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.
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.
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.
(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.