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Jeff Sparrow: The Weaponization of Atheism

Update: I decided to feature this article as it is a timely piece by Sparrow and has generated quite some interest amongst regular Loonwatch readers. There are quite a few gems in the article, though there are certain parts that I don’t necessarily agree with either.

An excellent piece from Jeff Sparrow about the politics of new atheism with a dose of history:

The Weaponization of Atheism

by JEFF SPARROW (CounterPunch)

In a few days time, the Global Atheist Convention meets in the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, a huge building sprawling out next to the Yarra River, just south of the central business district of Australia’s second biggest city.

But walk north for fifteen minutes or so to Victoria Street, Fitzroy, and you’ll find a much less imposing structure with a much older connection to atheism.

From the outside, there’s little to show that what’s now called Brenan Hall, a brick building in the St Vincent’s Hospital site, was once known, rather grandly, as the Hall of Science. Few Melbournians realise that their city boasts one of the second oldest purpose-built Freethought halls in the world, a meeting place constructed by the Australasian Secular Association in 1889.

As non-believers from around the globe come to Melbourne, the Hall of Science reminds us of the city’s long atheist history. But it does more than that. On this spot in June 1890, a man was shot, as a struggle over the direction of Freethought broiled over into a violent brawl. And that long-forgotten conflict over the politics of skepticism has major implications for today.

Both supporters and critics of the New Atheism often tell us that non-belief today is more strident, more aggressive, more polemical than in the past.

They’re wrong, as even a brief acquaintance with nineteenth century Freethought shows.

In Melbourne, a versifier expressed the ASA’s general approach in its journal, the Liberator:

From Pagan Rome and Christian Rome,
To our bright and fair Australia,
Religion’s ever been a cruel
And bloody Saturnalia.

The breezy consignment of the city’s respectable Presbyterians to a category alongside Caligula and Nero reflects an organisation not given to pulling punches.

Joseph Symes, the ASA’s leader, specialized in Hitchens-like confrontations with the pious. We have a record of one Symes lecture entitled ‘Bible Lies’ (a chronicle of the various deceptions pulled by the Lord on his long-suffering followers); on another occasion, he used data from recent archaeological digs (he was a keen amateur scientist) to lampoon scriptural history. Later in his career, Symes embraced pure provocation, bringing slices of bread to meetings so he could, as he announced, ‘have a chew on the body of Christ’.

Atheists back then were as forthright as atheists today. The real difference lies elsewhere. Today, we can identify an atheism that’s not so much militant as weaponised – that is, deployed, all too often, in the service of the extreme Right.

The late Christopher Hitchens provides the most obvious example, a celebrity atheist as famous for boosting wars as for baiting clerics.

Liberal admirers often mentally separated the atheistic Hitchens from the political Hitchens but in reality the two personas were inseparable. When, notoriously, he lauded Bush’s cluster bombs, he did so – typically – by combining his two passions. ‘Those steel pellets will go straight through somebody,’ he chuckled, ‘and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, “Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.” No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.’

Because Hitchens was so rhetorically intemperate (recall his attack on the Dixie Chicks as ‘sluts’, his description of the war widow Cindy Sheehan as a ‘sob sister’ and so on); because, as Corey Robin says, he often evinced ‘a cruelty and bloodlust, a thrill for violence and apocalyptic confrontation, an almost sociopathic indifference to the victims of that violence and confrontation’ (witness, for instance, his reaction to the Fallujah offensive, his cry ‘the death toll is not nearly high enough …  too many [jihadists] have escaped’); he was treated indulgently, even by liberals, as New Atheism’s mad uncle, whose uglier outbursts could excused on the grounds of his very eccentricity.

But his weaponised atheism was no anomaly.

Attendees at the convention can, after all, hear much the same thing from Sam Harris, another of the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’. Harris, like Hitchens, thinks that atheists have a special insight into the war on terror, which should, he says, understood as a conflict against ‘a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise’. Most liberals, he continues, fail to understand ‘how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are’. Indeed, ‘the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.’

Harris calls himself a liberal but his positions on Islam are to the Right of any Australian parliamentarians, with the possible exception of Cory Bernardi, a notorious conservative crank.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another conference speaker, carves out similar territory.

‘We are at war with Islam,’ she says bluntly. ‘And there’s no middle ground in wars.’

Elsewhere, Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the neonconservative American Enterprise Institute, explained the home front consequences of that total war.

‘All Muslim schools. Close them down. Yeah, that sounds absolutist. I think 10 years ago things were different, but now the jihadi genie is out of the bottle.’

Again, it’s the sort of stuff you’d expect to hear from Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer or other sinister representatives of the so-called ‘counter-jihad’ movement.

