8 Jun 2011

Where Have All The Progressive Atheists Gone?

By Jeff Sparrow
Melbourne is bracing for an influx of atheists next year - and that means oh so many right wing war-mongerers. It's getting hard to tell a New Atheist from a neo-fascist, writes Jeff Sparrow
Next year, two enormous rationalist conferences are scheduled for Melbourne. On 13 April, the Global Atheist Convention, "the biggest global event for atheism ever", according to its organisers; on 18 September, Think Inc, "a plethora (sic) of international speakers spanning science, rationalism, scepticism and secularism".

Good news for progressives, surely? Evidence, you might think, of the growing acceptance of the Left and its core values.

Except, of course, there's the matter of so many of the key speakers being so very, very right wing.

Consider the headline act for both events, Christopher Hitchens, a man who, without undue hyperbole, might be described as the preeminent war-monger in the intellectual world today.

Let us recall how Hitchens wrote about the war in Afghanistan back in 2002:

"It is ... impossible to compromise with the stone-faced propagandists for Bronze Age morality: morons and philistines who hate Darwin and Einstein and managed, during their brief rule in Afghanistan, to ban and erase music and art while cultivating the skills of germ warfare. If they could do that to Afghans, what might they not have in mind for us? In confronting such people, the crucial thing is to be willing and able, if not in fact eager, to kill them without pity before they get started."

Impossible to compromise ... kill them without pity: the phrases read like a parody of a militarist demagogue or some ultra rightist general. But they are, alas, characteristic of Hitchens, who has championed — enthused over, even — every military conflict launched in the war on terror, as well as several (Iran, North Korea, Somalia) that have yet to get off the ground.

For Hitchens, the achievements of the American agnostic community in spreading secularism are nothing compared to those of George Bush and the US armed forces. 

"I do not think the war in Afghanistan was ruthlessly enough waged," he explained on another occasion.

What's for progressives to celebrate in huge audiences listening to such a repellent figure?

Ah, comes the response, don't worry about Hitchens' lust for blood. He's coming to Australia to discuss atheism, and atheism is, we all know, inherently progressive. But that's precisely the problem.

The so-called New Atheist movement, in which Hitchens is a key figure, is not progressive in the slightest. On the contrary, it represents a rightwing appropriation of a once-radical tradition — and it's well past time that so-called left-wingers, both in Australia and elsewhere, stepped up and said so.

Yes, it's true that the New Atheists do polemicise against the Christian establishment. You can find any number of YouTube clips of the various superstars of non-belief befuddling some hillbilly preacher or pompous cardinal with facts about evolution or knotty contradictions in the Bible.

And for those of us who don't believe in God, there's a certain visceral satisfaction in reading a witty takedown of this or that Christian conservative. But, in reality, the Christian Right is increasingly irrelevant to real power in Australia in the 21st century.

If we were living in the Spain of the 15th century, a proclamation of atheism would be politically radical in and of itself, a genuine challenge to the status quo. But in contemporary Australia, an indifference to Jesus is fairly widespread among the educated, inner-city populace, which is, after all, the main readership of the New Atheists.

No-one's going to burn you alive if you don't believe in the Trinity; you are not going to lose your job if, like millions of other ordinary Australians, you're unconvinced by Genesis.

Despite what some atheists would have you think, really, it's not all that brave to be unreligious in Australia.

No doubt, Christians still exert a vestigial influence in the school curriculum, and, yes, various evangelists pop up from time to time in the culture wars. But overtly religious parties and political movements are marginal in mainstream politics, and have been so for years. Even the Cardinal Pells and the Wendy Francises make their arguments in secular terms rather than as an appeal to scripture. Tony Abbott might be a devout Catholic but he frames an opposition to gay marriage as an appeal to popular prejudice rather than Biblical injunction — just as the atheist Julia Gillard does.

Which is not to say that religion doesn't arise as a political issue for progressives. It's just that the important debates for the Australian Left are not about attitudes to Christianity but rather about attitudes to Islam.

I have argued before in New Matilda that there's no structural difference between the prejudice against Judaism expressed in Australia in the early 20th century and the way that Muslims are discussed today. Anti-Semites denounced Jews for congregating in ghettoes and refusing to assimilate to Australian norms. The Jews, the racists said, wore peculiar clothes and headgear signaling their religious convictions. They ate peculiar foods. They were disproportionately involved in crime. They were the masterminds behind international terrorism. Why, everyone knew that both Bolshevism and anarchism were Jewish plots!

Today, anyone who published such stuff would be ostracised as a racist bigot. And rightly so — but you can find almost identical rhetoric in your daily newspaper, albeit with the word "Muslim" replacing the word "Jew".

And spare us the spluttering response about how Islamophobia isn't racist because Islam isn't a race. The concept of "race" — defined by skin colour or nose size or whatever mumbo jumbo you prefer — is itself a product of racism. Jews, Irish and Pakistanis are all victims of racism. Which race do they belong to?

Today, all across the world, the parties of the far right are supplementing (or, in some cases, replacing) their traditional anti-Semitism with the much more popular anti-Muslim racism.

Nothing surprising in that, of course. Fascism has always been entrepreneurial in that regard, content to exploit any prejudice that's going. No, what's really remarkable is the rhetorical convergence of the populist right with the "progressive" New Atheists.

But don't take my word for it. Sam Harris, another headliner at the Global Atheist Conference, puts it like this, in a passage quoted approvingly by Hitchens:

"The [...] failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants.The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists."

Harris and Hitchens are not advocating fascism. No, it's just that they think that progressives should learn from the European fascist parties about how to relate to Muslims.

To be fair, Sam Harris is a complete nut — a professional atheist who thinks there might be a scientific basis to reincarnation. If anything, he's even more bloodthirsty than Hitchens, with his book The End of Faith pivoting from proselytising disbelief to explaining the morality of torture.

