Nasty atheist-bashing in Salon

March 31, 2013 • 7:45 am

Christ has risen, and so has the bile of Nathan Lean, author of a particularly nasty bit of atheist-bashing in Salon, “Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheist flirt with Islamophobia.”  It’s so over the top that it made me wonder about the guy who wrote it. Lean, it turns out, is a graduate student at Georgetown University, editor-in-chief of a group called Aslan Media, a “militant” opponent of Israel, and author of the following book (note the endorsement):


After reading several of these tirades this week, all very similar, I’m wondering about the reason behind the recent spate of attacks on New Atheists (NAs).

The main reason, I think, is their success. Despite arguments that the efforts of people like Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins have failed, new books and articles attacking them continue to appear. If New Atheism is such a failure, why do so many people continue to attack it? There’s no point in beating a dead horse.

But the dead horse refuses to lie down.  And, in fact, books by New Atheists continue to decisively outsell books by its critics. That brings us to a second possible motivation: jealousy.  Many of these critics, including Clay Naff (see yesterday’s post), Michael Ruse, and now Lean (see below), harp repeatedly on the success of NA books and lectures. Indeed, they even use this success to accuse the NAs of being motivated by money. But that’s clearly untrue. NAs are driven by passion to expunge a poisonous superstition from humanity. Anyone who knows them sees this is true.

Here is the Amazon ranking of three books by the NAs that Lean despises, as well as the ranking of his own book, which appeared just a few months ago. (The NA books are, of course, much older.)

Lean’s book, The Islamophobia Industry: #106,786 (Sept. 2012)
The God Delusion (Dawkins): #720
The End of Faith (Harris): #2802
God is not Great (Hitchens):  #1652

Hell, even my book, at #9355, tops Lean’s by a long shot, and it came out four years ago.

But that aside, let’s examine Lean’s claims.

His main one is that the Three Horsemen he names are guilty of “Islamophobia,” which he never really defines. So let me draw a distinction here: I see “Islamophobia” as “fear or hatred of Muslims,” that is, a bigotry against Muslims that leads people to see them as less than human, to treat them worse than other people, or to discriminate against them in unlawful or immoral ways. And that’s the way critics like Lean use it.  Used this way “Islamophobia” is a fear and hatred of Muslim people, not a fear and hatred of the religious doctrine they hold. The latter, which is the main object of New Atheist criticism, is not identical to the former. Granted, it’s hard to like someone who wants to kill teachers who name teddy bears after the Prophet, but the whole object of New Atheist opprobrium is exposing the irrationality of religious beliefs and the harm they do to society.  There’s little doubt that Islam is the most harmful of beliefs ascendant in today’s world. To oppose it is not bigotry, but rationality.

Nevertheless, Lean trots out the usual accusations (all indented quotes are from Lean’s piece):

1.  The New Atheists are strident and motivated by money. They’re just too popular!

The New Atheists, they are called, offer a departure from the theologically based arguments of the past, which claimed that science wasn’t all that important in disproving the existence of God. Instead, Dawkins and other public intellectuals like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens suffocate their opponents with scientific hypotheses, statistics and data about the physical universe — their weapons of choice in a battle to settle the scores in a debate that has raged since the days of Aristotle. They’re atheists with attitudes, as polemical as they are passionate, brash as they are brainy, and while they view anyone who does not share their unholier-than-thou worldview with skepticism and scorn, their cogitations on the creation of the universe have piqued the interest of even many believers. With that popularity, they’ve built lucrative empires. Dawkins and Harris are regulars in major publications like the New York Times and the Economist, and their books — “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins and “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Harris — top bestseller lists and rake in eye-popping royalties.

If Lean is going to accuse New Atheists of venality, then it’s fair to accuse him of jealousy. So I do.

2. The New Atheists are arrogant.

Four days after the [9/11] tragedy, Dawkins could barely contain his intellectual triumphalism. “Those people [the terrorists] were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards,” he wrote in the Guardian. “On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from. It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East, which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.”

What, exactly, is “triumphalist” about that? It doesn’t denigrate the bombers as idiots, but singles out religion as their main motivation. Is something wrong with that?

3. The New Atheists hate Muslims.

The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason. “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.”

For Harris, the ankle-biter version of the Rottweiler Dawkins, suicide bombers and terrorists are not aberrations. They are the norm. They have not distorted their faith by interpreting it wrongly. They have lived out their faith by understanding it rightly. “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge,” he writes in “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

The invective is not against human beings, but against their beliefs and how those beliefs make them—à la Steven Weinberg—do bad things. It’s against Islam, not Muslims.

I see nothing wrong with what Harris wrote. “Backwoods racists”? Really? And Lean’s accusation of “bigotry” is way off the mark.  Is someone who opposes the ideology of the Republican party in the U.S. an “anti-Republican bigot”? Is someone who despises homophobia and the claim that gays are sinful an “anti-homophobic bigot?” Only opposing religion earns you the label of “bigot.” As always, religion demands special privileges.

4.  New Atheists are theologically unsophisticated. This comes from one claim: that Dawkins hasn’t read the Qur’an:

Dawkins, in a recent rant on Twitter, admitted that he had not ever read the Quran, but was sufficiently expert in the topic to denounce Islam as the main culprit of all the world’s evil: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” How’s that for a scientific dose of proof that God does not exist?

A few days later, on March 25, there was this: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism.”

It’s an extraordinary feat for an Oxford scholar to admit that he hasn’t done the research to substantiate his belief, but what’s more extraordinary is that he continues to believe the unsupported claim. That backwards equation — insisting on a conclusion before even launching an initial investigation — defines the New Atheists’ approach to Islam. It’s a pompousness that only someone who believes they have proven, scientifically, the nonexistence of God can possess.