Such is weaponised atheism: arguments for war and state repression, tricked out as scepticism.

Obviously, not all speakers at the Global Atheist Convention are Hitchensian warmongers. Many denounced the invasion of Iraq. Some oppose the worst excesses of Islamophobia and have the grace to find the polemical excesses of Harris et al somewhat embarrassing.

Nonetheless, the fact remains: leading representatives of the movement express ideas that otherwise we’d associate with the hard Right – and are celebrated for doing so. This is a phenomenon that requires some explanation.

Again, a comparison with the past is instructive.

In the late nineteenth century, religiousity formed the fabric of daily life. Of necessity, the ASA duly offered a secular alternative to familiar Christian rituals, with Symes prompting his followers through a materialist catechism (‘What is science?’ he asked, to which the congregations dutifully chorused: ‘Truth’.) He taught children at a Sunday lyceum, leading them off for excursions with their freethought banners unfurled. ‘It was a picnic in itself,’ gloated the Liberator, chronicling one of those trips, ‘to watch the horrified looks of some of the pious folk as the wagons passed down Brighton Road’.

In other words, while, doctrinally Symes might have shared Hirsi Ali’s hostility to religion, the persecuted ASA could never have adopted her police-state policiies to Muslim schools in Australia because, to all intents and purposes, it was a Muslim school in Australia – organizationally and socially a fringe sect, proselytizing ideas that the mainstream found foreign and threatening.

For atheists back then, state power was obviously problematic, if only because they were usually facing its sharp end. For example, Cole’s Wharf, located only a block or so from where today’s atheists will convene, once provided an unofficial free speech forum, a rare oasis in the desert of Melbourne’s conformity. But when Symes began drawing crowds there, the authorities closed the stumps down. That was why the Hall of Science became necessary: as architectural historian Kerry Jordan explains, the ASA ‘found it difficult to rent premises for their meetings because of their notoriety and opposition to contemporary moral standards.’ The Liberator was singled out for prosecution under the Newspaper Act and regularly seized and burnt by customs officials, while Symes was denounced in the press as a ‘leprous reptile’. Even the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria blacklisted him.

The weaponisation of atheism, then, becomes a possibility only with the mainstreaming of non-belief. In the nineteenth century, religious skepticism in Australia barred you from polite society, so that, of necessity, nineteenth century secularists rubbed shoulders with dissidents and non-conformists in a fraternity of the poor and the marginalised. Today, in most circumstances, no-one cares that you don’t believe in God. The Prime Minister is an atheist; in some professions – say, higher education or the arts – it’s considerably easier to be a sceptic than a believer (see many head scarves on Australian TV?). As Sikivu Hutchinson points out, the front ranks of New Atheism consists almost exclusively of ‘elite white males from the scientific community’, a fact that, in and of itself, speaks to the social acceptance of non-belief, at least in the prestigious universities.

These days, it is religion, not atheism, that correlates with poverty. Within Australia, the most fervent believers often belong to immigrant communities; across the world, religion dominates in impoverished states in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

That’s a substantive social shift, and it has obvious consequences for the political orientation of atheism.

But there’s more going on than that.

On 19 June 1890, a group of secularists stormed Melbourne’s Hall of Science and barricaded themselves inside.

Shortly after midnight, another group, led by Symes himself, arrived and fought their way through the doors. After a bloody punch-up, they physically expelled their opponents – and then posted armed guards to keep them away.

A few days later, one of those defenders took out his revolver to clean it. The gun accidentally discharged. The bullet struck a man called William Jackson Brown; he died the next day.

That tragedy didn’t stop the secular in-fighting. Several times over the next year, crowds of freethinkers – sometimes numbering as many as thousand people – gathered at the Hall for prolonged scuffles over its possession.

The anti-Symesites eventually prevailed but their victory proved largely pyrrhic. The divided movement could no longer fund the building’s upkeep – and the prize possession of the movement was forcibly sold, with ownership eventually passing, with tragic irony, to a Catholic-run hospital.

What was the dispute about?

The ASA was initially a very broad organisation, and included in its ranks radicals of all sorts. For a while, those differences could be subsumed into its struggle for freedom of speech. The ASA played, for instance, an important role in the campaign to force open the Public Library on a Sunday, in defiance of strict religious rules that public institutions remained closed on the only day working people might access them.

But the length and intensity of such fights spurred some in the ASA to move left.

At one of the trials of anti-Sabbatarians (yes, secularists actually went to gaol for the right to library access in Melbourne!), a police witness noted a new phenomenon.

‘They don’t confine themselves to the Public Library at all, your worship …’ he said, ‘but they denounce capitalists and even magistrates, your worship.’

