On Ben Affleck and Sam Harris

Some comments popped up last night on my Facebook wall on which I’d like to share some thoughts. The above image was the first thing I saw, and I wondered who would think they could get away with such a flagrant misrepresentation of the comments Ben Affleck recently made on Bill Maher’s television show. I was a bit surprised to read that it was American Atheists, Inc. promoting this kind of rhetoric, but the comments they posted along with the image were even more concerning. I’d like to talk a bit about Harris and Maher v. Affleck, and then the FB post.

First, regarding the image, I don’t think anyone has ever said that any and all criticism of someone’s religion is racist in and of itself. Perhaps someone did somewhere, but that’s certainly not what Affleck said. He was responding to Sam Harris’ well-known history of controversial opinions regarding Islam and what to do with it. This is what was said to catalyze the “gross and racist” comment.

Sam Harris: Liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy… When you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us. The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamaphobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people. That is intellectually ridiculous.

Ben Affleck: Are the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that so you can say…

Harris: I’m actually well educated on this topic.

Affleck: I’m asking you… you’re saying that Islamaphobia is not a real thing, that if you’re critical of something.

Bill Maher: It’s not a real thing when we do it.

Harris: I’m not denying that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people…

Affleck: It’s gross, it’s racist. It’s like saying “you shifty Jew.”

Yes, it would be “intellectually ridiculous” to insist every criticism of the doctrine of Islam is bigoted, but, again, I don’t know anyone who’s said that. Harris has a history not of criticizing specific doctrines of Islam, but of broadly criticizing the expression of the religion as a “bad idea.” The dichotomization of “ideas” from “people” serves to inoculate Harris (in his mind) from any kind of racism or bigotry, but comments like, “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” betray the thinness and fuzziness of the line that may or may not distinguish “ideas” from “people” in Harris’ mind. That comment is undeniably gross and racist, particularly in light of the fact that many recent converts to radical Islam look nothing like Harris’ prototypical Muslim (he points out even he looks like a Muslim, as if that makes it ok to say Muslims look a certain way; and skin color is not the central issue, despite Harris’ defense of his position). He claims to be well educated in the area, but his etic and antagonistic perspective prevents him from understanding the Islamic experience and faith. He has never seen the US or Israel through Muslim or Middle Eastern eyes. He has never looked at the world through the perspective of one born and raised outside of the Western world. He does not understand the Muslim worldview or the cultural mores of those born and raised in the Middle East. No matter how educated he is or becomes, he absolutely does not, and will never, understand “the codified doctrine of Islam.” (Nor will I or Ben Affleck, for that matter.)

The fact is, modern popular criticisms of Islam are thoroughly entangled in different ways with issues of ethnicity, nationalism, politics, and culture, but instead of taking the intellectually responsible—and time consuming—route of carefully disentangling those concepts and appropriately applying those criticisms, Harris and Maher pretty much always lump it all together and for convenience sake just represent it all as “religion.” This is highly problematic, not only for those who highlight their prioritization of reason and evidence, but also for those who generally insist one must carefully parse the reasons and motivations for cultural phenomena and not broadly asign responsibility to convenient targets, as Harris insists when talking about sexism and employment stats:

I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society. However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.

As proselytizing atheists, though, broadly assigning responsibility to religion makes for a convenient—yet artificial—religious bogeyman. This bogeyman is reinforced with the either insincere or ignorant notion that all Muslims may not be terrorists, but all “devout Muslims” believe everyone must convert, be subjugated, or die:

The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed.

Here Harris plays the role of the sectarian and dictates what Muslims may and may not think. This uncritically accepts the dogmatism of the most conservative factions within Islam that they represent the unilaterally defining expression of their religion. The reason for accepting this dogmatism is simple: it makes it easier to criticize Islam as a whole, rather than wade through pluriformity and diversity of thought and present a nuanced and rhetorically unhelpful description of the religion. That fundamentalism, however, is generally commensurate with social insularity (or quarantine), which is a phase through which almost all religions pass. Those quarantined within a broader culture of disparate values and priorities will ultimately grow out of that phase and begin to syncretize or reform if they hope to proliferate and continue to grow. This occurred in the Western world during the Enlightenment, an intellectual and cultural period of change through which the Islamic states have yet to pass. As a result, they constitute the dominant cultures in many places and are largely not saddled with the need to syncretize. Those Muslims living in other cultures, however, generally pass into that next natural phase of religious development. Their religion is no less Muslim. To say that only adherents to that insular phase are “devout” is simply cherry picking the most convenient sectarian ideology for one’s rhetoric.

