Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama in Cairo

I don't have time to blog on this topic but there are few pieces I'd like to recommend.

First, of course, is my twin's piece at the Huffington Post where he looks at some of the influences that went into the speech. He argues that the speech used a variety of lines that taken in historical and literary context are less unambiguously positive than one might think. I'm tempted to argue that what Obama did amounts massive quote mining, taking many religious quotes simply out of context. Read the piece and be the judge.

There is also been some complaints in the atheist end of the blogosphere that Obama implied in the speech that all Americans believe in God. This strikes me as an opinion worth reading but overall is naive and misguided. Given what he did in this speech and what Obama is setting out to accomplish, I don't think people should seriously have expected any form of inclusion of atheists and agnostics that would not have resulted in backlash from the Islamic world. Obama explicitly mentioned non-believers in his inauguration speech. Be happy with that.

Also, David Horowitz has an interesting piece praising Obama's speech from a neo-conservative perspective. If David Horowitz is praising something Obama did, we can safely assume it was the correct thing to do.

Finally, see also Ed Brayton's piece also taking a very positive stance on the speech.


Shalmo said...

What do you mean there could be no inclusion of atheists/agnostics that would not have resulted in backlash from the muslim world?

The very existence of baathists in the arab world contradicts what you are implying here

The only country that I know of that is openly hostile to atheists is the US; where you hear stories fish guts being dumped on atheist advocates in the streets and so forth.

Jewish Philosopher is the number one basher of atheists on the net. Remind me again which religion he goes by? But I am also assuming you also don't believe all religious Jews by nature are hostile to all atheists; hmmmm!

Joshua said...

Shalmo, you make very good points.

In regard to the Baathists, Baathism makes up for it by being heavily pan-Arab. Moreover, while you are correct that in some ways the US is far more hostile to atheists and agnostics then many other areas, there is a limit to how many different controversial things one can put in a single speech before there's going to be a backlash. But yes, you are correct that I likely overestimated how much of a problem this would have created.

Incidentally, I don't think JP is the "number one basher of atheists on the net." Indeed, he's pretty low down on the list. He happens to be a loud atheist-bashing voice in the religious Jewish end of the blogosphere. But atheists are by no means the only people he bashes. He doesn't like Reform, Conservative or Modern Orthodox Jews who believe in God. Nor does he like scientists in general. And that's just to start. He's more of a generic basher than anything else.

Shalmo said...

Underneath the heading of JP's blog:

"The purpose of this blog is to promote Orthodox Judaism and to critique other ideologies, in particular atheism"

Notice the "in particular atheism" part.

And while we are on the subject, the existence of the Baathists pretty much counters anyone who says that religion is the cause of all violence, when clearly the Baathists have caused more bloodshed than muslim party in that region.

in Islam nationalism or race superiority is seen as "shirk". Baathists countered this by creating a secular worship of all things arab. And the rest is seen in how it has prevented pan-islamic unity proselytized by people like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan or Khomeini in Iran, because when what you wish is pan-arabism then clearly you cannot unite with non-arabs.

From memory pan-arabism/baathism was started by a christian arab and has similarly been sponsored by ceaseless British intervention in arab politics. A shame really.

If the muslims countries really did achieve something similar to the EU, then it would bring forth a modern, egalitarian and tolerant form of islamic revival. And it would also bring a more peaceful resolution with the Jewish state.

then again since I have lost all hope in a two-state solution, for a wide variety of reasons, I believe there will be a one state Judea long before there is a pan-islamic government. Both being key ingredients to a more peaceful planet Earth I believe.

Joshua said...

Primarily good points. I disagree strongly about the one-state two-state issue but the rest I must agree with. You are correct about JP's focus. I would however maintain that he's still just not that prominent. If one wanted to look at genuinely prominent anti-atheists on the internet Ray Comfort is probably far more prominent.

Shalmo said...

Ray Comfort, who btw is a jewish convert to Christianity, is not anti-athiest in the sense that when he talks I don't detect hatred in his tone. He doesn't hate them, what he wants is to counter the new atheist movement that is stealing adherants from Christianity in the US.

JP on the other hand genuinely HATES atheists. That's what I meant.

But for the record, since Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett are upfront and honest about their hatred for theists and religion, I think it balances out. In truth I feel there more bigotry on the atheist side of the fence, but that's just me.

Joshua said...

Interesting, I didn't know Ray was Jewish. I think you may be confusing degrees of virulence here. JP is pretty virulent but I'm not sure the actual hatred level of Ray is substantially lower (I don't know a precise way to measure this).

