Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Challenge to Atheists and Believers Alike

The fourth volume in the Final Jeopardy series of books has just been completed. It's title is: Final Jeopardy: Religion and the Reality Problem. (or the Kindle edition). Its length is 562 pages. 

Some of the topics that are discussed in the aforementioned book are: Free will, suffering, consciousness, nihilism, mythology, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Friedrich Nietzsche, evolution, morality, irreligion, sacredness,  mysticism, and spiritual abuse. While most of the book is fairly general in nature, there are some sections of the book that explore -- at least in outline form -- certain facets of the Sufi Path as those aspects relate to some of the foregoing topics.

Among other things, the foregoing book critically explores, in some depth, the ideas and arguments of a number of atheist writers, including: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Bart Ehrman, Greg Epstein, Victor Stenger, John Allen Paulos, Stuart Kauffman, and Darrel Ray. I believe their perspectives (both individually and collectively) are fraught with a variety of problems. 

More specifically, the aforementioned individuals often tout their books -- or this is done or their behalf by individuals who are like-minded -- as being works of reason and science. Unfortunately, both reason and science often seem to be in short supply in those works. 

People are free to believe whatever they like. Moreover, I have no desire to take that freedom away from them. 

I do not know what, if anything, will happen to the foregoing individuals after death (and two of them -- namely, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger -- might already have some insight into this matter). Similarly, I have no idea what fate lies in wait for me beyond the far (but drawing ever closer) horizons that circumscribe my Earthly life. 

I don't dislike atheists, nor do I dislike people who are committed to a different form of spirituality than I am. Furthermore, I do not harbor ill-will toward any of them. 

Like me, they are human beings who are attempting to do the best they can with the limited information they have. Quite frankly, I hope that things turn out felicitously for them in any number of ways, but all of these considerations are way beyond my pay grade. 

However, as has been said: "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." All of the individuals identified previously have spent considerable amounts of time engaged in throwing stones at the idea of religion, and, yet, if one looks at the structural properties of the conceptual houses from which they are lobbing their linguistic projectiles, one is able to develop a fair understanding with respect to just how fragile, flimsy, and vulnerable the foregoing conceptual structures often are. 

I do not have a problem with someone who criticizes the hypocrisy of people who claim to be religious and, then, proceed to act in ways that run contrary to basic principles of decency, morality, fairness, humanity, and character. And, in fact, there are many criticisms -- with which I would tend to agree -- that the individuals who previously were identified by name tend to level against those who are engaged in all manner of religious hypocrisy. 

Nonetheless, when the foregoing authors try to generalize from the acts of individuals and, in the process, offer blanket criticisms concerning the nature of religion, they become engaged in activities of confabulation in which they conflate and confuse their own invented imaginings concerning existence with the actual nature of religion. In the process, they arbitrarily define and frame religion according to their own likes and dislikes.

The nature of religion is very simple to state. It gives expression to an individual's search for the truth concerning the nature of one's relationship with Being/Reality. 

Some individuals engage the foregoing sort of search in very constructive, character-driven ways. Other individuals do so in very destructive, abusive, and problematic ways.

The truth -- whatever it turns out to be -- is sacred, hallowed ground and is deserving of both our veneration and commitment. Nonetheless, none of us (whatever our beliefs might be) is justified in supposing that what we believe is necessarily synonymous with the truth concerning the nature of reality.

Therefore, perhaps there should be some degree of humility present in the foregoing sort of search in order to allow for the possibility that one just might be wrong about what one believes the nature of truth to be (whether such beliefs are oriented in a theistic or non-theistic manner). Unfortunately, this sort of humility often seems to be missing from the works of many of the previously mentioned individuals.  

There are a number of atheists who have trashed a few of my books on religious issues -- especially ones that are critical of the writings of Sam Harris. They have done so without even reading what I have said, and I know this because their criticisms lack the specificity of someone who has gone through what has been written and, then, points out specific examples of what they believe to be problematic with whatever I might have put forth in a given book. 

I don't mind if someone has a legitimate criticism of something that I have said. However, the sorts of reviews being alluded to in the previous paragraph tend not to be exercises in honesty.

Such individuals provide negative "reviews" of some of my books based not on a sincere and genuine desire to engage in a dialog about the nature of reality but because they wish to try to control what other people do, and do not, read. Apparently, they believe that if they can place my writings in a negative light, this will discourage potential readers from purchasing those books ... but the tactic hasn't succeeded since, to date, I have sold thousands of books in different parts of the world.

Nevertheless, what some of the individuals who write blanket, negative reviews concerning my work are actively engaged in doing is not a matter of trying to provide genuine assistance to others with respect to the latter's search for truth. Instead, the former individuals wish to interfere with, or undermine, the possibility that any given seeker after truth might undertake her or his search in a manner that might lead to conclusions other than what such negative reviewers wish to impose upon the unsuspecting readers of those reviews. 

By becoming engaged in the foregoing sorts of activities, such individuals are immersed in processes of spiritual abuse and proselytizing on behalf of atheists everywhere. Given that those people often consider themselves to be antithetical to all manner of spiritual abuse and proselytizing, their activities are rather -- to say the least -- ironic in character.

Unlike the foregoing individuals, there was one atheist -- an individual from Canada -- who wished to remain an atheist but who indicated in his review that, nonetheless, he found the arguments in one of my books on religion to be both intelligent and well-reasoned. I appreciated that review more than most -- even more than some reviews that were written by people who agreed with me -- because despite the fact that the gentleman from Canada didn't accept my perspective, nevertheless, he was willing to take the time to read what I had said and, after having done so, was willing to acknowledge that despite whatever reservations he might have about my ideas, he was of the opinion that the book was not just an exercise in irrational, incoherent, ideological rhetoric. 

I hope people -- whether they believe in God or they don't -- will take the time to read the real world version of: Final Jeopardy: Religion and the Reality Problem (or the Kindle edition). I hope people -- irrespective of whether they agree or disagree with what the foregoing book says (or do a bit of both) -- will be interested in pursuing such ideas in an honest, sincere, fair, and humanistic fashion. 

I believe the foregoing book is written in such a way that anyone who reads it -- regardless of their conceptual orientation --  will come away with new ideas on which to critically reflect. My intention is to challenge people to re-think a variety of issues rather than to denigrate individuals whose ideas are being critically explored during Final Jeopardy: Religion and the Reality Problem

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Good Without God: A Sufi Response

Recently, I began reading a book entitled: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein who is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. The following discussion constitutes something of a critical review in relation to at least the introduction of that work.

I should begin by saying that the reason for critically engaging Chaplain Epstein’s book is not because I feel threatened by anything that he says concerning a nonreligious approach to life … any more than I would feel threatened by the religious ideas of someone with whom I might disagree.  The purpose of any exercise in critical reflection should be to try to: Explore possibilities, raise questions, probe problems, clarify issues, and enrich discourse.

Moreover, I don’t look at people such as Chaplain Epstein as enemies, evildoers, or individuals who are headed for perdition. I can sincerely say that I have no idea what the future holds – in this world or beyond -- for either Chaplain Epstein or myself.

We both are committed to exploring what it means to be a human being. The fact that we have come up with different perspectives concerning that issue and what, if anything, this means in the grander scheme of things entail considerations that are above my pay grade.

