…or something not easily or meaningfully distinguishable from a racist. As are several other major figures in the atheist movement. And the movement largely refuses to grapple with it.
Recently, Ian Murphy published a controversial article titled The 5 Most Awful Atheists, arguing:
Disbelief in a supernatural creator… in no way guarantees rationality in matters of foreign policy or economics, for example. Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff—likely owing their prominence to these same benighted beliefs, lending an air of scientific credibility to the myths corporate media seeks to highlight, and thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists in the long-term. In other words: The crap always rises to the top.
The people he singles out – Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and S.E. Cupp – make the list primarily as a result of their economic libertarianism, neoconservative foreign policy views, and/or Islamophobia.* The atheist movement of course encompasses people with a wide variety of views and backgrounds and no one could or should dictate which viewpoints should disqualify one from membership in the Atheist Club, but I share Murphy’s concern that racist warmongers like Harris have come to represent atheism in the public eye (which is something I’ve written about previously). It’s incredibly disconcerting that, as Jeff Sparrow noted at Counterpunch, “leading representatives of the movement express ideas that otherwise we’d associate with the hard Right – and are celebrated for doing so.”
And in my experience, atheists haven’t done a good job of confronting that fact. It’s not clear how many atheists share such views (in fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest such views are far from universal), but it is clear that many atheists are loath to criticize people like Harris or Hirsi Ali (or even the late Christopher Hitchens, whose much more blatant and disgusting war cheerleading atheists and his other supporters were happy to excuse).
Let’s be clear on what I mean when I say that Harris et al. are racists and militarists. I don’t mean that they’re racists just for criticizing Islam or human rights abuses in Muslim countries, nor for doing so in impolite terms. What I do have a problem with is the stereotyping and demonization of Muslims, arbitrary discrimination on the basis of religion, and support for wars of aggression or for an imperialistic foreign policy as part of what they see as a noble effort to force the “savages” to accept “civilized” Western values. One might quibble that those things aren’t strictly “racist” because they’re based on religion rather than ethnicity or nationality, but to me that’s a meaningless distinction when we’re talking about a religion mainly practiced by black and brown people (foreign black and brown people, even). I’m sure Harris isn’t particularly fond of white Muslim converts like 9/11 truther Kevin Barrett, but that doesn’t render his arguments race-neutral.
A number of people have already pointed out the problems with the above atheists’ foreign policy views, so I won’t rehash them here. For an extensive critique of Sam Harris, see this excellent article by Theodore Sayeed at Mondoweiss that I highly recommend reading in full. See also the Jeff Sparrow article referred to above, Glenn Greenwald’s obituary on Christopher Hitchens, or my own prior post on the subject. Of the bunch, Hirsi Ali is likely the most overtly hostile to Islam (well, except possibly for Hitchens); she explicitly sees the West as being at war with Islam, which must be violently “crushed… in all its forms.” She also calls for closing Muslim schools, as well as restrictions on Muslim expression (perversely, she claims this is needed to preserve civil liberties). Granted, given her personal history I can’t exactly blame her for hating Islam, but that shouldn’t make her immune from criticism; atheists shouldn’t whitewash her positions by presenting her as merely a critic of Islam rather than an Islamophobe who would fit in pretty well with the likes of Pamela Geller.
Other atheists, even those more dovish than Harris or Hirsi Ali, responded very differently to Murphy’s article than me (although there does seem to be a consensus that Cupp, some self-hating Fox News atheist, belongs on the list). Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist had what I’ve come to regard as a typical atheist response when these issues come up – which is to dismiss or downplay the issue, then change the subject. Although Mehta has been willing to criticize Harris’s positions in the past (see Sam Harris: We Should Profile Muslims at the Airport), he denied that the people listed by Murphy were “bad atheists” on the basis that “those four people have done more to get people to stop believing in God than almost anybody else out there,” and argued that their success in promoting atheism outweighs their positions on what he called “side issues” which few people care about or are even aware of.
