Ben Affleck vs. Sam Harris on Real Time (And Some Poll Fact-Checking)

UPDATE 2: This story, as you know, has gotten quite a bit of play since the video aired. You can find various defenses of both Maher/Harris and Affleck on the interwebs, but I’ll link to a few here that I think are worth reading.

UPDATE: I re-watched the video this morning and agree with my initial assessment. I did want to fact check some of the poll’s both Maher and Harris cited (see below). Both were more or less correct. The internet is always a mixed bag, but it does look to me like a slight majority agrees that Affleck came off a bit foolish and clearly didn’t listen to or understand Harris’ argument. Anyway, they seem to have reconciled backstage (check out the comments on Harris’ feed for a reaction from his fans vs. the comments on someone like Reza Aslan’s feed for reactions from those crying bigotry):


It’s been an hour and a half since I finished watching tonight’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, and I’m still a little distraught.

For those of you who haven’t yet watched, the panel included Michael Steele, Nicholas Kristof, and Sam Harris, though you will hardly notice them because the fourth guest, Ben Affleck, was too busy acting like a drunken frat guy who thinks speaking loudly or passionately means you win the argument. He went completely bananas on Sam Harris, at one point calling him a bigot and suggesting his view of Islam was equivalent to racism (this is all from memory so I’ll rewatch and correct myself if I need to…Kristof also subtly defended the charge that Maher and Harris’ arguments* were close to racism). I’ve never seen someone misunderstand an argument as badly as Affleck did, and on top of that, I’ve never seen someone be so rude on Real Time (on Real Time!). Harris, who’s a pretty calm and measured person, simply couldn’t get a word in over Affleck’s belligerent ranting. It was one of the most tense panel’s I’ve seen on the show, and even Bill (who argued and interrupted his fair share as well) seemed caught off guard by it.

Take a look here:

(In case that video stops working, this link should have it as well).

Anyway, I now have a pretty low opinion of Affleck, and feel fortunate that most of what I have to hear him say is scripted by someone else.

*Maher and Harris aren’t equally careful in their criticisms of Islam, so part of the tension during this episode may have been lumping their respective views into one. Maher has a tendency to generalize a bit more in my opinion, while Harris is on record countless times admitting that the vast majority of Muslims are obviously not violent, etc, etc. But regardless, they are both criticizing ideology (the principle victims of which are overwhelmingly Muslim), so the ludicrous charges of bigotry or the even more ridiculous charges of racism against both hold no water.


Unlike Affleck, both Harris and Maher offered poll evidence to support their claims that radical Islam is indeed a significant problem and is not simply a “fringe” issue. But were their citations correct?:

  • Harris: “To give you one point of contact, 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should’ve been prosecuted.” This is correct. Source: Note that the link to the full report is broken, so if anyone finds it please send. Also note this isn’t a Pew poll, so I think it’s reasonable to question the reliability to some extent.
  • Maher: “I can show you a Pew poll of Egyptians–they are not outliers in the Muslim world–that says like 90% of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.
    • Update: Many have reported (and I did so originally) that this was an exaggeration from the actual figure of 64%, taken from this Washington Post article by Max Fisher. However, this seems to be an error. Originally pointed out by a reader of this post, the 2013 Pew Report on which Fisher is basing his figures shows, on page 219, the general sample for Egyptians favoring death for apostasy: 88%. It appears that Fisher worked off of page 55 of the report and multiplied the 86% sub-sample (for Egyptians Muslims who favor Sharia) by the general sample of Muslims who favor Sharia (74%), to arrive at 64%. He didn’t seem to notice (and I didn’t either) that page 219 shows the general sample. For the skeptical, just cross-check the countries and figures on page 55 with those on page 219. You’ll find that they’re different (meaning they are two different data sets), and that, as you would expect, most sub-sample figures are higher than general sample figures (since again, the sub-sample is looking at Muslims who favor Sharia). Egypt is an exception to this, where the general sample figure is higher than the sub-sample, though only slightly. See also this 2010 Pew Report, asking a similar question of Egyptian Muslims and getting a figure of 84% (page 14).
  • Harris also puts forward an estimate for the proportion of “jihadists” and “Islamists” among all Muslims (essentially the extreme believers), as 20%, but admits this is more or less a guess based on a number of different polls. I’m not sure which polls he is referring to, but the same Pew report above does cite 8% of Muslims in the U.S. as believing suicide bombings are sometimes or often justified, and much higher figures for many countries. Some people have cited that the respective number for all Muslims believing this is 28% and for U.S. Muslims , 19%, but these, as far as I can tell, are wrong. The first figure, if it exists, doesn’t come from the Pew report (they give no cumulative estimates for all Muslims), and the second seems an incorrect interpretation of the data, where they have simply subtracted the number that said suicide bombing was never justified (81%) from 100%, and assumed the rest said it was okay, which is a completely incorrect way to interpret poll results (sometimes people refuse to answer, etc).
  • And just for fun, let’s analyze Affleck’s claim that: “ISIS couldn’t fill a Double-A ballpark in Charleston, West Virginia…” That seemed a little wrong to me, as the number of ISIS fighters in Syria alone has been estimated at 50,000 (also I’ve been to a lot of minor league baseball games). So, I took an average of the capacity size for 31 different Double A (AA) ballparks across the U.S., and got a figure of 7,565. Then I simply divided that number into the most recent estimate of ISIS’s size I could find, cited here at 80,000 (combined from Syria and Iraq). The result? The members of ISIS could easily fill up more than 10 Double-A ballparks in Charleston, West Virginia.
  • Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True has posted some notable charts from the Pew report, along with comments about the episode. Check out the “Must a Wife Always Obey Her Husband?” results.


  1. Interesting descriptive of Ben Affleck, watching I wondered if he was in fact drunk. He seemed flushed and agitated.

    1. The fundamental flaw in Harris’ argument, which nobody on the show pointed out, was his characterization of “jihadists” as the central core of the Muslim world. He spoke of concentric circles with jihadists at the core, then Islamists, conservative Muslims, etc.

      This is Orientalist thinking, in which the most important element of the Muslim world is the jihadists, because they are the most important element to the white, Western world that feels threatened by their tactics and ideology. That doesn’t make jihadists the central core of Islam to Muslims, only to War on Terror obsessed Westerners.

      ISIS and other jihadist groups are a fringe element in the Muslim world, and they have been empowered not by the belief of Muslims in principles of intolerance, but by the actions of the US and NATO intervening militarily and destabilizing the entire region. But rather than see the expansion of radicalism and militancy in Muslim countries for what it is – a product of Western support for religious over secular interests and of misguided military interventions in Muslim countries, not to mention unwavering support of their sponsors in GCC countries, this trend can easily be attributed to the mindless savages who all believe deep down in their hearts in principles of intolerance, unlike us enlightened liberals who continually bomb their countries into chaos and disorder. Another convenient story to absolve the Western, white liberal of any responsibility for the current state of world affairs.

      Harris and Maher have nothing new to offer on this subject. Just the same old racist tirade dressed up as liberal reason, and Ben Affleck called it, it not very eloquently.

      1. Interesting. But I don’t think Harris was saying the concentric circle metaphor is representative of how Muslims think of Islam, I think he was making the point that the fringe group of extremists and those that might support their behaviors in thought but not necessarily action is larger than people are led to believe. His larger point was to express concern not just about the violent extremists, who most people condemn, but sometimes sizable minorities (and occasionally majorities) in select Muslim countries that support ideas he finds reprehensible on the basis of religious ideology (inequality of women, punishment for blasphemy/apostasy, etc).

