The hypocrisy of New Atheism: How Maher, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens all behave like Islamic fundamentalists.

A popular argument of the New Atheist movement is to suppose that religion is disproportionately responsible for the crimes and horrors of our world. It’s been made by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and of course, pundit Bill Maher. At its weakest Maherist form, the atheist argument tells us that if you’re looking at an individual dispute and/or global problem, specifically war, the chances are it’s a direct or indirect result of faith-based world-views. At its strongest Hitchenist form, the argument tells us that the world would automatically be a better place if religion was instantly wiped from the face of the planet.

Having already done away with the myth that Islam is the biggest cause of terrorism, this blogpost is aimed at doing away with the myth that religion has a monopoly over badness, that is to say, being religious automatically makes you morally inferior, and being secular automatically makes you morally superior. What I am going to argue here is that just as religion does not have a monopoly over goodness, it does not have a monopoly over badness either.

Indeed, the final conclusion I will reach here is that New Atheist scholars and religious fundamentalists have more in common than they might realize. First though, I want to tackle some social institutions where the religious and non-religious (even anti-religious) forms seem to be susceptible to identical shortcomings, which makes their religious character mostly trivial.

Social institutions.

Consider charities, who usually do a lot of good regardless of whether they are based around a faith. For example the Christian Salvation Army that provides help to the poor, and the secular FKH8 that attempts to combat homophobia.

The Salvation Army has a prolific record of discriminating against LGBT people, which you can read about here and here. On the other side, FKH8 has an established history of excluding certain sexuality minorities like asexuals, and has gathered donations under shaky circumstances which you can read about here.

Does the secularity of FKH8 have any bearing on its questionable activities? Does the religiosity of the Salvation Army makes its practice worse than, say, the policy towards asexual and pansexual people that FKH8 employs? If so, why? Although the origins of the questionable activities may vary wildly, the results are identical: harm to a social group.

Social concepts.

Take a social concept like sexism and misogyny instead. Again, you have the religious form and the secular form, in this case where anti-women sentiments are concerned.

The religious form self-evidently comes from Biblical, Qu’ranic and other scriptural justifications for treating women like second-class citizens or worse, which I won’t regurgitate here. The secular (Western) form of misogyny tells us that men are oppressed. Men are victims of women’s superiority complexes. They’re usually, to put it crudely, teenagers who can’t get a girlfriend who hate their Mom for not letting them play Call of Duty, but many fully-grown adults still subscribe to so-called Men’s Rights Activism.

Are women more free if they’re treated like purely sexual objects in the West or if they’re treated like dangerous sinners who must be hidden from society in the Middle East? Whether you hate women because the Qu’ran tells you they’re sinners or you hate women because they’re all ‘goddamn money-grabbers who won’t put out’, the underlying principle is the same: You hate women.

The scientific method.

Or even take scientifically accepted world events like man-made climate change. The justifications for climate change denialism again take the same two basic forms we’ve seen, secular and religious. Climate change isn’t real because it’s cold where I live today, and so on.

Surprisingly, this is an example where the secular justifications for global warming denialism might exceed the religious ones, in the context of how big a voice they have. At the very least, secular climate change deniers occupy a larger platform in places like the U.S. than their religious counterparts. To take the example of government, congresspeople who delight in denialism are usually both religiously motivated and motivated by their (secular) corporate backers e.g. leaders of fossil fuel industries, the Koch brothers and so on. The secular profit motive occupies the most powerful force in denialism, and far outdoes religious denialism in both style and influence. Its members include the richest and most powerful individuals who care more about making a buck than protecting their children’s future.

It’s even easy to argue that the secular corporocrats are directly responsible for peddling denialism into the minds of the Christian right, that is to say they’ve duped religious people into regurgitating their denialism through a different format, namely a religious one. Denialism moves from the secular “the evidence on climate change is still mixed, we’re not hearing from dissenting voices” into the religious “it’s a liberal conspiracy to take away all our guns and make us buy solar panels that we don’t need”. And again, the effects are identical: uneducated people denying climate change and putting us in danger.

