income tier have confidence in bin Laden, 37% of middle-income and 42% of higher-income people do so.
In only two countries, Pakistan and Jordan, has support for the Al Qaeda leader increased. In Pakistan, slightly more than half now place a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, an increase from the 45% who said so in 2003. Among Pakistanis, gender is a significant dividing line with nearly two-in-three men (65%) reporting a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, compared with 36% of women.

While this does show an improvement, and is encouraging, it is hardly grounds for stable optimism nor benign international relations; moreover, it does attest well to the fallacious notion that Islam is a religion hijacked by a few oddball Jihadists. It may even - be plausibly argued that, except in the countries were conflict takes place, the willingness to use force as a counter-measure to terrorism may lead to falling levels of support for terror in worldwide Muslim communities.

The ability to criticise bad ideas - about ethics, about beliefs about the world, about the nature and order of human relationships, using robust intellectual argument, is, when applied to religion - considered disrespectful, coarse and unproductive. In particular, critics of religion has been accused of prostituting science in conducting a holy war against fundamentalists. The most recent advocates are Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book: Unscientific America. Mooney and Kirshenbaum accuse the New Atheists of unnecessary confrontation; asking “must science conduct a holy war against religion” appearing to endorse NOMA and the National Academy of Sciences position who believe that “science and religion can be perfectly compatible”. Many others, have over the years endorsed this position: that religion and science ask and answer different questions, that science cannot say nothing on matters religious, that scientists are wedded to an a priori naturalism and so will not, in principle, consider things like raising the dead, walking on water or transforming water into wine under the purview of scientific rationality.

These positions, while philosophically, scientifically and intellectually indefensible, are held, though somewhat naively - for laudable reasons. I doubt the likes of Moony and Kirshenbaum are pleased (as their book shows) with the abysmal state of ignorance that Americans are languishing in; but the mistake they make, is thinking that science is just another belief system - that simply contains a body of facts about the world we live in. Though it is surely this, science is much much more. Mooney’s goal seems to be thus: lets try and be nice and persuade a few moderate folk to accept Darwin; lets also say nothing too bad or offensive - case the ignorant mob get together and start burning down science laboratories.

Religion and science is however, intrinsically opposed to one another. It is opposed for three chief reasons: religion relies on authority and science rejects authority in favour of questioning assumptions; religion relies on private feelings, geographical and subjective particularity, science however is universal and committed to objectivity; religion holds beliefs on the basis of faith and dogma, science will test and test again its hypothesises and will invite criticism and comment and adjusts itself accordingly. While Moony might be forgiven for trying to play nice with religious folk -as urgent action is needed on the question of climate charge (which they vehemently deny), it is, however, intellectually dishonest and morally negligible to simply lie to these people; to condescend to them and treat them as children. As Sam Harris recently pointed out, the New Atheists take their beliefs seriously; and yes, the baby will have to be thrown out with the bathwater: faith will need to go the way of slavery, torture, belief in witches, and a flat earth before we can begin to make moral and social progress on the ever growing litany of problems that our species face.

The silliest criticism that has been levelled at the New Atheists is that they are every bit as intolerant, fundamentalist and militant as the people they criticize. As one columnist for the FT wrote recently - this charge ought to be laughed out of existence. Firstly, lets deal with the charge of dogmatism. To hold beliefs dogmatically, means that you hold them - whatever happens - regardless of the reasons or evidence that goes against it. How many times have we all heard religious people say something like “I am absolutely certain and there is nothing that would change my mind” - if anyone can produce a similar statement made by the New Atheists - I will happily eat their books.

As to the charge to militancy: I cannot better Timothy Garton Ash, who also found the phrase amusing and mistaken - When someone like Richard Dawkins begins to brew bombs from an Oxford lab - then yes, the charge sticks. When was the last time their was an atheist riot over a insult or perceived slight? When was the last time an atheist blew himself up in the cause of spreading atheism? Indeed, when was the last time a secular humanist wanted to burn people to death over such a serious problem as theological disagreement?