But his enthusiasm for the rhetoric of the Islamophobic Right is entirely characteristic of the New Atheism.

Let's illustrate with a pop quiz, a little game we might call "fascists and conference goers". Some of the quotes below come from far right extremists. Others come from the keynote speakers due in Melbourne next year. The task, dear reader, is to distinguish one from the other.

A) The connection between the doctrine of Islam and Islamist violence is simply not open to dispute.

B) Not all Muslims are terrorists, but almost all terrorists are Muslims.

C) I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world, and I fear that we have a very difficult struggle there. [...] I think in a way we are being too nice. I think that it's possible to be naively overoptimistic, and if you reach out to people who have absolutely no intention of reaching back to you, then you may be disillusioned.

D) Violence is inherent in Islam — it's a destructive nihilist cult of death. It legitimates murder. The police may foil plots and freeze bank accounts in the short term, but the battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it's not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself.

E) The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn't, we will kill you.

F) Given that Islam is such an unmitigated evil, and looking at the map supplied by this Christian site, should we be supporting Christian missions in Africa?

G) Wherever Islam has gone it has what historians have called bloody borders. You can't have Islam and democracy, you can't have Islam and women's rights. We regard an Islamic bloc in this country as something that's going to cause trouble. Your world (Islam) and ours really don't mix.

H) Let me ask a simple question to the pseudoliberals who take a soft line on the veil and the burqa. What about the Ku Klux Klan? Notorious for its hooded style and its reactionary history, this gang is and always was dedicated to upholding Protestant and Anglo-Saxon purity....

I) The burqa is no longer simply the symbol of female repression and Islamic culture, it is now emerging as the preferred disguise of bandits and n'er do wells.

J) The progressive Islamisation of our country and the increase in political-religious demands are calling into question the survival of our civilisation ... We are fighting against Islamism, not Islam.

If you can't be bothered clicking the links, statements B, D and J come from neo-fascists, while statement I comes from Australia's own Cory Bernardi (a kind of bonus, if you like). The others are all from atheist celebrities who will be holding forth in Melbourne next year.

Now, none of this is to say that the Left shouldn't combat superstition and promote free thought. But a progressive atheism, as I've argued elsewhere, begins from a recognition that religion is shaped, first and foremost, by the material world and that the key task for the Left is thus not to berate believers for their ignorance and stupidity but to build the kind of society in which God no longer seems necessary.

By contrast, the characteristic method of the New Atheists is a crass philosophical idealism, in which religion consists exclusively of a set of silly ideas, and religious believers are therefore simply dim-witted and dangerous. Which means, of course, that those groups who take religion particularly seriously are, almost by definition, particularly idiotic and particularly threatening.

Hence the tendency for the New Atheism to collapse into overt Islamophobia. What, then, do next year's conferences mean for progressive politics in Australia?

Consider one of the longest running campaigns championed by the Left — the struggle to ensure decent treatment for refugees.

It's surely not controversial to suggest that, lying behind the extraordinary hysteria about tiny numbers of boat arrivals, is a xenophobia traceable, in part, to Australia's history as an outpost of white settlement in the midst of Asia. But since the War on Terror, the hostility to asylum seekers has also been fanned by hostility to Muslims. As has often been noted, a boatload of white, Christian refugees from Zimbabwe simply wouldn't receive the same treatment dished out to Muslims fleeing from Afghanistan.

In that context, what's the likely impact on the struggle for refugee rights of a huge event addressed by international celebrities, who explain, in calm, educated tones, that Islam is an unmitigated evil fundamentally linked to terrorism?

In Australia, the most prominent local atheists — people like Phillip Adams, Leslie Cannold, Catherine Deveny and others  — are, to various degrees, associated with progressive politics. Presumably, they will be attending these events. Will they, take a stand against the right wing re-appropriation of atheism? Will they denounce the reactionaries who are dominating these events?

It is, of course, perfectly possible to question the existence of God, to support intellectual freedom and to oppose dogmatism, without embracing an Islamophobia that is the functional equivalent of 20th century anti-Semitism. But that's not what the New Atheists are doing. Which is why the Left needs to call them out.


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Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 13:11

Since when was belief/non-belief a left/right political issue?

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 13:46

Moreover, when has warmongering been a left/right issue. It's a little too easy to use Hitchens' widely known and widely criticised (even within 'new atheism') views as representative. And it's a little too easy to collapse his views on extreme Islam -- which I doubt you would say is such a wonderful thing -- with his views on Islam more generally, let alone the view of new atheists more generally. Straw men?

Boring, misguided outrage. (Doesn't this belong on the right?)

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 14:05

To use Hitchens' pro-war attitudes as characteristic of the whole modern atheist movement, and then make the leap to saying that modern atheism is riddled with far-right politics is, well, wrong. Any prominent 'New Atheist' will tell you that few of them agree on everything all of the time.

Also, Hitchens' views evolve. What he expressed in 2002 might not be what he chooses to express in 2011, as evidenced by his volunteering to be waterboarded, after previously dismissing it as 'not really torture'. He now unequivocally refers to it as serious torture.

The cherry-picked statements about Islam do NOT reflect the out-and-out aggressive rejection of ALL religious movements, especially those that enforce oppression and violence, that characterises modern atheism. If an atheist criticises a Roman Catholic, a Muslim and a conservative Hasidic Jew for their religious beliefs, does that make the atheist anti-Italian, anti-Arabic and anti-Semitic? Persecution because of ethnic identity and criticism of religious tenets should not and cannot be conflated. Doing so diminishes both.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 14:35

I agree with arf. Since when was this a left-right issue. Perhaps just challenging one's own assumptions about who aetheists are.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 14:38

Sorry Jeff,
This story has more dodgy fixes than Michael Jackson's cosmetic surgery.
On their own the bits sort of looked ok but together.....well....!
This article is as assumptive based and consequentially as unsupported by the expressed facts as those you attack.
I'm not sure that you have thought your stance fully through.

