It’s Gross! It’s Racist!

In 2014 controversy exploded after a confrontation that happened between Batman actor Ben Affleck and philosopher/religious critic Sam Harris on Real Time with Bill Maher. Bill Maher and Sam Harris are both well known atheists famous for their intense criticism of religion. Harris is the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which criticizes organized religion as dangerous to humanity and opposed to reason. Harris has not limited his criticism of religion to Christianity, however. Recently, both Harris and Maher have come under heavy fire for their controversial views about Islam. America is intensely divided over the issue of Islam and many people are left wondering what to think. This clip of the debate demonstrates the need for careful thinking about this issue.

Warning: This video contains strong, inappropriate language after the 6:30 time.

An important question for this debate is “Can we criticize bad ideas?” In our politically correct culture it’s difficult to communicate clearly because we often interpret criticism of bad ideas as criticism of the person who holds those ideas. We are also too quick to make generalizations about people. In the debate, Harris states the problem, “Every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people . . . that’s intellectually ridiculous.”

Shockingly, Ben Affleck jumped in passionately in defense of Islam, calling Harris’ view “gross” and “racist.” Unfortunately, Affleck did not give Harris time to make his case. He seemed to be already persuaded that Harris is a racist, bigoted against Muslims. Instead of listening and responding with an argument, Affleck continually interrupts and attempts to make Harris and Maher look like bigots. Harris remarked later, in an interview with Dave Rubin, that by his name calling, Affleck simply demonstrated Harris’s thesis—namely, that people conflate criticism of the doctrine of Islam with bigotry towards Muslim people.

In the original interview, Harris goes on to draw distinctions between three groups of Muslims, radicals, Islamists, and conservatives. Not all Muslims are radicals, in fact, most are not. Harris is not generalizing about all Muslims; rather, he wants to criticize certain ideas within Islam because, as he argues, they restrict human rights, not because he is bigoted toward Muslims.

What we see here is a common example of the intense divide in American culture about Islam. Affleck seems to fall to one extreme by denying that Islam has any inherent element of violence. Others have fallen into the opposite extreme of bigotry against Muslims. Both are errors. Surprisingly, Harris seems to fall somewhere in the middle.

In the aftermath, Harris talked about the importance of language and how Affleck’s use of the terms “racist” and “bigot” immediately convinced some people (without argument) that Harris was, in fact, a racist. Harris notes how Affleck was celebrated later, as if he had made a great argument, when in fact, he had done nothing but call names.

As part of our duty is to love God with our minds (Luke 10:27), we need to get beyond name-calling and anger to careful thinking and wise reflection about Islam. Many of us know Muslims in our area. We must be careful not to paint them all with one brush. After all, we don’t like it when all Christians are painted with one brush, either. Not all Muslims believe the same things, and the best way to find out what someone believes is to ask them. We are called to love people. That means getting into the mess and getting to know someone. However, loving someone does not equal accepting everything they believe. As Harris notes, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas.” Love must be willing to say “you’re wrong” when it believes something will be harmful to another. That’s not a very popular thing to do in our culture, but it’s what love demands.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.