Atheists Are Not Fascists

Atheists Are Not Fascists June 15, 2011

This week, my first article on Alternet was published, which spurred several comments asking that we not forget about libertarian and conservative atheists. That’s why it’s so amusing that this same week, PZ Myers points out the curious tale of a pundit named Jeff Sparrow, who’s convinced that the New Atheist movement is so right-wing and “Islamophobic” as to be verging on fascist:

The so-called New Atheist movement, in which [Christopher] Hitchens is a key figure, is not progressive in the slightest. On the contrary, it represents a rightwing appropriation of a once-radical tradition …

Although it’s been said before, it needs to be said again: “New Atheism” isn’t a comprehensive creed. It can’t be “appropriated” because no one owns it in the first place. There is no Institute of New Atheism, no authorized journal which promulgates the official New Atheist views. It’s more like a statistical average of the views of many people – and despite his contempt for us, Sparrow is notably incurious as to who does make up the New Atheist movement. He doesn’t cite any surveys or interview any ordinary atheists on the street. Instead, he assumes that a single individual or a small handful of individuals are diagnostic of an entire movement, and makes no effort to investigate further. If he’d even looked at the rest of the lineup for the convention he’s criticizing, he’d see that some of the other headline speakers include individuals who are known for strong progressive views. But somehow, this is completely omitted from his analysis.

I grant that New Atheists don’t fit neatly on the usual left-right political axis. For the most part, we’re defenders of the secular state, of stem-cell research, of marriage equality, and of reproductive choice. All of these are stereotyped as “liberal” positions (although there’s no reason why conservatives and libertarians shouldn’t also support them). On the other hand, we don’t hesitate to oppose “hate speech” laws, to denounce ignorant and brutal customs like compulsory veiling and female genital cutting, and to proclaim that “culture” is no defense for trespassing on the rights of human beings. In many places, this puts us in the company of right-wing political parties (although, truthfully, any self-respecting liberal or progressive ought to get behind this as well). All this shows is that the usual left-right axis isn’t a suitable lens through which to view every social movement.

It’s regrettably true that Christopher Hitchens endorsed the Iraq war, a position not shared by the vast majority of atheists. No one else, as far as I know, is defending this position, much less declaring it to be representative of all atheists. The only difference is in how we respond. Sparrow’s position, apparently, is that the only acceptable response is to anathematize him and cast him out, and if we don’t, then it proves that we must agree with everything he says. This is intellectual McCarthyism at its finest.

Although atheists don’t agree on politics, here’s one generalization that you can rely on: we don’t share Sparrow’s instinctive desire to shut out opinions that differ from our own. We’d much rather debate, argue, have it out in public; we’re known for that. I’ve personally seen Hitchens draw fierce opposition from other atheists. But the consensus – which I share – is that he’s eloquent enough, intelligent enough, fearless enough that he’s worth listening to even when we think he’s completely wrong. We trust ourselves to be able to tell the good bits apart from the crazy ones.

I acknowledge that there’s a historical quirk here, in that some of the best-known atheist speakers and writers hold some views that aren’t representative of atheists as a whole. But that just shows that we don’t subject our spokespeople to a battery of litmus tests. Rather, we praise them for doing one thing and doing it well – making a strong, public case for atheism, and being among the first to do so – which doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with or endorse all of their other views.

To return to an analogy I’ve used before, the atheist movement is less like building a cathedral, in which there’s one master plan which all the builders must follow, and more like the advance of a wild garden. There are many different species of plants, each filling a different niche in the ecosystem, some of them competing fiercely with each other, but all of them playing a role in the pattern of natural succession.

Sparrow is like an explorer who steps into the spreading garden, pricks his hand on a thorn, and angrily concludes that the entire field must be thistles and nettles. If he’d looked around a bit more before jumping to this conclusion, he’d have seen the flowering plants that attract bees and butterflies, the spreading young trees shading cool pools of water, the berries growing ripe and sweet on green bushes. To anyone who takes the time to look around and explore the garden, the diversity is obvious. But if you dislike one plant and just want an excuse to clear-cut, it’s obvious why you’d say that there’s nothing growing there but weeds.

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