Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: Interview with Simon Frankel Pratt, Part 1
Simon Frankel Pratt recently received a Masters of Arts in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and is currently embarking on a PhD at the University of Toronto this September. He gained my BA at Simon-Fraser University, in international studies and Middle East history, and has lived, studied, and conducted research in Israel for extended periods. He is a co-founders of ‘SFU Skeptics’, a club devoted to sceptical thinking and humanist activism. His excellent blog can be found here.
Skepoet: I came across your work by recommendation from a friend who said you were a necessary correction to a lot of the vulgar anti-Islamism and misreadings of terrorism in the Skeptic’s community,
particularly that done by Sam Harris. What do you think the key problems are there with a lot of the assertions one sees about terrorism from say Pat Condell or Sam Harris?
Simon Pratt: So the Skeptics are a fairly well informed bunch when it comes to international goings-on. They – we – read the news and enjoy discussing events of significant political or human importance taking place in the Middle East or in Europe, and so-on. And so, of course, Skeptics read about stuff which reasonably carries the label ‘terrorism’. It is the interest of the Skeptics to address and combat bad critical thinking and its harmful consequences, particularly as an apparent consequences of religious doctrine. Terrorism, as we encounter it, thus seems to be the perfect exemplar of flawed, religious beliefs leading to terribly harmful consequences. And it has escaped no-one’s notice that most of that stuff we call terrorism, insofar as it is reported in our mainstream media, is done by Muslims, and often justified in explicitly Islamic language. This is the context within which we should understand the perspectives of intellectual leaders of the Skeptics community such as Sam Harris.
The Sam Harris School (SHS), in which I think we can include Pat Condell along with quite a few other Skeptics, seems to hold the following views on terrorism:
1. Terrorism is caused by extremist, irrational beliefs, usually of a religious character.
2. Islamic scripture and doctrine is essentially conducive to terrorism, to a greater degree than other religion’s texts and doctrines; a moderate Muslim is simply not a very pious Muslim, and is not practicing their own faith in a committed way.
3. Islam as its widely practiced today is particularly conducive to terrorism, with adherents comprising ‘death cults’ and espousing violent cultural chauvinism.
4. Terrorists, by virtue of their extremism and commitment to irrational religious doctrines, cannot be reasoned or bargain with, and should be dealt with via hawikish counterterrorism policies.
All of these views are undermined, to varying but generally substantial degrees, by the history and social science scholarship on terrorism, extremism, religious fundamentalism, and the intersections between ideology and violence. They are undermined in ways that should be understandable to anyone, and their flaws should be apparent to more than just experts in the field.
I will explain how this is the case.
1. There is a robust debate amongst experts as to the causes of terrorism, but that debate has, almost comprehensively, taken it as a given that relevant factors include political freedom, economic development, social structure, government effectiveness, and human security. For at least three decades, scholars on terrorism have considered both ‘underlying’ and ‘proximate’ causes, and specified a relationship between background forces that make terrorism more likely, and ‘triggers’ which push a person or a community into using terrorism. Now, of course these factors influence one-another in complex ways, and the religious or ideological beliefs held by members of a society both influence and are influenced by all these other things. Notably, though perhaps largely as a result of methodological concerns and as a legacy of behaviourism, religion is treated by many experts as epiphenomenal or as an intermediate factor which is caused by other things and serves only to enable immediate moral justification for action. It isn’t often assigned a causal role at all. While I won’t argue endorse this position, I will say that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that our beliefs concerning legitimate targets and forms of violence, and on tolerance of difference within our community, are strongly shaped by precisely those material and structural forces I previously named. This brings me to number two.
