“New Atheists:” In the Doghouse With Liberals For Being Consistent Atheists
Organized religion’s shallowest critics made the mistake of blasting Islam along with Christianity, and the Left crucified them for it.The author (Elliot Kaufman) goes on to dismantle some of the jejune arguments of the New Atheists, and then concludes:
On Friday, it became official: The New Atheists are no longer welcome on the left. Battered, condemned, and disinvited, these godless and once-favored “public intellectuals” are now homeless, spurned by their erstwhile progressive allies.
Richard Dawkins, the famously skeptical evolutionary biologist, was the last shoe to drop. He was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Berkeley because his “comments about Islam” had “offended and hurt . . . so many people,” according to the event’s organizers.
Dawkins is in good company. His New Atheist compatriots, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, had already been expelled from the party. In both cases, insufficient deference to Islam was the proximate cause. Hitchens remained a committed socialist, but felt a war on Islamic terror and autocracy was needed. For this, he was denounced as a “neocon.” Harris is a liberal, straight and true, but drew the ire of Reza Aslan for refusing to except Islam from his broad critique of religion. “Islam is not a religion of peace,” Harris often says. In fact, he thinks it’s just the opposite. For that, everyone from Glen Greenwald to Ben Affleck has cast him as an Islamophobe and a bigot.
That means that three of the much-acclaimed “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism have been turfed from the left for extending their critique of religion to Islam. The fourth is Daniel Dennett, who also criticizes Islam. The only actual philosopher of the bunch, he is far too boring and ponderous to be noticed, let alone denounced, by anyone. In his place, one can add Bill Maher, a popularizer of New Atheism who has also been barred from Berkeley over criticism of Islam. One by one, these men have been excommunicated from the Left.
Confirmation bias deserves at least a part of the blame. The New Atheists have long harbored an irrational fear of Christianity, but Christophobia doesn’t worry the Left. Combating Islamophobia, however, is a progressive priority, and so it is noticed and addressed when it strikes.
However, the argument that the liberal obsession with Islamophobia stems from a healthy regard for the status of minorities only goes so far. As Michael Walzer, the socialist intellectual, has written in Dissent, “I frequently come across leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry.” There is a reason, after all, why many Democrats stubbornly and proudly refuse to say the words “Islamic terrorism,” preferring to speak of generalized “extremism.”
But these same people who insist that evil men have perverted Islam are usually the first to falsely bring up Timothy McVeigh as an example of a “Christian terrorist.” They present Christianity as a reflection of the actions of its evildoers (and even those who disclaim the faith). But the actions of orthodox Islamic believers, the Left suddenly maintains, are no reflection on the tenets of the peaceful Islamic faith.
Farther left, the defense of Islam becomes a defense of Islamic radicalism and intolerance. Slavoj Žižek sees in Islamism “the rage of the victims of capitalist globalization.” Judith Butler insists that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”
In short, the New Atheists have won applause from the wrong side: the anti-Muslim, crusading Right. Christopher Hitchens, an endlessly entertaining writer who could give it to Saddam Hussein as good as anyone, was every right-winger’s favorite radical. Sam Harris started finding agreement with the likes of Douglas Murray and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Rich Lowry’s defense of Harris from Ben Affleck appeared in the New York Post. Bill Maher now delights the Right as much as he infuriates it. And the Left, smelling traitors in its midst, simply cannot tolerate this sort of transgression.
But more attention is needed to the specific nature of the Left’s double standard when it comes to Islam. Why must ardent secularists from the Islamic world like Ayaan Hirsi Ali — the type of people the Left looks to for inspiration in the history of Western secularism — be deemed bigots, while Sharia-supporting conspiracy theorists like Linda Sarsour are cherished? Why has criticizing Islam caused the New Atheists to cross a red line in the progressive imagination?
These positions make no sense if one thinks of the Left as seriously secular, convinced of the need to end the reign of superstition. But American liberals profess neither the passionate skepticism of Hume nor the honest, urgent atheism of Nietzsche. They prefer to embrace a shallow, culture-war atheism instead.
This culture-war atheism provides “evidence,” quick and easy, to support the proposition that America is split into two camps: the intelligent, sophisticated, urbane, righteous liberals and the idiotic, gullible, backward, bigoted conservatives. The former are atheists and the latter are believers, flattering one side and bludgeoning the other. In fact, it is this type of thinking that made progressives fall in love with the New Atheists in the first place.
New Atheism pleased the Left as long as it stuck to criticizing “God,” who was associated with the beliefs of President George W. Bush and his supporters. It was thus fun, rather than offensive, for Bill Maher to call “religion” ridiculous, because he was assumed to be talking about Christianity. Christopher Hitchens could call God a “dictator” and Heaven a “celestial North Korea,” and the Left would laugh. Berkeley students would not think to disinvite Richard Dawkins when he was saying “Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion.”Why don’t we want them? Isn’t the enemy of my enemy my friend? While there are some exceptions (Christopher Hitchens comes to mind) most of them are shallow thinkers motivated by an irrational (indeed often bigoted) hostility toward religion. The fact that they don’t distinguish between Islam and Christianity in their hatred may be consistent, but it is not laudable.
None of this New Atheist silliness bothered the Left so long as it flattered the right tribes and battered the wrong ones. It was only once the New Atheists extended their critique of religion to Islam that progressives began to turn on them. Muslims, though largely right-wing before the War on Terror, had become a “marginalized group.” Seen as the victims of Western colonialism, neoconservative aggression, and day-to-day discrimination, they became a part of the coalition of the oppressed, which is to say, they became virtuous. Islam, consequently, became a faith and tradition deserving of respect, not a “mind virus” like Christiniaty, busy infecting fools.
As such, attacks on Muslims or their faith not only appeared to be “punching down” at the innocent, but also became attacks on the left itself. The New Atheists, merely by being consistent and focusing on the most-egregious religious intolerance, in effect surrendered their sophistication and, in the Left’s eyes, joined the ranks of the bigoted, reactionary Right.
There is just one problem: We don’t want them either.
But most off all, we Christian conservatives don’t want to be like liberals: demonizing or lionizing people on the basis of how useful they are in waging the culture wars.