Let’s Talk about Sects, Baby. 1



On October 3, 2014, Bill Maher, favorite son of the progressive, secular humanist (i.e.

atheist) left, found himself catching some blow back from a relatively unknown actor named Ben

Affleck for Mr. Maher’s position on Islam. Bill was aided in what the internet has called a

“fierce debate”, a “battle”, and a “heated row” by Project Reason co-founder Sam Harris. A

portion of the transcript can be seen here. You can see in the exchange that Affleck fell right

into the PC liberal stereotype that Maher has been so critical of in recent years. Nearly all the

arguments Maher and Harris made were met with derisive accusations of racism and bigotry. While

watching it, I understood the overall points both sides were trying to make, but I found myself

leaning away from Team Affleck by the end of the segment. Reflecting on it now, several weeks later,

I have to say that I’m also leaning away from Team Maher/Harris. It’s pretty clear that the three men (with

occasional contribution from Nicholas Kristof and Michael Steele) were talking past one another

completely. In truth, it was hard to determine if they were all even talking about the same thing.


So, who won?




Nobody—for a finding on the merits, you first have to generally have to agree (or have a

fact finder decide) what the basic facts are. Maher’s central point is that fundamentalism in

Islam runs rampant and that the “moderate Muslim majority” liberals like to talk about so much

really doesn’t exist. Or—if it does exist, it gives way far too easily to the fundamentalists

running the show. Affleck’s response is that it is unfair to mischaracterize 1.6 billion people as

hateful murders for the actions of a small minority. In his piece for the Washington Post

Wonkblog from October 6, Christopher Ingraham points out that the picture surrounding what

Muslims believe about certain practices is quite complex. Citing a Pew poll from 2013,

Ingraham points out that tolerance for some of the more abhorrent practices that pop up in

Islamic populations—honor killings, stoning, killing apostates, etc.—runs higher in Middle

Eastern and South Asia countries. European and former Soviet-block countries generally show

disfavor for these kinds of practices. Doing a deep dive into the numbers and figuring out what

they mean is beyond my pay grade for sure, but when you look at the population demographics

for two countries, some interesting questions arise.


Citing back to the Pew poll, one of the question it asked was “Are Honor Killings

Permissible?” The poll then measured the percentage of Muslims who said it was never justified

when a man or a woman committed an offense. In the survey, Azerbaijan polled the highest;

86% of respondents said that honor killings were never justified when a man committed the

offense—82% for when a woman committed the offense. Afghanistan scored the lowest—only

24% of respondents said that honor killings were never justified when either a man or a woman

committed an offense. These two countries seem to encapsulate the disagreement between

Maher and Affleck fairly well: it does seem too reductive to say that Islam is the problem full

stop, but what else accounts for a country like Afghanistan vis-à-vis honor killings? Afghanistan

boasts an Islamic population of 99.8% (about 86% of whom practice Sunni Islam); Azerbaijan

records an Islamic population of 96% (about 85% of whom practice Shi’a Islam). Afghanistan is

larger country by population—30.55 million to Azerbaijan’s 9.69 million. Both countries have

undergone recent traumas. Azerbaijan suffered through the Nagorno-Karabakh War and military

coups in the early 90s. Afghanistan was torn apart by the Soviets in 1978, the Taliban regime

shortly after the Soviet retreat, and then again by us from 2001 onward. Both countries have

problems with governmental corruption and human rights abuses.


For two countries that have interesting similarities and key differences, it is interesting

that the poll I keep referring to can be so drastic between these two countries. One key

difference, the one I think explains a lot of what’s going on here, is that Afghanistan is organized

as an Islamic republic. Azerbaijan is not.


An Islamic republic is a country organized in such a way that “Islamic law”—shari’ah

(the reason for the quotes will become apparent) is ensconced as the law of the land. Think of

our Constitution containing phrases like “The United States is a Christian nation; only full

immersion baptism shall be practiced by the people”. Stuff like that. Azerbaijan is not. In fact,

two of the lowest scorers on the Pew poll, Pakistan and Iraq, are organized as Islamic republics.

Bangladesh, another lower scorer in the poll, is not currently an Islamic republic—but it only

achieved independence from Pakistan in the 70s. Religious toleration takes time.

Which brings me to my central point. Though I agree with Bill Maher to a large degree

about the harmful effects of religion, I do not agree that Islam is per se violent and leads to

violence necessarily. Well-meaning liberals consistently point out to him the violent history of

Christianity during the reformation. He is correct to retort that Islam is violent today—the

minute Christian preachers start calling for their followers to kill Dutch cartoonists or Salman

Rushdie, he’ll be just as critical. However, violence isn’t a central tenant of Islam—or any

religion for that matter; the problem here is government-sponsored religion.




Leaving aside the more metaphysical problems with religious institutions, it seems fairly

clear to me there are practical and political problems as well. Religions are neither violent nor

non-violent—they exist as frameworks within which violence or non-violence can operate as

necessary. Jesus Christ told his followers to turn the other cheek; we still have anti-choice

zealots willing to kill abortion doctors today. Buddhism maintains a popular veneer of non-
violence; Buddhist extremists have carried out horrific attacks against Muslims and other ethnic

minorities in Burma since the 30s. Are these violent religions or just religions with violent

people? What explains the violence perpetrated on Muslims by Muslims in Syria, Iraq, and

elsewhere around the world? Let’s look to our history for the answer.


