In his masterful recent work, The Experience of God, Orthodox Christian theologian David Bentley Hart writes, “As often as not, the history of philosophy has been a history of prejudices masquerading as principles, and so a history of fashion.”
In the post-9/11 era, an opening has been created for a new type of politically expedient fashion — the broad dehumanization of Muslim people and a tabloid caricaturization of their religion. This effort has been undertaken as a vital, indeed necessary, component to help justify open-ended conflict with Muslim-majority countries as well as oppression against Muslim populations at home. In times of war, one can never truly “take the gloves off” without first dehumanizing the enemy. So the question immediately arises — how best to accomplish this?
Into this void have stepped “New Atheist” intellectuals, chief among them figures such as Sam Harris and, to a lesser extent, the late Christopher Hitchens. While convincing those on the fundamentalist right of the need to circle the wagons against Islam and Muslims has never been a problematic task, people such as Harris have taken it upon themselves to accomplish the more difficult goal of bringing liberals on board for this decidedly illiberal effort.
This effort has been taken by helping to characterize Muslims as a fundamentally sub-human, irrational Other, absolutely deserving of the harshest subjugation. As Harris reassuringly wrote to his followers during the unfathomable carnage of the Iraq War:
“The only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims — is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed.” Adding: “Civilized human beings are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people. … The outrage that Muslims feel over U.S. and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns.”
In effect, Harris argues that we need not feel too badly about the men, women and children our government is killing. They’re savage Muslims after all who would gladly kill you — especially you, timid, feckless liberal — if they had the slightest opportunity. But even if one did maintain some uneasiness about these wars and the havoc they have wrought on distant foreign populations, one should remember that according to Harris, they are in fact great acts of altruism. In fact, if the people we are attacking appear to differ from this interpretation of these events, that’s simply a product of their barbaric and irrational superstitions.
While it is difficult to understate how mendacious and cynical Harris’ arguments are, they fit within a long history in which the subjects of colonial and imperial conquests have been depicted as less peoples, deserving of the brutal fate they are destined for. As Aime Cesaire has written: “Colonial conquest is based on contempt for the native and is justified by that contempt,” adding that, “the colonizer, in order to ease his conscience, gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal.”
Whereas once such exploitation was justified on the basis of Christian proselytizing, it is now done on the basis of evangelizing, violently even, “liberal” values. Indeed despite Harris’ advocacy of the most barbaric policies imaginable — torture, racial profiling, even potential nuclear warfare — he insistently claims to be a brave standard bearer for the principles of liberalism. Bill Maher, who has recently emerged as another paladin within the New Atheist camp, has said that “liberals need to stand up for liberal principles” — a claim he has made while endorsing and helping to amplify the neo-colonialist rhetoric of Harris and his ilk.
Indeed, this is a radical redefinition of what it means to view oneself as a liberal. It is important to contrast the left-wing atheism of figures such as Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell and Karl Marx with the imperialist self-reverence of people such as Harris, Hitchens and Maher.
Intellectual figures whose atheism originally came about as a component of their socialist beliefs were reacting to the role they saw powerful religious authorities playing in the subjugation of the poor and disenfranchised. For New Atheists, on the other hand, the religious beliefs of the oppressed simply offer new avenues for justifying their oppression. “Opiate of the Masses” has been replaced with “Kill the Savages.”
Writing in the aftermath of the Battle of Fallujah, in which thousands of Iraqis were killed and maimed, Hitchens expressed his unconcealed bloodlust regarding the matter: “The death toll is not nearly high enough … too many [jihadists] have escaped.” Harris for his part writes of the need for Muslim populations to be governed autocratically, saying that indeed the best form of government for them is a “benign dictatorship.” Needless to say, these positions are a radical departure from the emancipatory liberal atheism of one such as Russell.
It is worth pointing out that despite its pretensions, New Atheism — which Reza Aslan has argued is better termed “anti-theism” — ranks as a shallow and in fact barely coherent attack of the metaphysical claims of religion. Simply put, it is not an “intellectual” movement in any sense.
Owing in part to their seeming unwillingness or inability to engage with the most developed arguments put forward by theologians and religious scholars throughout history (a standard requirement for any sort of legitimate intellectual inquiry), New Atheist literature comes across more as a collection of strawman-burning and pretentious self-celebration. Writing of the stunning intellectual vacuity of the movement, Bentley Hart writes:
“…They are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel.”
Indeed, for the most part, New Atheism represents not the writings of informed theology or any profound or original philosophy, but rather of mere politics and ideology put into action. What is more, said politics and ideology also happen to be of a decidedly unoriginal bent.
In particular, the most extremist variants of the Enlightenment belief in progress and the perfectibility of man — a belief that has shown itself capable of generating both remarkable scientific achievements and unprecedented acts of mass murder — figure prominently into the works of all these authors.
Harris writes of the inevitably of man colonizing space within a few hundred years if only he can shear himself of the religious encumbrances weighing him down. Hitchens for his part spoke approvingly of the extermination of Native Americans, an act that he claims placed “humanity on a slightly higher plane than it knew before,” and made possible a “boundless epoch of opportunity and innovation.” While presented as some kind of original vista of enlightenment, these are nothing more than the views of 20th-century totalitarians — who all committed their violence under the standard of “progress” — repackaged in a format palatable to the New York Times bestseller list.
