Jacobin pens a far-left critique of new atheism

Jacobin pens a far-left critique of new atheism December 3, 2014

Every time I want to feel inadequately radical, I read Jacobin. It’s ideologically and unapologetically liberal, which is surprising and refreshing for how popular an outlet it is. Once you get acclimated to the constant references to “empire” and “imperialism” and “revolution” the pieces are pretty consistently thoughtful and worth reading.

Yesterday, Luke Savage wrote a pretty scathing critique of new atheism. He writes:

At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.

In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.

Whereas some earlier atheist traditions have rejected violence and championed the causes of the Left — Bertrand Russell, to take an obvious example, was both a socialist and a unilateralist — the current streak represented by Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris has variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture, and even, in the case of the latter, genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.

Even I initially thought this characterization was unduly harsh, but Savage does the work to put it in context and, frankly, it’s hard to argue with.

To start, many new atheists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris have outright called for curtailing the civil liberties of Muslims. Hirsi Ali, for example, suggests that Muslims not have religious freedoms and Harris advocates profiling Muslims.[1. Though he suggests this wouldn’t be racially motivated, because Muslims can look like him, we all know what people think Muslims look, and how people who look Muslim are treated.] Dawkins’s comments about Muslims and Islam aren’t much better. Savage writes:

…Richard Dawkins has called Islam “the greatest force for evil today” (in the same breath, rather amusingly, as admitting he’s never bothered to read the Koran). At other times Dawkins has been even more vulgar, tweeting: “For me, the horror of Hitler is matched by bafflement at the ovine stupidity of his followers. Increasingly feel the same about Islamism” and inferring that then-New Statesman columnist Mehdi Hassan is unqualified to be a journalist because he is also a Muslim. Or, to take yet another example, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

In fact, reading it all in context is shocking, especially given the pains many atheists go through to insist that their criticisms aren’t racist or rooted in racism, that they’re targeted at beliefs and not people, or any other obfuscating truism just to avoid reckoning with the human costs of their views and statements. I’ll quote Savage at length:

In extremely sinister fashion, Harris has mused about the birthrates of European Muslims and the supposed peril of their prolific breeding. The notion of a demographic “threat” posed by Muslims in Europe is easy to debunk empirically.

Even if this weren’t the case, the sordid subtext of these remarks is confirmed by Harris’s favorable treatment of far-right figures, who speak openly of the demographic dangers posed by Muslims. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris makes his sympathies explicit, declaring: “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascists.”

Harris shares such terrain with neoconservatives like Mark Steyn, who writes: “Every Continental under the age of 40 — make that 60, if not 75 — is all but guaranteed to end his days living in an Islamified Europe.”

In a positive review of Steyn’s America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, Hitchens expressed disagreement with Harris’s pro-fascist sentiments — but didn’t take issue with the posited “demographic threat.” He also defended his close friend, novelist Martin Amis, who told the Times Magazine:

There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? — to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.

Harris’s treatment of Muslims as a unique demographic and security risk has caused him to advocate racial profiling and to side with the likes of Sarah Palin and Fox News on the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Dawkins has enthusiastically supported far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has called for the banning of the Koran — a book he’s compared to Mein Kampf — alongside mosques and immigration from Muslim countries. In 2009 Wilders faced trial for hate speech, and his 2008 film Fitna is replete with racist images like Muhammad’s head attached to a ticking time bomb. Dawkins: “On the strength of ‘Fitna’ alone, I salute you [Wilders] as a man of courage who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.”

The callous militarism of Hitchens is even more shocking, and Savage treats this in detail. On the assault on Fallujah, which aid groups called a “humanitarian catastrophe” Hitchens said that the “death toll is not nearly high enough,” because too many jihadis may have escaped. On jihadis, he says “It’s a sort of pleasure as well as a duty to kill these people. On Iran: “As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.” Savage writes:

The tendency to abhor the violence of its chosen enemies while relativizing and legitimating its own is an intrinsic part of any imperial or colonial ideology, and a consistent feature in the rhetoric of both Hitchens and Harris.

Savage’s critique gets more at the heart of the problems with new atheism, focusing on the ideological underpinnings that distort new atheism’s view of religion.

The typical New Atheist text scrutinizes religious myths without attention to, or even awareness of, the multiplicity of social and theological debates they have provoked, the manifold ideological guises their interpreters have assumed, or the secular belief systems they have helped to influence.

Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith — namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform — is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.

He goes on:

This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion — one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.

Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind — honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise — are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.

This I think is the common problem with new atheism: all other factors are pushed aside to explain the world’s problems with one thing: beliefs, and therefore, religion. In a particularly strong turn of dogmatism and tribalism, many new atheists Bill Maher, Hitchens, and Harris have blamed even secular ills on religion, all at different times using terms like “secular religion”or “celestial dictatorship” to describe Stalinist Russia, China, or North Korea. They don’t hold anti-theism ideologically responsible, yet in response to the atrocities committed by fundamentalist Muslims, the target of our criticism should be Islam itself, full stop (and, despite their suggestions to the contrary, I don’t know of even the fluffiest faitheist who would say that we shouldn’t criticize specific violent and harmful actions by specific factions of a religion).

Yet if Islam itself is causing the horrors we see in narrow geopolitical regions of the world, then how can it explain why the horrors are so geopolitically isolated? New atheists completely ignore the explanation of why people believe what they believe to deliver instead a reductive admonishment of a religion, writ large, as if that even made sense or could even help.

Whether you buy Savage’s more central conclusion, that new atheism “amounts to little more than an intellectual defense of empire and a smokescreen for the injustices of global capitalism,” I think his broader criticisms are convincing.

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