As you may remember, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher and Ben Affleck had a little spat on Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher denounced Islam for its anti-progressive, sometimes brutal, nature and where Affleck got all 5-year-old on Maher for being- as he (in)famously put it- a racist. Now, there was a player in there that most people (who are not atheists) don’t recognize but who has for some time been making some serious waves in the public discourse about why we need a more secular America, and indeed a more secular world for that matter, and that man was the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.
During the debate, which you have probably already seen on YouTube, Harris sides with Maher and denounces Islam as basically a modern 14th Century Christianity, in reference to the ways the Catholic Church brutally and greedily maintained the status quo and wanted to convert everyone to the faith Inquisition style. During the debate, Harris makes some pretty incendiary, but true, claims about Islam and about Muslims who cowardly hide behind the Koran and its texts to justify bloodbaths and acts of terrorism. As it went on, Harris remained completely cool and collected while he talked about the punishment for apostasy in Muslim countries, the treatment of women and homosexuals, and the overall thinking of the majority of Muslims outside the Middle Age… East. Outside the Middle East, excuse me.
For the most part, the other invited guests, contributed little to the discussion although they made one or two good points worth remembering but not worth mentioning here. The whole exchange was mostly between Affleck and Harris, where Mr. Harris said something along the lines of Islam is bad for women, progressives and people wanting to leave the religion and where Affleck usually cut him off or sneered at him without contributing much of weight to the conversation beyond calling him a racist or a bigot. I’m sure that Affleck was speaking out of the kindness of his heart having never heard of Sam and his extensive work and history on the eternal battle between reason and religion. And if you are also not familiar with Harris’ work then maybe it is also reasonable to you take the position Affleck took, after all, outside of context, what Sam Harris and Bill Maher were saying does sound a bit bigoted. But again, put in context what they were advocating was that Liberals have not taken enough responsibility to denounce Islam for its failures as they have done with other religions like Christianity and Judaism.
This is all old-news to you, but here’s where it gets interesting. In the aftermath of the debate, weird things in the political circle started happening. Many News shows, some of them Fox “news” programs- came to the aid of Harris and Maher, known secularists and liberals whom Conservatives and its subsidiaries (Fox) often view with untrusting eyes.
Panelist Greg Gufeld- a self-described agnostic and Libertarian- and part of the the Fox News chain program “The Five” said during a recent airing of the show, “What you see is the crises that takes hold when liberal orthodoxy faces off with real attacks on liberal orthodoxy.” Which I find odd, since it is hardly liberal orthodoxy to want a society that is reasonable and devoid of bad ideas. He goes on to say, “Yes, we get that it’s wrong to stereotype but then we study the facts…” He then ends his segment with a rather funny and contemptuous remark about Maher saying, “…and in a shock to even himself, Maher becomes the sanest man in the room, how’s that?”
Bill O’Reilly in his own Fox News Show “The O’Reilly Factor” also remarked Islam’s isolated ideology, but not because of the dangerous influence a literal interpretation can cause but rather because he still holds an outdated, crusade mentality that Christianity is the right answer in this whole conflict. “Islam is a destructive force in the world…”, he says without offering a better alternative other than his own religion. Surprisingly, O’Reilly turns a bit more objective and logical even though the evangelist message, although subtle, continues to be implied.
Not only did all these guys side with Harris, but they went so far to denounce Affleck- a known liberal- as stupid or as someone who didn’t know what he was talking about. It was hilarious for me to see that because in virtually NO other context but to denounce Islam as a religion for which war and death is the path to eternal salvation would they have sided with Harris on that matter. And while the debate between the movie star and the scholar was clearly lopsided in the direction of Harris, it was entertaining and informative to see the way that secularists think about the different angles of religious freedom not just here in the U.S. but abroad, and especially in the Middle East.
While Affleck is a smart guy and very knowledgeable and entitled to his opinion- as Sam Harris himself put it in an essay he wrote days after the exchange- he is no authority or an expert on religious fundamentalism, freedom of religion, or rather lack of, especially regarding Islam and Islamophobia and the history and rise of militarized Islam and its influence on the modern world. It seems Affleck sees the argument through the eyes of a romantic defending a bunch of misled young boys. He was obviously not interested with anything Harris had to say or even familiar with his work which, I’m sure, he would have agreed with a lot of it had he given it a page-through.
But this is exactly where the fabric of time seems to disintegrate as logic dissolves. If you know anything about Sam Harris, he is one of the men some Christians call one of the “Four Horsemen”, this of course in reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The brilliant Christopher Hitchens famously mocked the eponym by saying they were in fact “The Four Horsemen of the non-apocalypse.” Harris, as was Hitchens, is a man who is an atheist to his very core going so far as to even hating the word itself for its presumption that to be anti something, it must exist.
