On criticising Islam, religion, Sam Harris and Reza Aslan etc.

There was a point in my life when I couldn’t go five minutes without criticising religion. I would inform anyone who would listen of my opinion that it was horrible and stupid and divisive.

I’ve stopped doing it now though. For three reasons:

  1. It’s boring.
  2. Other people have done it better.
  3. Everyone’s pretty much made up their minds.

The topic will occasionally rear its ugly head in public discourse, and so it has done quite recently.  I’m going to confront it – but I’m going to do it wearily. I’m particularly weary because the hubbub centres, as ever, on Islam.


Let’s be real. It’s controversial to criticise Islam. More than that, it’s controversial to mention that it’s controversial to criticise Islam. This much was demonstrated by Ben Affleck the other week in his now-infamous televised bellowing session.

Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman have since jointly penned an article in the Guardian. “Can’t we all just get along?” they say. Well that sounds very reasonable. I’m all for dialogue. Who isn’t? But there are a number of things in this piece which I found problematic. (‘Problematic’, by the way, is the new fashionable lefty word for when you want to complain without sounding like Mary Whitehouse).

“When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim.”

I’d rate ‘I know some Muslims and they’re alright’ as among the worst possible reasons for believing that one religion is more or less violent than another. Why not carefully and honestly examine its core tenants? The scripture? The homicide rate among its practitioners? Not just ‘I know Muslims and they’re alright’.   What the hell does that prove?

Here’s another gem:

“There is a great deal of work to do in the Muslim community concerning attitudes about and practices affecting LGBTQ people, ex-Muslims and women. At the same time, the atheist community continues to struggle with fraught debates over anti-theism, sexism and racism among atheists.”

If ever there was a false equivalence, this is it. A significant chunk of the world’s Muslim population believes that apostates should be killed, for the reason that it says in the Qu’ran that apostates should be killed. On the other hand, some atheists once disbarraged some feminists, according to some blog. So, y’know.

I’m unsure what the problem with ‘anti-theism’ is. Could this word be the new ‘islamophobia’? Am I going to encounter a lot of hand-wringing opinion pieces about confronting ‘anti-theism’? Can’t wait!

Here’s the rub. Criticising Islam is not the same as criticising Muslims. Muslims are people that practice Islam. Except most of them don’t do it very much, or do it in the same way I do – which is to say, not at all. This entire ceaseless hoo-ra could be distilled down to confusion around, and wilful obfuscation of, this distinction.

Let me give some obvious examples. The Qu’ran (and the Bible, for that matter) condones slavery. But only a complete cretin would believe that Muslims therefore condone slavery. I know plenty of Christians, who, if you were to ask them, would say that they didn’t believe in the efficacy of human sacrifice. That hasn’t affected my belief that Christianity is a nihilistic death-cult.

I’m now going to pose some questions to myself and answer them, just so you can follow my train of thought. I know, it’s annoying when people do this. It makes you think they’re trying to trick you or something. But bear with me.

Do the beliefs people hold influence their behaviour?

The answer is obviously yes. For example, my belief that I’m really clever and have a lot of shit to say influences my desire to write this blog. Your belief that you unreservedly agree with me influences you to continue reading it.

Do religious beliefs influence behaviour?

I see no reason why religious beliefs would be somehow exempt from this rule. In fact, many religious people claim that their religious beliefs influence their day to day activities more profoundly than any of their other sorts of belief.

Do religious beliefs influence bad behaviour?

Yeah. Especially when the religious beliefs themselves often determine what the practitioner believes to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

What about George Bush/drone strikes/Israel/The Westboro Baptist church?

These are often brought up as a diversionary tactic. I can see why; when I’m arguing about something I’m tempted to steer the conversation toward some superficially-related topic with which I’m more acquainted. For example: Do you know how many drone strikes Obama carried out in Pakistan the other month? How does that sit with your claims regarding the futility of prayer? Motherfucker?

