The New Atheists are ruining it for the rest of us

Bill Maher and his ilk use atheism to mask their bigotry
Photo: Wally Gobetz

“It’s gross, it’s racist, it’s disgusting” was Ben Affleck’s outraged reaction to host Bill Maher and guest Sam Harris’ sweeping generalizations about what they referred to repeatedly as “the Muslim world” on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher last month.

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In an interview on CNN, Iranian-American media commentator and scholar of religious studies Reza Aslan followed up on Affleck’s remarks by describing the views expressed by Maher and Harris as “not very sophisticated,” “the definition of bigotry” and “frankly stupid.”

These are just the latest reactions to a controversial philosophical movement, referred to as the New Atheism. It’s a movement for which Harris and Maher — along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens — have become unofficial spokespeople.

The New Atheists are distinct in that they are not simply promoting a philosophical position about the non-existence of supernatural forces and the material basis of existence. Rather the emphasis of their argument is on illustrating that religion is fundamentally harmful and that religious people are essentially dupes with infantile and magical beliefs. Many of the New Atheists such as Maher and Harris also argue that of all the world’s religions, Islam is particularly harmful and violent.

Progressive critiques of the New Atheists have focused not only on the bigotry of their sweeping generalizations about religion and religious people (with particular emphasis on their Islamophobia), but also on the ways that their certainty about the false beliefs of others mimics the outlook of the most devout religious fundamentalists. A critique by Amanda Marcotte in Salon last month also exposed the misogynist views expressed by some of New Atheism’s apostles.

For progressive atheists who do not want to be associated with bigoted anti-religious zealotry, the New Atheists present a unique problem. This is due to the growing ubiquity of New Atheist views. They have crowned themselves the spokespeople for all atheists, and because their views are so incendiary the media has been all too happy to assist in their coronation. The problem for progressive atheists is that as the New Atheists have come to dominate all public discussion about atheism, they are giving all atheists a bad name.

What does it mean to be a progressive atheist? To embrace an atheism that is reflective of more inclusive, politically progressive values? What follows are a few suggestions. This is not intended as an exhaustive list but rather as the beginning of a discussion aimed at reclaiming space for a progressive form of atheism in the public discourse.

Avoid generalizations about religion

Perhaps the most common criticism of the New Atheists is that they paint all religious people with the same fundamentalist brush. This was illustrated well by Maher’s documentary Religulous, which attempted to reduce all religious experience to beliefs in talking snakes and other such magical occurrences.

The problem with such views is that they are completely ignorant of the diversity of religious experience that exists in our world. Zen Buddhism, for example, is an entire religious tradition devoid of supernatural beliefs and hostile to dogma of any kind. While the Christian tradition has produced the Westboro Baptist Church that pickets the funerals of those who have died of HIV-related illnesses, it has also produced the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco, which was one of the only support centres for San Francisco’s gay community in the earliest days of the HIV crisis. The religion of the Taliban is also the religion of Malala Yousafzai. While religion has served as justification for many of the wars that have been fought, it has also served as justification for many of the world’s most liberatory social movements: from Gandhi’s struggles against British colonialism, to the US civil rights struggle as articulated by both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, to the movement organized out of Saskatchewan’s churches that would result in Canada’s adoption of universal health care.

This is not to say that we should abstain from criticizing specific religious practices that are oppressive. This is out of the question. What we must avoid, however, is the suggestion that such oppressive practices are representative of an entire tradition or religion as a whole. To do so is to agree with the fundamentalists who hold that their backwards literalist interpretations of religious texts are the true interpretations. To do so is also to turn our backs on the courageous efforts of progressive reformers within each of the major religious traditions working to make these traditions instruments of liberation rather than oppression.

Acknowledge imperialism

Much of the New Atheist critique of religion is focused on radical Islam. For the New Atheists radical Islam is a strictly religious problem: they commit the terrible acts they do because they are motivated by Islam.

The reality is not so simple. In nearly every example of radical Islam one can think of, there is a broader context of imperialism at play. Would Iran be an Islamic state today had we in the West not overthrown the democratic socialist Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and installed the Shah? Would Boko Haram exist today had the British not created a country of entrenched ethnic hatreds by denying Nigerians in the Muslim North the many privileges they were granting Nigerians in the Christian South? Would the Wahabist monarchy of Saudi Arabia be in power today without the support the West has provided it for decades? When it comes to acts of terrorism, the reality is that while religion is used to justify such acts, the motivation to commit them is often more political than religious — a fact borne out by recent studies on the motivations of would-be suicide bombers.

It is easy to characterize the rise of radical Islam as an exclusively religious affair. This only requires us to point a finger at others. Acknowledging the fact that Western imperialism has also played a role in its emergence is much more difficult, as it requires us to look in the mirror and ask difficult questions about our own behaviour.

Learn from the masters

Fortunately for those repulsed by the intolerant, combative and chauvinistic approach of the New Atheists, atheism as a philosophical tendency offers a rich intellectual history to explore.

In doing so one is immediately struck by just how different some of the great atheist philosophers are from today’s New Atheists. For example, Nietzsche’s declaration that “god is dead” ushered in a worldview where the individual became radically responsible for both self and society. To live without god was to accept the difficult and uncomfortable task of self-reflection.

There is little to no self-reflection in the writings of the New Atheists. It is not up to them to change their minds. Like religious fundamentalists, the New Atheists believe that it is only by others changing their views that the world can be saved from ruin.

The French existentialists picked up on Nietzsche’s theme of radical responsibility. In suggesting that “existence precedes essence” Sartre was essentially asserting that there was no soul or supernatural essence underlying our existence; instead, who we are is a product of the interaction between the material conditions of our existence (“facticity”) and our individual choices. Whereas the New Atheists externalize evil in religion and particularly the religion of Islam, the existentialists recognized that evil dwells within the hearts of all humans and is made manifest by our choices. This was expressed by Dr. Rieux in Camus’ novel The Plague when he states, “Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.”

Even Marx, who famously described religion as the “opiate of the masses,” had a very different articulation of atheism than the New Atheists. To begin with, Marx did not see religion as the root of all evil. That role was reserved exclusively for capitalism. In fact, Marx saw religion as an essentially malleable phenomenon: it could be used by the ruling classes to justify their exploitative projects, and it could be used by the working classes to soothe their suffering along with their revolutionary fervour.

Ironically on this point Marx bears a far greater resemblance with those who have been publicly debating the New Atheists than with any of the New Atheists themselves. In his recent New York Times op-ed, Reza Aslan echoed a very similar point about the malleability of religion:

It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.

Contrasting the views of the New Atheists with their philosophical predecessors illustrates that their atheism is no different than religion. Progressive atheists therefore need to consciously choose to embrace an atheism that is reflective of politically progressive values and reject articulations, such as those of the New Atheists, that are not.

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