by Luke Savage
The “New Atheists” have gained traction because they give intellectual cover to Western imperialism.
In explaining his transition from radical polemicist to neoconservative hawk, Christopher Hitchens insisted that his politics had not changed. It was perfectly consistent, he opined, to have opposed the Vietnam War on anti-imperialist grounds and unapologetically supported the invasion of Iraq; perfectly consistent to have abandoned confraternity with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said and sipped champagne at the White House as a guest of Paul Wolfowitz.
Hitchens liked to claim that a single intellectual thread united his positions, namely opposition to “totalitarianism”: “The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy — the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.”
But for all his pro-imperial bluster, it was Hitchens’ attacks on religion that finally garnered him international fame. These, too, he claimed, were fundamentally “anti-totalitarian,” analogous to resisting North Korea or Joseph Stalin. A leading light of the “New Atheist” movement, the former socialist spent his final decade at war with religion and at peace with imperialism.
As Richard Seymour observes in his book Unhitched, Hitchens’ transformation, though unorthodox, was not without precedent:
The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the ‘Free World’. In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.
It is through polemics like Hitchens’ God Is Not Great that “New Atheism” has gained mass attention. Alongside Hitchens, the movement’s two other leading disciples, Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), have engaged in innumerable public debates with religious figures, making them doubly influential as Internet celebrities and popularizers of antitheism.
At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.
In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.
Whereas some earlier atheist traditions have rejected violence and championed the causes of the Left — Bertrand Russell, to take an obvious example, was both a socialist and a unilateralist — the current streak represented by Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris has variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture, and even, in the case of the latter, genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.
Its leading exponents wear a variety of ideological garbs, but their espoused politics range from those of right-leaning liberals to proto-fascist demagogues of the European far-right.
The title of Hitchens’ bestselling book tells us something about the priorities and focus of the New Atheist movement (“God is Not Great” is clearly intended to be a facetious inversion of the common Arabic phrase Allahu Akbar, which translates as “God is Great,” something which he no doubt thought was both hilarious and iconoclastic). Without exception, an overwhelming preoccupation with Islam infuses the whole discourse, even as it posits itself as a disinterested scientific critique of religion as such.
Indeed, Sam Harris’s much-discussed October appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher — a crude spectacle in which he pigeonholed most Muslims as “jihadists,” “Islamists,” or “conservatives” — merely complements a lengthy record of Islamic demonology from him and other leading figures in the New Atheist movement.
In The End of Faith, for example, he argues: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” Elsewhere, he writes: “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.” And, while defending the Iraq War as a humane, civilizing mission: “We are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.”
While Harris’s views are undoubtedly the most strident, there is certainly overlap with Hitchens and Dawkins. In a 2007 interview, Hitchens argued: “If you ask what is wrong with Islam, it makes the same mistake as [other] religions, but it makes another mistake, which is that it’s unalterable. You notice how liberals keep saying, ‘If only Islam would have a Reformation’ – it can’t have one. It says it can’t. It’s extremely dangerous in that way.”
In addition to the blatant chauvinism of such a statement, it is not a remotely accurate historical claim and is arguably hypocritical, even on its own terms. Islamic fundamentalism — which no one, incidentally, believes to be a fiction — is insidious not because of its adherence to some ossified medieval tradition, but rather because of its eager and effective embrace of modernist dynamism.
Not to be outdone, Richard Dawkins has called Islam “the greatest force for evil today” (in the same breath, rather amusingly, as admitting he’s never bothered to read the Koran). At other times Dawkins has been even more vulgar, tweeting: “For me, the horror of Hitler is matched by bafflement at the ovine stupidity of his followers. Increasingly feel the same about Islamism” and inferring that then-New Statesman columnist Mehdi Hassan is unqualified to be a journalist because he is also a Muslim. Or, to take yet another example, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”
For the New Atheists, then, all religions are equally bad — but Islam is more equally bad.
It is simply impossible to imagine the commercial and intellectual success of the New Atheist project in a pre-9/11 world without both rising anti-Muslim sentiments across Western societies or neoconservative geopolitics. It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.