As Chris Hedges has written, “This belief in inevitable moral progress, whether it comes in secular or religious form, is magical thinking.” It is also a type of magical thinking that has frequently advocated the identification and elimination of other peoples deemed to be impediments to progress. Perhaps most frequently, it has served as the ideological justification for colonialism — the need to “uplift” native populations by imposing on them the benefits of Enlightenment thinking (and before that, Christianity) — while also pillaging their resources or even exterminating them wholesale when necessary.
This is by no means the only expression of the idea of progress, and it is undoubtedly a perverted, extremist version of it. But it is nonetheless an idea that has cropped up frequently in the darkest chapters of contemporary history and has been given expression once more among the enlightened sages of this new movement. If individuals such as Harris are to be believed, contemporary Muslims are literally anachronisms. As he has written:
“In Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and the Christians of the 14th century are pouring into our world.”
Statements such as this, coupled with his frequent and enthusiastic endorsement of using the most heinous and indiscriminate forms of violence against Muslim populations (and even toward people who in his view may “look Muslim”) are indicative of the noxious, arch-colonialist bigotry inherent to New Atheism.
It is also a remarkable irony, considering their claimed pedigree as “rationalists” and “skeptics,” the degree to which New Atheist intellectuals and their followers mimic the rhetoric and policies advocated by the most fundamentalist Christians when it comes to Islam and Muslims. The claims by Harris and others of the necessity of fighting an actual “War Against Islam” resemble something out of the fever dreams of the most obscurantist reactionaries of the Christian right. Indeed, their chauvinism has much in common. Both act as cheerleaders for military conquests of Muslim-majority countries on “civilizational” terms, and both justify killing and mass murder on the basis of the victim’s religion.
In practical fact, the differences are merely aesthetic. While Christian fundamentalists may exult in imperial conquests for religious reasons, New Atheists and other fellow travelers along the path of militarized bigotry do so in the name of the violent assertion of “values” and the extermination of lesser civilizations. In this they operate much more as post-Christian fundamentalists than any allegedly new or neutral category of skeptic or atheist.
New Atheism removes God only to replace Him with some amorphous mixture of scientism and allegedly liberal “values.” Nietzsche once remarked that liberal humanism was simply Christianity, with the individual put in place of Jesus. New Atheism is a fundamentalist expression of the same idea. Self-worship — and the worship of the material achievements of the self — replace worship of God in this view.
For these reasons it must be said that New Atheism represents little that is new or constructive. Rather, it is a new expression of the same primitive human instincts for self-exaltation, power and dogmatism that have manifested themselves time and again throughout history. Religion has at times been instrumentalized as a vehicle for the same energies, but through its recognition of the innate fallibility of man, it in theory has also always aimed to chasten these primeval energies. The ideology of Harris and Hitchens on the other hand seeks to let such sentiments run wild and unencumbered.
Torture and mass murder — albeit with some “more sorrow than anger” apologetics appended — are all advocated for reasons of pragmatism and cultural chauvinism. This is not an argument for moving to new vistas of moral enlightenment; it’s an argument to discard morality in favor of returning to our most base, violent human instincts for self-preservation and violent conquest. New Atheist intellectuals could in fact be described with absolute fairness as “Neo-Barbarians.” In seeking to discard millennia of moral and intellectual cultivation in favor of a vapid scientism mixed with amoral pragmatism, they make the argument for returning to man’s most primitive state of mind.
In the context of a fresh campaign of imperial wars, this ideology — which in more placid times may have amounted to little more than a grotesque curiosity — has come to popular prominence. The philosophical arguments made by Harris and others about the inferiority of Muslims and the legitimacy of using unrelenting violence against them are useful during a time of conflict. The Iraq War and the torture and murder of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, CIA blacksites and Guantanamo would all be impossible without the loyal service of court intellectuals such as these.
So, while failing to make any substantive philosophical or theological arguments, New Atheists manage to adequately perform the far easier task of justifying power and violence. It is important for this reason to see this movement for what it is: the latest expression of illiberal anger and chauvinism among predominantly privileged, educated white males from the mainstream of their societies. Put another way, it offers a dogmatic, supremacist ideology for people who still like to call themselves “liberals.”
But even despite its utility in this regard, it is likely that New Atheism is simply too vapid to endure once the “edginess” fades away and the political expedient dissolves. Once the façade is stripped, what is revealed is an essentially shallow, anti-intellectual movement. At best, it could be described as a pop culture phenomenon and a way to help dam up the conscience of the citizenry in a time of war.
The comparison between New Atheists and intellectual giants of atheism and liberalism of times past couldn’t be starker. Instead of speaking truth to power, modern inheritors of these traditions side with power to help justify its worst excesses. While a movement so hubristic inevitably contains the seeds of its own extirpation, let’s hope that the rational, ethical and moral majority of atheists will help speak out against the illiberal extremists who are taking up the banner in their name.
First published in the TIM winter 2015 issue