The subject that has sparked Liberal-vs-Atheist tirades in the media and online since October of last year was criticism from New Testament scholar and fair-weather Christian-Muslim Reza Aslan that claimed that Sam Harris and his “New Atheist” movement are neither New nor Atheist, which became a matter of public controversy when Harris’ long-time friend and Libertarian advocate Bill Maher hosted him on Real Time with Bill Maher. And this little explosion happened between Harris and Ben Affleck.
Where Affleck calls for tolerance and opposition to bigotry, I find common cause with him.
For example, I don’t want war with the people of Iran (and certainly not for any religious zeal, whether ours or theirs) but that does not mean that Iranians are innocent when they mostly call for the destruction of the Jewish state in Israel. Certainly, Israel is wrong to call for a preemptive or retaliatory war with Iran or for the marginalizing of Palestinians. Pakistanis, Afghans, Turks, Egyptians and Indonesians are not necessarily wrong to stand with their Palestinian brothers persecuted by Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors.
But the Muslim community in all of those places have disproportionately high numbers of Muslims who also think that execution is the proper punishment for apostasy or for homosexuality and that flogging is an appropriate punishment for writing a Tweet or a Facebook post that “offends Islam”.
As Christians, Jews or other people of faith, so many American Liberals feel obligated to use the words “extremist” and “fringe” about minority extremists in Islam in order not to address the central problems with religion, itself, as a motivator of cruelty, inhumanity and amoral behavior. They take Muslims (or any religious group) as classified into concentric circles with the most populous as the central group and the outer rings as exceptions to the rule. In this way these followers are separated into “mainstream Muslims”, “moderate Muslims” and “Fringe/Extremist Muslims”.
The Atheist argument, including Bill Maher’s and Sam Harris’, points out that these separated rings dishonestly construe the ideas of these groups as having nothing in common. Obviously, what is common between all of these kinds of Muslims are the fundamental tenets of Islam. In this way, the concentric rings of “kinds of people” become a gradation of circles of ideas in Islam, with “Fundamentalism” representing the core ideals of Islam, “Orthodoxy” representing the fair-weather friends of Islam’s ideals and “Nominal Muslims” representing people who are Muslim by sheer accident!
By converting groups of Muslims into a severity of Islamic faith, we owe it to Muslims, in the interest of fairness, to begin to break down the ideas of fundamentalist Islam and ask if Islam can still exist without such core fundamentalist ideas? Obviously, a Muslim can choose not to believe that it is their individual responsibility to use terrorism to strike fear into the heart of the Infidel while still remaining a Muslim. But it is essentially anti-Islamic to believe that the Q’uran is not the purest expression of the will of God and so even the Muslim who does not take jihad as their personal mission cannot eschew the horrid and unethical idea that Allah desires jihad if that is what is written in the Q’uran. While Reza Aslan and his friends can say that Harris or Maher or I are conflating the one kind of Muslims with another kind, they are committing a terrible error by ignoring the fact that even the nominal Muslim has to be a tacit enabler of jihad, regardless of whether or not they abhor individual acts of terror by Hamas, Al-qaeda and other “fundamentalist” groups.
However, one wouldn’t be wrong in saying that the variety of Islamic groups with their rich-if-bloody history of infighting proves that Islam can improve its ideas. There are some ideas added to Islam by nominal Muslims that are quite good and productive even though they are different from fundamental Islam. A nominal Muslim, for example, can believe that educating women is the will of Allah or else it wouldn’t be happening in the world as all things that happen in the world, according to the Q’uran, happen as the will of Allah. This would be an idea that disagrees with fundamentalist Islam but that does not make a non-fundamentalist into a non-Muslim.
So it makes sense when Harris or Hitchens or any other Atheist says that “no one suffers more from [Muslim extremism] than do other Muslims” while saying, as Harris does, “we have to be able to criticize bad ideas and Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas.” How do you criticize bad ideas without invalidating good ones?
The concentric circles are the problem with how we see religious extremism and it is a geometric problem. Like so many things, this comes down to math. We really should look at such religious ideas as a Venn diagram.
For a refresher: if I ask “what is the probability of randomly pulling a Jack or a Hearts card from a perfect deck?” I might draw a Venn diagram like so:
In this diagram, the box represents all of a standard deck of playing cards (52 cards in total). The larger circle represents 13 cards that belong to the suit of Hearts. The small circle represents the 4 cards that are Jacks. Where the two circles intersect is one card that falls into both categories: the Jack of Hearts. If we were to add the Hearts and Jacks together as 17 and say that the chance of pulling a Jack or Hearts is 17/52, we commit an error in that we count the Jack of Hearts twice. So we must subtract the Jack of Hearts from the 17, effectively meaning that we count it once, and have 16 chances in 52, instead.
Here’s why this is relevant: Now suppose that I want to eliminate the chance of pulling a card that is common to both Hearts or Jacks. I only want a Hearts card or a Jack, never both. Then I have to remove only one card, the Jack of Hearts. In that case, the two circles never converge – they are as different kinds of cards as are Hearts and Spades or Diamonds and Clubs.
Pulling one card out of a deck does not necessarily fundamentally change my deck. I might play several rounds of 5-Card Draw without ever noticing that there wasn’t a Jack of Hearts in my deck. I’m in a bad position if I want to play solitaire, but most card games can still be played without a problem.
But if I removed any possibility of pulling a Royal or “Face” card from my deck, you would notice pretty quickly. There are only 12 Royal cards in a deck: Jacks, Queens and Kings in four suits. But that is enough that I can never score a Royal Straight, never score a royal Flush or a Pair or Three of a Kind of three different kinds. I also cannot score a straight starting with the number 6 or above. All of the highest-ranking hands in Poker are now gone – my playing card deck that was meant for Poker is now closer to playing UNO. Arguably, this is no longer a deck of playing cards.
When Ben Affleck and Reza Aslan contend that there is more commonality between Sam Harris and FOX News than between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, for example, they are also not playing with a full deck. If I made a Venn diagram of the ideas of Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims and Kurdish Muslims, I would find that the small handful of differences between them are the same things that they profess to kill each other over. But where their ideas converge, you find everything that makes them essentially Muslim.
Similarly, the central point that drives irrational behavior in all Muslims is the same as it is in Christians, Jews, Nationalists, extreme feminists, Alternative Medicine woo-woos and Oprah fans alike: faith. A core idea that people ought to learn to do as they are told only because they are told and even more so for the less sense that it makes.
The problem with feeding on dogma is the inevitable swallowing of the poisoned pill of faith. That is why the author of The End of Faith is right about America’s Liberals making up lies to protect a religion that needs less protection and more scrutiny.