In Defence Of The New Atheism, And Their Occasional Useful Idiots

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The left’s growing angst around New Atheism says a lot about the left, and less about some of the people pushing it. Richard King explains.

‘Another day, another tweet from Richard Dawkins’ wrote Eleanor Robertson last July, in response to the controversial professor’s latest foray into the Twittersphere.

Ah yes, I can remember thinking, another article on Richard Dawkins and how he and his fellow New Atheists are disappointing progressive expectations! Not that he didn’t deserve it, mind, having just used a moral taxonomy of rape in order to make a point about logic: not something you can do with much sensitivity in 140 characters or less, or even 140 characters or more.

But the backlash, too, is part of the ritual, and Newtonian in its predictability….

Does Dawkins make an arse of himself when he holds forth on the state of science in Islamic countries or goes ape-shit over a small jar of honey? Yes, he does.

Is Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, a crass and increasingly reactionary numpty? No question.

Does it follow that the New Atheism is an invitation to Western self-congratulation, Enlightenment fundamentalism and eliminationist Islamophobia, as Jeff Sparrow more or less averred in a Guardian article a few days ago? (Jeff had taken Dawkins’ tweets about US schoolboy Ahmed Mohamed and his unexploding clock as his text). In the minds of many progressives, it does.

Not mine. In fact I think there’s something iffy about much of the Anti-New Atheist commentary. Notwithstanding Dawkins’ uber-yogic ability to insert both feet into his mouth at once, and Harris’s robotic denunciations of Islam, the New Atheists have provided an important service in the years since the wars on/of terror began, reminding us that as far as theism goes the worm is always in the bud: that people who venerate holy books are always predisposed to intolerance and that intolerance is a fairly reliable incubator of human rights abuses and violence.

Richard-Dawkins-2

Okay, it’s not an original point, and the New Atheists can seem a bit full of themselves; but I don’t think it warrants characterising, say, A. C. Grayling’s The God Argument, Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell or, for that matter, Dawkins’ The God Delusion as de facto propaganda pamphlets in an imperial war against the Other.

What is it about the New Atheists that so quivers the jellies of left-liberal opinion? The most commonly cited arguments – that the New Atheists exhibit the very evangelism or fundamentalism they claim to be criticising; and that, as scientists or philosophers of science, they are unqualified to comment on theological matters – are not, I think, foundational ones as far as most progressives go. If they are, the left really does have a problem.

‘Evangelical’ the New Atheists may be, in the sense of being fiery or strident; but to confuse a passionate defence of an argument arrived at through years of careful study with devotion to a set of ideas inculcated, more often than not, before one is old enough to know any better, is a shady bit of intellectual jujitsu.

As for the suggestion that the New Atheists are neophytes: that, surely, is an argument from authority that misunderstands the nature of their endeavour, which is not to prove the non-existence of God – one can never prove a negative, in any case – but to critique the arguments put forward by those who not only claim to know that there is one but also – and more dangerously – to know His mind.

No, I think the real problem progressives have with Dawkins and Co. is the one put forward by Sparrow in his piece. It’s that the New Atheists are regarded as facilitators of anti-Islamic prejudice – unwitting (and sometimes witting) pawns in the rise of the anti-immigration right and the invasions of Islamic lands. In Leninist terms, they’re ‘useful idiots’.

Well, everyone is someone’s useful idiot. No doubt there are evangelicals who think religion’s critics should be burned at the stake who’ve ‘shared’ Sparrow’s piece or ‘liked’ it on Facebook. But it’s a bit of stretch to say that the New Atheism provides a justification for the war on terror.

The last time I bothered to listen to a politician responding to a fresh atrocity in the name of IS or al-Qaeda, the line was what it always was: ‘Not only is this a crime against humanity, it is also a perversion of a great religion’, or words to that effect. ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ we are told, constantly, by people whose lack of theological training presumably rivals even that of Lawrence Krauss.

The holy Islamic site of Mecca.
The holy Islamic site of Mecca.

What’s really going on here is that the left is locked in a long and difficult conversation with itself. The left emerged as an entity during the French Revolution of 1789 and one of its founding principles was opposition to the Catholic Church, which it rightly regarded as an organ of reaction.

But as the left’s focus shifted to imperialism and racism in the second half the twentieth century, it was confronted with some tough dilemmas. Should it support the Iranian mullahs who’d overthrown the Shah, a Western puppet? What should it say if a religious minority, subject to native racial prejudice, harboured a few illiberal attitudes of its own? On whose side was it on in such circumstances? How was it possible to reconcile its traditional anticlericalism with the priorities of anti-racism and anti-imperialism?

Thus we get a kind of ideological version of the phenomenon known as ‘the Stroop effect’, in which the regions of the brain that recognise words interfere with the regions that recognise colour.

Sparrow tries to negotiate this difficulty by delineating two kinds of atheism: the old kind – a daring and noble pursuit, subject to much confrontation with power and risk of reputational damage; and the new kind – the summa of Western arrogance: an instrument of power, not a weapon against it. Thus the history of the left can be celebrated and its current difficulties studiously ignored.

In the Islamic case, if not in the Christian one (our delicacy on the issue of faith rarely extends to batso evangelicals, whose tribe increaseth every year), the criticism of religion has just become too hard. Better to ignore it and talk about ‘context’.

But religion, of course, is part of the context. Yes, Western crimes in the Middle East are responsible for much of the current chaos. Yes, the parties warring in Iraq and Syria have political aims that it would be absurd to reduce to problems within the Islamic faith. But those problems are there, and they’re getting worse.

(IMAGE: paul bica, Flickr).
(IMAGE: paul bica, Flickr).

Islamic extremism, like Christian fundamentalism, has a life of its own, and it’s evolving as we speak. The New Atheists’ contribution to this debate is to have taken fundamentalists of all stripes at their word and to have suggested that it is not only the particular interpretation of holy books that is problematic but the existence of holy books themselves: that fundamentalism cannot be detached from religion but is an outgrowth (or mutation) of it.

The argument may be an old one, but it’s worth repeating, and if their readers get a bit of knowledge on the way about recent developments in cell biology or genetics or the expanding fossil record or physics, well, then, so much the better….

There’s no doubt Dawkins can be a jerk. His interventions on the subject of Western feminists – whom he seems to want to indict on the grounds that they’re not living in Afghanistan – are, to put it delicately, feeble.

But my strong sense is that his real crime is to have confronted us – good women and men of the left – with a question we aren’t quite able to answer, and which, frankly, we’d rather wasn’t asked: What do we feel about religion now that it is more commonly associated with minorities subject to widespread prejudice?

It’s just a theory, as the creationists like to say, and I’m happy to have it falsified. But in the meantime I’m willing to stick up for the New Atheism, which is, after all, and however it’s glossed, just the old atheism in a different context.

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Richard King

I'm a journalist and author based in Fremantle and write for various rags and mags. I'm also the author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation (Scribe). Visit me at http://bloodycrossroads.com/

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