I understand why this type of argument is attractive to atheists. It’s natural to be uncomfortable with criticizing people on one’s own “team”, or to be afraid of forming a circular firing squad. It’s also understandable that many would want to keep the focus on fighting religion and not have the movement ripped apart by arguments over libertarianism or foreign policy (and I even sort of agree with them in regard to Jillette and Hirsi Ali’s libertarianism). In addition, I’m well aware that there was a time not long ago when books about atheism didn’t make bestseller lists, and that Harris’s The End of Faith changed that fact and in doing so played a key role in making atheism much more mainstream than ever before. But the suggestion that support for racism and imperialistic foreign policies are mere “side issues” that should be set aside in favor of joining hands and bashing religion together strikes me as fundamentally wrongheaded and incredibly callous. And I think it’s a moral obscenity that atheists are much more willing to criticize Harris for his embrace of mysticism (e.g. ESP, reincarnation; see the Sayeed article linked above) than his support for torture or aggressive wars.
The reason I get so worked up about about Harris et al. – and the movement’s response to him – is because I reject the notion that issues of religion can be safely compartmentalized from the so-called “side issues” described above. My own atheism both motivates and is motivated by my opposition to racism and imperialism, and my support for social justice. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think other atheists can reasonably come to different conclusions on those issues, but rather that it’s wrong to view the atheist project as one that “[begins and ends] with an expose of religious fallacies”, as Sparrow describes the mainstream atheist view.
The fact that so many atheists can so easily look the other way regarding support for racism and imperialism has deeply troubling implications, which arose most clearly in response to the death of Hitchens. Greenwald put it best [emphasis in original]:
There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud.
It was not always this way; as Sparrow explains in detail, there was once a vibrant and influential atheist Left that “identified the church as merely one amongst many institutions maintaining an oppressive status quo.” So-called “New Atheists” like Harris and Hitchens rose to prominence, he says, in response to the collapse of the traditional Left and in the context of post-9/11 hysteria over Islamic terrorism (with the former leftist Hitchens having “transformed himself from midlist radical journalist to international celebrity” by supporting Bush’s wars). In past time periods, atheists were much more suspicious of state power, “if only because they were usually facing its sharp end”; it may not be a coincidence that as atheism became more mainstream in recent years, its center of gravity shifted toward right-wingers, militarists, and police state supporters, with some of its most prominent figures coming to see military force as “morally justified to free the savages from their delusions”.
There are still likely many left-leaning atheists out there who are uncomfortable with the neoconservatism of Harris et al., and they need to become more vocal within in the movement. That means rejecting the false choice between advocacy for religious issues and “side” issues.
There are a couple related claims that I’d like to discuss before moving on, concerning the ways in which some atheists downplay the ugliness of Harris’s positions even when they admit that there is a problem. First, in a subsequent post, Mehta expressed disagreement with the idea that Harris is racist (after comparing Harris’s critics to “trolls” and accusing them of mischaracterizing Harris’s positions). “Racism implies an undercurrent of intolerance,” he argued, “and I suspect Harris has no problem with Muslims peacefully practicing their faith (other than the fact that their beliefs are wrong) or people like me sitting next to him on a plane.” Mehta made a similar claim in his earlier post on Harris’s position regarding racial profiling: “He’s making (what he feels is) a logical argument in favor of profiling. So if he’s wrong, focus on why his argument doesn’t make sense.”
Now, I realize that as a straight white male I’m on pretty thin ice when it comes to accusing a non-white person of misidentifying racism, but I think that’s the case here. Mehta seems to see racism as based on personal animosity, which I think is an incredibly narrow view of the issue. I may never have personally experienced racial discrimination, but I have known plenty of racists over the years, and with the exception of my late grandfather I don’t think a single one of them would flat-out admit that they dislike people of other races. If our definition of racism requires noticeable feelings of ill will toward people of other races, then hardly anyone would qualify. As Digby argued back in 2003 [emphasis added]:
Most anti-semites and racists don’t think they are anti-semites and racists. Sometimes it comes out in anger, when they aren’t thinking clearly and they kind of clap their hands over their mouths… and whisper, “did I say that?” Others think they are making reasonable observations and that those who object are being peculiarly sensitive. They search for justifications and usually claim victim status themselves at the hands of the PC police.