As I see it there are only one type of real non believer....those that simply don't believe and are comfortable in themselves that they don't need an organised belief therefore no dogma no label. i.e. me. I believe each to their own, privately.

Atheists on the other hand want the same absolute as Catholicism they just differ in degree of absolutism. The likes of Dawkins proselytes he wants to replace religion....so do you.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 14:51

I was interested in your claim about Sam Harris being a nut for supporting re-incarnation and torture so I went and read the link you provided. I don't understand how you came to the conclusions you did, there is a rebuttal from Harris himself on that page denying both claims.

Also, isn't disagreeing with some of the main statements and issues within Islam (and Judaism, Christianity and Scientology) the whole point of atheism? Its ironic that a lot of critics attack atheists and gnu atheists alike for only ever confronting Christianity, :) now we are singling out Islam.

On racism " The concept of "race" — defined by skin colour or nose size or whatever mumbo jumbo you prefer — is itself a product of racism." Is not the definition of a Muslim someone who believes in Allah and follows the Koran? Are you trying to say that gnu atheists would not disagree with white Muslims as much as Arab ones? If someone has ideas and beliefs that I disagree with does that make me racist?

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 14:54

There is no way Islam is being singled out. Even your favourite bugbear Hitchens has spent an enormous amount of time criticising Christianity -- the pope in particular -- and from inside the US.

I agree with comments above, it's pointless trying to squeeze everything through the left-right paradigm -- calling everyone you don't agree with the new fascists or new conservatives.

If anything conservative Islam, I would argue, gets off lightly and the muffling of religion needs to be sidelined to enable people to see behaviour sets in their raw form.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 15:10

You're also missing the most important part. No one in the "Gnu Atheists" is threatening to kill Harris or Hitchens for having different views. Trying to get atheists to agree is harder than herding frogs or stopping Tony Abbot from saying something stupid.

Lets see more dissenting views but civilized debate about these things, that's the whole fun of it!

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 15:17

As a not-all-that-prominent atheist, may I point out that I always claim to be ecumenical in my dislike of religions. My antipathy is equally distributed to all of them.

Oh, and disliking a religion is not at all the same as disliking those who believe in it. I like all sorts of people with all sorts of attitudes and beliefs that I profoundly disagree with. Most of my friends send their kids to private schools, for example. And, while I loathe the burka and all it represents, I believe strongly in the right of any woman (or man, for that matter) to wear one - the state should never get involved in what women may or may not wear. Mind you, I still reserve my right to challenge burka wearers vigorously (but only verbally and in the context of civilised argument) on their decision to do so.

My dislike of religions is based on many things, not least the fact that all religions attempt to control women, their sexuality and reproductive capacity by denying them the same rights and opportunities as their male counterparts. (And don't give me Buddhism as an exception - how come the Dalai Lama has never been re-incarnated as a girl?). I see this as prima-facie evidence that all religions are man-made.

I agree with other comments here, the attempt to define atheists as left or right seems silly. Some of them will be one, some the other and most of us somewhere in between. And that is perfectly fine by me.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 15:30

I have to agree with arf. Unfortunately, the most repugnant voices are the ones who will be heard in the media and associated with atheism. That's something you have to live with as an atheist since, after all, it's main defining feature is what is not believed in, and not what should be believed. That means quite a diversity of opinion.

I personally think you have been too quick to dismiss the role and influence of religion in general, and christianity in particular, in Australian politics. You only need to look at the time and weight that the opinion of George Pell was given in a senate committee discussing climate change. And he wasn't making a religious argument - he claimed to have scientific authority as well as moral authority!

Is Islam a violent religion? Well, that's a broad sweep. Has it had a very violent history? Absolutely. So has Christianity, so has Judaism (just read the passages of the bible where the jewish kings take by force the land which their god "promissed" them). Basically, religion is a great excuse to treat "the other" terribly. You're right that we shouldn't let the idea of atheism be hijacked by people who want to turn it into pretty much the same sort of vehicle of hate...


Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 15:33

<h2>"WHERE HAS ALL THE DECENT WRITING AND RESEARCH IN THE RELIGIOUS COLUMN ON NEW MATILDA GONE? - Whore-Mongering The War-Monger Label - Sparrow Cannot Even Grip The Facts By The Husk"</h2>

Today, thousands upon thousands of literate and rationalist people across the country laughed themselves to the point of four-hoarseness upon reading amongst the many hand-wringing statements of Sparrow, the following:

<cite>"In Australia, the most prominent local atheists — people like Phillip Adams, Leslie Cannold, Catherine Deveny and others — are, to various degrees, associated with progressive politics. Presumably, they will be attending these events. Will they, take a stand against the right wing re-appropriation of atheism? Will they denounce the reactionaries who are dominating these events? "</cite>

As one the thinking masses held signs with the url of http://2010.atheistconvention.org.au outside New Matilda's offices.

"Adams, Cannold, Deveny and many others who Sparrow would patronisingly deem 'progressive' ALREADY ALL PRESENTED IN 2010 AT THE SAME GLOBAL ATHEIST CONFERENCE RUN BY THE SAME Atheist Foundation of Australia!" the rational people of Australia cried, pointing at the website that Sparrow clearly didn't look at beyond his own prejudices.

Smirks were left in response to Sparrow's failure to notice that <strong> Leslie Cannold returns to the same convention in 2012 and that other speakers are yet to be announced. </strong>

Rumors that Dawkins will be sending Sparrow a copy of 'Idiot's Guide To Research and Fact-Checking On The Internet' (along with a coconut to bang together outside the magnificent 2012 venue that he probably cannot find) remain unfounded.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 16:00

Why the "progressive" tag?

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 16:21

A disappointing and irrational rant. Agree with most of the above comments. Atheism doesn't equate to racism, as you are attempting to prove, all atheists are not the same, as you are suggesting.... Ah. it was too silly, don't know why I've wasted my time responding.

