I like to wait to jump into these arguments until they’ve sort of blown over a little bit. It gives me time to think, it gives the aggrieved a chance to get riled up and then find something else to distract them, it leaves us with the opportunity to try to lay out some ideas in a way that doesn’t have to navigate the thorny situation of a person trying to justify the opinions of their TV heroes or something.
I want to talk about this fight between Bill Maher and Sam Harris on one side, and kind of on the other side Ben Affleck and Reza Aslan.
I’m on the Affleck/Aslan side of the argument, and rather than going through the details of their fight, I want to try to recontextualize the argument in a way that maybe suggests that this fight is misguided.
What’s the Problem with Islam?
Nothing. Nothing is the problem with Islam. A lot of guys will tell you, “Look, look at all the terrible partriarchy that happens in Saudi Arabia,” or “look at female genital mutilation,” or “look at honor-killings!” “We don’t have that in America!” Bill Maher says, and also Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association.
Well, Fischer says that we’re a Christian nation because we can sell bacon; Maher says that we’re not a Christian nation because we can’t prosecute people for blasphemy, but it seems like they both agree that we’re definitely NOT a Muslim nation. They should shake hands and have ice cream, at last they’ve found some common ground.
The weird thing is, though, is what about all of the Muslims in America? So, I mean, America is 73% Christian – by far the largest slice of the pie, no question. Islam is the third-largest religion in the US, but it’s less than a tenth of the population, it’d barely register if you looked at a chart or something. Still, 0.8% of the population is 24.8 million people, that’s not a small number. That’s basically an entire country – literally, 24 million people is the population of Yemen.
So, it’s just a weird thing to me that we talk about Islam like it’s a thing that happens in other countries – sure, a lot of these countries have an official religion, which the US specifically does not. But not every country; Turkey doesn’t, for instance. (They’ve also had more female heads of state that we have – oh, a smart guy points out, they’ve had exactly ONE, hur hur hur; well, smart guy, that’s exactly infinity percent more than us, so.)
Bryan Fischer – and maybe Bill Maher, too – would tell you that that’s exactly the problem. “Look at Saudi Arabia,” he’d say, “that’s what those 24 million Muslims want the US to look like.” But the good thing about Bryan Fischer is that we know he’s a bigot, so when he says something like that, it behooves us to be skeptical of it. And when Bill Maher says it – when Bill Maher says anything that lines up neatly with what a famous bigot and idiot has said – it still behooves us to be skeptical of it.
There are 24 million Muslims in America. It is ludicrous to suggest that they all prefer to live in a religious theocracy, that they are all itching for Sharia law. It is ludicrous just at a common sense level – 24 million people from different backgrounds and different classes and different ethnicities could not possibly ALL agree on EVERYTHING.
But also I want us to consider the possibility that it doesn’t make sense to talk about religion like it’s the source of specific culture desires. That maybe it’s actually better to talk about religion as a kind of language for describing lived experience.
How is Religion a Language?
So, let’s be clear when we talk about language. In this case, I don’t mean it’s a language exactly the way English – obviously there are Christian Anglophones and there are Muslim Anglophones, and strictly-speaking, they both speak the same language. But they also might talk about things in different ways, they might use different metaphors to describe their experiences, they might, importantly, contextualize those experiences in different ways. It’s like, on top of a sort of specific mechanical language of grammar and syntax and vocabulary, there’s another layer of semiotics, meant to organize those ideas together. In linguistics, we’d actually probably call this “coding” – it’s not a different language, per se, and it’s not exactly a dialect, so much as it’s a different way of using language to signify a cultural identity or to communicate with other members of that culture.
A good question is, “Why do I want to call religion a language used to describe values and lived experience, and not pinpoint it as the source of values?”
The answer to that is that describing religion as the source of values doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense at any level, but consider – if Christianity is the source of the morals of its adherents, how come they can’t agree on whether or not the death penalty is right? If Christianity is the source of morality, how come for many centuries it endorsed slavery, and then afterwards it opposed it? (And, it should be noted, it didn’t even oppose it all at once – Quakers and Anglicans seemed to be about a half a century ahead of everyone else.)
If Islam is the source of values, how come we’ve got Muslims on the one hand who want to kill themselves to create a religious caliphate and on the other we’ve got Muslims who…you know…don’t. Like, a lot of Muslims who don’t?
We’ve had this weird challenge in atheism all the time, because we want to talk about it as a broad category, but at the same time saying that you’re an atheist doesn’t really say anything about what you believe. Josef Stalin was an atheist; the Bolsheviks that preceded him straight up firebombed orthodox churches. Robespierre was an atheist; the Reign of Terror was pretty happy to loot and burn monasteries and lop the heads off of priests. Ayn Rand was an atheist, and she would be perfectly pleased to let poor people die because they’re insufficiently good at competing in the market.
“Hold on,” we say, “Those guys were assholes for reasons that are independent of their atheism. It’s not atheism that made them that way; it’s…well, it’s like they’re using the language of atheism to describe the things that they believe.”