These ASA activists increasingly identified the church as merely one amongst many institutions maintaining an oppressive status quo. As one of them declared, ‘Secularism has outlived its usefulness. Our hope … [lies] in Anarchy which is based on rebellion against authority.’

The formation in 1886 of the Melbourne Anarchist Club by ASA members dramatically heightened tensions within Australian freethought, particularly in the context of the massive social polarisations. In 1889, the Maritime Dispute shut down Melbourne and prompted a huge rally on the Yarra Bank, which was very nearly fired on by mounted police. The next year, the shearers strike left the nation on the brink of a civil war, while the world plunged into the deepest economic depression it had hitherto known.

The ASA’s Left began leading Occupy Wall Street style marches through the city, burning government officials in effigy and chanting rude songs about them. Symes, on the other hand, opposed the strikes. Essentially a pre-socialist liberal, his notion of liberty meant, first and foremost, freedom to think. From his perspective, social upheavals were, at best, a distraction from the progress of science and, at worst, a manifestation of incipient barbarism. Increasingly, he turned his polemical powers, like Hitchens denouncing anti-war protesters, on those he called ‘the washed off filth of the association, collected in the Anarchist slough’.

Why should anyone care about an obscure debate amongst minor organisations from long ago?

Because the emergence of Left tendencies in the ASA was indicative of how, all across the world in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, liberal atheism was challenged by a new, more social orientation as labour activists turned, in Marx’s phrase, ‘the criticism of Heaven […] into the criticism of Earth.’ In a few decades time, the Russian revolution cemented an association between atheism and social reform, to the extent that, for many reactionaries, ‘godless’ and ‘commie’ became almost synonymous.

Of course, liberal and even rightwing versions of atheism persisted. But the existence of sizeable left-wing organisations committed to a broadly Marxist approach exerted a huge influence on the politics of atheism in the twentieth century.

That’s the context for the New Atheism, ‘new’ precisely because it emerged only after the traditional Left had more or less collapsed. Its novelty consisted largely of its separation from the communism that had more-or-less owned the movement throughout the twentieth century. In place of that Leftism, the New Atheism repackaged, for a new audience, the nineteenth century liberal positivism that freethinkers like Symes had espoused.

But, of course, the new context made all the difference.

For a start, the New Atheism was turbocharged by 9/11. The heightened, hysterical climate in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks produced some bizarre publishing phenomena – obscure academic studies of the Taliban, for instance, suddenly featured in bestselling lists. Atheist polemics achieved an equal prominence precisely because they provided a simple answer to the newly urgent question that so many anguished pundits posed: why do Muslims hate us?

Again, the political consequences of that particular conjuncture are fairly obvious. Though few care to remember it now, in the early phases of the War on Terror, some of the loudest voices touting for regime change came from so-called liberals, often deploying tropes associated with the social movements and the New Left. Thus the invasion of Afghanistan – as ludicrous as it now seems – was initially shilled, at least in part, as a campaign to liberate women and homosexuals.

Atheism was used in the same fashion. Hitchens, in particular, transformed himself from midlist radical journalist to international celebrity by spinning Bush’s military adventures as a war of liberal tolerance against theocratic backwardness, a claim that, in retrospect, seems almost embarrassingly stupid.

But there were particular reasons why the New Atheist approach was so susceptible to Hitchens’ appropriation. Symes’ project, as we have seen, began and ended with an expose of religious fallacies. For him, as for the New Atheists today, religion was first and foremost a system of ideas – ‘ignorance with wings’, as Sam Harris says. Symes’ project, then, began and ended with its exposing religious fallacies. For if theological ideas were shown to be false, rational and intelligent people would surely abandon their beliefs.

But consider the corollary. If religion is an intellectual doctrine and nothing more than that, the persistence with which so many cling to God faith becomes explicable only in terms of their congenital inability to reason. Or, to put it another way, if religion is purely and simply a fairy tale, then ipso facto those who cling to it are little better than children.

The smugness that so often accompanies New Atheist interventions is not, then, accidental but is bred into the movement’s DNA. Symes rejected the activism of the ASA’s Left explicitly because to him the masses were, at best, dullards. It was very incapacity of ordinary people that made, he said, socialism impossible. ‘The strong, the cunning, the swift … must survive, while the weak, the slow, the dull and those with no artificial advantage must of necessity go to the wall — yes, the brutal truth bids me say, they must be stamped out.’