The Philosopher AC Grayling, in a brilliantly concise and elegant passages, sums up the position of science; the New Atheists position; and as well, shoots down one or two spurious positions that I have been covering here.

“…any view of the world (atheism/methodological naturalism) which does not premise such belief. Any view of the world which does not premise the existence of something super-natural is a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology. If it is either of the two first, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science. It comes as no surprise that no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics.”

And in a final flourish-

“And one can grant the word “fundamental” does after all apply to this: in the phrase “fundamentally sensible”.”

It is not the New Atheists then, who are doing a disservice to science or civil society by drawing attention to superstition, bigotry, and bronze age stupidity. Rather, it is the religious apologists themselves - by providing a cloak of respectability, by obfuscating on the historical and philosophical antagonisms between religion and science; it is they who are offering a patently false and misleading picture of what religion is and how it is practiced by the faithful. They are dangerously mistaken. It is time we put our cards on the table; it is time we acknowledged, that yes, we are still hugely ignorant of all the mysteries that this universe contains, that a proper scientific and rational approach to ethics is only beginning; that there is a place for such things as mysticism and spiritual practice, as well as such human basics as community, co-operation and fraternity. These insights, into the moral and scientific landscape however, will be gained in the present, through the fruits of experiment, philosophy and personal reflection. There is no reason, no reason what so ever, to think that scripture written thousands of years ago - by men - ignorant of such basic knowledge that would make an eight year old blush - contain - the great and ultimate truths; the best way to live; and the best way to develop a global, interconnected hyper-community. The sooner we all realise this grotesque marriage of fear, ignorance, dishonesty and credulity that is religion, that cheapens and diminishes human life, the better.



Friday, 21 August 2009

Study the Self to know the self to forget the self.

“To study the Self is to Forget the self”

- Dogen

“Gnothi seauton - know thyself”

- Ancient Greek motto

A while back I had a kind of epiphany: not an intellectual one - it was intuitive - like getting a joke. I had been re-reading some Bertrand Russell, and was thinking to myself that one of the main themes in his Conquest Of Happiness, is to lose the sense of self. Russell was a philosopher: a professional thinker; someone who suffered at times from prison that is the self or the Ego. Quite a few times in his book he stresses the importance of letting go of one’s anxieties, one’s ego, one’s obsession with thinking. As I was contemplating this I remembered a phrase I had read in Zen Mind beginner’s Mind: “to study the self is to forget the self”. I saw that, in many ways, both men’s projects for happiness: abit very different as to means; are, in their ends, rather similar.

It is something of a paradox: the paradox of individualism. Both Russell: representing Humanism; the Stoics such as Epictetus and Aurelius; Zen Buddhism such as Dogen, Suzuki; all, doctrinally stress the importance of individual development, restraining the ego, and promoting wellbeing. I recognise of course that this is a somewhat broad and idiosyncratic representation
of all these systems of thought; they, however, contrast markedly with Islam, Christianity or Communism and Fascism - all laying stress on the individual conforming to the group and submitting their interests to it - to the collective.

Individualism in this sense differs from what can be called Egoism. I had this distinction clarified for me by Karl Popper in his book: Open Society and its Enemies. Egoism - can best be grasped by example - the kind of “Aristocratic” selfish, cruel, and violent individualism of a Nietzsche or a Byron. Altruistic individualism on the other hand sees the individual as a free agent, who keeps his independent mind, yet helps others, and integrates himself as part of a larger whole. The example of the Buddha, Socrates and Jesus attest to this altruistic individualism.

“Find something greater than you are and surrender yourself to it”

- Dan Dennett

In meditation practice you sit and notice the Self; you notice all the vain, useless and selfish thoughts that whirl into focus then drift out. Meditation practice, as I have wrote, is a kind of mental discipline, its also like mental weeding: a process by which you break down all the barriers and barricades that separate you from other people, that keep you wrapped up in the prison of the self. Joko Beck has a illuminating analogy were she compares the gradual practice of meditation to melting ice cubes. The cube, at first, is cold, sharp and impenetrable. It keeps people from connecting; when two people (or cubes) collide - chaos and anger ensures. Meditation then, is a heat that melts the cube, that frees people - this is why perhaps, contemplative practice is often called a liberating experience. Indeed, the vow of the Bodhisattva: “I vow to liberate all beings, without number”, express this sentiment well. Bertrand Russell, who did have a admiration for certain aspects of Mysticism, did not meditate of course; but he sought similar states of attention through love; through work; through hill climbing and many other activities. He ends his gem of a book: Conquest of Happiness, with this, marvellous little peroration.

