Until the YouTube video gets uploaded, here’s an audio link.
Below, I’ve put up a partial transcript of what I was saying at the beginning of the show.
Sam Harris was recently on Real Time with Bill Maher, promoting his book Waking Up. Harris and Maher got in a bit of a mutual back patting session about Islam, saying: “Liberals have failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christianity. They still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984. The crucial point of confusion is we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia – where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam is conflated with bigatory towards Muslims as people. Which is intellectually ridiculous.”
After a while, Ben Affleck cuts in saying that they are coming across as somewhat racist. I’ve seen a lot of response to this, often focusing on the notion that opposing Islam can’t be racist, because Islam is not a race.
I actually agree with Affleck to some extent. It’s true that religion is culturally determined to a great extent. However, race is *also* culturally determined to a great extent. People like Guy P. Harrison have often pointed out that the notion of “race” is a lot less objective and more fuzzy than most people seem to think it is.
And yet racism still obviously exists. Not because people base their perception of people on some clearly defined and measured traits, but because they take mental shortcuts to sum up a person’s entire character, based on hasty generalizations they make with only superficial information.
Now, obviously I agree that you can criticize religions. I do it all the time. Various beliefs in Islam are deeply problematic, and become more problematic if you take them seriously and literally. But just like there are varying degrees of liberalism vs. fundamentalism in Christianity and Judaism, the same spectrum exists in Islam. This past year I went with some friends to a mosque and got an all day lecture about the underpinnings of Islam. I found it to be full of crap, of course. But at no point did I feel physically endangered, sitting as a minority in a room full of committed Muslims wearing unusual clothes. On the other hand, there are lots of seriously committed, hardcore Jews in the world, who arrange marriages and isolate their kids from information about the rest of the world, and I mistrust those fundamentalists deeply.
Islam is weird okay? Fundamentalism kills: we agree on that 100%. Nevertheless, sometimes what people describe as “criticism” of Islam takes an ugly turn away from arguing with aspects of their books, and into outright xenophobia. When Sam Harris says we should be able to detain people at airports because of what they wear, it may not be racism, but it is definitely xenophobia. When paranoid British people write to me, as they have, that “those people” are about to take over the country, and the only proof they can offer is that some grocery stores advertise their products as Halal-friendly, that’s xenophobia.
The challenge of the modern world is to address the bad beliefs of ALL religions, and make sure that as many people as possible feel too embarrassed to take them seriously; but at the same time, recognize that lots of people have lots of different varieties of foolish beliefs. The fact that a person subscribes to one outdated book and not a different one, doesn’t make them a killer.