Back then, Symes’ overt elitism was largely kept in check by his organisation’s marginalisation, since his denunciations were, of necessity, usually directed at powerful clerics and politicians rather than ordinary believers. The New Atheists today find themselves in a rather different position. There’s an obvious rightward dynamic in tremendously wealthy authors (‘Sam’s fee is $25,000 which includes airfare.’regaling audiences of the well-educated and the well-to-do about the ignorance and stupidity of immigrants and the poor.

Moreover, the West’s engagement with Muslim countries over the last decade provides a context in which the weaponisation of atheism becomes almost inevitable.

The traditional Left approach to belief begins with a recognition that religion is not simply a set of ideas. Religion is a cultural identity; it’s also simultaneously an aesthetic, a system of feeling, a guide to social and sexual conduct, an organizational framework and many other things besides. These different functions contradict and complement each other in all sorts of ways.

That’s why the same holy texts can, in different social settings, give rise to entirely different behaviours and attitudes; it’s why both the Anabaptists and Pat Robertson can claim inspiration from the New Testament.

If, then, you wanted to understand the role of religion in Iraq or Afghanistan, simply assessing the truth claims in the Koran does not get you very far – indeed, in some ways, it’s almost a category error. Islam, like all religions, functions on many different levels. It offers, for instance, meaning to people subjected to death and suffering often inflicted by the advanced countries of the West. It provides charity where no social services exist; it gives voice to nationalist resistance in nations where the secular Left was widely discredited by its Stalinism. And it does many other things besides.

Even put as schematically as that, the argument suggests a particular political response. Atheists and others seeking to fostering secularism in the Arab world might do so by, first and foremost, ending the military interventions that have brought so much suffering.

If, on the other hand, religion is seen simply as a dangerous fairy story, then it’s almost inevitable that the fervent believers of Afghanistan are cast as menacing infants – a trope that reiterates, almost exactly, Kipling’s high imperialist image as the subjects of empire as ‘half devil and half child’. Hence the neocon temptation into which so many New Atheists fall, the conviction that military force is morally justified to free the savages from their own delusions, much as the British empire justified its depredations by contrasting Western science with the natives’ pagan superstitions.

Anti-Muslim writers commonly declare that Islam needs its own reformation.

But that’s a charge that should really be leveled at atheism, a movement that urgently needs the kind of political polarization that separated the Right from the Left in the ASA of 1890.

For, at present, the loudest voices speaking on behalf of atheism trot out a crude nineteenth century positivism, a rewarmed (but far more conservative) version of Symes’ freethought. Meanwhile, the atheist Left seems entirely silent. Where, for instance, are the interventions from progressives as the Global Atheist Convention conducts a session lauding Hitchens’ career under the title ‘A Life Well Lived’? Will anyone point out that the author of God is Not Great devoted his well-lived life to apologetics for a military campaign that led to the deaths of perhaps a million people? For progressives, should the devastation of Iraq not matter at least as much as Hichens’ reputation as a witty conversationalist?

A few weeks ago, the editor of the New York Times editorial page noted that the US effectively now runs an entirely separate judicial system for Muslims. Meanwhile, across Europe, neo-fascist organisations, some of them with lineages stretching back to the Nazis, supplement their traditional anti-Semitism with a new anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s a heartbreaking historical tragedy that, with prejudice rising throughout the world, the loudest voices in a movement that once campaigned for liberty uses a rhetoric indistinguishable from the hatemongers and the racists.

But it’s not just that atheism has a Muslim problem (though it clearly does).

In the US, the Republicans have launched a savage war on women’s reproductive rights, an assault justified in religious rhetoric. How, then, should the Left respond?

We could, perhaps, reply to the bishops who denounce birth control by simply declaring anyone who identifies with Catholicism as an ignorant hick.

On the other hand, we might note that, precisely because religion is a contradictory social phenomenon, the vast majority of those who call themselves Catholics actively flout the Pope’s rulings about sex, something that provides scope for a common front against the Right. Indeed, any successful movement against the war on women will, almost by definition, involve those who consider themselves believers.

That doesn’t mean that leftwing atheists should hide their views about God. It’s simply that say that we’re far more likely to win people from religion by working alongside them against the forces of oppression in this world – and thus showing them in practice that religious consolations aren’t necessary – rather than by dismissing them as dupes and stooges.

If religion is a social phenomenon, it will persist so long as social conditions render it necessary. That’s why the defeat of the atheist Right, and the revival of an atheist Left, matters so much. Denouncing God is easy. What’s harder – and much more important – is creating a world that no longer has need of Him.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.

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  • Sabhanak Yarabi

    @Geji: *All* atheists this and *all* religious people that. I can’t argue with your infallible logic. Seriously though – you’re an embarrassment to your own cause. Do your brothers and sisters a favor – cancel your internet connection, burn your computer, and just shut the jahenim up.

