New Atheists Are Muslim Bashers, Not Rational Thinkers

ByNathan Lean

My recent article at Salon on the New Atheists’ post-9/11 shift towards Muslim bashing has sparked a spirited debate. And that’s a good thing. This is an important conversation and one that I’m happy to continue here at PolicyMic, where I began my writing career several years ago.

Among the people who were agitated by my article was PolicyMic’s politics editor Michael Luciano. His rebuttal, published here, was intellectually deficient, misrepresentative of my central thesis, and bursting with assumptions that deserve to be unpacked.

First, Luciano’s piece assumes that any critique of the New Atheist narrative must necessarily involve a full-throated debate about the merits of their arguments. That’s nonsense. It is perfectly acceptable to point out bigotry without being sucked into a never-ending back-and-forth with the bigot. How productive is it to engage in a debate with Sam Harris, who writes in his book, The End of Faith, that, “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous it may even be ethical to kill people for believing in them?” Does one really have to hold Harris’s hand and softly explain to him why that’s probably not a great idea and that there’s a better alternative? If that is how the conversation begins, I fear the debate that Luciano wants may not end so well for him.

Luciano may say that by recognizing such problematic remarks and pointing them out, I’m claiming that the New Atheists are simply “being mean.” Harris’s comments above are not mean or malicious or even antagonistic. They are just plain dangerous.

Next, Luciano makes the wild claim that Harris isn’t all that concerned with Muslims per se, but just with Islam as a religion, and that I can’t see that. Luciano is either ignorant of Harris’s body of work or deliberately misrepresenting mine. To be critical of Islam or any religion is not a problem — not for Harris, not for atheists, not for anyone. But to insist that Muslims pose a unique problem for nuclear deterrence, to say that “[we] should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” and to argue that “Muslims do not have a clue about what constitutes a civil society,” is not a critique on religion generally. It’s a mindless attack on Muslims particularly.

Luciano writes that I “[want] the reader to believe that the New Atheists aren’t any better than [Pamela] Geller and her demented disciples.”

The entire point of my piece was to point out that in the pre-9/11 world, Dawkins and Harris and company served up a more intellectually savory dish of their worldview — one that was based largely on the background in academia and as scientists. There has never been anything remotely intellectual about Geller and her ilk. Luciano, in attacking me, though, cannot deny that Dawkins’ affection for Dutch politician Geert Wilders (a Geller associate), his fondness of anti-Muslim hate sites run by Geller’s associates, and Harris’s fierce opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” heralded by Geller’s hate group, exhibit an irrational animus that stems from the same place as the more vile anti-Muslim voices in our society such as Geller.

Luciano is guilty of the very criticisms he pins on me. The conflation of Islam and Muslims is one example. He rattles off several examples of how “Islam’s track record” is not so great on human rights, but fails to see that “Islam” is a belief system, has no agency and therefore can’t be held responsible for anything.

While many Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East do suffer from horrible inequalities (no one is denying that), and while some countries’ leaders justify such inequalities using religious language, that is not sufficient evidence to explain that religion writ large is poisonous. It’s a sloppy association that overlooks all sorts of intricate cultural and political dynamics. The Newsweek/Daily Beast poll that Luciano cites reveals the intellectual shallowness of his argument: the outlet has a history of problematic statements against Muslims including its cover story last year, “Muslim Rage,” written by the discredited opportunist (and atheist) Ayan Hirsi Ali.

More scrupulously and objectively, Gallup polling data conducted over the course of six years in more than 35 Muslim-majority countries shows a different picture, revealing that women are increasingly empowered, literate, and afforded the same rights as men. In addition to the polling data, the recent revolutions are further indication that Luciano’s tired notion of Muslims who hate freedom is unfounded (Of course, the election of Islamist governments must mean for Luciano that Muslims don’t really love democracy because they chose — you know, the non-American kind).

Lastly, one must wonder what is the purpose of the New Atheist narrative? Dawkins, in proselytizing fashion, tells us in the preface to his book The God Delusion that he intends his book for religious readers and that he hopes they will become atheists after reading it. Surely, though, clubbing people like seals and sneering at their supposed stupidity won’t accomplish that. That is the problem with the New Atheists. The aggression is counterproductive and damages the reputations of atheists writ large, just as Muslim extremists or extremists of any religious faith damage the reputations of their co-faithful. All fanatics are a problem, and the New Atheists, by virtue of their disproportionate and unyielding fixation on Muslims and Islam, and their embrace of American militancy in Muslim-majority countries, are fanatics. It’s too bad that their masquerade as rational thinkers has fooled otherwise intelligent people like Luciano.