2. Islam isn’t a thing. While there is undeniably bellicose language within Islamic texts, the meaning of those texts is determined solely through human interpretation. Why do so, so many Skeptics seem not to realise this? Some argue that certain kinds of statements terms are harder to interpret in a way that supports liberal values, and are more likely to lead to chauvinism or violence, but there are so many examples of even the most bloodthirsty or misogynist of biblical passages being ‘contextualised away’ by Christians here in North America and the UK which should be immediately available to recall. Many skeptics tend to look upon this process of contextualisation with contempt, noting that these passages are plainly awful and that
theological gymnastics are a pathetic attempt to deny the obvious evil of the dogma in question. Other Skeptics argue for some kind of exceptionalism, suggesting that Christianity has a liberal tradition
which Islam lacks, perhaps because Islam is hundreds of years younger and just hasn’t had its reformation yet. Well, the first argument is not only narrow-minded but ironic: Skeptics who see biblical literalism as more sound or apt are engaging in amateur theology of their own, and in the process are endorsing the notion that there are certain interpretations of religious texts which are more authoritative or accurate. I think this happens because we come from a tradition in which texts contain fairly clear arguments, penned by philosophers who make full use of modern language to ensure that their ideas are as unequivocal as possible precisely because they are committed to the kind of analytic reason which serves as the foundation to the Skeptics’ ideology. As for the second argument…
3. There are many examples of Muslim groups whose message appears very liberal and tolerant, as well as very pious.There are groups such as Imaan or al-Faitha, which campaign for greater acceptance for LGBT
persons within Muslim communities on the basis of extensive theological argument. There are political parties such as Hizb al-Wasat, whose platform endorses liberal democracy of a type quite similar to what we enjoy here, in religious langauge and with reference to religious norms and principles. I published an article last year on Islamic norms and liberal democracy, as it happens. Anyway, the point is that while there is undoubtedly a powerful, global conservative movement in Islam, and while most Muslim communities in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East – and their young diasporas in Europe – would not be what I’d call liberal, this does not mean that those Muslims who are liberal are necessarily any worse at being Muslim. Nor does it mean that Islam just hasn’t yet had its reformation. Remember what I wrote earlier about religious beliefs being strongly shaped by material and structural forces? One doesn’t need to spend long comparing the conditions of primarily Muslim countries to Canada, the US, or the UK to see why something other than a failure to reach the requisite theological epoch could be behind Islam’s apparent conservatism. At the same time, one is likely to find greater similarities between Islam and Christianity as its practiced in, say, many African countries, compared to similarities between Christianity there and Christianity here. Again, this is not an argument for crass material determinism – and the powerful conservative religious movements amongst US Christians and British Muslims alike would be two prima facie confounding examples – but for the recognition that belief systems aren’t objects that endure unaffected by the world in which they dwell, exerting causal influences but receiving none from elsewhere.
4. I’ll make this short, since I appear to have rambled and ranted quite a lot. Terrorism is not some kind of extension of religiously driven rage, nor is it the inevitable and cathartic shucking of shackles by the colonised. It is a strategic response, an attempt to connect means to ends in an appropriate and efficient way. WIthout a doubt, individuals committing acts of terrorism believe that the harm they cause is justified, and thus from our perspective they are likely to be quite ‘extreme’ in their beliefs. WIthout a doubt, the moral principles by which those who use terrorism justify their actions are quite often expressed in religious langauge, and makes reference to the grievences – whether legitimate or not – of the colonised and the
oppressed. But if terrorists didn’t think that terrorism would serve their goals, they wouldn’t be terrorists because they wouldn’t use terrorism. We might very reasonably think that the cost of bargaining with groups that hold highly illiberal social goals is too high, but there is no essential reason why we should come to that conclusion. We might decide, after careful consideration of its associated benefits and costs, that hawkish counterterrorism is the best way to go, but that decision should be both contextually contingent and tentative. It may be a tired maxim, but very often, violence begets more violence.
S: So am I to understand that you also think the Robert Pape’s reading is a bit too simplistic? Why do you think the Sam Harris model has such appeal?
S.P.: Could you elabourate a bit more on this? Pape’s reading of what?