At one point during the introduction to his aforementioned book, Chaplain Epstein notes in passing that according to some opinion polls atheists are among the most reviled groups in America. He might, or might not, take heart to discover that I have come across the results of various opinion polls in which atheists are rated more favorably than Muslims in the United States.

Bragging rights aside concerning the identity of which group resides at the bottom of this or that favorability poll, Chaplain Epstein does say something in the introduction to his book with which I am in agreement. More specifically, he states: “The enemy … is not faith – the enemy … is hate, it is fear, it is ignorance, it is the darker part” that resides in every human being.

According to Chaplain Epstein, among other things, Humanists consider themselves to be “free thinkers, rationalists, skeptics” as well as naturalists. I find this description somewhat mystifying since it seems to imply that in order to be a freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, or naturalist, one must be someone who does not believe in God.

Free thinking, rationalism, skepticism, and naturalism can be rooted in both a nonreligious or religious context. Everything depends on the intentions underlying, and purposes for which, such cognitive activities are being used. 

For example, a naturalist is considered to be someone who believes that everything is a function of some set of natural causes or phenomena and, as well, believes that all references to supernatural and spiritual realities are ill considered if not irrelevant to establishing the truth concerning the nature of existence. Sufis maintain there is no reality but Divinity, and, therefore, such reality constitutes the only sense of naturalism that is possible … a sense in which it is wrong to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural since the natural gives expression to whatever the nature of reality makes possible.

Moreover, under the right sort of circumstances, even some mystics make use of reason just as Humanists do. However, there are differences in understanding between the two groups concerning the nature of reason, its possible limits, and how to apply reason to any given issue.

As far as the quality of being skeptical is concerned, part of the training of a Sufi is to develop a healthy and constructive skepticism concerning the reliability of the ideas, values, purposes, meanings, intentions, desires, and emotions that arise in one’s own consciousness as well as in the phenomenology of other individuals. There are many forces capable of leading one away from the truth – whatever that might turn out to be – and, consequently, one should refine one’s capacity for skeptical engagement of oneself and life in order to try to minimize -- as much as this can be accomplished -- the degree of distortion and error in one’s understanding of things.

If one wishes to adopt a skeptical stance toward life, then, one needs to be prepared to apply such skeptical inclinations to everything … including one’s own ideas, values, beliefs, and behaviors. To question just the religious ideas of other individuals is to invoke a biased and skewed form of skepticism.

One also must be skeptical with respect to nonreligious ideas as well. In fact, one should be prepared to be skeptical toward skepticism itself because, on occasion, we are able to uncover certain truths, and, therefore, being skeptical about what is true is the sort of hobgoblin of consistency that is characteristic of truly narrow minds.

In my opinion, there is no form of skeptical methodology that is more rigorous than the Sufi mystical path. At the same time, Sufi methodology indicates that skepticism is a means, not an end … that is, while adopting a skeptical stance toward much that takes places within the phenomenology of lived life is a very important thing to do, nonetheless, within limits, being able to arrive at a correct understanding concerning certain aspects of Being is, as intimated earlier, still possible.

Chaplain Epstein claims that the central issue is not about whether, or not, it is possible for someone who does not believe in God to be moral, perform good deeds or develop strong character traits. He believes that such possibilities are very real and, furthermore, he believes there are many examples to which one could point in defense of such a perspective.

He feels that the more interesting question is what makes such moral behavior, good deeds, and character possible. In other words, how does someone who does not believe in God go about being moral, or having character, or performing good deeds?

The question that Chaplain Epstein is raising is a good one … perhaps better than he supposes is the case. As a former professor, one of the issues that I had to consider with respect to any given student was whether, or not, the assignments handed in by that individual were his or her own work.

Did the person cheat on a given test? Did that individual plagiarize material from sources that were not properly cited in the notes or bibliography accompanying the main content of the essay or paper?

I didn’t start out with an orientation of suspicion when grading exams or papers. However, during the course of reading through what some students handed in, certain things might trigger such a concern.

I tried my best to get to know the students through interchanges both within and outside of classes. Many of my classes usually consisted of between 35-40 students, and by the end of the term, I knew them all by name as well as had a sense of what they were, and were not, capable of doing within the context of a given course.

Chaplain Epstein claims that he is interested in the question of how people can be good without God. I am interested in that question as well.

We are not necessarily the architects of our own capacities for: Consciousness, language, reason, logic, memory, intellect, creativity, understanding, or emotion. In fact, for a number of years in both Canada and the United States, I taught a variety of courses in psychology – and, consequently, I was able to develop a fairly informed insight into the epistemological status of the understanding of modern sciences – biological or physical – concerning what makes any of the aforementioned capacities possible or how they came into being.

All manner of hypotheses, theories, and models exist concerning such issues. What is missing is conclusive evidence that any of those ideas are correct, and contrary to the claims of some individuals, science is not even close to resolving the many mysteries that permeate our attempts to understand the origin and nature of either human existence or human capabilities.

If someone has doubts about the tenability of the foregoing claim, she or he might like to take a look at several books which I have written – such as Volumes I, II, and III of the Final Jeopardy series or the book: Evolution and the Origin of Life. All of the foregoing books go into considerable detail concerning different facets of particle physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, evolution, and more that are not well-understood by modern science… and I might add in passing that none of the foregoing discussion pits some form of creationism against some form of secular materialism but sticks to just probing science per se.

So, when someone maintains that human beings exhibit moral behavior, good deeds, and/or quality character absent the presence of God, this triggers something in me that is similar to what used to occur when I was grading the test or term paper of some of my students. Namely, I wonder if the individuals who are making claims about what is possible without God might be committing a form of plagiarism in which they are taking credit for something that is not their own work and are failing to cite the proper sources that make their ideas and actions possible.

Where do the ideas come from that end up being expressed through good deeds or which result in moral behavior of this or that kind? What makes the compassion, love, aspiration, courage, patience, perseverance, and so on possible that permits one to understand, for example, the plight of others and, as a result, want to do something about such situations? Where does the will come from to carry through on the original ideas and intentions? Where do the intellect, memory, understanding, reason, and logic come from that helps to shape the realization of the original intention? Where do the means and opportunities come from that permit one to be in a position to help others? What caused the circumstances of someone to be in a condition of need and why?

Individuals who are inclined in either a nonreligious or a religious manner both tend to want to consider themselves to be the source of good deeds, moral behavior, and quality character traits.  However, neither group can prove that they are the primary causal agent for any of the foregoing events … all they can do is to indicate that on a given occasion a certain individual was the locus of manifestation through which such properties were realized.

Chaplain Epstein notes that thousands of innocent lives are ripped away by hurricanes, earthquakes and other “acts of God”. He indicates that an increasing number of people have come to conclude that the world does not have competent moral management and that, consequently, they feel they must become “superintendants” of their own lives and try to resolve the many problems that beset human beings … but they wish to do so in a way that can be considered to be constructive and, therefore, described as being “good”.

To contend that because thousands of allegedly innocent lives are destroyed through so-called “acts of God” and, therefore, suggest that God -- if God exists -- is not a competent moral manager is an arbitrary judgment based on complete ignorance concerning the nature of existence. Simply because one doesn’t understand why things are the way they are doesn’t necessarily mean that what occurs is due to incompetent moral management.