Over the years, Dr. Harris has written many books about the uselessness of religion in today’s society and other philosophical concepts. He has also debated with dozens of religious apologists from different religions and various politicians from either side, using honest and verifiable rebuttals, while also making his point. But it’s not all Dr. Harris has managed to do since he wrote the New York Time’s Best Seller “The End of Faith”, in his books he not only takes the path of the rank atheist, he steps up the game and proposes alternatives to religious doctrine, something which many before him wouldn’t do. Sam Harris has openly declared that the way towards true equality is not religion, but reason. This is where Fox, Republicans and most serious Christians come in.
The Republican Party- that’s the guys with the elephant- is, as you know, a political organization (1 of 2) that has a very strong Christian base. Ironically, the Republicans want a smaller government in theory but in reality they expand the government more than Democrats have done, logically from their close attachment to corporations and corporate interests (which tend to favor big government), most staunchly decline the idea of man-induced global warming- or global warming itself- and they are big on weapon rights. I say this is ironic, because according to Christian principles, these do not align with Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. But among their many accomplishments, they have successfully re-branded Christianity over a generation to fit their own agendas. In a sense, they use the name of Christianity and the Bible, sometimes illegally, to justify injustice at the grandest scales to fit an outdated way of thinking. It’s not about traditional American values, it’s about slowing down progress. I’m not saying that Democrats don’t go down the same road also, but statistically speaking, not in the record numbers that Republicans do.
The psychology of the Republican party is led by the status quo. Which is why progress in areas like gay marriage and gay rights, immigration, the integration of minorities into the political scene, global healthcare coverage and the environment, among others- is rather slow.
America, being the melting pot that it is with its thousands of religions, thousands of languages, and hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, is, in a sense, no place for Republicans. For example, more than freedom itself, most Republicans wish that America was an officially Christian country, which is kind of like saying, “You can have freedom of religion as long as it’s Christianity.” Most also wish to make English the official language of the U.S., and limit the inflow of immigration. And while I am inclined to agree with some of what they propose in these and other areas, most I think should be rejected outright. It is, I think, safe to say that most Republican voters would support a bill to amend the part of the Constitution that grants us all, not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. I think you can see where this is leading.
So in one corner, we have Sam Harris, a man of reason and science, and in the other we have the Republican Party, staunch defenders of the faith.
I believe that we as Americans, and within a smaller circle we as atheists, are placing the emphasis on the wrong argument. It shouldn’t be whether Affleck or Harris were right, I think the bigger question is whether Harris or the Republicans are right. Ben Affleck is indeed a hothead, but for all practical purposes, partially correct about the things he says. I believe that given all the information, he can be persuaded about this issue, or at least he would reasonably admire its assertive points. But the Reps on the other hand only agree with Harris because the flawless Christian nation they want this country to be should have nothing to do with Islam. In other words, the crusaders in Armani suits wouldn’t really be so against the idea of waging holy war in the name of Christianity. The-enemies-of-my-enemies-are-my-friends sort of thing.
The Republican party is not really in the side of reason, they just hate Islam more than they hate Harris. And in the off-chance that one of ’em rascals reads this blog, I write it with the utmost sincerity, and anybody who is willing to dispute that claim they can certainly make a case for it.
Eventually, the debate will blow over in the political spectrum and something else will take its place. But what we can take from it, is that this has opened the debate among atheists, and people of all faiths, about just how far we are willing to go to protect bad ideas. While you may think that the current form of Islam is just another religion taking its course and that it has been hijacked by psychopaths, I am willing to bet that the Islam from a thousand years ago was in many ways much more tolerant and progressive, while the Christianity from the same era was brutal and imposing. It seems the roles have changed.
This brings us to ask the question of just how tolerant we are willing to be about a religion that advocates mass murder, misogyny, and illiteracy? And no I’m not talking about Christianity, although the shoe also fits. This forces us to ask among ourselves, just how long we are going to tolerate many bad ideas that are comfortable for a few good ones that are uncomfortable. Change is difficult, but is it more difficult than human suffering and injustice?
Maybe one day, Islam will go the way of Christianity and reform itself without the help of the rest of the world. Maybe Christianity one day will become as thousands of religions have become before it, simply an interesting myth. Maybe Ben Affleck will one day read the works of Harris and understand that while it sounds pretty bad to denounce an entire population for their beliefs, it is in fact their beliefs we are criticizing. After all, no, we don’t have to respect everyone’s beliefs. I would not be willing to accept anyone’s personal beliefs that racism is a good thing or that women are not equal to men. This type of acceptance is dangerous for a population. But more than anything, I hope that maybe one day, politicians can take this all in and understand that beliefs are not mere political tools, but actual instruments of liberation or repression used by the sane and the psychotic alike in a dangerous game of chess where people die when nations go to war because of them.
If you would like to know more about Sam Harris and his website, Project Reason, and his blog, here are the following links to both, respectively.