“In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world, which is implied in the doctrine of self-denial, disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream, of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard-ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collocation. All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack or integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of co-ordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divides against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that if affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”



Thursday, 20 August 2009

Bigotry, Stupidity and Superstition in the Age of the Internet.

Last night, my friend and I, after sitting through Dune: David Lynch’s beautiful mess of a film; we traversed into the dark heart of America - via the omniscient power of the internet. My friend, perhaps a little na├»ve, was shocked to discover that the Prophet Muhammad had sex with a nine year old girl (this came up after the discovery that Dune has many allusions and parallels to Islam and the oil situation in the Middle East.) He was dumbfounded when he saw the Conservapedia site; laughed outright at the sheer verbal and intellectual incompetence of Sarah Palin; and, was thoroughly disgusted by a evangelical propaganda video.

The omnipresent question one always has to ask oneself: how can anyone believe this? You can have perfectly sound explanations of course, indeed, you can even have deep and penetrating psychological and scientific accounts of why people believe the “darndest” things, But still, despite someone like myself, (who is oddly familiar with quite a bit of human credulity), I find myself - adrift in sea of apoplexy and confusion, which, finally, waves into amused apathy and despondent futility.

Why are so many Americans, from the point of view of everyone else - so seemingly ridiculous? Now I am no crude despiser of America; on the contrary rather - it is a great country. Nevertheless, the Republican cum Christian right cum paranoid maniacs are - a menace to society. It seems miraculous, that in the age of the internet, space exploration and instant global communication, people, indeed, “high ranking” politicians can still believe in something like witches. Somewhere close to fifty percent of the American electorate believe in the actual existence of Satan; a higher number almost certainly believe that all living organisms were created in their present form by some kind of celestial creator - the same people believe that Man was created in a special act of creation, thus making him, indeed HIM, the centre of a cosmic sit-com. It generally goes unmentioned that many of the same people, who’s beliefs are of the sheerest ignorance - even to a reasonably educated six year old, are the same "loons" who are stymieing, what is perhaps the most important piece of legislation that the US government has attempted to pass in a generation: healthcare reform. It also goes without saying - literally - that many of the same group, believe that Obama - a confection of so many fears: liberal, black, educated; moderately religious (if religious at all); these fearful facts that are, on their own, shocking to the “average American” are married to a perception of Obama as a avatar of Satan; a messiah of Marxism; a closet Muslim; and a “figure” from the book of revelations.

Consider the lies that has been perpetuated concerning healthcare. The irony tapers ever upwards towards astronomical heights of surrealism when one considers that many on the Republican wing would benefit from reform. Johann Hari from the Independent, pointed this out recently with poker faced hilarity - recounting that a Republican “activist” was injured fighting in a town hall meeting concerning healthcare -only to waill later that he had no insurance. Never-mind also, the fact that America already has “socialised” medicine. Ponder over some of these examples, drawn from factcheck.org; if one did not know better one would think these are taken from the spoof political website: the Onion.




How could anyone fall for this? We need to remember, that right from the cradle many of them were brought up to believe in Jesus, the virtues of carrying firearms and the sinfulness of Homosexuality; that anyone you ever knew believed this; you parents believed this and expected you to believe this, moreover, demanded that you believe it. It would then, take a exceptional individual to overcome such a social pressure and maladaptive upbringing. The problems of individual autonomy and clear thinking are further sabotaged by the fact that the majority of evangelicals are home schooled - thus prevented from coming into contact with other children - other ways of thinking - other ways of seeing the world. Evangelicals, live in a sequestered world, they live in a closed society; despite all the technology of the 21st century, most Americas are as ignorant of the world as a Afghan peasant. This brings me to my next exhibit: Conservapedia.

