When Atheism Blinds Us to Nuance

Bill MaherIf you wonder why I have difficulty with the mainstream atheist movement, you need do no more than watch Friday night’s Real Time With Bill Maher. Along with Maher was Sam Harris and the two of them got into an argument with Ben Affleck about how Islam is a uniquely terrible religion. The basic logic — and sadly, this is the depth of the analysis — is that there really is something “wrong” with the religion.

My position has always been that there is nothing any more evil in the teachings of Islam than there is in Judaism or Christianity. And it always strikes me as very bigoted to focus on the wrongs of “their” religion rather than on the wrongs of “ours.” But the bigger problem with their discussion was that it came down to whether we should label a religion based upon the behavior of some or even most of its proponents.

Sam HarrisWhat was interesting was that Maher is clearly very emotional. His position is not, as he claims, based upon rational thought. He has something akin to an irrational hatred toward Muslims. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have his reasons. The problem is that racists have always had reasons for their claims. Americans have long claimed that African Americans were ignorant. Of course, the extent of their ignorance was a function of racism, not the other way around. I think much the same can be said about radicalism among Muslims: it is a function of western policies that have harmed Islamic peoples all over the world.

Harris makes the same racist argument, but with the patina of calm and intellectualism. And he repeated the argument that he and Maher were against the religion of Islam, but not the Muslim people. That’s just sad. That is pretty much exactly what Christians say about homosexuals: hate the sin, love the sinner. In this case, Harris says that he hates the religion, but he has nothing against the people who follow it. It makes no sense.

There is another problem with the argument that Maher and Harris are making. It is basically the “greatest threat” argument that conservatives so love. Whoever we are fighting is the greatest threat that we have ever faced. First it was the Soviet Union. Then we floundered around until we finally got “terrorism” — specifically Islamic terrorism.

But I can’t help going back to the IRA. Yet all the time that terrorism was being used by Catholics in Northern Ireland, no one went around making general comments about Catholics. And this is despite the fact that a lot of American Catholics were sympathetic to the Catholic minority’s struggle in that Protestant majority country. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the focus of much of the atheist community on Muslims is racist.

On the other hand, I don’t accept Ben Affleck’s claim that ISIS isn’t a Muslim religion. No one follows the Koran perfectly, just as no one follows the Bible perfectly. That’s not the way that religions work. And that is the point from my standpoint. Anyone can use any religion or religious book to justify whatever they want. In this way, both sides are trivializing what the Islamic religion is.

Although Christians like to claim that the Nazis were atheists, they were explicitly Christian. Did they act like what I think Christians should act like? No. But I think that is what Affleck was getting at when he asked Harris, “Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam?” Harris didn’t understand what Affleck was saying, of course. Not that it’s hard: what does it even mean to say that Islam is some pox on the world. Catholicism brought us the burning alive of heretics and Francis of Assisi. One can find justifications in the Bible for torture and living a life of poverty working for the good of others. The same is true of the Koran.

As with most things political, I wonder about motivations. It just so happens that the ideas that Bill Maher and Sam Harris push are conducive to American imperialism. Given the arguments that they make aren’t especially coherent, I think they are based upon the same kind of emotionalism that is the basis of the usual thoughtless “America right or wrong” patriotism. The idea that the problems in Iraq are really based upon some secret sauce in Islam, and not economic, political, and social conditions in those countries is submental. It’s one thing coming from conservatives who make these kind of “Good vs Evil” arguments about everything. But Harris and Maher would never make this kind of argument about the situation in Ferguson. But in Iraq, they are blind to a nuanced view. And I think it is fundamentally a problem with their atheism. For those of us (atheist and non-atheist alike) who don’t have an ax to grind, there is nothing special about the dysfunction in Iraq.

20 thoughts on “When Atheism Blinds Us to Nuance

  1. Jesus, this is horrible. Harris: “There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates.”

    WTF? I ride the bus with Muslims every day. I’m assuming they’re Muslims, because they are women wearing Muslim headgear. I’m also going to assume they take the faith fairly seriously, or they wouldn’t wear the headgear. When they talk in English (they usually talk in a kind of pidgin, mixing English with their first-learned language), they don’t talk about killing anybody. Unless that’s the stuff I can’t translate. The stuff that’s in English is about people who are jerks and family business and work concerns, and I ignore it after a second or two, because eavesdropping is rude and I have books to read.