Historically – just like atheism – there is a wide diversity of what constitutes acceptable moral values, even among people who at least nominally adhere to exactly the same religion. I challenge you, in fact, to find two Catholics who absolutely agree on every moral point – and before you start looking, I’ll remind you that, while Catholic doctrine officially prohibits birth control as immoral, 68% of sexually active Catholic women use some method of (actual) birth control.
Where Do Values Come From?
If you think about it, the confusion between religion as the source of values and the language of values makes sense, since for most of human history, we’ve mostly been looking at religiously-homogenous communities. Even in places with some kind of religious pluralism, there’s always the tendency to see people of the same religion segregated (or to see them self-segregate). The problem is that this is perfectly reasonable thing to expect, and how do you tell the difference between:
1) A community where everyone gets their values from the same religion
2) A community of people who share the same values, and gravitate towards people who share the same cultural language
I mean, I don’t know! We don’t to do a lot of experiments. In the 13th century (I think) there was an Arabic novel about a guy who grew up in isolation on an island with no human contact at all, and through regular observation of the natural world, developed a religion that was essentially exactly like Islam (well, exactly like the sort of Islam that the author believed was “true” Islam). But that experiment isn’t replicable; the government won’t approve my proposals for adopting orphaned infants and raising them on deserted islands to see what kind of religions they invent.
Even when we think we’re learning our religions sort of “purely” or without outside influence – I mean, don’t think that, that’s crazy. Reading the bible with Pentecostal snake-handlers is going to be a very different experience from reading the bible with Jesuit priests. Reading the bible when you’re rich and white is going to be a different experience than if you were poor and black (or rich and black, or poor and white, or anything).
There are some people – Maher and Harris included – who are going to say that we need to evaluate these religious philosophies on sort of their own internal merits, but I don’t think that’s even remotely true. I don’t think it’s remotely true because no one –absolutely no one – has a faith based utterly and entirely on the sole interior merits of their nominal faith.
Can we say that the specificity of the language of the faith influences the values of the people in the community? Again, we could if we could somehow separate them out. We could at least suggest it if we could see some correlation between faith and violence (or the lack thereof). I mean sure, there’s been an awful lot of violence in the Middle East. But, you know, I hate to break it to white people (white Christians, especially), but the last sixty years has been the longest period in recorded history in which one European power wasn’t fighting another. Is the Middle East uniquely violent?
Sources say no.
Are atheists, meanwhile, uniquely tolerant? I think a lot of the desire to evaluate a faith-language only on its internal merits, and not on its consequences, derives in a lot of ways from the desire to hold up one particular language as uniquely good, which is why it’s worth considering whether or not atheists are, indeed, uniquely good.
Well, again, nobody fucking knows, we haven’t had enough atheists for a long enough period, or in charge of enough societies, to even make that argument. We DO know, for sure, that a government being nominally-faithless, or even officially faithless, or even officially pluralistic (see the United States) doesn’t make it particularly less warlike, particularly less capable of genocide or discrimination. Atheism certainly isn’t a bulwark against immorality (any more, as it turns out, than any religion happens to be).
What seems particularly specious about the Maher-Harris argument is that they aren’t religious. See, if you’re religious, a lot of times you might say that moral values come from somewhere – like God, or they’re perceived by the soul and so humans understand them at this universal level, or they’re at least codified in a book or what have you. But as an atheist, presumably you don’t believe that – and if you don’t believe that values come from God or the soul or were carved in stone on a mountaintop…well, where the hell do you think they come from?
Me – along with, I would say, at least a plurality of religious and sociology scholars – I happen to think that values are created in an ad-hoc process according to the material, economic, and social requirements of a community. (A Salon writer – who I won’t bother to look up, and thus must remain nameless — in response to the Affleck-Maher-Harris debate describing Reza Aslan’s response to it characterized this as, “some blather about social and economic factors.” Let me say that if you are going to dismiss the possibility of economic and social factors influencing a person’s moral values as “blather”, then you are a legitimately stupid person, and you should go home and never speak on any subject again.)
And so, we’ve got these economic and social and historical factors that create different pressures on a community; the community develops specific cultural and moral practices in response; those values and responses are contextualized and expressed according to the dominant cultural faith-language – be it Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or Atheism.
Wait, But What About [X]
What about the French Revolution? Well, 1500 years of resentment about massive income inequality and crippling poverty for the peasants of France resulted in a new value system that permitted the eradication of people perceived to be an existential threat to their survival (hardly a new value, especially in France, see: Wars, All of the). It expressed itself in the language of atheism why? Because the language of Christianity had become inexorably associated with the fact of their oppression; the Church threw in with the monarchy, and it was this language that was used to justify what had become an intolerable social situation.
So what about ISIS, and how they behead infidels? Well, look, when you perceive yourself as under threat from all sides, you create a value system that demands strict conformity and ideological purity. When you’re a Muslim fighter in ISIS, I guess this can be expressed – in very specific places by very specific people at very specific times (not, by any stretch of the imagination, by all Muslims) –as a Quranic requirement to behead infidels. (Alternately, we could point out that most of the beheadings are meant to goad America into war – and you know, when you perceive yourself to be in a tactically disadvantageous position, and you think that you can legitimize your position by engaging a superior and universally-hated enemy, then the value of “taunting a bully” starts to make a lot more sense, doesn’t it? And that’s hardly a value unique to Islam.) But similarly, if you were a Christian Spaniard, this might make you think you needed to find and root out all the Secret Jews .
Now, we can say that American society is better because it’s pluralistic, and we’re not allowed to kill people or torture people because of their faith…oh, well, I mean I guess we’re allowed to torture people. Not because of their “faith” but because of their status as “enemy combatants”, though if – by this point – you don’t see how these are different codes for the same idea then I’m not sure what we’re doing here. I agree that it’s better to live in a society that doesn’t fear outsiders; I agree that it’s better to live in a society that doesn’t condone torture or capital punishment. I disagree that an atheistic society – a society that expresses itself with an irreligious faith-language – is going to implicitly do that. Ask Sam Harris, for example, if there aren’t times when torture is a completely reasonable philosophical choice. He and I share an irreligious faith-language; we do not share the same values.
But doesn’t Islam encourage its adherents to believe that they’re constantly under attack by ideological impurity? I mean, does it? Or do the people in the Middle East completely correctly perceive that someone from outside their country is constantly trying to fuck with them? Push them around, assassinate their leaders, write their constitutions? It’s hard to make the argument that Iraqis shouldn’t feel like their society is under threat from invaders when we’re actually literally invading their country, so I’m not sure how you’d sort out the difference between a legitimate fear, expressed in terms of faith, and an illegitimate fear inaccurately caused by faith. Except, of course, that their fear is perfectly legitimate.
Similarly, we talk about how evangelical Christianity is paranoid, that no one wants to destroy Christians or burn churches, but there is an actual legitimate fear there – as a society we do want to destroy the privilege of Christianity, its unquestioned authority as the essential language of our community. In a sense, this paranoia isn’t wrong, it’s just expressed in a way that is not, strictly speaking, accurate – Christianity is under threat as the undeserving hegemonic language of America; Evangelicals express this fear in their faith-language, which contextualizes is in eschatological rhetoric.
Meanwhile, of course, there IS a legitimate reason for atheists to believe that we’re – well, let’s not say “underprivileged” exactly, and I even hesitate to say “discriminated against” – but certainly there’s a strong movement in American culture to delegitimize atheistic value systems and similarly to reject religious pluralism which many atheists see themselves as representing. Nevertheless, the faith-language that some people use to express it (not the “faith” per se, which is something that complicates the question) doesn’t describe the need for pluralistic or multiple viewpoints, but instead posits that “Reason” is under assault by “Superstition.”
So What Is the Right Language?
Do you guys know what Esperanto is? Esperanto is one of those fake languages that people made up because of how dumb all the other languages are. “English doesn’t make sense, it’s counter-intuitive! Here, let’s engineer a perfect language that makes absolute sense!” There’s a couple of these, and do you speak them? Of course you fucking don’t. Language is created in response to the communicative needs of the community that uses it; there’s no independent super-language, or some platonic perfect language, that exists outside those needs.
There’s about 2 million Esperanto speakers in the world today, tops. Most of them do not live in the US; the odds of you running into one are pretty slight. Learning Epseranto, in that sense, doesn’t make you more likely to understand or to be understood by others (broadly, the only two characteristics that we can say that all languages ought to have). So what’s the point of it?
In a lot of ways, I think that the Maher-Harris insistence on irreligion as the essential language of America is the same problem; they’ve got this idea that they’ve stumbled onto the perfect way to express and contextualize human experience, and now they insist that everyone else use it.
Well, the way that you become good at communicating with others isn’t by learning the perfect language and then stubbornly insisting on it no matter what, any more than the way that you communicate with Americans is by speaking “correct” American grammar and insisting on that no matter what. You communicate with Americans by learning the different ways that Americans speak. You learn to communicate with the rest of the world by learning more languages, not by learning the one correct one.
The same is true with this kind of faith-language. We’re not going to get anywhere if we leave our political discourse over to anyone who is going to insist that their own particular cultural privilege is the language that we all have to speak in. And this applies to atheists like Maher and Harris, sure, of course, but it also applies to, you know, the 73% of self-identified Christians in the US and their 90% Christian elected representatives.
An important caveat, that – when I argue for cultural pluralism, I don’t want to make the mistake of offering up a shield for people who are already in the privileged position of sharing the faith-language with the dominant culture. This is not a way of letting Christians say, “See, atheists? You have to learn to speak MY language! This is important to me and I don’t have to change!”
If it’s important for Maher and Harris to learn the languages of religion in order to have that debate, it is even MORE important for Christians to learn the languages of atheism and Islam and Sikhism and Buddhism and Hinduism and every other language. And I am sure that there are plenty of Christians who will agree to that, because Christianity is not intrinsically anti-pluralistic; it’s just that there are a lot of bigots out there, and because 73% of Americans are Christian, odds are good that most of them will express their bigotry in terms of Christianity.