This is a guest post written by Seth Andrews. Seth is the host of The Thinking Atheist podcast.
I suspect there are few experiences as potentially awkward as publicly reviewing the creative work of someone you know.
In his most recent book, The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists, CJ Werleman lists me (as well as Nathan Phelps and a few others) as a friend… and apparently an exemption to the charge that New Atheism is essentially a hate cult.
CJ and I have crossed paths over the years, and our exchanges — even spirited disagreements — have been universally pleasant. Amicable. Friendly. We’ve spoken at conferences, on the phone, on the radio, and over brunch. He opened for me at a 2014 tour event in San Diego. I advised him when he was navigating his start-up podcast. Conversation came easily, if infrequently, and normally, I’d welcome the description of “friend.” But with CJ’s inflammatory new book, to be named in any capacity is not something I’m comfortable with.
Publicity-wise, there’s lot of flash and mud flying about in relation to The New Atheist Threat, and of course, it would be easy to intercept any of the hundreds of Twitter volleys tossed about in its promotion/detraction and build an analysis on hype alone. The responsible move, however, is to actually read the book. So, finally, I did.
I had not intended to produce a public review. And yet, after I had finished The New Atheist Threat over several plane rides, I felt compelled to express my thoughts — my concern — that CJ’s book has wrapped many unsustainable, unverifiable, and potentially damaging claims around a few nuggets of truth, and stretched credibility far past a breaking point in his attempt to caricature front-line atheist activism in the 21st century.
He’s speaking about a group of which I am a part. It’s important to me that he gets it right.
Before the very first chapter of The New Atheist Threat, we see a dedication to the three people killed by a madman in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The shooter, Craig Hicks, 46, was a self-professed atheist whose social media pages were filled with anti-religion statements. On January 27, 2015, Hicks’ Facebook page bore a meme which said, “People say there is nothing that can solve the Middle East problem… I saw there is something. Atheism.”
Within a month, Hicks had become a murderer of Muslims, and the eager media lapped up early charges that this hate crime was fueled by godlessness, an atheist rogue operating without the moral compass which certainly must come from Above.
Of course, the complex causes and motives of murderers often don’t easily fit into a sound bite, and even now, the grieving survivors can only guess about the full spectrum of reasons why Hicks ultimately decided to shatter their lives with a handgun. Was it hatred borne of ignorance, brainwashing, or severe mental illness? What thousand steps led to the Chapel Hill doorstep, and what clues remain hidden behind the merciless eyes of the assassin? As people who promote goodness and justice, we continue to seek the answers.
No matter the conclusion, it was an individual act carried out by an individual man.
CJ, however, is quick to link Craig Hicks and his murderous rage with New Atheism, declaring of Hicks, “He lists Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion as one of his favorite books.” So before we’ve even reached Chapter One, readers are asked to step onto the first rung of a guilt-by-association ladder, a ladder that leads downward toward CJ’s ultimate destination: the alignment of New Atheists with the worst of (in)humanity.
A killer had, on his shelf, a Dawkins book: the second smoking gun. Alert the FBI Hate Crimes division.
The term “New Atheism” is broadly and nebulously defined in the Introduction, but CJ essentially describes an Islamophobic club of largely affluent white guys who’ve built a personality cult and generous book sales upon a post-9/11 fear culture. Certainly, there are notes of this chord that may ring true. September 11th, 2001 put radical Islamism on the American radar — for good and for ill — and it galvanized many who had previously criticized sacred religious beliefs only in the shadows. The “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens) became a “thing,” their celebrity amplifying both strengths and flaws, and the Internet continued to feed a high-speed stream of heresy into the web browsers and smart phones of a public increasingly intolerant of religious fundamentalism — especially Islamic fundamentalism.
Everyday Americans ultimately, finally, began to feel the rising, radical Islamic tide. So, fortunately and unfortunately, they started talking about Muslims.
