Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

BLAST FROM THE PAST: “Militant Atheism”: An Atheist Critique of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 8/26/08]

Via Greta Christina comes the above amusing video from Al Sweigart. I agree with Greta that the newsreel parody at the beginning was a nice touch. The piece makes an argument similar to what I was aiming for in my essay on atheist fundamentalism, which is to say that both labels are meaningless ad hominems leveled at atheists whenever we say much of anything that distinguishes us from doormats.

But there’s one thing on which I disagree pretty strongly with Al. From the video: “So I’m a bit confused about the term ‘militant atheist’. This is a term that’s been bandied about recently, especially since Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and other authors have published very popular books on atheism. It’s kind of weird because ‘militant’ has a very clear definition of violence and war and physical force, and this is all completely absent in the recent rise of atheism in our culture.”

Going from his definition of militancy, there clearly is a militant wing of the atheist movement, and two of the authors he mentions, Harris and Hitchens, certainly fall into that category, at least in regard to Islam. It deeply disturbs me that guys like them (and for that matter girls like Ayaan Hirsi Ali) are more or less the public face of atheism in this country. I suppose I can understand – I do agree with both of them on a lot of things, I don’t expect to see eye-to-eye on everything with anyone, and it’s not like we have a lot of other people to take the job. But still, there are certain things that it’s hard for me to look past.

Why do I call them militant? Hitchens in particular was a prominent supporter of a brutal war of aggression against a Muslim country that never attacked or threatened us, a war which by some estimates has cost over a million lives. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of militancy. Harris denies that he has ever “written or spoken in support of the war in Iraq”, but from what I’ve seen his criticisms have mainly been with the handling of the war, not with the basic premise – an argument that Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias brilliantly termed the incompetence dodge. And he’s certainly never expressed much sympathy for the resulting “collateral damage” in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

I’m more familiar with Harris’ work than with Hitchens’, so it’s him that I’m going to focus on. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him racist, but he’s definitely a major proponent of the dehumanization and stereotyping of Muslims. He’s a supporter of Samuel Huntington’s crazy “clash of civilizations” theory, one part of which posits a battle to the death between the West and Islam. He supports racial profiling. He supports torture of Muslim detainees. He thinks we should mount a nuclear first strike against Islamist regimes that develop long-range nukes, potentially killing millions of innocent people. (Something tells me he wouldn’t be too opposed to war with Iran.)

In general, Harris seems to view Muslims as one big scary homogeneous “Other” that can’t be reasoned with and wants nothing more than to kill us all; all of them potential terrorists until proven otherwise. I agree with his critique of (some) multiculturalists whose overweening respect for religion leads them to avoid criticizing, for instance, the treatment of women in Muslim countries. What I don’t agree with is his apparent idea that other cultures are failed attempts at being us, and his pretty explicit belief that Western ideas should be imposed at gunpoint. As he himself admits, he has more in common with Christian conservatives than secular progressives on the subject of Islam.

I was especially struck by Harris’ jaw-dropping naivety on foreign policy issues. He sees none of the complex reasons for the popularity of Islamic militant groups like Hamas or Hezbollah – they’re all just crazed with religion as far as he’s concerned, and he regards any other attempt to explain it as tantamount to justifying it. He bends over backwards to exonerate U.S. foreign policy for the creation and sustaining of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Harris’ position is pretty much, Why can’t those crazy Muslims see all the good things we’re trying to do for them? In one spectacularly stupid comment in The End of Faith, he criticized leftists intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy for failing to see the good intentions of the U.S. government. In my opinion, even a cursory understanding of the history of American foreign policy should put to rest any notion that our leaders give a damn about the poor oppressed masses of the world.

So, to sum up: Phrases like “militant atheism” are completely abused by Christians and other defenders of religion to slander any nonbeliever who speaks out as opposed to staying quiet. But there is such a thing as militant atheism, and it’s becoming increasingly prominent in atheist thought. The non-militants need to become more aggressive in challenging it. We need to make sure people know that Harris and Hitchens don’t speak for us on everything.


One Response to “BLAST FROM THE PAST: “Militant Atheism”: An Atheist Critique of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens”

  1. This is a great post! Thanks for writing this.

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