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Maher debate continues in The New York Times

Maher debate continues in The New York Times October 9, 2014

For the last few weeks, we’ve been covering the controversial criticism of Islam expressed across several episodes of Bill Maher’s Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO.

Two weeks ago, Maher criticized the Yale Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics[1. I was the president of this group while I was an undergraduate.] for siding, “in the name of multiculturalism” with people who “hold down women and violate them,” because they co-signed a letter along with 30 other organizations criticizing an invitation for Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak on campus. That the letter explicitly condemned what Hirsi Ali experienced at the hands of her religious community and didn’t use the word “mulitculturalism” once, or in fact reference or appeal even vaguely to the concept, was only the start of the issues with Maher’s segment. We covered Reza Aslan’s broader response on CNN here.

This past weekend, Ben Affleck instigated a heated discussion between Maher, Sam Harris, and Nicholas Kristof about Maher and Harris’s view on Islam. You can read our commentary here and here, as well as a broader summary of recent events at Vox

This morning, in the Opinion pages of The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof reflected on his appearance on Maher’s show, and Reza Aslan weighed in on the debate again. Both pieces are worth the read.

Kristof started by making three broad points about Islam. First, from a historical perspective, there isn’t anything uniquely intolerant or violent about Islam:

Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.

Second, Kristof acknowledge the genuine ongoing horrors carried out in parts of the Muslim world. No one in this broader dialogue, this blog included, thinks that these actions should be above reproach or criticism. The problem is when we ignore Kristof’s third point: that Islam is vast, varied, and nowhere near monolithic. He writes:

Beware of generalizations about any faith because they sometimes amount to the religious equivalent of racial profiling. Hinduism contained both Gandhi and the fanatic who assassinated him. The Dalai Lama today is an extraordinary humanitarian, but the fifth Dalai Lama in 1660 ordered children massacred “like eggs smashed against rocks.”

Christianity encompassed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and also the 13th century papal legate who in France ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women and children for heresy, reportedly saying: Kill them all; God will know his own.

The hallmark of Islamophobia, I think, is that the horrors of Islam are treated as generalizable in ways that the horrors of Christianity and other religions isn’t. Reza Aslan tackles similar themes, writing:

What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.

Aslan goes on to make a point very near and dear to my heart, similar to what my brother argued a few days ago:

No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.

After all, scripture is meaningless without interpretation. Scripture requires a person to confront and interpret it in order for it to have any meaning. And the very act of interpreting a scripture necessarily involves bringing to it one’s own perspectives and prejudices.

Atheists sometimes seem to recognize this point, but inconsistently. In one breath, we criticize buffet-style Christianity—those who take the good bits, leaving out what they don’t like, or those who cherry pick scripture to prop up and justify their prejudices—while in the next we cite violent passages in the Quran (which, qualitatively, are very similar to passages found in the scripture of any religion) as a way to explain exceptional violence that follows more geographical and political lines than religious ones.

Intuitively, we understand what’s going on when a Christian uses Leviticus 18:22 to justify prejudice against gay men while ignoring Leviticus 19:28, which forbids tattoos. Something causes this selective reading, and I think whatever that is will do more to explain why Muslims cite religious justification for the murder of infidels more often when they live under occupation than in Indonesia. Since, I take it, the text of the Quran doesn’t change based on geography, broader issues must be at play.

Aslan ends with a few points that I think are hard to disagree with:

Members of the Islamic State are Muslims for the simple fact that they declare themselves to be so. Dismissing their profession of belief prevents us from dealing honestly with the inherent problems of reconciling religious doctrine with the realities of the modern world. But considering that most of its victims are also Muslims — as are most of the forces fighting and condemning the Islamic State — the group’s self-ascribed Islamic identity cannot be used to make any logical statement about Islam as a global religion…

Bill Maher is right to condemn religious practices that violate fundamental human rights. Religious communities must do more to counter extremist interpretations of their faith. But failing to recognize that religion is embedded in culture — and making a blanket judgment about the world’s second largest religion — is simply bigotry.

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