David Nicholls ...
Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 16:47

Jeff Sparrow scribed a marvellous display of quote mining, misrepresentation and downright misunderstanding about Atheism, all in one go. Trying to ride on the bandwagon of the rise of chosen and not forced godlessness that is a world wide phenomenon, he blundered his way through this article with no understanding of what he pretends to know.
It is a common thought that Atheism is not an automatic inoculation against mistaken ideas but it is better than the rest (paraphrased from Churchill) and if Jeff is an Atheist the point is proven, but aligning those who think for themselves and recognise the harms of religion as right wing bigots, is just bloody stupidity at its best.
Jeff, let me tell you this once, Atheists are individuals and the safety of any politics arising from that is about the best guarantee any society can ever obtain.
There is a place for this kind of polemic and that is in an inventive writing course for those who would like to manipulate others.
If the aim was to increase readership, then that may have worked but unfortunately, for Jeff Sparrow, it will be a long time before he lives this rubbish down.
Maybe he should come along to the 2012 Global Atheist Convention and have a first hand experience at Atheism, after which he can attempt reconciliation with reality.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 16:57

You can tell there are a lot of atheists reading NM ;) No bad thing either. But I also wanted to congratulate Jeff on this article. Of course Hitchens is not necessarily typical of all atheists. Of course part of atheism is to critique religion - including Islam. But that's not the point. The defence that athesists disagree and have different views fails to come to grips with the impact of putting those views on a pedestal. It reflects what I think is a hyper individualism and idealism which is precisely what Jeff is focusing on.

In a climate where Hitchens' words have effect, and where the wars he proclaims end in thousands of deaths, it is incumbent on those who are part of the same group as him to correct those claims. To ensure that atheism is not used as a cloak for Islamaphobia.

As for how atheism is linked to politics - I think Jeff means progressive in an older sense - one that gave birth to the French and Russian revolutions along with modernity. Progressive in the sense of progress. That is also something that focuses on common humanity, which requires respect for people and understanding of their views. Speaking as someone who is an atheist (and proudly so) I do think there is a degree to which some atheists effectively ridicule their opponents as simply not very bright. And that is a problem for me.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 17:00

Excellent piece Mr Sparrow, thank you!

Interesting to see how hate-filled the atheists are in these comments!

Carry on all they want about how they oppose Xtianity as much as Islam, they may wish to reflect that no matter how much they denounce Creationism, Intelligent Design and religious education in Victorian state schools, Western nations are unlikely to bomb the hell out of the Vatican. As opposed to their rantings on Islam, which merely provides further ideological justification to our ruler's barbaric wars in the Middle East and terrorising of Muslim populations at home.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 17:15

"...many of the key speakers being so very, very right wing." Harris. Hitchens. And?

Dr David Horton
Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 17:59

Tell you what Jeff, why don't you come along to the conference next year, say hullo, share a cup of coffee with me and one or two others, listen to the talks? See how your tarring-all atheists-with-a-one-quote-from-Hitchens-broad-brush stands up to meeting actual, you know, atheists, who in my experience are progressive to a man and a woman. Hitchens has his own philosophical and personal baggage (as do we all) which he brought to his views on iraq (which I strongly disagree with). To hang an anti-atheist (surely a strange logical position) diatribe on such a slim peg isn't worthy of you or NM Jeff.

Roger Lamb
Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 18:03

"And for those of us who don’t believe in God..."

So, are you coming, Jeff?

O. Puhleez
Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 18:05

Christ, what a rant!

"And spare us the spluttering response about how Islamophobia isn’t racist because Islam isn’t a race. The concept of "race" — defined by skin colour or nose size or whatever mumbo jumbo you prefer — is itself a product of racism. Jews, Irish and Pakistanis are all victims of racism. Which race do they belong to?"

Where does one start?

Well, the concept of race — defined however you like, is not by itself a product of racism. Quite the other way around. In order to talk about 'racism', you have to first acknowledge that the word 'race' has some content and meaning.

Frankly, Jeff, I think you finished up here because you dropped out of Logic 101. Or got chucked out.


Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 18:40

'Interesting to see how hate-filled the atheists are in these comments!'

Haha, how cute. Please show me evidence of hate, rather than disagreement.

'they may wish to reflect that no matter how much they denounce Creationism, Intelligent Design and religious education in Victorian state schools, Western nations are unlikely to bomb the hell out of the Vatican.'

Wait, atheists are now leading Western nations? 'They' are the ones deciding who should and should not be bombed. I've been a little occupied for the last couple of weeks so must have missed something. Other than Gillard (who is oddly on message with the religious), please, tell me who they are. And there is plenty oh plenty of criticism of vatican.

And also, while you're there, please show me another prominent atheist supporting the war in the middle east, just so we're on the same page.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. lilbirlblue
Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 20:16

Hi Jeff, how's it going?

Have you ever met an atheist? I have. Lots. Some of them are really great. Some of them I don't warm to so much. Some of them I agree with on some things. Some of them I don't.

Much like any other human being really.

We are united by the fact that we don't believe in any gods, but apart from that we are a pretty varied bunch. With opinions. It's ok to have opinions, yeah?

Being an X doesn't mean adhering to every belief of every X. That'd be ridiculous no matter what X stands for.

Can't wait for GAC 2012!

O. Puhleez
Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 21:25

And again:

"But don’t take my word for it. Sam Harris, another headliner at the Global Atheist Conference, puts it like this, in a passage quoted approvingly by Hitchens:

""The […] failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants.The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists."

"Harris and Hitchens are not advocating fascism. No, it’s just that they think that progressives should learn from the European fascist parties about how to relate to Muslims."

So: Fascists say Islam poses a threat to Europe
Facsists are bad.
Therefore Islam poses no threat to Europe.

I think I've got that right. Request correction if it's wrong.

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 22:19

"The key task for the Left is thus not to berate believers for their ignorance and stupidity but to build the kind of society in which God no longer seems necessary."

