Why Ben Affleck (and others) are wrong.

In a recent appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO show, with guests Sam Harris and Ben Affleck among others, Affleck became visibly agitated when discussing Maher’s very vocal and public criticism of Islam.

The issue is that Affleck, like many others, suffers from an affliction in which people’s religions are given automatic respect, as if it were somehow taboo to speak ill of the faith. He is either confusing a criticism of the ideology of a religion with discrimination against people, or he is deliberately conflating the two to hit people emotionally with a charge of racism. Following Islam is not a race, a physical charecteristic, genetic variation or ethnic background. It’s a belief system, an ideology, a faith-based doctrine forming a view of the world. I could convert to Islam tomorrow and it wouldn’t change my race or ethnicity. Neither Maher nor Harris make any racial, ethnic or cultural discriminatory statement. Harris is quite clear when he says that Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, because that is what the debate is about, the ideas, and no ideas are above analysis and critical review.

When the Catholic Church was burning heretics alive at the stake for disagreeing with them, I think reasonable people would agree that was a bad idea, and that people who thought it was a good idea were a danger to the rest of us. It’s not discriminatory or derogatory in any way to think so. Imagine if you can, the Jewish people still following the laws handed to them by their God. For example, God commanded the Jews to put to death anyone who suggested they worship a different god. “If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death.”

If they still practiced this, and I were to criticize them for it, am I being ugly, racist, bigoted or gross as Affleck charges of Maher and Harris? Of course not. Here’s the thing: If you give religion automatic respect out of some twisted sense of entitlement, then you have to accept what the true believers do when they follow their holy books. We call them radicals or fundamentalists, but they’re just listening to their God. So the criticism is and must be of the religion itself. It must be shown to be what it is: the lunatic ramblings of men who lived at a time when no one knew what was actually happening in the world. It reads like insanity because it is insanity. There is no such thing as moderate religion. That’s just what we call it when people realize the holy books are insane, and cherry pick the pretty things they like, like matzoh ball soup and having Seder dinner at Passover, but leave out this: “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife.”  There is no Torah, Part II – The Sequel, where God “reveals” to someone that the old rules don’t apply anymore. At least I’m not aware of it. If it’s out for Kindle, let me know.

If you want to believe in a god, that’s swell. Good for you. But that’s not religion. Religion is believing that god is telling you what to do, and that’s a problem. All religions are chock full of really bad ideas. They should be analyzed and evaluated and spoken about. It’s how progress takes place in the world.

  • Note. See The Dark Ages.

We used to think a good bloodletting was just the ticket for health and vigor and to cure disease. It was a bad idea. If anyone was still practicing it, we’d be critical of it and them. It’s not racist or ugly or discriminatory or gross or equivalent of saying “you shifty Jew” as Affleck claims. Honestly, even saying “you shifty Jew” is pretty meaningless. More of a childish schoolyard taunt than actual discrimination. If we discuss the ideas and practices common to a religion, like the practice of female genital mutilation, which is practiced among some adherents of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths, or under Jewish law, the practice of a mohel using their mouth to draw blood  from an infant’s penis after cutting the foreskin during a circumcision, and the discussion entails the components of safety, violation of human rights, etc. then this is a discussion and likely repudiation of the ideas and practices. It has nothing to do with race, ethnicity or discrimination of any kind.

People are free to believe whatever they want. We can’t, and shouldn’t even attempt to police people’s beliefs. But when those beliefs cause people to take actions, and those actions impact other people, we as a society have determined that actions have consequences. So if my belief that a god is telling me to have my disobedient son stoned to death, as the Israeli tribal god Yahweh instructed Moses: “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones” I’m free to believe it. But when I put those beliefs into action and kill my son, I can and should face the full legal consequences for my actions. Claiming it was my religious faith that gave me the go ahead is no excuse. We know this, we know it innately, yet somehow we can’t seem to just say it when faced with the charge of discriminating against someone’s religion. You have to hand it to the churches, synagogues and mosques, and those who make a living by lying to us. They have managed over hundreds of years to build a mighty wall of self-preservation around their ideology and insulate themselves from both ridicule, which they deserve, and contempt, which they earn.

I’m under no delusion that this issue will be resolved in our lifetimes. We remain paranoid, superstitious, credulous and frightened, desperate to make sense of a universe that makes no sense. Creating a fictitious worldview where a Divine Authority sits in judgment and will ultimately right the wrongs and create justice and fairness where none can be found, and will intervene in our lives and the lives of those we love if we’ll just say the right words and believe the right beliefs, allows some people to find solace amid the capriciousness. But there are those who can see through the veil of superstitious voodoo and mumbo jumbo, with the built-in protection scheme that goes by the name of blasphemy, and they will continue to speak out against what Christopher Hitchens called this ultimate wickedness and ultimate stupidity.

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