The Attacks on New Atheists

In recent times it has become increasingly common for all sorts of people to launch bigoted attacks against New Atheists. These acts of aggression tend to consist of either slanderous or libelous allegations that New Atheists are some manner of hate group. The undertones of the sentiments expressed suggest that there is little to distinguish New Atheists from Klansmen or members of any other hate based organizations. New Atheists are often clumsily lumped together in bold sweeping condemnations that negate the diversity, convictions and intellectual foundation of the movement. If one would base their understanding of New Atheists solely on that which is spewed by the critics, it’s hard to imagine them being perceived as little more than a group of thuggish, backward rednecks. Painting New Atheists with such broad strokes is a willful misrepresentation; it is a contrived, cheap initiative to cheekily insinuate that New Atheism itself is a religion blindly adhered to by unsophisticated people who yearn for religion and thus sublimate it through the New Atheist outlet.

New Atheist

The above image, acquired on Facebook, depicts what is meant to be a New Atheist. The image undoubtedly intends to convey that New Atheists are petty, lazy, depressed, gay losers who seek only to win arguments online. The most pervasive theme in the image is the insistence that the man depicted is gay, thanks to the multiple rainbow images, the anal lube, the dildo, the semen soaked Richard Dawkins poster, and so forth. It’s unclear, however, how this intended caricature offers anything but a glimpse into the bigoted psyche of the individual responsible for the image.

“The attack of Maher is indicative of a troubling trend; at the crux of so many objections to his criticisms is the notion that criticizing Islam in and of itself is an Islamophobic act.”

In particular Bill Maher has become a favored target among those bent on attacking Atheists; it seems some believe that if Maher is discredited, something faulty about Atheism itself has been established. Recently published Patrick Hilsman’s article Bill Maher, atheist fundamentalist: Why he gives nonbelievers a bad name. In it Hilsman contends, like so many before him, that Maher is an ignorant bigot who targets Muslims because he says that he “would be more sympathetic if there was a better track record in the Muslim world of moderates standing up to extremists.” Hilsman would have people believe that such a statement, stripped of context and devoid of any fact checking, must simply be taken at face value as ‘Islamophobic’. And why? Solely because Maher has been critical of the ‘Muslim world’. One does not have to search hard or far to validate Maher’s statement as indeed entirely truthful. For example, in 2014 Owen Jones of The Guardian wrote an article in which he stated that wealthy citizens of Qatar were known to be funding a Syrian branch of al-Qaida. It was around this time, Jones points out, that German Development Minister, Gerd Mueller, accused that same nation of funding ISIS. Jones also reminds readers that “According to a secret memo signed by Hillary Clinton, released by Wikileaks, Qatar has the worst record of counter-terrorism cooperation with the US.” If one Arab country is not enough to vindicate Maher, one need only to continue reading the aforementioned article to learn that Kuwait, as well, has been funding terrorist groups. “Kuwait has refused to ban the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, a supposed charity designated by the US Treasury as an al-Qaida bankroller. David Cohen, the US Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has even described Kuwait as the “epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria”. These are but two examples of Muslim nations not standing up to Muslim extremists, but rather supporting them in their nefarious ambitions. Sure Maher could be more subtle and nuanced. He could take more time to back up his inflammatory speech with substance. However, the man above all else, is an entertainer; he may occasionally suggest that he is an expert of some sort, but he’s not. So finding fault with something he says, if indeed there is a fault to be found, simply does not prove anything about any form of Atheism. At best attacking Bill Maher reveals a potential fault in his manner of speech and thought. Maher is not a leader, he does not speak for anyone but himself.

The attack of Maher is indicative of a troubling trend; at the crux of so many objections to his criticisms is the notion that criticizing Islam in and of itself is an Islamophobic act. The real oppression that is occurring in such instances is that of free speech. There is an emergence of pseudo intellectual bullies who think that they can win an argument and kill a debate by alleging some form of hate in order to keep the New Atheists in line. The reason, of course, that this is a failing tactic is because New Atheism is an intellectual, philosophical movement that desires to critically engage in meaningful debate.

