Getting the Narrative (Robert) Wright: On Islam and the West

I’ve been trying to pinpoint what bothers me so much about Robert Wright’s new article in the New Yorker. I think it’s this: I respect Wright as a writer and thinker, and therefore, when he comments on the relationship between Islam and terrorism, I’m always mildly hoping to have my mind changed about one or another aspect on this issue–but it never is.

In, “The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t“, Wright warns of the dangers of walking straight into a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is, by engaging in too much exaggerated rhetoric about the fundamental struggles between traditional Islam and Western values, we risk deepening fault lines and creating a true clash of civilizations that could lead to more violence and/or to us freaking out again (e.g. the Iraq invasion) and making things much, much worse. Who are the spreaders of said narrative? There are the obvious Fox News crazies and right-wing war hawks, but Wright is more concerned with traditionally left-of-center and credible outlets, going after, in particular, Roger Cohen’s “Islam and the West at War” op-ed in the NY Times, and Graeme Wood’s popular piece, “What ISIS Really Wants” in the Atlantic.

The immediate objection to get out of the way is Wright’s conflation of Cohen and Wood’s two different arguments. They are not, if you read them, saying the same thing or engaging in the same narrative. Cohen’s piece is more expansive, using blanket terms like the “Muslim world” and suggesting that the combined jihadist movement is a result of Islam the religion, politicized or otherwise. On the whole, Cohen’s piece is not as wrong-headed as Wright tries to make it sound—the broadness of its title is the most controversial part. If Wright had stuck to Cohen’s article, I wouldn’t have been so off-put, but he had to drag in Graeme Wood’s piece, which I think should be largely exempt from Wright’s criticisms.

Wood’s article is not a narrative about Islam and the West. It is not an op-ed. It is researched journalism that confines itself rather painstakingly to ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. It is not expansive, it does not pontificate on Islam itself, or Islam as a whole, or the Muslim world. It does not say the West is at war with Islam. It is about ISIS and their interpretation of Islam. The article is clear that this interpretation is exotic, an aberration even among jihadist groups (the most interesting part, for me, was seeing how wide a gap there is between ISIS’ ideology compared to, say, Al Qaeda’s), and an interpretation criticized by the majority of Muslims. One must exert much effort to misconstrue Wood or even Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel as arguing that ISIS’ interpretation represents “true Islam” (though true masters of misinterpretation can do it). So what is Wright objecting to then? That ISIS is motivated by religion? Is that controversial? Wright seems to think so:

But what did Wood mean by saying that ISIS is ‘very Islamic’?

He rested this claim about the deeply Islamic character of ISIS largely on the views of a single scholar, Bernard Haykel, of Princeton. Haykel’s main point seems to have been that ISIS isn’t just making up an ideology and grafting it onto Islamic beliefs. ISIS draws (if selectively) on the Koran and later Islamic texts; indeed, if you went back far enough in time, you would find its views more widely accepted by Muslims and Muslim scholars than has been the case in recent centuries.

First, this “single scholar” business. Does one need a scholar at all to tell you this? ISIS itself tells us, again and again via a social media infrastructure rivaling Silicon Valley start-ups, that its primary motivation is Islam (rather obviously an uncommon, “ahistoric” version of Islam, though Wright complains that this qualification was left out of Wood’s article).  ISIS explains, intricately, carefully, gleefully, that it’s doing what it’s doing because of deeply held, absolutist religious beliefs. To quote the Almighty Will Ferrell, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills when this is denied or questioned. I can entertain the argument that some jihadist groups might be exaggerating their devotion to Islam, using it predominantly as a tool without actually being all that devout—but ISIS? Have you watched, listened, or read a single thing about ISIS if you’re making that claim?

Yes, there is always a risk that, bolstered by an over-simplified narrative, the West will engage in more foolish military undertakings in the “Muslim world”—will freak out, will do something stupid, and more people will die. But the answer is not to shut down the narrative, the answer is to get the narrative right.

We are not at war with Islam, though there are clear, tangible divides between the values of traditional Islam and the values of the West (that’s why the over-simplified narrative exists in the first place). Just today, a poll was released showing that “24% of British Muslims say violence against cartoonists who draw Muhammad is justifiable“. (Incidentally, when Wright argues  that the most effective tactic against extremism would be to stop U.S. policies like drone strikes that promote radicalization, I wonder what he suggests cartoonists should do?). Rather, we are at war, as reformer Maajid Nawaz would say, with Islamism—or, the desire to impose Islam, any version, on others. That is the correct narrative. That is the prophecy which has already been fulfilled. And that is the ideology we have to understand, not ignore, if we want to successfully combat extremism.


Just so everyone understands that I do really like Wright, just disagree with him on this topic, I want to plug one of his books: if you like science, particularly evolutionary psychology, you will love The Moral Animal. I was sad to finish it.

Check the original source! How so many writers got the facts wrong after the Maher vs. Affleck Islam debate

Today I’m excited to share a guest post by someone who has been instrumental in correcting several statistical errors in popular media reports regarding Pew’s 2013 report: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society. We’ll call this person Fred, and he’s currently the author of a new blog, Empethop.

Fred’s post below shows how one survey response from the report in particular—the percentage of Egyptian Muslims favoring death for apostasy—was widely misinterpreted and incorrectly cited by numerous writers in the wake of the controversial debate between Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck on an October 2014 episode of Real Time.

I was one such author who lazily reported that Maher’s claim that “like 90%” of Egyptian Muslims favored death for apostasy was wrong, and that the actual figure was 64%. My source was Max Fisher’s 2013 article in the Washington Post. Fred, a reader of this site, brought it to my attention that Fisher had been wrong, and that the source Pew report cites 88%, not 64%. Fred’s efforts eventually led to the correction that you currently see in the Washington Post article.

The 64% figure, however, is still widely cited. I hope Fred’s article below helps explain why the error was made, how it spread, and why it’s so important to always check the original source. The version below is abridged, but you can read the full article at Fred’s blog (the unabridged version contains a much more thorough discussion of the statistics from the Pew report).

Most importantly, I want to thank Fred for his vigilance in pursuit of accuracy. Enjoy…

A Fact-Check of Bill Maher and His Critics: A Closer Look at Pew’s (2013) Survey Report

By Fred, via Empethop

January 2015

            In an episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, October 3, 2014, Maher and his guests engaged in a heated argument about the extent of fundamentalist beliefs among Muslims and the contention that many liberals are unwilling to criticize those beliefs. In the subsequent controversy, some journalists and other writers took up the important task of fact-checking the claims made in that now famous debate. One of the most often attempted corrections deals with Maher’s claim that a Pew study showed “like 90%” of Egyptian Muslims support death as a punishment for leaving Islam. Many who try to correct him allege that the correct Pew figure is 64%. This article fact-checks those claims and a few related ones by looking to the original Pew source documents, researchers, and data. I’ve documented this fact check in detail here.

The Pew Research Center survey report most often cited in this controversy is titled The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society (April 30, 2013). In the Complete Report (April 30, 2013) and in the Topline Questionnaire, in a table on page 219 are shown the percentages of Muslims in each country listed, with each kind of response to Q92b, “Do you favor or oppose the following: the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion.” The table on p. 219 shows that 88% of Egyptian Muslims favored the death penalty for apostasy, 10% opposed it, and 1% didn’t know or else refused to answer. The table shows a wide range in support for the punishment, from about 1% in Kazakhstan to 88% in Egypt, with support in most countries below 50%. Note: I will be referring to the Complete Report throughout this article, so readers should keep it available for viewing.

Pew also published a brief article by Sahgal and Grim (July 2, 2013), highlighting some of the extreme restrictions on religion in Egypt. They wrote (parentheses are theirs): “Egyptian Muslims also back criminalizing apostasy, or leaving Islam for another religion. An overwhelming majority of Egyptian Muslims (88%), say converting away from Islam should be punishable by death.” A Pew study in 2010 found that 84% of Egyptian Muslims supported death for apostasy.

To provide verification that the data summaries on p. 219 are of the general samples of Muslims, I contacted the primary researcher of this (2013) study, who confirmed that 88% of Egyptian Muslims favored the death penalty for apostasy, and that the apostasy question was asked of all Muslims surveyed in the countries on p. 219. (Some contact information was removed at Dr. Bell’s request).

Pew Bell email larger

Pew made available to the public (June 4, 2014) the Data Set from which the percentages shown in the 2013 Complete Report were produced. Using freely-available statistical software, I’ve produced tables that will help clarify some issues about the numbers. In Table 3a, below, I show a cross-tabulation summarizing the percentages of the total, of Q79a (rows) by Q92b (columns) for Egyptian Muslims. (Following Pew’s instructions, I added the weight variable in the calculations). Q79a asked respondents whether they favored or opposed making sharia law the official law of the land in their country (see pp. 46 and 201, Complete Report). 74% supported sharia, and 86% of those who supported sharia favored the death penalty for apostasy (p. 55, Complete Report). Readers can compare the totals of the rows and columns in Table 3a with the rounded numbers for Egypt on pages 201 and 219, respectively, of the Complete Report to find that they do match up. Note that the “don’t know” and “refused” responses are merged in Pew’s report, but are separate in Pew’s data file.

PewWP Table3a png

In Egypt, less than 1% (.86%) overall opposed both official sharia and death for apostasy, while about 64% (63.80%) of Egyptian Muslims overall favored both. Note that the percentage for that latter response combination should not be confused with the percentage of Egyptian Muslims overall who favored the death penalty for apostasy (88.46%). Unfortunately, that confusion was made in a widely-cited secondary source.

A Major Source of the Error

            That influential secondary source was a Washington Post article by Max Fisher (May 1, 2013) originally titled “64 percent of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for leaving Islam.”  In the original uncorrected version (May 1, 2013), Fisher wrote:

“Although Pew [April 30, 2013] does not provide direct statistics for the share of Muslim respondents who support executing Muslims who convert to another religion, it does indicate the share of Muslims who support sharia and the share of these pro-sharia Muslims who back this policy. I’ve used this to extrapolate the data charted at the top of this page…”

By his own account, Fisher acted on the beliefs that Pew didn’t provide the statistics for the overall samples, and that he could extrapolate them from the limited information that he did have. Apparently, he overlooked or didn’t read adequately the report materials, available from the opening page, which do provide the statistics for the overall samples. For each country that he included in his calculations, he apparently multiplied the proportion supporting sharia (e.g., for Egypt, .74) by the proportion of sharia-supporters favoring death for apostasy (.86 for Egypt) to get what he described as the percentage of Muslims who supported the death penalty for apostasy (for Egypt, about 64%, or 63.64% based on multiplying the rounded numbers). As can be seen from the cross-tabulation of the data for Egypt in Table 3a, he obtained (a rough estimate of) the percentage of Egyptian Muslims who favored both official sharia and death for apostasy, not the overall percentage who favored death for apostasy.

