If 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.
What 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.