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Criticizing Religious Beliefs Doesn't Make You a Bigot

10/13/2014 11:39 EDT | Updated 12/13/2014 05:59 EST
NBC NewsWire via Getty Images
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: Reza Aslan, Author, 'No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and the Future of Islam' appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, September 12, 2010. (Photo by William B. Plowman/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Liberal and religious apologists are cutting a swathe through the Internet, with dozens of articles and blog posts responding to the recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher in which the eponymous host, Sam Harris, Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof engaged in a shouting match.

Take a gander.

If we unpack the arguments (as Sam Harris valiantly tried several times to do) we discover that the key disagreement between the parties is that apologists like Kristof (I'm going to ignore Affleck for now, because throwing a tantrum isn't quite the same thing as being part of a discussion -- naughty children belong on the naughty step) believe that people don't really act on the basis of their beliefs, but due to other social, economic, political factors, while Harris, Maher et al claim that people's beliefs have a tangible effect on their actions and reactions.

Reza Aslan, in his op-ed in the New York Times, writes, rightly, that

"...people of faith are far too eager to distance themselves from extremists in their community, often denying that religious violence has any religious motivation whatsoever."

This is a cogent point, one which Aslan then spends the rest of his article undermining, finally accusing people like Bill Maher of "bigotry," in a rather caustic and self-defeating way.

No thoughtful person can claim (and no one does, Reza) that the political and economic environments in the Middle East are unimportant or irrelevant. Neither, however, can any reflective person deny that religion in that area has primacy of position, and this is where many people, including Kristof and Aslan, are mistaken.

When the Nazis decimated European Jewry they did so largely because of their belief in Racial Purity; When Communists excused the murderous Soviet regime they did so mainly due to their belief in Communism (I knowingly simplify the doctrine here -- this is perhaps not the article to delve into the intricacies of Marxism, Leninism and Stalinism); When foreign death squads threaten the life of a British novelist for a work of fiction, it is in agreement with an tenet of sharia law claiming that death is an appropriate punishment for apostasy. And this is not a fractional belief -- a Pew poll shows that 86 per cent of Muslims in Egypt agree with the edict (as both Harris and Kristof, interestingly, point out). People act based on what they believe.

The question of why religious belief has primacy in the Middle East is an interesting and subtle one, which Aslan does allude to in his article, and the answer to which must refer to economic, social and political factors. The problem with Islam, however, as with any religion that relies on revealed truth (I much prefer the term "withheld truth," it must be said), is that edicts are codified and unimpeachable. This becomes problematic when arid Bronze Age values are applied to the modern world, as they must be if they are to be upheld as eternal, incontrovertible and divine.

This is a problem common to the codification of values, a problem whose consequences we can see clearly in debates over the Second Amendment in the United States where gun control laws are nearly impossible to pass because the right to bear arms is allowed for by the Constitution. (Tangentially: An argument over whether or not a constitution should allow something cannot be answered with 'but the constitution allows it'. Tautologies are rarely so obvious.)

The Constitution, however, like the Canadian Charter of Rights, the Geneva Convention and the UN Bill of Human Rights, does not claim to be the revealed truth of an irreproachable deity (I really mustn't make a joke). When the facts change, the opinion must change with them, and this is something that revealed truth cannot allow.

So when we, as atheists, say that Islam is the problem with the Middle East, we aren't saying that Muslims as people are the issue, we really are saying that the root of the crisis is the system of ancient, outmoded beliefs that currently rules and ruins one of the most transcendently beautiful regions in the world; Belief in Allah is not merely an identity marker, it is a belief that is acted upon, and criticizing this belief doesn't make one a racist.

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