    In 2002 I had coffee with my centrist brother before he left for Iraq. (He enlisted in 1990 to escape our hideous family, and got sent to Iraq. He re-enlisted in early 2001 for the college-paying benefits, and got sent to Iraq. Shitty timing, but he ended up unscathed.) His take was that we are probably in a “war of civilizations.” And that it was an unwinnable war, by either side. Short of nuking every single member of the other side, violence isn’t going to resolve the conflict. It just makes people madder.

    I read a column by Kristof the other day, and I struggled to remember who he was; the byline said “New York Times,” and that always raises my suspicions, but it made some pretty good sense, for an NYT column. Bomb like crazy, it said (no), but if you really want to change fundamentalism in the Muslim world, spend money educating women (yes!). Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor whose daughters were killed by Israelis while he was reporting on a Gaza siege, has the same response; educate and empower women. (His book is titled “I Shall Not Hate”; clearly, he doesn’t take Islam seriously.)

    If we’d let Mossadegh nationalize Iran’s oil supply in 1953, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today. Instead, we’d be talking about how rich modern countries like Iran were shitting on poor countries, just like we talk about Germany shitting on Greece. Religion wouldn’t have anything to do with it.

    We are pretty protected in America from the fallout from garbage like Maher/Harris are spouting here. We’ve taken giant dumps over group after group after group and, mostly, the response has been “hey, can we sign up for those good union jobs?” We can’t be that lucky forever. Eventually the people we turd upon aren’t going to stand it. Maybe they’ll be organized and effective like the civil-rights movement was. It could go another way.

    I could easily imagine anti-Muslim sentiment devolving into pogroms, which bred terrorist reactions, which inspired more pogroms. Hard to imagine happening here (again, our pogrom victims generally want to join in, not blow up), but it’s happened elsewhere. And, although you don’t need reminding, it’s happened elsewhere with pogrom victims who were not Muslims.

    What the hell are the likes of Maher/Harris pimping for? Conquest? Nukes? They can’t be in favor of the Hitchens “let’s take them over” plan, can they?

    I had been curious about Harris’s latest book, which got good reviews from my library. I’m no longer interested. This clip did make me increase my respect for Ben Affleck, whom I’d never much thought of before. His angry, befuddled reactions are what a sane person would say listening to this garbage. I did enjoy the movie “Changing Lanes” a bit . . .

    • Yeah, what about all the Christians who don’t take their faith seriously because they don’t want to stone gay folk? Mahris just don’t seem to be able to see the vast complexity that is religious belief. And when it comes to Islam, they are just cultural imperialists.

      But don’t underestimate the power of Hitchens. He’s become even more of an icon today than he was when he was alive. One of my biggest problems with the atheist movement is how highly they regard the guy. I still sit in awe that a man could argue so well against American imperialism, and then do an about face the last decade of his life and argue for it.

  2. Continuing on the ‘nothing Christian about that/nothing Muslim about that’, vein, there is nothing atheist about singling out Islam among religions.

    While I understand that you have criticisms for a loud group of atheists with a good deal of privilege, I need to tell you, right now, I am more poorly-off because I am an atheist. There are quite a number of job and entrepreneurial opportunities I could attain if I was, or would pretend to be some kind of Christian. So, I’ll remind you that yes, for the workaday man (this one, anyway), atheism reduces potential income.

    While I agree with you that there is little sense in saying that one religion is ‘worse’ than another, the fact is that in terms of recent events, the body count is much higher from political Islam than from political actions of all other religions, including all the creepy Anita Bryant’s in the USA, put together. At the same time, friggin’ clearly, political Islam is not remotely the greatest threat to civilization.

    This does not excuse Harris’ sick defence of torture, or his condescending ‘scientific’ ethics that is ignorant of all ethics before him. And the opposition to vaccines championed by Mahar (in the past, anyway) may in the end exceed political Islam in body count. Ain’t hating grand?

