Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists

Leading figures in the new atheist movement are heirs to the disreputable scientific racists of the past, argues author.

"Popular author and neuroscientist Sam Harris' pseudoscientific characterisations of Muslims dovetail nicely with his extreme right-wing views on military intervention in Muslim-majority countries," writes author [EPA]

Scientific racism is a term seldom used today but which has a long and ignoble history in the modern world. In the late 18th century, the renowned scientist and philosopher Christoph Meiners published his famous treatise The Outline and History of Mankind. Central to his analysis was a qualitative comparison of peoples by race – a comparison which his own popularly-accepted findings claimed revealed a clear hierarchy.

Drawing in large part on the now-discredited science of Phrenology (the measurement of human skulls), Meiners described whites as being endowed with clear superiority to all races in both their intellectual as well as moral faculties.

About blacks, his scientific analysis was far less generous – finding them not only to be inferior to whites in every mental capacity but in fact “incapable of any mental feeling or emotion at all“, as well as “unable to feel physical pain“.

As influential as it was, Meiners’ work was par for the course in the institutionalised science of racism of the age. Famous philosopher Voltaire – whose works were among the most significant of the French Enlightenment – wrote of his empirical research on those humans who possessed dark skin:

“They are not men, except in their stature, with the faculty of speech and thought at a degree far distant to ours. Such are the ones that I have seen and examined.”

While they wore a veneer of disinterested scientific analysis in their conclusions, in the context of their times it can be seen that such proponents of scientific racism had the specific goal of legitimating certain policies. With regard to those of African descent, the intention of then-contemporary scientists was often – implicitly or explicitly – to report findings which could be used to justify the socio-political institutions of slavery and colonialism against African societies.

Institutional racism 

Alongside routine characterisations of blacks in scientific analyses as naturally childish and in need of patronage from “superior races”, were outright claims regarding the scientific necessity for slavery as a natural phenomenon. While the prominent American physician Josiah Nott wrote that “the negro achieves his greatest perfection, physical and moral, and also greatest longevity, in a state of slavery”, others such as Samuel Cartwright diagnosed aversion to slavery among blacks as a full-fledged disease unto itself. 

Calling the purported malady “drapetomania“, Cartwright wrote that it was a legitimate mental defect which could be treated by visiting corporal punishment upon blacks – up to and including amputation.

We rightly recoil with horror today at what we know to be the false claims and methodologies of the pseudoscience of the past. The level of institutional racism masked under scientific study reached a particularly horrific apex at Paris’ infamous “human zoo” – where peoples of different races lived their lives for both scientific observation as well as the enjoyment of the general public.

Viewed in proper context it can be seen that the crudest racism has often been cloaked in the guise of disinterested scientific inquiry. Those claiming this mantle have often felt licence to engage in overt bigotry using science as a smokescreen, and yet far from being a relic of history, many celebrity-scientists of today show startling parallels with their now-dishonoured predecessors.

In the present atmosphere, characterised by conflict with Muslim-majority nations, a new class of individuals have stepped in to give a veneer of scientific respectability to today’s politically-useful bigotry.

At the forefront of this modern scientific racism have been those prominently known as the “new atheist” scientists and philosophers. While they attempt to couch their language in the terms of pure critique of religious thought, in practice they exhibit many of the same tendencies toward generalisation and ethno-racial condescension as did their predecessors – particularly in their descriptions of Muslims.

To be utterly clear, Islam itself does not denote a race, and Muslims themselves come from every racial and ethnic grouping in the world. However, in their ostensibly impartial critiques of “religion” – and through the impartation of ethno-cultural attributes onto members of a religious group – the most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable.

That this usefully dovetails with government policies promoting the military subjugation of Muslim-majority countries is telling with regard to what purpose these contemporary scientist-philosophers serve.

While one could cite Richard Dawkins’ descriptions of “Islamic barbarians” and Christopher Hitchens’ outright bloodlust towards Muslims – including lamentations of the ostensibly too-low death toll in the Battle of Fallujah and his satisfied account of cluster bombs tearing through the flesh of Iraqis – these have been widely discussed and are in any case not the most representative of this modern phenomena.