Sadly, many liberals have aligned themselves with the right, whether they realize it or not, by attacking New Atheists using the very tactics that they once so abhorred when they were used by the George W. Bush Presidency. The attacks on New Atheists aim to drive a single point home; either you adopt the prescribed liberal stance on religion in general and on Islam in particular, or you are against us. Being ‘against us’ in this instance automatically renders one an Islamophobe or a xenophobe or what have you.     

New Atheists are distinct from Atheists because they do not simply reject all religion, they also actively campaign against all religion everywhere it can be found in the world via rational, critical engagement. Somehow critics find it entirely acceptable to slander and libel the New Atheists as little more than a gang of racist, backward thugs. Yet these very critics are preoccupied by preserving everyone else’s dignity and rights. The implication is that if one fails to have acceptable views, then they are exempt from the rights and dignities that the aforementioned critics claim to defend.

If one examines the actual ideas of the New Atheists and of the so-called Four Horsemen (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett) in particular, there is substance and reason behind what they argue. This is not to say that one must agree and to do otherwise is ignorant. Far from it. It is simply essential to understand that they do not engage thoughtless hate speech, but offer one interpretation among many possible interpretations of historical facts. Since Islam is at the forefront of religious debate these days, it is worth looking at what some of the aforementioned scholars have argued.

On March 23, 2010 Christopher Hitchens debated David Wolpe in an event that was billed The Great God Debate. Toward the end of the event Hitchens was questioned by an audience member about the title of his book God Is Not Great, a direct and intended affront to Islam. His explanation offers a glimpse of his stance on religion in general and Islam in specific;

“I think that all religions are wrong in the same way in that they privilege faith over reason, but they’re not all equally bad in the same way all the time. I mean if I had been writing in the 1930s I would certainly have said that the Roman Catholic Church was the most dangerous religion in the world because of its open alliance with fascism and anti-Semitism, which—the damage from that our culture has never recovered from and never will but at the moment it’s very clear to me that most toxic form that religion takes is the Islamic form, the horrible idea of wanting to end up with Sharia, with a religion-governed state (a state of religious law) and that the best means of getting there is jihad (holy war) and that Muslims have a special right to feel aggrieved enough to demand this, I think is absolute obscene wickedness and I think their religion is nonsense…”

Obviously Hitchens has offered an interpretation in the above excerpt that is likely offensive to millions, but it is not Islamophobic. It is also not an attack on people themselves. Rather, Hitchens declares, in a statement that is equally critical of Catholicism, that Islam is brimming with bad ideas that intend to encourage people to make what he sees as destructive decisions. To call such comments Islamophobic is to either not understand what Islamophobia is or it’s a willful misuse of the term. Hitchens does not target Islam above other religions, rather, he argues that in contemporary times Islam is the religion whose so-called ‘bad ideas’ are most in need of scrutiny due to all of the tumultuousness that continues to arise in so many Muslim nations and communities. But it cannot be fairly argued that Islam above other religions is targeted by Hitchens or any of the other so-called New Atheists.

Sam Harris created quite a stir due to comments he made during an interview on Real Time with Bill Maher. Harris stated, as the discussion quickly moved to the topic of Islam, that “[T]he crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.”  Harris went on to pronounce the now infamous phrase, “Islam is the motherload of bad ideas.” Again, one could not be faulted for disagreeing with or finding offense in Harris’ interpretation of Islam via the Holy Quran or in observing current events. However, the declaration that he is in any way bigoted is entirely misguided.

