It has come to my attention that Bill Maher has been making some pronouncements against Islam, and this has resulted fierce blow back from the likes of people such as Reza Aslan. Normally I don’t follow Maher too closely. I used to watch his show, Politically Incorrect, back in the 1990s, and though he had his moments of wit, humor, and insight, by and large his stock in trade was superficial buffoonery. So I generally do not pay attention to him. More recently he’s been espousing views which make him a fellow traveller with New Atheists. As a disagreeable person who enjoys some biting polemic I do appreciate the New Atheists for the role they play in the ecology of ideas. They do not hide behind the post-modern fixation on “tolerance” and “diversity.” But my ultimate judgement about them is that their foundational propositions about human nature are wrong. In other words, I stand with cognitive anthropologists such as Scott Atran as to the roots of religion. Though in the God Delusion Richard Dawkins exhibits some familiarity with this literature, ultimately his rhetoric and central thesis seems to take it for granted that religion is a contingent cultural invention, and adherence is a feature of improper implementation of the principles of rationality. My own position, in line with cognitive anthropologists, is that supernatural ideas are relatively inevitable human intuitions given the architecture of our minds, which are far less dominated by the ability to reflexively reason than 18th century rationalists would have believed. The more elaborate specific institutional aspects of religion are also probably rather inevitable given the needs of mass society after the Neolithic Revolution. In other words telling people to stop being stupid probably won’t have the effect that the New Atheists think it should. People are just…well, stupid. I do have to admit that there seems a bit of irony in this, insofar as the New Atheists promulgate a world-view predicated on adherence to the empirical facts, but have the normal human bias to discount those data which conflict with their prior model.
But this is not just an issue with New Atheists. Many who disagree with the New Atheists on the cultural Left seem averse to grappling with the empirical facts when it comes to Islam, where because of the New Atheists’ lack of interest in social conformity they express truths as if they’re the child who sees the naked emperor. Richard Dawkins regularly makes bold and laughable assertions, outrunning his own knowledge base whenever he talks about things not biological. But sometimes those who rebut his claims also outrun the facts in their eagerness to “debunk” his unpalatable views. About a year ago I got into a Twitter conversation with financial journalist Heidi Moore, who basically decided that she had to correct my misguided views about Islam. Though I agreed that Dawkins’ contentions were rather excessively general and deterministic, I believed her own apologia for Islam was based on just as rickety a factual foundation. Somehow in the wake of 9/11 American liberals, and to a lesser extent the mainstream more generally, have transformed themselves into Hujjat al-Islam, or “Proof of Islam,” whenever confronted with “ignorance.” The curiosity here is that yes, their interlocutors are expressing ignorance. But in their rebuttals there is also a great deal of ignorance.
In the exchange above Bill Maher in contrast has clearly done his homework. The majority of the world’s Muslims hold quite illiberal views. Not all Muslims. And there are regions where Muslims hold views in line with Christian societies which have undergone secularization. But overall Pakistan is closer to the central tendency than Bosnia, least of all of because there are nearly 200 million Pakistanis today. You can read the Pew survey which Maher referenced yourself, it’s been out for years.* He’s clearly conversant with the details. The usual rejoinder from liberals out to the mainstream is “but Christians too….” Maher points out that this sort of equivalence is just not plausible. Rather, it’s a ploy. No ex-Christian atheist fears for their life, though they may experience social ostracism.
The flip side of this of course is that some Christian conservatives and New Atheists argue for a Platonic and fixed character for Islam. For the New Atheists this follows from their thin and spare model of religious belief, which derives from elementary axiomatic errors. For many Christian conservatives it is derived from their religious beliefs, which they assume to be true. Islam, being false, is always going to be false. But taking a step back from the perspective of someone who believes all religions are fictions, and accepts a model of more cognitive and cultural complexity, it seems striking exactly how pliable religion itself is. If you read The Northern Crusades (against the pagan Balts) you may be struck by the similarities to the behavior of the Islamic State. And you don’t need to go back nearly 1,000 years, the Thirty Years War is more than sufficient in terms of barbarity. Religions are not special creations of god, they evolved from the history and minds of men.
It is true that not all Muslims present views which make one recoil. The problem is that in places like Pakistan enough do that if you violate the blasphemy law you may be killed rather quickly by those who have a less broad perspective. Even in Turkey, which is on the more liberal side in regards to religion, the ascendant Islamists have conservative views which lead them to chide women laughing in public. Depending on your views of the term “bigot” it is or isn’t bigotry to assert that the majority of the world’s Muslims are deeply illiberal, so it is not entirely surprising that atavistic neo-medieval violence periodically explodes out of the nether regions of the faith. But, it is also critical to question whether Islam is constitutionally so. Being that it is made up, like all other religions, I am quite skeptical of that. So there is hope if one keeps the faith that what goes down must eventually come up.
Does, on the whole, Bill Maher express obnoxious and superficial opinions? Probably, from what I’ve seen and heard. But the evidence above suggests that he’s not constitutionally incapable of honest insight.
* By and large Iraqi Shia are actually rather conservative in the broader Muslim world. I wonder of the low support (relatively) for the death penalty for apostates is a function of the rise of sectarian violence in the mid-2000s, where they saw exactly where a proliferation of takfiris leads.