New Atheist Richard Dawkins. Photo by Mark Coggins via Flickr
I’m an atheist, and it’s never been a big deal for me.
My belief—or lack of belief—might have been more important to me if I was from Saudi Arabia, or a small town in Alabama surrounded by Biblical literalists, or some other place where religion is the defining characteristic of civic life. But I grew up in Seattle, Washington, a city so liberal that I heard stories of cars with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers getting keyed. Practicing Christians who were outspoken about their faith had it rougher than I did. I don’t remember suffering any negative consequences for being an atheist, but I remember one day in high school when a smug atheist buddy and I semi-good-naturedly harassed a Christian classmate about her views on hell. It’s empowering and heady to imagine that you have cracked the code and know a truth that most people don’t, especially when you’re a teenage boy and already prone to thinking there’s something special about you.
Like a lot of atheists, I read a bunch of books about atheism and the shortcomings of religion and smirked at the inconsistencies contained in the Bible and Christianity's other texts. Stuff written by men—almost always men, almost always white men, not that that matters—about how wrong religion was and how right they were, how arguments for God could be shucked and tossed aside like ideas that Earth was flat. I read Christopher Hitchens when he railed against the Catholic Church, Richard Dawkins when he dismissed religion as a worldwide force for evil, and Reddit, where posters turned the Hitch-Dawk philosophy into sound bites and graphics. I don’t know how many Christians or Muslims or Jews or Buddhists were convinced by books like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, but man, it feels great to read those books and acquire ammunition for arguments you imagine yourself having against believers. At least for me, those debates were entirely hypothetical, since no one ever bothered to try to persuade me to come to Jesus or Allah. But reading these New Atheists, helped me refine my thoughts about religion. I started out with an adolescent sense that God didn’t exist because duh, how stupid would that be? and developed a framework that supported my disbelief. I imagine a lot of atheists went through the same process, and no doubt Catholics who read Thomas Aquinas or C. S. Lewis get a similar buzz.
I was thinking about atheism and religion this week after reading a couple pieces about how the New Atheists had a nasty streak of Islamophobia in them—one in Salon by Nathan Lean and another in Al Jazeera by Murtaza Hussain. Both of them note that Dawkins and Harris, especially, have no problem saying publicly that Islam is a source of terrible evil and that it’s right and proper that the West go to war with Islam. Glenn Greenwald, as he is wont to do, expanded on this, noting that Harris’s opinions on Islam have led him to side with neocons, the nuts who protested the “9/11 mosque” that opened in Lower Manhattan, and even claim once that "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists." This led to a bunch of blogging and counterblogging and all sorts of accusations of misquotation and blah blah blah.
Saying inflammatory things about Islam isn’t out of character for the New Atheists, since they’re the kind of people who ask whether religion is the root of all evil and seriously debate the existence of God with believers. They say nasty things about Christians all the time, and, in fairness to them, countries that are governed by Islamic law have done horrible things (as have Christian nations and, it turns out, Buddhist countries, too). If you are attempting to eradicate religion one New York Times bestseller at a time, like Harris and Dawkins are, maybe it makes sense to go after what you perceive as the worst belief system first, then the next-worst, and so on, until the only faith left in the world is a pacifist combo of Unitarianism and Jainism.
But if your project is to convince people that religion is evil and should be wiped from the face of the earth, and that rational, enlightened atheism is the beacon of truth toward which we must steer the storm-battered ship of the human race—or whatever—is directly assaulting religion, or one particular religion, over and over the best tactic? Is it helpful to write things like, “The only reason Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to us is because the fundamentals of Islam are a threat to us”? I don’t know that Harris’s anti-Islam writings will get many Muslims to become atheists, but he’s probably convinced some Westerners that Islam needs to be stopped (how? Probably by bombs, I guess), and likely persuaded some Muslims that yes, the Americans are out to get them, even the non-Christians.
Harris likes to assert that Islam is uniquely evil, that though other religions are responsible for violence, Islam is the worst. Or as he puts it, “There are gradations to the evil that is done in the name of God.” I haven’t counted up the bodies or done an analysis of how much worse suicide bombing is than old-fashioned violence and discrimination against particular ethnic groups, so I’ll defer to Harris—Islam is the worst. I’m on Team Ban Militant Islam. Now what? Do we invade another country? Write some more strongly worded blog posts demanding that moderate Muslims renounce their faith? Do we create laws that restrict certain kinds of demonstrations of faith, like burkas?
One thing belief does is it gives you a guide to living your life. A certain kind of cynical atheist will scoff at that idea, note all the ways religions constrict freedoms and mistreat people, and reject the notion of morality coming from faith. Those atheists are quick to attribute practically all violence committed in the name of God to religion, while ignoring the acts of kindness done in the name of God. Even if these New Atheists acknowledge that a faith like Islam teaches compassion and kindness to our neighbors (it does), they’ll claim that that’s counterbalanced by hatred and death on a much larger scale.
What I’m wondering, though, is what atheism puts in place of that morality and framework that religions provide. You don’t need God to be a good person, but you do need some way of differentiating good acts from bad, virtue from evil. The New Atheists have done a very, very thorough job of defining what evil is—it’s religion, and the hypocrisy it breeds, and the acts of oppression and blind hatred that are carried out under the cover of “obeying God.” I just wish they would turn their intellect toward questions of what “good” could be.