Religion and the Mafia? Open questions about a (seemingly) fruitless argument

For a few days I resisted commenting about the latest round of statements from Bill Maher and Sam Harris and responses from Reza Aslan—and more recently Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof on Real Time—over the subject of Islam. [Maher also did a debrief here.] Part of me thinks that any response to the debate may actually deepen the problem it is purportedly trying to solve.

There are two points, however, that I think are important to note.

The first is that we should be attuned to the rhetoric involved. Rhetoric does not mean untruth. It is involved to an extent in most of our speech and particularly when we are trying to sway others. We want to consider the rhetoric—what facts are chosen and what facts are left unsaid, what arguments are used—in conjunction with the content of the argument. None presents a complete version of the issue. This is not a requirement, but it should be clearly understood.

  • Maher—who is both a comedian and an atheist—argues that the religion Islam, more than Christianity, is responsible for widespread violence and laws that violate the core principles of Western liberalism.
  • Aslan—a scholar currently doing a good job positioning himself as an authority on religion—responds that Maher makes such statements because he’s ignorant about the complexity of religion…and the violence Maher speaks of is not a religious problem, but a political/social/cultural/geographical problem.
  • Affleck—an actor promoting a movie who also (probably) donates to charitable causes throughout the world—says Maher’s statements are racist. Some people are good, some people are bad, and we should condemn the bad and not lump the good in with them.
  • Kristof—a reporter and activist who has emphasized the strong links between the oppression of women and religion—says Islam plays a significant role in justifying oppression, but there are also many Muslims doing great things in the world, even fighting against extremism within their own traditions.

Despite what Aslan (and other scholars) contends, I don’t think one needs significant or specialized knowledge to speak to this issue. In other words, one doesn’t need to be a scholar of religion to say something here. I think all of the people involved meet the requirement of engaged citizens.

The second and more important point is really a question. What is the desired result?

What do Maher and Harris think would be the best possible outcome regarding Islam (and then probably religion in general)? It isn’t to coerce—compel by force—people to give up religion. Maher says as much, and it would violate the core principles of a liberal, just society he says he values. What Maher and Harris are implying is that no individual, group, institution, or country should be able to commit violence or justify oppression through religion. Argue, debate, and try to convince—but don’t coerce.

If their goal is as I describe it above, the rhetorical approach Maher uses is less than ideal. He makes a comparative claim that Islam is worse than other traditions in terms of its oppression of women. He bases his argument on certain facts, and Aslan and others respond with different facts. I see little productive value in the debate on this level, even if it were true, because neither side knows whether more people are free or oppressed under Islam. More importantly, neither side really thinks that is the point. If one side or the other could successfully prove that one more person is oppressed by Islam than free, or vice versa, would that end the debate over the benefit and harm of religion? Doubtful. It’s more than that.

Maher’s approach is not wholly ineffective, because it certainly promotes conversation, and Maher seems to want to shock people into awareness of his argument. But it (obviously) alienates quite a few people, and arguably the very people who could exert the most influence for change.

With that said, shouldn’t a reasonable person agree with the principle that religion should coerce no one? If there are those who disagree with this idea—or simply prefer to ignore it because they are not being coerced—shouldn’t that, as much as to what extent Maher’s and Harris’s claims are true or false, be a topic of discussion? I think people should be just as angry at Christianity because states like Idaho have laws that protect prayer as an alternative to medical treatment and as a result allows parents to let their children die from Type 1 Diabetes and food poisoning. Maher contends we shouldn’t because it doesn’t affect as many people. The point, however, is the same. At what level of harm should we shift our focus from isolated individuals to traditions? Do we not ignore the issue by arguing over “correct” interpretations of religious doctrine and texts?

It seems that one underlying fear of those who react negatively to Maher’s claims is a fear of the ignorance of the populace. This is a legitimate fear, which recognizes many people are unable or unwilling to think critically and will use the condemnation of a tradition’s dogma as a legitimation for their own fearful violence and bigotry. This should be recognized and dealt with, but ignorance cannot serve as an excuse for silence.

But what if we come at the question from the other side? What of the objections of Aslan, Affleck, and others?

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that most people who identify with a religious tradition are “good” people by (non-religious) societal standards. That observation is at the core of most objections to criticisms of religion.

Does the fact that religious people can be good negate the argument against oppression and bigotry in religious traditions? Does the good outweigh the bad, and are we measuring again by sheer numbers? If so, this would also be a more productive point around which to center the debate, because it would indicate that the presence of people who are ‘good’ by broad social standards protects religion from social critique. In one popular version of this argument put forth by the Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong, and other, religion itself becomes “that which promotes good.”

If though, as reasonable people would agree, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, et al. have been the impetus for at least some oppression and bigotry throughout history and in the present, what then? Is it possible for us to sincerely investigate the extent of that role? Is it an all-or-nothing proposition?