Excuse me? I'm sure I would have as much trouble convincing a deeply religious person that their god or gods aren't "necessary", as a deeply religious person would have convincing me that a god or gods ARE necessary.

It annoys me no end when I encounter religious people who, with the best of intentions, try to convince me that I really would be much better off if I did believe in a god or gods. I invariably find it irritating and bit insulting. I find it equally irritating and insulting when other atheists dismiss or disparage the deeply-held religious beliefs of people who don't happen to share their views.

Combating superstition and promoting free thought doesn't necessiate the demise of religion. It is arrogant and, dare I say, ignorant to presume that god(s) can be made "unnecessary".

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 23:34

I wonder why the Atheists here are so defensive. The article did not attack Atheism or Atheists generally. It merely points out that a few of the 'stars' seem to be promoting racial/religious hatred - this is something that Atheists used to criticize religions for, and something that rational people should take a moral stand against.

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 02:02

What a silly article. The title "Where have all the progressive atheists gone" and then he trots out two atheists to support a conconcted argument. It is simply illogical.

Matilda is a good blog because most of the articles, even if I don't agree with them, put forward a well thought out argument. This one is simply an author displaying his prejudices with a ratshit argument. Dawkins is pretty much a pacifist, and using the authors logic one could concoct an equally silly article titled "why are all atheists pacifists?"

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 02:32

Hi Jeff, I'm a progressive atheist from Austin, Texas, one of the hosts of a show called "The Atheist Experience."

Your question about where all the progressive atheists have gone is a little odd to me. I can't speak to the situation in your country, but here in the United States, "godless liberal" is a term frequently tossed about as an insult by the far right wing, who are inextricably wrapped up in the religious right. Among people who claimed no religion in exit polls in our last two elections, 67% voted for John Kerry over George Bush in 2004, and 75% voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In both cases, this makes up a significantly higher proportion for the left than the right. I'm willing to bet you'd find similar majorities in your own elections if you go by statistics rather than anecdotes.

In fact, I hope you don't mind my saying so, but your own penetrating analysis showing that atheists are right wing fascists seems to rely heavily on cherry picking a couple of individuals and assuming that they represent the entire group. There are two other atheists prominently featured at your link, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both very strong liberal voices. Dawkins can be seen <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/28/lib-dems-party-of-progres... calling for votes for the Liberal Democrat party in England. Gregory S. Paul <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-do-americans-still-dislike-at... wrote in the Washington Post</a>, not only in defense of atheism, but also in favor of important progressive ethics such as civil rights, environmentalism, and opposition to US torture policies. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer">Peter Singer</a>, a prominent atheist philosopher from your country, is also generally considered extremely left wing. <a href="http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/">PZ Myers</a>, one of the most popular atheist bloggers, is <a href="http://conservapedia.com/Professor_values">regularly attacked</a> by the right wing for his outspoken liberal views.

To the extent that atheists could in any way be described as "anti-Islam," by and large none of us favor blanket military actions against them based on their religion, nor do we want to stop them from freely practicing their religion as we choose. Rather, atheists argue with the <i>doctrines</i> of fundamentalist Islam in exactly the same terms that we oppose the doctrines of fundamentalist Christianity: we don't want to see the curtailing of freedom of speech, or gender equality, and we think that nobody should fear a threat on their life for speaking out against harmful religious practices.

Christopher Hitchens is actually <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Hitchens%27s_political_views">q... liberal</a> in many other areas outside his foreign policy beliefs, describing himself as a "Marxist" as recently as 2006, and joining with the American Civil Liberties Union in the same year to oppose the Bush Administrations warrantless spying on U.S. Citizens. His views on the Iraq invasion, while they have been as you describe, are by no means in the mainstream among the majority of atheists.

Where are the progressive atheists? Anywhere you find atheists, there they are.

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 08:10

To answer your question Jeff, they grew up and stopped believing in shallow slogans. You should try it.

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 08:40

Excellent work. As a so called atheist I was really fed up with the atheist movement. The attacks on this page wreak of the same old rhetoric form these fools. Over used words like "rational" "logic" becomes posturing with no substance once you scratch the surface of debate.

Also the lack of understanding that race is a social construct... or that their is a ideological left/right divide in our world is somewhat disturbing and should serve as a warning for any real progressives.

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 10:41


I appreciate your attempt to raise the tone of these comments, but you really call this any more than ad hominem:

'The attacks on this page wreak of the same old rhetoric form these fools.'

I, for one, and I'm sure I'm not alone, totally and utterly agree that race is a social construct, and I also agree that Islamaphobia and other blanket sentiments are insidious. That's not what's being debated here. Quite the opposite - we're debating whether so called gnu atheists can be tarred with the same brush and whether it's okay for them to have a wide range of views. I'd say that's quite okay, but it's quite okay for you to disagree.

Left/right is as simplistic as black/white. Things tend to be a little more complex. When, for example, you're promoting freedom of religious practices that themselves are illiberal. I'm not saying that's happening, but it can and I don't think it's easy to have a preconceived left/right way of seeing this.

And thanks for the great example of posturing:

'disturbing and should serve as a warning for any real progressives.'

Nothing like recourse to fear, grave concern and authenticity -- love it, dear.

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 11:01

Hmm. It seems to me that the division among atheists (as with so many groups) isn't really left-right. It's extreme vs. moderate.

I self-identify as a progressive atheist - I have exactly zero religious or spiritual beliefs but have never felt affinity with Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins et al simply because they are so angry and dogmatic. I believe atheism to be true, but I find any kind of extremism - even atheistic extremism - utterly alienating.

I also think we atheists must stay humble - after all, despite the reported secularization of western society, we remain a pretty tiny minority on this planet.