    The difference between homosexuality and Islam, viz. the argumentation that you make, is that homosexuality is not actually wrong, whereas every religion is false. And where a religion advances political hatred, it cannot be tolerated.

    I’m totally aware (unlike Maher and Harris maybe) that the majority of Muslims, even conservative ones, are totally against terrorism (the same as everybody else). But terrorism is born of credulity. And as far as I’m concerned, the use of the headscarf, and especially covering the face, is an insult to the long battles of Canadians and Americans to establish women’s equality. People have tried to say otherwise, but they are defending the indefensible. The headscarf requirement is anti-woman, anti-freedom, and makes women’s sexuality the property of men.

    I have no desire to outlaw headscarves, but I would not mind if our universities took the approach of the Turkish and French in banning on campus. Because universities should be a space of freedom, and the headscarf requirement is not free.

    Still, I’m not with these guys. They sicken me sometimes.

    • Well put, intelligently written, but I’ll politely disagree with you on the political Islam having the highest body-count front. Our wars have killed far more people than theirs; and our wars are hugely supported by the American fundamentalist Christian community. Basically because they kill Muslims. If the fundamentalist Christian community were as divided on the virtues of killing Muslims as American Catholics are, we wouldn’t be killing so many Muslim civilians in pursuit of a few genuinely evil psychopaths. It’s tragically accepted by the fundamentalist community as a “shoot ’em all and let God sort it out” sort of atrocity.

    • My argument is not against atheism. I am an atheist. My argument is against the New Atheist movement. I wish I were a Christian. I could make a mint writing textbooks for their home schools.

      I don’t see a problem with head scarfs. I see it as cultural. I’m told young libertarians where fedoras. (I wish they would stop because I love fedoras.) I do have a problem with full body hijabs. But like you, I’m not going to stop people from wearing them, although I think an argument can be made.

      But let us not fool ourselves. The way women dress today is the result of thousands of years of cultural evolution. There are many Christians who have a major problem with the way that women dress today. And our culture is still screwed up because of Paul’s sexual hangups.

      I’m not sure of your violence statistics on Islam. Throughout the world, there is all kinds of violence. Was the Iraq-Iran war Islamic violence? I don’t think so. It was just a good old fashioned territorial/resource war between Muslims. I have no love for Islam, I just don’t see it as any more of a horror than any of the other Abrahamic religions. I’m much more tolerant of Buddhists — especially the Jains. But the history of the Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all pretty bad. And if the Muslims are the worse now (and I’m not willing to concede that point yet), it isn’t the religion itself that makes it so.

      • On a trip to Denmark a few years back, I visited the natural history museum in Copenhagen. Among the fellow visitors were two women, both in headscarves, quite affectionately nuzzling each other. Clearly a couple. Clearly happy to be openly gay in a country that didn’t persecute gay people. And wearing headscarves. For them, I’m guessing, the headscarves were an honor-your-roots thing, not a supporting the oppression of women thing.

        • Could be. Or they could be Muslims. We don’t seem to have a problem with different kinds of Christians and Jews. I’m reminded of a Woody Allen joke, “We were married by a Reform rabbi in Long Island. A very Reform rabbi. A Nazi.” I know lesbian Christians. They just don’t see the anti-homosexual aspects of the Bible to be valid. That’s what’s so silly about Mahris. They just want to hate on Muslims.

  3. I agree the Islamicist body count is not comparable to that coming from white European conquest, but I don’t agree that this conquest is Christian.

    • You may be right! I do think if you looked up support for our wars, you’d find the highest numbers among fundamentalists. But I’m far too lazy to look up something like that, so I’m basically blowing hot air.

      • You do have to get into the whole question of what religion is. I’ve long though the Christian fundies aren’t too interested in their religions. And that gets back to what I originally wrote. These “holy” books can justify anything you want to do.

    • I’ll agree that our actual interest is oil (a good ol’ fashioned resource war). But clearly, the Christian right has no problem with these wars. The question is, is ISIS really interested in Islam or in power? I’m sure it’s a mix, but if human nature is any indication, it is mostly power. As it is, I see religion as just a form of power and control.

