10/6/14

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.

07/28/13

Christians Make the Best Politicians

I watched a clip from Real Time with Bill Maher last night that featured the Reverend Jim Wallis. Maher tried to get Wallis to say that the Bible was ridiculously contradictory, and Wallis ignored the questions and emphasized how Jesus was the true hermeneutic for Christianity and that there are 2000 verses about the poor in the Bible. Maher looked like his tendentious self, and Wallis made it clear without words that he ignores much of the Christian tradition in order to further his aims.Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 2.29.37 PM

There are some similarities between this dialogue and Cornel West’s critique of Obama last week. Yes, I understand that the President is a much more powerful person and is an elected official, but the similarities are based on—to use Bill Maher’s fairly crude analogy—how many turds you’re willing to allow in the pool and still swim in it. Maher’s take is that if there are any, you don’t swim. Yet that’s not a position most people take, unless they have absolutely no vested interest in the pool. Maher obviously doesn’t have any interest in Christianity, at least none that he knows of, whereas Wallis—and if you believe the polls, most of America—clearly does. So how dirty is the pool really?

Wallis suggested toward the end of the interview that all the significant recent social justice movements have involved people of faith. Maher reluctantly agreed, and then quipped, “So why can’t we have the good stuff without the bad stuff?” While I don’t think all significant social movements have been spearheaded by people of faith, it would be ignorant to claim that people of faith haven’t been crucially involved in many of them. That is obviously the part of faith that Wallis wants to hang on to, the part that  motivates him and others to do “good” in the world.

So the question is, can we afford not to have a candid conversation about the “bad stuff” too? Wallis knows the political climate is such that he cannot be forthright about Christianity’s many failings without alienating a good portion of his constituency from the social justice work he is trying to do. I would argue that whatever good Wallis comes from Christianity is actually coming from himself, and he is finding himself, his motivation, through the foil of Christianity. Of course he would disagree. But in any other enterprise, if a product were designed to bring about the results Wallis says it is and failed per capita at such a high rate, it would be abandoned, or at least drastically modified.

In other words, if Christianity is designed to bring social justice to the world—setting aside for a moment the vast range of meaning in that phrase—and the majority of Christians who have lived have done little to nothing to advance the cause of social justice, why maintain it? Of course, it is not so easy as to simply discard one of the most historically significant ideologies of human history. My point is that although Wallis is pushing social justice Christianity, that is not the only reason he is a Christian. If it were, then maintaining his position would make no sense. We should therefore, look past his single-issue promotion of the tradition.

Wallis would point, as many do, to the great people of the tradition who have done disproportionally great things. Is it more logical, then, to suggest that these few are the only ones who really understand what’s going on with Christianity, or that their uniqueness and impact must be understood in other terms apart from their religious devotion?

Reza Aslan—a UCSB alum like myself—was part of the panel on Real TIme as well, and he attempted to mediate Maher’s critique of the Bible by suggesting that all readers interpret the Biblical text in some way, so no one is actually a literalist when it comes to the Bible. This was in response to Maher’s comment that fundamentalists aren’t fringe religious participants; they just read the Bible literally. Aslan’s comment, while very scholarly, evidences his lack of stake in the issue by missing the point. He is correct that interpretation is key, but as I have noted before, that interpretation is socially circumscribed. What this means is that it begins to strain credibility to ignore or allegorize, for example, God’s approval of mass murder on multiple occasions in the Old Testament.

However, like Obama, Wallis is too invested to commit political suicide by being completely honest about the myriad contradictions in his position. He won’t outright deny them, but he won’t admit them either. Is that the most morally pure position? No. But it is likely a more fruitful one than the one his opponents, including myself, would like him to take. I guess I’m suggesting there’s more value for the rest of us in working to change that political climate than directing attacks at important leaders for not living up to our ideals.

I would be intrigued to see someone be as committed as Wallis, who seems to know how many questionable parts of the tradition there are, absolutely denounce those portions while still committing to the “good parts,” the Jesus-y parts that motivate many people. Could such a person gain any traction? I don’t know. Anyone who tries to change the world from a religious worldview is doing so for a couple possible reasons. First and foremost, they have had personal experience with it. Second, they recognize the power of religious symbols and institutions. Thus, few of those people see the benefit of nitpicking the traditions they are relying on to spread their message. That is left to those who don’t have any significant investment.

So who is going to move? Will those who see no value in religion acknowledge the good that has been done from religiously motivated people and work to maximize the effect of those? Will religious folk openly denounce the many dirty and embarrassing parts of the Christian tradition and reject those in the hope of getting buy-in from nonreligious folks? Or is the best approach the status quo, an all-or-nothing where things are emphasized or deemphasized, hidden or exposed, but the structure remains the same?

From experience, I know that the most deeply held convictions can change, but what is beyond is unknown until experienced. Our identities are fragile, and our self-understanding about what parts are important is fairly inaccurate, I suspect. Nobody likes a politician, but we’re all politicians.