Fisher presented his numbers for most of the countries in a red bar plot erroneously titled “Share of Muslims who support the death penalty for leaving Islam.” In the text of the original article, he referred to his numbers as “Pew’s data”:

“According to Pew’s data, 78 percent of Afghan Muslims say they support laws condemning to death anyone who gives up Islam. In both Egypt and Pakistan, 64 percent report holding this view. This is also the majority view among Muslims in Malaysia, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.”

On p. 219 of Pew’s (2013) Complete Report, the table shows that 79% of Muslims in Afghanistan and 75% of Muslims in Pakistan favored death for apostasy.

On October 15 (2014), I emailed the Washington Post, notifying them of the erroneous apostasy numbers in Fisher’s May 1, 2013 article (and in another article by him, dated May 2, 2013), providing them with a link to the Complete Report, and citing page 219. On about October 28 or 29, they made a partial correction to Fisher’s May 1, 2013 article, changing the title and stating in the text that 88% of Egyptian Muslims favored the death penalty for apostasy. However, the corrected article contained other errors, including a new error stating that 62% of Pakistani Muslims favored the death penalty for apostasy. (For a summary of my attempts to get various sources to correct their numbers, see Appendix III in my detailed article).

Some sources reported Pew’s (2013) apostasy numbers correctly. I haven’t done a thorough search, but here is a brief, casual, non-scientific sample of people who got the apostasy numbers right: Eugene Volokh (May 2, 2013); Andrew Bostom (May 4, 2013); Shadi Hamid (2014); and Nicholas Kristof (October 8, 2014).

Many people from multiple sides of the debate over Maher’s comments made or relayed the 64% error, and many cited Fisher’s (May 1, 2013) Washington Post article as though it were a valid presentation of the Pew (April 30, 2013) results [see Appendix IV in my detailed article]. Many writers went further, relying on Fisher’s article in attempting to correct Maher’s “90%” claim [see Appendix IV in my detailed article]. Here is a typical attempt, in this case by Dean Obeidallah at CNN Opinion (October 7, 2014):

“Maher then cited a Pew Research poll that he claimed found that 90% of Egyptians supported the death penalty for those who left Islam. I’m not sure where Maher got his numbers, but a 2013 Pew poll actually found only 64% of Egyptians supported this — still alarmingly high, but not 90%…”

He mentions the Pew (2013) study but links to the May 1, 2013 Washington Post article.  Obeidallah’s article remains uncorrected (as of February 8, 2015), though he apparently ignored a correspondent’s attempt to correct him on twitter on October 9th and 17th, 2014.

Aslan Spreads the Error, Adds More Errors

            In the debate in the weeks following Maher’s comments, Reza Aslan appeared often in the popular media. In an interview on “All In with Chris Hayes” (October 13, 2014), Aslan apparently accepted the same false assumption used in the original Fisher (May 1, 2013) article, as shown in the exchange below on MSNBC (The relevant part of the video clip begins at about 2:50):

Chris Hayes: I want to cite this poll that Bill Maher and Sam Harris, who is an atheist author who was on Bill Maher, who sort of have, have built a lot of this around. This is a Pew Research poll. I think it was conducted in 2013 of different views. This is views of Egyptian Muslims: 74% of Egyptian Muslims say sharia should be official law—that is, of course, sort of Qur’anically-derived religious law—and 86% of those say that there should be a death penalty for converts, for people who leave Islam. Now, that’s about 60% of folks when you multiply those two—64% that—when you multiply those two together. Now, that’s a troubling polling result, I think both you and I would agree, right?

Reza Aslan: The second number is a troubling poll result. The first one, you have to understand that those very same, that very same poll showed that of that 70-something percent, there was a massive diversity of views of what they even meant by sharia. We’re talking about marriage and divorce laws, and inheritance laws, as well as penal laws. But you’re right. 64% wanting the death penalty for, for converts out of Islam is incredibly frightening, until you read the rest of the poll wherein 75% of Egyptians also wanted religious freedom. If that sounds like a contradiction, it is, because religion and religious-lived experience is full of contradictions. So, 64% wanting the death penalty, that’s scary. But, of course, in neighboring Tunisia, it’s about 12%. In, let’s say Lebanon, it’s 1 in 6. In Turkey, it’s 5%.”

Hayes’ multiplying of the two percentages to get 64% is consistent with Fisher’s extrapolation; Pew didn’t do that in their report. Aslan strongly implies, to the naïve viewer, that he’s read from the same Pew (April 30, 2013) report, particularly when he says “that very same poll showed that…” and “until you read the rest of the poll, wherein…” In addition to Aslan’s 64% error for Egypt, page 219 of the Complete Report shows that his 12% for Tunisia and 5% for Turkey are incorrect; Pew’s figures are 18% and 8%, respectively. His errors for Tunisia and Turkey are not large. What’s more significant about them—together with his 64% error which is quite large—is that they suggest that he is unaware of p. 219 of the Complete Report (or Topline Questionnaire). (I deal with his claim of “75%” support for “religious freedom” in the next section, below)

Aslan’s approximation for Lebanon, phrased as “one in six,” happens to be consistent with the 17% on p. 219 of the Complete Report, though “one-in-six” is not uniquely linked to 17%. In a later interview with Hartmann, discussed below, Aslan describes the figure for Lebanon incorrectly as “10 or 9%,” which supports the idea that he hadn’t read p. 219.

Aslan also spread the 64% error via Twitter: “64% of Egyptians favor death for apostasy. 75% of Egyptians favor full religious freedoms. That contradiction sums up how religion is LIVED.” (October 13, 2014).  When the author of Uncertainty Blog challenged Aslan’s 64% figure, Aslan tried to correct him, replying “@uncertaintyblog nope. 64%,” and adding a link to the original Fisher (May 1, 2013) Washington Post article. Aslan had also spread the error via AslanMedia (Facebook, October 11, 2014), citing another Washington Post article that, at that time, contained an erroneous presentation of Pew’s (2013) apostasy and adultery numbers.

Aslan revisited the apostasy numbers in an interview with host Thom Hartmann (October 20, 2014) on the program “Conversations With Great Minds,” shown on Russia Today (RT). The relevant section in Part 1, below, starts at about 3:00 into the linked video [my brackets]:

Hartmann: “When people like Sam Harris [and Bill Maher], for example, attack Islam, they often point to last year’s Pew study of the Islamic world. From the Western point of view, that study showed some pretty shocking stuff, like how 86% of Egyptians, and 76% of Pakistanis, support the death penalty for [struggles with the word] apostasy—am I, I always mangle that word but—”

Aslan: “For apostasy, yeah.”

Hartmann: “Apostasy. Thank you. How should we interpret this study and others like it?”

Aslan: “Well, first of all, those numbers are incorrect. It’s actually 64% of Egyptians who support the death penalty for apostasy, which is outrageously high. But it’s also not very instructive, either about Egypt or about the larger Muslim world. For instance, in neighboring Tunisia, the number is like 11%. In Lebanon, it’s about 10 or 9%, I believe. In Turkey I th—  it’s less than 5%. So what some Egyptians believe is not instructive of the larger Muslim world. But it’s even more complicated than that, because the exact same poll that showed that 64% of Egyptians favored the death penalty for apostasy from Islam, also indicated that 75% of Egyptians want full religious freedoms for all Egyptians in the country. And if that sounds like a contradiction, that’s because it is a contradiction.”

Hartmann evidently didn’t have the appropriate data prepared, and did not question Aslan about his numbers. Aslan conveys firm confidence about the numbers, matter-of-factly “correcting” Hartmann with the 64% figure, and talking about the complication of the religious freedom result that appears to contradict the apostasy result. Again, he gives the impression, to the naïve viewer, of someone who has read the Pew survey. Note the downward migration of Aslan’s numbers for Tunisia and Lebanon, and the change in phrasing for Turkey, since his interview with Chris Hayes. I’ve summarized in Table 4 the relevant Pew (April 30, 2013) and Washington Post (May 1, 2013) numbers for comparison with the various numbers Aslan mentioned in the two interviews.

Pew WP Table4 png

Do 75% of Egyptian Muslims Support Religious Freedom?

            In his Washington Post (May 1, 2013) article, Fisher wrote:

“…majorities of Muslims in the countries surveyed, sometimes vast majorities, said they support religious freedom. That includes, for example, more than 75 percent of Egyptians and more than 95 percent of Pakistanis. It might seem like a glaring contradiction. And it is a contradiction…”

Like the 64% figure for the apostasy question, the figure of 75% (or the phrase “more than 75%”) support among Egyptian Muslims overall for religious freedom is not mentioned in the Pew (2013) report. Note that Aslan’s talking points from the Hayes and Hartmann interviews about the 64% apostasy figure and the 75% figure for religious freedom that “sounds like a contradiction…is a contradiction…” seem to come from Fisher’s article.

For its measure of Muslims’ support for the religious freedom of non-Muslims, Pew uses responses from two questions, Q10 and Q11, where the latter is a follow-up to the former. Here are the questions:

Q10: “And in our country, how free are people from religions different than yours to practice their religion? Are they very free to practice their religion, somewhat free, not too free, or not at all free to practice their religion?”

Q11: “…And is this a good thing or a bad thing?”

If a respondent answered “very free” to Q10, and said that that was “a good thing” in response to Q11, Pew deemed that pair of responses to indicate support for the religious freedom of non-Muslims. On pp. 63 and 172 (Complete Report), Pew shows data for Muslims who said, in response to Q10, that non-Muslims were “very free” to practice their (non-Muslim) faith in their country (e.g., Egypt). That subset is 31% of Egyptian Muslims overall, as Pew indicates on pages 62, 63, and 172 of the Complete Report. Of that 31% of Egyptian Muslims, 77% said that non-Muslims being very free to practice their faith was a “good thing” (p. 63). 77% of the 31% subset is 24% of Egyptian Muslims overall. The table for Q11 on p. 173 shows that 24% of Egyptian Muslims overall said non-Muslims were very free and that that was a good thing. (I summarize those results for Egypt in cross-tabulated format in Table 5, below). In other words, applying Pew’s own measure of Muslims’ support for the religious freedom of non-Muslims, we find that only 24% of Egyptian Muslims overall support it. Fisher appears to have taken the 77% of the subset as “more than 75 percent” of Egyptian Muslims overall. His “95 percent” claim for Pakistan also involves the same kind of error. Aslan reported the same error as did Fisher for Egypt, possibly due to having misread or not having read the original report, or due to having relied on Fisher’s article.