Indeed, the most illustrative demonstration of the new brand of scientific racism must be said to come from the popular author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Among the most publicly visible of the new atheists, in the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for torture, pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes, and the security profiling of not just Muslims themselves, but in his own words “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim”.

Islam is not a race

Again, while Islam is not a race, those who are identified with Islam are the predominantly black and brown people who would be caught up in the charge of “looking Muslim” which Harris makes. Harris has also written in the past his belief that the “Muslim world” itself lacks the characteristic of honesty, and Muslims as a people “do not have a clue about what constitutes civil society“.

His sweeping generalisations about a constructed civilisation encompassing over a billion people are coupled with fevered warnings – parallel with the most noxious race propaganda of the past – about the purported demographic threat posed by immigrant Muslim birthrates to Western civilisation.

Harris’ pseudoscientific characterisations of Muslims dovetail nicely with his extreme right-wing views on military intervention in Muslim-majority countries. As he has said:

“It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.”

This belief in the need to fight open-ended war against Muslims has extended to both his steadfast support of the Iraq War, as well as to the conflict between Israel and Palestine which – ironically enough for one in his position as a scientist – he sees in strictly religious terms. About this issue he has written:

“Liberals ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder non-combatants, while we and the Israelis seek to avoid doing so. Muslims use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause… there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground.”

Citing “Muslims” as a solid monolith of violent evil – whilst neglecting to include the countless Muslims who have lost their lives peacefully protesting the occupation and ongoing ethnic cleansing of their homeland – Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of “Negroes”. 

 Inside Story – What now for
Muslim-Western relations?

Indeed he argues in his book that the only suitable form of government for Muslim people is “benign dictatorship“, an echo of the 19th century social theorist George Fitzhugh who argued in favour of slavery by saying:

“The Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child.”

Finally, dismissing the possibility that Muslims may have legitimate objections to being subjects of torture, murder, and – as he’s advocated – wholesale nuclear genocide, Harris helpfully states:

“The outrage that Muslims feel over US and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns.”

A statement of deeper myopia and more emboldened ignorance would be hard to produce. However, what is nearly certain is that Harris’ nightmares about, in his words “dangerous and depraved” (not to mention monolithically terrifying and foreign) Muslim hordes aided him in making it.

What Harris and those like him represent is the time-honoured tradition of weaponised racism in the guise of disinterested scientific observation. When Harris – as a scientist – claims to observe the innate dishonesty, violence and intellectual inferiority of Muslims, he gives his own scientific approval to the propagation of the most heinous violence against them as a people.

Scientific justification

Indeed he makes the case for this violence explicitly, putting him in class with the worst proponents of scientific racism of the 20th century – including those who helped provide scientific justification for the horrors of European fascism.

Far from being a hyperbolic characterisation of his views, Harris has stated that the correct policy with regard to Western Muslim populations is in fact that which is currently being pursued by contemporary fascist movements today. In Harris’ view:

“The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.

Given the recent murders and threats to turn Muslim immigrants “into soap” by the most prominent of these fascist movements, this statement leads to understandably troubling questions about what Harris finds attractive and “sensible” about openly racist and genocidal far-right political movements.

The right to atheism – as well as the right to criticize Islam or any other religion as a system of belief – is as fundamental as the right of any religious adherent to practice their faith. Islam as an intellectual movement is not above scrutiny any more than any other religious tradition, and attempts to shut down legitimate debate using the charge of Islamophobia should be rejected.

However, what is being pursued today by individuals such as Harris and others under the guise of disinterested observation is something far more insidious. By resurrecting the worst excesses of scientific racism and its violent corollaries, Harris is heir to one of the most disreputable intellectual lineages in modern history.

Where once scientific racism was trotted out to justify the horrific institution of slavery, today it is produced to justify the wars of aggression, torture and extra-judicial killings of the 21st century. Scientists in the service of power, who once employed Phrenology to “prove” the racial inferiority of blacks, now enthusiastically push forward the belief that Muslims as a people lack basic humanity.

While those individuals who have provided the intellectual ammunition for the excesses of the present era will inevitably find themselves as dishonoured as their racist predecessors, in the present they should nonetheless be recognised as the dangerous ideologues which they are.

Just as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview.

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain