Sam Harris has spoken and written extensively on the subject of Islam. He has made numerous important points on the problems associated with religious fundamentalism and lack of human rights in the Middle East. He is not afraid to call out serious human rights abuses and the ideological motivation behind them. Distinctions must be made between ideological radicalism of a particular few and the religious belief of millions. With that being said, however, one cannot separate Islamism from Islam. One is a violent and extremist subset of the other. Sam Harris is largely correct in his critiques of Islam as well as Islamism. His perspective is not without its limits — his post-Enlightenment rationalism distorts his perception of the metaphysical substructure of societies. He seems unwilling to admit the importance of religious belief systems in the building of societies. Moreover, his promotion of the Scientific Revolution while at the same time dismissing the Islamic Golden Age is terribly inconsistent. While, today, Islam is far behind Christianity in terms of human rights and scientific innovation, a thousand years ago the reverse was true.
In this article, I will look at several specific claims Sam Harris makes and assess the validity of those claims. This I will do by comparing and contrasting his approach to Islam and Christianity. I will also make reference to the articulation of belief structures and how they developed as articulated by Jordan Peterson in his Maps of Meaning (1999). While one can argue about whether or not the specific religion he analyzes is the best approach (I, personally, disagree with Peterson’s emphasis on Christianity as foundational to the West), the lens of analysis (Jungian psychological approach informed by important innovations in biology, anthropology, and history) seems to be not only correct but the most clear and comprehensive approach to the human perspective and how we navigate the world.
Christianity and Islam are the offspring, so to speak, of Judaism. All three of these Abrahamic faiths are Middle Eastern in origin and all have gained prominence through interaction with the West. The metaphysical foundation of Western Civilization is grounded in the various modes of worship (often termed ‘Pagan’) present in Greece, Rome, Germanic-Norse societies, Slavic societies, and the Celtic world. It is not the ‘marriage of Athens and Jerusalem’ which stands at the foundation of the West, it is the various modes of polytheism and philosophical speculation. While these Pagan religions were grounded in tradition and societal norms, the religions of Christianity and Islam aim toward universalism, though they are more of a ‘pangloss’ in this sense. Christianity adopted various elements of Roman culture as well as that of others (consider the days of the week: Wednesday is Woden’s Day, Thursday is Thor’s Day, Friday is Frigg’s Day). Islam spread faster than Christianity and its founder was a warlord. While Christianity mired in the medieval mud of the Dark Ages, the Islamic World was a center of abstract speculation and great advances in medicine. The Islamic Golden Age was glorious, though should not be overly idealized. Critique of the prophet Mohammad was not allowed and there were plenty of despotic rulers abusing their power. Moreover, the thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age were concerned more with abstract speculation than with practical application. The story of Islam since that golden age, however, is quite troubled.
“The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a dangerous fantasy — and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer. It now appears to be a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognize why this is so — it is so because the Muslim world is utterly deranged by its religious tribalism. In confronting the religious literalism and ignorance of the Muslim world, we must appreciate how terrifyingly isolated Muslims have become in intellectual terms.” -Sam Harris
Sam Harris is largely on point here. I would juxtapose his reference of tribalism in the Islamic world with the centuries of religious warfare in Early Modern Europe, culminating with the deadly Thirty Years’ War. The European Enlightenment was born out of this apocalyptic conflict which saw the worse religious conflict among Christians in European history. Between 1618 and 1648, about 8,000,000 died as a result of the war. The resulting Treaty of Westphalia created a peace in which Catholic and Protestant had to essentially agree to disagree. It should be noted that this toleration was based in princely power and not individual religious freedom — that came later. The core successes of the Enlightenment, however, cannot be properly understood without a deep understanding of the context in which that exploration of human reason emerged (the endless violence of religious warfare which had plagued Europe since the Reformation.
Reform is needed is Islamic societies but it must be reform from within. We in the West can and should focus on our successful example, not intervene militarily in these never-ending conflicts. Those who hold differing views of Islam who also happen to be Muslim will do far more for advancing the cause of reform (as there is at least some very basic connection) than any meddling from a Western country.
Sam Harris is more or less right on the last portion of this quote, though I might push back a little on his application of associating religious literalism and ignorance to the entire Muslim world. The forces of religious fundamentalism and widespread violence of particular ideologies have stultified the Islamic world in recent decades. The glories of the Islamic Golden Age were based in a study of the great Pagan writers of antiquity, most notably Plato and Aristotle (this is also what contributed to the cultural flourishing of Europe during the Renaissance). Great emphasis was placed on the idea of seeking out knowledge across the known world. Such days are long gone.
Sam Harris also goes farther than most Western feminists in criticizing the forced covering of Women in the Middle East. The lack of criticism toward truly misogynistic societies, such as Saudi Arabia, among prominent feminists on the left is staggering in one sense, not so much in another. I would maintain the reason for this lack of criticism is that too much of what passes for ‘feminism’ nowadays is a mix of mere virtue-signalling and young people simply being in a rebellious phase where the focus of their ire is not based in careful analysis of the facts but, instead, grounded in getting back at their parents or just parroting what others argue.
