This week, we have been treated to something almost entirely absent in the broader atheist discussion: dissent. When Jeff Sparrow wrote that progressive atheists were disconcertingly quiet in response to the nasty streak of neo-con Islamophobia amongst New Atheists, the comment section went wild.
Despite stating, in no uncertain terms, that “[i]n Australia, the most prominent local atheists […] are, to various degrees, associated with progressive politics”, atheist readers could see nothing but an unmitigated attack on them and their beliefs. Dr David Horton wondered “how [Sparrow’s] tarring-all atheists-with-a-one-quote-from-Hitchens-broad-brush stands up to meeting actual, you know, atheists“. President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, Mr David Nicholls, thought the piece was “a marvellous display of quote mining, misrepresentation and downright misunderstanding about Atheism, all in one go“.
Reading through the responses, I became both saddened and frustrated. Atheists won’t get riled up about racism in their midsts, but they’ll go ape over criticism.
As both a conservative and an atheist, I have no doubt that Sparrow is correct. Having to confront on nearly a daily basis the xenophobia and racism of political leaders who are supposed to represent my political persuasion, it is nauseating to see the same traits among the most vocal advocates of my religious beliefs. For all the New Atheist rhetoric about how religion is for sheep, it is much easier to find Catholics speaking out against homophobia within the Church than it is to find atheists speaking out against the Islamophobia preached by prominent UK and US New Atheists.
There is no dissent within New Atheism. There is no room for it. If you don’t toe the party line, you’re either marginalised or you’re suspected of being a covert theist. I’ve often wondered to what extent this is due to market forces: would the Atheist Convention in Melbourne have been as successful if there had been dissenting voices? Would people pay to have their views challenged?
Sparrow’s article drew attention to the disease within New Atheism but – as correctly noted by some of the commentators – didn’t analyse why New Atheism seems to slide so easily into xenophobia and racism. In fairness to him, Sparrow wasn’t trying to analyse the resultant xenophobia of atheology; had he turned his mind to it, I have no doubt he wouldn’t have found it a taxing task.
First, there’s the lack of diversity within New Atheist culture. The profile of the most internationally outspoken atheists is not insignificant: they’re old; they’re white; and (overwhelmingly) they’re male. Dr Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, argues “that New Atheism’s dominance by elite white males from the scientific community does not serve the broader interests of non-theist people of color. In order to make atheism and secular humanism relevant to people of color, our communities’ specific needs in a racist, sexist, heterosexist global context must be assessed.” It is hardly surprising that in a monoculture, intolerance festers.
Second, there is the stillborn debate between secularists and pluralists within modern atheist dialogues. Earlier this month on New Matilda, Adam Brereton argued in favour of secularism. After arguing that religion has no place in our schools or public debate, Brereton asserts that “secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church.” Although he doesn’t use the phrase, it seems that Brereton is an advocate of freedom from religion.
Contrariwise, atheists could argue in favour of freedom of religion: where public discussion is flavoured by all kinds of religious (and non-religious) viewpoints. Religious education in schools, for example, would be less about forcing children to accept particular religious beliefs and more about teaching them how to elucidate and discuss their religious beliefs. This viewpoint is called ‘pluralism’.
Secularism is currently the unofficial orthodox position of the New Atheist congregation, and it’s not clear why. Why should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) to pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in the public debate)?
Third, there are the unexamined cultural assumptions of New Atheism. New Atheism is less <i>secular</i> than it is <i>disbelieving Christianity</i>. Although they’ve crossed out the word ‘God’ and question the historical accuracy of Jesus, they’ve imported all the existing cultural values and dubbed it ‘universal’. Nowhere is this seen most than in how the secularist panacea of “Keep religion where it belongs” is applied in different ways to different groups. To Christians, this means ‘in Church’. To Muslims, this invariably means ‘Back in your home country (unless you were born here)’.
Finally, there’s the “Otherness” factor. Atheists are finally in the position where they understand (fundamentalist) Christianity. The internet has cracked the nut wide open. Where the atheists of the glorious past were engaging in the problems of mainstream, orthodox Christianity, New Atheism is chiefly concerned with the nutbag, backwater Christianity which ‘predicts’ the apocalypse and thinks that Noah rode around on a triceratops. New Atheists are, by and large, stone ignorant about Islam, considering it to be a pseudo-Mediaeval attack on their ‘universal’ values. Until we have equal representation of atheists from Islamic backgrounds, this won’t change.