Moreover, one wonders why Chaplain Epstein should limit the “acts of God” to events such as earthquakes and hurricanes. If God exists, then, sooner or later, every human being dies through one or another act of God, and we have no better insight into the nature of our individual demise than we have with respect to the deaths of thousands of people via the way of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, volcanic activity, and other natural disasters.

Someone dies at a very young age. Or, someone dies through no apparent fault of his or her own. Or, someone dies a slow, agonizing death.

What are we to make of any of this? A lot depends on whether, or not, one has the full story concerning such happenings.

Those who believe that the universe is operating through some form of incompetent moral management believe they have all the facts concerning such situations. One wonders how those individuals would go about proving that they are in possession of all relevant information about any given tragedy or death.

Human beings are notorious backseat drivers. We tend to kibitz about the way another person – or God – does things irrespective of whether, or not, we understand what we are talking about. We always tend to give preference to our own take on things and believe that one’s own understanding is the most reliable means for judging life events.

This is the way of the ego. Such an inclination is at the heart of the dark side of being human that Chaplain Epstein warned his readers about in the introduction to his book and about which I voiced my agreement earlier in this commentary.

In addition, implying that God – if God exists – is an incompetent moral manager because thousands of innocent lives are lost through “acts of God” such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and the like suggests that Chaplain Epstein knows of some absolute form of moral management which is independent of God and through which the actions of any god that would permit the destruction of innocent lives can be evaluated impartially and objectively. If so, one would like to know what the nature of that absolute form of moral management is and what constitutes its source of authoritativeness.

All we really know is that we are not in control of many, if any, life events, and such knowledge tends to leave us with a sense of helpless frustration. So, there is a tendency within us to adopt the existential stance of most politicians and state: “You know what’s wrong with the world, I’m not in charge.”

There are at least two things that are very evident when it comes to human existence. First, reality has a very stubborn tendency to resist our efforts to make it conform to our likes and dislikes, and, secondly, we are almost completely ignorant about why things are the way they are.

One can be as cynical, skeptical, rationalistic, and freethinking as one likes. Nevertheless, after the dust from all our cognitive activity ends, we tend to be as ignorant about the ultimate nature of reality as we were before engaging in such activities.

Operating out of a condition of ignorance will not shed light on whether, or not, the world is being governed through morally incompetent management. All of our speculations, theories, ideas, models, and conceptual systems concerning how we would do things differently if we were put in charge is so much spitting into the mysterious and unpredictable winds of existence that are buffeting our being.

I am interested in trying to find out what or why a billion nonreligious people believe what they do for the same reason that I am interested in finding out why billions of religious people believe what they do. I am interested in finding out whether someone – or any person -- is right concerning such beliefs, and I consider this to be the number one issue facing a human being … to try to determine – to whatever extent this is possible -- the location and character of whatever truths are accessible to human existence.

I don’t merely want to have an understanding in which to believe and through which to develop a purpose or be able to fashion a morality of some kind or find some sort of meaning concerning life. I want to know – if this is possible -- which purpose, form of morality, and meaning actually reflects the nature of reality.

This is the problem with which we all grapple and for which we all are seeking answers and for which we all – one day – might, or might not, be held accountable. Are the numerous decisions that we have made along the way and that have affected others in different ways … are such decisions ones for which we will have regrets if the truth is ever disclosed to us?

The song “My Way” has the line: “Regrets, I’ve had a few … but, then, again, too few to mention”. These are the words of a person who seems to be looking at life through the filters of his or her own myopic view of the truth of things … some one who is viewing life through the very rose-colored, self-serving glasses through which the ego engages life.

Wisdom begins to appear on the horizons of one’s existence when one is prepared to acknowledge the possibility that “My Way” might not be the best way to engage existence. One must be ready to really listen to what reality might be trying to tell us about its nature rather than imposing our own brand of ignorance on to the problems of life.

According to Chaplain Epstein, Humanism “means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place”. This seems to indicate that he knows what “better” means, and if so, then, it tends to leave unanswered the question of what to do when people disagree about what constitutes the nature of “better”.  The foregoing issue also faces those who believe in religion … all too frequently, they assume they know what “better” means and, consequently, often do not critically reflect on the issue of what to do when two senses of “better” collide.

Chaplain Epstein indicates that Humanism “rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence.” The issue of rejecting dependence on: Faith, the supernatural, divine texts and so on revolves about the problem of determining what is going to count as evidence and how to interpret such evidence.

Rejecting something as evidence, or citing it as evidence, is a meaningless exercise until one looks at the framework through which something is going to be counted as evidence or rejected as such. Furthermore, one has to ask about the degree of arbitrariness present in such a framework of epistemological or hermeneutical evaluation … and this is as true for religious believers as it is for nonreligious believers.

Wikipedia describes “arbitrariness” as the quality of being "determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle". However, this leaves a question in the wake of such a definition as the latter makes its way through epistemological waters.

More specifically, one can’t help but raise the following question: How arbitrary is a given person’s notion of “necessity, reason, and principle”? Or, asked in a different way, what is it that makes any given notion of: “necessity, reason, and principle” be something other than arbitrary?

Presumably, the answer to the foregoing questions would be a function of the truth. Any notion of necessity, reason, and principle that does not reflect and is not rooted in the truth is arbitrary. In short, arbitrariness is that which is based on something other than the truth.

Humanists insist that the journey from the womb to the tomb is all that we have … but they have no evidence to demonstrate the truth of their claim. They – like most of the rest of us – have only a deep, pervasive ignorance concerning such matters, and, yet, they appear to want everyone to proceed as if the Humanist understanding of things is the only necessary, reasoned, principled take on life, and, perhaps not so strangely, the Humanist position really is just a variation on the manner in which many, if not most religious people proceed as well.

No one wants to admit that they are ignorant about almost everything that matters. Consequently, no one wants to address the issue of how do we collectively proceed given such ignorance. How do we pursue and make allowances for what we don’t know without getting problematically entangled in each other’s lives?

According to Chaplain Epstein, “humanism is a cohesive world movement based on the creation of good lives and communities, without God.” Irrespective of whether one wishes to exclude God or include God in our lives and communities, the notion of what constitutes “goodness” is a long-standing problem.

Quite frequently, our ideas concerning “the good” merely reduce down to our likes and dislikes. Therefore, such notions tend to be quite independent of necessity, reason, or principle except to the extent that we like to throw such words around as we try to persuade one another that our system of likes and dislikes is better than your system of likes and dislikes.

Chaplain Epstein claims that for most people, “religion is not about belief in an all-seeing deity with a baritone voice and a flowing beard. It is about family, tradition, consolation, ethics, memories, music, art, architecture, and much more.” First, Chaplain Epstein’s reductionistic depiction of God is quite argumentative and narrow in scope.

More importantly, I am willing to venture that for many people who have a genuine commitment to the idea of God’s existence, their central concern is about a sense of relationship with Divinity via the mind, heart and soul rather than merely being a function of arbitrary images – auditory or visual -- of one kind or another. Even where images are present, I am inclined to feel it is the sense of relationship with Divinity that pervades such images that is of utmost importance rather than the images per se … that is, the images stand for something beyond the images themselves … something ineffable and hard to put in words … it is the dance of one’s phenomenology with a mysterious, unseen – but very much sensed – Partner.