Back to the original point, let us not forget that science is not something one should be blindly faithful to. Science gave us phrenology, justification for racism and the “natural order” of racism. Science gave us weapons of mass destruction. Science gave us chemical and biological warfare. Science gave us the means to kill each other in the most painful and brutal ways.

If we think about the scientific method in the same way New Atheists think about religious belief, then science has the blood of millions of innocents on its hands for inventing guns, tanks, military helicopters, bombs and submarines. If it’s absurd to blame the concept of “science” on these horrific inventions, then it must be absurd to blame “religion” for the things Maher, Dawkins and the like do.

The Victor Stenger mantra of the New Atheist movement that “science flies you to the moon while religion flies you into buildings” is an amusing quip but it forgets the dark history of the scientific method when it’s applied by people who have no moral compass. Without stopping and thinking what they are creating, scientists often end up in a Frankensteinian scenario where they’ve used something admirable to create something horrific, as Robert Oppenheimer did.

25TopAtheists

(One thing’s for sure; New Atheists have an artistic flair)

So why lump all Muslims or all Christians into the same blameworthy category, but not do the same for 19th century scientists? We don’t do it for scientists because we think they’re an unrelated collection of individuals with varying specialities who are all doing their own things – they just happen to all be united under one creed: the scientific method. And yet couldn’t we just as easily use that definition for the billions of religious people across the globe? Why are Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists “all the same”?

It’s far too simplistic to think that religion is the enemy of progress and science is the best friend of progress.

Forms of government.

I would like to turn to the differences in secular and religious governments, the most prominent example that takes place when discussing issues of religion.

I think most of us are already familiar with the most brutal and oppressive regimes across the globe: North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and increasingly, Russia and China, to name but a handful. Uganda is an overwhelmingly Christian country, while Iran and Saudi are overwhelmingly Muslim. All three of which are not secular, and implement laws on the basis of their respective religions. Russia is somewhat under the influence of the powerful Orthodox Church but has a long history of secularism and atheism. China has a reputation for being a country run by atheists, and North Korea is openly hostile to religion.

And yet all these nations have commonalities in their politics: Reactionism, hostility to foreign peoples, corruption, totalitarian or authoritarian tendencies, and a past history of brutalizing their own people. They’re by no means exceptional cases, but the most extreme current ones.

I admit that there are countless subtle nuances between secular governments and theocracies, but what does it tell us that two nations, let’s say North Korea and Iran, both do similar things to their people but one is religious and one is not? Does it make a substantial difference on the ground, to the people suffering under these brutal regimes? It must, since Sam Harris and Bill Maher devote so much time to Muslim-majority countries and the evils they pretend, remaining relatively silent about sweeping totalitarianism across secular non-religious Asian countries. It’s almost like right-wing extremism only matters when it’s coming from a religious source.

Sure, two wrongs don’t make a right, but Harris and Maher can’t tell us why one is more wrong than another, and Maher in particular just resorts to petty insults about how weird, crazy and ‘effed up religious people are for cheap laughs.

The hypocrisy of the scientific New Atheists.

As I finish this piece, I want to briefly talk about the New Atheists themselves, and their apparent abandonment of all the values they hold dear when faced with Islam.

Overgeneralizations are unscientific:

  • Sam Harris & Bill Maher using the oft-cited Pew study that asked 0.02% of the world’s Muslims what they thought about terrorism and extremism. As high as 80% of the 0.02% of Muslims thought terrorism was acceptable in certain circumstances, but Harris and Maher think this proves Islam has an “epidemic” level of terrorism.
  • Sam Harris’s support for racial profiling.
  • Richard Dawkins’ claim that that Islam is comparable to Nazism.

Selective reporting and employing the spotlight fallacy is unscientific:

  • Richard Dawkins’ claim that Muslims don’t win Nobel Prizes and haven’t done anything useful since “the Middle Ages”, and his accusation that Muslims are unworthy of being journalists.