FWIW, this is a story I wrote a few years back for a Canadian magazine, in which I tried to take the wind out of the angry atheists' sails, and also explore some of the evolutionary biological forces that might have selected for a predisposition for religious belief:

The headline is "Science doesn't smile on atheists"


(Sorry I don't have comments enabled on my website - this is mostly an archive. Feel free to send me an email or comment here if you've got a response.)

Patchen Barss

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 11:33

LadyLucy I feel like you like so many here are avoiding the hard questions by dismissing political ideology as being to hard to understand... and maybe it should be left alone for people like you to worry about - dear.

CJ Morgan
Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 11:33

While Jeff Sparrow makes some interesting points in this article, I agree with Examinator that it's a bit of a dog's breakfast. As someone who has regarded myself since my teens as something between an atheist and an agnostic, I'm also a little bemused by the 'New Atheism' label. Like Jane Caro I've also been quite ecumenical in my rejection of religions, but it seems to me that the recent militancy among activist atheists runs the risk of creating Atheism as a kind of secular religion.

Neither do I think that an argument that atheism is characteristic of the right or left poles of political ideologies can be sustained. There are just too many examples of religious fascists and atheist socialists. It may be truer of the so-called 'New Atheists', but one or two prominent contemporary atheist warmongers doesn't necessarily colour the whole movement.

Lastly, there's plenty of "progressive" atheists out here - but I think most of us are simply uninterested in religion except when it impacts upon us personally. That's why we tend to be more concerned with the insidious influence of Christian churches in Australian politics than about confected notions of impending jihad.

I should also acknowledge Jeff Sparrow's cogent argument regarding racism. it fits well with something I've been working on for a while, wherein Islamophobia is structured isomorphically with racism in a society where the latter destructive ideology is no longer generally tolerated.

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 15:23

@DrDog: I'd argue that it has been many dog's breakfasts, each in turn finding it inedible and re-vomiting it.

O. Puhleez
Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 20:51

CJ Morgan 09/06/11 11:33AM:

“I should also acknowledge Jeff Sparrow’s cogent argument regarding racism. it fits well with something I’ve been working on for a while, wherein Islamophobia is structured isomorphically with racism in a society where the latter destructive ideology is no longer generally tolerated.”

I am not sure what “structured isomorphically with racism” actually means, or “Islamophobia” for that matter.

I encounter a few Muslims in daily life, particularly down at the local halal supermarket, and we treat one another with respect, friendliness and courtesy.

We are all creatures of our ancestry, time and circumstance. But I cannot respect Islam as an ideology. I abhor its treatment of women, its Sharia law, its propensity for censorship and violence in the countries where it has taken hold, and its contempt for those it labels as ‘the dhimmitude’ – all non-Muslims. And that’s just for starters. (Read Ayaan Hirsi Ali.)

And I pity those whose upbringing has inflicted it upon them as their operating system.

Now that probably makes me an Islamophobe, and I don’t mind if it does. But I’ll be damned if I can see how it makes me isomorphic, isotonic, isotopic, equilateral, parallel or anything else to a racist. (I have encountered a few racists in my time, and they always treat those of races they deem inferior with open contempt.)

So my provisional conclusion, CJ, arrived at after considerable thought and reference to learned books, is that what you have written above is pure bullshit.

Posted Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 21:18

There appear to be quite a lot of unstated presumptions in this discussion.

In particular, there are a large number of commentators arguing strongly against the proposition "That all people who identify with the movement known as 'New Atheism' hold right wing political views."

I didn't get that from Jeff Sparrow's article. He may have been dog whistling, that may have been his intended implication, but I didn't read that. What I got was the following.

Among those who identify with the movement known as 'New Atheism', there are those who promote some obnoxious, conservative, politically right wing, views under the banner of that atheism. And these individuals seem pretty visible and high profile. There ought to be a good number of individuals who identify with atheism and also hold decent, progressive, politically left wing, views. Those atheists who hold decent political views ought to loudly disagree with those self-proclaimed atheists who very obviously promote obnoxious political views under the "New Atheist" banner.

I'm happy to believe that atheists are occasionally, or even often, cast by their political opponents as all holding obnoxious and/ or illogical viewpoints. And that might explain why there are a number of commentators who are vehemently protesting against that conclusion. I'd also be able to be convinced that the author indeed intended as subtext "All atheists are dangerous fascists". But without the privilege of an intimate understanding of a wider social and political context, I just didn't read that claim into the article.

CJ Morgan
Posted Friday, June 10, 2011 - 00:02

@ O. Puhleez:

Thank you for your charming, if unsolicited, "provisional conclusion". I apologise for sidetracking a thread ostensibly about atheists with my arcane musings about structural isomorphism between racism and Islamophobia - but Jeff Sparrow is at least partly to blame for adding racism to the 'dog's breakfast' to which I alluded above.

I'm pleased that you claim to have plenty of learned books and a functioning brain, because you appear to misunderstand the meanings of both racism and Islamophobia. If you want me to help you overcome your confusion in these areas you'll have to acquire some manners and drop the obtuse aggro.

If you can manage that, I'd be happy to discuss our respective ideas about racism and Islamophobia in an appropriate thread. I'll even explain to you what I mean by structural isomorphism between those hateful,ideologies. If you can't manage that, kindly bugger off and play with someone else.

Thank you.

O. Puhleez
Posted Friday, June 10, 2011 - 00:44

CJ Morgan:

Oh dear. I seem to have touched a raw nerve with one simple provisional conclusion about an observation by you that was definitely on-thread. This is a discussion about atheism, so naturally various theisms are relevant. The discussion therefore can stay here. (Well, I'm not going anywhere else.)

I would be interested in your definitions of 1. racism; 2. Islamophobia and 3. structural isomorphism. Your assumption in your original comment is that these terms are commonly understood (hence not in need of clarification) and are generally agreed. Another assumption: both 'racism' and 'Islamophobia' are bad and wrong and boo-words.