        So I feel in some respect that your answer is attacking a statement Harris did not actually make. But that said, the concentric circles example probably isn’t the best analogy since it might make people think that’s how Islam is consciously organized, as you suggest. I also agree that religion is certainly not the only (and probably not even the major) factor in extremist violence, but often only justification for retaliation against the Western interventions you mention. However the factors mentioned above – inequality of women, punishment for blasphemy, etc – are largely religiously motivated. If you haven’t seen it, you might like this debate between Robert Wright and Sam Harris, with Wright taking a similar position to yours (minus the accusations of racism):

        Maher and Harris are not racist. They are criticizing based on ideology, not race. Obviously you are smart enough to know that if you can convert to something, it is not a race. You are also smart enough to know that all of Islam is not made up of a single race, and if it were, it would be logically inconsistent for Harris and Maher to be criticizing said race in defense of the very same race. You’ll notice that Harris repeats again and again that the main victims of Islamist extremism are Muslims, and he’s speaking out on behalf of those victims who are oppressed in extremist regions of the world (unlike some right-wing conservatives who are racially motivated and speaking out only in defense of the homeland, etc).

      2. I think the truth is just the opposite of what you say Harris thinks. Radical militant Islamists are not an under-reported threat but a grossly exaggerated one. This “threat” has dominated
        public discourse and policy in much of the world for the past 15 years. Their primary base of support is not some silent Muslim majority that tacitly shares their views, but elites within
        the repressive, theocratic monarchies of our GCC “allies”, as well as the actions of the US military itself, with an added boost from Israel’s occupation.

        These are the elements that have led to the growth and proliferation of armed groups. Iraq is the perfect example. Harris still refers to it as a humanitarian operation. But there was no jihadist presence in Saddam’s Iraq, and in Khadaffi’s Libya it was contained and survived mostly on support from the CIA and other outside interests. It took years of funding and
        supporting these groups as a counterweight to secular nationalists (once the principle “threat” to US and European hegemony in the region), followed by the complete destruction and
        disintegration of societal institutions and community bonds during US led wars and occupation, to create the breeding ground for any type of support for militant Islamist groups to gain power. Even now, it is primarily the chaos engendered by US policy, not the philosophical support of the Muslim masses, that fuels this conflict. Many of these groups don’t even have a coherent political/religious ideology to be supported, and were it not for the reaction of the West, they would have far less impact than they do today. On this I think we agree at least in part.

        But the idea that the masses of Muslims are somehow responsible for militant Islamist groups, or the condition which gave rise to them, is a fundamentally racist argument, regardless of whether Maher and Harris are racists in general (I don’t believe they are, but they are both anti-Muslim bigots in my opinion). It’s not racist because we’re talking about skin color v. religion or culture, but because the argument rests on an unwillingness of the dominant power in the relationship to accept responsibility for its part, choosing instead to demonize the “other” as less worthy of consideration as human beings. Case in point, the great “liberal” Harris advocating torture and justifying the bombing of civilians. The dominant power in this relationship is the US/NATO, the former colonial rulers of these same lands. To suggests, in the face of this, that what we really need to focus on is the uniquely violent or repressive nature of Islam, and the unspoken support these extreme ideas have from the broader Muslim public, is ludicrous. A discussion of the conflict of religious tenets with realities of modern life and tolerance for minority rights is a conversation with having, as it is worth having about religious and secular extremists in our own country, who are far more active than Harris’ smug remark about abortion clinic bombings in the 80s lets on. But its only worth having if all parties acknowledge the intolerance and bigotry of their own religious and secular ideologies and institutions. Islam has no monopoly on this, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best, ignorance and denial at worst.

        I also disagree that “inequality of women, punishment for blasphemy, etc – are largely religiously motivated”. They are mainly concerns of economic power and control. Religion is a
        convenient motivator, and its power is often abused and exploited. China has no shortage of inequality for women, or punishment for criticism of the ruling party, a secular form of
        “punishment for blasphemy”.

        Maher’s show is one of few I watch, because he often has insightful, intelligent commentary and discussion with his guests about a variety of issues. But with anything that has to do with Islam and Muslims, he seems to lose his capacity for reason and critical investigation of sources, and swallows right-wing propaganda whole cloth. At least he is consistent enough to not turn around and hold the Saudi monarchy blameless, as if they are some bull-work of civilization against barbarism. I think Ben Affleck’s heart was in the right place, but if Maher wanted to include a more coherent argument in opposition to his own views, maybe he should have invited Matt Damon instead.

      3. You’re the one doing the mischaracterization. Harris does NOT say that the jihadists are “the central core of the Muslim world.”

        What he says, rather, is that the jihadists – whom he agrees are in a minority – are acting on a belief that is central to mainstream Islam. The Doctrine of Jihad is not a fringe notion in Islam. There may be few who are willing to fight and die for the faith, but a huge fraction of the peaceful billion support those who will. The idea of jihad – fighting non-Muslims with the goal of conquering the world and forcing forcing all the people of the Earth to follow Muslim law – is central to Islam. That idea, and the accompanying idea of martyrdom, is central to Islam – mainstream Islam. Jihad is a popular idea, and Muslims societies spend countless hours in Mosques and reading books, recounting the heroic deeds of those who died for the One True Faith.

      4. Here is the quote from Harris:

        “SAM HARRIS: Just imagine you have some concentric circles. You have at the center, you have jihadists, these are people who wake up wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in paradise, they believe in martyrdom. Outside of them, we have Islamists, these are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom and paradise and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments, they want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles arguably are 20% of the Muslim world.”

        He’s conflating people who are willing to pick up a gun, or strap on a suicide belt and go kill someone with people who hold religious principles that are intolerant and abhorrent by liberal standards. Since bands of jihadis are not a credible threat (.001% of the Muslim world?), he has to make other Muslims guilty by association of thought crimes. Harris and Maher also conflate Islamists (political actors operating under a banner of Islam) with ordinary people who may hold bigoted and intolerant religious beliefs.This is just rank McCarthyism. What threat do any of them pose to the US? How do these “Islamists” support and empower jihadists?

        Yes, jihad (struggle) is an important concept to many millions of Muslims. That doesn’t mean they are all ready to pick up AK-47s and join a bunch of crazed gangsters to try and overthrow someone’s government. It’s just patently ridiculous to claim that these armed groups gain any support from the Muslim masses. They are a product of moneyed elites, various intelligence agencies, and decades of awful, destructive, self-defeating foreign policy by Western powers.

        Look at the oft-cited Pew poll ( Without cherry-picking responses, what is shows is a great variety of opinion across the Muslim world on many questions or faith and religious principles.
        Why would anyone look at such a variety of responses and focus solely on one country and one question? You know what else happened in Egypt? After bringing down a dictatorship, the Egyptian people fell for a new one, turning their back on a moderate Muslim Brotherhood government that was their best hope for change, and threw their support behind a government that massacred Muslims in the street and now wages a scorched earth campaign against the remnants of the MB and its supports in Egypt. This is secret sleeper silent majority that is going to support ISIS to take over the world and force us all to follow Sharia law?

        There is no “there” there. The conflation of jihadists and all “Islamists”, not to mention all Muslims who may hold beliefs liberals find abhorrent, is nonsense.

      5. SAM HARRIS: “As you say, we have 1.5 – 1.6 billion Muslims. Ben, let me unpack this for you.

        Just imagine you have some concentric circles. You have at the center, you have jihadists, these are people who wake up wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in paradise, they believe in martyrdom. Outside of them, we have Islamists, these are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom and paradise and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments, they want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles arguably are 20% of the Muslim world…

        But we’re misled to think that the fundamentalists are the fringe. We have jihadists, Islamists, and conservatives, and hundreds of millions of people fit that description.”

    2. Seems to me that Ben Affleck’s anger issue was due to sexual frustration (as most male anger issues are.) Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner may be heading for a divorce soon.

  2. It wasn’t Affleck’s attack against Sam Harris that frustrated me during last night’s episode — calling Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens (and others) bigoted, racist, and Islamophobic and thinking the argument is over is, unfortunately, the typical response.