Scaremongering is unscientific:

  • Sam Harris’ endless warnings that creeping Sharia and the Islamification of Europe are both impending, and his claims that France could become Muslim-majority in 20 years even if immigration was immediately halted.
  • Richard Dawkins’ sterling defense of Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a man who’s openly called for the banning of the Qu’ran and immigration from Muslim countries, and tried to frighten voters into supporting him to stop the “Islamification of the Netherlands”.

Bloodthirstiness is uncompassionate:

  • Sam Harris’ support for the Bush wars as a fight against the “cult of death” that is Islam.
  • Sam Harris’s claim that there are “millions” of Muslims that pose a greater threat to civilization than Dick Cheney (confirmed war criminal).
  • Sam Harris’s declaration that Palestinian civilian casualties are at least permissible if they occur in the Gaza Strip since it’s so densely populated (the question of whether Israel should attack the Strip never seems to have occurred to Harris).
  • Bill Maher’s declaration that Palestinian civilian casualties are just down to the fact that “people die in wars”.
  • Christopher Hitchens’ vicious and rabid support of the Iraq War, which has killed 100,000-150,000 people to date, on the basis that he opposed “totalitarianism” in any form (how ironic that his love of the war has now opened the floodgates for further fundamentalism and totalitarianist groups).

As Luke Savage writes in New Atheism, Old Empire, despite their apparent love of anti-totalitarianism and anti-extremism, New Atheists have all supported “aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture, and even, in the case of [Harris], genocidal pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations”.

Sam Harris once argued that science can work out the answer to moral questions. If he’s doing the working out, I don’t want the answers.

New Atheists, especially through their foreign policy, have made themselves eerily similar to U.S. Republican warmongers, British fascists, Israeli racists, Russian ultra-conservatives, Greek neo-Nazis and Iranian fundamentalists. If you support heinous crimes against humanity, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if you’re religious or not.

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14 thoughts on “The hypocrisy of New Atheism: How Maher, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens all behave like Islamic fundamentalists.

  1. It is commonly known that Newton wasted a good amount of his genius scouring the bible for hidden meanings and such so, of course, I do not think that all science is done by atheists. Imagine how much more Newton might have achieved if he had not wasted his time on this. Anyway up until the late 1800s everybody had to be religious because there was no better explanation for the world we see around us. But the year is 2014 now and nobody is crticising individulal muslims they are criticsing the ideas published in the Quran or the Bible in the same way we might criticise the medical theories of this same iron age period.

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    • Alright, so you have this thought that we should all abandon non-scientific beliefs and move forward into a golden age of scientific discovery. Now tell me how to go about it. It’s all very well performing armchair philosophy and lamenting how terribly unscientific everybody is, but what do you propose to do about it? Honestly, I want to know.

      Should we perform military interventions to liberate people from the clutches of the Qu’ran? Well we tried that with Bush’s “nation building” exercise which resulted in hundreds of thousands of corpses and an even tighter fundamentalist hold over the Iraqi people. So that can’t be the answer.

      You’ve pointed out the problem, now give me a solution.

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      • Unfortunately there is probably no way of moving people away from religious beliefs they have had since childhood without causing a certan amount of offense but I am certainly not in favour of any form of violence. Sorry it is getting late here in Australia and I need to work tommorow so will leave an answer until tommorow if you are still interested to read.

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        • Not sure what you mean by the term “New Atheists” but I have taken it to mean Atheist who are now prepared to promotoe (proselytize if you like) the Atheist view point. This has rarely happened before and the history has been a once sided barage of proselytizing, politicing, etc, etc to promote the power of various religions while atheists/agnostics generally sat by quietly.
          It may just be a matter of pointing out the Emporer has no Clothes and public opinion can move iron age religion from the main stream to the margins of society.
          So my solution, in first world countries, is the work being done by people like Dawkins, Harris, etc.