Certainly, the United States can be prone to ignorance and irrational fears in regard to Islam and Muslims (just as it does with regard to atheists), but Werleman is so alarmingly content to equate the terms “anti-religion” and “anti-religious” that he cheats necessary understanding about the various shades of anti-religious positions and people. And as he did with Craig Hicks, CJ professes to crawl inside the minds of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. to reveal — for those of us who do not yet possess clairvoyant abilities — the seething hatred lurking within. (In his eagerness to reveal the cauldron of New Atheist prejudice, he declares in Chapter 5 that New Atheists echo the Ku Klux Klan, as “they not only espouse white supremacy but they also speak in a language that is every bit as crude and racist as fascist, neo-Nazi, movements.” Nice.)
Welcome to The New Atheist Threat, a wide, broad, reckless barrage of generalities. (And as the clever saying goes, “All generalities are false.”) In regard to New Atheists (and we’re still just in the Introduction), “they” do this and “they” do that.
“They reduce all 1.6 billion Muslims to the brutality of ISIS.”
“They are anti-intellectual.”
“They engage in double-standards.”
“They engage in gross generalizations.”
Of course, by using inflammatory charges about a few figureheads to describe an ill-defined group, CJ is himself engaging in “gross generalizations.” If we stick with his reference to the Wikipedia definition of New Atheism (“a social and political movement that advocates the view religion should not simply be tolerated, but should be confronted and criticized”), we’re still dealing with a huge swath of varying people and perceptions on every tier of the societal and ideological chain, and we’re being force-fed the charge that all who are passionately against religious dogma are passionately against religious people.
CJ Werleman attempts to parallel a desire to destroy bad ideas with a desire to destroy those who hold them, especially in relation to Islam. There’s little room in his argument for Robert Green Ingersoll‘s famously expressed notion that “The more false we destroy, the more room we make for the true.” There’s little room in his New Atheist outline for those who fight unsubstantiated (and often damaging) religious doctrines and edicts, not because they hate people, but because they love people, genuinely care about the issues, and ache to see the indoctrinated, the misled, the uneducated, and the oppressed liberated from dogma. It’s unfathomable to him that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have operated with any genuine compassion and goodwill for believers, even Muslims. After all… they’re anti-theists.
As I watch CJ’s book cast a small, unwieldy net into the vast skeptical sea, I’m dubious that he has interviewed the whole of 21st century anti-theists (again making the whole “they” thing problematic), and I was slack-jawed at his October 5th, 2015 tweet which declared, “There are tens of millions of New Atheists scarier than Dick Cheney.”
There are tens of millions of New Atheists scarier than Dick Cheney. #harris
— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) October 5, 2015
The latest Pew Research Center numbers show that declared atheists make up only 3.1% of the U.S. population — that is, less than 10 million total, many of whom are not activists in any meaningful way. Even if global figures are assumed, from where is CJ’s “tens of millions” number derived?
(Note: The heavy hand of hyperbole ultimately backfires. Exaggeration reveals to the audience that there are good reasons to distrust the source, so many simply shrug and move on, not wishing to board a vehicle they’ve already deemed unreliable and unwieldy.)
It’s true that atheism isn’t immune to zealotry and toxicity. But as someone intimately involved with the atheist movement, I can quickly declare that my experiences with even the most vehement opponents of religion have (allowing for the occasional anomaly) largely revealed balanced, compassionate people with fires in their bellies and goodwill in their hearts. In our interactions, my fellow atheist activists don’t condemn Christianity because they hate Christians. They don’t condemn Scientology because they hate Scientologists. They don’t condemn Islam because they hate Muslims. They condemn blind faith, the brainwashing of the young and vulnerable, the anti-science claims of apologists, the theocrats attempting to co-opt a secular government, religious bigotry and misogyny, religiously motivated violence, and the threats of torment for the planet’s billions of non-adherents.
Many care about the issues because they care about people. They care because facts matter. They care because we all share the same rock in the cosmos.
The New Atheist Threat has little space on the platform to highlight the compassionate 21st century religion critic. The opportunity to examine the nuanced, complex, and hugely broad range of personalities, backgrounds, styles, perceptions, motivations, and tactics is sacrificed in favor of hyperbole and all-or-nothing overstatement. Hard lines are drawn. Good/Evil. Best/Worst. All/Nothing. CJ declares defiantly that “New Atheism is the belief religion is the root of most or all of the world’s problems,” and “in the mind of the New Atheist, all religious believers are definitely backwards, potentially violent, and a threat to civil society.”