When accused of ‘Islamophobia’ (a nonsense word and a charge meant to discredit without engaging in argumentation), Sam Harris responded by pointing out that violence committed by Islamists is violence people justified by pointing to the religion of Islam itself.
“That’s what is so crazy about this Islamophobia charge. The people who commit the worse offenses — the honor killers, the suicide bombers, the Taliban gunman who attempted to murder Malala Yousafzai — are absolutely clear about their motives and articulate them at every opportunity. They are motivated by Islam. Yes, other religions have problematic doctrines. We can even concede that the Old Testament is the most barbaric scripture of them all. But Christians and Jews don’t tend to take the worst of its passages seriously, for reasons that can be explained both by the centuries during which these Western faiths have been weathered by science and secularism and by crucial elements of their own theology. Most important, in my view, is the fact that Christianity and Judaism do not have clear doctrines of jihad, nor do they promise, ad nauseam, that martyrs go straight to Paradise. Islam is truly unique in this respect, which helps explain the fanaticism and violence we see throughout the Muslim world. Of course, your focus has been on the plight of women and girls under Islam, many millions of whom live in conditions that are antithetical to the most basic human happiness, as you know all too well. And the rationale for their oppression is drawn directly from scripture.” -Sam Harris
Sam Harris’s quote about succeeds in pointing out the violence of radical religious fundamentalists who cite Islamic doctrines to support their views and actions. The quote, does however, reveal the more problematic side of Sam Harris’s views — he sees religious and scientific/secular views as fundamentally different. Psychologist Jordan Peterson has challenged him on this. Peterson takes a Jungian-inspired psychological interpretation of the development of human rights and rationality, one based in the notion that the views of the Enlightenment are predicated on the religious substructure upon which they are built. Additionally, Peterson argues that the scientific revolution owes much to the preceding holistic perspective held by alchemists and astrologers. Isaac Newton was an alchemist, as was Robert Boyle. Much as one would like to follow Sam Harris in his firm belief in human reason, his perspective is more of an elaborate back-formation in which one standing in the twenty-first century can impose static categories (such as what is really scientific knowledge and what is ‘bunk’) onto past thinkers without much regard for the complexities of their world and their beliefs.
Jordan Peterson has articulated a much clearer point of view as to why people believe what they believe, how metaphysical perspectives emerged, and what value the various symbols and rituals have. He also presents a more nuanced approach to Biblical stories. While I would maintain that the true value in his interpretation is in the lens of analysis rather than that which he is analyzing, the compilation of stories known as the Old Testament center on elements of the human condition which existed far before and continue to this day. Yes, there are dogmatic elements and rigid interpretations but these alone should not be used to discredit as much as possible.
“To know that the Biblical stories have a phenomenological truth is really worth knowing because the poor fundamentalists, they’re trying to cling to their moral structure and I understand why, because it does organize their societies and it organizes their psyches so they’ve got something to cling to. But they don’t have a very sophisticated idea of the complexity of the idea of what constitutes truth, and they try to gerrymander the Biblical stories into the domain of scientific theory, promoting Creationism for example as an alternative scientific theory. That just isn’t going to go anywhere, because the people who wrote these damn stories weren’t scientists to begin with. There weren’t any scientists back then. There’s hardly any scientists now! Really, it’s hard to think scientifically. Even scientists don’t think scientifically outside the lab, and hardly even when they’re in the lab. You’ve got to get peer reviewed and criticized. It’s hard to think scientifically. So however the people who wrote these stories thought was more like dramatists think, like Shakespeare thought. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t truth in it, it just means you have to be a little more sophisticated about your ideas about truth. And that’s okay. There are truths to live by. Okay fine, then we need to figure out what those are because we need to live and maybe not to suffer so much. And so if you know what the Bible stories in general are trying to represent is the lived experience of conscious individuals, like the structure of the lived experience of conscious individuals, then that opens up the possibility of a whole different realm of understanding and eliminates the contradiction that’s been painful for people between the objective world and the claims of religious stories. -Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson clearly has a more nuanced and well-informed position about the historical development of belief systems and the scientific method than does Sam Harris. Harris understands the importance of secular values, despite a problematic interpretation of how those values actually emerged over time. Harris also understands the importance of opposing religious fundamentalism when it rears its ugly head. I also give Sam Harris tremendous credit for calling out human rights abuses in Islamic societies, even when people on the fringes of the left try to silence him with the nonsense charge of ‘islamophobia.’ He also also right to point to a connection between radical ideologues and the religion that inspires their acts of terror. He is, however, wrong to dismiss the Islamic Golden Age. In short, Sam Harris is right and wrong about Islam.