          Hopefully holding beliefs like creationism, heaven, etc will come to be treated the same respect as for people who think women and niggers should not be allowed to vote, Elivs is still alive, etc, etc. It can happen the Klu Klux Klan went from a powerfull main stream orgination in the early 1900s to a pack of rednecks and ratbags in less than 10 years through a process of public humiliation in the newspapers.
          Introducing change in less liberal countries is not so easy but it will be helpfull if the first world at least gives the example of a good life free from ancient religion.
          The main threat to to this progress is people like yourself who are not religious but still seem inclined to give support to the intellectual train wrecks which most religions are. I know you are not a Jihadist but you are giving credence to religious terrorists by your broad defence of religious.

          Have not really answered your question on Athests foreign policy but have run out of time again. Without giving it much thought I would think building the power of the UN is our best hope of global civilisation. Am quite keen on the UN’s Human Development Index myself. I wish all elections in all coutnries were fought on the basic platform of who has the best polices to move the given country up the ranking on the Human Development Index. This index would also have be constantly monitored and refined over time to produce the gold standard on good living.

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          • You’ve just regurgitated the same argument I have criticized in this post. You’ve claimed that because I don’t want to obliterate all religious belief that I’m performing apologetics for jihadism and extremism. How offensive. Have you wilfully misunderstood my views or is it by accident? I abhor extremism in any form, religious or secular, which is why I treat Dawkins and Co. the same way I treat religious fundamentalists. Unlike New Atheists I distinguish between harmless experiences of faith and harmful institutional experiences of religious dogma. Why do you and the New Atheists find it so hard to do the same?

            So your real-world solution is to support the work of bloodthirsty atheists who have responded to religious fundamentalism with their own version of fundamentalism. Harris supports genocidal strikes against Arab nations. Dawkins supports stereotyping – a form of oppression. Hitchens supported imperialistic genocidal wars in the name of liberating people from the shackles of religion. Maher supports war crimes apologism if the victims happen to be Muslims.

            I am myself an atheist. But I’m not a New Atheist because my heroes don’t include people who have political views eerily similar to the views of their sworn enemies. If you and your most hated enemy approach the same problem with the same solution, how different are you, really?

            I hold New Atheism to such a high standard because if it wants to tackle fundamentalism and extremism, it can’t employ its own brands of the two. I demand more from my world-view.

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            • Yes I understand you would be offended but as a philosophy student I would expect a logical refute of this claim that broad populist support for doctrines such as those in the Quran does unavoidably give credence to religious terrorism.
              Is funny to talk about extremism in the context of religion. Christianity and Islam are very extreme doctrines so saying you abhore extremism is much the same as saying you abhore these religious sects except for those people who not actually believe any of it (i.e Atheists hiding in these extreme religions).

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            • Hardly think of religious people as “most hated enemies”. As long as they are keeping to themselves people are perfectly welcome think and play act whatever kinky stuff they like.
              As a philosophy student aren’t you bothered by the paradox of giving liberal support to religions that include commandments such as “Thou Shall Have No Other God before Me”?
              Is it liberal to give support non liberal ideas?

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              • You’re deliberately strawmanning me yet again. I do not support doctrines like those found in the Qu’ran. I’ve already told you quite plainly that I’m an atheist. What I support is people’s right to believe whatever unscientific beliefs they choose, provided they do not interfere with me, my social groups, or secular society at large.

                You really do equate Islam itself with terrorism don’t you? That’s a very unscientific point of view to hold and I genuinely don’t know how much further this discussion can go if you won’t even concede that some people are simultaneously Muslims and not terrorists. Sweeping overgeneralizations do you a great disservice.

                No, it’s not liberal to support non-liberal ideas. That’s why I don’t support non-liberal ideas. I support people’s right to privately experience whatever kind of faith they want. When that faith crosses the red line and enters the public sphere, that’s when my opinion on the matter changes. I disapprove of theocracies, jihadism and religious law and I disapprove of sweeping overgeneralizations, use of the Spotlight Fallacy and stereotyping.

                It’s foolish to think the debate comes down to bad, scary Muslims vs. wonderfully rational New Atheists.

