Saturday, October 4, 2014

Bill Maher vs. Reza Aslan: Two important competing perspectives on respecting religious identity.


The hot topic right now is Bill Maher, Reza Aslan, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck on Islam, but I will also be making use of Christianity as an analogy because it is useful.

Watch firebrand atheist Bill Maher's rant against liberals who are too tolerant of evils of Islam:

Watch liberal Muslim Reza Aslan get interviewed on CNN in response:

I believe there are two important competing perspectives on respecting religious identity at work here and I'm not sure that either of them is wrong.  I think each possibly speaks to different sets of important values and that there may not be any easy way for any one person to hit all those values together.

A religious sensitive perspective (Reza Aslan):

If a person self-identifies as a Muslim or Christian they get full credit on being counted fully Muslim or fully Christian and it is not our place to judge who really is or isn't a true Muslim or Christian.  Since there are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians there really is hardly anything we can say in broad stroke about them as the only thread between them is how they self-identify.  Hence making any such comments makes you a bigot.  Further, religion only inspires people to do good and never inspires them to do bad.  Economics, politics, and other issues are the cause of "Muslim" terrorism for example and never the Islam, because other groups are also terrorists.  The exploits of terrorism and prejudice against women and homosexuals (for example) are all bad, but Islam (for example) is never to blame.

A religious negative perspective (Bill Maher):

There are many grossly inhumane elements to major religious ideas regardless of how they play out in culture and unfortunately a wide range of people personally identify with these religions anyway.  They do this regardless of how serious they are actually taking the source texts and the most probable priorities of their founders.  However, the more check boxes you can check off that more align with the source texts such as the Koran and the Hadith, the more you are going to be naturally considered more representative of Islam.  Same with Christians and the New Testament.  Secular humanists are under no obligation to take seriously the intellectually convoluted claims of moderates and nominally religious people that their version Islam is at all plausible.  It is justified to have an educated opinion on what more or less counts as more or less Muslim as we are people too in this world and these religions are trying to sell themselves to *us* personally. Self-identified Muslims, especially, cannot plausibly shut the door to understanding what a real Muslim is while simultaneously keeping the "evangelical" one open.  It is therefore not an intellectually hands-off issue and such an idea taken to its logical conclusion cuts *every* human off from having any idea what a true Muslim or Christian is *including all those self-identified Muslims and Christians.*  Oops.  Making comments about the Muslim world (clearly framed as generalities, not absolutes, based on actual polls representative of that actual extent of actual Muslims) that significantly weight the Muslims who are actually more or most Muslim constitutes meaningful criticism of the religion at play.  Majority Muslim countries that have significantly modern values at play represent the influence of the modern world *over and above* Islam.  Good for them!  In addition to politics, economics, and other contributing factors, ideas *also* matter as they inspire hope and/or hate and so religion is a significant component in the mix of what makes people who they are and what they are willing to do in the world that impacts others.  Religion above other elements tends to overly thwart the *corrective process* because bad human ideas have been given an untouchable divine seal of approval.  Attacking religion directly (via intellectual criticism) is therefore a necessary process any moral and intellectually honest culture must engage in to at least some reasonable extent.    


The two perspectives are inherently at odds with each other and I would argue are two different ways to wrestle with the incoherence of religious moderates who want 100% credit for being fully Muslim, but then can't give anywhere near a straight answer on how their modern secular views plausibly connect with their source texts anywhere near as often and effortlessly as the radicals do.  And the moderates can't have much of a voice in the culture against the extremists of their religion because the instant they speak up they are too easily knocked down merely for not really plausibly representing the evils of their religious source material.  "Jesus loves gays and is cool with gay marriage."  "Oh really?  No he isn't."  Let me know when that conversation is going to go another way.

"Why won't my self-deception work on other people!?!"

The question comes down to *how* do you respect people (assuming you do)?  Do you respect them through the eyes of their own values first or through the eyes of yours?  I don't care for it anymore than the next person when a Protestant Christian has a prefabricated script that paints me as a rebellious sinner who knows their god exists and that I'm just living in denial of that to indulge in sin.  Of course they impose this narrative regardless of my actual attributes or motives and need no other evidence than I exist and identify as not-their-religion.  But that's the problem.  They judge me at the *expense* of reality, but I can hardly fault them for looking at me from their own actual perspective (anymore than I can fault them for expecting to live their actual values in the world of politics).

Truth is the trump card here.  

