Let’s start by self-plagiarasing. During the 2000s militant secularism has been on the rise in the English speaking world. Of course this has generated a backlash, not only from religious people (I link to an article which presents Chris Heges as an “intellectual provocateur”, while he’s neither intellectual (let alone an intellectual) nor a provocateur), but also from “moderate” nonreligious people and, especially, selectively secular people, like CJ Werleman, a man who’s made a career out of writing against the US Christian right, but won’t have it said that Islam is dangerous (Mr Werleman happens to be a serial plagiariser but that’s of little relevance to the question at hand).
For various reasons which would be obvious to any approximately objective observer, New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, have spent a lot of time focusing on Islam. Predictably, that upset many people. I’ll just take the latest New Atheism-bashing article along with one of its sources, and endeavour to show it literally has nothing of value to say.
So let’s dive in shall we (I’ll quote the article integrally and react in between paragraphs, I don’t want to let anything out)? It starts with
Despite the steady decline of religiosity in the U.S., the general public is still not fond of atheists and their ways. Pollsshow that atheists are one of the most mistrusted groups in America, so much so that the public considers adultery less of a sin than godlessness when sizing up a presidential candidate.
While there are a number of reasons for this discomfort, one is the legacy of the influential and controversial so-called “New Atheists,” a band of belligerent public intellectuals including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the late but still influential journalist Christopher Hitchens.
Apparently, the reader is supposed to accept this assertion that atheists are disliked, among others, because of Dawkins and Harris, on face-value. Also note that later in this article, its writer will scorn poll results, after having used poll results as an incipit.
The trio has pushed so fervently for a venomous strain of atheism that their rise to fame has alienated many potential sympathizers and has come at the expense of the broader movement for secular life. Together they have cultivated an absolutist version of atheism that has produced many more enemies than friends.
Just for the sake of completeness, one of the “potential sympathisers”, apparently, is Chris Hedges, a man now in holy orders. Chris Hedges’s previous position was that organisation and authorities are terrible for religion, and that gave him a facile platform to counter the New Atheists’ arguments (something along the lines of “Faith is good, but religious institutions pervert it” (listen to the debate with Hitchens to which I just linked, this is really his only argument)). Everyone has the right to change their mind, of course, so let’s not waste more time on this, and soldier on instead.
While atheists tend to be particularly progressive and peaceful, the New Atheists harbor a deeply militarized attitude toward the religious. Their combative demeanors have afforded them an outsized amount of airtime and a disproportionate role in shaping the debate about atheism. The most recent incarnation of this was a dramatic, much-discussed showdown between Harris, actor Ben Affleck and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, during which Harris and Maher — whose values overlap heavily with the New Atheists — waxed poetic about the existential threat that Islam poses to liberal society.
I’ve talked about this event in my blog. According to the author of the present piece, a Mr. Zeeshan Aleem, quoting poll results is “waxing poetic”, apparently. More about that below.
The troubling global politics of the firebrand New Atheists, which have centered on advocating for a broadly secular West to rid the world of Islam, is essential to understanding their failure as a movement. Harris’s heated rhetoric on Real Time about how Islam represents the “mother lode of bad ideas” typifies the coarse and hysterical thinking that the New Atheists have encouraged about cultures and ideas they don’t understand — and reveals their conviction that the quest for an enlightened global civilization is at war with Islam.
Reality check: the quest for an enlightened European civilisation has been carried through a war with Christianity. Often an offensive war of ideas, and, sometimes, a defensive military war (the Spanish Civil War being a prime example of the latter).
Islamophobia and endless war: The leading New Atheists did not make names for themselves in a philosophical vacuum. All three are deeply political animals who captured the public’s attention when arguing against religion in the context of Islamism and war in a post-9/11 landscape. Few people deny that militant Islamist fundamentalism is a serious problem, but the New Atheists have responded to Islamist extremism by arguing that Islam itself — the faith of about one and a half billion people the world over — is a civilizational menace that must be stamped out to cure the world of its greatest source of savagery. As Luke Savage notes in an insightful article for Jacobin, for this mission they have “variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture and … genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.”
Yep, that’s an old school argumentum ad numerum: 1.5 billion people say they believe in Islam, therefore you lose. I’ll address the “insightful article” at the end of the post.
Savage’s essay pulls together many of the most extraordinary moments of their fear of Islam. Sam Harris once wrote in his book The End of Faith, “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”
On another occasion, he wrote, “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.”
