It’s said that one should not talk publically about politics or religion. This, at the same time our political system has become a sort of moribund caricature of democracy’s potential. And always a contentious issue, religious observance in the U.S. is both waning and incredibly volatile. Christians decry a war on Christmas, Muslims cringe every time a terrorist attack is in the news and the rise of the secular movement has brought fear and loathing amongst the believers. Is there a connection to our insistence on silence? Americans rather vote for pot smoking cheater than athiest
Talk about religion often involves talking past each other and merely activating the confirmation bias. These “discussions” often involve monologue not dialogue. Maybe this should be expected – the very nature of faith is often reliant on a wholesale acceptance of an ideology and by definition is neither progressive nor evolutionary.
Having written extensively about politics it only seems natural that I enter the other taboo topic and risk alienating the rest of the population.
Even more than politics, religion has always been a very delicate topic in the U.S., which has a decidedly uneasy, even paradoxical history. In 1639 a group of New England Puritans drafted a constitution where they both affirmed their faith in God and made clear their plan to create a Christian Nation. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut made clear that their government rested on divine authority and pursued godly purposes.
There was not yet a “wall of separation” between church and state. They made clear theirs was the official religion of the state, with the support of tax revenues, and defended by government. In fact, sounding a little like Saudi caliphs, churches defined “heretics,” and the state punished them, even to the point of executing those found guilty of “direct, express, presumptuous, or high-minded blasphemy.” Citizenship in the state was directly tied to one’s religious faith. The authors of the Fundamental Orders meant for only godly Christians to rule, an intention embodied in the oath of the governor, which committed the chief magistrate to govern “according to the rule of the word of God.”
Then, a mere one hundred and fifty years later, George Washington swore an oath as our first President to “faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States” and pledging to the best of his ability to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” and made no reference whatever to God or divine providence, citing as its sole authority “the people of the United States.” Further, its stated purposes were secular, political ends: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.”
Instead of building a “Christian Commonwealth,” the supreme law of the land established a secular state. The opening clause of its first amendment introduced the radical notion that the state had no voice concerning matters of conscience: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Imbedded in our history
The recent Bill Maher exchange with Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on his TV show, and the resulting exuberant surplus of opinion on the internet is evidence today of the nerve which talk of religion touches in our country. There are some web sites that seem to be all-Maher-all-the-time since the show. (See i.e., SALON).
So many articles have been written and some are educational and interesting, but the comments that follow can contain thoughtful and revealing perspectives – along with the usual name calling drivel.
First a few things seem to bear stating (hopefully repeating):
-While Maher is clearly not in the same league as Stewart, Colbert or Oliver, he is a comedian who has a TV show, with all the things that go with that (i.e., ratings, etc.).
-Maher has never been accused of being cerebral or even factually meticulous.
-He is also a lousy filmmaker as evidenced by his movie “Religulous”
-His lack of “faith”, his “atheism”, has been oft repeated and he makes no attempt to hide his belief that all religions are man made mythologies which have also created pain and suffering for many people.
-The record is replete with his condemnation of all Abrahamic religions but he does use Islam often as an example of a belief system that not only holds, but enforces many “illiberal”, often violent, exclusive and dominating beliefs.
Here is a list of the main points made as a result of Maher’s statements
1) Perhaps the most oft heard response to Maher, conveyed at very first by Affleck, is that his condemnation of all Muslims is “racist, Islamophobic and serves only to perpetuate anti-Muslim bias, especially by those already predisposed to such (read: conservatives).”
To the extent Maher, or anyone else generalizes 1.2 billion people it is not only dangerous and oversimplified, it is always incredibly wrong.
At the same time, when he talks about the belief system called Islam, which has the Quran as it’s central religious text and many of it’s followers believe is the undisputed word of God Almighty, that should be fair game. In fact, if one is secure in their belief system shouldn’t they be unthreatened by criticism, or even ridicule.
2) “History, and even the current record are replete with many examples of other religions which preach hate, exclusion, misogyny and violence.”
This is perhaps the most ironic of the complaints, as it seems that is exactly what Maher says. Sure he focused his comments that show on Islam, his record of disrespect for other religions in no way excuses one for its hate and prejudice.
Further, this also seems to go exactly to what he, and many others who don’t ascribe to these religions are saying – why is a book and its tremendous significance, which has a huge impact on its followers and the world, be off limits for discussion?
3) “The circumstances, often made worse with direct responsibility by the United States, in many Muslim countries creates, maybe even more that the Quran itself, the actions of terrorists.”
This seems like where Maher’s recent challenge to Islam is most vulnerable. The histories of war, violence, uprising and even the very artificial lines that now divide many countries have American fingerprints all over them. There is a distinct connection between the prevalence of violence and terrorism and the state of economic and civil (in)justice in many Muslim countries.
4) “Most people of faith, all faiths, don’t follow a literal reading of their religions founding text and practice an interpretation which disregards the anachronistic and inhumane stuff.” (made widespread by Reza Aslan)
This is what has unaffectionately been called the “cafeteria-style Catholicism” argument. It is the very same which drives devout parishioners and church hierarchy crazy. No matter the religion, this defense by way of explanation of extreme, radical and pre-modern beliefs and behavior by many followers is reasonable. Not every follower has a literal interpretation. But, at the same time this shield shouldn’t be used as a sword to prevent Maher, or anyone else, from raising questions and drawing conclusions from what is often very plain language, within the guiding books that are at the very center of the belief system. Also, it’s not just Muslims who generally have a literal view: 28% of American Christians believe that the Bible is the actual word, and another 47% believe it’s the inspired word of their God (only 21% consider it fables and history). Are Christians that different from Muslims
5) “The now famous PEW poll which asked Muslims worldwide a series of questions from death to apostates to sharia law shows that most Muslims, especially in developed countries are more mainstream and don’t hold radical beliefs.”
This is true, and yes it also holds some scary and revealing insights into the Muslim world. Sure, let’s agree from the outset that a poll, even when done by a highly reputable firm like PEW is still a human construct and as such is not perfect.
Still, Maher, and Harris and many others have cited various parts of the poll to bolster their points have been pilloried for citing the admittedly extreme parts. Not untrue, just extreme. The apologists also cite other findings that appear more “mainstream”. There is plenty for both sides in the survey.
One example of a finding, which is used by both sides, is that of the respondents’ belief in importance of sharia law. From the summary: “According to the survey findings, most Muslims believe sharia is the revealed word of God rather than a body of law developed by men based on the word of God. Muslims also tend to believe sharia has only one, true understanding…”. At the same time, “… in some countries, substantial minorities of Muslims believe sharia should be open to multiple interpretations.” And as regards maybe the most frightening and emblematic (at least by non-Muslims) hadith, the issue of what should happen to non-believers and those who leave the faith, “…in six of the 20 countries where there are adequate samples for analysis, at least half of those who favor making Islamic law the official law also support executing apostates.”
PEW worldwide survey on Islam
When responding to a comedian performing on his TV show, his comments, sentiments and assertions should be taken with a whole shaker of salt. Regardless, wholesale categorizing of diverse and multifaceted people often serves only to mask the point being made and make the debate about the speaker and his “-isms”. Islam and all other traditional religions should not be immune from criticism. In a big and complicated world where a corporation can refuse it’s female employees certain health benefits because of their religious beliefs, indigenous people can be denied human rights and evicted from their homeland, and swords have given way to WMD’s, the world not only has a right to discuss religious beliefs but in fact the obligation.