When I stayed in England in my younger years, I used to read the Guardian, which I was told was the only good liberal newspaper in the country.
But how low it’s sunk! I find little of interest there, and what we find is polluted with the mush-brained and predictable rants of Andrew Brown, as well as a spate of ill-tempered and poorly argued pieces attacking New Atheism, “Islamophobia”, and the like. The paper must be desperate for clicks. Whatever. It is to kneejerk liberals as the Sun is to soccer yobs.
This latest accommodationist post, though, takes the cake, or, as the Germans say, “nimmt den Kuchen” (my grammar’s probably wrong). The piece is by the unholy duo of Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman, and is called, “‘Violent’ Muslims?’ ‘Amoral’ atheists? It’s time to stop shouting and start talking to each other.”
Stedman, of course, is a religion-friendly atheist (head of Humanist Community of Yale University), whose book was called Faitheist; while Aslan is the premier apologist in America for the excesses of Islam, someone who pretends to be a credentialed religious scholar. Their joint article should really have been called “Why can’t Muslims and atheists be pals?”
Here is their argument:
1. Both Muslims and atheists are reviled in America, especially by Christians.
2. Both groups are also numerical minorities.
3. American Muslims are more critical of civilian “collateral damage” in wartime than are members of other American faiths, hence, they are not only benign, but appaarently more liberal than non-Muslim Americans—if one considers this single issue.
Their conclusion: Muslims and atheists should talk to each other, find common ground, and be friends.
As the duo write:
So why hasn’t there been more dialogue and solidarity between Muslims and atheists? Can’t we all just get along?
The divide has to do in part with our natural inclination to retreat into our own communities or get defensive when confronted with difference. As a result, stereotypes about both groups not only go unchallenged – they become amplified as each side clings to its preconceived notions of the other. While it’s certainly not the only cause, the amplification of this “us against them” attitude has contributed to large majorities of Americans labeling Muslims as “violent” and atheists as “amoral”.
The irony is that when atheists and believers get to know one another, they often discover that many of their values are not so different after all. That is something that we, a Muslim and an atheist, have learned from our friendship – even as we acknowledge our differences and disagreements.
This dialogue between Muslims and Heathens is supposed to be mutually beneficial:
When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both. But that won’t happen until we Muslims and atheists commit to spending less time speaking past one another and more time speaking with one another.
Sadly, their argument is utterly ridiculous, and for several reasons. First, who really wants that dialogue? Do Muslims hunger for dialogue with atheists? No. Perhaps they want to be accepted by atheists and others, but I doubt they want to talk to atheists with the aim of benefitting themselves. I suspect that if anyone wants dialogue, it’s accommodationist faitheists like Stedman (remember, he applied the term “faitheist” to himself). Even Aslan hasn’t shown himself to be particularly desirous of conversing with atheists. So far, his “discourse” has consisted of nonstop sniping at atheists who, he claims, simply misunderstand Islam, and impute to the faith perfidies that are really cultural in origin, or stem from colonialism. Does Aslan really want a dialogue? I’ll believe that when I hear him actually listen thoughtfully to what New Atheists say.
Second, American atheists don’t revile American Muslims that much, for that group, embedded in a liberal democracy that prevents obvious extremism, is indeed far less harmful than many of their extremist coreligionists elsewhere. Nevertheless, I deplore most of the doctrine of Islam, which includes institutionalized marginalization of women, calls for death of apostates, the imposition of repressive sharia law, and so on. To the extent that Muslims adhere to this kind of belief, I criticize those beliefs. And I will criticize them in the U.S., precisely as much as I criticize the pernicious beliefs, of, say, Catholic.
My own quarrel with Islam is not with the actions of American Muslims, but with how Islamic belief is translated into action in other places. It is odd that the Guardian, a British paper, chooses to promote friendship between American atheists and American Muslims when the real quarrel is between worldwide atheists or liberals and worldwide extremist Islam—the form that is misogynistic, oppressive, and even murderous. Do you have to know a jihadi personally to criticize him? I don’t think so.
And don’t forget that many Muslims in the U.S. and the U.K. while criticizing the barbarity of ISIS, fail to do so with respect to the other malevolent and unenlightened brands of Islam. So long as a religion oppresses the half of its members that lack a Y chromosome, I will oppose it. Do male Muslims in America allow their daughters and wives the same kind of freedom of opportunity as members of other faiths (I except here some of the Pentecostal Christians as well as some Mormon sects)? I hope so, but I’m not sure.
Now, what is the benefit of atheists talking to each Muslims? I may learn that some Muslims are nice people, but I know that already, having traveled in countries where Islam is prevalent (Turkey and Morocco, for instance). This is not news to me. But that doesn’t mean that I will become soft on Islamic theology, just as knowing Catholics doesn’t make me softer on Catholic theology. I do not hate Andrew Sullivan (in fact, I kind of like him sometimes), but I will criticize to my last breath the views of the Church to which he adheres. And I will never accept, in dialogue with Muslims, the widespread view that woman are like breeder cattle whose job is to produce nascent Muslims, and whose testimony is, in sharia court, worth but half of a man’s.
And shouldn’t atheists and Muslims be talking not to each other, but to the Christian majority who reviles both of us? Wouldn’t that effect more comity than friendship between two reviled groups? What is the point of two small minorities talking to each other rather than seeking acceptance from the majority. Aslan and Stedman don’t explain.
In the end, I see nothing substantive to be be gained by this conversation except getting to know our neighbors. What thoughtful atheists oppose is the pernicious effect of Islamic doctrine, not the existence of peaceable Muslims who live alongside us. If they embrace Islamic doctrine but don’t act on it (i.e., if they allow Muslim women complete freedom of dress, of opportunity, of mate choice, and so on), then that’s fine. But if they oppress women or gays in any way, that’s not fine, even if Muslims don’t like the killing of civilians in wars. Oppression of women and hatred of gays is also collateral damage: a byproduct of Islamic faith. And if they tacitly support coreligionist extremists by remaining silent about that excesses of Islam, that, too, is bad. Needless to say, there is no branch of atheism that supports killing those who revert to religion, or seeks to murder those who still believe in God or who have sex with someone of their own sex. Muslims don’t go around with bodyguards because they fear assassination by atheists. And atheists issue no fatwas. You have to look hard to find any kind of “doctrinal” parity between atheists and Muslims. And there lies the problem. Finally, we have this quote from Aslan and Stedman:
“When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both.”
It is a complete non sequitur if you follow the implied course of actions to their logical conclusion: Muslims and atheists can become a group that is hated by the Christian majority together? How is that going to be useful or productive?
Two more points: atheists and Muslims have talked to each other, but both parties must rely on rational discourse and not extremist dogma. Productive discussion can be seen between, for example, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. (Nawaz, as a liberal Muslim who decries coreligionist extremists, is widely hated by both Muslims and liberals.) Unproductive dialogue can be seen between Richard Dawkins and people like Mehdi Hasan, who adheres to preposterous tenets of Islam and is certainly not interested in any kind of comity.
There are many comments at the Guardian, and lots of them highlight the inanity of Aslan and Stedman’s argument, but I’ll just post the latest two comments: