Not long ago, my Google news feed was seeing frequent references to an exchange between actor/director Ben Affleck and neuroscientist Sam Harris when both appeared on the popular HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher”. I suspect that this recent exposure is because of the involvement of the very popular actor going on an anti-racist tirade against the featured guest Mr. Harris. The exchange occurred during a segment where Mr. Harris and Mr. Maher suggested that Islam has more pernicious features than other popular religions.
For those that don’t know; Mr. Maher and Mr. Harris are well known non-believers and, rather famously, criticize religion regularly and publicly. Indeed; Mr. Harris came to notoriety in the post-9/11 world with his first two books The End of Faith and Letter To A Christian Nation. Both of these tomes were wildly popular and influential in their critique of religion…particularly religion in America. John Shore…a somewhat-popular Christian blogger and author…described Mr. Harris in an essay thusly:
“[N]obody out-rationalizes Sam Harris. The guy has a brain the size of Europe—and all of it is connected to his mouth. He also seems entirely compassionate and utterly Pro-Human, two qualities I know I enjoy in a person. I think Sam Harris stands as pretty much the ultimate example of what a person can be and think when they insist that rational thought, above all, should be respected.”
I have read Mr. Harris and could only hope to be a reasoned, thoughtful and compassionate as he. I was befuddled only somewhat when I heard Mr. Affleck suggesting that he was racist because I know from experience there is nuance that
is critical to reasonably discussing these issues…and, apparently, that nuance zips right past a large part of the public.
You might do well to pause here and watch the original exchange and Mr. Harris’ essay as a post-mortem of the event. You can find that video and Mr. Harris’ essay [here]. [I’ve looked for a statement from Mr. Affleck but have found none] The Internet has any number of critiques taking both sides…though a more diverse group of voices seems to side with Mr. Harris.
The nuance to which I allude is the distinction between criticism of a faith/doctrine/scripture (Islam in this case) and criticism of followers of that faith (Muslims in this case). So let’s all agree that, as with any faith, the beliefs and values of individual Muslims fall across a very wide spectrum. There are cultural Muslims that identify with a Muslim family/community but for whom religious observance plays no role in their day-to-day life. There are extremist Muslims that we rightly fear out of which movements like Al qaeda and ISIS are born. There is the vast space between those two points where the majority of Muslims reside. To ascribe a terrorist mindset to a person when merely knowing that they self-describe as Muslim would be the textbook definition of bigotry.
I say with confidence…having read five of Mr. Harris’ books and listening to him speak…that Mr. Harris does not criticize Muslims so. [Notwithstanding any inelegance in statements during a short television segment with an antagonistic and derisive fellow guest]
The core point that Mr. Harris and Mr. Maher were making that, at this juncture in time, there are aspects of Islam that create a more fertile environment for breeding the mindsets that act in opposition to civilization. While it is self-evident that only a small fraction of Muslims skew toward the actionable extremist end of the spectrum (those that have crossed the mental fence and willingly mete destruction and suffering through bombings, executions, et. al.), the scriptural passages and well understood precepts that spawn such actions are common and uncontroversial teachings of Islam.
The Koran is quite clear on the fate of those that leave the faith and the treatment of those that fail to recognize Muhammad as the final prophet. While few Muslims would make the dark turn to kill for their god, there are unambiguous and uncontroversial teachings that promote just that.
Prominent in the pay-cable verbal skirmish were references to several poll numbers:
- Polls in Muslim-majority countries show majorities believe the death penalty is appropriate for leaving the faith (a.k.a. apostasy) [link]
- A poll of Muslims in Great Britain revealed that 78% of them thought that punishment of those publishing a cartoon depicting the Muhammad is appropriate. [link]
[See a wealth of information from Pew Research at this link]
It would be easy to imagine that, within Mr. Affleck’s circles amongst uber-liberal Hollywood elite, his Muslim acquaintances are as pleasant and liberal and civilized as any you would meet. If I, like Mr. Affleck, thought someone was debasing the ethics/morality of persons that I knew to be perfectly moral and holds normative societal values, I would get in the face of that someone. After all; can there be a more hurtful accusation than to call into question someone’s ethics? So I can’t fault Mr. Affleck for his attacking [what he thought was] bigotry, but I do fault him for not understanding the argument.
So what do we make of those poll numbers showing large portions of Muslim communities agreeing with such uncivil and unenlightened ideas? These sorts of polls, done by credible organizations such as Gallup and Pew, can’t reasonably be considered racist. To the extent that we can consider things as facts; these are the facts. We have to interpret those facts. Those facts still exist whether they are unflattering or not.
While we, again, recognize that it is only a small portion of Muslims that will make that dark turn to kill and subjugate and demonize others, we have to recognize that there is a large, deep pool of uncivil thought from which to recruit. It’s not unfair or uncivil or racist to state facts. It is incumbent on all of us to interpret these facts so as to understand the faith. To me; having such ideas being well accepted just below the surface of a civil veneer means that there is something wrong and, arguably, dangerous.
It bears noting here, that Christians harbor a fair number old-testament types that probably give weight to passages such as:
“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” – Deuteronomy 13:6-11
I don’t have poll numbers that measure similar positions to those of Muslims on these matters. It’s safe to say, though, that none of us are familiar with contemporary reports of Christians killing their neighbor for trying to lure them to Scientology or Hinduism or Islam. That certainly was not the case in periods that hosted The Crusades and The Inquisition. I would suggest this is so because we have the great benefit of the bulk of Christians living in secular states that have [fortunately] defined civil law superseding religious law.
So when you hear [or are party to] these discussions; be sure to recognize the distinction between the faith and it’s individual followers. It is…thankfully…an exceptionally rare thing to find someone that is truly defining all religious followers by the very worst of them.