Still waiting to see what your point is.
Dawkins (who admitted in 2013 to never reading the Quran) has deemed Islam “the greatest force for evil today,” and said that for him “the horror of Hitler is matched by bafflement at the ovine stupidity of his followers. Increasingly feel the same about Islamism.”
In a statement that typifies the colonialist mindset of all three of them, he once wrote, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”
Hah. Nice one. Still waiting for Aleem’s punchline, though.
Before his death, Hitchens popularized the term “Islamofascism” amid a crusade to convince the Western public that Islam was, at its core, a violent, totalitarian faith and the greatest threat the modern world has ever faced.
I’ll only take issue with the word “crusade”, which is, as Hitchens himself would say, “inexpensive” in that context.
Harris and Hitchens have used this anxiety about the threat of Islam to buttress a campaign for war and imperialism (Dawkins has not engaged in this, although his rhetoric has not helped). Harris even contemplates the prospect of a preemptive nuclear strike: “What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? … The only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”
For Harris’s comments on how these oft-quote-mined sentences have been taken out of context, see here.
In a section of The End of Faith entitled “What Can We Do?,” Harris proposes a firm helping hand from the West:
“Some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary … But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert) or some combination of both.”
I do not own The End of Faith and cannot assess whether this is a fair summary of Sam’s views. If it is, then I think it warrants clarification and discussion. If it isn’t, then the exact same follows. Remember, though, that very few democracies have just appeared peacefully out of the blue.
For his part, Hitchens was one of the most vociferous and effective champions of George W. Bush’s Iraq War. He expressed “pleasure” in killing jihadists and disappointment at low death tolls in Iraqi cities after the U.S. invasion. On Iran, he once said: “As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.”
On the top of my head, I can’t remember whether this is here or here, but I know that in one of those two presentations Hitch expresses hope and satisfaction due to the fact that the Iranian youths resented the theocratic regime in place. Not a word about wanting to “wipe” Iran “off the face of this earth”, but rather an internationalist displaying brotherhood and solidarity. Hitch did support the Iraq War, for reasons he explained at length, for instance in the two videos linked just above. In short, he despised totalitarianism, of which Saddam Husein’s regimes was one of the worst avatars in history, and anticipated Husein’s death and the bloodbath it was likely to bring upon Iraq. Moreover, he saw the removal of Husein from power as nothing more than the conclusion of the liberation of Kuwait from the 1990 invasion, during which Husein’s troops committed not only war crimes but also one of the worst environmental crimes in history.
Rebels with the wrong cause: The New Atheist pugilists have been driven by a rigid and ultimately misguided understanding of how religion functions in deeply religious societies. They believe that militant Islamist extremism and a literalist reading of the Quran represent a distillation of the “true” Islam, and so they seek its extinction.
You can always count on apologists to start raping logic at some point. A classic move is for them to assert that what’s in the holy texts is not the true form of the religion, and to throw around adjectives like “literalist” to describe what is simply a straightforward understanding of what’s in the holy texts.
On Real Time, Maher and Harris cited polling results showing how many Muslims in various countries support the death penalty for apostasy or the restriction of free speech, ideas that they understandably find troubling. But they sound like many security analysts: brimming with abstract data points, and lacking any discernible acquaintance with lived experience in the so-called Muslim world. A keener observer might realize that polls should be read beyond their literal results and represent a form of cultural signaling about local norms rather than immutable, doctrinal political convictions. Likewise, they might question the reliability of polls on Islam in the very countries they criticize for their limitations on free speech.
The author of this piece, Mr. Aleem, is so proud of the sentences “The New Atheists sound like security analysts: brimming with data points, and lacking any acquaintance with lived experience in the Muslim world.” that he’d like you to Tweet them. This paragraph, though, is nothing to be proud about. It’s wrong on details (Christopher Hitchens, for instance, has quite a bit of “lived experience in the so-called Muslim world” (traveling to Iraq and especially Iraqi Kurdistan had him convinced of the necessity to remove Saddam Husein from power)) and incredibly disingenuous on the main point. Mr. Aleem, indeed, is engaged in nothing less than fact-denying here, when he calls poll results “abstract data points”. He provides us with a link which is supposed to convince us that the famed Pew Poll results in question here are untrustworthy. The author of that link rightly points to concerns about the genuineness of the answers provided by polled Muslims, explaining that the lack of freedom to even question Islam in many Islamic countries might have warped the numbers. That is a legitimate point, but I’ve checked the Pew methodology and from what I understand people were polled in their homes.