Secondly, even if one were to agree with Chaplain Epstein that for many people religion is much more about family, tradition, ethics, memories, music, art, and architecture than anything else, one still might raise the issue of whether such people have missed the essential point of religion or spirituality. In other words, irrespective of however important family, tradition, memories, and so on might be within a religious context, nonetheless, to restrict spirituality to such considerations tends to obscure the following possibility – namely, that the opportunity for, and the journey toward, realizing one’s essential potential might constitute the primary purpose to which religion and spirituality are seeking to draw our attention.

I am not trying to say that what goes on in the world is unimportant. Rather, in the latter part of the foregoing paragraph, emphasis is being given to the idea that life might be a means to, and occasion for, a process of spiritual development rather than being an end unto itself.

Even if we all engaged the world as a project for pursuing goodness in this life and were successful in agreeing on, and realizing, such a project, if the world turns out to exist for something other than, or is transcendent to, such Earthly interests, then, however good we make the world, we might have missed the purpose for which life on Earth came into being. Living the ‘good life’ – whatever this might mean – has to reflect and be rooted in the truth of reality’s nature … we cannot arbitrarily decide what the meaning and purpose of Earthly life are and expect that everyone should submit to such an approach to things … anymore than we can arbitrarily decide that the purpose and meaning of life should be lived in accordance with some arbitrary theological notion.

Chaplain Epstein claims that we need what can be found or created in a Humanist community – “… a place where family, memory, ethical values, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty, and without a god.” I have no doubt that Humanists can come up with ideas concerning goodness and community that have meaning, value, and purpose for them … but how intellectually honest and defensible any of this might be is another set of issues altogether.

One could agree with the Humanist perspective that the journey from womb to tomb is unique and only comes our way once. However, acknowledging such a perspective does not require one to conclude that: “Family, memory, ethical value, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty without a god.”

Of course, a similar sort of criticism can be leveled at those who find meaning, value, and purpose in this or that theology and, as a result, seek to play their own kind of zero-sum game with anyone who is unwilling to accept their edicts concerning the nature of reality. The commonality that ties all of us together – the people who are committed to some version of religious reality as well as the people who are committed to some nonreligious way of life – is our collective ignorance about so many of the key issues of life … an ignorance that we often do our best to deny, and a denial that tends to come at great cost to ourselves and the people amongst whom we live.

Despite the many accomplishments of modern science, we still have no demonstrable proof concerning how either the universe or life came into being. In addition, we do not know the how and why underlying the origins of consciousness, logic, reason, insight, memory, creativity, talent, language, and emotion. To claim that science offers the best account of the universe and its many mysteries is to arbitrarily inflate the status of the opinions and speculations of a group of very fallible individuals whose primary modus operandi appears to be its capacity to improve upon – within limits -- some of its many previously incorrect theories concerning the nature of the universe, life, and human potential.

This might be a sound strategy if one had an infinite amount of time to wait on some sort of final answer concerning the nature of reality. Unfortunately, this is not the situation in which we find ourselves since irrespective of whether one is inclined in a religious or nonreligious way, the time we have available to try to solve the mysteries of life is very limited … and, for unknown reasons, this constraint is much more severe for some individuals than it is for others.

Chaplain Epstein refers to Humanism through the filters of the European term: “lifestance”, and he claims that this term refers to something that is more than a philosophy but is not a religion.” One wonders in what sense a “lifestance” is more than a philosophy but other than a religion.

Such a statement seems to involve little more than playing around with the ambiguities of language and, thereby, making claims that can’t be spelled out in clear, defensible terms. To contend that Humanism is a lifestance and, therefore, neither a philosophy or a religion tends to ignore an obvious question … namely, if the Humanist lifestance is neither a philosophy nor a religion, then, what is it and from whence does it derive the sort of intellectual and moral authority that would warrant anyone, or everyone, to subscribe to its tenets?

Chaplain Epstein claims that: “Faith in God means believing absolutely in something, with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary.” To claim that people who have faith in God believe in something with no proof whatsoever is an attempt to reduce to nothingness the life experiences of people who believe ... it is an attempt to claim that because Humanists don’t recognize something as a proof, then, that something has no probative value … it is an attempt by Humanists to set themselves up as the arbiters of what is true and what is not true … and, even more importantly, it is an attempt to try to frame what human experiences have probative value and what human experiences don’t have such probative value. And, unfortunately, many individuals who believe in religion of one sort or another are often guilty of doing the same sort of thing.

Furthermore, one also would like to know just what is meant by the claim that Humanists have faith in humanity despite a great deal of evidence to indicate that such faith is not warranted. Just what is it in human beings that Humanists have faith in and how and where did this something come into being? Can Humanists prove that whatever dimension of being human in which they have faith came into existence and derived its potential from something other than Divinity?

For Humanists to claim that they want to do whatever they do without the idea of God raises a question … and it is a question that must also be asked, as well, of anyone who believes in religion of some kind. To what extent are one’s beliefs delusional in nature … that is, to what extent do one’s beliefs stray from the truth of things … for that is what a delusion is … a belief that is false … a belief that does not accurately reflect the actual nature of reality.

We all have our values, purposes, meanings, reasons, principles, and moral systems. Yet, we all lack the sort of definitive proof that would permit us to demonstrate to the satisfaction of any other presumably reasonable person that our values, purposes, meanings, reasons, principles, and systems of morality accurately reflect the actual nature of reality.

If there is no afterlife, then, what someone believes in this life has no causal relation to what transpires after we die. Irrespective of what we believe, we disappear into the abyss of non-existence, and that is the end of the matter.

If there is no God, then, talking about the good life is just an exercise in arbitrariness in which one tries to justify – without having any universally defensible basis for doing so – one’s own lonely, desperate need to have a sense of existential value, purpose, and meaning. This remains true independently of whether our definition of the good life is rooted in a religious or non-religious perspective.

However, if there is an afterlife and if there is a God, then what follows? Actually, nothing automatically or necessarily follows.

What becomes critical is discovering the truth – to whatever extent this can be done -- concerning the nature of the afterlife and the existence of God. Truth is not about having theories, hypotheses, speculations, opinions, beliefs, or a lifestance with respect to such matters … truth is a matter of accurate knowledge and understanding concerning reality.

Unfortunately, most of us are steeped in ignorance when it comes to the truth about the ultimate nature of reality. Even the precision of this or that science or the promises of this or that theology is helpless when it comes to answering what, if anything, existence is all about.

If I wanted to know what energy a certain species of sub-atomic particle might have when it engages in a certain kind of interaction with some other kind of particle, I would ask a quantum physicist. If I wanted to know about the nature of a given religious perspective with which I was unfamiliar, I would ask a theologian who knew about such matters.