Often critics of Islam cite any number of passages that Islamic scholars gripe are willfully taken out of context. For example, a classic extract from the Holy Quran states, “And kill them where wherever you find them,” (2:191). Islamic Scholars contend that if the complete passage from whence this quote came is considered as a whole, the meaning changes entirely. The full passage reads as follows;

Perhaps one needs to be a Muslim to discern nuance in the above passage, but the implication that one could reasonably derive remains largely the same, if not more ominous. It essentially offers the instruction to kill your enemies wherever you defeat them, expel your enemies from the places that you were once expelled from. Only fight them once they initiate the fight, but if they do fight, kill them. This is the consequence for being a disbeliever (kāfir in Arabic). At this point one might rationally wonder, what causes a person to incur the designation of ‘disbeliever’?

According to Islam a disbeliever is “someone who rejects Allah and who does not believe in Muhammad as the final messenger of Allah. Although Christians and Jews are called the People of the Book (أهل الكتاب ahl al-kitab), they qualify as disbelievers according to the Qur'an. The word "kafir" can be offensive to non-Muslims, as it has roots meaning "concealer" and "ingrate" implying that non-Muslims are liars. It is also often used by Muslims as an extremely offensive curse word. Other terms which are used to refer to non-Muslims include "faasiq" (sinner, corrupt) and "munafiq" (hypocrite),”. It is engrained in the passages vehemently defended by Muslim scholars that non Muslims are misguided, lying, ungrateful people who should be killed in the instance that a fight is interpreted as being provoked. It is hard to imagine that a devout Muslim, reading words of the Prophet, is not influenced to view outsiders to the religion as little more than enemy combatants. One could hardly be faulted for reading such an extract and concluding that it conveys a ‘bad idea’.

New Atheists are not hateful of all religious people, but rather of that which they view as bad ideas created and circulated by evil people with nefarious intents. New Atheists attack all religion with such defining fervor because they perceive that religion is attacking the principles which they view as most essential and valuable to all free societies. Religion inherently denies freedom of speech and thought. Religion distinguishes men as separate from and superior to women. One might opt to quibble over the various rights that people have accrued in various religions throughout history, but no major religion comes close to remaining in parody with Western Society’s great advances in domains such as Women’s Rights, Race Relations, Child Abuse, Gay Rights, Freedom of Speech, Genital Mutilation, Equality, Human Trafficking, and Human Rights in general. 

If critics wish to seriously engage New Atheists, they have all of their work still ahead of them. The attacks thus far have been lazy, cheap and insubstantial. There must be a scholarly dismantling of the New Atheist movement if anyone intends to be taken seriously and to have a genuine impact on the discourse. Perhaps the most nefarious attribute of the attacks on New Atheists is that they are undertaken by cynical liberals who are articulating their criticisms in a manner intended to trigger the hysteria of the masses. The masses love nothing more than to jump on the bandwagon to indulge in the public stoning of whomever the ruling class steers their ire toward. But don’t be mistaken, there is no victory, large or small, to be found in simply declaring that one is an Islamophobe. Bill Maher once said that “Islamophobic is a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons." As usual, Maher’s statement typically lacks nuance and sophistication. However, it cuts to the heart of the matter; the attacks on New Atheists are not aimed at triggering fruitful debate in a spirited exchange of ideas. Rather the smear campaign that has been vigorously growing and intensifying over the years seeks to bully and intimidate New Atheists into silence. In case it is not yet apparent, that will not be happening. One must wearily consider those who would be content with a victory no matter how it is won.

Those attacking New Atheism; Hilsman and his ilk, care not whether they end up ultimately victorious due to a smear campaign, through the spreading of lies and half-truths, or simply because their bigoted bullying ultimately silences their target. It truly is hard not to pity such people, but they must be opposed regardless. Imagine the alternative; imagine a world in which the enemies of New Atheists win. Imagine New Atheists being bullied into silence, imagine the public discourse being narrowed in content and tone to simply those ideas deemed acceptable by the limp wristed, hypocritical neoliberals who increasingly welcome their former right wing adversaries into the fold as willing bedfellows. That is a victory that the world simply cannot afford.

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