Reza Aslan has shot to prominence in the last month or so, thanks to some viral encounters with barely-cogent newscasters. I haven’t read any of his books, but I have read some of his interviews, including one with nymag.com, where he had the following to say:

“…the scriptures are inundated with conflicting sentiments about almost every subject. In other words, the same Torah that tells Jews to love their neighbour also tells them to kill every single man, woman, and child who doesn’t worship Yahweh. The same Jesus who told his disciples to give away their cloaks to the needy also told them to sell their cloaks and buy swords. The same Quran that tells believers if you kill a single individual, it’s as though you’ve killed all of humanity, also tells them to slay every idolater wherever you find them.

So, how do you, as an individual, confront that text? It’s so basic, a child can understand: The way that you would give credence or emphasis to one verse as opposed to the other has everything to do with who you are. That’s why they have to sort of constantly go back to this notion of an almost comical lack of sophistication in the conversations that we are having about religion. And to me, there’s a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic — people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.”

I’ve noticed one running theme through Aslan’s rhetoric: his opponent’s ability to comprehend the obvious truth of the shit he’s laying down, which he will often unfavourably compare to that of a child. Another favourite accusation is that his opponents lack ‘sophistication’, or ‘nuance’. To an ‘almost comical’ degree, no less.

Aslan’s contention here seems to be that religious beliefs aren’t actually caused by religion. Rather, religious believers cherry-pick the bits they like and leave the rest. Right. This is undoubtedly sometimes true of religious people – but it seems to strongly support the contention that religion is fucking dumb. If you’ll excuse the lack of sophistication.

Aslan, you won’t be at all surprised to learn, has voiced a particular dislike for Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, for the reason that they say uncharitable things about his religion. Harris has attracted censure for his claim that “Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas”; Dawkins is currently experiencing the wrath of the twitterati with his disagreement with those that consider the Arabic language ‘beautiful’ – a view that I find it hard to disagree with, especially in the case of spoken Arabic, which demands that the speakers occasionally simulate the sound of filling their mouths with mucus. HUUUUUUUAAAKKKKK.

Aslan also finds himself at odds with everyone who has read The End of Faith without coming to believe that Sam Harris wants to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iran, or that he thinks perpetrating genocide against religionists is morally permissible. Harris defends himself from this bullshit and more here!

I’m not sure how much further out of their way Bill Maher and Harris and Dawkins et al need to go to point out that they’re not talking about all Muslims. And yet still, whenever they blithely refer to ‘Muslims’ without inserting some quantifying adjective beforehand, they are accosted with accusations of racism.

It’s all rather tedious, really. God, even writing about this topic is like walking through a minefield! Whatever happened to the benefit of the doubt? Need our whole discourse now be conducted in horrible legalese? Need I insert hedges and caveats into every sentence in order to avoid the tiniest shred of doubt? Must I assume that my readership will wilfully misunderstand my every statement?

Is this qualification necessary? Would omitting it make me guilty of some sort of hate crime? When I go into the chippy and they ask “would you like salt and vinegar on your chips?” and I reply “yes,” would it be reasonable for them to say: “AHA! I TAKE IT YOU MEAN ALL OF THE SALT AND VINEGAR IN THE WHOLE WORLD? I HOPE SO BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT YOU WILL GET.”

Is everyone who says ‘Communism is a mother lode of bad ideas’ going to be assailed with accounts of the plight of how some enfeebled old woman who once lived in Maoist china had never hurt a fly in her life? What about my great great uncle Pytor, an avowed communist until his final breath?   He harmed no-one! Your criticism of the system which propelled him toward a premature and horrible death besmirches his memory!

I want to be able to go through the claims of a religion and criticise them. Not only that, I want to be able to malign, ridicule, and generally attack them. And I’d prefer to be able to do it without anyone taking it personally. But if they do, then, well, whatever.

Until next week.


I really don’t need much of an excuse to share this god-bashing video: 


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