The facts, additionally, don’t support the anti-Muslim litany regarding the inspiration for violence. This is a large and complex issue, but some observations betray the naivety of calling it all the fault of Islam. For instance, more than 95% of suicide attacks are directed at compelling an occupying force to withdraw from prized territory. That isn’t suggestive of a purely religious motivation for that kind of violence. It’s perceived by the attackers and those who support them as a valid expression of nationalism and cultural preservation and defense. Harris himself defends the murder of innocent people on exactly the same grounds:

Yes, our drone strikes in Pakistan kill innocent people—and this undoubtedly creates new enemies for the West. But we wouldn’t need to drop a single bomb on Pakistan, or anywhere else, if a death cult of devout Muslims weren’t making life miserable for millions of innocent people and posing an unacceptable threat of violence to open societies.

(The degree of the hypocrisy of this statement is difficult to comprehend. How many of those “innocent people” having their lives made miserable are the same “innocent people” whose lives we’re just ending with drone strikes?) Harris highlights broad Muslim approbation of suicide bombing and the prosecution of non-Muslims, but we can just as easily point to US approbation of numerous atrocities committed over the decades in defense of “the American way.” One need not look far to find jihadists appealing to Western oppression and violence against their societies and their people as justification for killing “innocent people.” Harris’ argument does not appear religious in orientation or provenance, and no doubt he would insist it is purely rational, so why is it fundamentally religious when someone who “looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim” says it? It’s not, but pretending it’s religious helps Harris’ proselytizing.

So on to the FB comments:

What happened to the Ben Affleck we used to love, who thought it was respectable—and essential—to criticize bad ideas openly and vehemently?

Remember the 1999 Dogma Movie which starred Affleck along with an ensemble cast including Kevin Smith (who also directed it), Matt Damon,George CarlinChris RockSalma HayekLinda FiorentinoAlan Rickman,Bud CortJason LeeJaneane GarofaloAlanis Morissette, and Jason Mewes? The film criticized religion and revealed the danger and absurdity inherent in fixed beliefs without evidence.

As with Harris, “ideas” are distinguished, ostensibly, from “people,” but also as with Harris, that distinction holds only when describing atheist dogmas and methods. It vanishes when applying them. It’s not Islam as an idea that is criticized, it is the expression of Islamic faith on the part of its adherents that is criticized.

Islam, like all religions, is a scam,

This is just a phenomenally naïve comment, if not downright dishonest. Sure, some people use religion to scam others, but to unilaterally categorize religion as a “scam” just flies in the face of the overwhelming preponderance of empirical evidence that belief in the supernatural has a deeply rooted cognitive and evolutionary basis and is a sincere and fundamental part of the worldviews and consciousnesses of billions of people around the world. That kind of rhetorical jab does not betray any respectable degree of concern for logic, evidence, or insight, but rather juvenile and naïve pettiness. It characterizes a phenomenally complex and pervasive aspect of human nature in terms of one of the most petty and base expressions of that nature of which it can conceive simply for the sake of rhetorical effect.

and dogmatically adhering to its provably incorrect core claims comes at the cost of equality for women, equality for LGBT people, science education, and many other vital aspects of a humanistic and just society.

It should be noted that plenty of secular societies are also having a hard time securing this equality. The issue is usually couched in terms of culture, politics, and personality when it’s criticized in those secular societies, and let’s not forget that New Atheists like Harris and Dawkins are frequently the objects of heavy criticism for their racism, sexism, and cultural imperialism. To what incorrect core claims are they dogmatically adhering to also threaten those vital aspects of a humanistic and just society? Certainly not the universal human frailties of selfishness, egotism, and ethnocentrism?

Racism is disgusting. As atheists and champions of humanist principles, we desire and demand equality for all people, but let us take care to communicate that criticizing a religion—an idea, with no rights—is not synonymous with criticizing someone’s ethnicity, race, or sexual identity.

Unless you actually are criticizing someone’s ethnicity, race, or sexual identity, which is often the case with folks like Harris and Maher, as much as they seem think they’re allowed to as long as they’re convinced it’s true. Many people condemn racism and then turn around and defend their racism. It’s not “equality for all people” to say you should get profiled in the airport if you look Muslim. To pretend that atheists are somehow immune to this in virtue of claiming to prioritize logic and reason is just asinine.

People, by virtue of being human, deserve respect as a natural right. Ideas, however, must earn respect by being in accordance with evidence, logic, and reason.

Islam fails, miserably and disastrously, on all counts.

We denounce racism. We denounce Islam. These two statements are not contradictory.

Not unilaterally, but they absolutely can be, and in the case of Maher and Harris, I think they demonstrably are.

One response to “On Ben Affleck and Sam Harris

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