Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Spectre is Haunting the New Atheism, the Spectre of "Islamophobia"

Recently there has been a renewal of that good old time intellectual culture war between the militant “New Atheists”, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins—the other member of the “unholy trinity”, Christopher Hitchens died in 2011—and their critics. In 2008 leftist socially gospeller Chris Hedges, who took a degree from the Harvard Divinity School, took the New Atheists to task for being similar in their anti-religious militancy to the pro-religious and often inquisitorial religious militants they criticized, a fair charge, a charge picked up by primatologist Frans de Waal who argues that the New Atheists are basically engaging in macho chest banging, and that Harris and Hitchens had become shills for 2000s style Bush Wilsonian neoliberalism. Now, following in the footsteps of Hedges, Nathan Lean, Murtaza Hussein, and Glen Greenwald, the most nuanced of the new critics of the New Atheism who focuses most of his ire on Harris, have likewish come not to praise the New Atheists but to bury them for their irrational and un-scientific neoliberal Islamophobia. Jerome Taylor reported on this latest skirmish in the culture war proving, in the process, that reflexivity usually follows quickly upon a body of similar criticism.

As someone who grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust I have long been familiar with the realities of ethnocentrisms of hatred, clan hatred, clique hatred, tribe hatred, religious hatred, national hatred, ethnic hatred among humans historically and contemporarilly for years. I have also, if more recently, it probably happened first during my sojourn in Utah, become familiar with the uses and abuses of the Holocaust by those with nationalistic and political agendas, who equate any criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians with anti-Semitism. When I lived in Utah I came to understand how Mormons, particularly Mormons of a defend the faith polemical and apologetic stripe, equated intellectual and theological criticism of Mormonism with a different, but very real I might add, virulent anti-Mormonism that was largely the product of evangelical polemics and apologetics. Such rhetorical strategies can be very useful in the public demonisation of those who disagree with you. Such discursive strategies, in other words, are classic examples of the Foucauldian use of language to marginalize opponents and thereby gain control over the discourse.

I think a lot of what is going on the criticism of the New Atheism is discursive Foucauldianism. Lean, for instance, uses several rhetorical and discursive strategies to metaphorically tar and feather his opponents. There's the character assassination. Dawkins, writes Lean, is a prickly preppy septuagenarian atheist with an attitude while Sam Harris is an ankle biter version of the rottweiler Dawkins. There's the character assassination of the audience. Hippies and yuppies alike, claims Lean, lap up the atheism of the New Atheists. There’s the silence in the cyberlibrary (had to get a Doctor Who reference in here) where Lean takes the lack of a New Atheist condemnations of Jewish fundamentalism as evidence of their pro-Israel selectivity. There’s Lean’s use of analogy to see what he can get to stick to the New Atheists so he can tar and feather them in the arena of public opinion. New Atheist support for Israel means that they are also supporting Israel’s verbally and sometimes physically violent Jewish fundamentalists. There’s Lean’s strategy of ignoring history when you can. Let’s not link New Atheist criticisms of Islam to the fact that unlike Western Judaism and Christianity it and its theocratic, misogynistic, and homophobic cultures—if unevenly—have been only limitedly impacted by post-Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment modernity. One can, as Harris does, argue from this and other factors that there may be a unique quality of the threat from Islam. One can, in other words, make a Nieburhrian argument. There’s Lean’s strategy of condemning others for lack of definitional precision (see the comments under his article) while failing to provide clear definitions of his own, such as a definition of Islamophobia and how one can distinguish between valid criticisms and ethnocentrism, because ambiguity works in his discursive favour. There’s Lean’s failure to recognise that the impact of Western colonialism and imperialism on the Islamic world does not necessitate the celebration of Islam and its theocratic, misogynistic, and homophobic culture (a product, by the way, of the same Mediterranean culture that gave us the theocratic, misogynistic, and homophobic cultures of pre-modern Judaism and Christianity) as a form of resistance to Western political, economic, cultural, geographic imperialism. There is no need, in other words, to sanctify the victim and thereby ignore the negative aspects of some forms of Islam. There’s Lean's tried and true if clichéd strategy of painting your opponents into a fascist corner by equating Dawkins with the Bush doctrine, Fox News, Mr. Torture Alan Dershowitz, and the ideology of the New Atheism with that of the right wing and ultra nationalist or fascist British National Party and Hussein's tried and true if clichéd strategy of equating the New Atheists with the scientific racists of Nazi Germany.

Greenwald makes some of the same accusations against Harris if in a more intellectually responsible way. For Greenwald Harris's pro-Israeli stance, his overlooking of Israeli and American brutalities against Muslims and beyond, his calls for a kind of "holy war" against the unique threat of Islam, his refusal to see Islam as the diverse religion it is, means that Harris is a bigoted Islamophobe.

I don’t know whether Lean, Hussein, and Greenwald have agendas beyond their concern over ethnocentrisms and the real hazards ethnocentrisms bring the modern world. I don't know why Salon has become the venue for so many polemics against the New Atheism. What I do know, however, is that it is hard to turn those who take an equal opportunity approach to criticising religion, particularly to the irrational, theocratic, misogynistic, and homophobic aspects of traditional Western religious culture, into Islamophobes or anti-Semites or anti-Christian save by a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand. And that is what I think, by and large, the criticisms of the New Atheists as anti-Islamic is, rhetorical and ideological sleight of hand.

I want to end this brief essay by circling back to Chris Hedges point that atheism, like religion, is a meaning system. Is atheism a meaning system? Well of course. But it is a meaning system anchored in empirical evidence at its best, something that religious meaning systems are ultimately not. It is this difference that makes atheism and its scientific grounding so much more compelling that religious meaning systems at least for those who care about accurate empirical evidence. Sadly, not all of us really do care about empirical evidence. Just look at all of those Americans who believe Obama is not an American or all those Americans who deny climate change. And this is, of course, the problem and it is a problem that religion often contributes to over and over again along with empirically challenged political ideologies like those of all those right wing wing nuts.

No comments:

Post a Comment