How the New Atheist Movement Blew a Big Opportunity to Bring Acceptance to Non-Believers
In the mid-2000s, the clash between the forces of religion and the forces of secularism could not have been clearer. George W. Bush had just won reelection by not just stoking Americans’ post-9/11 fears, but also by bringing out the Religious Right with the issue of gay marriage, abortion, stem cells and the right to die.
There was a common refrain throughout the media that young people were less invested in religious issues than their elders, causing a deep sense of unease in religious Americans who believed their idea of a Christian America might soon be slipping away from them. This fear energized them in the voting booth, and America’s government ended up looking very theological.
Enter New Atheism. Led by figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, New Atheism argued not just for atheism, but against religion, claiming it was a poisonous aspect of society that had to be purged. With Christian extremists in the White House leading a religious war in Iraq (recall that George W. Bush believed the Christian god approved of his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan), it is not surprising that there was a reaction from Americans who were not religious.
Yet a strange development occurred. Many of the prominent New Atheists did not end up focusing their attention on fundamentalism in America; instead, their attention became set on Islam and its spread. In essence, the New Atheists began to align with the very forces that they were reacting against: Christian imperialists aka neoconservatives.
It was not always this way. For some, the decline into imperialism was a long one. In 2003, Richard Dawkins wrote a column decrying the Iraq War, pointing out that the belief that Iraq needed to be invaded came from bigotry as opposed to security. His position was in sharp contrast to Christopher Hitchens’; Hitchens became a true imperialist post-9/11, believing that Islam was the greatest threat facing the world and that it was the United States’ job to force democracy and secularism in the Middle East. In what had to take a near record amount of cognitive dissonance, Hitchens began not just supporting George W. Bush and other neoconservatives, many of who were fundamentalists, but actually socializing with them. He went so far as to attend the conservative Restoration Weekend, an event that also held such intellectual titans as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. For a man who wrote a book on why Bill Clinton was not leftist enough, this turnaround came as both shocking and vulgar to liberals and leftists. Hitchens remained adamant that the war in Iraq was a good idea, although he later admitted it had been poorly handled. Had they just listened to him, you see, Iraq would have become a vibrant, secularist democracy.
Hitchens’ fixation with Islam turned out to be even more disappointing when he published his New York Times bestselling book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The book appealed to many who had been desperate for a non-religious viewpoint on life, especially the young in America. Young Americans who felt alienated from the religious vision of America found hope in the Hitchens' words, along with those of Dawkins and Harris. Instead of using his newfound stature to quell religious extremism in America, Hitchens continued his crusade against Islam. In the same year God Is Not Great was published, Hitchens published an article in Vanity Fair decrying the embrace of multiculturalism that he felt allowed for the growth of Islamic extremism in England. Instead of presenting an argument against religion, Hitchens ended up sounding not too dissimilar from current-day Trump supporters shouting about illegal immigrants taking their jobs away. To read his article, one could be forgiven for believing that half of England had posters of Osama bin Laden plastered across the walls.
New Atheist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation, has a similar element in his prose, although he’s possibly more insidious because he couches his Islamaphobia in a style of prose that is more calculating than Hitchens’ “old man yells at cloud” hysteria. In his 2006 essay The End of Liberalism? Harris claimed that Islam is not critiqued by those on the left because they are, wait for it, soft on terror (had he written this most recently, he no doubt would’ve included the phrase political correctness). He writes, “This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that ‘liberals are soft on terrorism.’ It is, and they are.”
Are they, though? Because last I checked, the Democratic Party overwhelmingly voted for both the Patriot Act and the Iraq war, two votes that should have been at the front of Harris’ mind back in 2006. After Obama’s presidency, which saw a massive escalation in the use of drone warfare, it becomes even more ridiculous to argue that liberals are “soft” on terror. In fact, that opposite is the case; liberal politicians in America seem intent on showing just how seriously they take terror by embracing imperialist policies. Harris’ hatred of Islam must go quite deep if he thinks the Democratic Party’s embrace of violence in the Middle East does not go far enough. Does he want Democrats to come out for nuking the Middle East?
Well, maybe. Journalist Chris Hedges and Sam Harris brawled over an excerpt from Harris’ book The End of Faith that, to Hedges’ eye, seemed to endorse a first strike against the Muslim world. Harris denied that he meant that. Judge for yourself.
Harris would no doubt point out that there are some liberals who are incapable of hearing even the slightest criticism of Islam without claiming the critic is racist. There is no doubt that such people exist. One can easily find them on Twitter, usually trying to prove how they are more progressive than anyone else. However, one can also easily find people with just about any belief on the internet, so until Harris can prove that liberals in America—the ones who just nominated a presidential candidate who voted for the Iraq war and pushed for intervention in Syria and Libya—overwhelmingly believe any criticism of Islam is negative, he is grasping at straws in order to justify his own prejudice.
