AtheismChristianityIslamJudaismMulticulturalismReligion

New Atheists and old prejudices

New Atheists and Christian fundamentalists have become strange bedfellows in their crusade against Islam. This has alienated many atheists, especially in the Arab world.

A bizarre informal alliance has been taking shape over the years between New Atheists and the Christian right against their perceived common enemy: Islam. Or is that ? But just as firebrand clerics and fiery televangelists do not necessarily speak for their co-religionists, the Islamophobia of the evangelising high priests of New Atheism is not shared by many of their fellow atheists, especially those in the Arab world.

In light of the apparently strident atheism of Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, social media was aghast when the prominent New Atheist admitted to being a “cultural Christian” in a recent radio interview, even though he has been describing himself as such for many years, while denouncing Islam. Both positions were met with applause and told-you-so glee by the Christian right, while some questioned the concept of cultural Christianity.

In the case of Dawkins, this soft spot for Christianity is the product of the nostalgic attraction that pulls him towards the Anglican traditions he grew up with and the xenophobic aversion that repels him away from that apparently new arrival on the British isles, Islam.

“I do think that we are a culturally Christian country, I call myself a cultural Christian,” he told LBC Radio's Rachel Johnson who, like her brother, Boris, is partly descended from Ali Kemal, an Ottoman interior minister and journalist. “I love hymns and Christmas carols. I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos.”

And what had sparked Dawkins's latest admission of guilt about his Christian pride?

London mayor Sadiq Khan's switching on of a display of Ramadan lights in the British capital, which is home to some 1.3 million people who identify as Muslim, left the allegedly rational scientist in the grips of irrational fears. In a new variation of the right-wing and conservative fear-mongering around the emergence of a “Londonistan” and the almost annual tradition of lamenting the alleged politically correct (more recently rebranded “woke”) war on Christmas, Dawkins complained about the decline of Easter and his fears that Islamic traditions would eventually muscle out Christian festivals in .

Not only are his fears overblown, the only time that Christmas and Easter were cancelled in Britain was due to Christian rather than Islamic fundamentalists, the Puritans of Oliver Cromwell, the religious fanatic, warlord and dictator so revered in the UK that his statue graces the seat of British , the House of Commons.

Despite the prevalence of Christian fundamentalists and fanatics past and present, Dawkins' view of his heritage seems to be coloured by the relatively relaxed, warm and cuddly model of Anglicanism with which he is familiar.

While nobody should begrudge an old man his sense of nostalgia for the traditions with which he grew up, the trouble with Dawkins is that he contrasts the gentlest manifestations of Christianity with the most brutal forms of Islam: kind of like pitching the Vicar of Dibley against the Islamic State (ISIS).

And Dawkins is not the only New Atheist who carries a torch for his heritage religion while simultaneously portraying Islam as singularly horrific. Neuroscientist and podcaster Sam Harris, who was born to a Quaker father and Jewish mother, holds the Judaism of the maternal side of his family in high esteem and is convinced that “when we're talking about the consequences of irrational beliefs based on scripture, the Jews are the least of the least offenders”.

In an interview, Harris romanticised a fairytale view of Judaism in which “only a Jew could say I am an Orthodox Jew but I don't believe in God”.

I was friends with such a Jew, but the only reason she practised her faith while not believing in God was because she didn't feel comfortable coming out to her family and religious community and so kept her atheism closeted. I've met Muslims like that, too.

“Judaism is, in every form, the least committed to a clear otherworldly vision of what happens after death,” he elaborated. “You can be a Jew for whom all of the trappings of Judaism, the religion, are very important, and yet there's absolutely no content to your religious beliefs.”

In so doing, Harris renders inconsequential all those Jews who believe deeply, even fanatically, in their faith, as well as those practitioners of other religions who are attuned solely or mostly to the cultural ‘trappings” of their faith. In reality, people practising a faith they do not believe in is fairly common across time and place, especially in societies where religion dominates the public sphere and/or where people are born into a faith rather than embrace it out of wholehearted convictions.

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In Islam, this can be seen, for example, in the inordinate number of secularists and reformers produced by the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, Al Azhar, during the early waves of modernisation in Egypt. For instance, Taha Hussein, a giant of Arab letters who was nominated 21 times for the Nobel prize in and a radical cultural reformer, started life at al-Azhar but went on to become an outspoken advocate of secularism who studied leading Islamic sceptics such as the Syrian Abu al-Ala al-Maari whom, like Taha, also happened to be blind. Although he never formally abandoned Islam, Taha analysed its history with the cold, unflinching eye of science, did not believe that Islam had lifted Arabs out of Ignorance (Jahiliya) and was the leading advocate of ‘Pharaonism', which espoused that Egypt should build its modern identity around its ancient history.