Religions are fluid, composed of worldviews that are always infused with local cultural, political, economic and historical realities. While the New Atheists love to argue that Islamist extremism is about Islam in its purest state, it’s in fact about geopolitics.
There, the hammer has been dropped. “Islamism is not about Islam”. What a sick joke. He’s not going to back up his claims himself, but he’s delegated his argumentation to three links. Two of them are little more than a barrage of lies and insults. The third one is a Wikipedia page.
The one and a half billion Muslims of the world constitute an immeasurably diverse set of communities, with people who claim the same god nonetheless believing contradictory things about how society should be run. In today’s world, no more than an extremely small minority of adherents to any faith advocate for the death of innocents or global theocracy. To compulsively exaggerate the existence of religious extremism is unseemly for any serious thinker, and to encourage the use of force to deal with this exaggerated threat is an imperial impulse, not a civil one.
Bear in mind, this is written just one paragraph below Mr. Aleem’s refusal to take the Pew Poll results into account. The intellectual dishonesty is unbreathable at this point. To sum things up, Mr. Aleem has made the following points: “I resent your affirming that substantial numbers of Muslims adhere to the most violent teachings of Islam. You may have poll results but I’m just going to ignore them because I’ve decided that the poll methodology is flawed -or, whenever I prefer, call them “abstract data points”. On the other hand, I’m perfectly entitled to repeat the “liberal” credo that only a “tiny, minuscule” minority of Muslims take their religion seriously without providing any evidence to back it up. Bottom line: I’ll keep favouring faith and feelings over facts, thank you very much”.
Steeped in paranoia about a world governed by Sharia law, the work of the New Atheists emanates from a totalitarian vision of an enlightened society. Their insecurity drives them to discard the hard questions of how to better society with secular values. Instead, they insist that the world must pledge allegiance to their idiosyncratic set of notions about meaning in the universe. Their fear leads them to argue for free thought by caricaturing, smearing and arguing for the extinction of thoughts that they feel uncomfortable with.
Read: “I, Zeeshan Aleem, want to redefine secularism as the blind respect of all kinds of stupid superstitions including mine”.
The less unhinged beliefs of the New Atheists about the value of a world without superstition and social conservatism and with more robust secular ethics are laudable. Organized religion in every region of the world has a record of justifying some terrible things. But they’d be better served by remembering that religion, like food or fashion or art, can be both bad and good, changes over time, is inextricable from human history, and is best understood through a pluralistic lens. You can ask people to try your cup of tea without smashing theirs.
More of the classic “A given religion has little to do with its holy texts” cop-out. This is one of the recurring arguments you’ll get from people who want to criticise New Atheists. Often, these people are believers themselves, but can’t even be bothered to defend their own holy texts. Consistency is not their forte.
Let’s now move to a likeminded article to which Mr. Aleem links, that is, Luke Savage’s “insightful” Jacobin article. I’m not a lazy punk, and I’ll go through it entirely.
In explaining his transition from radical polemicist to neoconservative hawk, Christopher Hitchens insisted that his politics had not changed. It was perfectly consistent, he opined, to have opposed the Vietnam War on anti-imperialist grounds and unapologetically supported the invasion of Iraq; perfectly consistent to have abandoned confraternity with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said and sipped champagne at the White House as a guest of Paul Wolfowitz.
I’ll let Hitchens expose his reasons (which I’ve briefly summed up above) for supporting what he understandably called the “liberation of Iraq”. Let’s just note that for Mr. Savage to think that someone opposing some wars and supporting others is proof of intellectual inconsistency, he must think very lowly of his fellow humans’ ability for elaborate thought.
Hitchens liked to claim that a single intellectual thread united his positions, namely opposition to “totalitarianism”: “The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy — the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.”
But for all his pro-imperial bluster, it was Hitchens’ attacks on religion that finally garnered him international fame. These, too, he claimed, were fundamentally “anti-totalitarian,” analogous to resisting North Korea or Joseph Stalin. A leading light of the “New Atheist” movement, the former socialist spent his final decade at war with religion and at peace with imperialism.
A fair summary of Hitch’s views.
As Richard Seymour observes in his book Unhitched, Hitchens’ transformation, though unorthodox, was not without precedent:
The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the ‘Free World’. In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.
If you thought, as I do, that the non-word “Islamophobia” is a dishonest piece of slander, you might think it’s not so badly nausea-incuding as “Stalinophobia”. But remember, this is coming from Richard Seymour, an admirer of George Galloway, Hitchens’s opponent in the debate linked above on the Iraq War. George Galloway once said: “I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life“.
It is through polemics like Hitchens’ God Is Not Great that “New Atheism” has gained mass attention. Alongside Hitchens, the movement’s two other leading disciples, Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), have engaged in innumerable public debates with religious figures, making them doubly influential as Internet celebrities and popularizers of antitheism.
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.
The claims made in the last paragraph above won’t be justified by Mr. Savage. Rather, he goes:
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.
I re-provide the link I gave above to Sam Harris’s response to the last point. None of the above New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) ever advocated for torture in practice. To clarify, Hitchens had himself waterboarded simply to check whether it was actually torture, and began speaking out against the practice thereafter. Sam Harris has written a piece entitled “In Defense of Torture” where he examined which extreme cases could make torture acceptable. Harris’s piece has every sign of having been written by a rational thinker and not by a fan of Dick Cheney. On civil liberties: years before the likes of Glenn Greenwald jumped the bandwagon, Hitchens was a named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the National Security Agency. On “aggressive war” and “state violence”: both Dawkins and Harris opposed the war in Iraq, and Hitchens defended it for reasons which his detractors won’t even be bothered to mention, apparently.
Its leading exponents wear a variety of ideological garbs, but their espoused politics range from those of right-leaning liberals to proto-fascist demagogues of the European far-right.
The fact that few people besides “proto-fascist demagogues” voice concern about the possible Islamisation of Europe does not mean that being concerned about it automatically means one is a “proto-fascist demagogue”. The best journalist I know of in Europe is Nick Cohen, who’s perhaps the only person on the Guardian lineup not to be a cheerleader for bowing to Islam in the UK. What is sure is that he’s no proto-fascist, unless you want to label every critic of Islam proto-fascist (which I’m sure some on the left wouldn’t mind).
The title of Hitchens’ bestselling book tells us something about the priorities and focus of the New Atheist movement (“God is Not Great” is clearly intended to be a facetious inversion of the common Arabic phrase Allahu Akbar, which translates as “God is Great,” something which he no doubt thought was both hilarious and iconoclastic). Without exception, an overwhelming preoccupation with Islam infuses the whole discourse, even as it posits itself as a disinterested scientific critique of religion as such.
Dishonest writing. Hitchens’s fight against religion was less scientific than it was political.
Indeed, Sam Harris’s much-discussed October appearance on Real Time withBill Maher — a crude spectacle in which he pigeonholed most Muslims as “jihadists,” “Islamists,” or “conservatives” — merely complements a lengthy record of Islamic demonology from him and other leading figures in the New Atheist movement.
Apparently, it’s wrong to say that most Muslims are conservative. I’m curious to know what proportion of Muslims worldwide support contraception, apostasy rights, gay rights, etc. Maybe we could look at poll results to learn something about this. Oh, wait, no, they’re just “abstract data points”. It’d be much better to just state, in the face of evidence, the “liberal” credo that only a “tiny, minuscule” minority of Muslims take their religion seriously (sorry, I just love this too much).
In The End of Faith, for example, he argues: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” Elsewhere, he writes: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” And, while defending the Iraq War as a humane, civilizing mission: “We are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.”
What Sam Harris means by “We are at war with Islam” is an ideological war, not a war with every single individual who identifies as Muslim. But making that clear would show how useless Mr. Savage’s entire article is.
While Harris’s views are undoubtedly the most strident, there is certainly overlap with Hitchens and Dawkins. In a 2007 interview, Hitchens argued: “If you ask what is wrong with Islam, it makes the same mistake as [other] religions, but it makes another mistake, which is that it’s unalterable. You notice how liberals keep saying, ‘If only Islam would have a Reformation’ – it can’t have one. It says it can’t. It’s extremely dangerous in that way.”
In addition to the blatant chauvinism of such a statement, it is not a remotely accurate historical claim and is arguably hypocritical, even on its own terms. Islamic fundamentalism — which no one, incidentally, believes to be a fiction — is insidious not because of its adherence to some ossified medieval tradition, but rather because of its eager and effective embrace of modernist dynamism.
Indeed. Nothing illustrates a group of people’s “embrace of modernist dynamism” better than, say, mutilating young women who dare wear nail polish, prevent little girls from going to school, and killing all adult males in villages where the dominant faith is not the one you approve of. But wait, I’m sure Mr. Savage misspoke. He’s going to clarify this in the next paragraph, right?
Not to be outdone, 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 beeneven 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.”
For the New Atheists, then, all religions are equally bad — but Islam is more equally bad.
If you bother to go fetch Dawkins’s tweet on Mehdi Hassan, you’ll see it reads “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist”, which is somewhat different from old school religion-based discrimination. Incidentally, this could open another debate, which I think is very interesting: how much intellectual respect should be granted to people who are glad to accept Bronze Age desert mythology as central to their lives? The “For the New Atheists, then, all religions are equally bad — but Islam is more equally bad.” passage is playful slander, but slander nonetheless. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, especially, always made it clear that all religions are equally unworthy of intellectual respect, but that some of them (Islam included) have especially hateful teachings.
It is simply impossible to imagine the commercial and intellectual success of the New Atheist project in a pre-9/11 world without both rising anti-Muslim sentiments across Western societies or neoconservative geopolitics. It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.
During the Real Time appearance, both Harris and Maher mounted the familiar argument that their position is a defense of “liberal principles” that others, out of fear, timidity, or perhaps relativism are applying selectively. Maher:
“Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles … like freedom of speech, freedom to practice religion without fear of violence, equality for minorities including homosexuals … these are liberal values which liberals would applaud, but then when you say ‘in the Muslim world these qualities are lacking,’ then they get upset … [Islam is] the only religion that acts like the Mafia.”
Harris affirmed this statement, and took it further:
“Liberals have really failed on theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christians … they’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984 … We have been sold this meme of ‘Islamophobia’ in which every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people … we have to be able to criticize bad ideas… [and] Islam right now is the mother lode of bad ideas.”
There is much to say about these statements, but let us first examine what this noble and courageous defense of “liberal principles” looks like in practice.
The politics of the leading New Atheist thinkers are not uniform. Dawkins opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while Hitchens was one of its leading apologists. Harris defends torture as an ethical necessity in the “war on terror” while Hitchens, who was voluntarily subjected to waterboarding, did not. Both Hitchens and Harris have been prone to bellicose outbursts of violent, almost bloodthirsty rhetoric, which cannot be said of Dawkins.
See my clarifications above.
Nevertheless, all are united by several common intellectual threads. Each espouses a binary worldview that pits a civilized, cosmopolitan, and progressive West against a barbaric, monistic, and reactionary East. Though varied in their political positions, Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have all had very public alliances with the Right, expressing either overt sympathy for, or enthusiastic endorsement of, some of its most vile and disreputable elements.
Is that supposed to mean that the Right is, by definition, wrong on every single issue, and intrinsically evil? Well, clarification on which of “its most vile and disreputable elements” the New Atheists have had “public alliances” with might have helped me discuss this point, but such clarification is not provided.
Each is outwardly a cultural liberal who primarily addresses liberal audiences — “respectable” to blue-state metropolitans and their equivalents elsewhere in ways Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh never could be — while embracing positions and causes that are manifestly illiberal in the commonly understood sense of the term.
When you take a cold hard look at what liberalism has become, i.e., as far as I can see, little more than a metropolitan, upper-middle class, culturally relativistic version of self-righteousness which seems to have welcomed Islamism as a force against Western-centred capitalism, you’ll fail to see what the problem is here.
Beneath its many layers of intellectual adornment — the typical New Atheist text is laden with maudlin references to Darwin, Newton, and Galileo — we find a worldview intimately familiar to anyone who has studied the language of empires past: culturally supremacist, essentializing and othering towards the foreign, equal parts patronizing and paternalistic, and legitimating of the violence committed for its own ends.
The charge of patronage leveled by Mr. Savage is as ridiculous as it is obscene, in the wake of decades of patronising of Muslim immigrants by the European left. See here for a discussion of the kind of dishonesty displayed by Mr. Savage.
In The End of Faith Harris suggests that nuclear-first strikes may be necessary if the ostensible conflict between “Islam” and “civilization” escalates: “What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?…The only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”
Here Mr. Savage won’t be bothered to try and refute Sam Harris’s arguments.
In an endorsement of one of the Iraq War’s key justifying logics, Harris described it as a noble and selfless crusade undertaken by the civilized West to defeat Islamic barbarism. In late 2004, he wrote in the Washington Post, “civilized human beings [Westerners] are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people.”
Elsewhere in the The End of Faith, he avers:
We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms. Theirs is a kill-the-children-first approach to war, and we ignore the fundamental difference between their violence and our own at our peril. Given the proliferation of weaponry in our world, we no longer have the option of waging this war with swords. It seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come.
The book goes out of its way to frame Arab nations as backward and Muslims within them as primitive and in need of paternalistic tutelage. “It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development,” he pronounces, in tones worthy of a nineteenth century ethnographer.
Mr. Savage probably knows that denying the fact that “not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development” would expose him as the dishonest ideologue he is, so he’ll just casually associate Harris with 19th century racists. Stay classy.
“At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root.”
What is needed, in his view, is no less than the imposition of “benign” tyranny:
“Some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary … But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both.”
I’ve briefly addressed this above.
In his voluntarily assumed role as a leading “war on terror” propagandist, Hitchens — who had previously eviscerated Henry Kissinger for his executive role in the 1969 bombing of Cambodia — embraced the rhetoric of violent militarism with an even more aggressive zeal.
Speaking about the 2004 assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which had been occupied by anti-American insurgents, Hitchens declared that the “death toll is not nearly high enough” on the grounds that “too many jihadists [had] escaped.” (The civilian death toll in the Battle of Fallujah is contested, but aid groups on the ground called it a “humanitarian catastrophe,” and residents today suffer extremely high rates of birth defects and cancer, apparently from the use of white phosphorous and other chemical weapons by American forces. The increase in cases of leukemia exceeds that which followed the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.)
Here Mr. Savage stoops so low as to imply that when Hitchens wished more jihadists had been killed, he really meant to say he wished more civilians had been killed.
Hitchens also praised the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan as “pretty good, because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too.”
On the subject of jihadists, he declared: “It’s a sort of pleasure as well as a duty to kill these people.”
On another occasion, Hitchens stunned even sympathetic members of an audience in Madison, Wisconsin by saying of Iran, a nation of almost 80 million people: “As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.”
I haven’t seen this particular talk by Hitchens. As discussed above, the only way I see to make sense of this in the light of other discussions of Iran by Hitch is to assume he was talking not about the country’s inhabitants, but about its sinister theocratic regime.
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.
This kind of blabber might make some sense in an alternate reality in which Europe was liberated from the Nazi takeover through nonviolent means. Hitchens, keep in mind, wasn’t even reluctant to discuss the war crimes committed by the Allied Forces in World War 2. He spoke out against the use of torture by the US Army in Iraq. But all that is lost on Mr. Savage.
Another preoccupation of leading New Atheists mirrors several themes of Europe’s neo-fascist right.
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.
Mr. Harris’s quote: “Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.”
The debunking: see here. It seems as though the only way in which Mr. Harris’s assertion about France can be correct is that in 2030 France, Islam will be the religion with the most followers. But that’s not enough for Mr. Savage.
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.”
On the contrary, Sam Harris has expressed his regret at the failure of the left to speak out against Islam (see the Bill Maher show).
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.”
Here the interesting part is Hitchens’s writing “When I read Sam Harris’s irresponsible remark that only fascists seemed to have the right line, I murmured to myself: ‘Not while I’m alive, they won’t'”. This is the best way to disprove Harris’s assertion: by speaking out against Islam. But that’s a possibility Mr. Savage has excluded from the start.
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.
This is convenient quoting, not to say quote mining. Check the link for yourself.
Guilt by association is a recurring theme in the rhetoric of the “anti-Islamism but pro-Islam” left. That might be a cosmetic point, but Sam Harris has made clear he would gladly include himself in the people who, based on looks, should be suspected of being a jihadist more easily than an Asian five-year old girl or a white grandpa in a wheelchair.
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.”
Mr. Savage had been careful up to that point, but here he’s jumped the shark. An image of “Muhammad’s head attached to a ticking time bomb” is apparently racist. If you want a plausible reason as to why one might compare the Koran to Mein Kampf, see here.
Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have all rejected the notion that there is anything racist about statements of this kind or the prescriptions that so often follow from them: “Muslims aren’t a race,” being by now a particularly worn phrase in the New Atheist rhetorical repertoire. Harris and Hitchens have also dismissed the term “Islamophobia” as a tool for silencing their arguments. According to the latter: “A stupid term — Islamophobia — has been put into circulation to try and suggest that a foul prejudice lurks behind any misgivings about Islam’s infallible ‘message.’”
Given that “race” is an entirely social construct, with a history that involves the systemic racialization of various national, ethnic, and religious minorities, this defense is extremely flimsy. The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.
Only the last sentence here is not pure white noise, and its arguments have been addressed above.
If its imperialism and racism aren’t enough, New Atheism’s intellectual foundations are also exceptionally weak. Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.
Another pet talking point of the critics of New Atheism. Let’s see how it’s argued for here.
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.
So wrong it hurts. Go to YouTube. Search for Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. Knock yourself off.
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. As Terry Eagleton puts it in a discussion of God is Not Great:
“Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn’t have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.”
Except for extremist wackos, it seems as though religious believers, or apologists for religions, can’t be bothered to argue in defense of the foundational texts of religion. It goes along the lines of: “Word of God? C’mon, Mr. Harris, no one really believes that!”
Contrary to the crude epistemology of rational scientism, religions are not rigid “doctrines” that followers obey uniformly, regardless of their social or material contexts. As Seymour has written:
Religion is a labour of interpretation, of symbolic and ideological production from which agents derive meanings adequate to their life circumstances. Apart from anything else, the sheer indeterminacy of religious texts would make it impossible for there to be a literal, consistent meaning present in the texts: interpretation is [indispensable].
Here I can’t not point out that it seems like very tough luck that the most revered books on Earth are ones for which “interpretation is indispensable”, something which is rarely said of any other book. How inconvenient and regrettable indeed, is it that the books around which most of people are urged to organise their lives are so unclear and open to interpretation! It’s amazing to see how far apologists are willing to go to blur lines and negate definitions.
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.
The ways in which the New Atheism serves imperialism are manifold. It bolsters the “clash of civilizations” narrative used to justify ventures like the invasion of Iraq and the need for repressive measures like state surveillance.
Moreover, in presenting itself as a disinterested defense of reason, it lends such arguments a credibility they would lack in the hands of commentators from the political or cultural right.
For Mr. Savage, it seems that if you happen to agree, even superficially, with the right, you shouldn’t bother using arguments. You’re wrong by definition.
Finally, it shifts the focus from the social ills wrought by unjust economic arrangements to an external singularity called “religion.”
As argued by Christopher Hitchens, you can’t do much against poverty until you start giving women control on their reproductive cycle, something against which all religions have always violently campaigned.
Beneath its superficial rationalism, then, the New Atheism amounts to little more than an intellectual defense of empire and a smokescreen for the injustices of global capitalism. It is a parochial universalism whose potency lies in its capacity to appear simultaneously iconoclastic, dissenting, and disinterested, while channeling vulgar prejudices, promoting imperial projects, and dressing up banal truisms as deep insights.
Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins may masquerade as intellectual insurgents, leading a crusade against the insipid tolerance of liberal politics. But ultimately they are apologists for some of its most destructive tendencies.
That is, thankfully, the end of Mr. Savage’s piece. The next source is supposed to support the notion that jihad is “in fact about geopolitics”. I wanted to take it “front to back”, but it’s such a hatchet piece I won’t waste my time with it. Its writer, Sean McElwee, blurs the line between strawmaning one’s opponents’ positions and flat out lying. More often than not, he’s happy to go with the second possibility. I would spend much more time and energy writing about Mr. McElwee’s lies than I would trying to refute his arguments, so I’ll pass. I also wanted to address CJ Werleman’s Salon piece, but it’s so badly written the only think I can concentrate on while reading it is “Now I know why he plagiarised people, his own prose is so bad it makes me cringe”.
The only thing I learned while reading these pieces was that the fear of a Muslim demographic takeover of Europe is ill-founded. As a New Atheist myself, I’ll unapologetically say that this is great news. Let’s encourage the children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants to leave their faiths, and to join in the building and strengthening of a society in which the rights women, free thinkers and homosexuals are affirmed and upheld. To drive my point home, I’ll close by quoting a YouTube comment I’ve recently made:
I don’t care what skin colour Europeans will have in a fifty or a hundred years. I care what kind of “software” they’ll have “running” on their brains. I want it to be centred on humanism, freedom and secularism. I don’t want it to be any religion or facile, “one size fits all” ideology. I think Muslim immigrants who come to Europe should be clearly told that our ancestors didn’t tame Christianity for us to surrender to Islam only a few decades/centuries later.