Pew WP Table5 png


            According to Pew (April 30, 2013), 88% of Egyptian Muslims support the death penalty for people who leave Islam (p. 219, Complete Report). That happens to be close to what Maher claimed. His critics who claimed that the Pew figure in question was 64% were in many cases relying on an erroneous secondary source from the popular media instead of reading the original Pew source with due diligence. Those who claimed that 75% (or more) of Egyptian Muslims supported religious freedom seem to have not read (or to have misread) the Pew (2013) report, which indicates that 24% of Egyptian Muslims overall supported “religious freedom” for non-Muslims (p. 173, Complete Report). This article highlights the perils of relying too heavily on secondary sources, and the need for due diligence in evaluating claims.

 Read the full article here.


Ben Affleck vs. Sam Harris on Real Time (And Some Poll Fact-Checking)

UPDATE 2: This story, as you know, has gotten quite a bit of play since the video aired. You can find various defenses of both Maher/Harris and Affleck on the interwebs, but I’ll link to a few here that I think are worth reading.

UPDATE: I re-watched the video this morning and agree with my initial assessment. I did want to fact check some of the poll’s both Maher and Harris cited (see below). Both were more or less correct. The internet is always a mixed bag, but it does look to me like a slight majority agrees that Affleck came off a bit foolish and clearly didn’t listen to or understand Harris’ argument. Anyway, they seem to have reconciled backstage (check out the comments on Harris’ feed for a reaction from his fans vs. the comments on someone like Reza Aslan’s feed for reactions from those crying bigotry):


It’s been an hour and a half since I finished watching tonight’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, and I’m still a little distraught.

For those of you who haven’t yet watched, the panel included Michael Steele, Nicholas Kristof, and Sam Harris, though you will hardly notice them because the fourth guest, Ben Affleck, was too busy acting like a drunken frat guy who thinks speaking loudly or passionately means you win the argument. He went completely bananas on Sam Harris, at one point calling him a bigot and suggesting his view of Islam was equivalent to racism (this is all from memory so I’ll rewatch and correct myself if I need to…Kristof also subtly defended the charge that Maher and Harris’ arguments* were close to racism). I’ve never seen someone misunderstand an argument as badly as Affleck did, and on top of that, I’ve never seen someone be so rude on Real Time (on Real Time!). Harris, who’s a pretty calm and measured person, simply couldn’t get a word in over Affleck’s belligerent ranting. It was one of the most tense panel’s I’ve seen on the show, and even Bill (who argued and interrupted his fair share as well) seemed caught off guard by it.

Take a look here:

(In case that video stops working, this link should have it as well).

Anyway, I now have a pretty low opinion of Affleck, and feel fortunate that most of what I have to hear him say is scripted by someone else.

*Maher and Harris aren’t equally careful in their criticisms of Islam, so part of the tension during this episode may have been lumping their respective views into one. Maher has a tendency to generalize a bit more in my opinion, while Harris is on record countless times admitting that the vast majority of Muslims are obviously not violent, etc, etc. But regardless, they are both criticizing ideology (the principle victims of which are overwhelmingly Muslim), so the ludicrous charges of bigotry or the even more ridiculous charges of racism against both hold no water.


Unlike Affleck, both Harris and Maher offered poll evidence to support their claims that radical Islam is indeed a significant problem and is not simply a “fringe” issue. But were their citations correct?:

  • Harris: “To give you one point of contact, 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should’ve been prosecuted.” This is correct. Source: Note that the link to the full report is broken, so if anyone finds it please send. Also note this isn’t a Pew poll, so I think it’s reasonable to question the reliability to some extent.
  • Maher: “I can show you a Pew poll of Egyptians–they are not outliers in the Muslim world–that says like 90% of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.
    • Update: Many have reported (and I did so originally) that this was an exaggeration from the actual figure of 64%, taken from this Washington Post article by Max Fisher. However, this seems to be an error. Originally pointed out by a reader of this post, the 2013 Pew Report on which Fisher is basing his figures shows, on page 219, the general sample for Egyptians favoring death for apostasy: 88%. It appears that Fisher worked off of page 55 of the report and multiplied the 86% sub-sample (for Egyptians Muslims who favor Sharia) by the general sample of Muslims who favor Sharia (74%), to arrive at 64%. He didn’t seem to notice (and I didn’t either) that page 219 shows the general sample. For the skeptical, just cross-check the countries and figures on page 55 with those on page 219. You’ll find that they’re different (meaning they are two different data sets), and that, as you would expect, most sub-sample figures are higher than general sample figures (since again, the sub-sample is looking at Muslims who favor Sharia). Egypt is an exception to this, where the general sample figure is higher than the sub-sample, though only slightly. See also this 2010 Pew Report, asking a similar question of Egyptian Muslims and getting a figure of 84% (page 14).
  • Harris also puts forward an estimate for the proportion of “jihadists” and “Islamists” among all Muslims (essentially the extreme believers), as 20%, but admits this is more or less a guess based on a number of different polls. I’m not sure which polls he is referring to, but the same Pew report above does cite 8% of Muslims in the U.S. as believing suicide bombings are sometimes or often justified, and much higher figures for many countries. Some people have cited that the respective number for all Muslims believing this is 28% and for U.S. Muslims , 19%, but these, as far as I can tell, are wrong. The first figure, if it exists, doesn’t come from the Pew report (they give no cumulative estimates for all Muslims), and the second seems an incorrect interpretation of the data, where they have simply subtracted the number that said suicide bombing was never justified (81%) from 100%, and assumed the rest said it was okay, which is a completely incorrect way to interpret poll results (sometimes people refuse to answer, etc).
  • And just for fun, let’s analyze Affleck’s claim that: “ISIS couldn’t fill a Double-A ballpark in Charleston, West Virginia…” That seemed a little wrong to me, as the number of ISIS fighters in Syria alone has been estimated at 50,000 (also I’ve been to a lot of minor league baseball games). So, I took an average of the capacity size for 31 different Double A (AA) ballparks across the U.S., and got a figure of 7,565. Then I simply divided that number into the most recent estimate of ISIS’s size I could find, cited here at 80,000 (combined from Syria and Iraq). The result? The members of ISIS could easily fill up more than 10 Double-A ballparks in Charleston, West Virginia.
  • Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True has posted some notable charts from the Pew report, along with comments about the episode. Check out the “Must a Wife Always Obey Her Husband?” results.

Judging a book by its cover: a review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up


Waking Up is a difficult book. You may be tempted to assume, by its conspicuously short page length and tranquil, sky-blue cover, that it will be light reading, but light reading it is not. Sam Harris, author, horseman, skeptic-extraordinaire, has set out to discuss the inherently difficult topic of the nature of consciousness, particularly in its relation to contemplative practice and – for sad lack of a better word – spirituality. For the novice (and that’s me), digesting the non-duality of consciousness and the elimination of self made for a tough, but enjoyable journey. I’ll spend the next few minutes discussing why I felt it worthwhile.

First, a little more on what I mean by difficult. It’s not that there are loads of technical descriptions or assumed knowledge by the author – it’s that the nature of what’s being discussed, subjective experience, is just hard to connect with. Consider this short excerpt: “Subjectively speaking, there is only consciousness and its contents; there is no inner self who is conscious.” It doesn’t matter how deftly or how many ways someone describes something like that to you, to grasp it at all you need to at least glimpse it yourself. Oftentimes throughout the book I felt like Harris was taking great pains to describe a stranger to me in physical detail, and then asking me to go out and find said stranger in a crowded gymnasium. Flatly, it’s hard, both for the teacher and the student. Harris is aware of the difficulty, hence the constant encouragements throughout the book to put into practice what he’s describing – to actually take time out of your day to meditate and practice mindfulness. The second complication is that one needs to have thought somewhat deeply about the nature of consciousness before, otherwise much of the book – particularly chapter 2 – will be difficult to comprehend (for a crash course on the “hard problem” of consciousness, I recommend Steven Pinker’s article in TIME). These two in combination had me on the frustrating edge of comprehension for much of the middle of the book, only to lose it all a moment later. Fittingly, this seems to mirror the experience of beginning contemplatives, who struggle mightily, for hours or even years, to take the first steps toward enlightenment.

But struggles often lead to reward, and while I was initially skeptical of the book, I had that bittersweet feeling of melancholy as I finished its final pages, not wanting it to end. If nothing else, Waking Up has piqued my interest in contemplative thought and meditative practice – concepts I’ve dabbled with but never to any serious degree. Even if one reads the book and never again sits cross-legged on a cushion to meditate, there are useful self-help tips that can be applied almost immediately. For example, the basic act of mindfulness, or being aware of the present moment, can be used to assuage negative emotions and thoughts. The next time you are feeling angry, take a second to just notice that you are feeling angry. Just pay attention to the feeling. The same can go for anxiety, loneliness, etc. You’ll find that the act of awareness will almost immediately relinquish the negative effects of the emotion – it’s quite difficult to stay angry when you are concentrating on how angry you are. (I was happy to see this technique discussed, as I’ve been doing a version of it since I was a kid, without knowing it was connected to anything called mindfulness). Along with tips like these, there are also short descriptions and exercise on how to meditate (you can find Harris’ guided meditations here), backed up by evidence supporting the health benefits, which are primarily cognitive. At its core, that’s what Waking Up is – a self-help book. Harris, who seems to have led an interesting life traveling far and wide in search of transcendent experiences, is here relaying what he’s learned – all within a rational framework – simply because these practices interest him and have helped him personally by reducing, not entirely but in small bits, suffering.

Perhaps most importantly, Harris has staked a very public claim on turf formerly thought to be the exclusive domain of the religious (or at least the wacky). By writing Waking Up, one of the most famous skeptics of our generation has swiftly divorced the meditative and contemplative practices from their traditional, often irrational foundations in Eastern religion and co-opted them into a rational framework aimed at inducing psychological well-being. It’s perhaps not surprising that, old as they are, some religious traditions have managed to make insights into human happiness and suffering, and once we slice away the supernatural baggage, there’s something left that even the fiercest skeptic can find useful. The old idiom, “even a broken clock is right twice a day” passed through my mind more than once as Harris summarized religious traditions dealing with enlightenment and transcendence. In addition to self-help, the overriding theme of the book is that one doesn’t need religion to lead a spiritual life. This, I think, is particularly important today as more and more people question the foundations of their religions but do not leave due to the perception that humanism, skepticism, atheism, etc are devoid of transcendence or spirituality. Harris’ book then, is timely, and I hope an inviting argument for those who feel they have been missing something in their lives since leaving religion, or for those who haven’t yet left.

Of course, some people have never felt a yearning for the spiritual life. And for those folks? Well, Waking Up is still worth the price of admission, if for nothing else than Harris’ 13 page take down of NDE-peddler, Eben Alexander (Dr. Heaven). While it doesn’t fit quite smoothly into the rest of the text (at times the book is clearly a mash-up of previously written material), Harris offers, next to Esquire’s piece, perhaps the most comprehensive criticism of Alexander’s ludicrous claims to have proven that we survive our deaths. If the premise of Waking Up seems too gushy for you, and you miss the good old excoriations of patent nonsense, then fear not: Sam Harris is still your guy.

And with that, I (whatever “I” even means anymore!) end, and encourage you to read other reviews, or check out the first chapter, available for free online. Now, off to meditate. Namaste.

No, Obama, ISIL Does Not Have a “Nihilistic” Ideology

I think the entire world is shocked and appalled by ISIL’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. This afternoon, President Barack Obama spoke about the killing, and did a good job of expressing our collective anger and sadness. So all in all I was pleased with the statement, but one thing has been bugging me all afternoon…

Why wasn’t there any criticism of religious fundamentalism? Obama completely whitewashed the role religion is playing in ISIL’s actions. Instead of acknowledging that these are religious extremists killing in the name of Islam, Obama obscured the issue, saying that “ISIL speaks for no religion” and blaming their “nihilistic ideologies”. The first quote is understandable – he was simply trying to say that ISIL does not represent the majority of practicing Muslims around the world (and that is certainly true). However, in other ways it isn’t an accurate statement. ISIL is clearly speaking for Islam, at least in their own way. And the second statement, that ISIL is fueled by a “nihilistic ideology”, is simply wrong. ISIL is not a group of nihilists. They are group of extremists guided by an explicitly religious ideology. 

To ignore the role religions is playing – in fact, to tacitly deny religion is playing a role – does humanity no favors. We have to examine problems objectively, and if religion is at the bottom of a group of people’s justification for committing horrendous acts, we have to acknowledge that and respond accordingly. 

The Atheism Tapes: Colin McGinn (Episode 1 of 6)

I first watched Jonathan Miller’s BBC series, The Atheism Tapes, a couple years ago when it was available on Netflix. At that point I wasn’t terribly well studied in philosophy or religion, and as I feel marginally more so now, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the collection. To that tune, I’ll plan to post all six episodes, along with a few of my thoughts, over the next couple of weeks. To kick us off, here’s the conversation between Jonathan Miller and English philosopher Colin McGinn:

On losing faith: It’s always fascinating to learn how individuals came to believe or disbelieve particular religious claims. In McGinn’s case, a required divinity course in high school sparked an intense interest in ethics and existential philosophy, which led to a brief but semi-serious relationship with the Bible. As a consequence, McGinn now says he knows much more about the Holy Book than many religious devotees – and I have to say, I’m not surprised. While I’m by no means an expert, Christians seem to make a sport out of not reading the Bible, and the ones that do seem to make another sport out of not knowing the historical context for the Bible (I’m reminded of this 2010 Pew survey, where atheists/agnostics outperformed believers on questions of “religious knowledge”). Anyway, when McGinn gets to college – a familiar tale – he promptly drops his faith. He recalls forcing himself to attend some type of religious service during this time, but immediately categorized it all as “rubbish” without much hesitation. The transition was made perhaps a bit easier by McGinn’s reading of Bertrand Russell at the same time, which served as an introduction to an ethical and moral framework unfettered by supernatural origins.

On reasons for disbelief: McGinn is asked to “surgically” articulate the reasons for disbelieving in God. He categorizes the reasons into two categories: 1) the “no-evidence” argument(s) and the 2) arguments against or contrary arguments. In the first category, McGinn’s position is simply that there is no good, independent evidence that justifies belief in any of the Christian (substitute any modern religion here) doctrine – or at least no more evidence than there is for Zeus or Isis or any other of the 1,000 ancient Gods. There is no positive evidence for theism, and as yet no theory that would need to invoke God to explain something else (the argument from design was the last solid argument of this type). In the contrary arguments category, McGinn highlights the argument from evil as one of the strongest. Very simply, if God has the following three traits – omnipotence, omniscience, and omni-benevolence – why is there rampant suffering in the world? The contradiction as implied by the traits is that God knows there is suffering, is powerful enough to stop it, doesn’t want people to suffer, and yet we have loads of suffering. The standard apologist argument is to invoke free will here (ala, God gave us free will and as a consequence we can sometime promote suffering through independent choices), but this obviously doesn’t account for naturalistic causes of suffering like earthquakes, tsunamis, diseases, etc. The only other counter is that God created it this way – and I’m putting it crudely here – to bring out the best in people. That is, suffering is here because it helps give other people perspective on life. But as McGinn rightly points out, if that’s the case, God is well…a jerk…since that answer would so obviously devalue certain lives over others.

