Monday, July 6, 2015

New Atheism, Old Jacobins

On the morning of December 2nd, 2014, I woke up to find many of my activist friends sharing a recent article from Jacobin Magazine on social media. The piece, written by one Luke Savage, was titled New Atheism, Old Empire and featured the provocative subtext “The ‘New Atheists’ have gained traction because they give intellectual cover to Western imperialism.” As an atheist and leftist activist who is very strongly opposed to imperialism, not to mention one who has become increasingly disappointed in some of the public statements of New Atheist spokesmen such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I decided to give the article a chance.

Calling itself the “leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture,” Jacobin has posted a lot of very laudable articles questioning the Washington Consensus that American corporate capitalism is and always will be the leading economic force on the planet. Naturally, as a regular reader of Jacobin, I was curious what they would make of the so-called “New Atheists.” Unfortunately, I was very disappointed in Savage’s piece. Since last December, in my interactions in online activist circles, I’ve often seen this article passed around, often in an attempt by left wing activists to distance themselves from the New Atheist movement.
In short, Savage’s argument can be broken down to the following:

  • New Atheists’ criticisms of Islam tend to lend support to American Imperialist interventions.
  • New Atheists’ criticisms of Islam are wrong as they primarily come from people who are unfamiliar with the religion and its history.
  • New Atheists are a club only for rich, white, old men.
  • New Atheist opposition to religion misses the point that most people do not believe their Holy Books are literally true.
  • New Atheist critiques of religion ignore important societal factors such as socio-economics which have more of an impact on world events than religion. 

It is important to point out the overall fallacy Savage is committing here, ironically the same one he accuses the New Atheists of committing towards the religious: The assumption that because certain members of a group say one thing, then all people in that group are in agreement. One of the reasons New Atheism is unique as a movement is that it is in part more of a culture than a movement. There are no defined goals and no defined platform. There is no Pope of New Atheism. New Atheism tends to consist of a wide variety of people who all have an interest in building atheist communities and protecting the rights of atheists from religious threats. There are New Atheists from the right-libertarian tendencies of Penn Jillette, all the way to the anarcho-socialism commonly found in the college affiliates of the Secular Student Alliance. The conflation of all New Atheists as being simple followers of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris is highly misleading.
Thus, while Hitchens and Harris may have said outrageously Islamophobic comments, that is entirely a different question to whether or not Islamophobia is central to New Atheism. And I would argue it is not. Numerous New Atheists, from Dawkins, to PZ Myers, to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, all condemned American Imperialism in the Middle East. Even Hitchens was careful to state in his works that he did not support discrimination against Muslims. It is one thing to criticize a religion’s philosophical points. It is something entirely different to engage in bigoted attacks against all members of that religion. Prominent New Atheist Greta Christina made it explicitly clear in her work Why Are You Atheists So Angrythat she was not attacking the people who are religious; in fact, she views them as victims. There is a line between criticizing an idea and criticizing the people who profess that idea. Disagreement is not intolerance.
Of course, even this attitude is viewed by Savage as being patronizing. New Atheists falsely view themselves as trying to save people from the irrationality of religion, when in fact religion is not irrational at all. He quotes prominent critic of New Atheism Terry Eagleton:
“Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn’t have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.”
Thus, atheists miss the point when they read the scriptures; religion is not meant to be interpreted literally. Yet Savage and Eagleton betray their own fundamental misunderstanding of religion here. It is of course true that not everyone interprets his or her religious book as being entirely inerrant. But religious fundamentalism is a powerful force. These books are said to have been written or inspired by God; how could they truly be simple books of metaphors? They are the word of an omniscient being himself. The Bible and the Quran do not clarify within that they were meant to be read as either truth or metaphor. As such, there is no single interpretation, and for every person who gets one message out of scripture, another person is walking away with a completely different message. And one of the most popular interpretations has always been that, as the word of God, the holy books are literally true and inerrant.
Savage also criticizes New Atheists for over-associating world events with religion. Here he is effectively taking a Marxist historical materialist route: religion and similar ideologies do not impact world events, rather they are the “sigh of the oppressed creature; the opiate of the masses.” Of course, Savage’s school of historical materialism was effectively debunked a century after Marx by Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which Weber pointed out the importance Protestant religion, an idea, had on the material conditions of capitalism. Similarly, Savage ignores the importance religion has had in shaping social forces. Islam, while not the sole force driving terrorist actions from the Middle East, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the geopolitical situation when so many of the written words of Abrahamic scriptures correlate exactly with the actions of the terrorists. Material conditions and ideas impact one another greatly, and an attempt like Savage’s to reduce the world’s problems to being solely the province of one of these oversimplifies a complex issue. I, for one, prefer Richard Dawkins’ approach: when producing a documentary for the BBC on religion, Dawkins requested the name of his documentary be changed from “The Root of All Evil,” commenting that it was ridiculous to claim religion was the root of all evil. For all that he can be criticized on, Dawkins’ nuanced understanding of the complexities of religion and politics and how they relate to each other stands in stark contrast to the stale materialism of Savage and Marx.
Finally, Savage attacks New Atheism for its attempts to comment on a wide variety of cultures while lacking the diverse background necessary to do so. As he points out, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are all wealthy white men with little experience in Islam or the other religions they are criticizing. Here though, Savage seems to have mixed up the chicken and the egg. The media pays so much attention to Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins in part because they are rich white men. There are numerous female atheist activists and atheist activists of color. Rebecca Watson combines her feminist activism with New Atheism, while Greta Christina gives a similar take regarding gay rights and that movement’s relationship to religion. The former Muslims Heina Dadabhoy and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are also very prominent in New Atheist circles. Bria Crutchfeld has become increasingly prominent as a leader of the African American community of New Atheists. All of these people have wide followings; it is because the traditionally racially-biased media only pays attention to white men like Dawkins and Hitchens that their position in the movement is more visible than those of the women and people of color.
Ultimately, while atheists spend most of our time fighting the machinations of the religious right and its attempts to take over the government, we must remember that anti-atheist prejudice and fallacies can come from the left just as easily. Perhaps it is fitting that Jacobin Magazine published Luke Savage’s article. Jacobin’s name originates in the Jacobin Club, a radical group during the French Revolution. When the Montangard faction of the Jacobin Club, led by Maximillian Robespierre, came to power in the midst of the revolutionary Reign of Terror, they announced a ban on atheism. Following that, the many secular activists within the revolution found themselves suddenly locked up and sent to the guillotine. This kind of anti-atheist activity can seem appealing for revolutionary groups; atheists are a small, educated minority, much like the Jews in the early modern period. It can become easy to place blame for the oppression of the mostly religious masses upon the shoulders of these godless iconoclasts.
But, as an atheist and a leftist myself, I warn the left not to take this route. Atheists and anti-theists are not the enemies of the left; we are crusaders against social injustice and inequality just as socialists and feminists are. And the day when New Atheists and socialists make common cause to tear down the oppressive capitalist system which justifies its power through religious falsehoods could not come sooner for me.
Internal criticism of the New Atheist movement is sorely needed. But it is not needed from faux-leftists who regurgitate anti-atheist overgeneralizations. 

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