However, when it comes to the ultimate nature of existence, scientists, humanists, and theologians are as ignorant as the rest of us are. Yet, depending on how open to a free-flowing dialog a given scientist, humanist, or theologian might be, I would be prepared to constructively explore with them what our collective options might be in the face of such ignorance and uncertainty.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Sam Harris and the Future of Ignorance -- Chapter 1

Sam Harris begins his dialogue with Maajid Nawaz in the book Islam and the Future of Tolerance by talking about “the prospects for reforming the faith” … something that Maajid Nawaz is interested in doing. Perhaps, however, what has to be reformed is the understanding of various Muslims and non-Muslims with respect to the nature of Islam.
Dr. Harris assumes that he understands Islam, but he provides plenty of evidence in his books that such is not the case. In fact, Dr. Harris is presumptuous in precisely the same way as many fundamentalists are presumptuous for they all seem to be incapable of considering the possibility that they might be wrong about – along with quite a few other things -- their understanding concerning the nature of Islam.
At a dinner gathering associated with the Intelligence Squared debate in October 2010, Dr. Harris criticized Maajid Nawaz for arguing in the debate that Islam is a religion of peace which has been hijacked by extremists because, according to Dr. Harris, “Islam isn’t a religion of peace, and the so-called ‘extremists’ are seeking to implement what is arguably the most honest reading of the faith’s actual doctrine.”
What is the evidence that the “extremists” are implementing “the most honest reading of the faith’s actual doctrine”? What “actual doctrine of the faith” is Dr. Harris talking about, and on what is he basing his claim concerning the nature of such a doctrine? Moreover, what makes the reading of the “extremists” the most honest one?
Dr. Harris proclaims to Maajid Nawaz that: “Someone has to try to reform Islam from within. … But the path of reform appears to be one of pretense. You seem obliged to pretend that the doctrine is something other than it is – for instance, you must pretend that jihad is just an inner spiritual struggle, whereas it’s primarily a doctrine of holy war.”
What is the evidential basis for Dr. Harris claiming that jihad is primarily a doctrine of war? He just makes the claim … he never backs it up … he never demonstrates how Islam and the Qur’an demand that jihad must primarily be understood as a doctrine of physical war and that any conflict with others on the part of Muslims automatically gives expression to holy war.
On the other hand, contrary to what Maajid Nawaz claims, the Qur’an should not be understood in terms of the historical contexts in which certain passages of the Qur’an were revealed. Rather, while those historical events might have been the occasion when revelation was manifested, the Qur’an must be understood as a whole, and the application of the Qur’an must be done in accordance with what constitutes the best way of engaging a given set of circumstances through the entirety of the Qur’an’s teachings and not just this or that cherry-picked passage of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an is guidance, not a rulebook or a law book. The Qur’an gives expression to a nuanced, multi-dimensional, rich, insightful understanding concerning the nature of existence and an individual’s relationship to such existence. One must draw from the entirety of that understanding when engaging experience or one does injustice to the guidance.
According to Nawaz: “… what can unite us is a set of religion-neutral values. By focusing on the universality of human, democratic, and secular values, we can arrive at some common ground.”
This all sounds very good, but it is almost meaningless. While there might be values that are held in common by humanists and Islam, those values are not necessarily religion-neutral because we don’t know where ideas come from … goodness, truth, character, value, justice, peace, harmony, and so on are concepts that refer to issues that have to do with the possible nature of the universe, and until we know the underlying nature of the reality to which such concepts give expression or what makes our understanding of such concepts possible, then, all one can say is that there are a number of potential points of intersection where non-believers and believers might be able to reach an agreement about how to proceed in order to provide everyone with an opportunity to continue to be able to seek the truth concerning the nature of reality.
Just what does Nawaz mean when he talks about the “universality of human, democratic, and secular values”? Such values are universal in what sense? There are many different ways of parsing ideas such as: freedom, rights, fairness, justice, democracy, and so on.
The foregoing words might be universally used. However, there are tremendous differences in meanings … it is a Tower of Babel.
Maajid Nawaz states: “Religion doesn’t inherently speak for itself; no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice.”
I disagree with him. If I write something, then, what is written gives expression to my voice.
If Nawaz, or anyone else, wishes to interpret what I am saying in some other way, then that interpretation gives expression to their voice. Nonetheless, to try to give priority to their interpretation over what I am intending through the writing is to try to deny my voice.
Moreover, reality has its own voice. It is what it is.
If a certain section of scripture – and this sentence is intended to be hypothetical in character -- gives expression to the voice of reality, then, in what sense does such scripture not have its own voice? If religion is a process of seeking to access the truth concerning the nature of reality, then, in what sense does that reality not have its own voice, and isn’t one of the problems that plagues many modes of understanding (whether in the case of religion or the case of science) a function of how people often seek to give priority to their own voice over the voice of reality, and, thereby, discount what reality has to say?
Nawaz goes on to argue that: “I asserted that Islam is a religion of peace simply because the vast majority of Muslims today do not subscribe to its being a religion of war. If it holds that Islam is only what its adherents interpret it to be, then it is currently a religion of peace.”
Deen – or the way of Islam -- is neither a matter of interpretation nor a matter of majority vote. One has to be opened up to the reality of Deen.
One cannot impose one’s own ideas onto it. Furthermore, one cannot impose the agreements of a collective set of individuals upon the nature of truth.
Although Nawaz wants to challenge “the narrative of violence that has been popularized by” militant fundamentalists, he is, in fact, introducing his own narrative into the discourse. In the process he has deprived Islam of its own voice … the voice that God has given it and the voice that needs to be heard in order for an individual to be opened up to the essential nature of Islam.
The book Islam and the Future of Tolerance has a footnote on page 8 that talks about a 2013 PEW poll conducted in eleven Muslim majority countries and shows that “support for suicide bombing against civilians in defense of Islam has declined in recent years.” Nonetheless, the footnote goes on to list the percentages by country “who still think that this form of violence against non-combatants is ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ justified are sobering … Egypt 25%; Indonesia, 6%; Jordan, 12%; Lebanon, 33%; Malaysia, 27%, Nigeria, 8%; Pakistan, 3%; Palestinian territories, 62%, Senegal, 18%; Tunisia, 12%, and Turkey 16%.”
What does it actually mean when someone says that killing noncombatants is “sometimes” or “often” justified? Does it mean that they are prepared to do it themselves? Does it mean that while they wouldn’t necessarily engage in such acts themselves, voicing such things is the only options they are being given by the pollsters to express their disagreement with the way that the United States, Britain, or Israel goes about killing people with impunity? Or, does it mean that they are angry, and, therefore, they are prepared to say something violent because that is how they feel, but, if push came to shove, they would not commit that sort of violence? Unless one can meaningfully and precisely translate the extent to which words can be transformed into certain kinds of acts of violence, then, all such polls indicate is someone’s willingness to speak the language of violence without necessarily being willing to act out the language of violence.
Millions of people around the world – including Sam Harris (for example, see page 129 of the 2005 Norton paperback edition of The End of Faith) -- use words of violence. However, only a very limited number of those individuals ever put those words into the sort of motion that ends in physical violence.
Moreover, what does it mean that: “… support for suicide bombing against civilians … has declined in recent years”? Is the decline due to the way in which some individuals have had a chance to reflect on such actions and, therefore, no longer feel that those actions are justified … even though at some point they might have been reluctantly sympathetic to that sort of behavior?
What has brought about such a decline? More importantly, if such opinions can change, then, what conclusions, if any, can one draw from an opinion poll except that, perhaps, one cannot necessarily be certain of just what those polls are reflecting or tapping into?
Relative to the United States, the vast majority of countries in the world that are not in a state or war consist of people who, if given a choice, are, for the most part, not violent. The United States, on the other hand, is one of the most violent countries in the world – both domestically and internationally, and the latter includes the unprovoked invasion of numerous countries around the world including Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Vietnam, Yemen, Syria, Cuba, and so on that has led to the death of millions of people.
Whatever the shortcomings of the foregoing countries might be America is more of a terrorist nation than any of the foregoing countries or peoples. America has long been a country that propagandizes about the speck of terrorism in someone else’s eye while ignoring the beam of terrorism in its own.
While discussing various military conflicts in the world, Dr. Harris indicates that many Muslims viewed some of those operations as being sacrilegious … no matter how evil or secular the target of Western power happens to be. Dr. Harris says: “Saddam Hussein was the perfect example: he was a universally hated secular tyrant. But the moment a coalition of non-Muslim states attacked him, much of the Muslim world was outraged that ‘Muslim lands’ were being invaded by infidels
As usual, Dr. Harris has got his facts wrong. The several invasions of Iraq by a coalition of countries involved quite a few Muslim nations, and, therefore, infidels were not invading Muslim lands, but, rather, the invasion was carried out by a group of countries that, in one way or another, consisted of soldiers who could be considered to be “people of the book” (e.g., Christian, Jewish, and Muslim), but each of those countries had its own reasons – almost invariably bad ones – for invading Iraq.
Saddam Hussein might have been a secular tyrant, but the United States was quite happy with him when he was doing its bidding in, among other things, the horrendous Iran-Iraq war. It wasn’t until Saddam Hussein started to work toward undermining the Petro-dollar by advocating the implementation of a new gold standard for making oil purchases on the international market that Saddam Hussein began to fall out of favor with the United States.
While, most murderously, Saddam Hussein did gas his own people, nonetheless, it was the West who supplied him with the chemical materials that enabled him to carry out that job. Moreover, Winston Churchill arranged for the Iraqi people to be gassed long before Saddam Hussein came up with the idea, and, perhaps, the actions of the supposedly great icon of British history who got away with such reprehensible actions inspired Saddam Hussein to follow suit.
In 1990, the case against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny purportedly was so strong that the United States felt compelled to fabricate evidence in order to persuade the Saudis that the Iraqi army was massing along the border to Saudi Arabia when satellite imagery indicated this was not the case. In addition, in order to obtain Congressional permission to carry out a military attack on Iraq, elements within the U.S. government arranged for the daughter of a high-Kuwaiti official to lie during a hearing before Congress by claiming (falsely) that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers taking babies from incubators in Kuwait and smashing them on the hospital floors … testimony that helped turn the tide of opinion within the United States in general, and the U.S. Congress in particular, to look favorably upon the idea of military action against Iraq.
In addition, let us not forget the role of Ambassador April Glaspie in helping to convince Saddam Hussein that the United States had no interest in Iraq’s border dispute with Kuwait. By doing so, the United States misled Saddam Hussein and, thereby, helped make possible all the carnage that followed.
All the United States had to do was to let Saddam Hussein know that it would not look favorably on any invasion of, or attack on, Kuwait, and the crisis could have been averted … at least for the moment. However, by playing games with Saddam Hussein, the United States government is, in part, culpable in relation to the tragic events that followed.
Moreover, one should keep in mind that both George W. Bush and Colin Powell went before the United Nations and put forth manufactured evidence in order to get international approval for the United States’ desired illegal war with Iraq in 2003. Indeed, apparently, information is now coming out via the e-mail controversy involving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Bush, Powell, and Tony Blair conspired to generate an array of false information in order to try to justify their intention to invade Iraq.
What is problematic about the United States invading Iraq – both through the 1990s as well as beginning in 2003 – is that there was no real justification for such actions. The United States  -- together with a morally challenged group of coalition partners -- invaded a sovereign country without provocation and, in the process, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent non-combatants.
Whatever Saddam Hussein’s sins might have been, they were his sins and not the sins of the Iraqi people. The United States, and its coalition partners, perpetrated war crimes against the people of Iraq
Whatever the tyrannical sins of Saddam Hussein might have been, the terrorist actions in Iraq by the United States along with its partners in crime were far worse. The United States destroyed the infrastructure of a once viable country, killed its citizens by the hundreds of thousands – many of whom were children -- detained and tortured large numbers of innocent citizens in places like Abu Ghraib, as well in a number of illegal black sites, and helped push the entire Middle East into a destabilized freefall.
Was Saddam Hussein a terrible tyrant? Yes, he was, but where is the evidence that Saddam Hussein did anything remotely like what the United States and its allies did to the people of Iraq? In fact, the evidence indicates that the US military and its allies killed hundreds of times more innocent Iraqis than Saddam Hussein did.
Dr. Harris states: “One of the problems with religion is that it creates in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, even when members of one’s own group are behaving like psychopaths.” As usual, Dr. Harris frames things in a way that suits what appear to be demagogic purposes.
What are the 39 countries of the US led coalition but an exercise intended to whip up in-group loyalty in order to ferment in-group hostility against their out-group target -- namely, the people of Iraq? Why blame religion for doing what many, if not most, social groups – religious and secular -- have done throughout history?
Moreover, what is Sam Harris doing by going after religion if not engaging in an exercise that seeks to establish an “out-group” with respect to those whom he and others who think like him can feel justified in harboring hostilities toward the members of such a group? Dr. Harris is so busy wagging his finger at religion for making in-group and out-group distinctions that he apparently fails to see that he is engaged in precisely the same kind of activity with his diatribes against religion.
The problem is not religion per se. The problem is human beings who use social forms of control, persuasion, indoctrination, and propaganda to create “us” and “them” scenarios for reasons having to do with the exercise of power.
While referring to Maajid Nawaz’s distinction between “revolutionary Islamists” and “jihadists,” Dr. Harris refers to a group of Muslims who: “… apparently wake each morning yearning to kill infidels and apostates. Many of them also seem eager to be martyred in the process. Most of us refer to these people as jihadists.” Although years ago, I employed such terminology myself on several occasions, nonetheless, I think there are some problems entailed by such usage.
First of all, the primary sense of jihad – the greater jihad to which the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) referred -- is an individual’s struggle with his or her ego or nafs. This dimension of jihad remains relevant even if there had never been any armed conflicts involving Muslims throughout history.
By referring to fundamentalists as jihadists, one corrupts the idea of jihad – even in its minor, lesser sense. While the idea of jihad does encompass the possibility of using physical force to defend a Muslim community, any use of force that does not serve the more basic and greater sense of opposing the machinations of the ego is an inappropriate use of force and, therefore, does not give expression to the notion of jihad.
The people to whom Dr. Harris is referring are not jihadists. They are narcissistic, ideological psychopaths.
Like narcissists, the individuals to whom Dr. Harris is referring are deeply enamored with themselves. Like narcissists, those people are incredibly delusional concerning their own sense of self-worth, and they become belligerent toward anyone who does not agree with their inflated sense of self-worth or takes exception with the manner in which they filter reality in accordance with their delusional belief systems concerning themselves and the world.
Like psychopaths, the people to whom Dr. Harris is referring have no conscience with respect to either destroying the lives of others or causing others pain. Like psychopaths, such individuals have poor impulse control and have little insight into the problematic nature of their own behavior. Like psychopaths, such individuals are interested only in their own gratification, and they don’t care who has to suffer while they go about seeking to realize such gratification. Like psychopaths, the people to whom Dr. Harris is alluding are willing to engage in risky behavior with little appreciation for the consequences that might arise through pursuing that sort of risky behavior. Like psychopaths, such individuals are inclined toward manipulating and controlling situations to serve their own desire to pursue one, or another, form of self-gratification. Like psychopaths, they tend to use people and, then, discard them when the latter individuals no longer serve the purposes of the former individuals.
Finally, the narcissistic psychopathy that afflicts the individuals to whom Dr. Harris is making reference entails being ideologically driven rather than being due to some set of biological, social and/or set of psychological conditions. That ideology is thoroughly delusional, and, therefore, everything they think, feel, and do is filtered through that delusional system of understanding.
To refer to them as jihadists – as Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz do -- frames the conversation in a way that attempts to give some degree of unwarranted credence to their manner of portraying Islam. Such a usage gives the impression that what they are doing is just one of many, possible, legitimate ways of engaging or reading Islam.
However, there is absolutely nothing in the delusional systems of the manner in which fundamentalists and extremists understand things or in their manner of conducting themselves that reflects the teachings of Islam. Such individuals are deeply disturbed … emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually.
The Qur’an is very clear (Surah 2, Verse 256). There can be no element of force or compulsion present in the matter of Deen or the way in which one engages Islam.
Whoever treats Islam as if it were an imperialistic creed that is intended to control the people of the world and to which all of the people on Earth are required to submit has failed to come to grips with even the most rudimentary teaching of Islam. Islam is, first and foremost, a matter of free choice.
Maajid Nawaz says that: “… Islam is a traditional religion like any other, replete with sects, denominations, and variant readings. But Islamism is the desire to impose any of those readings on society. It is commonly expressed as the desire to enforce a version of shari’ah as law. Political Islamists seek to impose their views through the ballot box … Revolutionary Islamists seek change from outside the system in one clean sweep. Militant Islamists are jihadists.”
Although many people of faith might have their interpretations and understandings of what is entailed by their approach to religion, one must distinguish between what a religion might actually mean and what various people take it to mean. Again, Nawaz seems comfortable with taking away the voice of religion itself – and this is true independently of whether religion is a human construction or it is something that is given through the nature of reality.
Individual Muslims and Muslim communities might be “replete with sects, denominations, and variant readings.” However, Islam is not a function of any of those sects, denominations, or variant readings, irrespective of whether such hermeneutical orientations are considered individually or collectively.
To whatever extent a person seeks to impose his or her ideas about Islam on other people – whether through political, legal, revolutionary, or military means – then, such an approach is rooted in a misunderstanding of the tenets of Islam. However one wishes to interpret this or that passage in the Qur’an, such passages must all be modulated in accordance with, among other things, the light of the Surah 2, Verse 256, and any “reading” of the Qur’an that ignores Surah 2, Verse 256 will be in error.
To the best of my understanding, the term shari’ah appears just once in the Qur’an. In Surah 45, Verse 18, one finds: “O Prophet, We have put you on the Right Way (shari’ah) concerning the Deen (way of Islam), so follow it, and do not yield to the desires of ignorant people.”
In Arabic, the noun shari’ah refers to a place where animals go for purposes of being able to drink water. The related verb shar’a involves the act of ‘taking a drink’. By extension, both the noun and the verb forms allude to a path, road, or way that leads to a place where one might take a drink.
There is another word, shari’, that is derived from the same root as the two foregoing terms. This other word refers to a lawgiver, legislator, or one who determines the law, but, as well, this term also can refer to a street, path, or way.