I don't know about you, but I've worked long and hard on my values and other people are not entitled to define my thinking about them for me.  I am not subject to your errors about yourself as though your own opinions about yourself are divine and untouchable (whether we are talking about religion or something else).  Your views of yourself are not sacred to me even if they are relevant to my understanding of you.  I may agree with you and I may not agree with you.  I may be wrong in my appraisal just as you may be wrong about yourself.  That's how the process of humaning goes.  It is often said, "Don't judge," but how in the world is that even mentally possible?  Even if such things are not voiced we are unavoidably making value judgements about people all the time and can't be expected to stop.  There are often things that cannot be judged because of known ignorance and of course some budget for the unknown unknowns category, but one cannot *willfully* "not judge."  And if you think you can suspend that at any time, my judgement of that is that you are engaging in self-deception and your opinions remain beneath the interim fog of denialism.

Some observations about the recent pop cultural debate:

Watch CNN talk about the Reza Aslan interview and one correspondent say one shitty thing:

It blew up that the CNN correspondent said Resa Aslan's anger is what makes people anxious about Islam.  That was a stupid thing for that CNN guy to say.  It wasn't characteristic of the merits of the rest of his comments though.  You could drop that quote and I think I'd agree with almost everything else.  Aslan was just getting irritated by the ignorance of the CNN interviewers on some points of fact that he was very familiar with.  I don't think jihad was lurking behind that adorable Iranian face of his.  Pouncing on Aslan for being irritated by something in the conversation is like blaming someone for saying "ouch" when you poke them.  I don't see Aslan's irritation as at all representative of what any reasonable person should be afraid of from the world of the genuinely threatening Islam.  There's nothing at all threatening about Aslan regardless of whether he has some issues wrong.

I think Aslan-supporting critics want to use that quote to malign everything else the CNN guy said without actually addressing it.  And it may even be true that the CNN correspondent does harbor some biases...  News flash: we all do.  So just dismiss everything everyone ever says about anything.  Or you can deal with the merits of things.  Whichever.

I respect Aslan's influence as a corrective check on Islam-bashing going too far.  But he can only push that back so far before we uncover his own measure of obscurantism.  Religion is not a non-issue just because other issues are also issues.  If religion wants to take credit for its actual inherent good, it has to take credit for its actual inherent bad.  Religious moderates (especially in Intelligence Squared debates on Islam and Catholicism) often want us to judge their religious institutions by human standards while expecting us to be simultaneously impressed by them as divine.  I'm sorry, you're going to have to pick one.

And think of just how insulting it is to actual religious people to say their religion is a complete non-issue and means nothing about them?  Ironic, isn't it?  *Who* is taking religion more seriously?  In the world of Christianity, many if not most Christian sects (and I could be wrong about my sense of how many) don't want their religion at all identified with just any random person who self-identifies as a Christian.  And for good reason!  There are "Christian atheists" and everything in between.  Protestants often don't think Catholic Jesus is the real Jesus.  Religious people don't want the mile high anthropological or sociological view of their religion.  They want their religion to be defined by their religion.  And they are just as entitled to having a shot at making that case as I am.  Incidentally they may lose that intellectual battle.  I would hope they'd be a good sport about the possibility.

And they may still be insulted because you don't think they are a "true" Muslim or Christian.  But is that justified?  The point is, you respected them by giving them a good argument.  You granted them the dignity of telling them what you actually think rather than coddling them as though they are infants who can't handle the truth (or at least your take on it).  I don't think there *is* such a thing as a "true" Christian because the definition requires there be a real Holy Spirit in the mix and I don't think that exists.  So merely being able to check off the most boxes for Christianity in terms of aligning with the teachings of the New Testament doesn't mean anything.  Jesus' followers were also supposed to able to use their faith to do even greater miraculous things than he could (John 14:12-14) and I've never seen *anyone* like that.  Heal the sick and miraculously speak in foreign languages?  Nope.  Sorry, never seen anyone check off that critical box.  So no true Christians.  Jesus would seem to agree (Matthew 7:22-23, Luke 13:25-27).  I'm not intimately familiar with the Koran, but perhaps something similar applies to them.  Is it a bigoted view of so called religious people that I expect them to actually exemplify their own moral mythology in reality in order to give them credit?  Maybe you should address my argument rather than getting huffy, because I blame my reading comprehension.