Good luck sourcing that one.
I don’t see my fellow atheist activists (even the harshest anti-theists) declaring that the abolition of religious belief would automatically result in a happy-clappy Xanadu of perfection, peace, bliss, harmony, unity, and progress — what Werleman himself calls a “psychosis of utopian dreams.” I’ve come across a few random non-believers and a handful of lower-tier social media sites that might laud such a simplistic notion, but I’ve never heard any front-line activists claim that, in the absence of superstition, flawed, often irrational, occasionally corrupt humans would stop being flawed, often irrational, and occasionally corrupt humans. That we wouldn’t continue to deal with the bigoted, tribalistic, opportunistic, hateful, and destructive shades of the human condition. That the abolition of religion would be our golden ticket to the chocolate factory. That people would stop being people.
And for the record, I’ve never heard Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. predict such an airbrushed, secular utopia either. I’ve heard (and myself made) plenty of statements declaring that a science-based, superstition-free world would be a much better one, the absence of woo allowing humankind to eschew distraction and pursue reality-based solutions on a planet free of religiously-imposed guilt, shame, bigotry, misinformation, and/or ignorance. Yet there’s no room for this kind of color in CJ Werleman’s monochrome portrait of the New Atheists.
It’s strange to see the author of God Hates You, Hate Him Back taking an advocacy position in regard to superstitious beliefs, declaring that “religion means so many different things to so many different people,” and that “religion can inspire good people to do good things.” Distancing himself from his own biting tone from previous years in Chapter 4, he defends “those who have found inspiration through religion.”
There’s no question that many charitable, good, loving, and worthy efforts are motivated by beliefs — both rational and irrational — but many of religion’s harshest critics simply want the distraction of magical thinking removed from an obviously humanistic endeavor. The idea is that, with eyes focused on each other instead of an empty sky, and without the religiously imposed agendas to save souls first, humankind can more clearly concentrate on the tasks at hand. Human beings are doing all of the work, anyway.
This isn’t a hateful proposition. It’s not hateful to assert (as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have) that Islamist teachings aren’t supported by the evidence and often excuse and encourage destructive behavior. It’s not hateful to declare that the burqa is often not worn by choice, but instead can function like a muzzle — an identity-muting prison imposed by primitive, male-dominated theocracies. It’s not hateful to condemn the crimson-stained verses of the Qur’an right alongside the crimson-stained verses of the Christian Old Testament, especially as we constantly see literal Qur’anic “justice” meted out by zealots with bombs, guns, and machetes. And it’s not hateful to declare that it’s morally reprehensible to bathe in the arterial spray of the human being you just beheaded.It’s not hateful. It’s not bigoted. It’s not phobic. It’s certainly not racist.
We’re in the arena of ideas here, and at least for now, radical Islam wins the prize for sheer, blood-drunk, theocratic carnage.
Yet CJ Werleman spends only fleeting focus on the murderous Islamic radical, the jihadist, the executioner by knife, sword, rope, bullet, water, stone, and fire. Chapter after chapter, he remains (or at least seems) obsessed with the West and its responsibility for creating this mess, lamenting that New Atheists seem content to ignore “the sins of their own country.”
Now here’s where things get sticky. Werleman’s charge that the United States is (at least partially) culpable for fueling the engine of Islamic radicalism has a real element of truth to it. The corrupt and/or misguided political endeavors, military posturing, money, and maneuvering deserve the white-hot light of scrutiny, especially with the rise of ISIS in the wake of our blunders in Iraq. We should look in the mirror and see the damage wrought by misguided wars, greed, crime, corruption, blind nationalism, and foreign-policy ineptitude. And we should call out high-profile figures when their misstatements and missteps stand to cause real damage.
But a proper vetting of Western responsibility doesn’t excuse or validate falsifiable (and falsified) Islamic teachings, the Islamic war cries of jihad, the frothing, murderous rage of thin-skinned fanatics prepared to kill over a cartoon, the oppression of human beings, and the eye on global dominance so often extolled by entities lauding (wait for it) Islam. It doesn’t require the charge (in Chapter 7, in case you’re looking) that the U.S. is little more than an imperialist bully constantly creating military threats out of whole cloth so those crises can serve other ends (a caricatural claim that, again, suffocates under its own overstated weight).
