Sects and Violence

I want to talk today about what "Islam" means. I am not a muslim and I am a complete outsider. I see danger in some ideas associated with Islam and beauty in some of the ideas. I see people saying Islam is peace. And I see mobs and violence associated with it. And so I think it's long overdue to ask whether we are all referring to the same thing when we refer to "Islam".

From what I can see, Islam means peace to most Muslims I know. And to some Muslims, it means violence visited upon other people for various different reasons: some political, some moral, always opportunistic, and always justified by some grandiose vision (a story). And the latter part is a bit sticky since the spectacle and tragedy creates a more vivid impression in the mind than the many Muslim neighbors we know and work with.

Let's Talk About Sects, Baby

Let me tell you about a trick of the human mind. It is a tendency for non-Muslims to think about Islam as one enormous monolith with complete homogeneity of belief and action. But Muslims are 1.6 Billion+ in number. And the idea of one great Islam doesn't withstand scrutiny.

Every religious or philosophical movement has within it a manifold of sects. People just can't seem to agree on things. Take any belief system and you can break it down to subgroups based on the disagreements.

To provide specific examples, I have collected here an accounting of the major religions I could think of and their sub-sects scraped from Wikipedia:

  • Chrisitanity: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical,...
  • Judaism: Rabinnic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic,...
  • Hinduism: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism,...
  • Buddhism: Therevada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen,...

And as for Islam? Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafi, Wahhabi,...

There are no incidents of complete uniform belief within any belief system. Humans are messy, sloppy creatures subject to entropy. Our brains are meat-machines driven by huge variations in chemistry. Fuzzy logic? check. Non-logical leaps? check. Context-dropping? check. Mistakes of thinking? check. Hormone-driven teenagers? check.

You know why clear thinking is beautiful when you hear it? Because it is rare. Reason is slow and requires discipline and it is always impressive to hear an idea that is simple and clear and true.

Aside: Beware of Mob Think

There is a sort of situation worth mentioning where uniformity does arise... where an idea can become so loud that it drowns out other ideas. When human beings are in a mob driven by fear and anger whipped into a frenzy, we have shown ourselves to be capable of frighteningly uniform non-thinking. The Rwandan genocide comes to mind. Nazi Germany comes to mind.

People are capable of their ugliest actions when they blindly react rather than stepping back and thinking about things rationally, and acting accordingly. And, in the case of Rwanda and Nazi Germany, both resulted in the creation of cultures that slaughtered unimaginable numbers.

Labels Fail Us

Back to the main point. The labels: Islam. Muslim.

There is a visual that Sam Harris mentioned in his chat with Neil Tyson about what a Christian imagines when they find out that a person can be painted with the term "Atheist":

they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.

Don't we do this with "Islam"... just a little? We imagine Islam as one thing. We imagine Muslims as one people who conform perfectly to some expectation.

The labels fail Muslims and the labels fail non-Muslims alike. The labels expose non-Muslims to the mistake of thinking in "Us vs. Them" terms with Muslims as the other. And the labels expose Muslims to taking a defensive posture where "We are under attack" by an unjust world who will not accept them. The labels expose Muslims to having their fear and frustrations manipulated.

But these are just stories and they are divisive ones. These are the ones that deliver us into the hands of Neo-fascists. And we don't want those hands anywhere near us so it's time to abandon these stories, which divide us.


Beyond Us Vs. Them

We need some new narratives to give us hope and something to strive for.

Instead of Us vs. Them... What if we just thought of this whole mess as a bunch of people with a bunch of mixed-up ideas and some of them are poison?

Rather than considering Islam as one set of ideas interpretable only one way, we can remember that ideas are subject to fashion trends. They are subject to trending upward or downward at any given point in time.

Here are ideas I would love to see trend upward:

  • Non-Muslims reflect and realize that Muslims are our neighbors and friends and co-workers. Most of them want to live their lives and raise their families. We act accordingly. We love our neighbors.
  • The world notices that Muslims have their versions of Goebbels and Hitler. And the world will need to put these tyrants down in exactly the same way: total war ending in unconditional surrender. This is the only way to defeat evil that has decided to wage war: Force met with overwhelming force.
  • Muslims embrace freedom of speech and dissent by all, especially other Muslims, and Non-Muslims unilaterally choose to stop disrespecting Muhammad because it's nearly always a gimmicky cheap shot that is not doing anybody any good.
  • Muslims come out in support of liberal values. We will support and encourage these people because they have right on their side. Further, we work to encourage the conservatives among Muslims to respect the rights of all human beings alike (male, female, gay, straight), just as we do with non-Muslim conservatives. Live and let live becomes the universal norm.
  • "Islam means peace" becomes a statement of intention... a movement and a mantra owned by Muslims: they are defiant, vocal, and visible movement of the majority.
  • Secularism: All people of all religions work to keep their religions separate from the state. There are no state religions. Just respect and protection of rights for all beliefs and creeds.

