Why Atheists Caricature Islam: An Insiders Perspective

Why Atheists Caricature Islam: An Insiders Perspective April 24, 2016


My last couple posts dealt with debunking stupid memes that tried to show the Qur’an is hate-speech towards non-believers and daily inspiration for ISIS. I also wrote a piece on how progressive Muslims and atheists can work together. Now it’s time to clean house and address a very real problem in atheist circles: the use of simplistic and naive caricatures of Islam.


This is not just about people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali calling Islam a “cult of death,” it’s much more diffused and endemic. Us atheists can always shrug these ridiculous claims off to the hate-mongering of a few sensationalized figures. And while it is true that these people do not represent all of atheism, it’s unfortunate that many of us fail to see a problem with being utterly uncritical and sophomoric in the way we discuss Islam. It should not be that hard to convince people that believe critical thinking, reason, and intelligence are supreme virtues to utilize them when discussing Islam, but it is.


People who usually call afoul on the inductive fallacy are seen embracing it when they use a single anecdotal example to stereotype billions of people, and the irony is not subtle. And when atheists disassociate from people like Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins and then are quick to connect all Muslims with some outspoken and firebrand Mullah, it appears they have forgotten a lesson they learned for themselves. While this phenomenon of double standards is not limited to atheists and Islam, it happens enough to make a post like this necessary.


Why do many atheists fail to see these glaring blind-spots? Now, I’m no psychologist, but I have a few ideas:


It’s easy to lump people together. It’s easy to think of Muslims as dumb sheep with martyrdom complexes who wish to appease their Mullahs and Allah (often in that order) by enacting violence against infidels. It’s easy to take an extremist and use them as the ideal model for a whole group of people. It’s easy because it does not require in-depth analysis or research. So when atheists proof-text the Qur’an or Hadith to show how evil Islam is, they very rarely examine the cultural, historical, and textual context of the passages they use.


They don’t contextualise their subject material by looking at the complexities involved in how various Muslim communities understand and implement the Qur’an or Hadith. They stick to the antiquated “clash of civilizations” thesis, to the story of Sunni-Shia discord, to the idea that Jihad means physical violence against others, and to a fetish for promoting a narrative of Muslim panic that would make Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller proud.


Why? Because it’s easy.


Atheists haven’t had it easy. We are often viewed as immoral and anarchic, and we have had to fight long and hard to show the world that most of us are decent blokes. When you come from a group with a history like ours, you often circle your wagons, set up a safe echo-chamber, and depict the Other as monstrous and ominous. The evils of the Other are contrasted with your virtues.


This is why atheists, for instance, love pointing out how most of those in the prison system are religious; or how the States with the highest levels of religiosity have the worst poverty, levels of education, and highest rates of teen pregnancy and STD’s; or how the most religious countries tend to rate lower on the World Peace Index. All of this is meant to serve the purpose of showing that, unlike the religious, atheists are good people.


I assume that most groups do things that serve their interests. We all want to be seen as moral, to be safe and secure in our identity, to be affirmed, to disprove false accusations, and to thrive. And sometimes, unfortunately, this involves demonizing and caricaturing other groups. The problem with doing so is that our depictions of others are often misleading and in error.


So while it is true that there are many fundamentalists and genuinely wicked people inspired by their understanding of a religious text, it’s simply not the case that these extremists should be considered the correct arbiters of the label they use. Nor should they be used to depict the vast majority who disagree with them.


I know this sounds strange, but for all the “equal opportunity religious critic” talk, many atheists focus almost all of their vitriol on Islam. I’m not exactly sure why, but I have some ideas. It could be that Islam is a hot-button issue right now and they are profiting and finding affirmation in their criticisms. They could genuinely be Islamophobes and simply dislike Muslims. They could be nationalists who think the West is under attack. My suspicion is that many of these atheists who focus on Islam are a mixture of these. But as I said before, I’m not a psychologist.


I can understand and empathize more with ex-Muslims and how they feel about Islam. Many of them have experienced horrible abuses and have seen how some Muslims treat others. They have a vantage point that I do not, and I respect them for it. This, however, does not mean all of their criticisms are correct. Their individual and community experiences do not represent others. As an ex-Christian, my experiences of Christianity are not the same as others, and it would be wrong for someone to take all of my critiques of Christianity as correct because I once was a Christian.


Now none of this means we should not condemn what fundamentalists do. Nor does it mean any speech should be censored. All that it means is that we should approach others with charity, be thorough and consistent in our critiques, and recognize that what we do serves our own interests. Let’s not support naive caricatures, no matter how easy it is or how much it serves our purposes.

Kile Jones is an atheist involved in inter-faith dialogue who works towards building bridges between non-believers and religious persons. He is also the founder of “Interview an Atheist at Church Day” and Claremont Journal of Religion. His twitter is @KileBJones

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