The Cenk Uygur Interview with Sam Harris : Why Reasoned Debate is Important for Atheism

Recently Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks had Sam Harris on for a marathon 3-hour interview. This interview comes on the heels not only of the Maher/Harris controversy, but also appearances by Reza Aslan and CJ Werleman on The Young Turks. Werleman appeared on a panel discussion where he compared Harris to Sarah Palin, and called him dangerous because of a passage in his book “The End of Faith” regarding nuclear first strike and Radical Muslims.Werleman, who recently was caught plagiarizing in his articles (I speak about that on this post), is known for his polemics, and is not shy about saying so, but he seems to purposely misunderstand Harris’ meaning on this particular point. Reza Aslan did an interview with Cenk where he denigrates Harris as just a blogger sitting in front of a television, and thus can not possible understand the complexities of religion, especially Islam. Sam Harris is not a religious scholar, true enough, but he does have a B.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, which I personally think qualifies him more to speak about crazy dogmatic bullshit that people come up with than does Reza’s questionable credentials (which are exposed ably on the Friendly Atheist blog here.) Of course Reza also injected himself into the controversy by going on CNN and playing the role as official Apologist for Islam (my thoughts on that here). While many lauded him for his “smackdown” of Maher and Harris, there were also plenty of others who called him out on his misrepresentation of facts, as well as just outright wrong information (A good example of these refutations is here.)

The interview itself was definitely interesting, and even at three hours, did not ever drag, although I will admit it took me two sittings to watch the entire interview, but that’s just due to my busy schedule. I thought Sam did well in explaining his position in a thoughtful, rational way. I have always thought he was a bit thin-skinned and thus easily offended, a conclusion I came to while following the tiff between him and Glenn Greenwald over a year ago, but I think perhaps some of his criticisms are justified. One point on the mechanics of the interview which I noticed, and which frankly pissed me off, was Cenk’s frequent interruptions while Sam was trying to make a point. If you watch his interview with Reza Aslan, you will notice that Cenk allows him to go on at length with nary a peep. Cenk does not seem to extend the same courtesy to Sam, cutting in on several occasions. Another point is that while Cenk came across as rather brash, often jumping to conclusions before Sam could finish his point, Sam came off as very thoughtful and deliberate, always seeming to think through every point he makes and being careful to use the proper words to convey whatever point he was trying to make.

I won’t go into a full summary : you can watch it for yourself here and come to your own conclusions. I for one think Sam did an excellent job in putting forth his arguments and “clearing the air” in regards to his views on Islam and extremism. Cenk did an adequate job as the interviewer, but I think he tried to inject himself too much into the dialogue, and Sam was perhaps too timid in asserting himself when it was necessary. All in all though, I thought this interview was a win for expressing some of the views and ideas behind Atheism, and getting those ideas out to a wider audience. And Sam Harris is as good a spokesman as could be asked for.

The Fear of Islamophobia, and the Stifling of Debate

I recently saw an interview on CNN with Reza Aslan, the Islamic scholar and author, whose most recent work is “Zealot”, which is basically a biography of Jesus (who I don’t think even existed, but that’s another story). He was brought on to comment on the recent comments made by Bill Maher on his end-of-show monologue in the most recent episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher” (You can see both the relevant clip and interview with Aslan here). Mr. Aslan than proceeds to call Maher’s comments “facile”, and goes on to say that we shouldn’t paint all Muslims with a broad stroke; that only a small percentage are extremists, and also calls critics of Islam “bigots”.

Of course, it goes without saying that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving moderates who abhor the sort of acts of barbarity done in the name of their religion. The same is true for any religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. Most humans hate just want to live out their lives in relative obscurity, regardless of religion (or lack thereof).

Let me say also that while I love watching Maher and often agree and even find humorous most of what he says, he can often generalize and generally be an arrogant prick.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily wrong. And this where I have issue with Mr. Aslan. Or, more specifically, some comments he made regarding female genital mutilation and the treatment of women in general in most Muslim countries.

He states:

I mean, the argument about the female genital mutilation being an Islamic problem is a perfect example of that. It’s not an Islamic problem. It’s an African problem.


It’s a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.

While those statistics are correct for Eritrea and Ethiopia, he fails to mention that of  the top 10 countries on the UNICEF list for FGM, nine of them are majority Muslim countries. And to say nowhere else but Central Africa is it a problem, is just patently false: Number four on that list is Egypt, which is Northern Africa.

He also says we should not judge Saudi Arabia and Iran, which everyone would agree were extremist in their interpretation of Islam, to what he considers more moderate countries such as Indonesia and Turkey, and this is true: every nation is responsible for its own actions. Saudi Arabia and Iran, however, use Islam to justify their oppressive laws, with punishments including stoning and beheading, as well the chronic oppression of women. These laws exist in other Muslim nations as well, not just the two “extremist” states.

As not only an atheist, but also an anti-theist, I believe that religion is one of the most destructive forces in history. Islam is not the only religion guilty of horrible crimes, certainly: Christianity has a hold on the far-right in the U.S., who want to establish it as a the State religion, and it’s also used to justify bombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors who perform those abortions. But to pretend Islam is not at least partly responsible for the actions of these Muslim extremists is ignoring the facts, and calling anyone who presumes to question the role of Islam as a motivation for these actions “bigots” only serves to stifle debate, and this is an issue that very much needs to be discussed.