By Khaled Diab
Tuesday 19 May 2015
What do the high priests of “New Atheism”, Christian fundamentalists and neo-conservatives have in common?
Though this may sound like the opening line to a joke, the punchline is actually not terribly funny, especially given its dire consequences. Even though New Atheists feel contempt for Christian fundamentalists, both parties share a deep distrust and a profound misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.
This was amply illustrated in a recent e-mail exchange in which the well-known neuroscientist and New Atheist Sam Harris decided, uninvited, to pick an intellectual fight with America’s leading political dissident, the scholar Noam Chomsky. After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless, while Chomsky follows the true path of the dissident, of speaking truth to power.
Given how broad and, hence dangerous, these misperceptions are, I believe it is high time that we launch a “War on Error” to spread the values of sensibility and common sense.
Moral equivalence and moral relativism
One of the most popular methods used by some New Atheists – and which they paradoxically share with neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists – is to slam what they regard as the “moral (or ethical) relativism” of the presumably self-hating left and multiculturalists.
As someone with powerful humanist convictions, I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality and tolerance of others are the norms.
However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against “moral relativism” are the first to invoke it in the form of “moral equivalence”. When people like me try to use the same ethical yardstick for all, they explicitly or implicitly invoke American or Western exceptionalism.
Take Sam Harris, who employs both concepts in his exchange with Chomsky. He defends torture, which contravenes the universal values he claims to uphold, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as something that “may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror,” yet issues wholesale condemnations of the “cruelty,” “barbarity” and “approach to criminal justice” of Muslim society.
“Any honest witness to current events will realise that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilised democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.,” Harris writes in his 2004 The End of Faith,” an excerpt he includes as part of the email debate with Chomsky .
In this, he sounds like prominent neo-cons and Cold War warriors. During the Reagan era, for instance, US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick penned a scathing article in which she attacked what she claimed was the “myth of moral equivalence” between America and the Soviet Union.
Though Harris, a supporter of the Iraq war, repeatedly ignored Chomsky’s question about what he made of George W Bush’s belief that God guided him to invade Iraq and his description of the war there as a “Crusade”, forutnately, not all the intellectual leaders of New Atheism are so disingenuous. To his credit, Richard Dawkins was an outspoken and staunch opponent of perhaps the largest and deadliest military folly of this young century. “George Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden,” he concluded in no uncertain terms, at the time.
Shackled minds and the liberation of thought
“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.”
The citation above may sound like it was uttered by Richard Dawkins but it is actually a quotation taken from Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), the blind Syrian poet, philosopher, rationalist and hermit who was both a vegetarian and an early advocate of extreme birth control, i.e. not having children.
Despite his strident and uncompromising atheism, the Syrian was a highly respected scholar of his day, who is still admired in Syria, and lived to the ripe old age of 84. His life and ideas, as well as that of numerous other Arab and Muslim intellectuals throughout the ages, eloquently expresses how Islam and free thought are not necessarily incompatible, as many modern critics claim, and how this tradition continues into the modern day, despite the conservative backlash.
Equally eloquently, the posthumous beheading of statues and busts of al-Maari by the Nusra Front show how far modern-day jihadists and Islamists have strayed from this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and how al-Maari was better off in the Syria of the 10th century than that of the 21st.
Islam, the root of all evil
Though he lived a millennium earlier, al-Ma’arri differed from New Atheism’s high priests in one significant respect – he regarded all religions, prophets and scriptures as being equally “fabrications” and “idle tales”. In contrast, some of his contemporary counterparts possess an inexplicable soft spot for their own religious heritage.
While I agree that this is highly problematic, Dawkins conveniently glosses over the fact that a quarter of the citizens of the world’s most powerful nation believes the Bible should be taken literally and another half believes it to be the word of God.
Sadly, Dawkins’ view of Islam as the greatest evil echoes that of the lunatic Christian right in America, and has an ancient pedigree in Christian thought. For instance, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham, shortly after 9/11, repeatedly described Islam as “wicked and evil”. “I don’t believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion” and “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans.” Among evangelical Christians, 52% believe that “Islam is essentially a violent religion,” according to a 2013 poll.
Both Dawkins and Franklin, despite their undoubted mutual contempt, seem to draw from the same ancient roots of mutual distrust and rivalry between Christianity and Islam, eloquently illustrated by Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Muhammad is so evil that he must occupy one of the lowest circle of hell, where he suffers unspeakable torture. Likewise, far too many Muslims are convinced that there is a Christian crusade against Islam, which is clearly untrue.
Though it would be wonderful if all Christians were like a good-natured and eccentric Vicar of Dibley, the truth is that away from the West, wide-scale death and destruction have been wrought in the name of Christianity, from the ISIS of Christendom, the Lord’s Resistance Army, to the carnage of the anti-condom movement in Africa.
Fortunately, the New Atheists’ distorted views of Islam do not accurately reflect the views of the people for whom they are presumed to speak, given that just 20% of people who claim no faith or are agnostic believe that Islam is violent, according to the same Barna Group poll cited above. Similarly, the poll found that 62% of evangelical Christians have an unfavourable perception of Islam, compared with just 7 percent of agnostics or people with no faith.
Dreams of Nirvana
As a further sign of Dawkins’s religious naivety and that of many others, great geographical distance seems to have warped people’s view of “Eastern religions”. “Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions,” Dawkins claims, apparently oblivious to the deadly effects of Hindu and Buddhist violent nationalist and fundamentalist movements.
If even Buddhism, widely perceived as the true “religion of peace”, can be exploited for the purposes of hate, intolerance and persecution, this reveals an important truth: religions are faulty and imperfect, but so is the human condition.
What this suggests is that if Islam (and religion as a whole) died out tomorrow, we would not necessarily reach a state of enlightened secular Nirvana. The godless utopia could easily turn into a dystopia as well, as the Soviet experiment taught us.
Any ideology, even rationalism and atheism, can be twisted for the political gain of the few and to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on the many.
This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 14 May 2015.