Smelling blood, the media has spent the past two weeks attacking New Atheism, going so far as, in the case of Theo Hobson of The Spectator, to label Richard Dawkins as a “joke figure“, which he most certainly is not. Just two days ago, one Freddy Gray, Hobson’s colleague at the Spectator, piled on with a piece called “Dear Richard Dawkins, can you hear me?” The tenor of Gray’s piece can be summarized in a brief excerpt:
There’s no doubt, though, that Theo’s piece touched a nerve among the godless trolls of the web — just look at the comments section.
Doesn’t that remind you of Chris Mooney of The Intersection days? Whenever he said something incredibly stupid, and his readers responded with outrage and correctives, he blithely claimed victory, saying that he “must have touched a nerve.” It amuses me when the mere existence of pushback from your opponents is seen as evidence that what you said must have been right. Anyway, Gray goes on with an argument that’s familiar.
Theo must be on to something. The new atheist spring of the 2000s is wilting. Dawkins suddenly seems like a strange anachronism. In his place, a humbler and more honest atheism is emerging, led by brilliant minds like our very own Douglas Murray on one hand and Alain de Botton on the other. The new gentler atheism, also espoused by clever journalists such as Tanya Gold and Zoe Williams, admits the philosophical shortcomings of unbelief and recognises that religion has its merits. Amen.
I await breathlessly the asceent of de Botton, Murray, Gold, and Williams to the stature of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. Here, for instance, are the latest Amazon U.S. statistics on de Botton’s and Dawkins’s books:
de Botton, Religion for Atheists (paperback released Jan. 2013): Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,829 in Books
Dawkins, The God Delusion (paperback reprint released Jan. 2008): Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #612 in Books
Whoa! But I guess it’s only the “godless trolls” reading Dawkins, so these statistics cannot reflect his influence. I couldn’t find any books by Douglas Murray, Tanya Gold, or Zoe Williams about religion or atheism.
A lot of the recent atheist-bashing has involved Islamophobia. Critics of the invidious tenets of Islam are labeled as “racists,” which is, of course, just a way to make them shut up about Islam as its adherents continue to pillage, kill, and push their women into sacks and subservience. Fortunately, a few cooler heads have prevailed in the media, so that it’s not left just to people like Harris and me to dispel the “Islamophobia” canard.
One of these is Andrew Zak Williams of The New Statesman, who’s just written a nice piece called “New atheism should be able to criticize Islam without being accused of Islamophobia.” (subtitle: “The atheist community is right to pursue rational, civilised debate, and should be able to do so without being tarred as bigots.”
That subtitle says pretty much all, since the true “Islamophobes”—those who simply hate adherents of Muslims as people, and wish to deny them rights or discriminate against them legally—don’t include the New Atheists. But a few excerpts from Williams’s piece for your delectation, foremost of which is the fact that those who cry “Islamophobia” refuse to engage the atheist arguments against the perfidy of that faith:
Surely, rational discourse should be permitted to tiptoe cautiously along the hallowed corridors of the house of Islam without the guards frogmarching it out, bellowing allegations of racism and bigotry. Cannot we not agree that the real issue is whether the critiques of Islam proffered by today’s prominent atheists are correct? For instance, does Islam fall short when it comes to women’s rights? Does it trample free speech while enforcing its own precepts, by the sword if necessary? By all means, apologists may disagree with the likes of Harris and biologist Jerry Coyne. But what signal is sent by a refusal to permit the issues to be even debated?
One can dream up allegations about any religion that are so obscene that no beliver should be expected to respond. But take the suggestion that Islam has some way to go before it promotes gay rights beyond the level of a misnomer. Or that its holy book, taken literally, demands an embrace of violence and reprisals that wouldn’t be tolerated by any humanist ethos. [JAC: and let’s not forget about the subjugation of women].
These allegations, on their face, are wholly consistent with observation. What’s more, its tenets and precepts have real consequences and repercussions for all of us. What is it that leads apologists and liberal writers to nevertheless consider that Islam shouldn’t have to answer these charges, and that those who bring them are merely dressing their bigotry in a cloak of intellectualism? Biologist Jerry Coyne puts it this way:
“Critics of the New Atheists are free to take issue with their tone, but to dismiss them without addressing the substance of their arguments constitutes an implicit admission that they just might have a point.” [JAC note: Sadly, this quote isn’t from me, but from Michael Luciano, who said it a month ago in PolicyMic, where’s he’s the politics editor.] You can see his point. Plenty of Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Anglicans surely feel aggrieved when their god is put under the microscope and found to be the product of unintelligent design. They challenge both what is said and, increasingly these days, the way it’s said. But they hardly consider that their faith is immune from suitable criticism. For Islam to claim special treatment is to imply that it’s unable to withstand such analysis.
. . . We are under no compunction to pretend that the terrorist doesn’t exist any more than to deny the abundance of moderate Muslims. But the atheist community will not be bullied by lazy allegations of bigotry leveled against those who point that a religion that harbours such extremes has some explaining to do.
And it’s not just a handful of extremists, either: it’s the legions of “moderate” enablers who, through either intimidation or cowardice, refuse to decry their co-religionists. No surprise given that the penalty for apostasy is death, and you can be threatened for something as innocuous as publishing a cartoon or giving the wrong name to a teddy bear.
Williams finishes with a flourish:
And to resort to the tag “Islamophobia” is justified only if you adapt a bizarre definition of the word that is satisfied merely if the religion is held up to scrutiny, rather than its people being held up to prejudice.
But perhaps there’s another word for what today’s New Atheists have been saying. Maybe they’re just plain wrong.
But until civilised debate is permitted, perhaps we’ll never know.
I doubt that we’re wrong, since the evils committed in the name of Islam are palpable and numerous. And Williams isn’t wrong, either.
UPDATE: Be sure to read the comment of Meg Shenitch, an administrator for The Thinking Atheist Facebook page, below the fold. It’s the page’s standard response to those who play the Islamophobia card.