Why couldn’t… why shouldn’t we be able to examine so many of the hugely wrongheaded U.S “interventions” without reducing the United States to a hissing Hannibal Lecter, especially in the shadow of a genuine, obvious, extolled, radical declaration of ideological and physical war by the radical Islamists?
“We made them” carries some weight… until it doesn’t. At some point, we must look at the serrated blade at the throat of the helpless hostage under the shadow of radical Islam and declare that it is the radical, not us, that ultimately wields the weapon. Barbarism in the name of Allah existed long before the United States was even established, unoppressed recruits are subscribing to radical Islam well outside of any western influence, and, for the record, history is filled with oppressed people who didn’t morph into blood-drunk monsters bent on martyrdom or global conquest. To excuse (or at least avoid) minute-by-minute acts of horror while blanket-blaming the United States and demonizing those who publicly condemn inhumane deeds (which Harris, Dawkins, and other atheists often do) is simply wrong.
It’s not news that peace-loving Muslims and apostates are often the ones crushed by the boot of radicalism. (Well, admittedly, it’s news to some, especially here in the United States, but not the atheist activists I know. And it’s certainly not news to Dawkins, etc.) I recently interviewed Armin Navabi, Muhammad Syed, Sarah Haider, and Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar (all ex-Muslims) and they again highlighted the challenges of the oppressed in many Muslim nations and cultures. Frontline atheist activist Maryam Namazie and her team are broadcasting a (banned, but still available) political-social television show into Iran via satellite, providing a conduit of freethought programming and human rights advocacy accessible to the approximately 40-60 percent of Iranian citizens who have satellite dishes. Again, it’s oppressed Muslims who constitute the bulk of the target audience, because it’s oppressed Muslims that these atheist activists are aching to help.
Mainstream atheists/activists understand the difference between the radical and the peaceful, the ideology and the people, the color of one’s actions and the color of one’s skin. Where’s the reflection of this in The New Atheist Threat?
It’s also intellectually dishonest to tar popular public figures with the most bigoted and hateful tweets, posts, and comments tossed onto their pages by the Internet’s lowest common denominators. I briefly digress from the book to mention, again, CJ Werleman’s (in my opinion, numbingly redundant) tweets. A September 27th tweet declared, vaguely, that “An atheist on an atheist page replies, ‘Who gives a fuck?’ to article about 700 dead Muslims = 67 ‘likes’ and counting.”
An atheist on an atheist page replies, "Who gives a fuck?" to article about 700 dead Muslims = 67 "likes" & counting pic.twitter.com/BR3u0ZtY4T
— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) September 28, 2015
More guilt by association, these random and misguided commenters happily linked by CJ to all New Atheists everywhere, despite the fact that popular frontline activists usually don’t personally know or necessarily endorse those who frequent or comment on their pages.
Another Werleman tweet (on the same day) posted a screenshot of random people celebrating Muslim deaths during Hajj (the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca).
— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) September 27, 2015
This is like blaming the New York Yankees when a random ticket-buyer shouts something hateful from the cheap seats, then declaring that the hater represents the sport. Not a perfect metaphor, but my larger point is that activists with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of pageviews should be considered by their content, not by the misguided, uneducated, inconsiderate, hateful, racist, or vitriolic trolls who have open access to their comments sections. As someone who hosts public pages, I find the haters, baiters, trolls, and ugly invectives a frustrating-yet-unavoidable byproduct of the Internet pool’s shallow end. It sucks, but they’re a fact of life. They don’t necessarily represent me or what I’m about. So would it be fair to screenshot the rant of a poisonous drive-by and brand it onto my forehead?
This is not how credibility (or lack of it) is determined. Fortunately.
An October 8th, 2015 tweet by Werleman declared that “Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz have only one audience: racists.”
— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) October 8, 2015
I follow Sam’s page and have even read Harris’ “An Atheist Manifesto” on the radio. I’m a member of Harris’ “audience.” How am I to receive CJ’s charge of racism-by-association?