Curiously, Lean doesn’t mention that both Harris and Hitchens have read the Qur’an (as have I), or that even atheists know the Bible better than do Christians. Does that mean that Christians are less qualified to defend Christianity than atheists are to attack it? And Dawkins’s point is right: do we really need to read Mein Kampf before criticizing neo-Nazis? How many of us who readily and rightly decry the Nazis have read Mein Kampf?

This is all a distraction, of course, for Lean spends his whole piece attacking New Atheists as bigots without addressing their arguments against faith. He also manages to say that some right-wing people—genuine bigots—are also opposed to Islam, as if somehow that invalidates the arguments of Dawkins & Co. This shopworn guilt-by-association trope is like saying that anyone who favors highway construction is evil because Hitler built the Autobahn.

Lean closes by instantiating his own ignorance of what New Atheism is all about: the eradication of baseless superstition by pointing out a lack of evidence for God, our inability to know what a god wants, even if it existed, and the damage that religion does to society:

How the New Atheists’ anti-Muslim hate advances their belief that God does not exist is not exactly clear. In this climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment, it’s a convenient digression, though. They’ve shifted their base and instead of simply trying to convince people that God is a myth, they’ve embraced the monster narrative of the day. That’s not rational or enlightening or “free thinking” or even intelligent. That’s opportunism. If atheism writ large was a tough sell to skeptics, the “New Atheism,” Muslim-bashing atheism, must be like selling Bibles to believers. After all, those who are convinced that God exists, and would otherwise dismiss the Dawkins’ and Harris’s of the world as hell-bound kooks, are often some of the biggest Islamophobes. It’s symbiosis — and as a biologist, Dawkins should know a thing or two about that. Proving that a religion — any religion — is evil, though, is just as pointless and impossible an endeavor as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist. Neither has been accomplished yet. And neither will.

Lean apparently doesn’t realize that religious superstition, which leads one to believe that he possesses the absolute truth, is of a piece with actions based on those superstitions. For if you have a pipeline to God’s will, it’s almost incumbent on you to do something about that.  Ergo opposition to abortion, meddling with peoples’ sex lives, suicide bombings, witch-burnings, and so on. Decrying the harms of religion is not a “digression,” but the very reason we oppose the follies of faith.

Maybe we can’t convince people that religion is evil (and not all are, I think, viz., Quakers), but I think that religion would be better if we left out the goddy parts. Then it wouldn’t be religion any more, but secular humanism.

As for proving that God doesn’t exist, we don’t do that. We argue that the evidence is overwhelming that God doesn’t exist—certainly not the Abrahamic “disembodied-person” God who is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient.  I suppose Lean would also criticize us because we haven’t proved that the Loch Ness monster or UFOs don’t exist.

In the end, it’s Lean who looks like a bigot, for he simply smears the New Atheists as people without taking on board their arguments. It is he who hasn’t read the relevant texts, and dislikes a group as people without engaging their views.

113 thoughts on “Nasty atheist-bashing in Salon

  1. “How many of us who readily and rightly decry the Nazis have read Mein Kampf?”

    I’ll note that anti-Nazis, in my experience, have read more Nazi material and understood it better than the typical neo-Nazi.

    (I attempted reading Mein Kampf. It’s really a terrible, boring book. But the English academic edition was very nice, because it was footnoted with every time Hitler lied about himself, which was quite amusing.)

  2. Wait a minute. I thought the problem with atheists was that they were always criticizing Christians because they were afraid to criticize Islam.

  3. Well okay, but I’m not on board with singling out Islam as somehow the most evil or most pernicious manifestation of religion, a stance you appear to defend. I don’t see any argumentative benefit from making distinctions among categories of nonsense; nor do I think the conclusion is at all clear. Islam as a whole, vs. Opus Dei, or apocalyptic dominionism? There are, after all, many versions of Islam. George W. Bush and his evangelical supporters were in substantial part motivated to invade Iraq because of Christian beliefs. It is Christian dominionism that gives us Sarah Palin and it is the evangelical right that delivers elections to global warming denialists. It is an interpretation of Judaism that causes the most intractable conflict in the Middle East, one that helps inflame tensions all around the region.

    Making out Islam to somehow be distinctly awful is a serious mistake and it does indeed open you up to charges of prejudice. I say, knock it off, it’s factually wrong and conceptually muddled. All religions are equally ridiculous, and all religions open the way to dangerous beliefs and actions. Just leave it at that.

    1. A 14 yo schoolgirl champions the education of young women. A gunman gets on her school bus and shoots her in the head. Tell me what religion does that and no other?

      1. A) A specific person did that, not all of Islam;
        B) Tim McVeigh blew up a building housing a day care center and killed dozens of children.
        C) Baruch Kopel Goldstein (Hebrew: ברוך קופל גולדשטיין‎; December 9, 1956 – February 25, 1994) was an American-born Israeli physician and mass murderer who perpetrated the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in the city of Hebron, killing 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers and wounding another 125.

        What would you think if I wrote “What religion does that and no other?”

        1. In fairness to dcm0001, I would allow that, “typically internet”, he wrote an abbreviated last sentence: “What religion does that…?”

          I think his “that” means to say, “What religion specifically directs this type of violence??”

          One could argue that there are violent directives in Christian writing, in the Torah, heck, how about the Aztec religion?

          Mohammed built an army of followers, a military cohort, to spread his religion, and sanctions violence against non-believers. What religion threatens you with everlasting Hellfire if you don’t take up arms to crusade in its behalf?

          1. I am definitely speaking directly of the medieval barbarism that Islamists propagate – beheading Christian schoolgirls in Indonesia, the killing of medical teams dispensing polio vaccines, the systematic murder of school teachers in Thailand, the moronic rioting if the the prophet’s name has been taken in vain and, of course, the cult of the suicide bomber. Adherents of no other religion behave like this. Islam employs simple, brutal thuggery to get its own way, and it is correctly reviled for it.