Could anything be more forlorn when you read “An encyclopaedia with articles written from a conservative viewpoint.” - “the trustworthy encyclopaedia”. Edited and maintained by a posse of creationist wing-nuts; the purpose of the site: counter Wikipedia’s “bias” and provide “material” for “homeschooled children” - we should abandon this euphemism and simply call a spade a spade - this is, and always was - indoctrination.

Check out the hilarity -


(my friend was puzzled when I wondered whether the site would indulge the “birther” conspiracy - it does - (“Barack Hussein Obama II (allegedly[1][2][3][4][5] born in Honolulu Aug. 4, 1961)”

Accuses Obama of mind control: “Obama used techniques of mind control in his campaign, as in this speech: "a light will shine down from somewhere, it will light upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will say to yourself, 'I have to vote for Barack.'"

The icing on the cake: Obama is the “first Muslim President” and possibly an atheist!?? Where is the epistemology people!

If you thought that it was bad enough that half the American electorate hold beliefs that were first developed at a time, when a bicycle would appear as a masterpiece of technological creativity - it is not, just “regular folk” but Governors, Senators and, yes, Presidents. Enter stage right - Sarah Palin, or “Sarah Barracuda” former beauty queen, hockey mom and mayor of a little town no bigger than the hamlet out of Last of the Summer Wine. Palin: almost certainly will run for President in the next election. A President who is a believer in witches;


A liar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biD1Eh69lb8&feature=channel

A fool: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nokTjEdaUGg

Over the last couple of days, I have repeated to myself the infamous and rather ambiguous line of Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is Just”. that, is more than I can say of “God” as conceived from this video

Let me quote another famous, and somewhat abused line of Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” perhaps, in place of patriots and tyrants, we should have idiots and creationists - only joking.



Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Think Practically; Do Not Worry Unnecessarily.

Of things some are in or power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts…… remember then, that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be you own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed……examine it……. If it relates to anything which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you.

- Epictetus.

To a great extent fatigue in such cases is due to worry, and worry could be prevented by a better philosophy of life and a little more mental discipline.” I think we could all benefit from this pity observation every now and then. An interesting exercise for the persistent worrier to undertake would be to try and calculate how much hours of his life were wasted by unnecessarily thinking and worrying. It would, no doubt, run into thousands of useless hours; hours that cannot be returned to you.

Nothing is so exhausting as indecision and nothing is so futile” indeed, I would add that life seems to unfold by itself, irregardless of what we wish to see, or how we want it to be. Mostly it turns out for the better, only rarely, does it seem, to go bad (I’m talking about our ordinary daily wants and needs and desires) Another exercise, then, to carry out, is to reflect on all the times you worried about a possible, impending problem, as opposed to actually dealing with it, when or if, indeed, it emerged at all? So much of our time is spent in fantasy, WHAT IF, IF-THEN WHAT WILL I DO?…… We become angry and upset over things that have not happened yet; Epictetus then, was correct: he said that some things are in our power, and some things are not; concerning things under our control - we can simply do our best; think things through with the best evidence available to us - as to all else, we will just have to wait till we get more knowledge - it is beyond our power; out of our hands.

The wise man thinks about his troubles only when there is some purpose in doing so; at other times he thinks about other things, or, if it is night, about nothing at all.” Thinking practically then, and knowing when to abandon thinking, is, I believe, a skill and a mental discipline, that can be learned. Purposeful thinking consists of: ends and goals; possibilities and opportunities; doubts and certainties; means and methods. A good person to consult on this is Edward De Bono. De Bono, who coined the phrase: “ Lateral Thinker”, offers a range of practical thinking tools to help one make decisions and think creatively. A few of his tools are: PMI, Positives, Minuses, and Interesting; EBS, Examine Both Sides; TEC, Task and Target, Expand and Explore, Contract and Conclude.

