I’d never heard of Jacobin magazine before, so I looked it up, and it’s characterized by Wikipedia like this:
Jacobin is a quarterly “magazine of culture and polemic” based in New York. Its self-styled raison d’être is as a “leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture”. The publication began as an online magazine released in September 2010, but expanded into a print journal later that year.Jacobin has been described by its publisher as a radical publication, “largely the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus like Dissent or New Politics.”
I was curious because several readers called my attention to an article in Jacobin by Luke Savage (someone I can’t find out much about) called “New Atheism, Old Empire.” And its subtitle tells you the point: “The ‘New Atheists’ have gained traction because they give intellectual cover to Western imperialism.”
What? That’s a new one on me. New Atheists are all engaged in justifying imperialism? I was going to show the header picture, but (probably realizing the falsity of this blanket claim) Jacobin changed the picture since yesterday: it formerly featured a montage of Bill Maher, Lawrence Krauss, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, few of whom could be considered defenders of imperialism. Now only Hitchens is shown.
Savage’s piece is a vile and splenetic polemic, centered mainly on Hitchens and Sam Harris, and much is made (and distorted) about their views. Certainly Hitchens did support the invasion of Iraq, but he and Harris are made to look as if they crave an all-out war with the Middle East, with the object of finally ridding the world of Muslims. The piece also attacks New Atheism by making the usual assertion that religion isn’t based on truth claims (as the NA’s argue), so we’re all misguided. Nor, says Savage, is religion a monolith, so you simply can’t criticize, say, Islam, as if it were.
I am so tired of writers recycling the same canards about New Atheism, and in the process either willfully or stupidly mischaracterizing religion, that I won’t write much about this long article. You can read it for yourself—but do so only if you are of a phlegmatic nature.
Here are a few of Savage’s tactics, and I’ll give one example of each.
1. Mischaracterizing New Atheists as bloodthirsty and imperialistic. Here’s a summary of what Savage thinks:
At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.
In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.
Whereas some earlier atheist traditions have rejected violence and championed the causes of the Left — Bertrand Russell, to take an obvious example, was both a socialist and a unilateralist — the current streak represented by Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris has variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture, and even, in the case of the latter, genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.
The one thing Savage gets right is that what’s “new” about New Atheism is its infusion with science and the desire to examine religious doctrines with empiricism and reason. But, as we’ll see in a minute, Savage thinks that’s a fool’s errand.
As for the imperialism and bloodthirstiness of New Atheists, you can get that only by extreme cherry-picking, as in the case of Sam’s musings about torture. Those were Gedankenexperiments, of course. And those “genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes”? Another philosophical thought experiment, as are most of the statements that Savage uses to paint Sam as a genocidal maniac. Hitchens was opposed to totalitarianism in all forms, which is the reason he unwisely favored the Iraq war, but favoring the curtailing of civil liberties? Really? Didn’t Hitchens stand up against the fatwas and the suppression of the Danish cartoons as violations of freedom of expression?
And Dawkins, of course, is known for being opposed to war in nearly all cases. Dawkins has certainly criticized Islam (and all religions: his book isn’t called The Allah Delusion), but I’m not aware of a single instance of his advocating violence to rid the world of faith. Readers can correct me if I’m wrong. Savage’s midcharacterization of New Atheism comes through misunderstanding and—>go to #2:
2. Quoting out of context. I’ve already alluded to several examples involving Harris. Here’s another:
In extremely sinister fashion, Harris has mused about the birthrates of European Muslims and the supposed peril of their prolific breeding. The notion of a demographic “threat” posed by Muslims in Europe is easy to debunk empirically.
Even if this weren’t the case, the sordid subtext of these remarks is confirmed by Harris’s favorable treatment of far-right figures, who speak openly of the demographic dangers posed by Muslims. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris makes his sympathies explicit, declaring: “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 fascists.”
If Savage really read Harris’s book, then he has willfully distorted the last quotation. Did Savage somehow miss that Harris thinks the involvement of right-wingers in criticizing Islam was a bad thing? Sam was of course bemoaning the unholy alliance between New Atheists (most of whom are liberals) and right-wingers when it comes to criticizing Islam. He wants to change that situation and help liberals recognize that Islam is a danger, despite their misguided tendencies to sympathize with Islam as the faith of the underdog. Harris was not being sympathetic to fascism!
3. Characterizing criticism of Islam as “racism”. Savage says this:
Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have all rejected the notion that there is anything racist about statements of this kind or the prescriptions that so often follow from them: “Muslims aren’t a race,” being by now a particularly worn phrase in the New Atheist rhetorical repertoire. Harris and Hitchens have also dismissed the term “Islamophobia” as a tool for silencing their arguments. According to the latter: “A stupid term — Islamophobia — has been put into circulation to try and suggest that a foul prejudice lurks behind any misgivings about Islam’s infallible ‘message.’”
Given that “race” is an entirely social construct, with a history that involves the systemic racialization of various national, ethnic, and religious minorities, this defense is extremely flimsy. The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.
First of all, I reject the notion of “race” as a purely social construct. Human populations differ genetically, and that’s what biologists mean by “race”. Of course, as I’ve said repeatedly, the genetic differences between human populations are not large, and also blur into one another, so that grouping them into distinct “races” is a futile task. But the fact that there are genetically different populations is not therefore a “social construct”. It is a social construct to say “there are x different races and here they are. . “. Nevertheless, if you use lots of genes you can show populations grouping into larger groups that can be statistically distinguished. One could call these “races,” if you’re cognizant of what that means and of the blighted history of the term.
But even in that biological sense, Muslims are not a race. Middle Eastern Muslims are genetically different from Indonesian Muslims, and both are genetically different from Somali Muslims. What they have in common is not genetic cohesion, but a common set of beliefs in the dictates of the Qur’an. Criticism of Islam is not criticism of human beings (as is, for example, anti-Semitism) but criticism of their beliefs; and the humans who hold those beliefs don’t constitute a “race.” Muslims are no more a race than are Christians or Jews.
And what about Christianity? Sam, after all, wrote Letter to a Christian Nation. He construes Christianity as no more a monolith than is Islam, and is clearly aware that there are differences between sects. But there are commonalities, too, and the commonalities that are harmful are what New Atheists worry about. So are Christians a race? Is criticism of Christianity, which all New Atheists do with regularity, also “racism”? If not, why not? If Savage’s argument is carried to its extreme, it renders Islam (and all religions) immune to criticism because anyone so doing can be deemed a racist.
4. Arguing that religion really isn’t based on beliefs about what’s true. Savage neither mentions a single harm of religion nor even accepts that many religious people do harm based on their understanding of religious doctrine as what God wants—an empirical claim. As he says:
The typical New Atheist text scrutinizes religious myths without attention to, or even awareness of, the multiplicity of social and theological debates they have provoked, the manifold ideological guises their interpreters have assumed, or the secular belief systems they have helped to influence.
Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus [JAC note: bad writing!] of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith — namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform — is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon. As Terry Eagleton puts it in a discussion of God is Not Great:
“Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn’t have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.”
Contrary to the crude epistemology of rational scientism, religions are not rigid “doctrines” that followers obey uniformly, regardless of their social or material contexts.
Yes, Terry Eagleton’s view of religion is certainly that of most believers (NOT)! He might as well have quoted Karen Armstrong, too. But why not Pat Robertson, any of the numerous imams who proclaim rigid and harmful interpretations of the Qur’an, or the Christian rightists who have a monolithic opposition to abortion, women’s rights, and gay rights? What Savage is doing here is covering with a blanket of fuzzy words the truth that religious doctrine really is in many cases fairly monolithic, often harmful, and frequently differing among sects mainly in degree. You will find relatively few Muslims in the world who espouse gay rights, but you will find many Muslims who don’t want to execute gays.
The beginning of the case for New Atheism involves demonstrating that religion is more than a social club, more than a set of metaphorical stories to help teach beneficent morals, more than a way to feel connected to the rest of humanity. It is largely a system of beliefs about what is real, and that is what makes it harmful, for what it thinks is real (including God’s will) is false. Yes, even a single faith is heterogenous, but that doesn’t make that faith, or moieties of that faith, harmless. Nor does it mean that no religionist acts according to the dictates of their faith. They do. In the end, Savage’s attack on New Atheism completely ignores the harm that is done by accepting as real things that are palpably false. He uses the most liberal construals of religion—those of Eagleton or Armstrong—as the kind or religion that fills the world.
He’s wrong, of course, and I need not demonstrate that here. If you want to see such a discussion, wait six months and read my book, which begins by showing that many believers actually do see the claims of religion as empirical truths.
It still mystifies me that the Left, which is supposed to embrace Enlightenment values, is so loath to criticize the faiths that continually try to dismantle those values.