On the ontological argument: When asked to give arguments for belief, McGinn cites the ontological argument as a “beautiful” one, but by that he of course doesn’t mean it’s at all convincing. You can find much better expositions of Anselm’s famous proof elsewhere, but just to summarize, it’s that 1) God is the most perfect/powerful being conceivable 2) Suppose this most perfect being lacked existence 3) Existence is surely a property of being perfect/powerful 4) Therefore God must exist. McGinn a little strangely claims that no one has ever been able to pinpoint what was wrong with the argument, though I thought Bertrand Russell himself did so nicely (perhaps I’m wrong). Anyway, the most obvious fallacy to me has always been that the argument begs the question, but since McGinn didn’t bring that up, I’m now wondering if that’s wrong in some technical philosophical sense. McGinn’s main problem with the argument is that things like “perfection” and “powerful” are not well-defined. What does it even mean to say the “most perfect being conceivable”? Does that make any more sense than “the most perfect football game conceivable”? You can say “the most perfect football game I’ve ever seen” but when you jump to “the most perfect football game conceivable” suddenly no one knows what you mean, including yourself. A few sentences can work that way – “the most perfect conceivable triangle” being one, since it’s well-defined.

On morality coming from God: McGinn is asked to explain Plato/Socrates’ old argument demonstrating that morality does not come from God. Very simply…if God says rape is good, is rape good? Most of you, hopefully, would answer no, suggesting that God’s affirmation of some particular action wouldn’t actually make that action moral. Therefore, a particular action is good or bad independent of God. If this weren’t the case, what would we really be talking about when we referred to something as “moral” – it would just be the subjective opinion of God. So while it’s okay to say God is encouraging us to partake in moral behavior, it’s wrong (or at least odd) to say behavior is moral because God says so.

On why people persist in believing despite the reasons not to: In contrast to many who attribute religious belief to human beings’ innate fear of death, McGinn’s personal theory is that religious belief stems from a kind of cosmic loneliness that’s a consequence of a sealed-off consciousness. I’ve not heard this argument before (or it didn’t register the first time I watched these) and I’m very much attracted to it. McGinn’s of course right that it’s very hard to accept that we are alone and nobody cares. To make things worse, we humans have a certain type of consciousness (maybe it’s the only type) that is sealed off from everyone else. No one can get in our heads with us, at least not really, and this creates an existential loneliness. God, McGinn argues, is a wonderful antidote to that. He knows us in our minds, which no one else can do, and that satisfies a deep craving.

On using the word “atheist”: Like Jonathan Miller, McGinn is reluctant to call himself an atheist, since it connotes a type of “professional atheist” demeanor and is associated with negative stereotypes. He thinks it’s pretty pointless to be inveighing against a non-existent entity all the time, which the word “atheist” suggests. Instead, McGinn classifies himself as an anti-theist, which is a person actively opposed to religion, in that he thinks it’s harmful to society, individuals, etc. He names another category which he think is the way the world will eventually go – “post-theism” – or the “healthy state of mind” where you’ve put all that behind you. The ideal society, to McGinn, would be one where the question of religion didn’t really come up, or when it did, it would be in a “those silly people used to believe X” context.

I used to consider myself a post-theist, actually, but living in Texas, it’s more or less impossible to reach that healthy state of mind.

Go home, Dick Cheney, you’re drunk.

This won’t be a full post, I just very briefly need to vent my frustration with Dick and Liz Cheney’s new Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine“.

Anyway, here’s what I put on Facebook a minute ago, and it very nicely summarizes my thoughts:

Things that will make me dislike you: First, you help orchestrate a poorly planned, almost unwinnable war in Iraq under mostly false pretenses that turns into an utter disaster. Second, after a few years of leisure, accident free quail hunts, and mild heart attacks, you have the gall to shout at the next guy for running said war incorrectly.

If you leave a baby on someone’s doorstep, Dick, don’t expect any credibility when you return six years later to criticize their parenting.

I do think Cheney makes some correct points, but just can’t get over the nerve of him having anything but humility over his administration’s decision to go to Iraq in the first place. And then to criticize Obama for not leaving troops in Iraq? When it was Cheney’s administration that oversaw the bilateral agreement mandating that all troops would be out in 2011? Unbelievable.

I’ve been the following ISIS/Iraq conflict pretty closely over the last few days, as all indicators point to this being a game-changing situation for the Middle East (as in redrawing of the map, game-changing). Charlie Rose has had excellent coverage here, here, and herethis NPR article from 2009 summarizes the origins of the Sunni-Shia conflict quite clearly; and my new favorite website,, has these helpful notes if you are interested in catching up. I plan to stay tuned, with the civilians of the region in my thoughts.

(If time permits, I will try to write a post exploring the greater influences of religious belief on this conflict. And if I don’t have time, I’ll at least be looking forward to the inevitable such commentaries by people like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris.)