Harris v. Greenwald: Is there an Anti-Islam Bias in New Atheism?

In any war

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.

It started over a series of articles in the media claiming the “New Atheists” exhibit bigotry in their attacks on Islam. The first salvo in this attack came from Nathan Lean at Salon:

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? Continue reading

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