Its useful, perhaps then, to familiarize oneself with these tools; moreover, mind maps, lists, and clearly formulating the problem in writing, are skilful techinques of dealing with problems, whatever they may be. It is certainly an improvement, as opposed, to simply going round and round in unending circles of discursive thought. There are, however, a few positions we can reach by such disciplined thinking. 1. We can have sufficient reason for acting. 2 sufficient reason for believing. 3. Sufficient reason for not acting. 4. Sufficient reason for not believing. 5. Suspending judgement or action pending further information. Once, though, we have made our decision, we ought to stick with it until shown to be wrong, or so demonstrated that there is a better way of doing something. Once we have solved our problem, or done our best with it; we should then, simply retire from the thinking process.

Absorption into something helps dissipate the self: painting; exercise; long walks in the hills; golf - whatever takes you fancy. For me, I find the practice of insight mediation, enormously useful and relaxing. It many ways it can provide a template of mental discipline, and a access to serenity. This, I will be discussing in my next blog.



Monday, 17 August 2009

The Strange “Quote Mining” Case of Andrew Brown.

Andrew Brown, a free lance journalist who regularly writes for the Guardian, under his “Free To Believe” blog, has perpetrated the finest (or worst) offence of quote mining I have ever seen. Quote mining: the process where you selectively quote an author or speaker for the intention of drawing a fallacious, spurious and highly tendentious conclusion. Brown has been guilty before of failing to meet basic standards of intellectual integrity and journalistic standards. He has, in particular, a real hatred for the new atheists, indeed he “despises” Sam Harris; - an example of his “writing” was when he attacked the “New Atheists” as shallow and intellectually feeble - for not containing a philosopher.


This, is extraordinarily misinformed - or an attempt at wilful obfuscation. Even a general reader, who is relatively aware of the “New Atheists”, would know that Daniel C Dennett - one of the four horsemen, is a trained philosopher, likewise Sam Harris, although prior to completing a PhD in Neuroscience, gained a masters from Stanford in philosophy no less, who studied under Richard Rorty no less. Just to kick a few more stilts from under Brown’s, now preciously perched argument - AC Grayling, another prominent critic of religion, is also a trained philosopher, who writes in the same paper as Brown, he must also have forgot, or neglected to mention Michel Onfray, the French philosopher, who, a number of years ago published, An Atheist Manifesto: the Case against Christianity Islam and Judaism.

I now turn to my reason for writing - Mr Brown has been up to no good again: accusing Sam Harris of “unambiguously” advocating torture. His blog is stunning for how clearly it argues (yet completely missing the point) that Harris is nothing more, than a fully signed up supporter of Dick Cheney and the War on Terror. I decided to respond; underneath I provide the comments that I posted. Judging by the amount of criticism Brown received and the amount of recommendations that my post and others like it garnered, it would seem that the majority of readers are aware of his shenanigans. It does, however, make you wonder: why do the Guardian let this kind of thing go on?

Firstly: let me quote what Mr Brown had to say; you can read his full post here -


The By-line reads

Sam Harris, in his book the End of Faith, argues unambiguously for the use of torture. Why pretend otherwise?”

Now from the body of the piece -

“But Sam Harris is not a writer as gifted as Richard Dawkins. He has no talent for thought-provoking ambiguity. When I accuse him of advocating torture, I meant this as the literal interpretation of his actual words. Here are the relevant passages, from The End of Faith, with page numbers drawn from the British paperback.”


“So Harris believes that there are scientific ("neurological") grounds for supposing that his moral reasoning is correct and that we ought to be torturing people.”


“So, yes. I do rather think that Sam Harris can reasonably be described as a defender and advocate of torture as an instrument of policy.”

To which I responded with - (note I have requited Brown, along with a few other incriminating passages.)

To Mr Brown and to the editors of CIF (I subsequently complained to the editors of the paper)

“I Believe, indeed, I will prove, that MR Brown is engaging in intellectual dishonesty, and, perhaps, libellous activity by accusing Sam Harris of being a straightforward and “literal” advocate of torture.

He asserts that Sam Harris can reasonably be construed is a defender of Torture and an advocate of it.

