Bill Maher and Ben Affleck are Both Wrong about Islam

by Benjamin Studebaker

In recent days, there’s been much discussion of an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher in which Maher (the host) and noted atheist Sam Harris got into a lively discussion with actor Ben Affleck over whether or not Islam is fundamentally less compatible with liberal values than Christianity, Judaism, or other religions. While I see many people taking sides, I found none of the arguments made particularly persuasive. I was instead struck by how thoroughly all three men seemed to miss the point.

If you haven’t seen the clip, here it is:

To summarize in brief, Maher claims that liberals need to stand up for liberal values, and that Islam is intrinsically hostile to these values. Affleck claims that most Muslims are not intrinsically hostile to liberal values and that therefore Islam as a whole is not intrinsically hostile to those values. Harris claims that Affleck underestimates popular support in the Muslim world for a variety of illiberal policies. Affleck claims that Maher and Harris are grossly overgeneralizing and are guilty of Islamophobia, which he likens to racism, while Maher and Harris claim to be subjecting Islam to the same fair criticism that non-religious ideas are generally open to in a liberal society.

Let’s break this down further–here are Maher’s two core claims:

  1. Proponents of secular moral theories must recognize that they conflict with religious moral theorists and stand up for their beliefs.
  2. Islam is intrinsically hostile to secular moral theory, more so than other religions.

The first claim does not get challenged by Affleck and is fundamentally true. Recently, I argued that secular values are not neutral values but that they are a substantive challenge to conservative religious values. This is true not merely in the conflicting practical ethical views that secular and religious moral theories generate, but in the way they are constructed. Theistic religious morality is “a priori”, which is to say that it relies on a presupposed set of basic metaphysical facts that must be taken on faith. There are three faith claims that all theistic religions require:

  1. There is a god (or gods).
  2. It is possible to know the will of god (or of the gods).
  3. The will of  god (or the gods) is good.

If we disbelieve any one of these assumptions, theistic religious morality cannot be substantiated. If there is no god, he has no will to obey. If we cannot know the will of god, we cannot obey it even if he exists. If we do not know if god’s will is good, we cannot know that it is good to obey god even if he exists and his will is known. Faith in these claims is an intrinsic part of theistic religious morality.

By contrast, secular morality is constructed by human beings for the purpose of attaining a human conception of the good. It is often (though not always–see the Kantians) conducted in an “a posteriori” way, which is to say that secularists observe the worldly consequences of various moral principles and choose the moral principles that lead to the consequences they consider optimal.  While secular conceptions of the good usually align with religious conceptions on practical matters to varying degrees, they will necessarily differ on both substance and theory.  Just as many theistic religious preachers disagree on what the will of god is, many secular theorists disagree on how the good should be conceived and what means are appropriate for its attainment, but over the years various secularists have embraced a variety of ideas that straight up conflict with many traditional religious doctrines (e.g. permitting abortion/homosexuality/euthanasia, objecting to the consumption of animals, etc.) Additionally, the motivator for believing in the moral doctrine is fundamentally different–in theistic religious doctrine, one behaves morally ultimately because one will eventually be judged by the god (or gods) in question. In secular doctrine, one behaves morally because the social cooperation morality provides for raises living standards and happiness for people in this world, not the next.

Secularists cannot run from or ignore these distinctions. They must recognize that their beliefs are a substantive challenge to religious beliefs and that deeply religious people will often prefer to live in a society that operates in accordance with their beliefs rather than with secular ones. Religious people do not see secular morality as neutral or non-threatening and will continue to attempt to fight it. Secularists must either fight back or give ground.

Now, all that said, the second claim Maher makes is entirely different. Here, Maher does not merely point out that secularists have to defend secularism against those hostile to it in general, he claims that Islam is intrinsically more hostile than other religions and should receive more focus and attention from secularists than other religious doctrines.

Here the discussion quickly goes off the rails, with Affleck claiming that most Muslims are not particularly fanatical or hostile to liberal democracy while Harris claims that they are.  As a point of fact, the results are somewhat mixed. According to a series of Pew polls, most Muslims support religious freedom, but are more muted in their support for democracy:

In most Muslim countries, there is little support for suicide bombing in defense of Islam, but in several the minority in support is sizable:

Large numbers of Muslims think that women must obey their husbands, and while many think women are entitled to choose whether or not to veil, this belief is far from universal:

When it comes to divorce and inheritance rights for women, it depends very much on which region you look at:

And large numbers of Muslims in many regions object to various behaviors that some secular moral theorists consider permissible or in some cases morally required:

What should be most striking to us about this data is the regional differences–if you’re a Muslim in Europe, you’re not as likely to hold views consistent with secular liberalism as your fellow Europeans, but you are much more likely to hold these views than you would be if you were a Muslim from the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa. Many European Muslims remain first or second generation immigrants to Europe, yet in the short time that they have been Europeans they have already begun to slide in a secularist direction. There are Muslims who are okay with euthanasia, abortion, sex outside of marriage, and many other behaviors not associated in the popular consciousness with Islam.