I don't in any event think that Dawkins et al. hate theists. They might hate religion but that's a different claim and in any event I'd be strongly inclined to argue that in the cases of both Dawkins and Dennett they definitely do not hate religion. I don't think one can read Breaking the Spell and easily come away thinking that Dennett hates religion.

Shalmo said...

Dennet is questionable, I will agree with you there

But with Dawkins there is no doubt. He has even told his number one critic, Alistar McGrath to "fuck off" lol.

Hitchens in his last debate with Rabbi Schmuley was upfront that he hates religions and the theists who advocate it

Harris I believe is in the same club, though clearly no where near as obvious as the others.

Though over all I find their arguments obtuse.

All they do is rehash arguments used by better atheists such as Betrand Russell. If you can refute him, then you can refute them.

Shalmo said...

I agree with some things Hitchens and the others advocate such as how evil the christian doctrine of "non-resistance to evil" and the deranged idea that we should love our enemies is. Or the repeated horror stories on slaughter of every other semitic tribe (children, women and animals included) in the Torah.

On the other hand their I find many of their criticisms of Islam to be completely off base. Likely because they haven't spent enough time familiarizing themselves with it since its not a major power here in the West.

For instance in the very first few pages of "Letter to a Christian Nation" Harris mocks Christians by saying that muslims believe they are going to Hell, apparently as an argument against Hell altogether. BUT..... Muslims don't believe that. They don't believe non-adherants go to Hell.

If he gets something so basic wrong, then how can anyone take the rest of his criticism of the religion seriously.

As Michael Novak in National Review so eloquently puts it; "the letter that Harris claims is intended for a Christian nation is in fact wholly uninterested in Christianity on any level, is hugely ignorant, and essentially represents his own love letter to himself, on account of his being superior to the stupid citizens among whom he lives."

Joshua said...

Shalmo, telling someone to fuck off isn't a demonstration of hatred. And it certainly isn't a demonstration of hatred of something as large scale as religion as a whole. I certainly don't think that strongly disliking McGrath makes one automatically hate religion. McGrath is an idiot whose scholarship is at times so sloppy one might think he was a lazy highschool student.

I'd be very curious as to what precisely Hitchens said. Without seeing it, I can't reasonably comment.

Regarding, Harris and the Islam matter. While most Muslims do not believe in eternal hell for non-believers, it isn't an uncommon view. Harun Yahya for example has made statements to that effect and various more extreme groups do the same thing. The essential point being made only requires a large number of people to believe it.

I also strongly disagree with your statement that since he gets one criticism wrong one should not take what else he has to say seriously. That's an argument for being very careful about any claims he makes about factual issues. (I haven't read Letter to a Christian Nation so I can't comment on it in any level of detail).

Regarding the Bertran Russell issue: Yes, many of their arguments are rehashes of prior arguments. But that's due in part to those arguments having just as much validity. They need to be updated for a modern time and rephrased for a modern era. Dawkins at least is quite open about this.

I'd also be inclined to argue that some (although by no means all) of these arguments are informed by better understanding of science that we did not have in Russell's day.

Shalmo said...

I was using the fuck off example as an elaboration of Dawkins contempt. Regardless this is a very moot point.

About the muslim view of Hell. I think one point that needs to be made is that Harun Yahya is not a scholar, he isn't a scientist either. What he is is a cult leader, who knows how to make good money just like John Haggee and so forth.

He by no means represents the orthodox interpretation of Islam and all other muslims have disowned for his weak knowledge of fiqh related issues.

What islamic theology says is that simply put humans do not know who goes to Hell and who goes to Heaven. You can be a believer in all the fundamentals of Islam and still go to Hell. Its not a black and white issue at all.

Finally the islamic Hell is eternal seperation from God via annihilation of the soul, sorta like non-existence or anti-matter. Not fire, demons and brimstone which the christian version seems to espouse.

Harris by no means is speaking of orthodoxy here. If he meant deviant fringes like Harun Yahya, then he should have elaborated on the matter. His intentions are obvious.

However my disregard for Harris doesn't just come from this one example. His recent debate with Reza Aslan further professes his ignorance and even Aslan told him in the debate that he doesn't have even elementary knowledge on the religion he is criticizing.

Again I am all for criticizing and questioning religion, but I am also equally against intellectual dishonesty and shaddy scholarship

Lautreamont said...

I don't know who Shalmo is but his points were at least mildly cogent until he began addressing Sam Harris and his conversation with Rezia Aslan. Anyone can watch this very compelling meeting of minds on youtube but, indeed, Shalmo is correct in saying that Azlan replied to Harris with the witty retort that he knows nothing about Islam but he did so in the face of almost overwhelming facts and figures proving Harris' point to be true.

