A few weeks ago, a fight broke out between two heavyweights of the blogosphere: Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald. I respect both of them so didn’t want to have to choose sides. Harris, author of The End of Faith, etc., is one of the most formidable defenders of secularism and atheism, and Greenwald, formerly of Salon and now blogging for the Guardian, is a ferocious advocate for civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. They’ve been friendly en0ugh in the past to have each other’s private email addresses, apparently, which is where the fight began.
Until 9/11, Islam didn’t figure in the New Atheists’ attacks in a prominent way. As a phenomenon with its roots in Europe, atheism has traditionally been the archenemy of Christianity, though Jews and Judaism have also slipped into the mix. But emboldened by their newfound fervor in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the New Atheists joined a growing chorus of Muslim-haters, mixing their abhorrence of religion in general with a specific distaste for Islam (In 2009, Hitchens published a book called “God Is Not Great,” a direct smack at Muslims who commonly recite the Arabic refrain Allah Akbar, meaning “God is great”). Conversations about the practical impossibility of God’s existence and the science-based irrationality of an afterlife slid seamlessly into xenophobia over Muslim immigration or the practice of veiling. The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason. “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.”
Frankly, this strikes me as revisionist history if not an outright slur. It’s true that Harris’s The End of Faith was inspired by his revulsion against the religion (and religiosity) of the 9/11 attackers, and it’s also true that the appearance of his bestselling book in 2004 often marks the opening of the American mind (and media and bookstore shelves) to atheism. In fact, by 9/11/01, the new, more aggressive atheism had already been bubbling up to the sunlight from various backwaters of the Internet, particularly on Usenet groups like talk.origins, sci.skeptic and alt.atheism, since before 1995 when I first came into contact with it. Most of those atheists rose in response to Christian evangelicalism and creationism of the 1970s and 1980s, and I think it’s a virtual certainty that Christianity remains by far the most frequent target of most American atheists’ critiques, if only because, like most Americans in general, they still lack more than a rudimentary understanding of Islam.
After reading his article, I criticized Lean on Twitter for his broad brush slander of all new atheists as Islamophobe bigots. He denied the charge. He claimed “I never mention atheists in any general sense. I’m quite specific,” and pointed me to the third paragraph of his Salon piece:
The New Atheists, they are called, offer a departure from the theologically based arguments of the past, which claimed that science wasn’t all that important in disproving the existence of God. Instead, Dawkins and other public intellectuals like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens suffocate their opponents with scientific hypotheses, statistics and data about the physical universe — their weapons of choice in a battle to settle the scores in a debate that has raged since the days of Aristotle. They’re atheists with attitudes, as polemical as they are passionate, brash as they are brainy, and while they view anyone who does not share their unholier-than-thou worldview with skepticism and scorn, their cogitations on the creation of the universe have piqued the interest of even many believers. With that popularity, they’ve built lucrative empires. Dawkins and Harris are regulars in major publications like the New York Times and the Economist, and their books — “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins and “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Harris — top bestseller lists and rake in eye-popping royalties.
Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but I don’t see the clear distinction Lean claims he’s making between Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens and atheists at large. It looks like his distinction is between “New Atheists” and “past” atheists–in other words, like he is, in fact, accusing all Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens–influenced atheists of today (which is virtually all of us) of anti-Muslim bigotry. To me, it looks as though Lean is advancing a bit of a bigotry himself, against New (or new) atheists. If you’re making a charge against someone of thoughtless and unjustified condemnation of a group, shouldn’t you be very careful that your own words don’t render you guilty of the very same charge?
In any case, Lean’s sloppy attack was followed that weekend by a more sophisticated (if intellectually misleading) essay on Al-Jazeera English by Murtaza Hussain, “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists.” Its blurb makes explicit Hussain’s charge: “Leading figures in the new atheist movement are heirs to the disreputable scientific racists of the past. . . .” I call this misleading because Hussain’s asserted connection between phrenology and other racist mismeasures of humans in the 19th century and contemporary atheism is no more easy to prove than the connection creationists claim between Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism (which actually preceded Darwin’s Darwinism!) and evolutionary biology. There may be an atheist somewhere alive today who is influenced by 19th century scientific notions of race, but you can’t prove it just by the fact that New Atheism came after scientific racism chronologically. Nor does Hussain succeed in showing Harris’s influence by scientific racism merely by cherry picking quotes of his that only vaguely echo long-discredited racist writings of yesteryear. If you drill down a little into Harris’s pessimism about Islam’s ability to modernize and harmonize with the non-Islamic world, you’ll see that his ideas are influenced at least as much by a literalist (à la Qaeda) reading of the Quran and Hadith as by any Western writers on Islam.
Greenwald entered the ring when he sent out a tweet calling attention to Hussain’s essay “on the bigotry of the ‘New Atheists’, with a very revealing quote from Sam Harris.” The Harris quote in question comes from a 2006 op-ed of Harris’s in the LA Times: “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”
In their email exchange, Harris put the quote in context and explained what he was getting at:
I wasn’t making common cause with fascists—I was referring to the terrifying fact (again, back in 2006), that when you heard someone making sense on the subject of radical Islam in Europe—e.g. simply admitting that it really is a problem—a little digging often revealed that they had some very unsavory connections to Anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi, etc. hate groups. The point of my article was to worry that the defense of civil society was being outsourced to extremists.
It’s on this point that my sympathies start to swing more toward Greenwald in this debate.