As for why Islam is singled out, I would say this is to some extent a product of a poor understanding of Islamic theology and dogma, but mostly the result of only encountering images of illiberal, often violent versions of Islam via the media. People who only see Christianity as its articulated by racist, homophobic, misogynist Deep-South ‘Tea-Party’ types will also come to a different conclusion about Christianity than people who encounter United Church members or Unitarians, or people who toddle down to their low-key local Anglican church for the hymns like my granny does. Of course, just as Horrible Deep South Christianity is real, so too is Violent Islamism. So too is Illiberal Islamism. There is a massive, global, and from my perspective highly awful movement of Muslims whose understanding of their religion leads them to seek things that are anathema to me. If I need to think carefully about how best to differentiate between bad and good Islams, and bad and good Muslims, think how difficult it must be for someone who hasn’t spent the bulk of their academic education studying these things?
So in short, the Sam Harris School is popular because Skeptics don’t really understand religion very well, and in particular they don’t understand Islam very well.
S.: I mean Pape’s reading of terrorism as almost being solely rooted in foreign occupations. Am I mischaracterizing him?
S.F.: Pape argued that suicide bombing was rooted in occupation, but certainly doesn’t seem to have argued that terrorism as a whole is limited to such situations.
S.: Ah yes, but you often see Pape used by left liberals to be generalized about terrorism in general, which would be a vulgarization of Pape, perhaps?
S.F.: I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an example of Pape’s work misinterpreted by lay observers. If you provided me with an example, I could say more, but I infer from this that you’ve seen so-called ‘left liberals’ using Pape to argue that military occupations cause terrorism in general? I’m not hugely familiar with Pape’s work, since his methods don’t really interest me, but that would certainly seem like a very crude and loose reading.
One explanation for these kinds of readings lies, I think, in the discourse on terrorism outside of academia, where rhetorical camps divide into causal arguments. The RIght says ‘they hate us for our freedoms’ while the Left says ‘they hate us for our interference’. Latching on to social science that appears to justify one position over another is understandable, but of course, utterly flawed and simplistic. ‘They’ hate us for both our freedoms and our interference, and other things besides. Of course, the search for and deployment of simple narratives is ubiquitous in public discourse, but terrorism is one of the worst subjects for it.
May I ask where you’re going with this? Your question to me on the appeal of the Sam Harris School within the Skeptic community prompted me to think of some intriguing aspects of the epistemological commitments that lie at the heart of much Skeptic critique or discourse.
S.: I noticed you posited another problematic binary to to Sam Harris’s reading in the end of your answer, and I wanted to see you clarify how you think the term gets misused.
Now to return to the Sam Harris school of thought: do you see this at all related to his claim that we can ignore the is/ought distinction?
S.P.: I don’t think this is related immediately or even necessarily consciously to his attempts to Science away the is/ought distinction by arguing that deep down, we’re all basically Benthamites. But I do think that the popularity of the Sam Harris School derives from the sense that any moral or social system which does not seem predicted upon the kind of subject and set of values typical of Enlightenment liberalism is simply ignorance that can be corrected by education or drone strike, depending. This is consistent with the view that there really can’t be any true debate over what ‘ought’ to be the case and that such debates merely arise from imperfect factual knowledge.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of Enlightenment liberalism. I just think it needs to be understood as historically contingent, and constituted by a set of rules, institutions, and identities that are quite hard to sustain, and which run counter to many of our biases and dispositions as shown in psychological and sociological research.
S.: In your drawing out of the SHM you seemed to imply that perhaps another issue is that Enlightenment view of religion may be a little too simple. Do you think that rationalist reading of religion as mainly a function of beliefs is sound?
S.P.: I absolutely think that a reading of religion as the function of beliefs is insufficient. Enormously so. I
think religion should be understood as a process by which certain ‘sacred’ principles are maintained as central to social life. The propositional content of such principles is, of course, relevant, but I see that content as being largely contingent upon a great many other socio-economic conditions and structures. Really, I think religion is the way that people manage to keep sacred principles despite the speed with which any particular interpretation of those principles becomes obsolete, and the way communities glued together by those principles manage to stay together according to them. Any given piece of doctrine should be understood as an attempt to negotiate a whole host of pressing circumstances while remaining within the roles and norms appropriate to the sacred principles that provide its authority.
To Be Continued.