But as I only agree re racism, I have a problem. I have a feeling that I would qualify as an Islamophobe by definition: I don't like Islam. But of course if I am right in my belief that that's OK, it would put the crime of not liking Islam on a par with say, not liking Debussy.

But if to not like Islam is to be 'hateful' as you appear to suggest, then you are wading into a very murky pond.

If not to like Islam as a creed is to be taken in your view as equivalent to say not liking Arabs as a 'race' of people, then the proposition that Islamophobia is somehow equivalent to or on a par with racism is pure bullshit.

I'll say that again, and with all due respect: pure blue ribbon bullshit.

Mr Crapulent
Posted Friday, June 10, 2011 - 00:54

Atheism can be a tricky space for the politically curious. As a leftwing Australian i have a strong impulse to support Muslims who are unjustly criticised and perniciously targeted on account of trivial differences, yet as an atheist I think all religions are a bit silly.

Like Jeff, I find something unpleasantly arrogant in the new atheist movement, but I would rather live in a world where people cared less for the imagined and more for their species and planet.

The debate, led by Hitchens and co, plays for laughs but contributes little for people interested in real change. Hitchens' war mongering politics are juvenile but his contempt for the superstitious can be amusing and it attracts the disbeliever in us all. On the other hand, just as facts won’t swing the climate change debate, rationality won't sway the god question and arrogant pricks will just firm up the opposition. What will make a difference is of intense interest to me.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Friday, June 10, 2011 - 04:52

How revealing that Jeff Sparrow is able to label Christopher Hitchens "very, very right wing" and have that go unchallenged (and often reinforced) by dozens of posters. Only the visiting American points out that Mr Hitchens was still thought to be Marxist years after his warmongering apparently converted him into an arch-capitalist/fascist, and that he continues to be publicly associated with many blue-riband left-wing causes.

I might add that Christopher defends his advocacy of regime change in classical left-wing terms, as the liberation of the oppressed from a fascist dictatorship.

I love the notion that having a war-monger or two on the speakers list for a Global Atheist Convention means atheism has been taken over by the far right -- it smacks of the sort of conspiracy theory that has long made the Left the laughing stock of the wider society.

Posted Friday, June 10, 2011 - 20:50

Rather than something of a sanctimonious attack on particular thinkers, the piece and subsequently these comments would have been far more interesting if predicated on a difficult question: can secular humanists rail against oppressive and prejudiced religions (Islam for one is arguably guilty here) whilst respecting human rights and diversity.

It's obvious to me and no doubt everyone participating in this thread that Australia is a richer place on account of its diversity and that people ought to have freedom of expression, including religious expression.

The old tolerance of intolerance, but it's far too easy to overstate this -- if there's such a thing as a tipping point, this country is certainly a long way from it. Thus we should not be bringing any fears of religion into asylum seeker debates, for example.

What is important here is treating humans as humans (or as animals if that happens to be an improvement). They need and deserve support.

But we also have to be aware that there may be situations where the opposite focus is required, when a particular belief system is operating too perniciously. It could well happen. Sam Harris may argue (via his kind of 'wellbeing' utilitarianism) that this is always, though others may think otherwise.

Posted Friday, June 10, 2011 - 23:46

Mr Crapulent.

If you are going to continue on with thoughtful musings and making intelligent commentary in response to New Matilda articles then you will and should be ignored. Such absence of arrogance and lack of contemptuous demolition of the arguments of other posters in this discussion list is not in keeping with the spirit of things.

If you are not going to play by the rules and aggressively disagree with at least someone here, belittling their stupidity and making sarcastic references to their politics, then maybe you should go somewhere else.

Same goes for you Lady Lucy. The questions that you raise do not have simple answers and are completely unsuited to having a decently adversarial shouting match over. Where's the fun in that?

Posted Saturday, June 11, 2011 - 00:28

I'm going to guess that structurally isomorphic means playing the same culturally functional role in a society. I would guess that it is to stand in contrast to logical equivalence.

Hence, although "racism" might not be acceptable in polite society (i.e., is a "boo-word"), and despite the fact that "Islamophobia" is logically quite distinct - a dislike of a particular culture rather than a particular biology, and is on those grounds exempt from boo-word status, the claim that Islamophobia is structurally isomorphic suggests that it has similar, in fact, identical in relevant respects, social impacts as racism. So, goes the claim, even though from a strictly logical perspective, Islamophobia is not inappropriately prejudicial, the suggestion that it is structurally isomorphic to racism is to suggest that its social (material) impacts are just as undesirable. If this is true, it is grounds for arguing that "Islamophobia" ought to be a "boo-word", just as much as racism ought to be one.

If this is a reasonable interpretation of CJ Morgan's idea about structural isomorphism, then the boo-word status of Islamophobia is suggested as a conclusion, not an assumption.

Posted Saturday, June 11, 2011 - 16:27

Glad to see that you're back to your usual self! intellectual bomb throwing ...it's nice to witness an expert. ;-)

By and large I have to agree with you. If and only if the practical consequences effect the first person (claimant). e.g. shakes hiding under the bed et al.
However when it is (ab)used (?) to justify prejudicial behaviour, code to justify bigotry. i.e. Camden
I think one has to be specific in their use/interpretation of the word .
Islamophobia is a (treatable neurosis) irrational fear of Islam.
In that context O. Puhleez should consult a qualified clinician.
And on that basis the resident of Camden and that deeply disturbed woman in the hat need either bulk buy psychiatric help and or accept that they are raging great Bigots.
That is clearly different from a dislike of Islam. I for example dislike football (sport in general) I would be very loathed to suggest it's a phobia.
But then again I'm not inclined to try and exclude footballers from living in my neighbourhood. Hmmmm then again, where's my hat and flag....where's channel 7 when you want them? ;-)

O. Puhleez
Posted Saturday, June 11, 2011 - 21:35


Go looking via Google for a definition of 'Islamophobia', and you get a plethora.

