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.