Response to Alonzo

Hi Alonzo,

I took the trouble of reading your entire article. Thanks for sharing it.

I do not believe you have made a convincing case that Harris is engaged in bigotry in the way he criticizes Islam. 

You draw a comparison to criticism of act-utilitarianism. One act-utilitarian (incorrectly) believes an act of terror promotes utilitarianism. It would be inappropriate to point to this action as a reason to criticize act-utilitarianism as a whole, because “one more thing has to be true before we can legitimately use Jeremy’s act as a criticism of act-utilitarianism. Not only must it be the case that Jeremy was an act-utilitarian and acted for what he thought were act-utilitarian reasons, it must also be the case that Jeremy understanding of the requirements of act-utilitarianism correctly.”

I believe you make several serious mistakes throughout this article, and in the end fail to support your case against Harris.

You are correct that we cannot criticize act-utilitarianism by appealing to someone who claims to adhere to it, but acts in a way inconsistent with it. We would not be criticizing act-utilitarianism by criticizing this person's actions and attributing them to act-utilitarianism. But Harris is not making this move when criticizing Islam. He is moving directly from specific doctrines and beliefs to the acts those doctrines and beliefs motivate. It would be more appropriate to refer to a collected body of works, some of which include phrases like "commit terrorism" and to criticize that body of work to the extent that it induces some of those who read it to commit terrorism. This need not require that everyone who reads the book become a terrorist, or that, if they do not, that they do not count as a believer in the book. This is because belief in the book can be associated with multiple, contradictory sets of beliefs.


This more closely reflects the reality of Islam, which has multiple forms, whereas act-utilitarianism is not defined with respect to a book which could be interpreted different ways, but only in terms of its formal content, abstracted from a given text. I believe this leads you to make serious errors when comparing utilitarianism/atheism and Islam. Islam differs in important ways from act utilitarianism and atheism, in that it is compatible with multiple, mutually exclusive worldviews. As such, criticism of "Islam" in the way Harris deploys it is best understood as shorthand for criticism of particular literal interpretations of texts/traditions, and adherence to and acting on specific doctrines and beliefs. Even if Harris believes these beliefs are the most plausible and intellectually defensible interpretations of the text, it does not follow that in criticizing Islam he necessarily criticizes "all Muslims."


Your argument rests on an equivocation between what would be logically entailed by your principles, which may necessitate that Harris regard as "Muslims" only those whom he criticizes, and another meaning of "Muslim," which is anyone who self-identifies as a Muslim. Criticism of the former does not entail criticism of the latter, and Harris is much more clear and precise in specifying what, exactly, he is criticizing than virtually anyone else; he is absolutely clear that he is not criticizing anyone merely for self-identifying as a Muslim, and he need make no commitment one way or the other to whether such persons are "real" Muslims in order to appropriately and legitimately criticize Islam.


The second major mistake your argument rests on is to treat Islam as an "idea." It is not an "idea", and if you were intent on charitable readings of Maher/Affleck/Harris, or more generally in a reasonable understanding of what Islam is, you would not have described it as such.

I will discuss these problems below in more detail, and critique what I believe are several illegitimate moves you make in your article.


There are easy moves Harris could make, and given that you opened your article with a charitable reading of his remarks, I’m disappointed you didn’t take the extra step of considering further what a charitable interpretation of Harris’s remarks that did not attribute bigotry to them would look like. I think it might look something like the following.

In your case of Jeremy misinterpreting act-utilitarianism, the distinction between what does and does not constitute a legitimate commitment to act-utilitarianism (at least in principle) is fairly clear. This is not the case for Islam. What acts do and do not qualify as acting in accordance with the doctrine of Islam is precisely one of the things that terrorist and a non-terrorist would disagree on, with each thinking their own views are accurate interpretations of Islam.

When criticizing Islam, Harris need not, and I doubt that he does, mean to criticize whatever Islam essentially commits its adherents to (it’s unclear whether there even is such a thing as a single objectively correct interpretation of Islam); he need only criticize, piecemeal, the specific beliefs, e.g. “As a result of Islam, I ought to commit various terrorist acts.” One can be critical of this belief independently of whether or not it represents an accurate interpretation of Islam.

Harris is concerned with specific doctrines and interpretations of Islam, not with any interpretation of it. It is implausible that Harris would object to a version of Islam that favored impartially maximizing the wellbeing of conscious beings and doing so by relying on the best available scientific evidence.  If this were not the case, it would be virtually impossible to comprehend his strong support for reformation attempts that seeks to convince radical Muslims to adopt softer versions of the faith – why would he care about that? The best explanation is that he objects to specific doctrines attributable to Islam, e,g. “Women should be subordinate to men” and “Non-Muslims should be killed or subjugated.” He does not object to “Islam” absent specification of particular doctrines.


Act-utilitarianism represents a much narrower and readily-specifiable set of beliefs than Islam. “Islam,” on the other hand, is a broad term referring to a wide range of highly diverse beliefs. There simply is no single “Islam.” However, Islam is passed on through shared traditions and the Koran, hadiths, and surrounding Islamic literature. Harris can (and I would) argue that this body of literature, and the set of oral traditions around it, that can be selectively criticized to the extent that these texts and the traditions surrounding them have a reliable tendency to be interpreted in such a way as to motivate unethical behaviors.

Let’s use your act-utilitarianism comparison to draw what I believe would be a better analogy to Islam. Imagine that, over the past few centuries philosophers had written extensive volumes on act-utilitarianism that developed into a religion, with the founding prophet Bentham and a host of subsequent adherents, including John Stuart Mill, Singer, Sidgwick, and others. The religion that formed around these texts was called “Benthamism,” and it could be roughly defined as “Belief in the doctrines of Bentham and the other prophets.”

Now suppose these early utilitarian texts contained many regressive passages and phrases, including repeated condemnations of non-utilitarians as evil, calls to kill and subjugate non-utilitarians, etc. Indeed, these passages were rife with sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, support for violence, support for slavery, etc. but these passages also say “act so as to impartially maximize utility.” Over time, different factions arose, each with its own interpretation of “Benthamism.”

At this point, it is no longer possible to know exactly what Bentham and the other prophets really meant; different interpretations of these texts vary in their degree of legitimacy, but a reasonable person could find many different, conflicting interpretations to be plausible readings of the texts.

“Islam” is better compared to “Benthamism.” Unlike act-utilitarianism, Benthamism consists not in adherence to a narrow and easily-identifiable set of beliefs independent of a given source text. Rather, Benthamism consists precisely in what one takes to be the correct interpretation of a body of texts and traditions. Thus, there is no canonical version of Benthamism in the same way that there is a canonical version of act-utilitarianism. Benthamism, like Islam, is not an "idea." It is a collection of mutually incompatible ideas.

As a result…

*There can be no single, unambiguous set of facts specifying which aspects of Benthamism are essential to it or not. Likewise, the same is true of Islam. There is no single, unambiguous set of facts specifying which aspects of Islam are essential to it or not*

This is critical, because your argument relies on the following:

“Primarily, criticism of an idea requires criticizing that which is a defining characteristic of that idea.”

We can accept this principle but reject that Islam, properly construed, is an “idea.” As such, the principle simply does not apply to it. “Islam”, rather, is a label referring to a heterogenous and mutually contradictory set of beliefs and traditions, each with a unique set of defining characteristics Islam, instead, refers to a set of ideas, and one can criticize specific Islams without criticizing others.

As such, I believe this is a false dilemma:

“By implication, if Harris and Maher are criticizing the idea of Islam, then they are giving Muslims a choice. The Muslim either chooses to be the target of that criticism, or that person must give up on Islam and cease being a Muslim.”

I reject that Harris or Maher think there is a single “idea” that is Islam, and that they are forcing a dilemma on Muslims to either accept or reject Islam as a whole if they reject, for instance, the notion that women ought to be subordinate to their husbands.

Rather, I believe Harris at least sees Islam as far more complicated than you give him credit for, and does not see it as a single monolithic idea. So when you say:

“I have illustrated the principles of criticizing an idea by looking at the criticism of act-utilitarianism. There, I argued that the criticism of an idea entails criticism of that which defines a person as somebody who holds the idea. If one’s criticism is sound, people are given a choice either to be the targets of that criticism or to give up the idea being criticized.“

I think this totally misses the target. I seriously doubt Harris would judge that a Muslim terrorist who gave up on Islamic radicalism and the belief that the West should be destroyed thereby gives up on being a Muslim in their entirety; however, I do not believe this means he is failing to criticize Islam, since he has not identified an “essential” feature of Islam. He need only criticize Islam as a set of doctrines and traditions that reliably, as an empirical fact, lead people to adopt such beliefs (independent of whether those beliefs are correct or incorrect interpretations of “Islam.”).

Instead, I believe the best construction of Harris’s criticism recognizes at least two elements of it:

(1)    A critique of specific doctrines one beliefs, that may be causally linked to adherence to Islam as a religious belief system, independent of whether those interpretations are logically/rationally defensible.

(2)    A critique of Islam as a set of doctrines, traditions, and texts that reliably lead adherents to adopt unethical beliefs. Unlike act-utilitarianism, Islam is more like Benthamism: it is a set of ambiguous and internally contradictory body of texts and traditions that can, as a matter of empirical fact, reliably lead a subset of those who venerate these traditions and texts to behave unethically.


However, even if Harris did believe that support for terrorism were a necessary condition

This brings me to my last point, which is that the best interpretation of Harris’s criticism of Islam as a whole is that Islam, without specifying that there is a single canonical form of Islam, is a heterogenous set of doctrines and traditions that, as a matter of empirical fact, induces a significant subset of adherents to behave unethically. Criticism is thus directed at these doctrines and traditions insofar as they generate such beliefs and behavior, independent of whether there is any single, canonical interpretation of Islam as an “idea” with a specified set of essential characteristics.



When criticizing “Benthamism” for its sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, etc., it would be absurd to think that critics have in mind, as their actual criticism, the notion that one ought “act so as to impartially maximize utility.” Rather, their criticism is that the books and traditions upon which “act utilitarianism” is based on the veneration of a body of texts that reliably lead a subset of the population to do terrible things.


As a toy example, imagine there was a book, book X.


Suppose that 99% of people who read book X are unaffected. But 1% who read it, through some interaction with their life circumstances or individual personality attributes, become violence terrorists who murder and kill others. It would be appropriate to object to this book as having a causal influence on terrorism (and this would be literally true). Even if the book did not formally instruct a single reader to become a terrorist, it would still be true that the book caused terrorism.


Likewise, when one criticizes Islam, they need not point to any formal doctrine, but need only argue that the doctrines and traditions have a reliable tendency to act on human minds so as to induce some significant number of them behave unethically. A better comparison than Islam and act-utilitarianism would be Islam and the veneration and adherence to interpretations of specific philosophical texts that contained passages expressing bigotry and advocating violence. In other words, Harris’s criticism is more like criticism of this book than it is like criticism of act-utilitarianism. Islam is closer not to an “idea” but to an ambiguous body of traditions/texts/practices that cause different sets of ideas in different people. Criticism is directed at the source causing those ideas and at specific ideas; not at a hypothetical canonical set of beliefs that captures “Islam” accurately.


A proper definition of what “Islam” is is thus not based on an idealized, abstracted set of doctrines independent of the social and cultural contexts in which they manifest and independent of the way that Islam, as a set of doctrines and traditions, interacts with human minds. Rather, “Islam” in the respect that Harris is criticizing consists of precisely these empirical facts. What “Islam” is, ex hypothesi, is a broad label referring to a heterogenous set of beliefs, doctrines, and traditions that reliably lead some of those interpreting these beliefs and doctrines in such a way as to pursue deeply unethical actions.


In short, your argument leans heavily on attributing to Harris and Maher a belief that they are “criticizing an idea.” You put the effort into charitable reinterpreted Harris, Maher, and Affleck in other ways, but I believe you do not go far enough in charitably interpreting them. Neither Harris nor Maher need be committed to the idea that Islam can be captured by a single, specifiable idea.

You go on to quote Affleck.

Affleck: You are taking a few bad things and you’re painting a br—the whole religion with that same brush. 

This is categorically and demonstrably false:

[In this specific case, the claim that one is criticizing Islam is comparable to saying, “If you call yourself a Muslim then, either this criticism applies to you, or you do not understand Islam.”

Both Maher and Harris denied that their criticisms apply to all Muslims. However, this claim, when put up against the claim that they were criticizing Islam, means that they were contradicting themselves. Their claim that they are criticizing Islam but that their criticism does not apply to all Muslims is like saying, “Yes, I said Patrick is a bachelor, but I am not saying he is not married.” The answer to Harris and Maher is, “Yes, in fact, you are – for that is the meaning of the term.”]

This is a deeply uncharitable reading of Harris/Maher. A more charitable reading is that they believe this:

(1)   Specific doctrines are most plausibly entailed by literal adherence to specific texts/religious doctrines/traditions, e.g. Islam’s call for death for apostates

(2)   Some people who self-identify as Muslims do not adhere to these specific doctrines, but claim to be equally committed to Islam and may even claim that these doctrines are not entailed by or endorsed by their religion

(3)   These people are still Muslims, even if their interpretation is less intellectually defensible than someone who interprets Islam as requiring death for apostasy

It’s implausible Harris thinks Majid Nawaaz is not a Muslim because he does not agree with ISIS. Identity as a Muslim need not require specific adherence to the precisely correct set of doctrines. Muslim self-identity is more complicated than that, and there is a distinction Harris and others could make between self-identity as a Muslim and which readings of Islam are more or less defensible.

[This contradiction explains why Maher and Harris get the reaction they do – that they are bigots, and that they are promoting hatred against all Muslims regardless of their individual qualities. This is because, when they use the terms they use, many in their audience look at the meanings of these terms in English and their implications and recognize that they are criticizing that which defines a person as a member of the group Muslim.]

Woah, you move from some philosophical criticisms directly to “that they are bigots.”

Earlier, you make this claim: “Instead, one is presenting their audience with a form of bigoted sophistry – trying to promote an emotional hatred of atheists by linking them to something people have good reason to hate, but which is only accidentally associated with atheism.”

You imply bigotry is associated with “trying to promote an emotional hatred.” But you have not shown that Harris or Maher are trying to promote an emotional hatred of Muslims.

Very early on, you say this:

“This bigotry is not to be found in the criticism of certain dangerous and destructive beliefs. It is to be found in attributing those beliefs to – and thereby promoting hatred of – people who do not hold those beliefs.”

But Harris and Maher are not attributing beliefs to all Muslims, and you have not even tried to show that they are. Rather, you have attempted to argue that their claim not to be referring to all Muslims contradicts their claim to be criticizing Islam as an idea. It is totally illegitimate to move from this contradiction to the conclusion that therefore they must be criticizing all Muslims after all, or are trying to do so, or that in doing so they are attempting to promote hatred of these groups. You have shown none of these things at all, and yet you move straight to labeling them bigots at the end of the article without having done any of the work to demonstrate that they are.

[This is because, when they use the terms they use, many in their audience look at the meanings of these terms in English and their implications and recognize that they are criticizing that which defines a person as a member of the group Muslim.]