The only way we can do this is to see the bigger "Us". We, as humans, need to see Universal principles describing fundamental rights. In other words: the conditions under which we are able to live with one another.

We don't need to be innovators who must define fundamental rights for the first time. We have the shoulders of giants to stand on. But as I said, ideas are subject to fashion and we do have to keep these ideas trending upward. It's constant upkeep... yes. There is no magic bullet to make humans respect rights for all time.

But it's good work if you can get it. And as always... Discipline Equals Freedom.

Neil Tyson on Not Fighting in the Trenches on Sam Harris Podcast


I try to take the high road. I'm not interested in fighting in the trenches.

My notes from a fascinating chat between Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris. I was struck with Tyson's extreme discipline for focusing on his fundamentals of education and finding playful ways to talk about science in the context of things people already care about (pop culture).

He's a man who has decided what he wants his contribution to be and seems really skilled at avoiding the rest of the BS. Following are notes that I took from a second listen to the podcast.


  • Tyson: People care about science when it is playfully folded into things they already care about
  • Harris: The boundary between communicating science to the public and doing science in the act of thinking out loud about data is very thin, if it exists at all


  • Scientific discoveries become public interest. Examples: "Big Bang", "Black Hole" - official terms that are strings of single syllable words to describe complex phenomena that become part of the lexicon. Fun for the public to follow. The idea is graspable because the words don't get in the way.
  • I was struck with how Tyson cuts through the bull and avoids controversy. "Call a climate expert. Don't call me.". I don't occupy any platform.
  • Skeptic vs. Denier defined: Skeptic: doubts claim and convinced by evidence. Denier: doubts claim and doubts evidence.
  • You don't see me debating people. I'd rather just educate them in the first place so that the debate isn't even necessary.

Tyson: Platforms and Training the Electorate

  • Tyson's fundamental position: There are objective truths out there that you ought to know about and I as an educator have a duty to alert you to those objective truths. What you do politically in the face of those truths is your business.
  • Defines someone with a "platform" as: trying to get people to see the world that they do. Including politically.
  • I never say anything against a politician. Why? Because they have electorates that support them.
  • My target is the population that are following statements that are objectively false. I see it as my duty to train the electorate how think about this information and once they are trained they can do what they want.
  • As an educator, it is a task to educate people so that they can judge what is true and what is not.
  • Harris: You're preserving your effectiveness as a communicator and educator. (Tyson: yes, that's an accurate statement)

Tyson on Religion/Politics

  • Your religion is a belief system and does not cue off of objective truths. Otherwise we would call it science. It's your right to hold religious beliefs.
  • However... Governmental Decision... Laws need to be secular in a country that preserves religious freedom.

Harris: Problem with Atheism

  • Atheism defines itself in opposition: We don't call ourselves "non-astrologers". And if it became ascendant, we would talk about reason, evidence, common sense, and science to neutralize those claims without ever defining ourselves in opposition to astrology
  • Atheism as a term has no philosophical content

Tyson on Label Atheist

  • I don't do anything to dodge the term
  • if you require that I give myself a label... closest is "agnostic".
  • would rather have no label at all
  • label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about someone than you actually know and therefore don't have to engage them in conversation.
  • Oh you're an atheist? And bam, in comes a whole portfolio of expectations on what you will say, what your behaviors and attitudes are...
  • dictionary definition is irrelevant... dictionary does not define words, but rather describes them as they have come into meaning
  • there is conduct that [outspoken atheists] exhibit that I do not... this captures the sense of what atheist is defined by those most visible
  • interesting: "Goodbye" an historical abbreviation of "God be with you.".
  • Uses AD/BC vs. CE/BCE.
  • Until he no longer hears, "I thought you were an atheist"... no labels.

  • Harris interjects with this insightful and humorous assessment: Atheist given meaning mostly in circles of religious dogmatists... they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.


Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) | Twitter