And what of all of this “cult” talk? It would be dishonest for me to declare that — for any public figure — a cult of personality can’t develop. Celebrity, on most levels, can be intoxicating, and it’s not uncommon for people who connect with famous names to develop an airbrushed image and/or to treat them with adulation, awe, and deference. As CJ’s book references Richard Brown‘s article, “The Bizarre — and Costly — Cult of Richard Dawkins,” it again flirts with the very real phenomenon (and a legitimate challenge) of hero worship. In my early apostasy, as Dawkins’ book and presentations surrounding “The God Delusion” were so instrumental to me, I felt an admiration and connection to this secular star, and I can see how someone might step from sincere admiration into glossy-eyed adulation.
But Werleman and The New Atheist Threat aren’t content to view Dawkins’ fan base with any eye for complexity. The book merely shouts, “CULT,” and reduces a vast, diverse, global audience of readers, viewers, and fans to a frothing, drooling flock of sheep, each blind minion religiously swooning at Richard’s altar, desperate for the gaze of his eye or the graze of his hand. Religious apostates have traded one deity for another, again surrendering their own minds and hearts to The Atheist God Among Men.
You have got to be kidding.
A more considered eye would see that Dawkins, etc. can barely post a syllable without meeting a cacophony of scrutiny, skepticism, even indignation. Even those (like me) who respect his decades-long contributions to scientific literacy and secular advocacy are still just as apt (like me) to voice disagreement — loudly — and while the intellectual clashes of self-professed skeptics are, at times, difficult and often imperfect, they have largely proven good medicine, a constant check-and-balance in the arena of ideas. (To clarify, these clashes are productive when we’re examining the ideas presented, not declaring the other party a moustache-twirling cartoon character.)
I find Dawkins’ Twitter feed an occasional source of frustration, especially as he sometimes broaches complex subjects inside the narrow constraints of a 140-character limit. He (like Harris recently in regard to his remarks about Ben Carson) has said some unfortunate things, and he has said some valid things in some very unfortunate ways. He’s not Jesus (and despite what Werleman may imply, his fans don’t think he is). But for my part, those missteps pale in comparison to my appreciation for what he has produced in long form: The Selfish Gene. The Blind Watchmaker. The Magic of Reality. And, of course, The God Delusion.
With Dawkins, we’re not talking about some high-profile empty suit. We’re speaking about a scientist, educator, and activist whose work spans almost half a century and has impacted — even dramatically changed — lives, a claim that sounds like exaggeration but plays out again and again in my own discussions with former believers. So many people cite the works of Richard Dawkins (among others) as key to their liberation from religious indoctrination and/or inculcation. Many had previously learned their “science” from uncredentialed evangelicals, and Dawkins’ books and lectures became the key that opened the door to genuine scientific discovery and a much larger world. His defiant criticisms of unsubstantiated (or debunked) pseudoscience also gave many the courage to walk through that doorway, to speak without fear or shame, to expect the burden of proof to be met, and to reject the often religiously imposed restrictions others sought to place upon them.
This was the case in my own life. At a point of critical mass regarding a faith I’d previously, blindly assumed, my discovery of The God Delusion was a watershed moment. I didn’t walk away from those pages a blind, Dawkins-parroting lackey. I walked away galvanized by an intelligent, well-defended indictment of superstitious thinking against the evidence, and with a passion to discover and understand the world. Dawkins helped to propel me into an ocean of wonderful words and works by other scientists and activists, and finally, at the age of 38, I realized that the world made much more sense when my God Glasses were removed.
This didn’t make Dawkins a preacher, nor me a boot-licking sycophant. This is the case with so many others, people who deserve better than to be labeled cultish minions. Admiration and appreciation aren’t the same as blind, frothing adulation, and the difference deserves the mention not given in CJ’s book.
Further into The New Atheist Threat, CJ again teases the mark with his lament about how many anti-theists seem content to merely ridicule and mock. This is true, and it’s true that some of the mockery has a barbed, superior tone that closes more doors than it opens. Mockery can be lazy, unproductive, and toxic. But again, Werleman paints the issue with a broad and clumsy brush. Instead of acknowledging that a strong and even biting opponent of superstition can love people and promote dialogue, and instead of fairly examining the often important role of satire, mockery, and ridicule in the larger free speech and religious debate arenas, The New Atheist Threat is content with its “mockery/bad — compassion/good” flavor of analysis.
The wrecking ball flails, again and again, into nuanced, delicate, complex concerns. Another example: CJ declares that New Atheist “books, conventions, podcasts and blogs serve as a concoction of religious demonization.”
Focusing only on the convention dig, I must say that hearing a fellow convention participant so clumsily misrepresent these almost-always positive events is difficult. Religious claims do often get skewered, but there’s also much focus on promoting science, education, working for positive change, giving support to those cast off by religious families and cultures, and helping the needy. (A recent conference I attended in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania brought its speakers and attendees together to provide 30,000 meals for disadvantaged families in a single afternoon.)
Many charge admission fees (American Atheist’s annual event is one of the pricier weekends, and CJ mentions the cost: “a cool $329”), but I could find no mention of the huge expenses of venues, sound, media, meals, and the airfare and accommodations for a speaker list that often goes over twenty-deep. Many, like American Atheists, use their conventions to fund other activist work (and they say so, transparently). The attendees, who have plenty of local, regional, and national conference choices, attend because they wish to, because they care, because they draw benefit, because they seek community, because they have fun, and because they want to be part of the larger conversations about atheism, skepticism, science, and religion.
Yes, like many groups out there, atheist events are relatively niche, but painting these conferences as little more than back-slapping, in-group echo chambers is simply wrong.
And then there’s the charge that New Atheists think “atheism is the universal truth.” When I read this line (in Chapter 4), I stopped, and I read the claim again. It’s not only a hugely general, nebulous, unsourceable charge about a hugely general, nebulous, unsourceable demographic, it aligns the absence of belief in gods with a notion I only hear expressed by those who believe in God: that of “universal truth.” Who is he talking about? WHAT is he talking about?
Point by point, chapter by chapter, it becomes increasingly apparent that The New Atheist Threat is content to bring a flailing machete to an operating theater for delicate surgery, slashing wildly, repeating the word “hate” with alarming frequency and leaning heavily on the names of marquee “intellectuals” (Reza Aslan!) in an attempt (Noam Chomsky!) to win credibility (Chris Hedges!) via the Argument from Authority. In lazier moments, Werleman is content to simply post third-party jabs like comedian Andy Kindler‘s line, “If atheism is so great, why are its evangelicals such assholes?” And for chapter after chapter, the potential and opportunity to address any of the atheist movement’s legitimate problems is squandered in favor of shit-slinging hyperbole that, from the very beginning, would betray any book claiming to be fair, reasonable, measured, and accurate.
As the broken clock is still correct twice a day, CJ Werleman’s The New Atheist Threat occasionally glides over some salient points that deserve responsible scrutiny and a more attuned eye. But in regard to New Atheists, he has asked his readers to view the 21st century freethought movement through a dark prism, and as such, they’ll only see incomplete, skewed, and distorted pieces of the whole.
And by declaring Dawkins, Harris, and others a mere Bigot Brigade, Muslim-hating self-aggrandizers, the cartoons of atheist villainy, and cult leaders fleecing the drooling drones, CJ Werleman has displayed for the skeptical community a penchant for unreasonable overreach, nasty ad hominems, and a disconnect from 21st century rationalists whose decades-long contributions have genuinely helped so many.
Worst of all, The New Atheist Threat has given a big, wet, sloppy kiss to the hordes of apologists and woo-defenders who are eager to declare that atheist activism is toxic, hateful, bigoted, or “just another religion.”
It’s a real tragedy. Once a rising star in the freethought movement, CJ Werleman clumsily, indignantly navigated charges of plagiarism in 2014, and The New Atheist Threat continues his unfortunate slip from the platform of credibility. It has been difficult to watch.
Still, even as I’m listed as a “friend” inside its cover, I feel it would be inappropriate to remain silent or sugarcoat my objections to this misguided book. This movement and these issues deserve better. And it’s my hope that CJ may one day recover, refocus, and reintroduce himself in good faith to a cause and culture he has so sadly misrepresented here.