        2. Isn’t there a big difference between isolated individuals taking it on themselves to carry out mad plans (and even small groups, so Sept 11 and McVeigh are in the same camp) and official courts sentencing people to be stoned, acid-attacked etc. in the name of the religious laws? That hasn’t happened within Judaism or Christianity for a few centuries now.

          1. If memory serves, in Uganda homosexuality is a capitol offense that got put into law due to the actions of fundamentalist Christian groups.

    2. My understanding is that one of the significant problems with Islam however is that most Islamic “moderates” would qualify as hardliners if we were judging them by the same criteria we do when ranking sects of Christianity. The founder of the religion literally waged war on earth against unbelievers. Jesus just went around snarling about what was going to happen to unbelievers in the afterlife.

      Yes, sure. You can play Calvinball with all religions and interpret them however you want. But Islam is perhaps a bit more specific than some of the others when it comes to making a distinction between the saved and damned. It demands more of its adherents and is less open to agreeing that it can stay out of politics and become a personal belief.

    3. “I don’t see any argumentative benefit from making distinctions among categories of nonsense”


      “There are, after all, many versions of Islam.”

      These two statements are contradictory.

      You need to figure out which side of your argument you think is right because you don’t get to have it both ways.

      1. Your missing my point. If Coyne thinks that “Islam” is somehow worse than “Christianity” he has a much tougher proof if he acknowledges that neither is homogeneous.

        1. When looked at as a practical question I don’t think this is all that difficult. Would you like to go to Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Pakistan and advocate for women’s rights…or gay rights? To pretend that there are not distinctions to be made is just that, pretending.

          Also: you’re

          1. Honestly, there are certain parts of the US that I wouldn’t want to advocate gay rights in. Like most of rural America, for example.

        2. Even if, as it might well be argued, Christianity is at least as bad as Islam, the fact remains that Christianity has been significantly weakened by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the triumphs of the scientific method, also by the establishment of secular systems of government in what might have been Christian territory. The appalling consequences of the possible resurgence of Christianity notwithstanding, Islam is at present the far greater threat to civilised humanity.

    4. “The Problem with Islam

      WHILE my argument in this book is aimed at faith itself, the differences between faiths are as relevant as they are unmistakable. There is a reason, after all, why we must now confront Muslim, rather than Jain terrorists, in every corner of the world. Jains do not believe anything that is remotely likely to inspire them to commit acts of suicidal violence against unbelievers. By any measure of normativity we might wish to adopt (ethical, practical, epistemological, economic, etc.), there are good beliefs and there are bad ones—and it should now be obvious to everyone that Muslims have more than their fair share of the latt”

      Excerpt From: Harris, Sam. “The End of Faith.” W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. iBooks.

    5. I think practiced in a modern way that is consistent with life in a democratic secular society, it is fair to say Muslims can coexist as peacefully and beneficially as members of other religions generally do. Practicing the five pillars is not inconsistent with peaceful tolerant living.

      Islam, per se, does not have more primitive brutality in its scriptures than do Christianity’s Bible, which includes in translation Judaism’s Torah. As long as the practitioners tailor their practice to emphasize what is peaceful and skip over the barbarities, the harm of religion is reduced, but not eliminated.

      What makes Islam worse is the totalitarian groupthink of politicized Islam converging with ancient tribal patriarchy in Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures. There is diversity from Turkey to Egypt to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, or Afghanistan. But the oppression of women’s freedom to drive, study, work, or dress as they wish, the honor killings, the beatings, the stonings, the equating of devotion to God with violent holy war, the beheadings, the murder of apostates, the violent rioting in response to mere insults of the prophet such as sarcastic cartoons, the absurd blasphemy laws,mare facts associated with Islam in various countries that make it more dangerous and menacing than other religions as practiced today on earth.

      1. I was thinking something similar. Although, I’m not nearly as informed as you seem to be. But, it makes sense. I would offer one other idea. By all appearances, Islam is the religion least tempered by advances by knowledge about the universe and improved morality. Christianity has clearly tried to adapt (accommodate) to new knowledge. Judaism, I’m not sure.

        1. Christianity has never tried to adapt to anything.

          The only reason it’s done so is because it was forced to by secular authority.

  4. It’s always funny to read about “bigots” and religions in English if you speak French as the French words Bigot (masculine) or Bigote (feminine) refer to a person of excessive religious devotion. (See the famous Jacques Brel song, Les Bigotes)
    How the word made it to English with its current meaning, I have no idea but the irony isn’t lost on me.
    Wikipedia notes that the origin of the word might come from the German bei Gott (by God)… HA!

  5. Because it is generally an unfruitful exercise to discuss whether or not god(s) exist, I am shifting gears to focus on the actions that people do in the name of their god and religion. The behaviors of a person tell me what a person truly believes. It really is not too difficult to see the difference between those who demonstrate compassion for the poor and marginalized versus those who strap explosives to their bodies to kill themselves and dozens who they believe are infidels. So, who do I fear? Christians and Muslims alike if their intentions are to do harm rather than good.

    1. I think the problem with this seemingly reasonable approach is that all religious people think that their religion motivates them to do good. That includes the suicide bombers who are after all only fighting evil. They don’t know they are the Bad Guys — and can’t know it as long as everyone else is waxing so enthusiastic about how humble and noble and loving it is to be religious — to sublimate reason to faith and value God above the world.

      It’s not as if all the Bad people deliberately choose Bad religions and the Good people deliberately choose Good religions. All we’ve got really is ordinary people — and whatever variation of religion they happen to have fallen in to. The underlying problem is the method. Religion itself allows any circumstances to be re-interpreted into being Good or Bad according to supernatural standards. Watch out. That goes anywhere.

      I don’t think strong arguments against the existence of God are ‘unfruitful.’ I think they’re going to be necessary. Otherwise, you’re simply going to be playing an endless game of Whack-a-Mole as religions constantly get “extreme” and go “bad.” How the hell can atheists use the argument that THESE Christians/Muslims/Hindus/pagans understand God the RIGHT way and THESE Christians/Muslims/Hindus/pagans understand God the WRONG way? What would we stand on? Common sense? Reason? That’s what got us to throw the hypothesis out.

