A dangerous Enlightenment myth that the world can be ‘cured’ of religion underpins this pro-war anti-Islamic movement
Whenever I use the term “New Atheism”, I'm invariably asked, “What is that and what is old atheism?” So allow me to clarify.
Wikipedia defines New Atheism as a “social and political movement” that advocates the view that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticised, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says it’s specifically the anti-religious views ascribed by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
When I think of New Atheism I think of a post-9/11 reactionary, anti-religious movement that proactively seeks to eradicate religion, wherever and whenever it can find it.
New Atheists have internalised Hitchen’s famous subtitle, “religion poisons everything,” which is a belief based on feeling rather than fact. In simpler terms, New Atheism is the belief that religion is the root of most or all of the world’s problems. A specious belief, indeed, given the last 100 years produced the mass slaughters of World War I and II, colonialism, Communism, imperialism, Korea, Vietnam and the Iraq war - all of which had nothing to do with religion.
It’s important to discern between atheism and New Atheism, because atheism, on its own, is a non-positive assertion. My atheism, for instance, means I believe there are no gods. Atheism is ambivalent to whether or not gods and religion are bad or good. Once an atheist steps outside of that prism, however, and embraces the aforementioned definitions of New Atheism, then one ceases to be an atheist. One is then an anti-theist.
New Atheists are particularly fixated on Islam. “New Atheists have flirted with and at times vigorously embraced irrational anti-Muslim animus,” writes Glenn Greenwald. Why is Greenwald’s assertion so irrefutably true? New Atheists are entirely wedded to the “clash of civilizations” narrative.
New Atheists are locked in a Western civilisation rape-and-rescue fantasy. New Atheists believe they’re the anointed saviours of the uncivilised East. That they’re the morally righteous Western liberators of the “dark continent.” In other words, they’re on a non-divine mission to save Eastern women from dark men. “The rape-and-rescue fantasy catalyses the narrative role of the Western liberator as integral to the colonial rescue fantasy,” writes Ella Shohat in an essay titled 'Gender in Hollywood’s Orient.'
This rape-and-rescue fantasy has New Atheists and Islamic terrorists locked in a symbiotic relationship. Both al-Qaeda and New Atheism cannot exist without the other. New Atheist propaganda declares, “We are at war with Islam.” Al-Qaeda propaganda says, “See, the West has declared war on Islam.” In turn, they each serve as the other’s best recruitment tool.
Popular New Atheist Ayaan Ali Hirsi, for instance, is the keynote speaker for this year’s American Atheist convention. Her name is guaranteed to drive up ticket sales among enthusiastic New Atheists. Why? She once urged for a military war against Islam - not against Islamic extremism but Islam itself, and expressed sympathy for Islamophobic mass murderer Anders Breivik. The feting of Hirsi as a voice of “reason” among New Atheists underscores the bigoted overtures of the entire New Atheist movement.
Like religious fundamentalists, New Atheists are locked in magical thinking. “If we can just educate and manipulate” enough religious believers to our way of thinking - the “truth” - then the world will be made perfect - our problems will disappear. It’s the psychosis of utopian dreams. It’s the great and dangerous myth of the Enlightenment. A myth that “taught our physical and social environment could be transformed through rational and scientific manipulation,” writes Chris Hedges. “This belief in rational and scientific manipulation of human beings to achieve a perfect world has consigned millions of hapless victims to persecution and death.”
These utopian dreams gave us scientific racism, the pogroms, Nazi and Communist sterilisation programmes, and the anti-religious slaughters of the 20th century.
New Atheists, who are predominantly white, middle-class suburbanites, are wrapped up in the exaltation of themselves. They are unable to appreciate difference or that people amount to more than a one-dimensional cartoon caricature as defined by the worst aspects of their religious texts. If the Bible says, “Stone an adulterer to death,” then all Christians are reduced to stone-throwing adultery punishers. If the Quran says, “Wage war on the unbelievers,” then all Muslims are war-mongering atheist killers.