The worst instances of sustained violence through the years have come at the hands of, or

as a result of the failure of governments. This isn’t a controversial statement by any means.

Throughout history, the organized government has been the only institution throughout history

with the manpower and the will to inflict immense disaster on populations. Think about

Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.


What is more interesting to me than the practical reality of the force of the State,

though, is the theory behind that force. In his A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke

briefly explained a few of the central political philosophies that would be given a more

thorough treatment in his Second Treatise of Government. In the letter Locke distinguished the

government’s power of temporal and corporeal coercion from the spiritual coercion of religious

faith. Simply put, Locke argued that civil government had charge of the present and earthly;

religion had charge of the divine:


Though if infidels were to be converted by force, if those that are

either blind or obstinate were to be drawn off from their errors by

armed soldiers, we know very well that it was much more easy for

Him to do it with armies of heavenly legions than for any son of

the Church, how potent soever, with all his dragoons.


A Letter Concerning Toleration (Locke).


Arguably, the most important aspect of self-government is the consent on which that

government is based. In exchange for the security, stability, and ordered redress of grievances,

we grant the government the power to punish us by restricting our freedom, levying fines, and

even killing us under extreme circumstances. On the other hand (and speaking about classically

liberal governments such as ours), we do not grant religions the same kind of power. No Baptist

minister has the power to keep his congregation in the pews against its will. No Catholic priest

can force his flock to tithe. The power of the church is in the hereafter—encouraging the lending

of spiritual capital on the promise of supernatural dividends. In a society like the United States,

with its strong tradition of separation of church and state, these ideas are not foreign, nor are they

controversial. However, religion is vulnerable to twin destructive flaws when introduced into

the sphere of the government—certainty and impunity.


When acting on the consent of the governed, a State (if it is responsible and non-
totalitarian), must employ due process of law when exacting punishment from the population for

their transgressions; its very legitimacy would be in question otherwise. The process is not

perfect—recognizing the impossibility of complete certainty. Reasonable doubt, anyone?

The Church has no such constraints; in fact, the Church needs none. The population of

the Church is self-selecting. Those who belong are the righteous. Those who do not are the

infidels. Justice and mercy—at least the fundamental questions giving rise to these concepts—

are the province of God. This God is never wrong, is actively working for the benefit of the

community, and brooks no nonsense with the violation of its laws. Imagine that kind of zealotry

in the hands of a government—with its armies!


Of course, this has happened throughout history. Feudal Europe existed as more or less a

collective of theocracies. The Crusades were a brutal exercise of earthly violence divinely

inspired. The Reformation had its share of bloodshed and zeal. The end of the Troubles in

Ireland occurred in my living memory.


But we know this, right. To bring this back to my opening topic, this digression is

exactly the kind of thing that frustrates Bill Maher to no end: criticize Islam as violent, and sappy

liberals will change the subject and wax Herodotus like about the violent past of Christianity.

However, I am not pointing out the problems Christianity had to excuse the problems within

Islam—I’m merely pointing out that we’ve seen this before.


To me, the biggest problem with the mixing of religion and government is that the faith

of religious anesthetizes the consent of the populace. If the population is faithful, and they

believe that sins against God are sins against the society as well, then it is any easy step to

consenting to the use of government power to punish that sin. This, I think, is the desperate

problem of Islam. In countries that are recognized Islamic republics, we see societies that are

consenting to corporeal punishment to assuage divine offenses. It is not that there is something

inherently violent or nefarious about Islam itself—it is that Islam has been allowed to govern.

Bill Maher knows the history of religions dabbling in the halls of earthly power as well as

anyone. I wonder if he would have suggested that Christians were irretrievably violent in 1565

if he had been alive then. I wonder if his critics would have attempted to make the distinction

between the sects of Christianity. It’s not the Lutherans who are violent—it’s those damn

The way Affleck, Maher, and Harris spoke about Islam as a monolithic faith was also

interesting. The most horrific acts of violence seem to be carried out by Sunni Muslims. The

Muslim population in Azerbaijan—corrupt but not as violent as other parts of the Muslim

world—is largely Shi’a. Of course, Iran is primarily Shi’a; so is Hezbollah, the leading political

I equivocate for a reason. The issue of Islamic violence is far more complicated than

Maher, Affleck, and Harris acknowledged in their “debate.” Though groups like ISIS and Al

Qaeda perpetrate horrific acts of violence, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the regular

everyday violence that occurs in countries where Islam is ensconced in the operation of

government. It is not Islam with the violence problem; it is religious governments that are the

Westerners have been saying that Islam has a lot of soul-searching to do for several years

now. This condescension is as unhelpful as is Affleck’s indulgence and Maher’s criticism.

Though fair, the criticism is misplaced. Secular governments are the key to mitigating religious



As Locke said in his Letter:


No peace and security among mankind—let alone common

friendship—can ever exist as long as people think that

governments get their authority from God and that religion is to be

propagated by force of arms.



aka. Blake Lubinus

Thanks for the Progress, Democrats!  (Now get the hell out!)

The Conservative Struggle with Gay Marriage



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One thought on “Let’s Talk about Sects, Baby.

  • Grande P

    No wonder you only blog every 6 months. What a dissertation! Very thoughtful read, though. Except you’re wrong. Christians are only benevolent do gooders