Ben gets the lead here for calling Harris and Maher racist. Steele and Kristof do a good job trying to inject the ‘reasonable persons’ argument.
My problem is this – Affleck is right. Harris is also right. Islam is not a blind spot for liberals, how we approach intolerance of Muslims while maintaining an anti-authoritarian, anti-theocratic point of view is a confluence of ideological imperatives that takes more than a soundbite to parse and understand.
As a person who feels strongly that religious ideology is poisonous to all reasonable debate (and dangerous when mixed with military or police powers), I also recognize that the ‘liberal values’ that Maher is adopting as his shield evolved from Protestant Christian thought during the Renaissance and Reformation. Without the enlightenment, led by many Christian and former Christian/Deist and Jewish philosophers, Maher would have no universal rights of man to point to.
Likewise, we Americans give a pass to ourselves and choose to ignore the religious ideation of many of our own value systems when we look at our actions, political or otherwise. Atheist liberals look at the civil rights movement as a victory of humanist ideals, when really it was led by black ministers. When our own terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and Robert Bales kill hundreds no one calls the pope or Rick Warren to account. This is because white Americans see their own foundational beliefs and power structures as natural and progressing toward a positive end, for us and everyone, while we regard foreign concepts as suspect and ill-wrought. Islam has had enlightenments before, where religious pluralism, the arts and sciences flourish. This is not because of Islam, it is because of people. Likewise with violence and intolerance, from all cultures.
Sam Harris has indeed made a career of criticism of religious thought, and the fact is, he’s lightyears ahead of most folks on the subject intellectually. But he’s also made a lot of money in the post 9/11 world, cashing in on Islamophobia when he can do so with a bit of professorial distance. Affleck is a hero of mine, and Harris is one of my faves as well. This argument speaks to the core of what it means to be a liberal in the United States. But it isn’t necessary to pick a side. Because the bottom line is that good people are good no matter what they believe, and as long as the good people in any culture can ignore the ugly parts of their people’s ideologies – and actively decry them in public spaces, an all too difficult thing to do in moderate Muslim countries, in Communist countries, in America (if you’re black) – and treat each other like human beings, then we can thrive together.