It seems to come as a surprise to New Atheists that their criticism of Islam is not greeted warmly by the Muslims who have seen the imperialist actions the West has taken in the Middle East. Instead of taking a step back and figuring out why that might be, the belief that Islam is actually the worst religion becomes the talking point and what a dangerous talking point this turns out to be. Putting out the idea that Islam is more corrupting than any other religion directly allows for atrocities like the Iraq war and drone warfare to occur, thus playing right into the hands of neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. By framing Islam as a unique form of evil, it allows the West to not look at its own religious travesties and to justify the violence of the last 10 years inflicted by the West in the Middle East.
What Hitchens and Harris missed thanks to their zeal to make a special case for Islam, is that the neoconservative movement that they ended up aligning with was also a religious movement. Neoconservatives saw 9/11 as an opportunity (neocon Ari Fleischer remembers that day in a rather odd fashion) to bring regime change to the Middle East, believing that America was a country singularly able to do so. If this sounds a little like Manifest Destiny to you then you’re not alone.
Manifest Destiny, the belief that America has the right to expand wherever it wanted to, was a specifically religious belief in the 1800s. The post-9/11 Manifest Destiny was as barbaric and deadly as the Manifest Destiny of the 1800s, but because the New Atheists had convinced themselves that Islam was the root of all religious evil, they managed to blind themselves to this and, in their eagerness to take advantage of Western anger with the Middle East, ended up becoming agents of Christian aggression. The New Atheists tried to, and sometimes continue to, treat the actions in the Middle East as a battle between secularism and religion, but the violence that has come out of the Middle East in the past decade is a result of the Iraq War, which was a war between Christian extremism and Islamic extremism.
The current GOP candidate, Donald J. Trump, has repeatedly used the narrative that Christianity is under assault by the Islamic world by using much of the same logic that the New Atheists did when endorsing neoconservative actions. There is no lip service given to the many moderate Muslims and secular Arabs who have died in the Middle East thanks to these clashes.
There’s a temptation to write off Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins as hacks, but this would be a mistake. Dawkins is an esteemed biologist whose writings on evolution are both persuasive, and on occasion, quite poetic. Hitchens has written some compelling political pieces. His book The Trials of Henry Kissinger does an excellent job of prosecuting the war criminal, and his Vanity Fair article on the time he went through waterboarding, confirming that it’s torture, is an excellent read.
What an ally Hitchens could have been to secularism if he bothered to put aside his prejudice and focus on the problems of religious fundamentalism in the Western world, a place where he could have some influence. Instead of trying to justify the Iraq war for the last eight years of his life, Hitchens could have spent that time arguing how religious zeal in western countries like America and Ireland allowed the Catholic Church to get away with raping and torturing young boys and girls. Instead of spending his time complaining about Muslims and feminists on Twitter, Dawkins could have pointed out how Western countries could have put pressure on the Catholic Church to stop preventing condoms from going to Africa, an action that helped spread AIDS.
But instead of trying to combat religious extremism at home, the New Atheists chose a target that aligned them with imperialists and resulted in a catastrophic destabilizing of the Middle East that has only increased the number of Islamic terrorists. While Harris and Dawkins might try and duck out by saying, unlike Hitchens, they did not endorse the Iraq war, their own commentary has helped to further the belief that Islam is a specifically evil religion that must be stopped. The atrocities done by America, with help from England and other European countries, powered by this belief are many.
Thankfully, there are atheists and atheist organizations that are taking on religious extremism at home, without pointing the finger at other countries that are currently being decimated by imperialist policies. Organizations like the American Humanist Association reach out to young people who feel religion does not work for them, and the AHA itself also pushes to expose laws that allow for an undue level of church and state crossover. Perhaps most importantly, the AHA also argues for how life without God can be just as fulfilling as a life with God. Instead of using atheism as a platform for justifying foreign policy disasters, organizations like the AHA approach the religious/secular debate from a philosophical viewpoint. Some organizations have even decried the actions of the New Atheists, one of them going so far as to disinvite Dawkins from an event.
As an atheist and someone who believes secularism is preferable to any religion, the New Atheists have been a crushing disappointment. When given the audience of a new generation, the New Atheists instead turned into secular neocons, eager to bash Muslims at the drop of a hat and more than willing to shrug at Western abuse in the Middle East, sometimes going so far as to endorse it. The accusations they made about Islam are still said today by those who try to endorse more Western imperialism in the Arab world. It is sad to think what a positive legacy the New Atheists could have had.