      • Good points. If we were genuinely serious about using bombs to stop people from beheading other people in the twisted name of faith, we’d be bombing Saudi Arabia to smithereens. W, no stranger to religion as I recall, wasn’t exactly hostile to the Saudi royalty.

        • Right. The point is that if Islam is a religion of peace for some and a religion of war for others, there isn’t anything especially wrong with the religion. It is just like every religion where people get whatever out of it they want. And we have national interests that dictate how we are going to see the religion.

          Saying Islam is a religion of peace is no more ridiculous than saying Christianity is a religion of peace.

  4. Just to be clear, I’m not counting the Iran-Iraq war as Islamist violence. I don’t consider any war to be an expression of political Islam just because the country is majority Muslim. I am counting only killing that the perpetrators openly declare is done for God. And outside Islam, the numbers for this sort of violence are pretty close to zero recent years.

    And I agree that it is equally ridiculous to call Islam and Christianity religions of peace.

    Don’t be too quick to cite the religious right’s easy support for war (i.e. kill the ragheads). As reliably submissive as these folks usually are when the leaders call for war, there still is no Christian ISIS, no Buddhist ISIS, no Shinto ISIS. What is more, even some nominal leftists (the ‘decent’ left) support war reliably. These are not Christian wars.

    Also, while American religious conservatives often have pretty regressive attitudes with regard to women’s attire, the fact remains that very few Christian women are shunned, raped, or murdered for sexual immodesty. The numbers for Muslim women, though likely exaggerated among the Islam-haters, still are nothing to sneeze at. It’s a problem, a real thing. Honour killings and female genital mutilation are non-negligible only in the Muslim world.

    I’m not really interested in declaring any religion congenitally ‘worse’, and I don’t think any such opinion can be supported by the evidence. There have been times, for example, when the Islamic world was more politically progressive than the Christian, likely much of the medieval period. I’m just looking at how it is on the ground today.

    But I’m convinced that the tipping point for 9/11 was trying to force Saudi Arabia to pay for the first Gulf War, and that ISIS was the predictable, and predicted, outcome of Junior’s attack on Iraq. Treat people like dogs, they act like dogs. Ultimately ISIS is on Cheney and Rice, along with their puppet, Junior. The fact that this well-evidenced opinion cannot be voiced in mainstream American media is pretty sad.

    • I don’t think we really disagree. The issue is whether these people are extreme because the Islamic faith makes them particularly vulnerable to it. And I think we agree that there isn’t anything special about Islam in this way. Stable Islamic countries don’t tend to have these problems. The fact that there are not a bunch of Christian terrorists is more a function of where the Christians are than of the religion.

      What seems to be missing from Mahris is the idea that there is no contradiction between Islam and liberal democracy. Claiming that Islam necessarily implies clitorectomy is a sure way to make Muslims more extreme, not a way to cause Muslims to convert.

  5. Oh, and the headscarf. Remember, among some adherents of Islam (not just the minority that support terrorism), it is required, not optional. No libertarian lady gets raped for refusing to wear a fedora.

    Someone wants to wear a headscarf, or basically anything else, I have no problem. Very basic, in my view. Girls targeted for rape because they won’t wear a headscarf? I got a problem with that.

    • I really can’t say what Muslims do in general on these matters. In the US, we have a long history of girls getting raped because they dressed “provocatively” or because they were too drunk. In many cases, police forces and juries found that such women did “deserve” it. I’ve got a problem with that too. I’ve got a problem with small minded people everywhere. But when something happens in our culture, we see it in a different way. The two cases are the same. As far as I can tell, much Islamic custom is based upon the idea that men simply have no control of their sex drives. As a man, I’m offended by that. But to pick the headscarf as something that applies to them and not to us seems to miss its use as a signifier. Where we might find it an overwhelming burden for men to see a bare breast, they see it as an overwhelming burden for men to see a bare neck. I know that we have made major improvements on this issue even in my lifetime. Are Muslim communities doing the same? I don’t know. But I hate the idea of people pointing to Cheryl Araujo and saying, “See how those people are!”

  6. I’ll just agree to disagree on that. The cases are not the same. Also don’t care about signifiers, find signifier-talk boring and coercive. But ultimately we don’t disagree much on the larger issues, and I have no real interest in pointing at anybody.

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