Aslan had to revert to the 'you don't know what you are talking about' tactic because, as anyone can see from watching this video, he hadn't researched social pew polls in Muslim nations to the extent which Harris had. Furthermore, Aslan went on to say that (I am paraphrasing) it doesn't matter what a religion says in its holy books but it is the way in which a society interprets them that is important. And what is insane is that it was this VERY POINT that Harris had been addressing not only in his illumination of polls but in his simple mentioning of current events. Aslan says, indeed, "religion doesn't exist in a vacuum" yet Harris is speaking only of what occurs outside this vacuum. Harris, in fact, doesn't even quote the Koran a single time in the debate(which would have given him yet more ammunition against the obviously stressed Aslan.)

Shalmo, if you think "fuck off" is a greater insult than to condemn a soul to "anti-matter" than I understand your thinking Atheists are somehow "hateful," although I think even a five year old could refute your logic. I am afraid to say that Sam Harris, Dawkins, et all are simply warriors of facts, not even warriors of atheism. They simply demand, as Harris so elegantly put it, "evidence for that which they believe in." Shady scholarship, while perhaps apparent in some of Harris' arguments, is far more widespread when a person's scholarship ends at the final page of their holy book.

Joshua said...

Dammit, now I had to spend an hour watching the Aslan-Harris debate. See what you made me do.

After watching this I'm pretty inclined to agree that Harris seems to have a better understanding of the facts on the ground especially in regards to the Pew studies. Aslan seems to engage in what is one of the most annoying things one sees from theological defenders in many different religions. Some critic will make a point based on what the vast majority of believers believe or what a substantial fraction of believers believe and then the response will be "oh, but look, you aren't responding to all our ivory tower people who have engaged in all this word play to avoid that conclusion so you must be ignorant." That's what seems to be happening at least in part here. I think that Aslan does however get in a fair number of decent punches in. If this were a wrestling match, the result would go to Harris on points but not a pin.

Shalmo said...


"Aslan had to revert to the 'you don't know what you are talking about' tactic because, as anyone can see from watching this video, he hadn't researched social pew polls in Muslim nations to the extent which Harris had."

What does that have to do with anything?

"Harris, in fact, doesn't even quote the Koran a single time in the debate(which would have given him yet more ammunition against the obviously stressed Aslan.)"

Harris didn't quote the Quran because he was smart enough to know that the usual taking verses out of context does not work with those who are learned in their scriptures

FYI it takes 20 years of study to be considered an authority in the Quran. Harris and the others at best have read an english translation which doesn't do much of anything.

"Shalmo, if you think "fuck off" is a greater insult than to condemn a soul to "anti-matter" than I understand your thinking Atheists are somehow "hateful," although I think even a five year old could refute your logic."

And this is exactly why I am not going to have a discussion with you sir.

I do not appreciate having words I never uttered being attributed to me. I never said atheists, much less all atheists, are hateful. Thus there is nothing to refute. I made specific comments to the men leading the New Atheist movement.

And your point is even more a bust since as an atheist you yourself don't believe in an afterlife anyway. So why would you be bothered by non-existence of the soul?

"I am afraid to say that Sam Harris, Dawkins, et all are simply warriors of facts, not even warriors of atheism."

In his recent interview with Yusuf Al Kattab, a jewish convert to Islam, Dawkins tried to use the man to further show the world just how horrible religion is and how evil it makes people.

Sadly when the rest of the world got to hear Yusuf's side of the story, it turns out Dawkins deceitfully edited the interview and removed the parts where Yusuf said he is against killing civilians in Israel and favors only defensive resistance to Israel.

There are similar examples of such falsehood all over the net.

Here's some more:

Dawkins' Twisted View Of Luther (

A mere two-minute google can reveal various other falsehoods advocated by these men.

warriors of truth my ass. If they had truth on their side they wouldn't have to lie so much.

"They simply demand, as Harris so elegantly put it, "evidence for that which they believe in." Shady scholarship, while perhaps apparent in some of Harris' arguments, is far more widespread when a person's scholarship ends at the final page of their holy book."

As the Quran says "to you your creed, and to my mine"

Good day!

Shalmo said...


I totally disagree but I just want to get one small issue out of the way.

