Don’t you love it when actors and neuroscientists scrap? There certainly was a good round of action last week when Ben Affleck and Sam Harris squared off on Real Time, Bill Maher’s HBO show. The dustup clearly touched a cultural nerve, sparking widespread coverage and commentary. Unfortunately, virtually everything that has been written and spoken about it missed the mark and added little to the important issues raised. (If you missed the Affleck-Harris blowup, view a clip here)
The problem with the aftermath is that most people seemed to have simply picked a side in lieu of listening and thinking. The result is that 99 percent of the commentary I’ve seen boils down to either, “Ben Affleck is an idiot”, or “Sam Harris is a bigot”. Few seem to have recognized that both men hold sensible positions on very important points and that the key problem that night was a failure to communicate, nothing new when religion is being discussed.
"Affleck is right, there really are many irrational bigots who slander and condemn every Muslim for the actions of some Muslims."
Affleck was right to be indignant. There really are many irrational bigots who slander and condemn every Muslim for the actions of some Muslims. He is justified in vigorously attacking such a stupid position and all who are shallow enough to promote it. But Affleck tripped up in thinking that Harris is one of these people. I am very familiar with Harris's work and have never seen reason to suspect him of being a racist or bigot. And I pay close attention to such things, having written a book about the concept of race and the problem of racism. I'm confident that Sam Harris is not a racist. Here is one of the first things he said during his appearance on Real Time:
“We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia where every critique of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people and that’s just intellectually ridiculous.”
Affleck failed to listen and immediately demonstrated Harris’s point by calling the critique of Islam “gross and racist”. This was, of course, “intellectually ridiculous”. Harris does not attack “all Muslims”. In fact, he has consistently called for moderate, peaceful and sensible Muslims to push back against those who oppress, terrorize and kill in the name of Islam.
"The impulse to confront prejudice and shout down hate sometimes distracts good people from listening first in order to determine who the actual bigots are before they aim and fire."
The impulse to confront prejudice and shout down hate sometimes distracts good people from listening first in order to determine who the actual bigots are before they aim and fire. Yes, Harris is critical of the ideas and instructions within Islam that harm so many Muslims and lead some to do bad things. So am I. What is wrong with that? I feel that it is immoral not to do so. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, can lead sane, well-meaning believers off in a variety of directions. Islam’s sacred words produce plausible interpretations that might lead one to do good or bad. This is only to be expected when a body of ideas and claims is not founded on evidence. It becomes infinitely flexible. This is why we see thousands of versions of Christianity, for example, and only one version of geology. Accusing Harris of being a racist or bigot because he is a critic of Islam is like saying anyone who criticizes the US government hates all Americans.
I know this dance well after analyzing and writting about religious belief for many years. I have been accused of everything from “hating all Christians” to “worshipping Satan”. And such nonsense almost always come from people who presumed to know all about my ideas and my work—despite never having taken the time to listen to me or read my books. As a public skeptic I have learned that tiny misconceptions frequently sever the lines of communication when one challenges religious claims. In many cases it is necessary to address mundane and silly points repeatedly before moving on to deeper areas. Otherwise, religious people won’t hear anything you say. This is where Sam Harris and Bill Maher went wrong with Affleck.
Rather than reach for deeper explanations of their skeptical position on Islam and their concerns about the dangers it poses, they should have hammered Affleck again and again with a statement along the lines of: “Not all Muslims are terrorists and we never said they were”. Once that sunk in, it would be safe to move on to more complex issues.
During visits to Syria, Egypt and Jordan I met some of the most kind-hearted human beings I have ever encountered. And they happened to be Muslims. While just about anything is possible where people are concerned, it’s laughable for me to think of them as inherently evil or more dangerous than a typical Christian, Hindu, or Scientologist might be. Being skeptical of Islam’s supernatural claims does not lead me to hate Muslims. Reading the Koran and being aware of its potential to inspire some people to violence do not lead me to fear every Muslim on Earth. It feels juvenile to even have to state that. But one does need to, repeatedly, or risk being misunderstood and even accused of bigotry.
Let’s hope that Affleck continues to speak out against the blanket condemnation of Muslims because such prejudice is unfair, illogical and socially destructive. But let’s also hope he makes sure to direct his righteous anger toward those who actually do assault all Muslims. Sadly, there are plenty of such people around these days. One can hear them phoning in to AM talk radio shows every day of the week.
"Intellectuals can live in bubbles too."
Finally, Harris would do well to remember the greater world he lives in. Intellectuals can live in bubbles too. Those who are courageous enough to challenge popular delusions cannot afford to get so wrapped up in making nuanced arguments that they lose sight of what matters most. The goal is to inspire and help people think clearly so that they can spot potentially dangerous fantasies on their own. Harris is an important voice in our culture with a lot to say about many things. But he won’t be heard by most if he doesn’t make the effort to knock down the absurd roadblocks others put in his way.
Throughout my career I have consistently tried to listen to believers and respond to whatever they say before moving the conversation forward. Doing this has enabled me to reach many more of them than I would have otherwise. If I must, I spend the time discussing the shallowest of points and deflating every ridiculous assumption, because I know that doing so gives me a better chance of reaching the minds of believers and delivering my positive message about the value of reason in an all-too crazy world.
Here is an informative clip of Sam Harris commenting on his Real Time appearance