Sam Harris

Argo Check Yourself [Bonus]

My last post was not only late, but lame. I’ll admit it. Had a bit of a WordPress-deleting-half-my-draft at the last minute fiasco, half-heartedly rewrote what was lost to try to make my personal Friday 11:59PM deadline, etc, etc. So here’s a bonus.

Last week, Ben Affleck went on Bill Maher, ostensibly to promote some kind of new project he’s part of. Maher brought up one of his favorite topics, which is the inferiority of Islam to “liberal”-ness, and Affleck, putting it gently, made a complete fool of himself. His arguments against Maher were emotive bile and, as Sam Harris phrased  it, “intellectually ridiculous.”

Over the last few days, however, there’s been a small outpouring of public support for Affleck on the internets, and between Affleck and Maher/Harris I can understand why. Beyond his being a popular celebrity, though Affleck provided no rational arguments to back up his anger, his anger was not at all misplaced. Maher and Harris are bigots.

Their argument is essentially this: “liberal” principles, like tolerance, non-violence, and equality cannot conflate with Islam. They are mutually exclusive, because Islam exclusively promotes only intolerance, violence, and inequality, and even if only (“conservatively,” as Harris puts it) 20% of Muslims are “radical,” ultimately, the inherent anti-liberal-ness of Islam marginalizes the potential for any of the remaining moderates to exercise liberal values.

The reason this is bigoted is because it ascribes a religious identity to social and political forces that have evolved from less-than-religious roots, in order to persecute that religious identity. It also completely ignores the social, political, and religious history of the west. Oh, Christianity is bad, Maher and Haris admit, but liberals won’t talk about how bad Islam is, too. However, Christianity is distinctly Western, and by also conflating Liberalism with Westernism (as Maher does) in opposition to a more commonly Eastern religion in Islam which is portrayed as exclusively anti-liberal, the implication is truly, Christianity is bad, but it’s on the side of the west, the side of Liberalism, so Islam is worse.

If you want to find a religious culture where religious fundamentalism is on the rise, where abuse of women is sanctified, where minorities are persecuted… well if you’ve been checking the links, you know where I’m going with this. Look no further than Cold War America.

It was in 1954 that the words “under god” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, largely by the initiative of the Knights of Columbus (a conservative Catholic national fraternity and lobby) and a Presbyterian minister capitalizing on the president’s recent conversion and baptism. America’s identity became inextricable from a conservative, Christian worldview that presented itself as a necessary deterrent to the “Godless Communism” of the Soviet Union. America even had its own version of an Inquisition.

Bible verses have been quoted to justify just about every kind of hate you can imagine, in varying degrees, in support of conservative, or at least decidedly non-liberal, agendas. Christianity has been a rallying cry against everything from bikinis to free speech, and while those practices have hardly ended by today, they reached a particular fever pitch during this period.

Yet, the next ten years saw the birth of modern liberalism in the Civil Rights movement, spearheaded most famously by an ordained Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. King did not only crusade for social justice, but for peace, opposing both Jim Crow and the Vietnam War. He hardly denied his religious roots, fervently quoting bible passages like “turn the other cheek,” and “those who use the sword will die by it.” King’s message was imbued completely with religious references and imagery, and yet his liberal message did not suffer for it. He managed to take the same book used to justify hate and persecution to weave from it a message of peace, love, and equality.

The Bible has everything from “women are forbidden to speak in church” to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the Torah, God orders the slaughter of women, children, and animals, and yet also forbids murder. These books are so old, so varied, translated in so many ways, that they can be used to justify pretty much anything. Which passages are chosen to justify social and political goals says everything about the person who chooses them, moreso than the religion they ascribe to.

So, now we get back to Maher and Harris. Two educated guys who proclaim to raise the banner of liberalism and casually judge others’ ignorance, have not taken the time to consider that their liberalisms, rooted in Judeo-Christian western history, could possibly have any parallel in the Islamic faiths, which are nothing but violent and intolerant.

“There is no compulsion in religion
“Clear proofs have indeed come to you from your Lord: so whoever sees, it is for his own good; and whoever is blind, it is to his own harm
“And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors

The bigotry here comes from not only maintaining deliberate ignorance against a peoples’ beliefs, but then using that ignorance as a springboard for their own declaration of moral superiority.

Sure, the Quran says some frightening things. But so does the Bible. It also says some nice, friendly things… like the Bible does. But acting like these religious forces exist in a political and social vacuum where they dictate only one inescapable, dogmatic interpretation is simply facile. There have been liberal movements in the Islamic world, similarly spearheaded by religious figures citing inspiration from Islam, bolstered by a synchronicity of changing social and political events. These events are not mere background color to some unyielding pattern of religious zealotry, but demand vast swaths of the tapestry of history.

In their arrogant mode of secularism, atheists like Maher embrace liberalism while willfully ignoring its roots in religion. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Martin Luther, adherents have brought about liberal reforms via their personal interpretation of religious beliefs, and it is in the ensuing dialog over religious values that liberal ideas have taken hold. The very idea that there is an objective ideal of morality comes from religion, and for atheists to decry and judge others on any moral platform, especially by equating religiousness with immorality, is hypocritical and, yes, bigoted.

But whatever. They’re just exercising their free speech, which is their right. And really I’m just aiming at the easiest targets, because people like Maher are merely symptomatic of a larger problem, which is the idea that morality must be enforced by a global power, namely, America.

During the Cold War, was there a giant superpower of a country breathing down America’s back, landing missiles in its cities, inserting commando teams or outright invading it in order to end the zealous rise of religious fundamentalism?

(The USSR certainly tried to stick its fingers in US affairs, but the give and take on that issue was pretty evenly-matched, and very much a matter of literal survival. So, provided you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, no, no one tried doing that.)

Let’s imagine someone had. Let’s say, locked in this struggle with a rival nation, some other, larger, more powerful nation existed and simultaneously tried to exert its moral authority on the United States through social, political, economic, and military pressure. Do you think there’d be some resentment? Maybe a little animosity? Do you think maybe those conservative, fundamental forces might gain even more support against the threat of submission to foreign ideals, while they’re already gaining popular support under threat from their rivals? That it might completely negate or reverse the sort of liberal forces that managed to rise during the 60’s?

The more the allegedly “liberal” antagonize those who do not ascribe to those beliefs, the more they harden the hearts of their opposition with their declarations of moral superiority. If they truly wished to spread liberalism across the world, it would be by demonstrating it through their deeds, not parading it like a crown. The best lead by example, not merely by asserting their authority as “teachers.”

Matthew 23 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
23 Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.
They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.
But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. 10 None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. 11 Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. 12 If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.

Ok, maybe a bit of a stretch. Couldn’t help myself.