How Not to Argue Against the New Atheists


Of all the criticisms launched against New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, by far the most prevalent is that this type of nonbeliever is just so gosh darn mean. 

Such is the tone – and even more unimpressively, the substance – of Nathan Lean’s errant broadside against the New Atheists in a meandering column for Salon. Calling them the “new Islamophobes,” Lean constructs a straw man that weaves the New Atheists together with the likes of Pamela Geller, in which the atheists’ “invectives against Muslims resembl[e] the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.”

Where Lean goes wrong is his use of the phrase, “invectives against Muslims.” Anyone familiar with the writings of these men will know that their invectives are directed against Islam as a religion, and not Muslims themselves – save for those who have engaged in violent and destructive behavior, such as the 9/11 hijackers, an ayatollah who ordered a writer killed because he wrote a book disrespecting Islam, protesters who attacked embassies because somebody drew a cartoon mocking Muhammad, and other fanatics.  

Lean doesn’t make this distinction because he wants the reader to believe that the New Atheists aren’t any better than Geller and her demented disciples. If Lean seriously believes that for all intents and purposes there is no difference between Richard Dawkins and Pamela Geller when it comes to their attitudes toward individual Muslims, then his opinion warrants all the respect of a telemarketing pitch. 

Further, Lean’s assertion that the New Atheists’ critiques of religion sound like “uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason,” is simply nonsense.

Anyone who has read Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Harris’ The End of Faith, or other writings of theirs, or watched these men debate the best minds that theism has to offer, knows that this assessment is absurd. Each of these intellectuals has adroitly tackled the grand metaphysical questions at the heart of the god debate, as well as the dangerous real-world consequences that belief in revealed wisdom can have. 

Then, Lean clumsily takes aim at this tweet by Dawkins:

“Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.”

To which Lean asks, “How’s that for a scientific dose of proof that God does not exist?”

And later Lean says, “How the New Atheists’ anti-Muslim hate advances their belief that God does not exist is not exactly clear.”

This is total non sequitur. It doesn’t. When Lean implies that the New Atheists believe criticizing Islam is a case for nonbelief in god, he’s either being disingenuous or fatuous. 

But the most egregious offense that Lean commits is a sin of omission. In attacking Dawkins et al. for their criticisms of Islam, Lean completely ignores the question of whether their critiques actually have any merit – and with good reason. It does not take a sociologist to know that the more a country’s laws are influenced by religion, the more oppressive they tend to be. And as Nolan Kraszkiewicz points out, religiosity and bigotry tend to go hand in hand.

Lean does not engage the New Atheists’ claims about Islam’s track record because he knows that’s a losing battle. When it comes to women’s rights, gay rights, free speech, and matters of social equality in general, the predominantly Islamic Middle East is a wasteland of religious conformism and misogyny. Not surprisingly countries with majority Muslim populations regularly bring up the bottom in surveys measuring women’s rights. Regarding gay rights, there is no such thing. Speech is not free, but limited, and woe unto those in Muslim-dominated countries who blaspheme the Old Time Religion. 

Is this because Islam is morally “inferior” to say, Christianity? Hardly. For about 1,000 years the fervent followers of Christ ruled Europe during a time appropriately called the Dark Ages. It was a time of ignorance, fear, oppression, misogyny, misery, and holy wars. That time is over, not because Christianity got better, but because it became less powerful and influential. If there is to be any hope for human rights for all in countries dominated by Islam, that religion too will have to become less powerful and influential. 

Critics of the New Atheists are free to take issue with their tone, but to dismiss them without addressing the substance of their arguments constitutes an implicit admission that they just might have a point.