So, yes. I do rather think that Sam Harris can reasonably be described as a defender and advocate of torture as an instrument of policy.

- From Mr Brown.

But Sam Harris is not a writer as gifted as Richard Dawkins. He has no talent for thought-provoking ambiguity. TheEnd of Faith , with page numbers drawn from the British paperback.

( again this would seem to imply that Sam Harris is unambiguously arguing for Torture)

So Harris believes that there are scientific ("neurological") grounds for supposing that his moral reasoning is correct and that we ought to be torturing people.

Now anyone reading this post, will, conclude that Sam Harris is calling for torture -


Mr Brown has neglected to quote some key conclusions that Sam Harris makes in regard torture.

….we can take refuge in the fact the paradigmatic case will almost never arise. From this perspective, adorning the machinery of our justice system with a torture provision seems both unnecessary and dangerous, as the law of unintended consequences may one day find it throwing the whole works into disarray. Because I believe the account offered above is basically sound, I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. Paradoxically, this equivalence has not made the practice of torture seem any more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust for most readers.

Page 198 - End of Faith.

Finally on page 199 Harris has this to say.

Still, it does not seem any more acceptable (torture) in ethical terms than it did before

What are we to make of this? Mr Brown has quoted Harris at length, yet he has clearly left out the key passages and conclusions where, despite a long philosophical argument - Harris comes out against torture.

I, can only conclude that MR Brown is guilty of a very grave offence against journalistic standards and intellectual integrity. I hope to see an apology and a statement repudiating the misinformation that has be peddled here.

To finally put this to bed here is a long quote from Sam Harris himself, taken from his website - a response to controversy.

While I think that torture should remain illegal, it is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment provision, for instance, but this has not led to our killing prisoners at random because we cant control ourselves. While I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, I can readily admit that we are not suffering a total moral chaos in our society because we execute about five people every month. It is not immediately obvious that a rule about torture could not be applied with equal restraint.
It seems probable, however, that any legal use of torture would have unacceptable consequences.
In light of this concern, the best strategy I have heard comes from Mark Bowden in his Atlantic Monthly article, The Dark Art of Interrogation. Bowden recommends that we keep torture illegal, and maintain a policy of not torturing anybody for any reason. But our interrogators should know that there are certain circumstances in which it will be ethical to break the law. Indeed, there are circumstances in which you would have to be a monster not to break the law. If an interrogator finds himself in such a circumstance, and he breaks the law, there will not be much of a will to prosecute him (and interrogators will know this). If he breaks the law Abu Ghraib-style, he will go to jail for a very long time (and interrogators will know this too). At the moment, this seems like the most reasonable policy to me, given the realities of our world."


Michael Faulkner.
Recommended (62)

What is curious, perhaps to avoid libel, Andrew Brown trotted this, though, somewhat ambiguous, statement out later in a post

“In the totally trivial sense that he thinks we ought to do it. Apart from that, no, he's not argung for it at all.”

Posted at 8th of August 4.57 PM by Andrew Brown.

He would appear to be disowning his previous statement, where he argues that Harris unambiguously argues for torture; so i guess we can add inconsistency into the sorry mix.

I am not going to speculate on Brown’s motives, he has already stated that he loathes the “New Atheists” and “despises” Sam Harris in particular; he has, also, been a recipient of the Templeton prize - a rather notorious institution that “attempts” to reconcile religion and Science. In any case, I shall not be considering anything that Mr Brown has to say in the future, given his dishonesty or intellectual incompetence - take you pick: its either/or - or both.



Neuroscience, meditation and mind.

Check out this interesting podcast from Upaya Zen centre, on the mind, neuroscience, meditation and relationships. It is described thus-

“Psychiatrist, researcher, therapist and author Dan Siegel says there is a deep truth to the question, “Who are we?” If the brain is a social organ, as Dan’s research and clinical experience show, then what does “I” mean? It takes the practice of mindfulness to dissolve the delusion of the “I” that separates and makes disharmony out of our experience. We can use the mind to change the brain.”