    What galled me, as you point out in this piece, was Affleck’s rudeness and overt disrespect. Don’t get me wrong — I think there’s a strong argument to be made that rudeness and ridicule are perfectly reasonable responses if one is speaking to an actual racist or bigot of one kind or another — but, as Harris says, Affleck does not or refuses to understand the argument being put forth. Instead, he gets rude, angry, then ruder and angrier. Reza Aslan put on a similar performance on CNN earlier this week after Bill Maher urged liberals to defend liberal principles. Feign offense, speak in a passionate voice, and accuse the other side of bigotry; that’s the strategy. How can you have a serious discussion under those conditions?

    (My favourite part was Affleck’s comment after Sam Harris was finally allowed to get through an entire point without being interrupted that it was “a lot of talking” and motioned with his hand to move things along. I think Ben needs to rewatch the episode — ’cause he did his fair share of talking.)

  3. Bill Maher’s recollection was pretty good. Among Muslim Egyptians who favor making Sharia law the law of the land (which is 74% of all Muslim Egyptians), 86% favor the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion (see p.55 of the report). If you multiply 74% by 86%, you get the 64% number quoted in the Washington Post (but this is incomplete as it does not include responses from 26% of Muslim Egyptians)

  4. “Maher: “I can show you a Pew poll of Egyptians–they are not outliers in the Muslim world–that says like 90% of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.” This is exaggerated. The actual Pew poll cites 64% for the same question (still alarmingly high).”

    You’re repeating an error by Max Fisher.
    Maher was very close to correct with his rounded-off figure of 90%. The actual figure in the Pew poll you reference for Egyptian Muslims is 88% (general sample) who favour the death penalty for apostasy. See page 219. Earlier in the report, on this question, the figure listed is 86%, but that is for the sub-sample of those who supported sharia. These high figures for Egypt are not surprising relative to polls done in previous years.
    Max Fisher’s 64% seems to be a calculation on his part based on some erroneous assumptions. He apparently didn’t read the report fully, which gives the figures for the general sample of Egyptian Muslims on the apostasy question, on p. 219.

    1. Actually, I looked into this more, and I think the 64% figure is correct. There’s no indication 88% is the general sample – it never says that in the report, so I think it’s safe to assume he’s just extrapolating the % who favor Sharia (74%) with the sub-sample who then favor death for apostasy (86%, page 55 but 88% page 219) to arrive at 64% for ALL Muslims in Egypt. It’s not inconceivable that a person not favoring Sharia as the law of the land wouldn’t also favor death for apostasy, so 64% is definitely the lower limit of the spectrum.

      1. “There’s no indication 88% is the general sample”

        Before I address that claim regarding the 2013 report in question, let me point out that 88% is highly consistent with the 84% of Egyptian Muslims who favored the death penalty for apostasy according to another study conducted by Pew in the spring of 2010. That’s not from a subset of Egyptian Muslims; that is from the general sample of Egyptian Muslims.
        “When asked about the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion, at least
        three-quarters of Muslims in Jordan (86%), Egypt (84%) and Pakistan (76%) say they
        would favor making it the law;” (p. 15 of the pdf for the 2010 study)

        Note, the 84% figure above was obtained from Egyptian Muslims in the spring of 2010, and the 88% figure (in the 2013 report) was obtained from Egyptian Muslims in late 2011 (Nov, Dec).

        Re the 2013 report in question,

        Click to access worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-full-report.pdf

        the entire report is about the general samples of Muslims (i.e., Muslims’ beliefs), unless noted otherwise–and Pew does note when they are presenting a subset.

        I’m aware of what Fisher did, but I did not want to get into too much detail about his error, as there are multiple aspects to the error, aside from him not reading (or ignoring) p. 219 of the report to which he linked in his article. He clearly stated that Pew didn’t provide the “direct statistics” (general samples of Muslims) for the apostasy question, so he went ahead and tried to infer them, having apparently missed p. 219 (and others) entirely, and erroneously presenting the 64% as the general sample (“Muslims in Egypt,” or simply “Muslims”) who favored death for apostasy.

