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.


Is science the key to morality?

81vhPlG1sNL._SL1500_The only one of the “New Atheists” I have ever read is Sam Harris. I recently finished his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I think it was the seeming audacity of the title that drew me to the work. As a student of religion (and the humanities more generally), I am reluctant to believe claims that science can directly replace the position that religions have traditionally held in society, even as I am a failure at religion myself. I have written on the topic before, as well as the relation of scientific knowledge to the senses.

After reading The Moral Landscape, I looked at my notes for the other Harris book I read back in 2007, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which is the work that first put Harris on the map. Though the earlier work talks more specifically about religion, they both contain some of the same ideas, namely that religion is an illogical and insufficient guide for morality, and does more harm than good (or at least it does enough harm to outweigh the good). Even reading his book back then, as a Christian, I conceded that he did seem to have a genuine concern for the growing violence in the world and its connection with forms of religion. However, I had several general objections at the time, all of which I now consider insufficient (and all of which he anticipates in The Moral Landscape).

First, I objected that Harris criticizes faith for not being testable, when the very definition of faith—at least in one Pauline Christian interpretation—is belief in things unseen, belief despite lack of evidence. Harris also noted that the extent to which religious adherents are tolerant is the extent to which they don’t believe what their tradition tells them. I am much more inclined to agree with this statement now than I was as a Christian.

The other major objection I lodged is embarrassingly common among religious adherents. If you take away a person’s religion, what else will they have to give them a reason to live? It is easy to see that this is not an adequate defense of religion; it is simply a plea to allow people to continue believing something that cannot be proven. The frequent complaint lodged against atheists is that it is just mean to pick on someone’s beliefs if they aren’t hurting anyone and it gives the person comfort. One response is that it does hurt society for people who don’t existentially rely on religion to continue to affirm belief in it, both because of the systemic forms of intolerance and violence it can support, and the continued support it gives religion in general for those groups we would label as “fundamentalist.”

My conclusion in my review of End of Faith was that, despite good arguments that Harris made, science was simply not advanced enough to replace religion as a source of values. Religion has traditionally been that source, and that gives it a historical advantage. Looking back, that amounted to dragging my heels and applying a standard to science that I exempted religion from because of its lengthier history. My reading of the Moral Landscape affected me in a different way.

The gist of The Moral Landscape is that our brain, our consciousness, is the primary determinant of how we view, interact with, and understand our world. As that is the case, it is science that offers us the best method for understanding the way we operate, particularly the way we interact with the world and each other. We call the standards that guide us morals, and many think those are given by God or a religious tradition, but for Harris, we must look to science for keys to a more sustainable well-being than religion has offered.

At the beginning of the work, I found myself making the same critique: science doesn’t lay out an exact map of morality. I am much less confident than Harris in the ability of science to help solve moral quandaries, especially “science” in the generalized way he seems to be using it. His focus on the brain seems a little too cold and clinical at times. For example he explains that the chemicals oxycontin and vasopressin have to do with the way we emotionally bond to others. Children raised in orphanages do not experience the same surge of these chemicals when interacting with adoptive parents as other children do with biological parents. While to me, as with Harris, it is clear that this altered chemical makeup affects the emotional and psychological responses of these children, the implications of solving these problems on a chemical or biological level would look much different than solving them on a psychological one, and involve looking at the human in a different way. At the least, this shows that while our morality may depend in part on the human brain—and a complete picture of morality may not be possible without it—it does not depend solely on the brain.

However, the critiques that Harris makes of our current moral hang-ups are poignant, and offer experts in religion a significant challenge. He strongly criticizes the kind of moral and cultural relativism that seems to prevent any critique of a particular value system. The idea that we cannot criticize the head-to-toe veiling of women is preposterous, Harris argues, based on any system that would suppose to value societal well-being. He dismisses the response that these women may be happy with their situation by contending that even if this were the case, it is quite clear that we often do not know what is best for us.

This is dangerous territory for Harris, who might be accused of playing God, but no more or less so than the major religious traditions themselves do. What is overwhelmingly practical about his approach, however, is that it does not claim to have the right answers, although it certainly does admit to their possibility. Rather, Harris sets broad parameters and says it is clear that a world in which everyone’s well-being was maximized would surely be better than a world where everyone misery would be maximized. We know the direction to go, although we may not have the definitive answer to every moral dilemma. Maximizing well-being is good, maximizing misery is bad.

The study of religion, and that of morality in general, is heavily influenced by anthropology and its story of the noble savage, the cultures and tribes that we cannot judge since they are culturally independent. Who are we to say they are unhappy, even if they are sacrificing each other to appease bloodthirsty deities? This complex is in part rooted in a reaction to a past history of Western imperialism, to be sure. However, Harris suggests it is also connected to a confusion between ontology and epistemology. Our experiences are subjective, but this does not mean we can know nothing about them, particularly in a comparative sense. Harris seems to take this approach much farther than I can, seeming to claim that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality. In a conditional sense, I would agree. In a universal sense, I cannot, if only because I don’t see us being privileged with anything approaching that level of knowledge in the near future. However, this doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from making moral judgements.

As I prepare to teach a class on ethics, Harris’s commitment to “changing people’s ethical commitments” resonates with me. Where we differ is that Harris thinks our ethical commitments can and should be grounded in science. We should be nice to one another because that rewards us with the highest level of such-and-such chemical in our brains, and the presence of such chemical is the highest indicator of subjective levels of happiness based on multiple experiments. I am skeptical that we can ever explicitly base our morality on this. As Harris seems to admit on some level, we may need a more elaborate story, some sort of Nietzschean tragedy to found our morality. I think, though, that we might be happier with founding our morality on the level of social construction, with the help of scientific insight of course. Brain chemicals just don’t make the same story that Joseph Campbell’s hero myth does. This doesn’t prevent criticizing the inadequacy of our current stories and searching for better ones, ones more inclusive of current culture.

In any case, there is much to recommend in Harris’s book and little to fear.