We could play this same game with evangelical Christianity–in a survey of evangelical preachers from around the world, Pew found that many of them espouse similar views to the Muslims surveyed. Evangelical preachers object to homosexuality just as strongly as European Muslims do and object to abortion even more strongly:

And more evangelical preachers believe that wives must obey their husbands than do European Muslims:

We also know that Christianity used to be far more conservative and hostile to secular liberal values than it is today. The rights of women in Medieval Europe were extraordinarily limited and support for abortion or gay rights unheard of. Christians used to be major proponents of using violence to defend the faith–the French Wars of Religion killed 2-4 million people. During the crusades, this support for religious violence was turned against Islam, as Christians waged aggressive campaigns to invade territory that had been held by Muslim people for several hundred years. By contrast, during the Middle Ages the Muslim states were noted for their support for the sciences. In sum, there was nothing intrinsic about Christianity that made it more secular or liberal than Islam historically and even today there are Christian denominations that are more hostile to liberalism and secularism than certain Muslim populations.

Maher, Harris, and Affleck are having a discussion about whether or not Islam is intrinsically illiberal, but we already know from the history that this is not the case, that there have been many times when Muslims have been more liberal, more secularist, or more pro-science than their Christian counterparts. So what’s really going on here? Why is it that there are Muslims today that are participating in radical religious movements while in Christian countries the radicals are in retreat?

I submit to you that it has nothing to do with Islamic or Christian doctrine whatsoever. If Muslims and Christians can believe entirely different things from what they used to believe or from what their coreligionists believe in different regions, this suggests that there are additional variables at play. What might these variables be?

Prosperity. Education. Security. Hope.

If you live in North America, Europe, or Australia, you live in a relatively prosperous society where education systems are comparatively strong and you and your family are relatively secure from food and water shortages, disease, and violence. You likely have hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your life and you probably believe you can achieve them in this world. If you live in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia, it is quite likely that you live constantly live in a state of fear. You might fear disease, you might fear famine, you might fear people from different tribes, ethnic groups, and religions, and you might fear your government. What’s more, you have little hope of seeing any positive change any time soon in this world. The forces arrayed against you are tremendously powerful and overwhelming, and you’re completely unfamiliar with what a good society looks like, much less how to build one. All you’ve got are these power-hungry fanatical religious leaders telling you that the answer is religious purity, and that not only will doing god’s work give you a purpose in this life, it will get you into paradise in the next. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Muslim. If you live in that kind of society with that level of desperation and hopelessness, you are drastically more likely to fall prey to fanatical thinking.

The answer, at all times and in all places, has been to break the hold of fanaticism by lifting societies out of poverty, by spreading prosperity, education, security, and hope. The Muslim world needs today what the Christian world needed 1000 years ago–a renaissance. But when we westerners see fanaticism, we don’t recognize it as a symptom of these larger problems, we attribute it to Islam and view Islam itself as the disease. This kind of thinking alienates Muslims all over the world and drives more of them into the arms of the waiting fanatical preachers. They come to see us as the enemy, as the cause of their misery, and they attack us. And when they attack us, instead of giving them hope, we give them bombs. We destroy and kill them, impoverishing them further, driving them ever further from prosperity, education, security, and hope. And then we are shocked and surprised when this does absolutely nothing to discourage the fanatics, when new groups and new preachers take the place of those we destroyed. For every fanatic we kill knows in his heart that when he dies he dies a martyr and goes to heaven. No amount of violence will eliminate this kind of thinking.

So in this way, Maher and Harris are part of the system that encourages and feeds fanatical terrorist organizations. But Affleck’s criticism doesn’t really do the job. Even if 90% of all Muslims approved of suicide bombing, it would not in any way prove that Islam was intrinsically more fanatical or more hostile to liberalism or secularism than other religions, because we know historically that this was not always the case, that there have been and to some extent still are Christians who were more fanatical and Muslims who were much less so. A statistic like that would only serve to demonstrate the depth of despair in Muslim societies today, and the seriousness of the need for economic, social, and political development. To say that “most Muslims don’t actually think that” as Affleck does implicitly agrees with Maher and Harris’ premise that it is the religion that determines the behavior, when the reality is that economic, social, and political cohesion play a much bigger role in determining whether someone will have religious or secular liberal moral views and how fanatical those views might be.