The resurrection of ‘new atheism’

As white supremacy reigns supreme in the US, a new book seeks to bring back to the fore one of its ideological branches.

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins, a proponent of 'new atheism', published his book The God Delusion in 2006 [File: AP/Fiona Hanson]

In March this year, a new volume called, The Four Horsemen, hit the book market in the United States. The book boasts an introduction by British comedian Stephen Fry, three essays and the transcript of the 2007 recorded discussion among four proponents of the so-called “new atheism” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. 

Prior to this encounter, all four had authored books arguing that religion and “holy war” pose the greatest threat to human civilisation and therefore, religiosity should not be tolerated in “Western societies”.

Their works – Dawkins’s, The God Delusion, Harris’s, The End of Faith, Dennett’s, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Hitchens’s, God Is Not Great – were all essentially written as a blind reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and all zoomed in on Islam and the Muslim world, demonstrating a remarkable ignorance of both. 

Needless to say, none of the four was able to offer any serious historical understanding of this terror act, why it happened, what it meant, or how to prevent similar acts of wanton violence in the future. Nor did they make any intellectually challenging or noteworthy contribution to the millennia-old debate on belief and disbelief in God. 

That publishers have chosen to resurrect, today, this 12-year-old Islamophobic backslapping session advertised as a “landmark discussion about modern atheism” is indeed quite telling. With white supremacy currently flourishing in the US and elsewhere, a book on “new atheism” – a pseudo-intellectual movement that has heavily contributed to its rise – would surely sell.

Spectacular ignorance

Before proceeding any further, let us be clear: Atheism as such is a perfectly healthy proposition and the world, including the Muslim part of it, has never been devoid of atheists – all the power to them.

Across religions and cultures, there are decent and reasonable atheists, as there are equally decent and reasonable believers, who can and should openly engage in debate about religion and the belief in God without succumbing to hatred and convictions in one’s supremacy. Such open and honest conversations are indeed healthy for any community or nation and should be encouraged.

But what the so-called “four horsemen” have engaged in during their 2007 discussion and in their public appearances and writings, is not an open and honest debate. Instead, the entirety of their work is just a vicious attack on a 1.5-billion-strong, immensely diverse and dynamic community.

So who are these four “new atheist” crusaders (yes, they may deny it, but they are indeed very much the product of the white Western Christian crusader tradition)? They are all white older men, who have never embarked on studying Islam, do not speak Arabic – the language of the Qur’an – and certainly have no special insight into any Muslim community on earth. They are, literally, illiterate. 

Let us take Sam Harris, for example. In his book, End of Faith, he dedicates a whole chapter to the “The Problem with Islam.” There, he explains that: “While Christianity has few living inquisitors today, Islam has many … In our opposition to the world view of Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and fourteenth-century hordes are pouring into our world. Unfortunately, they are now armed with twenty-first-century weapons.” One is left breathless considering whether to address the unabashed racism, the astonishing ignorance, or the barefaced vulgarity of such utterances.

The other rabid Islamophobe, Dawkins uses the infamous Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, which sparked mass protests in a few Muslim countries, to portray in his book, The God Delusion, all Muslims as a gang of delusional psychopaths. In his opinion: “Danes just live in a country with a free press, something that people in many Islamic countries might have a hard time understanding.” With this one sentence, Dawkins tries (but fails) to erase the long and sustained history of Muslims’ struggle for freedom of expression and truthful journalism.

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett, too, engages in some sweeping and vastly inaccurate conclusions. For example, he makes the following mind-boggling observation: “It is worth recalling that the Arabic word Islam means ‘submission’. The idea that Muslims should put the proliferation of Islam ahead of their own interests is built right into the etymology of its name.” Yet, Islam means submission to the will of God, which is a central theological pillar in many religions and which has nothing to do with “proliferation of Islam”.

Last but not least, Hitchens is equally creative with his spurious conclusions about Islam in God Is Not Great. Just one example would suffice: “Real horror of the porcine is manifest all over the Islamic world. One good instance would be the continued prohibition of George Orwell’s Animal Farmone of the most charming and useful fables of modern times, of the reading of which Muslim schoolchildren are deprived.” 

I am a Muslim. I was born and raised in a Muslim country. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in Persian in Iran when I was a teenager. The book was translated into Persian soon after its publication in English, and ever since has had numerous Persian translations and I, myself, have repeatedly included it in my courses.

‘New atheism’ and Western imperialism

In other words, it is quite clear from the writings of the “four horsemen” that “new atheism” has little to do with atheism or any serious intellectual examination of the belief in God and everything to do with hatred and power.  

Indeed, “new atheism” is the ideological foregrounding of liberal imperialism whose fanatical secularism extends the racist logic of white supremacy. It purports to be areligious, but it is not. It is, in fact, the twin brother of the rabid Christian conservatism which currently feeds the Trump administration’s destructive policies at home and abroad – minus all the biblical references. 

While the right-wing conservatives favour the “Judeo-Christian” canard (the idea that the “Judeo-Christian civilisation” is superior to all others), the liberals opt for “new atheism” (or the idea that “secular” Western societies are superior to all others). Both, however, are in perfect agreement about their perceived white supremacy, which supposedly gives them the right to wreak havoc across the world as they please. That is – they are the two faces of that same cheap imperialist coin.

And just as religious white supremacy encourages individual and state-sponsored violence against those perceived as “inferior”, so does its “new atheist” version. Historically, the “liberal atheists” have always eagerly joined their “Christian conservative” brethren in the battle call in advance of any US aggression anywhere in the world. 

However, this is, not to say that such deadly fanaticism occurs only in the US (and by extension Europe). Militant Islamism and extremist Zionism have the same exact roots. If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Osama bin Laden are the symbols of Muslim fanaticism, Meir Kahane, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ayelet Shaked, and Naftali Bennett are the prime examples of the Zionist equivalent, while the “four horsemen”, along with Steve Bannon, Mike Pompeo et al are the flag bearers of secular-Christian imperialism in full power.  

In the raging battle between these hateful, toxic ideologies, they thrive and feed off of each other. Caught in the crossfire of this clash of ignorance and barbarity, are billions of human beings – Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists – who pay the price with their lives. 

Thus, Robert Bowers, who killed 11 Jewish worshipers in the US, Brenton Tarrant who massacred 51 Muslims during Friday prayers in New Zealand, members of National Thowheed Jamath, who murdered 257 people during the Easter massacre in Sri Lanka and the Israeli soldiers who over the past year have slain more than 260 unarmed Palestinian during right of return protests at the Israel-Gaza fence are all kindred souls.

In today’s world, mass murder and religious and secular fanaticism go hand-in-hand.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.