Where Have All The Progressive Atheists Gone?


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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