                If you’d like to stop willingly misinterpreting my argument and actually read my views on private faith vs. public religion, you can do so here:

                https://www.academia.edu/7012177/On_the_Scrutiny_of_Religious_Belief_a_short_paper_about_the_proper_boundaries_between_religious_belief_and_scientific_belief_when_applied_to_political_policy

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                • If you do not support doctrines like those found in the Qu’ran then you do not support Islam. Yes I do equate Islam with potential terrorism. Is not just Islamic followers but anybody who seems to have genuine beliefs in supernatural theories (religious or otherwise) is potentially dangerous in my opinion. There is no way I would allow my kids to sleep over at the house of somebody I knew to be a genuine believer in Christianity, Islam or any other such weirdness. Growing up in Australia is quite rare to meet religious people and so the problem rarely comes up. Is fortunate for me because as a general rule I will deliberately avoid religious people. Had to attend a physiotheriapst some months ago and switched to a new physio just because they had had bible on the desk in the waiting room. Nothing personal I just prefer the company who live in the same universe as me and are not thinking about getting to heaven and such like.

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  2. Bit suprised at your comment “Why are Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists “all the same”?
    Sam Harris has spent many years of his life involved in Buddhist meditation practices. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Bill Mayer have all made it quite clear that they do not think all religions are they same. They have made it quite clear they think Islam is worse than the others because it is something like the Old Testament and too easily used to promote violence. Have your read Sam Harris’s latest book titled “Waking Up”. It takes a lot about the value of Buddhism which Sam belives is based on reality (ignoring a lot of the mumbo jumbo it has picked up in some versions).

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  3. The only sure way of improving quality of life is by moving closer to reality. Eg. Farming productivity has improved greatly over the past 10,000 years since it first began and this is not due to the rain god, it is due to scientific progress. This is also true for Medicine, the Justice System, Cooking and every other sphere of endeavour. Moving in the opposite direction (ie. toward religion and faith based beliefs) might occasionally work out all right for a short time but in the long term will always lead to misery. That is what is wrong with Islam, Christianity, Voodoo and all the other theatrics. It might seem OK if you don’t really believe the Quran and just like a sing a long or such but even this activity gives credibility to people who believe women should be stoned to death for adultery and other such soulless ideas.

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    • Hi Jim, the “all the same” comment was actually referring to my experiences with New Atheists who think ANY form of religious belief is a threat to the world of rationality and science and must be extinguished, whether it’s private individuals who enjoy Tarot cards or the Pope. While Harris and Maher do distinguish between Islam and Buddhism, they are apparently oblivious to the fact that a religion of 1.6 billion people cannot be categorized as x, y or z.

      You cannot make enormous sweeping generalizations about Muslims, for we have a clear and long history of how stereotyping and the like is a dangerous practice that has put groups in danger in the past. Every time the anniversary of 9/11 occurs in the U.S., violence against American Muslims sky-rockets.

      It is just so simplistic to think “science good” and “religion not good”. Consider the Islamic Golden Age, without which we would be far far behind in scientific progress, agriculture and even mathematics. If you believe that all scientific fields are filled solely with atheists, you would be mistaken.

      Like the New Atheists, you do not properly distinguish between private experiences of faith and public announcements of religion. Mary in Wisconsin who believes fairies play in her garden at night is not having the same impact on the world as the Archbishop of Canterbury is. One is having a private non-scientific experience of a non-existent phenomenon (harming nobody), while the other is announcing to the world that their unscientific beliefs are true. Faith is not the same thing as religion. It’s just not.

      There is a tendency, I think, for New Atheists to see any Muslim-majority country as a scientific wasteland with absolutely nothing to offer the world but destruction, anti-Americanism, and the promotion of jihad. How ironic, that the people who prize rationality and use evidence as the basis of their world-view suddenly go into a rabid bloodthirsty rage whenever the Middle East comes into discussion.

      This blogpost is an attempt to show how wholly unscientific and willingly blind the New Atheists are in the context of foreign policy. Sam Harris’ views in particular border on the genocidal.

      It is also interesting how Maher, Harris and Dawkins have been surprisingly silent about a recent bill in Israel that would destroy the separation of church and state.

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