You can tease out the contradictions in people’s thinking, as every good philosophy class aims to do, or you can of course just gloss over disagreements to keep the peace. I usually do the former, but there’s something to be said for the latter, especially in a world where drawing attention to differences is sometimes followed by bloodshed.
In particular, we should probably be grateful for the existence of moderate Muslims who genuinely believe that they can love Islam without having to impose Sharia on the planet or kill the infidels — yet Sam Harris is keen (for philosophical reasons I fully appreciate) to force people to choose between pure, literalist faith and completely skeptical reason — and Christopher Hitchens likewise often glosses over the past several centuries of liberalized religious thinking to make it sound as if the believer must embrace Old-Testament witch-burning and adulterer-stoning or else give up the whole religious enterpise. He gambles (in a more risky and decadent approach than any I’m likely to use in Vegas this weekend) that smart people will opt for atheism, but I fear he may just annoy them into going the other way.
Harris at least makes the interesting argument — with which I pretty obviously largely agree — that moderate religious believers, by creating a climate of respect for faith, are essentially “enablers” for the extremists and lunatics and are in any case encouraging a general tolerance of unreason. Hitchens, by contrast, sometimes seems to be suggesting that all religious people implicitly believe the most literal and stupid version of their professed faiths, which just isn’t true (on the other hand, my friend Diana Fleischman notes that without Hitchens, our culture would currently be lacking a truly great alcoholic-intellectual, so he deserves to be cut some slack).
Daniel Radosh — who took me along to the recent Hitchens/Boteach debate I attended and who will himself argue that Christian rock doesn’t suck at our April 2 Lolita Bar gathering (the day after his new book on Christian pop culture, Rapture Ready!, comes out) — took Hitchens to task for his extreme-straw-man-building, even though Radosh is himself an irreverent “ignostic.” Their epic spat spanned not only Daniel’s blog but Slate, HuffingtonPost, and even the Onion.
Daniel writes, “In my objective opinion, I won.” More important, we all learned the true meaning of Hanukkah.
P.S. In an unrelated example of painting some options out of the picture, check out the contrast between this article and its headline and you may actually find yourself weeping for Hillary (especially given that she did something right for once, condemning Castro).