Tuesday, January 13, 2015

An Open Letter to the New Atheist Movement

To the New Atheist Community and their Allies,

The "Four Horsemen" of
New Atheism (Image from
 Wikimedia Commons)
You know, we really should be able to get along. You don't want religion informing public policy? I don't either. You think religious fundamentalists are a bunch of ignorant cretins? So do I. You think we should believe what scientists say over what a book written thousands of years ago says? Me, too. You think atheists are treated unfairly in our society? We're one hundred percent on the same page. But then you have to go and do something to ruin it, and, well, you've done it again.

I can barely believe the ignorant statements I've heard from some voices in your community about the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I've actually heard it said by popular YouTubers that are part of your movement that Islam did the attacks, as if it's some magical entity that possessed the actual perpetrators of the crime and removed any critical thinking skills they had. You do know that Muslims all over the world have condemned the attack, right? Even Hamas condemned the attack. If you want to argue that a lot of Muslims who speak out against terrorism still hold very restrictive, reactionary views on how society should be run, I can't disagree with that. But have your members honestly gotten so lazy that they're going to ignore the numerous Muslims and Muslim organizations that have condemned the Charlie Hebdo attack just to try to make Islam look bad? You're not being bold by doing that. You're not defying politically correct ideas. You're just succumbing to intellectual laziness of the worst stripe.

Now, there were some pleasant surprises I got, such as when Bill Maher and Salman Rushdie actually acknowledged just how widely Muslims have condemned the attack, and Maher even went on to argue against the idea that Islam is unique in how it's used to justify violence, citing Israeli settlers as an example of Jewish extremists (the first time I've heard him say anything negative about Israel or any Israelis). But even so, a lot of members of the New Atheist community just have to tell you that, when it gets down to it, Islam really is a uniquely bad religion. After all, look at the polls of Muslims! Look at the laws in Muslim countries! Because, of course, socioeconomic conditions and the fact that many majority-Muslim countries have in the past suffered through Western bullying and interventionism couldn't conceivably have anything to do with increased religious extremism in those areas.

Do you really think that the United States would be as free a country as it is today if the Ottoman Empire had deposed our president and replaced him with a dictator they supported? Do you really think that Christian extremism just as virulent as the Muslim extremism in Iran (where the equivalent of that situation did, indeed, happen) couldn't have sprung up? Are you just unaware of the fact that majority-Christian countries with similar histories of colonialism and imperialism and similarly poor economic conditions are often just as oppressive and unenlightened as their Muslim counterparts (Uganda, anyone)?

Better than that, though, is when you try to say the actual doctrines of Islam endorse terrorism and religious persecution. Inevitably, you end up citing verses from the Qur'an that supposedly endorse killing infidels, often mistranslating words from the original text (for instance "Fitnah," which means persecution, not disbelief, as I've seen claimed a number of times) and removing all context in order to construe them to mean something totally removed from what actual scholars interpret them as meaning. Clearly, though, anyone who points out your intellectual bankruptcy on these points is just some dumb PC liberal.

Oh, and best of all is the "draw Muhammad" bullshit. Yes, because gratuitously mocking the figure held sacred by one of the most despised groups in the Western world is making such a brave, bold statement. I'd love to hear your explanation as to just how insulting Muslims, including those who oppose terrorism and theocracy and support secular democracy, is somehow being heroic. Here's a fun idea: why don't we draw insulting pictures of Christopher Hitchens? I have this vague memory of some of you being angry that people were saying he would burn in hell after he died of cancer. Did it seem like society had no respect for you or your beliefs and was spitting on someone you admire? Gee, I wonder how Muslims feel about you treating them the same way. Oh wait, they're wrong, so it just doesn't matter. I forgot that rule about how if people believe something irrational, it's fine to try to make them feel marginalized and alienated. Because I'm sure none of you believe anything that others might see as irrational.