      That’s a serious problem, pandering to the superstitious and encouraging nonsense to flow in the right direction. How do we atheists turn everyone’s God into a secular humanist? How — and why — would they let us? They’re supposed to be different than atheists. They’re supposed to be better.

      1. There is not much here that I would disagree with [although I did say “generally” unfruitful :-)]. However, what I was trying to convey is my pragmatic approach on an individual basis – I am talking about how to deal with my relatives, colleagues and students who are embedded in a shallow understanding of their religion, which is predominantly Christianity. I would get absolutely nowhere with a strong argument against the existence of God. Where I do make progress is discussing why it is that they believe what they believe. This is when it is important to know the bible such that for every bit of scripture that says \x\ should be, I can usually find a place that will say no to \x\ because \y\ should be. I also do not discount common sense and reason with this crowd, although sometimes it seems to be a scarce commodity. Nor do I pander to their pathological beliefs, but rather challenge them explain such reprobate beliefs.

    2. “focus on the actions that people do in the name of their god and religion.”

      As at least one of the versions of Jesus in the gospels says, “By their fruits shall ye know them”.

      1. Good one Jim – Matthew 7 – You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.

  6. My Twitter exchange with Nathan Lean:

    Me: Secularists will always have the upper hand because religion is in the business of saying things abt the world that are not true.

    Lean’s response: who cares. having the upper hand means nothing unless life is a competition between believers and non believers. It’s not.

    My two follow-up tweets (that got no response):

    In some respects life IS a competition between these opposing camps. Religion traffics in make-believe whereas science does not.


    It is a kind of evil to encourage children to believe in things for which we have 0 evidence. Religion is guilty on many fronts.

  7. Sorry that this isn’t the direct topic of the post, but since it was mentioned — I do think the 9/11 terrorists were cowards, in a sense. I acknowledge that it takes a certain “insane courage” to hijak a plane and turn it into a weapon.

    But it also the equivalent to a sucker punch. These were not people meeting the enemy in combat. These attacks were carried out on unsuspecting people. That is what is cowardly about it. Nobody but the terrorists knew they were starting a fight.

    1. With all due respect for what you say (and I happen to mostly agree with it), there is still the consideration that “war is the terrorism of powerful states; terrorism is the war of the marginalized groups.”
      Best to condemn the violent on all sides.

    2. I’m curious as to where undercover cops fall on your scale of cowardice.

      And the 9/11 terrorists weren’t starting a fight. That fight had started at least a year earlier with the attack on the USS Cole. If US was unprepared for 9/11, it’s because we weren’t paying attention.

    3. Nobody but the terrorists knew they were starting a fight.

      Al Qaeda-backed attacks on US facilties, including embassies and consulates, had been going on for about a decade by that time. Outgoing Clinton officials advised the Bushees that Al Qaeda was the number one threat. So somebody must have known.

    4. This is fair enough but it all comes down to definitions. A standard definition of cowardice is that it is opposed to courage and courage is defined as the willingness to face death without flinching. By that definition, the terrorists were not cowards.

      You appear to be using a different definition. Namely, that courage is defined as fighting honorably. But why shouldn’t we simply call this honor or the practice of fighting fairly rather than courage? The two virtues often go together but they need not all the time. I think one can defensibly say the terrorists had a certain amount of physical courage but that they were barbaric and fought on behalf of a retrograde, crazy ideology.

  8. “…but I think that religion would be better if we left out the goddy parts. Then it wouldn’t be religion any more, but secular humanism.”

    I know this has been said before, but it bears repeating: Unitarian-Universalists consider themselves a religion. They have community, outreach, Sunday serves, all without “the goddy parts.” Likewise there are other religions that non-theistic.

    Thomas Jefferson supposedly viewed Unitarianism as the perfect religion for the nascent USA because it was inclusive of all the wisdom traditions.

    I agree with most things Dr Dawkins has to say, but yeah, it is weird to criticize Islam without having read the Koran. The comparison to Nazism and Mein Kampf is cute, but basically Dawkins is presenting himself as someone who makes a judgment about an ideology (Islam) based on its extreme practitioners. His criticisms of Islam would stand taller if he had some knowledge of its irrationality.

    1. The Courtier’s Reply.

      To say that one must read the Koran to have “some knowledge of its [Islam’s] irrationality” is a pretty weak tea. How “openminded” are you about Scientology? How much have you studied it’s practices?

      It doesn’t take more than a TV, some regularly delivered newspapers, and the Internet to get a pretty good understanding of Islam’s irrationality.

      1. Dawkins’ tweet: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.”

        I never said Dawkins was wrong, I said it was “weird”. If I were going to write a detailed criticism and travel the planet voicing displeasure with a group of people I guess I would familiarize myself with their viewpoints and declared ideology, but that’s me. having said that, unlike this particular tweet, Dawkins books are not a pointed castigation of the “evils” of Islamic ideology.

        Personally, I HAVE read the Koran and think it’s a lot of BS. Assuming Dawkins’ reference to “evil” is in regards to terrorism, I’ve also read Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, ie, his declaration of war, and I’ve determined that he and his Saudi followers are pissed for political reasons and not just religious: “…the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators; to the extent that the Muslims blood became the cheapest and their wealth as loot in the hands of the enemies.”

        So, is Dawkins correct that Islam is “the greatest force for evil today”, or are Muslims pointing to perceived injustices of a political-economic nature?

        I cannot help but think that the primary “force for evil today” is this perceived (and valid) injustice; Islam is merely being used by the leadership to harness the emotion, the “courage” as Dawkins says. Maybe it’s nitpicking about what the “greatest force” is, Islam or economics, but that’s where I might differ with Dawkins.

