Andrew Brown Gets Sam Harris Completely Wrong

Paul Fidalgo's picture

I opted not to deal with Andrew Brown's recent incoherent diatribe against the New Atheists on the Guardian's website, mainly for its messy impenetrability and my own sense that life is just too short.

Today, though, Brown posts again to respond to criticisms of the first posting, particularly the charge that he intentionally leaves out the philosophers of the bunch, namely Daniel Dennett (whom he admits he loathes and therefore can't write about objectively) and Sam Harris.

The crime? See for yourself:

Harris has advocated the systematic use of torture; and has described religious toleration as "one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss". "Read Sam Harris and wake up" urges Richard Dawkins on the front of my paperback copy. I did, and I have.

I don't want to believe that Dawkins or Dennett are convinced by Harris' arguments for torture or against freedom of belief. I think it would be a beneficial use of their position as public intellectuals if they were to explain why he is wrong. But if ever, hypothetically, I were forced to the choice I would rather stand with a creationist who is absolutely opposed to torture than with a scientist who believes it's all right and even necessary when we do it. The creationist in this analogy is merely wrong. The scientist is wicked.

That's right, folks! Sam Harris loves torture! He's like a skeptical Dick Cheney!

But Brown must know this is bullpucky. He links to the very passage in Harris's book to which he alludes, and it is obvious to the dullest of minds that Harris is dealing with the moral tolerances we as a culture have for various forms of violence. Again, see for yourself here at Google Books. If you actually read past the first few paragraphs, which I can only assume Brown has not done, you would reach this excerpt (emphasis mine):

Because I believe the account offered above is basically sound, I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. Paradoxically, this equivalence has not made the practice of torture seem any more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust, for most readers.

Harris's grander point is to reveal an ethical inconsistency: Americans seem to have little problem with the idea that bombing a rogue enemy state may cause collateral damage (loss of innocent civilian life on a wide scale), but at the same time torturing an admitted member of Al Qaeda as a bomb is about to go off is unacceptable. Harris asks us to look critically at what kinds of atrocities we think are ethically permissible, and why we feel the way we do. It is not Harris's endorsement of a broad policy of inhumanity, but rather a call to examine what exactly we think is and is not humane.

But Andrew Brown wants to beat up on an already-maligned minority, and what better way than to take its luminaries, lift parts of their books out of context (as many Obama opponents did when trying to prove his Muslim-ness in shady, dishonest, hateful e-mails), and demean all atheists by inventing these scary characters that exist, truly, only in his own mind. Andrew Brown should, indeed, actually read Sam Harris, and then please, wake up.

Or perhaps he should wake up first. Maybe then he'd read what the book actually says.

Update: Brown has apparently changed the title of his post from "Why I Left the Philosophers out of the New Atheism" to simply "Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett," which is particularly ironic, because I originally used the word "slander" in this post's title, and then immediately thought better of it. Also possibly of interest, Brown referred to someone in the comments section as "stupid," and then removed the comment after complaints. He then praised himself for removing it, and then removed his own self-praising comment. Andrew needs a nap.

[Cross-posted at Bloc Raisonneur]

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Kentucky Boy's picture

Quote mining

Its a favorite tactic of creationists to take out of context quotes of people like Stephen Jay Gould to make it look like that scientists are admitting to significant problems for evolutionary theory. Hardly surprising that christians would engage in the same tactic against atheists to tell lies for Jesus.

frankmoorman's picture

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

It amuses me to hear christians express shock, shock! at the existence of torture, since it was christianity that brought torture to such rarefied heights during the inquistion and at other points in its history. And before we allow dismissal of this history as a catholic thing, let's remember the Salem witch trials and other expressions of protestant zeal that valued rigid belief over the sanctity of human life. "Yes, your honor, I did bomb the abortion clinic and killed the doctor, but I didn't torture him. God didn't tell me to do that, and I only do what god tells me to do."


Frank Moorman, skeptic

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