Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Islam, Christianity and Secularism

Interesting things on TV these days.

If you missed it, which I certainly did, in this YouTube clip from last Friday’s show, Bill Maher — surprisingly, for such a notorious secularist — connects the actions of Boko Haram (the Nigerian schoolgirl abductors, for anyone not watching the news) to Islam “at large”, stating plainly that “It’s not just a few bad apples”, much to the consternation of fellow leftist Ariana Huffington, who begs to differ.

Matt Welch, Editor-in-Chief of Reason Magazine agrees with Maher (with a considerable number of qualifications): “Islam is providing a disproportionate share of radical nutbags killing people right now.”

Baratunde Thurston, CEO of Cultivated Wit and author of How To Be Black, dislikes Maher’s assessment and disagrees with Welch’s about the “disproportionate share”: “I don’t think Islam has any monopoly on darkness and nutbags and crazy rhetoric and violence.”

Maher replies: “It’s not a monopoly, but it’s the Titanic hitting the iceberg compared to Whitney Houston dying in her bathtub.”


Dinesh D’Souza then comes down on Maher’s side: “You don’t see a whole lot of Buddhist suicide bombers. I’m still waiting for the Koreans to show up.”

And of course Arianna Huffington jumps into the action, putting forward what Maher calls the “Few Bad Apples” argument, a trope we’ve heard over and over since 911: “You cannot put that all together with the entire Islam, or all Muslims. I mean, that way it becomes dangerous.” And later, “That’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that all Muslims are guilty.” After about the three minute mark, Huffington can come up with almost nothing that is not a variation on this mantra.

I’m watching all this in amusement, enjoying Maher breaking character for once and actually coming across as fairly reasonable and Huffington being … well, Huffington.

Maher lobs another verbal grenade: “In Brunei [where, last week, the Sultan installed Sharia law], failure to perform Friday prayers could get you whipping or amputations … because it’s a religion of pieces.” Pause, so people have time to be suitably appalled at his audacity. Then, with a grin, “I know. I’m the bad guy because I’m against the people who cut your arms off for not praying. That’s me, I’m the bad guy.”

Like I said, interesting stuff. Despite the standard objections coming from the usual suspects, there’s a fair bit of truth in the air.

I’m waiting for Maher, writer and star of 2008’s Religulous, to revert to form, and I’m almost relieved when he finally does so around the 7:00 mark: “Islam IS the problem, correct. ALL religions are the problem, but especially Islam.”

Anyway, a couple of gentle observations:

First, all religions may be “the problem” for Bill Maher, but in very, VERY different senses of the word “problem”. Christians do not normally cut your arms off or force genital mutilation on you at age five.

You may find us old-fashioned and out of step with modern thought. Some of us may occasionally irritate your conscience by verbalizing that we believe you’re on your way to hell, and that we’d really like you NOT to go there. I suppose it could be considered a problem that people love you enough to express a conviction in the face of possible or even likely ridicule and rejection. 

I dunno, perhaps some people fear that Christians will one day manage to overturn their “right to choose”, not by intimidation or violence but by persuasion or peaceful, legitimate democratic process (won’t happen, sadly, though that spectre is trotted out every election cycle to demonize the Right).

I suppose Christians can come across as pedantic, paternalistic know-it-alls to those who don’t allow that we’re entitled to our beliefs and the free expression thereof (although, interestingly, while calling us a “problem”, Maher simultaneously insists that “Liberalism means free speech”, implying that even Christians do actually have the right to publicly say what we believe, in which case I guess he’s bound to hear from us now and again).

But in the end, Christianity and Islam pose very, very different types of problems for the secularist. If you’re gay, the chances of any of us publicly stoning you to death are almost nonexistent, though if you want somebody to spit on for handing out tracts at a Pride parade, hey, I know some folks who might be game.

Islam? Well, we’ll see how they react to alternative lifestyle parades of any sort.

Second, to his credit, when Thurston trots out the Crusades as Christendom’s moral equivalent to modern-day Islamic violence, Maher dismisses that as being the “… the 1400s … Religions and cultures change.”

Considering the insistence of Huffington and the mainstream media on giving the majority of Islam a pass for the “extremist” actions and political posturing of Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, etc., as a Christian, I appreciate anyone in the media who doesn’t imply — however momentary or unintentional the lapse may be — that today’s believers are planning the rollout of Crusades 2.0 (or something along those lines) just in time for the Christmas season. That’s a major concession!

Christendom, like Islam, has never been a bloc; more like a spectrum. There are always a relatively small number of those determined to follow the teachings of Christ in his word, as opposed to those using Christianity to advance a political agenda or something else.

But if it remains unacceptable to assert that “All Muslims believe X” or to claim that all Muslims are any particular way, it should be perceived as equally nonsensical to assume that “All Christians believe Y” or “All Christians behave like Z”.

It just ain’t that way, and I think most people know it.

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