        If you want to convince Muslims that their best interests are served by eschewing their religious ideology and promoting a more secular govt, then you might have a stronger argument if you are ostensibly familiar with their religion. You’d have more credibility when you say, sure you got a bum deal on the oil and Palestine things but your religion is stupid and you’d be better served by being more rational.

        I think Dawkins books are more coherent than this particular tweet. I would’ve agreed whole-heartedly if Dawkins had instead tweeted: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say any ideology based on divine revelation is inherently flawed.” (140 character limit notwithstanding).

        1. A “detailed criticism” in a tweet?

          Like I said upstream, you don’t need to read the Koran to conclude the Islam is a threat any more than you need to study the works of Samuel Hahnemann to conclude that homeopathy is bunk. It is the behavior of living people who are operating under the guidance of the Koran that is what counts.

          1. What’s with the “trolling” language? I gave a fairly involved response that you apparently disagree with. Does that deserve the label “troll”? According to wikipedia, a troll responds with “inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages” for the purpose of “provoking an emotional response.” Is this what I have done?

            I guess any disagreement here merits an epithet.

          2. And yet how do you know that they are operating under the guidance of the Koran if you had not read it?

        2. Considering that most Muslims usually respond to criticisms about the content of the Koran by saying that it only makes sense and is inspired if you read it in Arabic, I don’t think you having read a ‘corrupted’ translation is any more impressive to most Muslims than is Dawkins not having read it at all.

        3. “I’ve determined that he and his Saudi followers are pissed for political reasons and not just religious: ‘…the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators; to the extent that the Muslims blood became the cheapest and their wealth as loot in the hands of the enemies.'”

          The passage you quoted is barely coherent but, to the extent I can make sense out of it, it seems fairly religious to me. The complaint about “Zionists” and “Crusaders” seems directed at the humiliation Muslims are supposed to feel in seeing formerly Muslim land being ruled by non-Muslims [Jews]. There is barely any distinction between the religious and the political here.

          That said, I don’t think reading propaganda is always the best way to understand what motivates individuals to join certain movements. For instance, historians of Nazi Germany seeking to understand why some Germans joined the Nazi Party or voted for them don’t seem to dwell too much on Nazi propaganda as a valuable source.

    2. “Dawkins is presenting himself as someone who makes a judgment about an ideology (Islam) based on its extreme practitioners.”

      I’ve posted this here before, and will probably have to post it again. When Dawkins published “The God Delusion,” he was criticized by Sophisticated Theologians™ for speaking out against the rabid-right know-nothings, and for not taking into consideration the oh-so-sophisticated forms that christian theology has assumed through the centuries. In the introduction to the second edition (page 15 in my paperback edition), he responded to this criticism thus (the initial quote is Dawkins quoting his critics):

      “You always attack the worst of religion and ignore the best. You go after rabble-rousing chancers like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer who teach the sort of religion I believe in.”
      If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell, or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.

      1. I agree 100% with Dawkins in his book. Twitter is a tough medium for any kind of nuanced argument. Statements like declaring something the “greatest force for evil” after just admitting that you know nothing about it’s foundational document is, well, weird. Dawkins’ can expect his opponents to bludgeon him with that remark.

        As I said upthread, Dawkins books are more coherent than this particular tweet. I would’ve agreed whole-heartedly if Dawkins had instead tweeted: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say any ideology based on divine revelation is inherently flawed.” (140 character limit notwithstanding).

        1. Your argument devolved through a Courtier’s Reply to Concern Trolling. Can you take it lower?

          [IANAE, but Dawkin’s seems to do fine in all media.]

    3. Have most Muslims read the Koran? I thought it needs to be read in the original Arabic and a lot of Muslims only know a few translated passages.

  9. I knew I could count on you, Jerry. I was browsing Salon this morning and saw that article, read a few paragraphs, and then jumped over here to see if you’d written about it. Off to read this post and then maybe the Salon piece…

  10. I could only get about halfway through the Salon article even though I thought I could read past the ridiculous hyperbolic writing style. It’s as bad as Christian writing.

    I agree with your assessment. Methinks they dost protest too much.

  11. Looking at his website and the article, it seems Lean dislikes the criticism of Islam primarily for political reasons. He seems to be concerned that attacking Islam gives aid and comfort to the neo-cons, or actually stems from such a position.

    Fear sells and the Islamophobia Industry — a right-wing cadre of intellectual hucksters, bloggers, politicians, pundits, and religious leaders — knows that all too well. For years they have labored behind the scenes to convince their compatriots that Muslims are the enemy, exhuming the ghosts of 9/11 and dangling them before the eyes of horrified populations for great fortune and fame. (from the book blurb on Lean’s website)

    But as regards his view of what Islamophobia is:

    Islamophobia is undeniably a form of racism. Though it doesn’t operate on overtly biological prejudices, it does divide the world between “superior” and “inferior” cultures, the latter of which are marginalized not only because of their ethnic background (cue up the Arab terrorist jokes, for example) but also because of their belief system. It attributes to the whole community the negative traits of a minority few. And while it’s considered shameful today to prejudice African Americans or Jews, Muslims are always safe targets. (from “Yes, Virginia, Islamophobia is Racism“, HuffPo, 8/3/12

    I haven’t read the Koran, but I’ve read Dawkins and Hitchens, and that isn’t my understanding of what they are doing when they criticize Islam.

    1. Over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars Ed Brayton simultaneously criticizes Islamic extremism AND the Islamophobia of right-wing politics. We are right to fear and hate certain interpretations of Islam. We are wrong to think the United States is on the brink of falling under Sharia law.

      When Christian fundamentalists criticize Islam they castigate it as the religion of the Devil — and seek to replace it with the True Faith. It’s tribalistic. New atheists criticize it on secular grounds all the way. Science, human rights, and free inquiry. Those aren’t just tenets of some other “religion” from some other “tribe.”