        It’s necessary to spend some time reading the report, as well as previous reports by Pew, to get some idea of how these results are presented and described. In the 2013 document, Pew notes explicitly when it is using a subsample when showing or labeling a table or graphic figure, or the wording of a question. If it doesn’t, then it is referring to the general sample of Muslims. Note that Q92b on p. 219 is straightforward, general, and is not proceeded by any conditional note from the researcher, (such as telling the interviewer to ask only if respondent supported sharia on a previous question), and there are no notes or labels indicating it’s a subsample from the general sample of Muslims. In contrast, on page 55, Pew clearly indicates that it is referring to the subsample who wanted sharia as the official law of the land (for the subsample who wanted sharia, 86% favored death for apostasy). When they don’t indicate that, the default assumption is that the data are from Muslims generally, because, again, this is a report about Muslims’ beliefs.

        For most of the countries, the percentage of respondents supporting executing apostates was, as one would expect, much higher among the subsample who supported sharia (p. 55) than among the general Muslim population (p. 219). Egypt is one of the cases where the percentages of those who favored executing apostates are about the same between that subsample who favored sharia as the official law of the land and the general sample.

      2. I see what you mean. I didn’t bother to crosscheck the other countries on pg. 219 with those on pg. 55, and now it does indeed look to be a general sample. Do you know of any public rebuttal or article correcting Fisher? His 64% has certainly become the common stat (Reza Aslan used it recently and when I tried to correct him, he just replied with a “Nope” and the Fisher link).

      3. Hello,
        I don’t know of any public rebuttal yet, other than from me posting a few corrections in comment sections. I emailed the Washington Post and Max Fisher just recently, but neither has yet responded. I will give them a few more business days.
        If they don’t issue a correction, my next step will be to contact Pew.

  5. I wrote: “…and erroneously presenting the 64% as the general sample (“Muslims in Egypt,” or simply “Muslims”) who favored death for apostasy.”

    I better clarify that: I mean when Fisher wrote “Muslims in Egypt” in his title, he was referring (erroneously) to the general sample of Egyptian Muslims, and when he wrote “Muslims” in labeling his created figure, he was referring (erroneously) to the general samples of Muslims in each country shown.

    1. p.s. Another thing I just remembered, indicating that the data on p. 219 of the complete 2013 report in question are from the general sample of Muslims: The table includes not only the 2011 data, but also the 2008-2009 data (2010 report) from Sub-Saharan African countries. These 2008-2009 data are clearly described as from the general sample of Muslims in that earlier report. Here it is:

      Click to access sub-saharan-africa-full-report.pdf

      See p. 58 for apostasy “leaving the Muslim religion”

      Click to access sub-saharan-africa-topline.pdf

      Q95 And do you favor or oppose the following?
      c. the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion”

      See p. 221. Note: It says “Ask if Muslim” because the study looked at both Christians and Muslims. The apostasy question was only asked of Muslims.

      Re the 2013 report, p. 219, it is standard procedure, when writing a table, to include data that is consistent and comparable, and whenever there is an important difference among the data (e.g., if some data in a column come from a different sample or different study than other data in the same column, etc.), that difference is noted by the researcher. It would be negligent for an experienced researcher to not to note the difference. The main difference, noted there (p. 219 of the 2013 report) with asterisks, is that the Sub-Saharan country data (with the exception of Niger) are from 2008-2009. These numbers from 2008-2009, as I said, are from the general sample of Muslims. Thus, if the data from 2011 (2013 report) were from a subsample and not from the general sample of Muslims, the researchers would have had to note that distinction. They do not. The most obvious conclusion is that all of the data in the columns are from the general samples of Muslims in each country. (For Thailand, there was an important geographical restriction noted, but that’s still referring to Muslims in general from the areas that were sampled).

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