The religious negative view does have the uncomfortable position of telling a moderate Muslim or Christian that they are not very representative of their faith.  It may seem disrespectful, but it is also the truth.  Welcome to the bad ideas, chopping board!  If you've grafted your identity to a bad idea, your feels might be collateral damage.  We can't let a healthy respect for personal identity politics get in the way of calling out the evils inherent in our major religious traditions.  If one is offended by getting facts about all self-identified Muslim populations wrong, then why are you not offended by Muslims getting their justifications for calling themselves Muslims wrong as though there is simply no wrong way to do that?  Sweeping everything under the rug of respect for identity politics blows a huge hole in a serious conversation about many important issues.  And the religious sensitive crowd has to do a whole bunch of implausible gerrymandering to make absolutely nothing about religion.  One would think that making nothing about religion is just as bad as making everything about religion.  

Watch Bill Maher and Sam Harris vs. Ben Affleck and others:

Ben Affleck's "It's gross and racist."  That comment is actually what spurned this post.  Whereas Aslan seems to have an intellectual understanding of the somewhat pseudo-corrective game he is playing, Affleck seems to come at it from a visceral level.  It seemed more honest even though confused.  And I wanted to explore that.

Why I found most hilarious about Affleck's other comments was how he would continually react to Harris or Maher saying things like, "90% of Muslims in country X believe Y," and then Affleck would immediately say, "You think all Muslims believe Y!?"  I think they were saying 90% of that country believe that.  Ninety is not one hundred last time I checked, Ben.  But Harris and Maher are definitely prejudiced and all people who self-identify as a particular religion get 90% credit.  I can say that, because 90 = 100 in Affleck land.

It's just factually false that Harris and Maher are ever speaking about "all Muslims" when they make their comments.  Accusing them of such is just stupid.  Especially when they spend a lot of time unpacking and calibrating everything they say to be as accurate as possible and at the end you still accuse them of talking about all Muslims.  

See Reza Aslan's tweet:

See also:

Female genital mutilation.  It may well be true that approaching the topic of FGM is best approached as just the issue of FGM and the incidental cultural beliefs about that topic from central Africa and a few other places around the world.  However, it may also be true that a close second relevant issue along the topic is the stabilizing element of Islam and third may be Christianity.  Divine sexism isn't helpful for subjugating women along these lines?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say it helps.  On the other hand there may be other dynamics in the mix that may more properly get at the heart of the issue and I don't pretend to have a handle on it.

Aslan wanted to use FGM as the single example that takes down Bill Maher's position.  Which is really unfair and also ironic as it represents an emotional prejudice about anti-religion advocates by way of one example to falsely generalize about them.  I think that's the definition of bigotry, Reza.  Granted, perhaps every example or most examples that Bill Maher may try to stick Islam with can be demonstrated by Aslan to be equally factually challenged.  Is that likely?  Or can we compare the claims of self-identified Muslims to their source texts and then criticize the values in theory and also in practice?  Will Islam, in that light, come out unscathed?  Doubtful.

I don't believe there is a zero sum game of who is bigoted here.  The B word is a highly emotionally loaded term that still has important meaning.  However, what is often lost on people is that we are all ignorant and biased along various social lines to whatever degree.  And ideally we'd be in the conversation to make ourselves less ignorant and less biased and more accurate all around in light of the contributions of each other.

See Jay Smooth elaborate on this point here:

So we can all be less bigoted.  I don't think Bill, Sam, Ben, or Reza are particularly prejudiced along any of these issues, but some of these kinks do need to be worked out.


I don't want to live in a world where Big Religion is not regularly taken to task for its inherent faults.  I want there to be Sam Harrises, Bill Mahers, and Ayaan Hirsi Alis.  It is absolutely unconscionable to think that no one should be able to speak an unflinching, critical message directly at the heart of Christianity and Islam.  Real people suffer under the tyranny of those teachings and paying lip service to the unending swaths of self-identified folks who don't believe or teach the majority of what their sources texts say just isn't relevant.  From my perspective it is morally perverse for the religious sensitive folks to want to silence those critical voices and pretend like the bad things that happen to people are all about economics, politics, and anything but religion.  

Incidentally, I also want there to be Reza Aslans and Glenn Greenwalds of the world to emphasize other issues in that same kind of conversation.  The mile high sociological perspective is important, too.  And many things impact our world apart from religion.  It would just be nice if there were more coherent intermingling between those emphasises as I do not believe necessarily one emphasis is more right or wrong than the other. Both speak to important values and there's not necessarily a seamless transition between them.  It is just a difficult value issue to decide given how convoluted the terrain of religious self-identification is and it is not surprising to see intelligent people come down one way or the other.

But when you are factually wrong on a given point, you are factually wrong.  If everyone could at the very least correct the easy facts of the matter, that would go a long way.