However, good old Wikipedia will do for now: “Islamophobia is prejudice against, hatred or fear of Islam or Muslims… The term …came into common usage after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States to refer to types of political dialogue that appeared prejudicially resistant to pro-Islamic argument.”

Here we see a problem straight away. Islamophobes are supposed as hating either Islam or Muslims. One word covers both ‘phobias’. So I can be against the doctrines of Islam (which I am) yet not display any hostility towards Muslims as people, and so in that second sense be in no way ‘Islamophobic’ at all.

So when someone like CJ Morgan says that “Islamophobia is structured isomorphically with racism”, the question immediately arises: ‘which of the two Islamophobias is meant?’ I would guess the second, not the first. So this ambiguity is serious, and not just for me.

I suggest that most people in this country would find certain aspects of Islam seriously repellent, and there is manifestly no rush of WASPS (or Catholics for that matter) to sign up at the nearest mosque. But at the same time they would cherish the constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly, of belief and of speech, and would want to ensure that those guarantees remained for all, Muslims included. Hostility to the doctrines of Islam is not, I suggest, widely seen as identical to hostility to Muslims on account of their being Muslims. Yet to be ‘anti-Islamic’ can mean to be both, in the same way that ‘anti-Christian’ can mean both: against Christianity as a religion AND/OR hostile to those who adhere to it.

To cover the anti-Muslim hostility we already have two excellent words in English common usage: ‘bigotry’ and ‘prejudice’. I suggest they be used in cases of anti-people ‘Islamophobia’ . And those like myself, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the ‘gnu atheists’ would better be described as ‘anti-Koranic’ or just anti-religious, rather than ‘Islamophobic’.

Good use of language demands both precision and economy. ‘Islamophobia’ appears to be a word hastily invented by the politically correct, without much regard for either.

Omar Puhleez

Posted Sunday, June 12, 2011 - 16:34

O Puhleez
Your muddled post really does seem to indicate the wisdom of the advice to claustrophobic digger in the trench "stop digging!"

Frankly your defence of your exception to 'Islamophobia" is so convoluted and imprecise as to give the impression that it is written by a bigot in search of a spin word so as not to sound so .....prejudiced.
What it isn't is a rationally argued definition.

You really should use real dictionaries e.g. Phobia: is defined by several as "an irrational fear." therefore it is more than just a dislike.
"Anti-Christian", "Anti Muslim" are not phobias " irrational fears" They are simply opposed to....one could reasonable state that Anti-Muslim can be intensified into either a prejudice or a phobia.
BTW A prejudice is against something (3rd person), a phobia is of something (1st person).

Also note Islam is the religion, Muslim is the follower.
Etymologically speaking the suffix of 'phobia' on the end signifies that it is beyond a simple dislike but rather an irrational fear....something that is a treatable neurosis.
Contrary to your right wing bogus 'politically correct' (code for we don't like not being able to make rude insulting statements that don't stand logic scrutiny) quip, is wrong . It's a bit like Global Warming, was a media inspired catch cry.
Might I suggest that Bandying words with CJ and Thomasee 73 we are both out of our depth.

CJ Morgan
Posted Sunday, June 12, 2011 - 18:33

@ thomasee73:

Yeah, something like that - although I'd argue that racism doesn't always refer to phenotypic (i.e. biological) traits either, e.g. Antisemitism. Which is sort of along the lines of what I think Jeff Sparrow was arguing in his diversion into the wonderful world of racism - but as I said I think it's a distraction from the main discussion about atheism and political 'progressivism'.

@ Examinator:

Hi mate - getting better every day, & thanks for the kind words. One thing I've decided recently is that time is too precious to waste on obtuse trolls who get their jollies from promoting hate anonymously on the Internet. As you know, I'm always up for a debate - which can be robust - but I have no time for wilful ignorance, nor gratuitous rudeness.

O. Puhleez
Posted Sunday, June 12, 2011 - 20:26

Examinator: "You really should use real dictionaries e.g. Phobia: is defined by several as “an irrational fear.” therefore it is more than just a dislike."

You are splitting hairs here. Prejudice, irrationality; what's the difference that matters?. Read the Wikipedia definition again; slowly.

The rest of your comment is noted.

CJ Morgan: the entirety of your comment is noted; prejudice and assumptions likewise.

Posted Sunday, June 12, 2011 - 23:05

The line about Sam Harris being a nut really made me laugh, especially since he specifically refutes the reincarnation claim in the link given in this article as a source. I really recommend Sparrow read Harris' actual books, rather than other people's articles about him, before forming an opinion.

At the 2010 GAC there was a lot of discussion about the left/right divide in atheism after somebody (I'm sorry, but I forget who. It may have been Robyn Williams), asked all the people who considered themselves Left Wing to put up their hand. I'd say that it was around 90% of people who raised their hands.

If you look at Harris and Hitchens on nearly every issue, apart from, perhaps, Islam, they're clearly "progressive." They're strong supporters of homosexual equality, gender equality, environmental protection, economic regulation and socially supportive policies. I really don't think the author has read any of their work, and just heard about their positions on Islam from somewhere else.

I also note that he failed to mention the other two most famous "New Atheists" - Daniel Dennett, and the most famous "New Atheist" of all - Richard Dawkins. Both Dennett and Dawkins are very clearly progressive, and so it's no surprise that they were left out of this "analysis."

If the GAC 2012 is anything like the GAC 2010 then I think there's no fear of it being some kind of right-wing recruiting drive, but we'll see a range of interesting talks on many issues, most of which will not be left or right wing. At the GAC 2010 there were only two speakers I remember making any serious amount of time to attack Islam. John Perkins, who is a strong supporter of Palestinian Independence attacked Islam, and so did Taslima Nasrin - who received the biggest standing ovation of any speaker, and is a women who has been exiled from the Islamic country of Bangladesh, beaten up and caused riots for campaigning for the equality of genders and opposing the Islamic view that women should be subservient.