Bill Maher Continues to Be the Worst

[Content Note: Islamophobia; anti-Muslim sentiment; misogyny.]

In a new interview at the Daily Beast, Bill Maher is asked about the segment in which Ben Affleck challenged Maher and Sam Harris on their anti-Muslim sentiment, and his responses are predictably dreadful:
The Ben Affleck episode on Real Time was just great television. On no other show would you see an A-list actor from a newly released blockbuster like Gone Girl getting fired up over Islam. What did you make of that heated exchange? He seemed pretty fired up the moment Sam Harris sat down.

Well, I'm done talking about it. My view is I've said what I had to say about it the week before, when I did a formal monologue at the end of the show that I wrote very carefully, and they were responding to that. I will say that we legitimately started a national debate on something that needs to be talked about, and it's very gratifying to finally see that a heck of a lot of liberals understand that the real liberals in this debate are people like me and Sam.

But when you do make generalizations about Islam…

…It's not a generalization! First of all, this is nonsense—this idea that you can't make generalizations. All of knowledge is based on generalizations. No one can interview all 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. It's a dumb argument. Read any history book and it'll use the word "Christendom," but they didn't interview every Christian in the 1600s. We're talking facts. We're talking polls that have been done over decades, time and time again telling us what people are thinking about the world. So this idea that we are making generalizations? It's just stupid. We understand that 1.5 billion people don't all think alike and that there are differences from country-to-country, but you can't advance any sort of knowledge without making generalizations and it doesn't mean they're inaccurate. To say that it's a widespread belief in the Muslim world that death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion is just a statement of fact. We should stop arguing about that and move on from it and figure out what we can do about it. To dismiss that is just like saying, "Global warming doesn't exist."

If all Muslims are generally bad, then where does five of the last twelve Nobel Peace Prize winners, all of whom are Muslim—people like Malala Yousafzai—fit in?

Man, I'm done talking about this. I just don't want to keep talking about this. I've said my piece, now the rest of you talk about it.

There's so much bad thinking here. One of the things I want to reiterate is that Harris and Maher and their supporters are treating the "facts" derived from polling as evidence of potential behavior rather than simply evidence of belief, and those are not the same things.

Neither of them appears to be aware (or maybe they just don't care) that lots of religious people say they believe lots of things when asked in polls about their beliefs that they only support in the abstract and wouldn't support in practice.

Which is a thing that's true of all people, but conservative religious people especially because they tend to lean toward holy text literalism regarding doctrine that tells them to not believe these things is sinful.

So there are a whole lot of people who might say they support X, which would be very extreme in practice, who wouldn't actually support it in practice because it's so extreme.

That skews polls about religious beliefs. Which is why they are spectacularly unreliable in assessing precisely how many religious people would support the actual implementation of extreme beliefs.

There is some number of people who do. But it is likely to be less, sometimes far less, than a poll just asking for abstract support suggests.

That reality, that crucial piece of human nature, makes generalizing about religious beliefs a very stupid thing to do, frankly.

But, I'm not a real liberal like Bill Maher, so.

* * *

Earlier this week, I wrote about Michael Luciano's contention that movement atheism doesn't owe social justice advocates "a damn thing." I noted that movement atheists often invoke the oppression of women and other marginalized people in order to criticize religion, yet then claim they don't have anything to do with social justice.

Maher has routinely invoked misogyny in religion, on his show and in his act and in his film about religion, and yet, in this interview, he accuses former President Bill Clinton of not having fought hard enough for healthcare reform, saying it was "typical pussy Democratic politics."

Further, he talks about having been a fan of Republican Rand Paul, until Paul downplayed global climate change. The fact that Paul is aggressively anti-choice was evidently not an issue for Maher.

It is a bad habit of many movement atheists to pretend as though misogyny (and homophobia and racism) were inventions of religion.

Yesterday, in an email exchange with Aphra_Behn about an article written by a movement atheism taking this very position, I wrote: "You know, I find it really amazing how these Very Smart Guys can totally understand that religious dietary laws were essentially ad hoc rules designed to quickly convince large populations of people not to eat food that was very likely to make them sick at the time the rules were instituted, but consistently fail to understand that the misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. within religion are, in the same way, post hoc justifications for misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. that already existed. For fuck's sake. Religion didn't invent misogyny. Religion justified it, and then became a really useful way to transmit it."

I'm an atheist, and I'm no fan of the ways in which religions transmit and legitimize, by virtue of religious privilege, oppression against marginalized people. But I'm also a person who understands that challenging religion is not as useful for eradicating misogyny as challenging misogyny.

And, you know, not engaging in it oneself.

In the end: Just like institutional religion serves, for many people, as a post hoc justification for existing bigotry, movement atheism is clearly serving, for many people, as a post hoc justification for existing bigotry.

Is the hostility toward Muslims we're seeing here, as but one example, really just about religious beliefs documented in polls? I suspect not.

Not when one must ignore the "facts" of how people work in order to use the "facts" about religious polling to justify quoting them in support of harmful generalizations.

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