It truly, really amazes me that people as intelligent as many of your members can be so idiotic as to think tactics like that will somehow make things better. Are you just blissfully unaware of the fact that Islamist groups like al-Qaeda thrive by driving a wedge between Muslims and the "Western world" (and that that may have been a motivation for the Charlie Hebdo attack)? You want to make this conflict between those that think Islam is stupid and dangerous and those that kill in its name, but how can any Muslim take your side when you've defined it as the anti-Islam side? On the other hand, if you would let this conflict be about what it really should be about--those that support individual freedom even for people and views they despise versus those who will kill anyone that doesn't abide by their rules--you could get plenty of Muslims on your side. Right now, we should be talking about how encouraging it is that so many Muslims, even those you would least expect it from, have condemned the attack in Paris, and how this is a sign that just because a person's Muslim doesn't mean they can't be on "our side." Instead, you've drudged up the same tired, ill-founded attacks on Islam that you love to drudge up given any opportunity.

I'd also just like to note your community's total hypocrisy as supposed opponents of religious extremism. I've barely heard a word from many of your prominent members about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, in spite of the numerous deaths caused by offensives such as last summer's and the fact that Israeli right-wingers routinely cite a God-given right to the land of Israel. Sheldon Adelson, the number one donor to conservative super PACs, said a few months ago that it doesn't matter if Israel is a democratic state because the Torah never endorses democracy. Where was the New Atheist outrage then? How can you expect people to believe you don't harbor some kind of bigotry against Muslims when you use attacks by Muslim extremists to justify disparaging Islam and yet when Jewish extremists support and abet killing far more people, you barely acknowledge it, or even defend them?

In fact, by your crude logic, Judaism should be the religion we're really concerned with; Jews are a mere 0.2% of the world's population, and yet Jewish extremists routinely use their religion to justify and support the oppression and military occupation of the land of millions of people, and the murders of thousands. Furthermore, these extremists aren't just a bunch of random people with weapons; they're in the US and Israeli governments, and huge donors in American politics. But, of course, anyone who acknowledges that must just be an antisemite.

I'd like to be abundantly clear on one point: my problem with you has nothing to do with political correctness or the idea that what you say and do is "offensive" or racist. It's that, at least on the issue of Islam, you're intellectually lazy and deliberately disregard anything and everything that could create a more complex picture than the one you want to paint. I don't insist on the idea that all religions are equal, as Bill Maher has accused opponents of his view of pretending. It's that your claims about Islam are ill-founded, and your view on how we should respond to Islamic extremism is counterproductive.

There are plenty of people within the New Atheist community that I agree with on many issues, to be sure. I agree with Bill Maher the vast majority of the time and I enjoy his commentary; I watch videos from The Amazing Atheist, a popular YouTube atheist and a supporter of New Atheism, and I almost always agree with the points he makes (including on feminism, which he's often unfairly criticized for). But these frequently intelligent, insightful voices suddenly start saying things that are at best oversimplifications and at worst completely unfounded when it comes to the issue of Islam. Of course, there are plenty of valid aspects of Islam to criticize, and there are plenty of rules and ideas in the Qur'an that really are antiquated and damaging to modern society; I'm not saying you're not allowed to hold a negative view of Islam, but having a negative view of the religion doesn't justify deliberately alienating and insulting anyone who believes it and making claims about it that really just don't hold up to scrutiny. And if the New Atheist community can't come to terms with that, maybe the New Atheist community's doctrines have a problem worth discussing.

Your Erstwhile Ally,
H.S. Buchanan

 My criticism of the New Atheist movement made here absolutely stands; however, in the last paragraph I said some things that no longer hold true, not because they are too harsh to the New Atheist movement, but because they were not harsh enough. As I've noted now, I no longer enjoy Bill Maher's commentary, and in retrospect I believe he has been saying tasteless and prejudiced things for a long time; perhaps I realized this on some level before, but refused to let myself fully acknowledge it.

As for The Amazing Atheist, my views on him, too, have shifted significantly, and looking back there are many things he's said that I find problematic, including his take on feminism, which I defended at the time. I opted not to change what I'd already written because it would be easier to simply explain the situation and let what I had previously written stay on the record. However, my views have shifted significantly enough that I wanted it to be clear that I no longer stand by my defenses of Bill Maher or The Amazing Atheist, lest anyone stumble on this blog post and get the wrong impression.

I have removed a reference to The Amazing Atheist as the "number one YouTube atheist" because I have been unable to verify this claim.

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