  • Michael Elwood

    @Believing Atheist

    “I quoted two sentences. The first was this: ‘Sure enough, peaceful countries have more atheists and fewer regular worshipers.'”

    “The second was: Whatever, it’s another blow to the idea that secularization leads to social meltdown. Atheist countries are, in fact more peaceful.”

    “Is this true or false?”

    It’s both true and false. The first sentence, which implies correlation, is true. The second sentence, which implies causation, is false. There’s no evidence that secularization leads to social meltdown. But there’s no evidence that secularization leads to a utopia either.

  • Sabhanak Yarabi

    @B/A: Thanks for the assist. I think most atheists that visit this site do so as a show of support for our Muslim friends. We recognize the dangerous rhetoric being levied against all Muslims for the actions of a few radicals, as well as the logical fallacies this rhetoric is based on. However, when I see clowns like Al and Geji turning around and using the *same lines of logic* to villify people who don’t share their beliefs, it makes me wonder if atheists defending Muslims from Christians and Jews is really in our own best interest. After all, as long as they’re at each others throats, they’ll have no time to turn their attention on us.

  • Saladin

    @Believing Atheist

    Here is one of the links it is not a lecture but if you read Scott Atran’s paragraph on (3) Moral Myopia he talks about all the “isms”. I would recommend reading all of what Scott has to say on there

    http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html#atran2

  • Geoff Cavendish

    What the?

    “The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. Prior to the rise of the church, Jews became the objects of suspicion and occasional persecution for their refusal to assimilate, for the insularity and professed superiority of their religious culture-that is, for the content of their own unreasonable, sectarian beliefs. The dogma of a “chosen people,” while at least implicit in most faiths, achieved a stridence in Judaism that was unknown in the ancient world. Among cultures that worshiped a plurality of Gods, the later monotheism of the Jews proved indigestible. And while their explicit demonization as a people required the mad work of the Christian church, the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day. As a system of beliefs, it appears among the least suited to survive in a theological state of nature. Christianity and Islam both acknowledge the sanctity of the Old Testament and offer easy conversion to their faiths. Islam honors Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as forerunners of Muhammad. Hinduism embraces almost anything in sight with its manifold arms (many Hindus, for instance, consider Jesus an avatar of Vishnu). Judaism alone finds itself surrounded by unmitigated errors. It seems little wonder, therefore, that it has drawn so much sectarian fire. Jews, insofar as they are religious, believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God. As a consequence, they have spent the last two thousand years collaborating with those who see them as different by seeing themselves as irretrievably so. Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their “freedom of belief” on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East.”(Harris, The End of Faith p 93)

  • Geoff Cavendish

    Oh wait, the nuttiness of Harris knows no bounds:

    “There’s nothing more natural than rape. Human beings rape, chimpanzees rape, orangutans rape, rape clearly is part of an evolutionary strategy to get your genes into the next generation if you’re a male. You can’t move from that Darwinian fact about us to defend rape as a good practice. I mean no-one would be tempted to do that; we have transcended that part of our evolutionary history in repudiating it.” – Sam Harris (ABC Radio National-The Religion Report, “Science Fatwah? Part 2: Sam Harris,” December 20, 2006)

  • Believing Atheist

    @Michael Elwood,

    Michael, you are constructing a false-premise so that you can get a desired conclusion.

    I quoted two sentences. The first was this: “Sure enough, peaceful countries have more atheists and fewer regular worshipers.”

    The second was: Whatever, it’s another blow to the idea that secularization leads to social meltdown. Atheist countries are, in fact more peaceful.

    Is this true or false? Well I’ll let you decide but Atheist and irreligious nations were found to be more peaceful than their theist counterparts. (Note: What we mean by atheist nation is a society with increasing or predominant atheist/irreligious population). See below for the reference
    http://atheism.about.com/b/2009/06/20/global-peace-index-atheist-irreligious-nations-most-peaceful.htm

    Now if you don’t believe this that’s fine. But at the very least The data shows and I quote from the above link: “we can definitely argue that there is no increase in turmoil and crime or decrease in morality when a nation becomes more secular and more atheist. This is an argument based on evidence from multiple types of studies done all around the world.
    In contrast, those who claim that atheism and secularism are a problem for morality, peace, or civil society do so based entirely on personal prejudice and bigotry — they have absolutely no facts or data whatsoever to support what they are saying. Then again, they also don’t have any facts or data to support their own underlying religious claims, so the absence of facts for their allegations about atheists can’t be expected to trouble them.”

  • Geoff Cavendish

    It is so unfair that people would pick on Sam Harris. He has many excellent ideas. For example:

    “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith pp. 128-129).