Men like Hitchens, Dawkin, Harris, Dennet and others like them demonstrate utter ignorance of Islamic jurisprudence, and arrogance in thinking that by reading some English translation of the Quran and posting on forum boards they're somehow qualified to out of hand dismiss the vast and thorough tradition the Shari`a represents. Though the sets of corporal punishments are a part of our Laws and are indeed important, not to be trivialized, still they form a (relative to the size of the whole) small part of the total framework in terms of space on paper, and in terms of the time spent on those sections in the formal study of the law. Take for instance the hadith collection, Wasa'il ash-Shi`a, thirty thick volumes of hadith, the majority of them having to do with Shari`a. Out of that, about three volumes have to do with various aspects of criminal law, including issues of judgment, witnesses, punishments, compensations, and so forth. Again, this is important, but to zero in on this thinking that's all that Islamic law is about (and even there, only concentrating on the punishment minus all the rest (and even there, not really knowing the full details of how the punishments work)) is deeply erroneous. Or take a work of jurisprudence such as Jawahir al-Kalam by Shaykh Najafi, 43 volumes. Out of that, about the last 4 volumes deal with the various issues of criminal law. So what do you think the other 39 volumes are talking about?

I think this is the point Aslan was trying to get across to Harris.

Joshua said...

Shalmo, you seem to be missing the primary point that Lautremont was making in regards to Harris and knowledge about Islam. It might help if I stated it in terms of a different religion, let's say Charedi Judaism.

Imagine the following dialogue:

Person A: The Charedim have serious problems. There religion is ridiculous. It fails to acknowledge basic history of how Judaism has changed. Most charedim even have these ridiculous ideas about how the Torah has never changed even though sephardim and askenazim don't even have the same text. Charedim are more often than not young earth creationists who are in general profoundly ignorant of science. Many charedim believe that Jews are inherently superior to non-Jews and that men are superior to women.

Person B: But look! There's all this detailed stuff out there. You can't say that. You haven't studied the Talmud in detail or the Shulchan Aruch. And you haven't looked at the writing of Maimonides or looked at the deep thoughts of Soloveitchik. You sir, are an ignoramus. And look, that thing about Jews and non-Jews is only a tiny bit of doctrine as is that thing about men and women. You're taking everything out of context. You are ignorant of halachic jurisprudence and the deep thoughts and discussions that have gone into this.

Lautreamont said...

Haha I see shalmo is also a fan of the 'you don't know what you are talking about' tactic, though he seems to add a dab of hysterical anger. And I assure you, I know far too little to be an atheist or a theist at this point in my life. At Columbia I listen to so many amazingly intelligent theological professors as well as more anti-religious philosophers I find it hard to completely side with either.

Good Day!!

And thank you josh, you are a sex machine.

Shalmo said...

Joshua I understand what you are saying, and thank you for clarifying the matter.

However I stand by what I said. Harris, contrary to what you two are saying, is quite upfront that Islam the religion itself is the problem

I find it curious how in the End of Faith he is uncompromising in his assessment and criticism of Islam, which Harris describes as being a "cult of death." He infers a clear link between Islamic teaching and terrorist atrocities such as 9/11, something which he backs up with five pages of quotations from the Koran, all extolling the use of violence. Here he also presents the Pew Research data (the reliability of which I question), showing that significant percentages of Muslims worldwide would justify suicide bombing as a legitimate tactic.

Why did he not use those same passages from the Quran and the Sunnah against Aslan in his debate? Its easy to write a book, its another matter entirely to be able to defend ideas in it. Harris stuck the Pew Research data and totally avoided discussing those passages he uses in his book.

And he is quite clear that the religion itself is the problem. Are there problems in muslim countries, yes there are. Does Harris offer any reasonable solutions to those problems, no he doesn't.

Madeleine Bunting, writing in The Guardian, quotes Harris as saying "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." Bunting comments, "[t]his sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition."

In May 2006, Harris came under sustained attack in a featured article by Meera Nanda for New Humanist, in which she claimed that his analysis of religious extremism was flawed, and suggested that he was criticizing religion "for what seems to be his real goal: a defense, nay, a celebration of Harris' own Dzogchen Buddhist and Advaita Vedantic Hindu spirituality."

And that in my humble opinion is exactly what this man is doing. He criticizes other religions and wishes to replace them with his own skewed interpretations of eastern philosophies. How different is this than an evangelical who tells everybody they are going to Hell so they better believe what he believes?

If you are really interested in the matter then try reading "Sam Harris and the End of Faith: A Muslim's Critical Response" by Bill Whitehouse

Anonymous said...

Sam Harris and the End of Faith: A Muslim's Critical Response is a very good book for people who truly want to gain an understanding of these issues.