During the Real Time appearance, both Harris and Maher mounted the familiar argument that their position is a defense of “liberal principles” that others, out of fear, timidity, or perhaps relativism are applying selectively. Maher:
Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles … like freedom of speech, freedom to practice religion without fear of violence, equality for minorities including homosexuals … these are liberal values which liberals would applaud, but then when you say ‘in the Muslim world these qualities are lacking,’ then they get upset … [Islam is] the only religion that acts like the Mafia.
Harris affirmed this statement, and took it further:
Liberals have really failed on theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christians … they’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984 … We have been sold this meme of ‘Islamophobia’ in which every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people … we have to be able to criticize bad ideas… [and] Islam right now is the mother lode of bad ideas.
There is much to say about these statements, but let us first examine what this noble and courageous defense of “liberal principles” looks like in practice.
The politics of the leading New Atheist thinkers are not uniform. Dawkins opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while Hitchens was one of its leading apologists. Harris defends torture as an ethical necessity in the “war on terror” while Hitchens, who was voluntarily subjected to waterboarding, did not. Both Hitchens and Harris have been prone to bellicose outbursts of violent, almost bloodthirsty rhetoric, which cannot be said of Dawkins.
Nevertheless, all are united by several common intellectual threads. Each espouses a binary worldview that pits a civilized, cosmopolitan, and progressive West against a barbaric, monistic, and reactionary East. Though varied in their political positions, Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have all had very public dalliances with the Right, expressing either overt sympathy for, or enthusiastic endorsement of, some of its most vile and disreputable elements.
Each is outwardly a cultural liberal who primarily addresses liberal audiences — “respectable” to blue-state metropolitans and their equivalents elsewhere in ways Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh never could be — while embracing positions and causes that are manifestly illiberal in the commonly understood sense of the term.
Beneath its many layers of intellectual adornment — the typical New Atheist text is laden with maudlin references to Darwin, Newton, and Galileo — we find a worldview intimately familiar to anyone who has studied the language of empires past: culturally supremacist, essentializing and othering towards the foreign, equal parts patronizing and paternalistic, and legitimating of the violence committed for its own ends.
In The End of Faith Harris suggests that nuclear-first strikes may be necessary if the ostensible conflict between “Islam” and “civilization” escalates: “What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?…The only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”
In an endorsement of one of the Iraq War’s key justifying logics, Harris described it as a noble and selfless crusade undertaken by the civilized West to defeat Islamic barbarism. In late 2004, he wrote in the Washington Post, “civilized human beings [Westerners] are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people.”
Elsewhere in the The End of Faith, he avers:
We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms. Theirs is a kill-the-children-first approach to war, and we ignore the fundamental difference between their violence and our own at our peril. Given the proliferation of weaponry in our world, we no longer have the option of waging this war with swords. It seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come.
The book goes out of its way to frame Arab nations as backward and Muslims within them as primitive and in need of paternalistic tutelage. “It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development,” he pronounces, in tones worthy of a nineteenth century ethnographer. “At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root.”
What is needed, in his view, is no less than the imposition of “benign” tyranny:
Some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary … But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both.
In his voluntarily assumed role as a leading “war on terror” propagandist, Hitchens — who had previously eviscerated Henry Kissinger for his executive role in the 1969 bombing of Cambodia — embraced the rhetoric of violent militarism with an even more aggressive zeal.
Speaking about the 2004 assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which had been occupied by anti-American insurgents, Hitchens declared that the “death toll is not nearly high enough” on the grounds that “too many jihadists [had] escaped.” (The civilian death toll in the Battle of Fallujah is contested, but aid groups on the ground called it a “humanitarian catastrophe,” and residents today suffer extremely high rates of birth defects and cancer, apparently from the use of white phosphorous and other chemical weapons by American forces. The increase in cases of leukemia exceeds that which followed the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.)
Hitchens also praised the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan as “pretty good, because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too.”
On the subject of jihadists, he declared: “It’s a sort of pleasure as well as a duty to kill these people.” On another occasion, Hitchens stunned even sympathetic members of an audience in Madison, Wisconsin by saying of Iran, a nation of almost 80 million people: “As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.”