It’s not surprising that Greenwald’s eye would have caught that provocative line about Europe’s fascists, not just because it’s certainly provocative but because it was the Bush-Cheney administration’s extreme overreaction to 9/11–the clampdown on civil liberties and stomping on the Constitution–that spurred Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer, to start blogging in the first place. He’s been at the forefront of public protest against the treatment of Muslims and Muslim Americans as “enemy combatants” deprived of all rights as citizens and prisoners of war. In an age when not just the politicians but often the people are inclined to give greater weight to security than liberty, I, for one, am grateful for Greenwald’s vigilance. I don’t view his courage to speak up for the rights of Muslims in detention as anything less than human rights advocacy. I certainly don’t view it as defense of religious liberty, which I truly believe to be of lesser import than defense of human dignity. And individuals’ dignity is something the strategists of the war on terror have been too eager to use as leverage in their quest for merely potential information of conspiracies.
As an atheist, I certainly have my own issues with Islam, as I do with any faith. Of course I agree with Harris that radical Islam is an unhealthy belief system for females, non-heterosexuals, and freethinkers. So is right-wing Christianity and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. What most bothers me about Islam in particular is the insistence of so many Muslims that alternative thinking about or mocking of the religion be taboo, even among those who aren’t Muslim. Which isn’t to say I think mocking Islam is a reasonable or wise (let alone intelligent) thing to do. I just think responding to hostility toward one’s beliefs with demands for punishment (often of people who have nothing to do with the “crime” in the first place) is pathetic–there’s no more polite way of phrasing it. And certain Muslims do frequently respond that way, as witness the spontaneous reactions to the Mohammad cartoon controversy in Europe, Koran desecration in Afghanistan and the Innocence of Muslims movie last fall.
But I don’t believe, as Harris seems to believe, that there’s something “wronger” with Islam than with any other religion. It seems crystal clear to me that much of what makes Muslims seem so irrational, hostile and uncivil toward the West has more to do with the centuries-old global politics of East v. West and North v. South than with Islam v. Judeo-Christianity. I’m not sure Harris gets that. In fact, Theodore Sayeed has suggested that Harris’s bias against Muslims is possibly the consequence of his being a Zionist, i.e., a staunch supporter of Israel, right or wrong. “For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their ‘reflexive solidarity’ with Arab suffering,” Sayeed writes, “Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work.”
I have to agree (mostly) with Greenwald’s assessment of where, precisely, Harris goes astray:
The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”
This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreed that “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We” – the civilized peoples of the west – are at war with “millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”
In sum, he sprinkles intellectual atheism on top of the standard neocon, right-wing worldview of Muslims. As this superb review of Harris’ writings on Israel, the Middle East and US militarism put it, “any review of Sam Harris and his work is a review essentially of politics”: because his atheism invariably serves – explicitly so – as the justifying ground for a wide array of policies that attack, kill and otherwise suppress Muslims. That’s why his praise for European fascists as being the only ones saying “sensible” things about Islam is significant: not because it means he’s a European fascist, but because it’s unsurprising that the bile spewed at Muslims from that faction would be appealing to Harris because he shares those sentiments both in his rhetoric and his advocated policies, albeit with a more intellectualized expression.
Where I disagree with Greenwald (and many of the other Harris critics piling on) is that I take Harris at his word that he is “liberal” (despite many contrarian positions he holds; in addition to his apparently Zionist-infused attitudes toward the Middle East, he also is a passionate defender of gun ownership, even in the wake of Newtown). Furthermore, while it’s clear that Harris and Hitchens and apparently even Dawkins are likely guilty of overemphasizing the dangers of Islam vis-à-vis all other religions (and under-emphasizing the political nature of much of the Muslim world’s antagonisms toward the West), I can’t buy that this is a fault inherent in “New Atheism” unless by that (upper case) term one is specifically referring to the self-appointed leaders of the (lower-case) new atheism movement of which I and millions of others consider ourselves members. (We atheists have called those specific persons, including Tufts University-based philosopher Daniel Dennet, The Four Horsemen. No one seems to be including Dennet in this crowd of allegedly Islamophic atheists, however, probably because Dennet is an old-fashioned, gentlemanly New England liberal who is sparing with his invective. )
I’ve spent a lot of words on this subject because the disagreement between these two was troubling to me. After starting this post several weeks ago when the feud was fresh, I hesitated to continue, being not totally sure what good my two cents would do to the debate, or even to my own thinking about atheism and Islam.
Then the Boston marathon explosions occurred, I saw the old shit from post-9/11 being stirred up again, and I wondered if my fellow Americans were becoming as sick of that mind set as I have become. And I realized that the unwelcome rift between two of my favorite thinkers in the world today gave me an opportunity to explore exactly what it was about the knee-jerk Islamaphobia Boston stirred up that disgusted me, a sentiment I share with Glenn Greenwald, by looking at it through the filter of the atheism I share with Sam Harri.
I’d like to say more about what this rift has had me thinking about relevant to post-Boston 4/15. Mercifully, I’ll have to say it in another post.
- Islam is a bossy domineering sexually warped abusive misogynist sack of shit (choiceindying.com)
- Criticism of Islam Is Not ‘Islamophobia’ (patheos.com)
- Playing the “Islamophobia” card (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Sam Harris and ‘New Atheists’ Upset that their Anti-Muslim Animus is Being Scrutinized (loonwatch.com)
- Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris face Islamophobia backlash (independent.co.uk)
- The Scientific Racism Of The New Atheists (homebrewedtheology.com)