  • Saladin

    @Believing Atheist

    “Please provide evidence that all isms owe their origin to monotheism”

    Scott Atran: Talking To The Enemy Faith Brotherhood

    And a lecture by Scott Atran as well when I find the link I will post it along with the page numbers from the book Polytheism could not provide the overarching concept of humanity along with a moral frame work.

  • Believing Atheist

    @Saladin,

    Please provide evidence that all isms owe their origin to monotheism. Monotheism itself owes its origin to polytheism and the world’s first monotheistic religion i.e., Judaism may have started off as polytheistic. (Note: If you count the cult of Akhenaten to be a religion, then it most likely preceded Judaism and it was monotheistic).
    http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/premo.html

  • Link182

    Einstein was not an atheist. Darwin was a wavering agnostic but he never became an atheist.
    I’m also sorry to inform you that your arguments for the incompatibility of science and religion are flatly nonsensical. We do not accept revelation at the exclusion of science, we accept both revelation and science. As for evolution, Augustine argued for a metaphorical reading of Genesis long before Darwin came along.

    The fact that anyone who is too stupid to accept the evidence does not mean there is something incompatible between science and all forms of religion. It just means that those people are ignorant.
    Religion instructs us to seek knowledge and most religious scientists see science as a way to understand God’s creation. In a world where some of the greatest scientists of all time were religious it never ceases to amaze me how people who have contributed nothing to science feel that they can tell scientists (who are vastly more intelligent) that they know something about science that they don’t .

    One last point. Harris is not an ignorant bigot for failing to believe the propositions you just listed. He’s a bigot for advocating preemptive war against Muslim nations and declaring Islamophonia to be a delusion immediately after the Breivik massacre. He openly states that Muslims are primitive barbarians, supports the ethnic profiling of anyone looks like a Muslims and is a vigorous supporter of fascists like Geert Wilders, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Robert Spencer. Anyone who too stupid not see anything wrong with this cannot be taken seriously Graham.

  • Michael Elwood

    This a great article. Jeff Sparrow does what many Muslims do. . . criticize the extremists in their midst. Unfortunately, atheists often see as virtue in themselves what they see as vice in others. For example, Sam Harris’ wiki entry quotes him saying

    “Suggesting that the Qur’an and the hadith incite Muslims to kill or subjugate infidels, and reward such actions with paradise (including 72 virgins), Harris believes Islam is a religion of violence and political subjugation. He asserts that the liberal argument of stating that the phenomenon of religious extremism is a consequence of fundamentalism in and of itself is false, and that many other religions such as Jainism have not experienced the same trends Islam and Christianity have. Harris considers jihad, which he calls “metaphysics of martyrdom”, as taking the “sting out of death” and a source of peril. He rejects arguments that suggest such behavior is a result of extremist Muslims, not mainstream ones. He argues that the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy erupted not because the cartoons were derogatory but because “most Muslims believe that it is a sacrilege to depict Muhammad at all.”[30] Harris maintains that the West is at war with “precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith.”[16]pp. 109–110.

    “Harris acknowledges that religions other than Islam can inspire, and have inspired, atrocities. In The End of Faith, he discusses examples such as the Inquisition and witch hunts. However, Harris believes that Islam is the most evil.[27]”

    Elsewhere in the entry, and without any sense of contradiction, it quotes him saying:

    “Madeleine Bunting quotes Harris in saying “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” and states this “sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition.”[67] Quoting the same passage, theologian Catherine Keller asks, “[c]ould there be a more dangerous proposition than that?” and argues that the “anti-tolerance” it represents would “dismantle” the Jeffersonian wall between church and state.[68] Writer Theodore Dalrymple described the passage as “quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist”.[69] Harris repudiated his critics characterization, stating they “have interpreted the second sentence of this passage to mean that I advocate simply killing religious people for their beliefs. . . . but such a reading remains a frank distortion of my views.”[70] Harris goes on to argue that beliefs are only dangerous to the extent that they can influence a person’s behaviour, and to the extent that the behaviour is violent. He believes that pre-emptively attacking known dangerous fanatics (i.e. Osama Bin Laden) is justified. Harris also claims, however, that “Whenever we can capture and imprison jihadists, we should. But in most cases this is impossible.””