      1. The USA is not the only Western country in the world. Britain already has Sharia Law operating under certain circumstances and much of Europe is at risk as well. Try not to be so parochial, just because any risk to you is in the far future, doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about.

        1. ” Britain already has Sharia Law operating under certain circumstances”

          I’m in Britain. Could you please detail these circumstances for me? Thanks!

          1. I don’t see what the problem is with the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal. In both the U.K. and the U.S., it is possible for two people who have a legal dispute to seek private arbitration as an alternative to the court system. Maybe you don’t think arbitration should exist at all but, otherwise, what principled objection could there be to two adult Muslims seeking to have a case arbitrated by MAT? As far as I can tell, nothing stops any Muslim or non-Muslim with a civil complaint from insisting his or her case be handled by regular British courts.

          2. In this particular kind of arbitration, one party is by design put at a disadvantage. This is not fair arbitration, it is back-door discriminatory religion intruding into civil affairs. Honest arbitration should be structurally impartial between the parties.

          3. In principle it’s reasonable. In practice it is full of holes as Ant and gbjames have pointed out. If something like this is allowed to exist at the minimum it should not be legally binding. Either party should be able to challenge rulings in actual courts of law in order to ensure that they have the full set of available legal protections offered by the secular state.

  12. The New Atheists, they are called, offer a departure from the theologically based arguments of the past, which claimed that science wasn’t all that important in disproving the existence of God.

    Hey, he got this one right.

    And boy, don’t they just hate this approach. God is “metaphysical” and above critical analysis in light of what we have discovered through science. Think again. Every single person who believes in God also believes that they do so because evidence and experience pointed them in that direction — and they were good enough to conclude the true thing. They all believe their faith is either a reasonable faith — or that choosing faith separates good from evil — or both.

    For Harris, the ankle-biter version of the Rottweiler Dawkins, suicide bombers and terrorists are not aberrations. They are the norm. They have not distorted their faith by interpreting it wrongly. They have lived out their faith by understanding it rightly.

    Lean fails to understand Harris’ main argument. It is not that the “extremists” are getting the religion “right” or interpreting it correctly. Religion is Calvinball. It is that extremism is an inevitable by-product of a system which encourages people to believe and do things which won’t and can’t make sense when measured by the world. There is no rational way to draw a line against people who go too far. They aren’t using human standards: they are following God. Argue against them and you’re arguing against God.

    No checks and balances from outsiders. It’s nothing but division of tribes.

    Like many of the critics of new atheism, Lean is trying to frame religious tolerance using the Diversity Smorgasbord model instead of the Diverse Problem-Solving Group model. He’s equating religious identity to personal or group identity. What you believe about God sets you apart from others the same way race, sex, national origin, or preferences do. If you argue that any of these are WRONG, then that makes you a bigot. You are attacking diversity. You are being intolerant. You are failing to recognize that we are all equal on the Smorgasbord.

    The whole thrust of the new atheist argument is to change the Smorgasbord framework when it comes to religion. The fact that people identify with their religion and thus consider what they believe about God indicative of their moral character is wrong.

    Religion =/= Identity. When you strip it down to what makes it what it is, then religion is a hypothesis. It’s meant to solve a problem regarding how we understand the nature of reality. As Jerry says, from our perspective it is no more bigoted to argue against religious dogma than it is to argue against political platforms. WE are united with the Muslims in that we work on the assumption that each individual Muslim cares about their religion primarily because they think it is true. They are part of the Diverse Problem-Solving Group.

    When you try to import a Smorgasbord mindset into a Problem-Solving Group then YOU are guilty of bigotry. You’re trying to silence a just criticism and shield a proposed solution from analysis. You’re importing privilege into a debate in order to shut it down. This will not lead to tolerance. It is intolerance.

  13. OK, here is a bit of the Koran, where the burning of people is described..

    Sura 111

    The power of Abu Lahab will perish, and he will perish.
    Abu Lahab will die and be plunged in flaming Fire. His wife will have on her neck a halter of palm fiber.
    His wealth and gains will not exempt him.
    He will be plunged in flaming Fire,
    And his wife, the wood-carrier,
    Will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre.

    OK, where in Mein Kampf does Hitler describe how people will be burned alive?

    And yet somehow, the Koran is supposed to be a nicer book than Mein Kampf.

    1. will have on her neck a halter of palm fiber.
      Is that a reference to slavery? The only other thing I could come up with is that he is calling the wife a horse.

      1. Even if your interpretation that Abu Lahab’s wife will not be burned but merely enslaved is correct, the passage is clear that “Abu Lahab will die and be plunged in flaming Fire” and “He will be plunged in flaming Fire”. May the lesser punishment of his wife be some consolation to him, if Allah permit any consolation.

  14. Ah, these New New Atheists (or New Old Religionists) and their militant newatheistophobia.

    As far as I can work out the most significant difference between New and Old Atheists are that people are now listening.

    1. That, and the fact that the churches no longer have sufficient political power to burn us at the stake.

  15. The sad irony is that genuine Islamophobia is most often expressed by evangelical Christians like Michele Bachmann. The American politicians who breathlessly warn us against “creeping Sharia law” and “infiltration of the government by the Muslim Brotherhood” are extremely religious themselves.

  16. Any devotion to a particular ideology/theology can result in a culture of prosecution of alternative ideologies/theologies. The former USSR was an atheist state, and Stalin ordered the deaths of millions to empower/preserve his version of a communist state. He thought his belief was true and he would get rid of anyone who disagreed.
    Much of what Christianity, Islam, and Judaism put forth as doctrine is similar and centers around helping other people who are sick or poor, not killing, not stealing, sharing with others.
    There is also the need to be the one true religion which I think is truly unfortunate. And I guess maybe “the New Atheist” along sharing the “secular humanist” parts of various religions also shares the belief that New Atheism is the one true way of believing. If traditional religions are considered evil and New Atheism becomes the most prominent ideology will a sub-group of New Atheists eventually feel the need to discriminate/prosecute practitioners of traditional religions?
    Tragically religion has been used too often justify horrible actions taken by individuals and/or groups of individuals for their benefit.

