Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Real Time With Bill Maher
(Image by The Guardian) Permission Details DMCA
One common element of cults is the unthinking celebration of anything said under their name, as well as the complete and total condemnation of anyone who dares to question their ideas. As such, this article will no doubt be summarily dismissed as being wishy washy apologetics. lt might even get me excommunicated from the Church of the IPU.
Nevertheless I'm obliged to speak out against the minority of right-wing atheists, and their continuing campaign of defamation and demonization of Islam. As always, some of us try and point out that they are not providing a secular critique of the harmful aspects within dangerous Islamic sects, nor are they even providing a critique of the founding texts of Islam. Instead they are simply parroting the ethnocentric racism of a society that has coincidentally been at war with Muslim countries for decades.
Their response to this is invariably: "There is no such thing as Islamophobia." And despite the endless evidence that contradicts this claim, such as a Christian with a militarist name attacking Muslims for having militarist names, they proceed unfettered by the reason and facts they pretend to celebrate.
The argument behind this derangement goes as follows: You can't be be bigoted against an idea, nor a set of ideas. The reason for this is that ideas aren't people, that we can hate whatever idea we want. Often times, to drive home the point, atheists will note that it would be ridiculous to call someone bigoted against Stalinism or Nazism.
The problem is that this is nonsense. Humans do not come to any singular idea as a blank slate, on the contrary we all come to any particular idea with preconceived notions. Insofar as those preconceived notions involve disproportionately negative and fallacious presumptions, then you are bigoted against an idea. Obviously when it is a full blown belief system, as opposed to a singular idea, the chances of bigotry expand greatly.
For instance, if you are to suggest that you are a socialist in the United States, people presume that you think government should control the economy, but that has essentially nothing to do with socialism. Such people, influenced by our state capitalist media and culture, are unsurprisingly bigoted against socialism. Alternatively, you wouldn't be bigoted against socialism, if you attacked socialism because you simply had a problem with greater economic equality -- something consistent within all variations of socialism . Now your argument might be good or bad there, but at least you're arguing against a universal quality that the belief system holds.
When it is a full blown religion, such as Islam or Christianity, the problem becomes greater still. The reason is that, unlike what atheists and many religious adherents would have you believe, Christianity and Islam aren't belief systems. On the contrary, they are philosophical traditions of thought that encompass a variety of radically different belief systems. There is no connection, for instance, between the Christianity of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and the Christianity of the late Jerry Falwell. Nor is there any particular connection between the Red Shi'ism of Ali Shariati and the Salafist Jihadism of Osama Bin Laden. The reason is that while religions like Christianity and Islam might be based on a specific text, the actual belief system is based on the historical, cultural, and political understanding of the text. Thus if we are going to offer any meaningful criticism of religion, we would have to offer greater specificity than "a critique of Buddhism", or "a critique of Christianity", or "a critique of Islam" because then you will inevitably be making false generalizations. Just like with the socialist example, any meaningful critique would have to specify what kind of socialism they are talking about -- state socialism, libertarian socialism, social democracy, etc. Criticism without specificity is nonsense and often dangerous.
Atheists often respond to this by suggesting that while there are different Muslims and Christians, it's basically the fundamentalists who take their religion seriously and the liberal people who don't take their religion very seriously. In fact, Sam Harris repeated this on last Friday's episode of Bill Maher: "There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don't take the faith seriously, who don't want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS."
Here Sam Harris is offering specificity. Basically you like to chop off heads, or at least oppress women, or you don't take your religion seriously. This, however, is also nonsense. Everyone cherry-picks their beliefs based on various cultural bigotries and/or reason. Whether you are religious or non-religious, whether you are a left-wing Muslim or a far-right Muslim. No one is absolutely faithful to a text, because texts are often inherently contradictory, allowing for a multitude of meanings. As Reza Aslan noted in the New York Times: "The same Jesus Christ who told his disciples to 'turn the other cheek' (Matthew 5:39) also told them that he had 'not come to bring peace but the sword" (Matthew 10:34), and that 'he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one' (Luke 22:36). The same Quran that warns believers 'if you kill one person it is as though you have killed all of humanity' (5:32) also commands them to 'slay the idolaters wherever you find them."
For instance, Atheists might claim that various groups that ban female education are the true Muslims, even though Muhammad encouraged female education ("How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."); despite the fact that one of the oldest universities in the world was founded by a Muslim woman. Similarly atheists might suggest that because of some hadiths, Muslims that take their religion seriously would practice Female Genital Mutilation. Except that there are various problems with this.
1) Some Muslims do not follow these hadiths. The majority of Shias, for instance.
2) Three of four hadiths don't specify gender, so could just as easily be talking about male circumcision.
3) The reliability of the hadith that does mention women, in which Muhammad tells them not to cut harshly, has been questioned by various Islamic scholars for over a thousand years. The 11th century Imam, Ahmad Bayhaqi for instance, criticized the hadith as being based on "a broken chain of transmission."
4) The Quaran doesn't say anything specifically on the topic, but does tells people "not deface the (fair) nature created by Allah." As a result, some Muslims use this as an argument against circumcision.
That is the religious textual support for FGM. It's marginal and questionable, and could be read as either condemning or praising or remaining ambivalent to FGM, depending on how one interprets it, depending on how one cherry-picks the data. Nevertheless if you dare to present these facts to right-wing atheists, they will throw a hissy fit, and call you a liar. This is something Reza Aslan experienced after he had the temerity to fact-check one of Atheist's great leaders, Bill Maher.