Why the arguments of the “new atheists” are often as violent as religion
Famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins seem to claim moral superiority in matters of violence. Dawkins, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, insist that because religion is inherently violent, atheism is inherently more peaceful. After all, if all the evils in the world can be blamed on religion, then undoubtedly eliminating religion is not only desirable but a moral obligation for atheists who believe in peace.
Yet our research shows that during the War on Terror, these atheists were surprisingly willing to align themselves with policies at least as violent – and in some cases more – than many of those carried out in the name of religion.
Our study (conducted jointly by a Christian, an agnostic and an atheist) consisted of analyzing the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens – the so-called “new atheists”. We have sought to establish their positions on the foreign policy of the United States and the United Kingdom since the attacks of September 2001. We have critically examined their best-selling books, as well as their editorials, their social media posts and their videos, to determine their positions – not on science or morality – but on politics, especially foreign policy.
They each maintain that religion inherently incites violence, while atheism is more peaceful. Dawkins in particular asks, “Who would advocate killing in the name of a non-God?”
Atheism, ancient and modern
The word “atheism” comes from the Greek a-theos, “without deities”. Although the term was coined in ancient times, it was not until the Enlightenment that the first self-proclaimed atheists became known.
This modern European atheism promised emancipation from superstition – but quickly turned into extreme violence. At the height of the French Revolution, the Jacobin government implemented the original “reign of terror” in its murderous effort to impose state atheism. The USSR’s first campaign against religion, led by “The League of Militant Atheists”, involved the violent persecution of believers and religious institutions.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and a worldwide resurgence of political religion from the 1970s, some authors believed that atheism was in final decline. But the start of the 21st century saw the rise of writers like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. They emerged as public intellectuals advancing fierce attacks on religion as both false and particularly dangerous.
Their arguments are not new. But, unlike heavier atheist academic philosophers, they have apparently cultivated combative and scathing, media-savvy characters. Their success in writing bestselling books, giving engaging public talks and cultivating a global tracking via social media, turned them into minor celebrities. For example, Dawkins has been portrayed in South Park, Family Guy, and The Simpsons – and even made a cameo appearance in Dr Who.
New atheism and “war on terrorism”
These three new atheists were in favor of the attack on Afghanistan in 2001. Hitchens also vehemently supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while Harris considered the West’s engagement with Islam and the West. Muslim world as part of a war that the West must win, or else face “slavery”. In his 2004 book, The End of Faith, Harris says (p.131):
While it would be comforting to believe that our dialogue with the Muslim world has, as one of its possible outcomes, a future of mutual tolerance, nothing guarantees this outcome – let alone the principles of Islam. Given the constraints of Muslim orthodoxy, given the sanctions within Islam for radical (and reasonable) adaptation to modernity, I think it is clear that Islam needs to find a way to revise itself. , peacefully or otherwise. What this will mean is not entirely clear. What is evident, however, is that the West must win the argument or win the war. Everything else will be slavery.
And with specific reference to the war in Afghanistan, Harris adds (p.53):
In fact, there is no question of talking to certain people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in defense. This is what the United States has attempted in Afghanistan, and this is what we and other Western powers are required to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocent people abroad. elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to shed blood in what is, fundamentally, a war of ideas.
We argue that the three supported this war because they read world politics through the prism of their atheism. They seem to see the West as locked in an existential war with religion, especially Islam. There are four striking aspects of this atheistic view of global geopolitics.
First, they view religion as primarily violent. “Religion is the most prolific source of violence in our history,” says Harris. The September 11 attacks “came from religion,” adds Dawkins, who claims it is “the deadly weapon” which is “the underlying source of division in the Middle East.” This analysis obscures the obscure role of foreign powers and corrupt rulers in the Middle East and the ability of charismatic rulers to co-opt religion and merge it with legitimate grievances.
Although very critical of the history of Christianity, they see Islam as an existential threat to modern and secular societies. While US President George W. Bush has insisted that “Islam is a religion of peace,” the new atheists disagree. Dawkins distinguishes Islam as “one of the great evils of the world”. “We are at war with Islam,” says Harris, and not just with “an otherwise peaceful religion that has been“ hijacked ”by extremists. “
The New Atheists are convinced that their version of Western civilization is superior to what they consider to be the religious cultures of the Middle East. “All Muslims in the World”, Dawkins tweeted in 2011, “have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.” Hitchens wrote that the 9/11 attacks made him feel “euphoric” because they plunged the world into an “unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and what I hated.”
Finally, they present a version of the “white man’s burden” to save Afghanistan, Iraq and other places from their own religious backwardness. Adopting what sounds like a classic colonial stance, Harris writes that “however mixed or mistaken our intentions” in invading Iraq “we are attempting, at considerable cost to ourselves, to improve the lives of the Iraqi people” .
Imagine no religion
Harris extends his argument by suggesting that the racial profiling of Muslims and the judicial torture of terrorists may be ethical in what he calls “our war on terror.” In the extreme, he argues that “Muslims pose a particular problem for nuclear deterrence” because theologically they do not fear death. He thinks they are immune to the usual logic of Mutually Assured Destruction. Therefore, if an Islamist government acquires nuclear weapons, then “a nuclear first strike on our part” may be “the only course of action available to us.” The irony of this argument, which began with the statement that religion is only violent, is apparently missed by Harris, who has since characterized his position on torture as follows:
My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this: men, women and children), you should think that it can sometimes be justifiable to water a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who looks like him).
Our research demonstrates the paradox that although New Atheists claim their ideology is more enlightened and peaceful than religion, they often end up advocating violence. Indeed, they present a simplistic view of the world as being divided between two civilizations – secular and religious – which cannot coexist. In this, ironically, they no doubt reflect the die-hard religious leaders whom they so vehemently denounce.
Fifteen years after the invasion of Iraq and the chaos it sparked, it is clear that there must be a more nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern societies and politics. These nuances are as unlikely to be found in the analysis of fundamentalist atheists as they are in their religious antagonists.