The tendency to abhor the violence of its chosen enemies while relativizing and legitimating its own is an intrinsic part of any imperial or colonial ideology, and a consistent feature in the rhetoric of both Hitchens and Harris.
Islamophobia and Race
Another preoccupation of leading New Atheists mirrors several themes of Europe’s neo-fascist right.
In extremely sinister fashion, Harris has mused about the birthrates of European Muslims and the supposed peril of their prolific breeding. The notion of a demographic “threat” posed by Muslims in Europe is easy to debunk empirically.
Even if this weren’t the case, the sordid subtext of these remarks is confirmed by Harris’s favorable treatment of far-right figures, who speak openly of the demographic dangers posed by Muslims. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris makes his sympathies explicit, declaring: “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascists.”
Harris shares such terrain with neoconservatives like Mark Steyn, who writes: “Every Continental under the age of 40 — make that 60, if not 75 — is all but guaranteed to end his days living in an Islamified Europe.”
In a positive review of Steyn’s America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, Hitchens expressed disagreement with Harris’s pro-fascist sentiments — but didn’t take issue with the posited “demographic threat.” He also defended his close friend, novelist Martin Amis, who told the Times Magazine:
There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? — to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.
Harris’s treatment of Muslims as a unique demographic and security risk has caused him to advocate racial profiling and to side with the likes of Sarah Palin and Fox News on the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Dawkins has enthusiastically supported far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has called for the banning of the Koran — a book he’s compared to Mein Kampf — alongside mosques and immigration from Muslim countries. In 2009 Wilders faced trial for hate speech, and his 2008 film Fitna is replete with racist images like Muhammad’s head attached to a ticking time bomb. Dawkins: “On the strength of ‘Fitna’ alone, I salute you [Wilders] as a man of courage who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.”
Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have all rejected the notion that there is anything racist about statements of this kind or the prescriptions that so often follow from them: “Muslims aren’t a race,” being by now a particularly worn phrase in the New Atheist rhetorical repertoire. Harris and Hitchens have also dismissed the term “Islamophobia” as a tool for silencing their arguments. According to the latter: “A stupid term — Islamophobia — has been put into circulation to try and suggest that a foul prejudice lurks behind any misgivings about Islam’s infallible ‘message.’”
Given that “race” is an entirely social construct, with a history that involves the systemic racialization of various national, ethnic, and religious minorities, this defense is extremely flimsy. The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.
If its imperialism and racism aren’t enough, New Atheism’s intellectual foundations are also exceptionally weak. Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.
The typical New Atheist text scrutinizes religious myths without attention to, or even awareness of, the multiplicity of social and theological debates they have provoked, the manifold ideological guises their interpreters have assumed, or the secular belief systems they have helped to influence.
Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith — namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform — is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon. As Terry Eagleton puts it in a discussion of God is Not Great:
Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn’t have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.
Contrary to the crude epistemology of rational scientism, religions are not rigid “doctrines” that followers obey uniformly, regardless of their social or material contexts. As Seymour has written:
Religion is a labour of interpretation, of symbolic and ideological production from which agents derive meanings adequate to their life circumstances. Apart from anything else, the sheer indeterminacy of religious texts would make it impossible for there to be a literal, consistent meaning present in the texts: interpretation is indispensible.
This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion — one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.
Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind — honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise — are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.
The ways in which the New Atheism serves imperialism are manifold. It bolsters the “clash of civilizations” narrative used to justify ventures like the invasion of Iraq and the need for repressive measures like state surveillance. Moreover, in presenting itself as a disinterested defense of reason, it lends such arguments a credibility they would lack in the hands of commentators from the political or cultural right. Finally, it shifts the focus from the social ills wrought by unjust economic arrangements to an external singularity called “religion.”
Beneath its superficial rationalism, then, the New Atheism amounts to little more than an intellectual defense of empire and a smokescreen for the injustices of global capitalism. It is a parochial universalism whose potency lies in its capacity to appear simultaneously iconoclastic, dissenting, and disinterested, while channeling vulgar prejudices, promoting imperial projects, and dressing up banal truisms as deep insights.
Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins may masquerade as intellectual insurgents, leading a crusade against the insipid tolerance of liberal politics. But ultimately they are apologists for some of its most destructive tendencies.