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Harris_(author)

    Harris “acknowledges” that religions other than Islam can inspire, and have inspired, atrocities (how noble of him!). But, unlike Sparrow, he can’t bring himself to acknowledge that atheism can inspire, and has inspired, atrocities. In addition to the example Sparrow gave of Joseph Symes and the Australasian Secular Association, there are others. For example, during the French Revolution, the atheist Joseph Fouché and the atheistic Jacobin Club was responsible for many atrocities like the “Reign of Terror” and “Dechristianization”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dechristianisation_of_France_during_the_French_Revolution

    Around the same time, the atheist Jacques Hébert and the atheistic Cordeliers Club was responsible for atrocities like the “September Massacres”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_Massacres

    During the Russian Revolution, the atheist Yemelyan Yaroslavsky and the League of Militant Atheists was responsible for many atrocities:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_the_Godless

    Now, if historical and contemporary violence committed by theists disqualifies theism, how does historical and contemporary violence committed by atheists not disqualify atheism as well? Moreover, do atheist really expect us to believe that violence committed by theists is caused by theism, but violence committed by atheists isn’t caused by atheism?

    By the way, I also agree with others that the study Believing Atheist cited confuses correlation and causation. The authors of the study themselves seem to suggest a causal agent other than religion:

    “This year’s results found the economic downturn had made the world a little less peaceful. That, say the authors, “appears to reflect the intensification of violent conflict in some countries and the effects of both the rapidly rising food and fuel prices early in 2008 and the dramatic global economic downturn in the final quarter of the year.”

    “”Rapidly rising unemployment, pay freezes and falls in the value of house prices, savings and pensions is causing popular resentment in many countries, with political repercussions that have been registered by the GPI through various indicators measuring safety and security.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/02/newzealand-tops-global-peace-ranking

    Consider that Estonia is the most atheistic country in Europe:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism#Europe

    Yet, it ranks 46th on the GPI, behind Tunisia (which is 44th), Oman (which is 41st), UAE (which is 33rd), Kuwait (which is 29th), Malaysia (which is 19th), and Qatar (which is 12th):

    http://www.visionofhumanity.org/gpi-data/#/2011/scor

    If there was a causal relationship between theism and violence, and atheism and non-violence, this wouldn’t be the case.

  • Saladin

    @Graham
    “Ah yes, that bastard who says that women shouldn’t be chattel and that it doesn’t appear that all humans are the descendents of two people who lived in a garden in Iraq 6,000 years ago. How Islamophobic and orientalist of him to not accept proposals and beliefs like that as equally valid. How smug!”

    Aww how cute Harris is not a creationist WOW therefore he must be enlightened. Muslims don’t have to be creationist Ibn khaldun and Al-Jahiz proposed Darwinian style selection before Darwin, Harris supports torture and nuclear fist strikes that why he is an Islamophobe. Is that the kind of enlightenment you support? Remember ending weatherboarding was one of the things that planted the seed for human-rights
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-atran/waterboarding-our-sacred-_b_90782.html

    Religion has inspired science and has worked against it religion has inspired freedom and equality and at other time worked against it .Just because every thing is not up for debate in religion does not make it back ward it just says there is some fundamentals and that’s how the world should be.
    Science says nothing about ethics it can’t deal with that, science deals with trying to describe the word as it is religion and ethics deal with how the world should be. Human-rights and all ideologies like communism democratic liberalism, secularism and all the other “ism” owe their origin to monotheism because monotheism gave the objective moral frame and a concept of humanity.
    Being a atheist does not make you anymore enlightened.

  • Graham

    “Yes. Poor Newton. Poor Faraday. Poor Euler. Poor Leibniz. Look how they held back progress. If only they’d been atheists we’d have had modern science and mathematics.”

    Or Hypatia, or Einstein, or Darwin. And here I wasn’t referring to scientific progress as such, but rather societal progress. But the fact that certain scientists have also been religious doesn’t contradict the fact that religion, by its very nature, is antithetical to the scientific enterprise. It just means that whatever room for advancement exists within a religion wasn’t exceeded by the revelations of those scientists; when it was (evolution) religion could no longer tolerate science. After all, there is a fundamental difference between approaching reality via investigation(science) or by revelation(religion).

    When your vision of ‘enlightenment’ is embodied in people like Sam Harris you automatically disqualify yourself from using that word or partaking in serious conversation.

    Ah yes, that bastard who says that women shouldn’t be chattel and that it doesn’t appear that all humans are the descendents of two people who lived in a garden in Iraq 6,000 years ago. How Islamophobic and orientalist of him to not accept proposals and beliefs like that as equally valid. How smug!

  • Believing Atheist

    Two things I wish to say:

    1. If you have a problem with the term “atheist country,” then you have a problem with the website I linked. I merely quoted a few sentences from that website. What do you want me to do…distort the quote?

    2. I don’t define an atheist country as one that adheres to state-atheism, but it would be a false statement to say that “there is no atheist country.” Certainly a few countries in the world such as the ones JT mentioned are state-atheist countries. I define an atheist country and the website does to I believe as one wherein a society is increasingly atheist or atheism is the predominant belief in that society.

