A comment on Bill Maher


Ben Affleck telling Bill Maher like it is!

The problem with Bill Maher and the New Atheists is that they’re operating with a number of modernist assumptions about religion that need to be deconstructed. First of all, their discussions operate within a rationalist framework that tends to treat religion in a very disembodied sort of way. They think religion is all about beliefs and ideas. They completely overlook the embodied dimension of religion, of habit formations, of different ways of celebrating and enacting the stories of the Islamic tradition. Not only do they treat Islam as a monolithic entity, but they act as though the beliefs of Islam are some sort of Platonic ideas, waiting to be criticized. They seem to forget that it’s Muslim people who interpret and celebrate those stories. There isn’t a single Islam to criticize, neither is there a single Qur’an in so far as that text is read in many ways. Their treatment of Islam doesn’t help the plight of Queer and LGTB Muslims, for example in so far as they reinforce the hegemonic assumption that there’s only one way to live out the narrative contained in the Qur’an and other texts.

Secondly, in overlooking the embodied dimension of religion they fail to see that we are all, in a way, liturgical animals in so far as our being in the world is shaped by stories and communal practices. This is the point made by James Smith in his Cultural Liturgies project. The way we imagine things to be- that is, our basic outlook on the world- has to do with the kinds of stories that have sunk deep into our bones and which operate “under the hood” so to speak, of rational deliberation, directing our hearts towards certain aims, disposing us to certain kinds of action. What’s the story operating under Maher’s hood, as it relates to his feelings toward Muslims? And what role does his socio-cultural context, and way of life, play in reinforcing this narrative? In other words, as Smith would ask, what are the secular liturgies that are formative of his outlook?

You see, this distinction between the religious and the secular starts to crumble once we refrain from treating religion in a such modernist fashion, as having to do entirely with ideas about the transcendent. There’s genealogical work to be done here as it relates to how this notion of a secular “outside” of religion came to be. This is where scholars such as Charles Taylor stepped in. With the shift to modernity, a certain kind of philosophical anthropology came to determine the scope of our conversations. And by philosophical anthropology I mean, following Smith, a “set of assumptions about the nature of human persons.” We moved from an idea of the human being as a vulnerable, embedded in, sustained and shaped by a community, to an idea of the human being as individually buffered and autonomous in his abilities.

This shift is wonderfully expressed by John Caputo:

“What has happened in the intervening six or seven centuries is that philosophers from Descartes to Kant have constructed the idea of “consciousness” and the conscious “subject.” The old Augustinian idea of the “self,” this sinful, self-questioning, passionate, prayerful, weepy being, of restless heart and divided will, has been displaced…In its place we find a sovereign, self-possessed, dispassionate “thinking thing,” fully in charge of its potencies and possibilities, surveying the contents of its mind to sort out which among them represents something objective out there in the external world and which should be written off as merely internal and subjective (Caputo 2001: 43).”

We remain fixated on the idea that religion has primarily to do with beliefs about the supernatural; it’s therefore easy to distinguish ourselves, as secular, rational thinkers, from those religious ones, like Muslims.



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