There are even those who view religion in a utilitarian fashion. For example, the derogatory description in the Arab world of certain Islamists as “traders in religion” alludes to this kind of Machiavellian relationship with faith. Possibly the most extreme manifestation of this utilitarian approach to Islam are the former secular Iraqi Baathists who joined ISIS. Some did so out of desperation and the grievances created by the United States' so-called de-Baathification campaign in Iraq, while others did so out of a “Leninist mindset that [ISIS are] useful idiots who we can use to rise to power”, as one expert put it.

With one eye on jihadis and Islamist extremists and another on a reformulated form of western aloofness and chauvinism, the New Atheists do not believe that all Abrahamic religious are created equally. “If I had to choose between Christianity and Islam, I would choose Christianity every single time,” Dawkins insisted. “It seems to be a fundamentally decent religion that I think Islam is not.”

In previous remarks, Dawkins has gone further, describing Islam as “the most evil religion” and the “greatest force for evil” in the world.

Sam Harris's view of Islam is equally apocalyptic: “The truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying: Islam is all fringe and no centre. In Islam, we confront a civilisation with an arrested history.”

Despite Harris's uncompromising condemnation of the violence committed under the banner of Islam, he appears to have no issue compromising with the violence, including torture, carried out by the West. “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.

Much as the New Atheists like to think of themselves as being cut from a superior cloth to religious fanatics, they do share the same simplistic, fanatical dislike of Islam and anti-Islamic evangelising as Christian evangelists, who have variously described the rival faith as a “very evil and wicked religion” (Franklin Graham), a “Christian heresy” (Pat Robertson), or “satanic” (Robertson and James McConnel).

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the New Atheists' hostility towards Islam has more in common with the views of the religious than the areligious. For example, one survey found the greatest hostility towards Islam in was among evangelical Christians: 63% viewed Islam as the most violent religion and 72% saw it as being anti-democratic. In contrast, another survey found that only 7% of agnostics and people with no faith in America had an unfavourable view of Islam, compared with almost two-thirds of evangelical Christians.

No similar statistics exist for atheists and agnostics in the Arab world, where unbelief remains controversial and in some countries outlawed and/or dangerous, due to threats of persecution from the state or vigilantes, despite the increasing visibility and vocality of the irreligious. However, anecdotal evidence and interviews and research I have conducted over the years suggest that the New Atheists do not represent the views of Islam held by the majority of Arab atheists, who view it as part and parcel of the general problem with religion. Arab atheists tend to be critical of the very public role of religion in most Arab societies, the influence of religion on secular laws, the influence of political Islam, and the intimidation and/or violence perpetrated by Islamists and other religious extremists.

“I view the New Atheists as individuals who actually advocate for values that I generally ascribe to, like scepticism, critical thinking, and secularism. However, I find their approach to be unnecessarily confrontational, biased, and lacking nuance, particularly in their critique of religion and more specifically in their critique of Islam,” observes Nora El Zokm, an atheist of Egyptian origin who works as a mediator and conflict researcher. “[New Atheists] are blind to the ever-growing criticism many of us in the Arab world have of the power structures that favour Western ideals at the expense of non-Western communities… I also feel that beneath their veneer of rationality, the New Atheists actually exhibit much of the fervour and zealousness of religious dogmatism… and that New Atheism is itself guilty of the very same intolerance it opposes.”

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This politicisation of unbelief by the New Atheists presents a dilemma for many Arab atheists. “It's really a difficult landscape to navigate – I want to be fully Arab, proud, and visible in my own identity,” explains El Zokm, “but I am often stuck between either defending the religious and cultural norms I don't always agree with or being the idealised, fetishised, Westernised, ‘good Arab'.”

So what lies at the heart of the contempt and fear that New Atheists reserve for Islam?

Despite the “new” in their moniker, their demonisation of Islam is as old as the rivalry between the two proselytising monotheistic rivals. In fact, their historical predecessors quite literally reserved a special place in hell for the Islamic faith. Take Dante Alighieri. The Italian poet condemned Muhammad to the ninth bolgia (ditch) of the eighth circle of hell (the Malebolge), reserved for “disseminators of scandal and of schism”.

This common ground New Atheists share with Christian fanatics may explain why one prominent New Atheist decided to jump ship and embrace the genuine article. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the one-time darling of neo-conservatives and xenophobes on both sides of the Atlantic, not only for her staunch anti-Islam and anti- stances, but also for her support of the forever “war on terror” and her later rejection of Black Lives Matter, dramatically shed the New Atheism she had adopted in the early 2000s and converted to Christianity last year. This was because she wished to crusade against, as she put it, “the resurgence of great-power authoritarianism and expansionism in the forms of the Chinese Communist Party and Vladimir Putin's Russia; the rise of global Islamism, which threatens to mobilise a vast population against the West; and the viral spread of woke ideology”.

Forsaken admirer Richard Dawkins struggled to came to terms with this shock move from one of his “absolutely favourite people” by describing Hirsi Ali as a “political Christian” rather than a “believing Christian”.

“Am I a political Christian?” the self-described cultural Christian asked.

“If I were forced to vote for either Christianity or Islam as alternative influences on the world, I would unhesitatingly vote Christian. If that make me a political Christian, so be it,” he wrote in a blog post.

So, irony of ironies, two people with a simplistic opposition of religion advocate what you can call Christianism as a supposed bulwark against the threat of Islamism.

Despite this simplistic, pseudo-religious demonisation of Islam, there are Arab non-believers who agree with the New Atheists' reductionist view. “I agree with the New Atheism movement for the most part, with all religions, not just Islam. I think there needs to be a tighter rein on highly religious people and the direction they're taking their societies in, particularly Islam,” one Egyptian atheist who wished to remain anonymous told me.

“Regarding how they view Islam as especially benighted, I think this is valid. Christianity in the West has much less overreach, their populations have large swathes of people that are openly atheist and unafraid to admit it,” the Egyptian atheist asserted, effectively conflating Christianity with secularism, even though the separation of church and state happened in spite of the church.

Some Arabs share or shared the New Atheists' proselytising approach to irreligion. “I used to believe in promoting atheism as a solution to ignorance, cruelty, and barbarism, treating it almost like a ‘religion',” recalls Gilgamesh Nabeel, an Iraqi journalist and novelist who trained as a doctor – his first name refers to the ancient Mesopotamian epic which includes a flood myth from which the Biblical Noah story is derived. “However, I now see this as a simplistic view, since violence isn't exclusive to religions.”

Even though he found the New Atheists' intolerance towards “simple superstitions” conflicted with his belief in free speech, he also believed that Voltaire's famous defence of was suicidal in the face of the kind of jihadism and Islamist terrorism his country of birth has experienced in recent years. This is a dilemma with which many Arab secularists and non-believers grapple and struggle: what good is metaphorically defending to the death the beliefs of, say, armed groups like ISIS or established authorities like the Wahhabi clergy, if they will return the favour by persecuting secularists and (potentially) executing atheists?

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Faced with the persecution carried out by Islamic extremists, some see no choice but to fight repression with repression. This impulse towards Islamic extremists is also visible amongst many practicing Muslims, as reflected, for example, in the broad popular support for the crackdown on and persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Nabeel has, however, shifted away from such illiberal views: “I used to be intolerant towards Muslims, supporting oppression and viewing freedom of speech for them as naïve… This disconnect from my liberal principles led me to move away from New Atheism.”

In Nabeel's estimation, New Atheism only enjoys currency among some right-wing Iraqi and Arab atheists. “I know individuals who are more focused on western issues, seemingly detached from the realities of Iraq or the broader Middle East,” he points out. “Some have even embraced ultra-nationalist ideologies and revived ancient civilizations, a concept I once supported until it took on racist undertones and became anti-Arab.”

Similarly to the partisanship of New Atheists, some Arab atheists embrace and exhibit the sectarianism of their heritage, in Nabeel's analysis. “In Iraq and Syria, especially amid recent conflicts… you can observe sectarian atheists who primarily target and criticise the ‘figures and symbols' associated with the opposing sect. In turn, atheists from the other sect tend to respond in kind. The influence of Iran further amplifies these dynamics,” he describes. “While Sunnis and Shiites engage in theological disputes, atheists from both sects often find themselves embroiled in broader nationalistic struggles, particularly Arab versus Persian dynamics. Their conflicts are driven by geopolitical power struggles, concerns about potential dominance, and fears of demographic shifts.”

However, there are also moves by secularists in countries where sect or milla is still prevalent to move their societies away from sectarianism. This is reflected, for example, in campaigns to remove religious affiliation from official identity documents and demands for civil marriages to enable people of different religious backgrounds to marry without prejudice.

As a non-believer who is repulsed by the tribalism within and between religions, I prefer a universalist form of humanism to sectarian atheism or the tribalistic variety propounded by the New Atheists. Atheism was meant to rise above the petty divisions that religion had imposed on humanity for centuries but has also fallen prey to that very narrow and narrowing human tendency. What we urgently need are societies that embrace and respect everyone, whether religious or areligious, whether practising or lapsed, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or any other of the world's many religions.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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