  • Link182

    I think secular societies in Europe have pretty much demonstrated that you don’t need God to be good. On the other hand, secular societies in North Korea, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, China (Maoist and modern) etc demonstrate that genocidal psychosis affects the secular as much as the religious.

    ”People have managed to step out from under the protection of their deity(ies)…It’s how we make progress,”

    Yes. Poor Newton. Poor Faraday. Poor Euler. Poor Leibniz. Look how they held back progress. If only they’d been atheists we’d have had modern science and mathematics.

    ”how we question our traditions and change to become more enlightened people.”

    When your vision of ‘enlightenment’ is embodied in people like Sam Harris you automatically disqualify yourself from using that word or partaking in serious conversation.

  • Averroe’s Ghost

    There is a statement from Rousseau who said in the context of salvific exclusivity, I paraphrase, ‘How can one live with others in society when he considers them damned.’ He argued essentially that you cannot. I don’t agree with that exactly, but he was on to something and it reminded me of something.

    Many of the so-called neo-Athesists have their own version of salvific exclusivity, i.e. if you are not atheist/agnostic, if you don’t believe in God you are “deluded,” are “dangerous,” are “ignorant,” have a greater propensity to “violence,” etc. Salvation for them lies in atheistic “rationalism,” that is liberation to them, freedom, truth.

    So we can extend the statement of Rousseau and amend it I believe to include many of the neo-atheists as well.

  • Graham

    “This is rather simplistic. It ought to read: If a society is not girded by any form of controlling power or authority, that society is bound to be healthier and happier and peaceful. Furthermore, even post-religious societies are imbued with religious graces and manners. The danger is that through time people will lose that tradition and moral compass and that’s when you’ll have new wars and ideologies. We do know what happens to people and societies when they misuse the name of God or form idols out of ethnicities and politics, we don’t know if post-religious societies will survive peacefully if the elements of the tradition of morality are erased through time.”

    This is the same old fear-based recourse to religion. If we don’t have religion, we’ll all go mad, and without this paternal god figure, we can’t figure out why to be moral,aaaaah! Hard as it may be for you to accept, people have managed to step out from under the protection of their deity(ies) and find a way to live. It’s how we make progress, how we question our traditions and change to become more enlightened people.

  • Heinz Catsup

    @Black Infidel: Yep (not so much Criss, but Thunderf00t definitely).

    Here’s a good video exposing him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT6U69fFMCo

  • JT

    “Atheist countries are, in fact more peaceful”

    You can’t really conclude that, even with the evidence you have given. The most peaceful countries may be peaceful because of other factors such as economic stability etc.

    You define an atheist country as one which follows a policy of state atheism — in that case, what can you say about China, North Korea, Vietnam or Cuba? These are the only ones you can categorise as “atheist countries” and they are certainly not peaceful.

  • Geoff Cavendish

    On the subject of religion and violence, there are some good studies out there. One of the most interesting is the Encyclopaedia of Wars by Phillips and Axelrod. In this text, the authors surveyed 1,763 throughout history, they document 1763 wars overall, of which 123 (7%) have been classified to involve a religious conflict. Also, in Phillips and Axelrod’s survey, the most murderous of modern wars – the two World Wars, the Rwandan civil war and genocide, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia – have been nonreligious.

  • Mohammed Al-Arabi

    @ Sir David

    I wouldnt call North Korea athiestic at all actually. I was reading a rather good book on the country called “The Cleanest Race” and its rather fascinating that a sort of psuedo-religious and ethno-centric order(more fascistic than communist) is really what colors much of societal life in North Koea.

  • Black Infidel
  • mjasghar

    Surely that’s a false corollary
    Is it not more likely that peaceful countries are more likely to become pseudo atheist in that many west European countries have majority who call themselves culturally Christian but don’t really believe? Yet in times of trouble fall back on that faith
    No surprise then that troubled nations turn to their faith
    The major atheist countries are or were communist or fascist ( nazis were atheists) regimes where atheism is enshrined

  • http://www.krapuul.nl Al Bakrastani

    @ Believing Atheist ..

    Sure enough, peaceful countries have more atheists and fewer regular worshipers.”
    Whatever, it’s another blow to the idea that secularization leads to social meltdown. Atheist countries are, in fact more peaceful.

    I beg to disagree: two of the most murderous regime’s in recent history , Stalins Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodja where vehemently Atheist .. National Socialism was secular .. And lastly , the most murderous system of all , Capitalism is not connected with any religion at all and in opposition with the teachings of all i know …..

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