The following is an edited transcript of a 90-minute telephone conversation that took place on August 6, 2014. I hope readers find it useful.—SH
I’d like to begin, once again, by congratulating Ryan Born for winning our essay contest. The points he raised certainly merit a response. Also, I should alert readers to a change in the expected format of this debate: Originally, I had planned to have an extended conversation with the winning author, with Russell Blackford serving as both moderator and commentator. In the end, this design proved unworkable—and it was not for want of trying on our parts. I know I speak for both Ryan and Russell when I say that our failure to produce an acceptable text was frustrating. However, rather than risk boring and confusing readers with our hairsplitting and backtracking, we’ve elected to simply publish Russell’s “Judge’s Report” and Ryan’s essay, followed by my response, given here.—SH
Last August, I issued the following challenge:
It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).
So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.
Several hundred of you entered this contest—which was an extremely gratifying turnout. The philosopher Russell Blackford judged the essays and picked a winner. Here begins my exchange with its author, Ryan Born.—SH
I can now say, at the advanced age of 47, that I no longer take my health for granted. In truth, I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac—but, as any hypochondriac aware of the relevant science can tell you, I am perfectly justified in this. If I wash my hands more often than your uncle with obsessive-compulsive disorder does, it’s because hand washing really is the best way to avoid most forms of contagious illness.
Until recently, my physical complaints were always minor and self-limiting, and were invariably treated as such by doctors. When I was in my twenties and thirties, having escaped childhood cancers and other serious strains of bad luck, every doctor knew that whatever seemed to be wrong with me would probably sort itself out. After I turned forty, however, I began to notice a change in attitude: Doctors suddenly took my aches and pains quite seriously. Many seemed frankly open to the possibility that I could die at any moment. Cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s—these and other delights were now on the menu. The body is like a clock—and it is a perverse one. It is by growing less and less reliable that it signals the passage of time. What time is it now? It’s time to worry about your prostate, you poor son of a bitch…
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu in 1969. The daughter of a political opponent of the Somali dictatorship, she lived in exile, moving from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. Like 98 percent of Somali girls, Ayaan was subjected to female genital mutilation. She embraced Islam while she was growing up, but eventually began to question aspects of the faith. One day, while listening to a sermon about the many ways in which women must be obedient to their husbands, she couldn’t resist asking, “Must our husbands obey us too?”
In 1992, Ayaan was married off by her father to a distant cousin living in Canada. In order to escape this forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands where she was granted asylum and then citizenship. In her first years in Holland she worked in factories and as a maid—but she quickly learned Dutch and was then able to study at the University of Leiden. She soon began working as a translator for Somali immigrants, where she witnessed firsthand the clash between liberal Western values and those of Islamic culture.
After earning her M.A. in political science, Ayaan began working as a researcher for the Wiardi Beckman Foundation in Amsterdam. She eventually served as an elected member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. While in parliament, she focused on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and on defending the rights of Muslim women. She campaigned to raise awareness about violence against women, including honor killings and female genital mutilation—practices that had followed Muslim immigrants to Holland. In her three years in government, she found her voice as an advocate for an “enlightened Islam.”
In 2004, Ayaan gained international attention following the murder of Theo van Gogh, who had directed her short film, Submission, depicting the oppression of women under Islam. The assassin, a radical Muslim, left a death threat for Ayaan pinned to Van Gogh’s chest.
In 2006, Ayaan was forced to resign from parliament when the Dutch minister for immigration revoked her citizenship, arguing that she had misled the authorities at the time of her asylum application. However, the Dutch courts later reversed this decision, leading to the fall of the administration. Disillusioned with the Netherlands, Ayaan then moved to the United States.
Ayaan is a fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, currently researching the relationship between the West and Islam. Her willingness to speak out for the rights of women, along with her abandonment of the Muslim faith, continue to make her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security.
In 2005, Ayaan was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” one of the Glamour Heroes, and Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year. She is the author of The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad. She is now working on Short-cut to Enlightenment, a dialogue between Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and three of her favorite Western thinkers: John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek.
A few weeks ago, Ayaan and I had a long conversation about her critics and about the increasingly pernicious meme of “Islamophobia”—which our inimitable friend Christopher Hitchens once dubbed “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” [NOTE 5/11/14: This wonderful sentence seems to have been wrongly attributed to Hitch (who was imitable after all). I’m told these words first appeared in a tweet from Andrew Cummins. Well done, Andrew!]
The following text is an edited transcript of our conversation.
I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines—such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must begin to think about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma, cultural prejudice, and wishful thinking as the best science already is. That is the subject of my next book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
Peter Watson is an intellectual historian, journalist, and the author of thirteen books, including The German Genius, The Medici Conspiracy, and The Great Divide. He has written for The Sunday Times, The New York Times, the Observer, and the Spectator. He lives in London.
He was kind enough to answer a few question about his new book The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.
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