  17. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism.”
    It’s an extraordinary feat for an Oxford scholar to admit that he hasn’t done the research to substantiate his belief, but what’s more extraordinary is that he continues to believe the unsupported claim.

    Lean didn’t even attempt to address that point by Dawkins. Apparently Lean insists that one must read the Qoran in order to have an opinion on Islam, but can’t be bothered to even make an argument for it.

  18. Excellent post, Jerry. You did a great job of digesting Lean’s points and countering them, all within the space of a blog post.

    Er, I mean website post.

  19. I find it hard to be polite about people like this. Seems it is in vogue at the moment to attack “New Atheists” and secularists.

  20. This is rich, considering the economical interests* in religion:

    they even use this success to accuse the NAs of being motivated by money.

    Let us not assassinate this lad further, Religion. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

    *Even the Catholic sect seems uncertain how much money they own. But they can afford to adorn their clothes with gold…

    a debate that has raged since the days of Aristotle

    Whoa! Time out! Aristotle was adopted on the side of the godbotherers, and he wrought untold harm on the science Lean descries.

    Proving that a religion — any religion — is evil, though, is just as pointless and impossible an endeavor as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist. Neither has been accomplished yet. And neither will.

    Translation from Lean to rational terms:

    ‘To the religious insistence of never even hearing an analysis of magic, even less trying it on, I’ll add the special privilege of never even hearing a moral condemnation of the pursuit of magic.’

  21. Speaking of anti-atheist bigotry, and maybe this has been mentioned, but Ed Yong linked to this treat:

    “USPS Discrimination Against Atheism?”

    The gist is that the makers of “ATHEIST SHOES” got complaints in US for delivery failures. They made a study of packages with and without their “ATHEIST” logo tape in 49 states.

    Some statistically significant results were that ATHEIST-branded packages were 10 times more likely to disappear (Fisher test) and that they took on average 3 days longer to arrive (Fisher and Wilcoxon tests).

    [ ]

    In other words, all of US or at least the nation wide USPS is bigoted against atheists.

    Maybe Lean can be called on to explain how his countrymen’s anti-atheist hate advances their belief that God does exist.

    1. In other words, all of US or at least the nation wide USPS is bigoted against atheists.

      Seems to me that at best this study demonstrates bad behavior on the part of some postal workers in some (maybe most) states. (Hard to be sure how many since I’m not seeing a link to the state-by-state data.)

      It does not make a convincing case for systematic, institutionalized bias against atheists as a matter of USPS policy. That would require evidence that USPS management was aware of the bad behavior and did nothing to correct it.

      Indeed, the fact that the majority of atheist-labeled packages were merely late rather than lost suggests that packages “lost” by biased workers were frequently found and put back into the delivery stream by unbiased workers.

    1. Interesting… and Christianity in general, it seems. Knowledge of world religions though — adherents of Judaism appear to be tops there, followed by atheist/agnostic. This appears to be a reversal of earlier findings where atheist/agnostic was consistently at the top of all measures?

  22. “That’s not rational or enlightening or “free thinking” or even intelligent. That’s opportunism.”
    I don’t get this. Is the author suggesting that people don’t use religion as a justification and a tool for the enforcement of their beliefs onto others?

  23. Well Karen Armstrong’s positive review and strong recommendation of the book certainly lowered my opinion of her (and it was already pretty low).
    This morning I happened across one of those political talk shows on ABC. The subject was same-sex marriage, and it was astounding to hear Catholic and Baptist clerics backing their opposition to same-sex marriage with claims that “God” had defined marriage as heterosexual. But what was even more astounding was that no one asked obvious questions like “How do you know that?” There was no pushback at all; these absurd arguments were treated with reverential respect. It’s occasional mornings like this that shock me into realizing how in thrall our country is to superstitious myths. These clerics may be driving SUVs and using cellphones, but they are modern day witch doctors nonetheless.

  24. Here in Iceland, the Icelandic Skeptical Society (Vantrú) which is also the main atheist organisation has been the loudest voice in defending the rights of muslims, including the right to raise mosques, something that many people here are very much opposed to.

    Icelandic Atheists (mostly) feel that religions should be equally treated under the law and that Christians, especially the Lutheran State Church should not have special privileges that less “popular” religions do not have.

    1. That is all reasonable. The US Constitution supports the legal right of freedom of religion. There are around 2,100 mosques in the US, attended by an estimated 2.6 million Muslims. Estimates of the number of Muslims range from 3 to 7 million, many of whom evidently do not regularly attend a mosque.

      I defend the rights of Muslims who obey our laws, and against persecution by Christians who want religious uniformity.

      But I’ll fight against Muslims who want to bring honor killings, oppression of women’s ambitions for education or career, or anti-blasphemy hysteria into this country.

    1. Only in the sense that a belief doesn’t exist without believers.

      However, if you equate Islam with Muslims, you imply that people who are Muslims are defined by nothing but Islam, that they have no wants or needs other than their religion. Is this true of all Muslims?


  25. Geez, who did Sam Harris insult over at Salon? They’ve made a mini-industry out of bashing him. Also, if I’d never heard of the horsemen and just read this piece, I might cross the street if I ever saw one of them walking towards me after sundown. This article, certainly, seemed slanted and over the top.

    That said, I think it’s important to fairly consider feedback, even if it comes in the form of saber-rattling. If nothing else, it can help clarify what misconceptions and confusions exist regarding a position. Granted, sometimes those are ‘intentional misunderstandings’, but in some cases people might genuinely be fearful or confused about a point – the idea of criticizing ideas vs. people, for example.

    As far as attitudes regarding Islam and religion as a tool of oppression – I have to say, this is one area where I’m still agnostic and not always happy with the conversations that take place in this area. I know, I know, sorry, I’m ‘going on about this’ again… but as a rule, people involved in new atheism argue strongly for evidence-based belief, rational debate, and well-researched conclusions. Sometimes, then, the whole “religion as a force of ills” assertion seems far too intuitive to me, based largely on appeals to common sense. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone point me to a body of work in sociology, psychology, or any other area that actually backs this assertion via the very methods that rationalism extols.

    I’d feel much more comfortable with this debate if it was backed by some sort of data. I think Steven Pinker is writing a book on the causes of reduction in violence (although it’s entirely possible that I made that up,) so I’ll be curious to see if he looks at the role of religion and, if so, what he concludes there.

      1. Hmmm. I searched (see post below) and I can’t find him saying anything anything like that. Must have been some sort of wish-fulfillment dream on my part – apparently my subconscious fantasy life is quite polite and full of erudite yearnings. Freud would be so disappointed!

        I know the topic of religion is covered somewhat in Better Angels, and admittedly, I haven’t read it, but I believe that book is more statistics on how many wars had a religious component, etc. But that doesn’t relate as much as I would like to religion as a causal vs. simply correlated factor in world violence, strife, and dysfunctional societies. For example, someone in the comments here mentioned Buddhist violence. Is this a branch of Buddhism that endorses some forms of aggression? If not, are they essentially ‘going against’ their own beliefs (the way the Catholic Church did in the sex scandal)? If so, what does this tell us? That people will be people and violence will happen regardless of what people profess to believe? Or, if we dug deeper, would we find that there are distinct correlations between various beliefs and rates of violence in groups in similar situations? Sam Harris gives the example of Palestinian Christians, but this is a single example – it seems as if this is the type of thing that could actually be studied. Perhaps it has, though, and I’m just unaware of this.

    1. Thanks for your considerate and moderate post. I was beginning to think reading the other comments here that nobody could see how often religious “motivations” might be superficial dressing for deeper rationales. As David Hume might say, you can no more reason from an action to a motivation than you can reason from a perceived effect to an unperceived cause.

  26. Thanks Marella. I do know of that book… I have a hazy memory of him saying he might write more on the causes of violence and prosperous vs. dysfunctional societies in an interview, though. That may just have been an old interview where he was talking about BAOON though, so as I said, entirely uncertain on that point.

  27. Jerry, everybody here has responded to Nathan Lean as if his arguments had any merit. They clearly don’t. Time to consider the man and his employer.

    I’ve spent a couple of unsavory hours to look up past utterances of Mr. Lean, as available online. Ditto, Aslan Media. Ditto, the head of Aslan Media, the well-publicised Mr. Reza Aslan.

    Two questions have formed in my mind:

    1. Is Aslan Media a front, is it manipulated, or is it merely infiltrated, after the time-honoured modus operandi of Soviet agents in regard to White Russian émigré circles, particularly publishing houses, in the West? The Shah’s SAVAK used similar tactics to infiltrate opponents in exile, and I understand that while the Iranian régime has changed, the methods of the various outfits have not, except in intensity, brutality, and quite possibly refinement.

    2. Is Mr. Lean just a militant nincompoop, a “useful idiot” (to revive the superannuated Cold War term)? Or is he a plant? If the latter, is he witting, or is he of the easily manipulated, self-recruiting variety?

    Again, after a first sighting of the copious flow of propaganda output by Mr. Lean and his employer, I think it’s a waste of time addressing his vacuous themes. A more profitable line of inquiry would be to investigate whose agenda he is furthering — or made to bring forward.

  28. International Journal of Cardiology (Elsevier): “The heart and cardiovascular system in the Qur’an and Hadeeth”.

  29. Aslan Media is the baby of Reza Aslan. He is Iranian born I think, but has been living in the US for most of his life. Actually, he debated Sam Harris a while back. You can get it on youtube

    1. I saw Reza Aslan in a debate on the construction of the way over-hyped “9/11 Terrorist Victory Mosque on Ground Zero”. The debate included hard core Islamophobe Robert Spencer of JihadWatch, as well as a number of other Christian, Muslim, and secular voices.

      There really is such a thing as actual Islamophobia, and people like Pamela Gellar, Robert Spencer, and David Horowitz are prime examples. Pamela Gellar, for example, is responsible for the anti-Muslim ad campaign in the NY city subways that may have played a role in inspiring the murder of a Hindu man who was pushed onto the tracks by someone who thought he was a Muslim.

      Regardless of how emphatically atheists disagree with religious beliefs, we must remain morally opposed to such Islamophobia lest we descend to the level of the slavering bearded Imams and their riotous mobs of 14th century fanatics who burn and murder because of cartoons insulting their prophet.

      There is a difference between recognizing legitimate dangers and opposing them in realistic ways, and imagining conspiracy theories about a Sharia conquest of America led by our supposedly Muslim President. This is the difference between being anti-theist and being an Islamophobe.

      Reza Aslan seemed by comparison to the Islamophobic Robert Spencer to be a very moderate and sensible guy. I saw him appear on the Bill Maher show as well, and he engaged Maher’s atheism with good humor and reasoned debate.

      He may be a religious believer and apologist, but I suspect he’s also reasonable enough that he would defend people’s right to draw cartoons of Mohammad or otherwise “insult” Muslims on first amendment grounds. He’s the kind of modernized moderate Muslim that atheists, and Americans of all beliefs, should be able to agree to disagree with and coexist with in mutual tolerance.

  30. Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz and commented:
    There has been a lot of writing lately against the New Atheists. I do not ally myself with them because I do not like the way Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchins perpetuate violent conflict (see Karl Jaspers, Philosophie Vol 2 on the limit situation of struggle). But I do think these new attacks have a lot to do with the New Atheists have some success at large in society.

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