Monday, October 06, 2014

Not all Muslims..

Batman actor Ben Affleck sparked a much heated and tweeted debate on the Bill Maher show last week; things got edgy when Affleck accused Maher and guest Sam Harris of being racist for criticising Islam. Affleck seemed to be suffering from the exact same cognitive dissonance regarding the rational criticism of "ideas" (like religions) that Harris and Maher were trying to describe. He seemed comfortable saying that as Liberals we should attack bad ideas but threw a hissy fit when the subject of attack was religion and specifically Islam.

I must say I thought Affleck embarrassed himself, he reacted like someone who's been living under a rock for the last 15 years and someone who had never read or digested any of the arguments against his position. He also didn't listen to the points being made and relied heavily on emotion and hurling insults at straw-men.

The debate (so far as it was) followed very familiar lines, any Atheist who has debated religious apologists will be totally familiar with the fatuous defences that Affleck so dramatically unleashed. The first fallacy he used was that you can't hold an opinion on something unless you are an expert on it. Unfortunately for Affleck, Sam Harris, is by any everyday definition an expert on religion and philosophy; he has a Philosophy degree from Stanford and has studied world religions and neuroscience among other things; not to mention having authored many books on the subject. In any case this is a totally bogus idea; I don't need to be a climate scientist to understand that if my house is 3 meters underwater it's absolutely not a good thing for me. Next we had a variation of the "all or nothing" fallacy, or as is more common these days the "not all Muslims" fallacy.

When someone says religious doctrine or practise X is bad or stupid or evil the apologist immediately responds with "not all Christians/Muslims/Jews believe in X" as if somehow this removes the objection. When X is only believed by a tiny, insignificant fringe then this is a valid point however when it's widely practised by millions of followers or enshrined into law by theocratic states then this argument (although factual) is at best irrelevant and at worst a blatant attempt to distract attention from reality. Do all Muslims want to kill apostates? No, of course they don't but do we really have disagreement that when 64% of Muslims in Egypt (pew 2013) say death for apostasy is justified then we have a sufficiently large number of Muslims (54 million) to warrant a strong opinion if not outright alarm. This is not a small number of "bad apples" it's more like the entire population of the UK believing it's reasonable to burn witches.

The next fallacy was the classic "straw-man", when Harris says "Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas" and Affleck responds by saying it's "gross and racist" to claim that "all Muslims are bad" this is a blatant twisting of what was actually said. Harris is attacking an IDEA, i.e. Islam and Affleck is attacking a straw man that he invented i.e. "all Muslims", only a fool would say that all Muslims are bad, these two things are simply NOT the same.

On balance I think that high profile spats like this are useful. People who otherwise don't follow politics or have any opinion on the "war of ideas" that is causing so much strife in the Middle East at the moment are suddenly engaged because their favourite movie star is involved. Some of those people may go on to do their own research and formulate their own views on such topics, this can only be a good thing, an enlightening thing. I do think Affleck is genuine though and until this programme I had thought he was one of the more enlightened actors on political/religious issues. I thought his film Argo was a brave and interesting movie which touched on some of these topics; however in this exchange he simply reinforced an impression of a stereotypical Hollywood pretty boy. Hopefully we will see this thread continue to stimulate conversation and debate, if Affleck has the guts to clarify, defend or even recant some of the things he said then even better.

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