Moreover, New Atheists are fundamentally opposed to the idea religion can inspire people to do good things, which is why both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins ridicule and diminish Dr Martin Luther King’s faith. In their minds, and despite the fact Dr King had many times declared he was inspired by the New Testament’s social gospel, Dawkins and Harris contend he was inspired, instead, by secular humanistic ideals. New Atheists also make similar dubious claims about the religiosity of Gandhi, Muhammad Ali (“No Vietnamese ever called me nigger”), and so on.
Exaltation of self is also the underlying reason why New Atheists are blind to state violence. They’re blind to the fact non-state violence is always a response to state violence. They engage in double standards: non-state violence is barbaric and savage, whereas state violence, our violence, is rational, humane and reasonable.
This self-exaltation manifests itself into dangerous and hypnotic missions. This is where the rape-and-rescue fantasy materialises into a call for violence. Both Hitchens and Harris campaigned for the Iraq war, which not only led to the deaths of 200,000 Iraqi civilians, but also created the resentments on which the terrorists feed. These resentments unleashed the Boston bombers, the Sydney gunman and the Paris attackers. Harris called the invasion a “humanitarian mission”, said torture in the war on terror may be “ethically necessary,” and supports racial profiling, while Hitchens believed military occupation of Iraq would bring about a “world ruled by reason and virtue.”
Self-exaltation is why New Atheists do not seek to investigate the Other. In their minds, religion is evil; therefore evil acts are motivated by religion. In the hours following the Paris attacks, Dawkins tweeted, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but I don’t need to tell you the religious faith of the terrorists.” In Dawkins’ mind, terrorism starts and stops with Islam. Case closed. Not only is Dawkins’ evidently unaware “terrorism” is an arbitrary term (we don’t ascribe the term to state violence or our own violence), but he demonstrates his unwillingness to investigate the conditions that fuel terrorism: political grievances, resistance to occupation, crushing poverty, alienation, discrimination, revenge and helplessness.
Educated, predominantly white, and middle class, New Atheists live comfortably in the well-to-do suburbs of developed nations. They might experience the typical hardships that life too often hurls towards us, but they don’t know the despair realised in former Western colonies. They don’t know what it’s like to survive on less than $2 per day under a regime that crushes personal liberty and freedom. New Atheists don’t know what it’s like to be racially vilified, profiled by security agencies, tortured, bombed, occupied and imprisoned without trial. Nor do they know what it feels like to have absolutely no control over their future. Instead of seeking to understand the Other, or to put themselves in the Other’s shoes, New Atheists pontificate their material superiority.
The fixation on religion as the root of the world’s problems is completely at odds with reality. In fact, it’s utterly delusional. What is at fault in the Middle East is not Islam, but despotic, autocratic regimes that rule with the benefit of America’s patronage. What is at fault in the West is not Christianity but free-market fascism: free trade, mass pollution, climate change, income inequality, wealth disparity, racism and immigration overflow from countries that have descended into social chaos – many as a result of Western policies (free trade, climate change, war on terror and the drug war). And what is at fault in Israel is not Judaism - as many of Israel’s founding fathers and current leaders were or are atheists - but apartheid, land theft and humiliation of the Arab populace.
The rape-and-rescue fantasy blinds New Atheists to theses problems at home. It’s the “uncivilised” abroad who require saving by our Western civilisation evangelists, or so they say. The focus on social injustices carried out in Muslim majority countries goes hand-in-hand with the normalisation of the fact that 50 million Americans live in abject poverty, that nearly 20,000 Americans are killed each year by gun violence, and that America has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
I was a New Atheist. I am no longer. I’m now an old-fashioned, vanilla atheist. I lived in a Muslim majority country for a decade. I now live in the US. Having called both the East and the West home, I can assure you we treat life with no greater sanctity than those we bomb, drone, occupy and belittle. If anyone needs rescuing, it is most likely ourselves.
- CJ Werleman is an opinion writer for Salon, Alternet, and the author of Crucifying America, and God Hates You. Hate Him Back. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference (Mike Cornwell / Wikipedia Commons)