On the Ben Affleck, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris Debate: Some Thoughts

I hunted down a longer clip of the heated debate that occurred on the Bill Maher show between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Maher. If you haven't seen it, watch the longer version here before reading my own thoughts.

After giving it some thought, I think it was a big example of miscommunication on top of talking past one another.

Affleck wasn't wrong about Maher and Harris painting all of Islam with broad strokes. They are guilty of this virtually every time they open their mouths. But in this case I think Sam Harris made a more than valid point that just went over Ben's head.

Harris' point about the number of Muslim practitioners estimated at around 1.6 billion adherents and the fact that 20% of Islam is practiced by legalistic, fundamentalist Muslims, and a fraction of that percentage being a radical element, means that there are over 200 million Muslims who believe in the literal interpretation of the Koran and Islam's core tenets, which include calling for the death of apostates, gays, and non-believers who will not convert by force.

On a second viewing I finally got what Affleck intended by his "Shifty-Jew" analogy. He was basically claiming that Maher and Harris were guilty of making a genetic fallacy. That because all Muslims are Islamic then they all must be Islamic radicals because all Islamic radicals are Muslim.

But I don't actually think that's what Harris had in mind, which is the point they began talking past each other.

Harris was simply concerned with the bad ideologies present in the religion of Islam which statistics show 200 million people take literally. Contrary to what Ben Affleck thought, Harris wasn't making a genetic fallacy. If there is any doubt as to the issue, Jerry Coyne over at his blog Why Evolution is True shares some depressing statistics with regard to current trends and attitudes within Islamic countries.

At the same time, I have to say this debate is just another reason that I have recently come to feel Sam Harris is not a good platform speaker, and in my opinion a little thick-skulled. He simply throws out statistics and broad generalizations and neglects to actually *listen* to his opponent's criticisms.

If Sam would have simply told Ben that he was concerned predominantly with the 200 million fundamentalist Muslims, not a small number mind you, and not the moderate majority of Muslims overall (as it seemed at first) then Ben would have probably backed off sooner. But as it turns out, Harris just sticks to his guns, and keeps forcing the same point home again, only clarifying later when it's already too late, doing nothing to diffuse the earlier confusion regarding his criticism.

Sam's telling Ben that he (Ben) didn't understand his (Sam's) argument on national television was plainly rude. It made me lose a little respect for Harris, whose slip up revealed his passive-aggressive calm demeanor to be little more than an act, pointing to the fact that he is just as worthy of an actor as Ben Affleck is. 

It was clear to me too that Ben didn't quite get the criticism, but pointing it out toward the end of the argument just to get the last word in seemed to me a little crass. You don't understand my argument, so your prior criticism isn't valid, you goddamn idiot Ben!, Sam seemed to be saying.

But Ben Affleck's previous criticism, although missing the side of the barn, is not a bad point and it is one worth making (perhaps at a more appropriate time in a similar debate).

Many Muslims do get painted with too broad a brush, especially by intellectual liberals like Harris and Maher who refuse to back down from their ideological position so adamantly that you'd be forgiven for mistaking them for ideologues instead of genuine critical thinkers.

Ben's comment that we shouldn't bunch Muslim women into the radical, fanatic Jihadist category if they are of the peaceful Muslim majority who just want to go to school and eat sandwiches, was a good point.

At the same time, Harris' point that Islam is the mother-load of bad ideas isn't entirely wrong either. Well, it's a bit poorly stated, but his point that Islam contains a disproportionate number of sinister and pernicious teachings as compared to the good ones is apparent to anyone who has ever read the Koran or listened to the teachings contained in the hadith.

There is indeed a wealth, or mother-load, of bad teachings and ideas for modern Muslims to contend with, but this is mainly due to the fact that the Koran, like the Bible, is a man-made text written in an ignorant and warring age by men who held what we consider today to be archaic and outmoded views.

The fact that many Muslims will undeniably cite the Koran, just as Christians do their Bible, as a guiding moral source goes all the way back to one of Harris' most scathing quotes about the Bible probably being the world's worst sources for morality humanity has ever invented, if we didn't also have the Koran, that is.

As for the debate on the term Islamaphobe, I think this should have been the key focus of this particular discussion.

I agree with Sam that the term Islamaphobe gets bandied about needlessly. Also, to call people genuinely fearful of the threat of violent and extremist elements of Islam "Islamaphobes" is like calling a person with a petrifying fear of spiders an "Aarachnophobe." In other words, the term accurately reflects a very real fear, even if that fear isn't always entirely rational.

The problem is, the term Islamaphobe has become a dirty catch-all word to silence any detractors of Islam who would seek to offer widespread criticism for Islam's more pernicious tenets. So the broad brush strokes are being painted on both sides of the canvas here.

Even so, this doesn't mean there aren't racist or bigoted attitudes which exist with regard to Muslims and what they believe. There are. And many do fit the negative definition of Islamaphobe, just as many fit the catch-all phrase homophobe, for their intolerant and bigoted views of homosexuals and gay rights.

The key difference, however, I would point out is that there isn't an underlying homosexual ideology that calls for the conversion or death of all non-homosexuals and seeks to impose violence on anyone who disrespect the holy gay pride rainbow. Such a vocal minority, however, does exist within mainstream Islam. So the term Islamaphobe is muddied by the fact that both intolerant bigots and genuinely fearful people exist with regard to the Islamic religion.

All this is just to say there do exist valid reasons to fear certain aspects and interpretations of Islam.

But this discussion didn't happen. Instead, Ben Affleck, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris simply had a ball talking past each other and not taking the adequate amount of time to listen to what the other side was trying to say. It was a perfect display of the religious debate being interrupted by overly domineering personalities that, although well meaning, failed to comprehend the most important part of any debate--understanding the other side's position.


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