You have not made a convincing case for why this is sufficient to label them bigots. If a lot of people in your audience misinterpret you and incorrectly assume you are describing essential characters of Muslims, you may be morally responsible for poor choice of words, but you are not responsible for the actual claim that what they are criticizing “defines a person as a member of the group Muslim.” They may have internally contradictory beliefs, and could only escape it by accepting your principles about legitimate criticism, but given that they have not accepted those principles, it makes no sense to attribute adherence to those principles to them and thereby attribute to them claims about all Muslims.

Also, what do you mean by “promote”? You do not make it clear whether you mean intentionally or not. This is a bit misleading.

[When Harris, Maher, and their defenders claim that they are not bigoted because they are not applying their criticism to all Muslims, the correct challenge to this defense is, “Actually, you are doing just that]

You have not demonstrated this conclusion. You may insist that logical principles technically require that legitimate criticisms apply to all members of a group, but even if you were right this would not alter their comments so as to conform to this principle, it would just make their criticisms illegitimate. The referents of another person’s statements do not conform to logical principles they are unaware of and may not even accept but are instead dictated by what they actually mean to say. If they both intend to criticize Islam and do not believe this criticism may attributed to the beliefs of all Muslims, they may be confused or mistaken, but even if you have shown that to make a legitimate criticism that are logically required to refer to all Muslims, it does not follow that they are in fact referring to all Muslims. You have at best only demonstrated the former, not the latter, yet you have now moved illegitimately to the conclusion that the latter is the case.

[It is curious that you do not recognize what you are doing, but that does not change the fact of what you are doing. This implication is built into the meaning of the words you use.]

Context and pragmatics play a huge role in determining what a person means and intends to mean, and you have not shown that Harris or Maher do in fact, or intend in fact, to refer to all Muslims. You have only shown that if they claim not to be doing so that they would be making logically inconsistent claims.

[It is curious that you do not recognize what you are doing, but that does not change the fact of what you are doing. This implication is built into the meaning of the words you use.]

Again, I believe this claim is false and rests on an uncharitable interpretation of Harris and Maher and on the false claim that Islam is an “idea” rather than a heterogenous set of ideas, some of which are incompatible with one another. I believe the latter is a more accurate understanding of what “Islam” is, that it more closely reflects what Harris and Maher believe and have in mind when discussing Islam, and is in fact a fairly obvious and mainstream understanding of Islam, so I am puzzled that this response appears not to have occurred to you.

[You are saying that if these criticisms do not apply to a given person, then that person has a flawed understanding of Islam and is not actually a Muslim.”]

The last claim here is false. One can believe people are still Muslims even if they are confused and don’t fully understand Islam. Even if this were the case, Harris and Maher could just as readily be interpreted as saying that they are criticizing all  Muslims, but that “all Muslims” refers only to jihadists, terrorists, and sexist, bigoted people who believe in killing non-Muslims. It would then be unclear how their claim is inappropriately attributed to all those Muslims who do not share these beliefs and that Harris/Maher are thus bigots. You imply that their remarks

Furthermore, since Islam should be understood pluralistically to refer to different sets of beliefs, there is no single, canonical form of Islam, including a canonical set of essential beliefs.

[To use terrorist acts as a basis for criticizing Islam is to say that support for terrorism is something that defines a person as Muslim, and that those who call themselves Muslims without embracing terrorism do not understand Islam.]

This is absurd. I believe the following. The doctrines and traditions of Islam lead some Muslims to interpret Islam so as to support terrorism and others not to do so. I object to Islam insofar as it is disproportionately likely to be interpreted in such a way as to promote terrorism when compared to other texts/traditions. “Islam” in this case refers to the relatively broad range of actual interpretations people are disposed to attribute to it, not to any single interpretation as the canonical one. I can object to Islam as a font of terrorism while simultaneously believing some people can legitimately call themselves Muslim and not believe in terrorism.

This is likely far close to what Harris/Maher believe, and it allows them to criticize Islam without being committed to the principles you claim they must be committed to.