Sunday, December 7, 2014

New Atheism, the "war on terror" and Islamophobia

The second biggest motivation I had for starting this blog was the desire to address myself directly to disputes within the atheist community. Not because I think I necessarily have anything important to add, but because I think the disputes themselves are important, and we should all be discussing them together. The day before I founded "Not Another Atheist Blog", I posted to Facebook in response to "New Atheism, Old Empire" by Luke Savage, an article which appeared on the website of Jacobin magazine.

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.
I'm not favorably inclined toward the author's thesis, but I suggest reading the whole piece anyway. The charge it makes against the New Atheists is a very serious one, and it should be taken seriously. The "war on terror" and the imperialist geopolitics which drives it is destroying hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, and radicalizing thousands more to take up arms in the name of Islam. If the New Atheists are contributing to this problem, intentionally or otherwise, they need to stop that right now. 

On Facebook, I made what I thought were two important points which the author left out. First, the New Atheists (with the exception of the late Christopher Hitchens) are not supporters of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Second, New Atheism doesn't have a great deal of influence anyway. Each of the last four U.S. Presidents has initiated new rounds of attacks in Iraq, for example. Richard Dawkins is the not problem. I also question New Atheism's "utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics". Once again, this a charge we have to take very seriously, since one of the most basic principles of New Atheism is that ideas motivate behavior. If there's any connection between the ideas the New Atheists are pushing and the behavior of U.S. foreign policy, that connection must be severed.

But this is where it starts to get tricky. Is there a connection? What exactly does that mean? Sure, you could use arguments made by the New Atheists in books like Hitchens's "God Is Not Great" and Harris's "The End of Faith" to support U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. That is to say, you could construct an argument using premises from New Atheism and concluding with an endorsement of the "war on terror", but that's not to say it would be a good (valid, sound) argument. In my view, it would not. There's nothing any New Atheist has said which could ever justify the "war on terror". Is it fair to blame New Atheism if people use their ideas to construct lousy arguments to support policies they oppose?

Even if it isn't the fault of the New Atheists, it's a problem anyway, and one that they might be able to do something about, and the same is true when it comes to Islamophobia. Sam Harris can repeat until he's blue in the face that criticizing Islam is not the same thing as Islamophobia (and he's right, for all the good it does him). But there's no denying the appeal that criticisms of Islam have for Islamophobes. When Harris says "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas", that's not Islamophobia, but Islamophobes can repeat it just as easily as I can. Even worse, such strong rhetoric quite possibly contributes to the spread of Islamophobia. If people get Islamophobia from "The End of Faith", that's a problem whether Harris intended it that way or not.

I don't know where I picked up this argument, but one of my favorite bits of anti-theist rhetoric is to ask why God, having seen all the terrible things humans have done in His name, wouldn't come down and set everyone straight. For instance, if God really doesn't have a problem with queer people, why doesn't he confront His many followers who believe that He does? I certainly would if it were me. And if I had written "The End of Faith", I would do everything I could to make sure that Islamophobes don't think I'm on their side.

I don't share Luke Savage's criticisms of New Atheism, but I have criticisms of my own. New Atheists must do more than simply distance themselves from Islamophobia and the "war on terror". We must actively take up the fight against them both. We need to spend a little less time going after Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan and a lot more time going after Pam Gellar and Frank Gaffney. While continuing to support Muslim critics of Islam like Irshad Manji, Majid Nawaz and Malala Yousafzai, we must also support Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, a 15-year-old boy who was evidently murdered last week in Kansas City, Missouri, in what looks to me like an act of Islamophobic terrorism. Part of me hopes that if we were to do these things, we would be less often misunderstood and misrepresented, but that's not the most important concern. Islamophobia and the "war on terror" are wrong and extremely harmful. That's reason enough to oppose them.

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