In Harris’s case, I would argue that, even though he doesn’t necessarily bear Muslims any personal ill will, racism is what allows him to see Islamic terrorism as an existential threat to the United States, despite the fact that, as Murphy points out, “You’re four times as likely to die of a lightning strike than you are from a terrorist attack”. Racism is what allows him to see “religious” profiling as a viable way to defend against terrorism, even in the wake of several mass shootings committed by white men (which, unlike cases of Islamic terrorism, don’t seem to be seen as representative of an entire people) and in the face of persuasive arguments that it doesn’t work. Racism is what allows him to see the people of the Muslim world as morally inferior and in need of “benign dictatorship”, and to explicitly oppose democracy in Muslim countries as a result. Racism is what allows him to embrace what Sayeed calls “the most extravagant conspiracy theories about the impending conquest of Europe by Muslims”, or to declare in Letter to a Christian Nation that “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascist.” Racism is what allows him to support aggressive, brutally destructive wars (potentially including a nuclear first strike against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons **) or Israel’s apartheid policies while still insisting on America’s (and Israel’s) moral superiority and downplaying any ensuing “collateral damage”.
Racism, as Peggy McIntosh put it in her famous essay on white privilege, consists of more than “individual acts of meanness”, or individual feelings of ill will as I would add; it also includes “invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.” Harris may be fine, on a personal level, with brown people sitting next to him on a plane, but he gladly embraces a number of racist policies. As Sayeed notes, “At the core of [Harris's] political thinking is a curious dualism that maintains on the one end that Islam is the darkest villainy to afflict the race, and on the other that he doesn’t really hate Muslims after all.” In light of all this, I think it’s ridiculous to claim, as Mehta does, that Harris’s positions do not evince an “undercurrent of intolerance”. He may or may not hate Muslims, but he seems to have difficulty seeing them as fully human or entitled to full moral consideration. What more would it take before it’s deemed acceptable to call strident Islamophobes like him racist?
Second, regarding Harris’s support for torture, it’s no defense to argue, as Richard Dawkins does, that he’s not a “gung-ho pro-torture advocate” or that he’s merely raising uncomfortable questions like a moral philosopher. According to Dawkins, I’m supposed to feel sorry for Harris for the “vilification and viciousness” he has received as a result of the supposed mischaracterization of his views. Harris himself made a similar argument, in reference to Murphy’s article:
Predictably, this article refers to the fact that I have discussed the ethics of torture in the past — and it does so in order to brand me as a moral lunatic. From reading this piece, and hundreds like it, one would never imagine that my position on torture is more or less identical to the one prescribed in that handbook of evil, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Read the entry on torture there, especially the section entitled “The Beating,” and then tell me that being categorically “against torture” is a morally uncomplicated stance to adopt.)
One problem with this position is that Harris’s defense of torture relies on a highly implausible “ticking bomb” scenario. Others have already poked holes in this argument, so I won’t dwell on it here (see this pamphlet from the Association for the Prevention of Torture for an excellent response). I bring it up to show how support for torture in a “ticking bomb” scenario can easily be used to justify torture in general, as Harris himself demonstrates. Precisely because the real-life situations in which torture would be considered are rarely as simple as those presented in the average ticking bomb scenario, there would be naturally be a temptation to use it under much more ambiguous circumstances – e.g. when one doesn’t know for sure that there’s a ticking bomb somewhere, or that the person in custody has information on it. Better safe than sorry, right? Harris would seem to think so. As quoted by Sayeed:
Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.
Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a “gung-ho pro-torture advocate” at all, just someone who supports (very reluctantly, of course) using torture whenever it might lead to useful information. Harris is right that an absolute prohibition on torture is not “morally uncomplicated”, but it’s still the right position. Regardless of whether Harris is a casual or reluctant supporter of torture, atheists should stop making excuses for him on the issue.
All of this begs the question of what I propose we do about it. As I noted above, I’m not calling for ideological purges or litmus tests within the atheist movement, nor am I saying that Harris, Hirsi Ali and Hitchens are irredeemable scum with absolutely nothing positive to offer. I’m merely suggesting that atheists call them what they are – i.e. racist warmongers – and don’t attempt to minimize or dismiss it. Don’t treat support for racist policies or a foreign policy of mass murder as merely “mistakes” or “differences of opinion” that can be easily papered over. As Sparrow argued, when an atheist convention presented a posthumous panel on Hitchens titled “A Life Well Lived”, progressive atheists should’ve “point[ed] out that the author of God is Not Great devoted his well-lived life to apologetics for a military campaign that led to the deaths of perhaps a million people”. Currently, too many atheists admit to discomfort, like Mehta, but respond by asking what the objection has to do with atheism. It’s the silence of moderate, liberal, and left-wing atheists that has allowed our movement to become dominated (at least in terms of our public figures) by racist warmongers.
PZ Myers provides a good example of how I think more atheists should have responded to Murphy’s article. Although saying that “I refuse to believe that any of them are irredeemable” (with the exception of Cupp), he was willing to agree that Murphy’s arguments were valid. Further, he also made a great suggestion that Murphy “write a complementary article that lists the five best atheists in America, and what makes them good. Give us something to aspire to and set as a standard, instead of just taking potshots at a few big names (and one Fox News nobody).” *** Subsequently, he didn’t back down when criticized by Harris himself, going so far as to call Harris’s support for profiling “repugnant, irrational and unjustifiable”, and labeling him “an illiberal advocate for atrocious policies”.
My suggestion is merely that the atheist movement as a whole should be more open to discussion of issues like racism and imperialism, or other issues not directly related to religion. As Greta Christina argues, we don’t all have to agree on those things in order to take them seriously. “Skepticism,” she says, “has a tremendous amount to contribute to questions of social justice. Conversations about social justice issues are often, to put it mildly, not very evidence-based. They’re often based on preconception and prejudice, on deeply held beliefs with a strong emotional component.”
In addition, there are ways in which addressing issues like racism and imperialism more forthrightly could help the atheist movement. For instance, Sparrow notes the potential for left-wing atheists to “win people from religion by working alongside them against the forces of oppression in the world – and thus showing them in practice that religious consolations aren’t necessary – rather than by dismissing them as dupes and stooges.” Thus, he argues: “Atheists and others seeking to foster secularism in the Arab world might do so by, first and foremost, ending the military interventions that have brought so much suffering.” Also, more generally, broadening the scope of our concerns could allow the movement to attract a more diverse following, as Christina argues. People outside of the the “white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men we’ve usually attracted” need to hear that atheism and skepticism are relevant to issues they care about, she says.
So don’t be afraid to just say it: Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Maher are racists and warmongers. You’ll feel better, and you’re doing the movement no favors by staying quiet.
Postscript: While I was in the process of putting the finishing touches up this post, a very interesting discussion arose in the atheist blogosphere – mainly instigated by Christina and Jen McCreight – about the need for a new, social justice-focused wave of atheism, which some are dubbing “atheism+”. It’s highly relevant to what I’ve written here, and I hope to have some thoughts on the matter posted in the near future.
* In Maher’s case, Murphy focuses mostly on his embrace of anti-vaccine hysteria, but he could easily be included with neocons/Islamophobes like Harris and Hirsi Ali. One example that sticks out in my mind is how he provided an uncritical platform to far-right anti-immigrant Dutch politician Geert Wilders in his film Religulous; another is his expression of “alarm” over British babies being given Muslim names, which he claimed heralds the takeover of the West by Islam. For a more extensive takedown of Bill Maher’s imperialistic mindset, see here.
** I feel the need to point out that Harris supports a potential nuclear first strike against Iran despite the fact that there’s no evidence suggesting that Iran would use such a weapon offensively if it had one; his argument is based on the unsupported assumption that Iran’s leaders are too crazed by religion to think rationally. Indeed, in the context of American and Israeli aggression against Iran (e.g. economic
warfare sanctions, cyberwarfare, assassination of its nuclear scientists, support for regime change, or threats of military action, all of the above in alleged response to a nuclear weapons program that hasn’t been shown to actually exist), one could hardly blame Iran or other Muslim states targeted by the American war machine for wanting nuclear weapons. Not that I think they should have nuclear weapons, just that, as Sayeed points out, Harris and other imperialists disingenuously use concern about nuclear proliferation as a means of disarming the enemies of America and Israel (both of which are themselves nuclear powers, and one of which has intentionally used nuclear weapons against civilians).
*** Given that the same criticism could be directed at me, I have to admit that I can’t think of many people to include on such a list. The most prominent left-wing atheists, as far as I can tell, tend to be intellectuals like Noam Chomsky who don’t specifically talk about religion all that much; this is likely because, as Sparrow notes, they tend to see religion as playing a much more complicated role in society that do neocon atheists like Harris, especially in the context of Muslim resistance to Western imperialism.