I don't subscribe to HBO, but it was hard to miss the news that comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher recently got in a testy dust-up with actor Ben Affleck on Maher's show.
Reportedly, Maher went on a tear against Islam, saying the ultra-violent sect ISIS isn't an aberration, but representative of the Islamic faith.
This infuriated Affleck, a guest, who called Maher's generalization "gross" and "racist," to quote Reza Aslan, a religion scholar, a Muslim and a creative writing professor at the University of California, Riverside, who wrote an op-ed piece about the argument for The New York Times.
Aslan concluded both celebrities were partly correct and partly wrong, but that mainly both men's knowledge of religion (and perhaps human nature) seemed superficial.
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The members of ISIS are Muslims, and Muslims must thus claim them, the professor said. Yet not all Muslims are murderous extremists. Islam isn't just one thing. Like every faith, it's also tied to the larger national or regional cultures in which it happens to be embedded, and even to the individual identities of its adherents.
"What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity," Aslan observed. "The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia."
At roughly the same time Aslan's op-ed appeared, the Washington Post's online Wonkblog responded to the Maher-Affleck melee with its own post by Christopher Ingraham, who cited a Pew Research Center survey of 38,000 Muslims in 39 countries.
Without burying you under a coal pile of statistics, suffice it to say the Pew numbers supported Aslan's argument: On subjects ranging from honor killings to death by stoning for adulterers to the death penalty for apostates, Muslims in different predominately Islamic countries varied greatly in their views.
For instance, in Afghanistan, more than 80 percent of Muslims supported death by stoning for adulterers. But in Bosnia, only 2.5 percent did. As Aslan pointed out, Christians and Buddhists also differ among themselves on sundry matters.
So do Jews, Hindus, Zoroastrians, atheists and New Agers, I'd say.
Indeed, I've been saying this for years: We humans incline toward stereotyping, grouping and labeling — on stripping people of their individuality, their integrity. It's lazy and inaccurate thinking. But virtually everyone does it, almost constantly.
That includes me, when I'm not being mindful.
Whether we're pro-Christian or anti-Christian, we tend to err toward sweeping statements such as, "Christians believe that ... "
By some estimates, the world currently is home to about 2 billion Christians. Can you think of any statement you can make that applies to 2 billion individuals, except that, perhaps, they breathe air and bleed blood?
I have only 80 people in my church, which is based in a homogeneous section of east-central Kentucky, and I'd be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of tenets even there that all my parishioners would agree on.
Two billion people?
There are men, women and children Christians; Europeans, Asians, North Americans, South Americans, Australians and Africans; rich, middle-class and poor; black, white, yellow and brown; law-abiding and crooked; Republicans, Democrats and Socialists; Rhodes Scholars, dropouts and the mentally ill; Coptics, Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox, Mennonites and Methodists; Marines and pacifists.
On and on the list goes, ceaselessly. Add to that every kind of branching and cross-pollination within and between those myriad subgroups, and quirky zigs and zags even within subgroups of subgroups.
When Sunday morning rolls around, not even two white, North American, law-abiding, Republican, Episcopalian women see their church, or their God, alike.
There aren't 2 billion Christians. To borrow a way of designating groups I first encountered in the late Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words long ago, there's only Christian1, Christian2, Christian3, Christian4 — all the way to Christian2,000,000,000.
The same is true of the planet's 1.6 billion Muslims.
Or its millions of Jews. Or its Buddhists or Hindus.
Similarly, some atheists stereotype all religious adherents as gullible goofballs following an imaginary sugar daddy. Adherents dismiss atheists as arrogant, pseudo-intellectual misfits still bitter because they couldn't find a date to their high school prom.
It might be more helpful to get to know several actual adherents — or atheists — and discover how diverse and interesting and complex they tend to be.
But of course this takes work.
And it undermines our assumptions. It forces us to think, to reconsider, which causes our brains to ache.
Maybe that's why it's just simpler to write off all Muslims as terrorists, or all Christians as ignorant blowhards or all atheists as bitter gadflies.