But the biggest question, I think, is the relationship between religion and other forms of privilege. If other cultural elements of privilege and oppression are inextricably intertwined with questions of religion, particularly when religion manifests in its most extreme forms, what does that mean? Harris claims that the element of religion is a more primary motivation for oppression than economic or political factors, but his claim is debatable, particularly because religion always manifests strongly in times of crisis. Alternately, other scholars have claimed that religion is a tool (inappropriately) used to express cultural frustration. If religion manifests violently when it is accompanied by cultural deprivation, how does it manifest in areas of relative cultural privilege? What is cultural influence of a religious tradition if it is correlated with violence among oppressed peoples and “peace” among privileged peoples?

If we are to make a serious claim that other factors aside from religion are primarily responsible for religious violencewe have to to consider the possibility that other factors aside from religion are primarily responsible for religious peace, do we not? What if this is true?

Rather than draw any immediate conclusions, I’d like to leave these questions open. I welcome any thoughts.


“The tolerance of intolerance is cowardice,” but the intolerance of the intolerance of intolerance is expected

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in the news last week when Brandeis reversed their decision to give her an honorary doctorate for her work. Many people have discussed the ridiculousness of Brandeis’ response, which is either deception or woeful ignorance. I’m not interested in those issues as much as I am in the justifications of those who argue it was the right thing to do. A blogger on altmuslim claimed that Ali promotes the same intolerance that she claims to be fighting against. He also noted that although Ali’s arguments as treated as scholarship, “her words and arguments are not academic or scholarly.” These points deserve further examination.

Intolerance is an accusation that hurts the feelings of many a liberal, for they also use it liberally. It is most often backed up with the unspoken presumption that one should never want to be labeled as intolerant. Yet it is a poor definition of tolerance that says it is a quality to be valued for its own sake. In other words, if one is to make an argument for tolerance, it must be justified not on the basis of tolerance itself, but on some other fundamental value, such as that of life, freedom, etc. Few of us would suggest being tolerant of those who commit egregious acts of violence (unless, of course, these are committed against animals). There are plenty of things we can and should be intolerant of (corporate business practices, disregard for environmental destruction, etc.), so long as our intolerance is not accompanied with physical violence or the impending threat of violence against individuals.

It is, as this blogger implies, the hallmark of a scholarly or academic argument to carefully separate “bad” acts from “good” religion. In fact, scholars of religion could often be the unintended subjects of Ali’s comment that “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” They join much of the world in pleading with folks not to print cartoons or make films that might cause offense. There are some who systematically dissociate acts of violence from their religious context, even when overt. And this is seemingly well-intentioned. The blogger contends that “her approach is not driven by an academic or scholarly need to help the oppressed,” but it is because Ali does not only walk the careful line of disinterested scholarship that she has a passion for change.

If a freethinker criticizes religion, if he or she suggests that the world would be better off without “x” religious tradition, he or she is not insulting God. To the freethinker there is no divinity, and there cannot be one in the public sphere. In the public sphere, there is only humanity. To be sure, the religious may believe that the divine rules public life as well, but this cannot be a community motivation if we desire a free society.

Nor is the freethinker insulting a tradition. There are no traditions we can assess beyond their embodiment in assemblages of people and buildings that make them up. In the public sphere, there are only people, and these people must live with each other. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps millions, that are offended by the words of Ali. There are also thousands that are offended by the words written in suppposedly holy texts. Are there as many of the latter group? Perhaps not, but does it really matter? It is the hallmark of a free society to be able to offend. Offense and intolerance, insofar as they describe feelings and words, are a signal that an open society is at work.

I’m not talking about allowing people to scream “Fire” in a crowded theater. I’m arguing that suggesting the world would be better off without a particular tradition, no matter how improbable that may seem, is a proposition that should not (and will not) be shut down by claims of intolerance. In other words, it is intolerant, and that is good. It is not intolerant for its own sake, but because of the connections between religion and violence that are evidenced by Ali’s own life. The common refrain that such-and-such particular practice is not actually encouraged in a particular text is no argument against the historical and cultural connection between religion and suffering, particarly considered in an impoverished political and economic context. The point is not that there is a tidy equation, that violence and oppression would magically disappear if religion lost its hold, which is the point that defenders seize upon. I would even argue that such a direct attack is an inefficient approach to the problem, but it does not automatically invalidate the correlation she suggests by adhering the label intolerance.

In 19th century America, there were once mean slave owners and nice slave owners as well, and there were even perhaps willing and unwilling slaves. Many of these men and women, I’m sure, were “good” people. Few of us now would argue that the institution of slavery should have been kept around because there were quite a few folks for whom the system worked quite well, who never hurt anyone and generally got along just fine, or even benefited from its perpetuation. In retrospect that seems silly to consider, but it certainly wasn’t for many at the time. It is the hope of Ali and others, I believe, that we will someday look back at religious traditions the same way, wondering how we justified its abuses for so long.

Of course, the case of religion is different in many ways. It would be as deplorable to prohibit the individual practice of religion as it is to mandate it. But the individual practice of religion is a maximum, not a minimum threshold, and until it is certain that all individuals are aware of their options for understanding the world outside of religious tradition, we are still far above the maximum threshold of individual practice as a basis for tolerance.

It may be best in the end that Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis, because it is not academic to be so bold, at least in the field of religion. But it would be a welcome addition if more were.