If one brings all of the foregoing senses into juxtaposition with one another, one arrives at the following sort of understanding. Shari’ah is a way, path, or means that leads to a place where one will have access to something that, like water, is of existential import … a set of circumstances that reality has organized into a means through which the individual, the way, the process of traversing the path, the act of drinking, and the value of what is imbibed are linked with one another.
The sense of law that is associated with the foregoing understanding has to do with the ordered nature of existence. God is the One Who has arranged reality in the way it is, and God is the one who has created the individual, the path, the water, and that which will happen when that water is drunk.
Being put on the Right Way – shari’ah – with respect to Deen, or the way of Islam, refers to the process of coming to realize one’s relationship with reality’s existential nature. Shari’ah has nothing to do with a legal system intended to control people or society, and shari’ah has everything to do with a process of struggling to find, and journey along, the path that will provide one with an opportunity to drink that which will assist one to realize one’s relationship with Being.
I consider both Dr. Harris and Maajid Nawaz to belong to the group of ignorant people with respect to whom the Qur’an was warning the Prophet against yielding to their desires concerning matters of Deen. They toss all kinds of terms about when it comes to Islam, but they have no understanding of what it is they are doing.
Dr. Harris refers to various groups that have analyzed the elections of Muslim-majority countries over the last 40 years and goes on to state: “This suggests that 15 percent of the world’s Muslims are Islamists” – that is, people who wish to impose their beliefs on others through one means or another.
He goes on to argue: “However, poll results on the topic of shari’ah generally show much higher levels of support for implementation – killing adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, and so forth. I’m not sure what to think about a society in which 15% of people vote for an Islamist party, but 40 percent or even 60 percent want apostates killed.”
Even if one were to accept the foregoing analyses and poll results, there is a strange sort of inconsistency between the poll results and the results of election in Muslim-majority countries over the last forty years. If the so-called Islamists are all about shari’ah – at least as they understand it -- and if 40-60% of the people are in favor of the sort of severe punishments that are mentioned by Dr. Harris which forms part of what the Islamists are promoting, then, why isn’t the support for the fundamentalist approach to things up around 40-60% rather than holding at roughly 15% for more than 40 years?
Conceivably, people respond to polling questions in a way that they think will be least problematic or threatening for themselves and their families. After all, the person being polled has no idea who the person or people doing the polling will talk to about what they hear from this or that individual who is responding to the poll … better to respond in a fashion that meets the expectations of fundamentalists rather than to say something that might get the individuals answering the questions in trouble.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Harris’ information is accurate and reflects the actual position of Muslims worldwide. To answer Dr. Harris’ question, what I would make of such societies is that Muslim leaders – educational, political, legal, and spiritual – have done a terrible job of teaching their respective peoples about the actual nature of Islam.
Let’s approach the foregoing issues from a different vantage point. How many people in the United States believe that it was right to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent noncombatants in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the fact that neither country invaded the United States nor, prior to such invasions, took one American life?
The pretext for invading Afghanistan is that its government was giving safe harbor to Osama bin Laden and his followers. However, the Taliban government at the time of the invasion said that they would be willing to turn bin Laden over to US authorities if the latter would provide the Afghan government with proof that bin Laden did what the US claimed he did (e.g., arranged the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington), but the United States rejected that offer.
Incidentally, Robert Mueller who was the head of the FBI at the time of the September 11, 2001 events publically stated that there was no paper trail or hard evidence that tied bin Laden to 9/11. Moreover, on a number of occasions, bin Laden indicated during several interviews with media representatives that he did not have anything to do with 9/11.
Terrorists often take credit for atrocities irrespective of whether they did them or not … since this is, after all, a way of helping to bring a sense of terror into the lives of the people being targeted. Yet, on several occasions, bin Laden publicly disavowed any connection to the events of 9/11.
Much of the so-called information concerning bin Laden’s alleged involvement with 9/11 came from an individual (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) who was water-boarded by the CIA at least 183 times and whom the CIA would not permit the 9/11 Commission to interview directly. Therefore, whatever information came via Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is completely unreliable and has not been substantiated in any independent manner that is not also substantially tainted with respect to its methodology or process of analyzing the data gained through such methodology.
Moreover, even if bin Laden were complicit in some way with the events of 9/11, the United States did not have such evidence at the time it invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. When, prior to the invasion, NATO asked the United States to provide evidence that Afghanistan was involved in the events of 9/11, Colin Powell promised to give NATO such evidence but never did so, and, therefore, there was no legal grounds for either NATO or the United States to become involved in the Afghanistan invasion because, according to the rules of engagement of NATO, a member country must be able to show hard, concrete evidence that one, or more, of the members of NATO have been attacked by another country in order for an attack on the latter country to be justified … and this was not done by the United States.
The United States government did not provide evidence to NATO members that the Afghani government co-operated with bin Laden, or co-operated with other individuals, to attack the United States on September 11, 2001. Furthermore, the United States government did not provide the members of NATO with evidence that bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and even if the United States government had been able to provide such evidence, the rules of engagement governing the conditions under which NATO members may go to war involve the aggression of countries against one, or more, NATO members rather than the acts of a small group of non-governmental criminals.
Millions of people in the United States were caught up in the fog of war created by the US government and its media puppets during the hysteria and the climate of fear that were generated following the events of 9/11. Vast portions of the population of the United States wanted Muslim blood, and they didn’t care whether the Muslims were innocent or guilty.
For example, first Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State, during a 60 Minutes interview, and, then, Bill Richardson, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, during an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, both responded to a question about whether, or not, the US actions in Iraq during the first Gulf War were worth it given that as many as 500,000 innocent people died there and especially given that many of these casualties were children. Both of the aforementioned individuals indicated that what had been gained through the US’s actions in Iraq was worth the price that was paid for by Iraqi lives.
Unfortunately, nothing was really gained. The world did not become a safer, better, more stable place.
Instead, Iraq was destroyed, millions of people in that country were killed or displaced, the Middle East was destabilized, and the actions of the United States in that region were a primary cause underlying the rise of such psychopathic groups as the Islamic State.
One might think that attitudes of people like Madeline Albright and Bill Richardson, could not get much more barbaric. Then, however, one remembers that it was the United States that used ‘Shock and Awe’ as a form of collective reprisal or punishment against the Iraqi people as retribution for the sins of Saddam Hussein, as well as committed extensive acts of torture in locations such as Abu Ghraib, and used white phosphorus in places like Fallujah, as well as extensively made use of depleted uranium throughout Iraq (and the latter is deeply implicated in the massive increases in cancer and birth defects that have been recorded among Iraqis).
When one recalls such horrors, one realizes that the West is also filled with its share of narcissistic, psychopathic ideologues. The only thing that distinguishes the narcissistic, psychopathic ideologues of the West from their counterparts in various fundamentalist groups in the Middle East is that the West has conducted its psychopathic acts of barbarity on a far, far greater scale than have the fundamentalist groups in the Middle East.
And just in case people like Sam Harris forget – as he seems to be wont to do  -- using collective punishment against the Iraqi people for things that Saddam Hussein did, and/or invading countries without provocation, and/or torturing its citizens, and/or using white phosphorous on the inhabitants of such countries, as well as using munitions made with depleted uranium to attack those people are all in contravention of international agreements. The West likes to think of itself as civilized, but its actions indicate otherwise.
One can acknowledge that many, if not most, of the individuals who are members of the Islamic State are narcissistic, psychopathic ideologues. Yet, despite all of their terrible, reprehensible, and vicious actions, those people don’t begin to approach the magnitude of the atrocities that the United States has visited upon, among others, the people of Afghanistan for the past fourteen years, along with the people of Iraq for more than a quarter of a century … and Iraq is another country that had nothing to do with 9/11 except in the power-drunk, delusional thinking of people like Dick Cheney and his minions.
Dr. Harris is worried about the number of so-called Islamists (people who supposedly wish to impose their religious beliefs on others) around the world as being in the vicinity of 20%. Perhaps he should be just as worried, if not more so, about the 40-70% of Americans (depending on the issue) who have supported, and continue to support, the militaristic and imperialistic policies of numerous US administrations to actively work to help bring about the death and displacement of millions of innocent people in Korea, Honduras, Iran, Vietnam, Chile, South Africa, Argentina, Palestine, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and beyond … the same type of mentality that helped commit genocide with respect to Native Peoples in North America and instituted a series of racist policies concerning African-Americans that continues to operate right up until the present time.
Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right nearly 50 years ago during a speech he gave in 1967 against the war in Vietnam. He stated that: “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” is the United States government, and one might add that the greatest perpetrator of terrorism in the world has been, and continues to be, the United States government.

Dr. Harris vociferously and constantly criticizes, and rightly so, the misguided Muslims who serve as suicide bombers. Too bad he doesn’t spend as much time and energy criticizing the far more egregious misguided actions of the United States government when it comes to the dispensing of violence, death, and destruction around the world. 
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Friday, November 20, 2015

Sufi Study Circle Podcast #10 Is Now Available

This edition of the Sufi Study Circle Podcast contains a recitation of Surah 93, Al-Zuhaa - The Early Hours -- as well as an excerpt from the Mathnawi of Maulana Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Rumi (may Allah be pleased with him), a reading from al-Qushayri's 'Principles of Sufism' a meditative essay entitled: 'Baqa', a Friday Thoughts excerpt with the title: 'Sam Harris and the Future of Ignorance - Part 2', several musical selections, a Sufi saying, and a prayer. Click on the artwork below to be whisked away to a web page that will permit one to either stream or download the Sufi Study Circle Podcast #10 for free.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sam Harris and the Future of Ignorance


'Sam Harris and the Future of Ignorance' is a critical exploration of the published dialogue between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz entitled: 'Islam and the Future of Tolerance'. Dr. Harris claims that he is interested in peace, harmony, cooperation,and tolerance. Yet, when it comes to Islam and Muslims, he does not appear to exhibit the same commitment to, or fervor for, the aforementioned ideals. More specifically, Dr. Harris seems to be willing to recklessly endanger innocent lives – both Muslim and non-Muslims – by fraudulently promoting a false idea about the nature of Islam, and this seems rather incongruous with some of his stated values. One can’t help but wonder what his underlying motives actually are because there seems to be little rhyme nor reason to his insistence on maintaining such a jaundiced and factually challenged view of Islam unless his purpose is something other than peace, harmony, co-operation, tolerance, and the like. The fact that Dr. Harris appears to be willing to identify fundamentalists, extremists, and militants as constituting the only “true” Muslims, while referring to other non-violent Muslims as acting out of disingenuous and hypocritical pretense (simply because the latter individuals refuse to accept the delusional and ignorant ranting of fundamentalists) also causes one to wonder what the actual underlying motives of Dr. Harris are. Dr. Harris and Maajid Nawaz present themselves as individuals who have understanding of, and insight into, the nature of Islam. But they do not possess such understanding or insight, and the present book: 'Sam Harris and the Future of Ignorance' documents the foregoing claim. 

Click on the book cover above to be taken to the Amazon page which provides further details concerning the purchase of the above book. Or, simply use the following link: