Following my post about Dawkins’ strange take on what constitutes racism, a friend asked me why Islam was a major target of New Atheists. The answer is strangely complicated but, fortunately, overlaps with one of my projects to map out a history of New Atheism.
Before jumping to the complicated answer, we have to show why we should reject the simple answer: Islam is a major religion; New Atheists criticise all religions; so therefore New Atheists criticise Islam.
Of the four largest world religions, Islam and Christianity are the two which are routinely attacked by New Atheists. The next two largest religions, Buddhism and Hinduism are rarely mentioned. This isn’t an equal opportunity hosing down of religions. There’s something else that is making Islam and Christianity the major targets.
Christianity is easiest to explain: historically, it is the religion which has attracted the opposition from atheists. Indeed, it’s difficult to understand the centuries-long history of atheism without reference to Christianity. (SPOILERS: By the end of this blog post, we’ll see that New Atheism isn’t actually engaged in this history.)
But Islam doesn’t have a similar history. From the example of Christianity (the reasons are socio-political and historical), we should expect the reason for New Atheism’s response to Islam.
To uncover that reason, we need a solid understanding of what New Atheism is and how it works. We can then see what features of Islam cause it to be of particular interest to New Atheists.
Atheism itself has a long and complicated history combining two different projects. The first project is the epistemic: am I justified in claiming that I do not believe in God? The more famous advances in this area have been attacks on the justification of religious belief (for example, the Problem of Evil), but the really exciting stuff is in positive arguments in favour of atheism. Even if it’s true that there is no God, am I justified in lacking a belief in God? If it’s true that there is a God, am I still justified?
The second project is all but dead in Anglophone philosophy: the social project. Religious institutions, organisations, and customs have historically had tremendous influence over society (and still do); what does the world look like when we shed those institutions? Can we move from our current society towards a ‘secular’ society? What does it mean for something to be ‘secular’? Is a pluralist society preferable to a secular society? The most famous exposition of this project is often misunderstood as part of the first project: ‘God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. — And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.’
Whatever credit we might give to the brilliance of atheist thinkers of the past, equal credit must be given to the theologians. Without the constant refinements and corrections in theology, atheism would not have become as sophisticated as it was. Similarly, a lot of credit for the development of Christian theology goes to the doubters and the skeptics. It was a mutually beneficial relationship where the best theologians engaged with the best ‘atheologians’.
By and large, this conversation was not held in the mainstream. Away from the cloisters and ivory towers, ordinary folk came up with their own reasons for believing or disbelieving. What care did they have for the inaccessible scribblings of the grey beards? You believed in God because your dad did. You knew that God didn’t exist because you were a free-thinking rebel who bucked authority.
The last few centuries have been marked by the tendency amongst the religious to reject the authority of the institutions. The most dramatic rejection, of course, was Protestantism’s removal of the clerical collar from the priest and to clasp it around the throat of the layman. The US took to this approach like nowhere else. It spoke to their ideals of individuality and liberty. The US ended up being a smorgasbord of various religious positions. Although Methodists were happy to trust Baptists, and Lutherans were happy to break bread with Evangelicals, Roman Catholics were typically the ones left out of the loop.
So it’s no surprise that this is also the time when ideas previously rejected as being silly, childish, incoherent, or outright heretical come back into the discussion.
This gets us fairly quickly to the late 1800s and early 1900s. The biggest threat to the traditional social order is communism, which was also pushing a view of the atheist social project (following on from Feuerbach). The response to this threat was a slow burn over several decades: the inoculation against communism wasn’t a defence of capitalism (a system which was an easy target for the disenfranchised proletariat) but a reaffirmation of religion (which still appealed to the proletariat). Despite the firm belief in individualism and the separation of Church from State, the political war against communism was happy to coopt the relationship between the ordinary worker and their religious convictions. It is surprising how effective this was amongst the English speaking working classes, given the communists in Latin America were often devoutly religious.
So it didn’t matter precisely which breed of Protestantism was espoused just so long as it was espoused. In the 1950s, we get schools pushing Bible readings and prayer in classes, &c., &c., with the desire to secure the next generation against communist indoctrination.
The first set of belligerents in the anti-religion crusade did not include atheists. Instead, it was the Jewish community which objected to the move. In 1962, Engel v Vitale involved a Jewish family claiming that the compulsory prayer in public schools was a violation of the First Amendment. SCOTUS agreed. Two other cases quickly followed, one involving a Unitarian Universalist family and the other involving an atheist family.
The atheist family was the family of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who would end up founding American Atheists specifically for the purpose of ‘protecting’ the civil rights of non-believers in the United States. Far from being on the communist end of the spectrum, O’Hair’s activism was closer to the libertarians. Communist atheists weren’t threatening people’s civil liberties. Religious politicians were. She became the speech writer for Larry Flynt during his presidential campaign.
O’Hair would provide the blueprint for the public atheist blowhard. She didn’t really care about philosophy or big questions about faith (or non-faith). What she did care about was attacking religious groups through the courts and not being intimidated by the views of other people. The latter point influenced modern New Atheism more than anything else: stick to your views regardless of what anybody says and you’ll show that people can’t bully you into changing your views. Don’t worry about politeness because that’s the shield of the status quo. Don’t worry about understanding the arguments of people who disagree with you because they’re not worth knowing about.
Social historians love talking about how the 1960s and ’70s turned into the 1980s and ’90s. The groundswell of anti-authoritarianism and support for rejecting the Vietnam War somehow turned into the world of the corporatised and managerialised. In 1976, the US elected an evangelical Christian, Jimmy Carter, to be President. Much to the disappointment of traditional Christians, Carter didn’t oppose progressive causes such as access to abortion, &c., &c.
1979 becomes the key year in the religio-political landscape. In the United States, Jerry Falwell founded the ‘Moral Majority’ advocacy group. It raises funds for the express purpose of influencing politics. Meanwhile, in Queensland, Australia, Ken Ham founds Answers in Genesis, eventually spreading to the United States. These two organisations would completely change the way public Christianity was discussed. The Pope — distant, foreign, and Catholic — would no longer be seen as the mouthpiece of mainstream theology. These fringe organisations, on the other hand, would be.
Public atheism follows suit. In response to the rise of Creationism, Richard Dawkins publishes one of his best works, The Blind Watchmaker. Over in Australia, Philip Adams plays a similar game of trying to discredit the kooky Christians in Queensland. The project of engaging with the best available theology is disregarded. The important thing is to win the public debate.
This sort of atheism forms its rhetorical style in the manner of the rebel. Its enemy has the social power. It is outnumbered by its enemy. It will use every rhetorical device in its bag to win over the chattering classes. It’s not an intellectual game; it’s a popularity contest where both sides of the discussion sell books, go on speaking tours, and produce dinky little documentaries explaining their views.
But note its key features. The authority figure God and the State are trying to merge, thus the loudest atheists reject both and espouse inalienable (i.e. magic) civil rights. These aren’t the communist atheists of their grandparent’s childhoods. These are the new, savvy, politically conventional atheists.
During the 1980s and ’90s, this is the status quo. The best atheist thinkers are trying their best to flame the very least in religious thought. They argue that they are more at risk from these weirdoes than they are from the academic theologians who, by and large, are in Europe and aren’t inspiring social tensions.
Then September 11 happens.
Up until 2001, the target of pop atheist angst was Christianity. It was the menace that threatened the everyday goings on of ordinary atheists. Now, Muslims had emerged as a threat. The reason for the attacks, in the view of the pop atheist, was not politics or economics, but religion. Religion itself had caused Muslims to attack the West.
Up until 2001, Christopher Hitchens was mostly unknown to the broader public. Sure, he wrote curious little essays and odd little books, but outside the literary circles, he was all but invisible. September 11 changed that and was the single most profitable moment in Hitchens’ life. When the two towers went down, pop atheists were awakened to the other religious forces living alongside them: Muslims and these Muslims were foreign and these Muslims would never fit in.
The quick shift in target followed Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith. Published in 2004, it’s incoherent babble but it panders to the intuitions of the atheists who were absorbed in the ‘Boo! Christianity!’ campaigns of the 1980s and ’90s. The book proved that there was a market for these kinds of ideas, no matter how incompetently expressed. Richard Dawkins published a book and a documentary about how terrible religion is in 2006. Hitchens followed in 2007.
None of the books engage with the history of Islam, but they reflect an attempt to characterise the threat that Islam poses to ordinary, clear-minded atheists. For these guys, the three Muslims in a grainy video calling for the death of Anglophones isn’t an extreme form of Islam, but Islam itself. It’s an Islam without history, context, or philosophy.
Where atheists were previously responding to an existing feature of their political landscape (Christians with power), they attempted to use the same rhetoric against the Muslims who were either already here or were migrating to the West.
Atheists and Christians have tended to have similar levels of social standing within society. Bertrand Russell, for example, could be an outspoken atheist and not have to worry about somebody trying to shut him out of the debate. Atheists could always give as good as they got.
Since the early 1900s, Muslims have tended not to have similar levels of social standing within Western society. When the rhetoric previously used to attack Christians was turned against Muslims, it was akin to the school bully wailing on the unpopular kid. New Atheists wanted Christians to take their religious views out of the public debate — invoking childish understandings of the word ‘secular’ — but they expressed their distrust of Islam in terms of ‘them bringing their religion here’. The rhetoric lined them up rather distressingly with the racists and bigots. Waves of Muslims bringing their culture. Thus, Pat Condell and Geert Wilders have their views praised by mainstream New Atheists. Why? Because they’re fundamentally saying the same thing. Muslims are an external threat to the society that we’ve already got.
Far from being an intellectual moment in the progress of atheism, New Atheism is about gut reactions and intuitions. Even if the radical Muslim involved is a third generation Briton, her Islamic views don’t belong in England. Why? Intuitively, Islam belongs somewhere in the East. Secularism will happen when there are no more references to God in public life. Why? Intuitively, the difference between secular and religious is the word ‘God’ and nothing more. &c., &c., &c.
So why don’t New Atheists target Hindus or Buddhists? Because they’ve never threatened the comfortably white world of the New Atheist. Buddhists and Hindus can have all the wars they like out in East Asia, just so long as they don’t bring it Here.
It is worth noting that academic atheism is taking an interesting turn. My thesis was in the philosophy of religion (despite being an atheist), but the number of references to material produced within the past twenty years was very slight. The academics are turning their interest to working out, conceptualising, and analysing the mainstream public debates. As the books produced from the activity are dense and subtle, there isn’t much of a market for them. Thus, we result in a bit of an historical joke. Feuerbach wrote about the way Christianity created and projected an image to which to respond. Now, merely a century and a half later, we see atheism doing the self same thing. Create and project an image of the religious nasties of the world in order to have something against which to rebel.
Thus the final question: how do you get rid of New Atheism when it is so profitable and so useful in protecting traditional power structures? I don’t know.
- Religion, Atheism And Secularism (ramyabdeljabbar.wordpress.com)
- Arab atheism (angryarab.net)
- Why the Antipathy for Richard Dawkins Isn’t Fair. (thevespertine.org)
- How to Be an Atheist Without Being a Dick About It – Jezebel (atheistassessment.wordpress.com)
- Is Moderate, Rational Atheism a Fallacy? (hebrewhutong.wordpress.com)
- When you’re high, you never want to come down… On @RichardDawkins and Race #atheism #racism (onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com)
- Richard Dawkins does it again: New Atheism’s Islamophobia problem (salon.com)