On Friday, it became official: The New Atheists are no longer welcome on the left. Battered, condemned, and disinvited, these godless and once-favored “public intellectuals” are now homeless, spurned by their erstwhile progressive allies.
Richard Dawkins, the famously skeptical evolutionary biologist, was the last shoe to drop. He was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Berkeley because his “comments about Islam” had “offended and hurt . . . so many people,” according to the event’s organizers.
Dawkins is in good company. His New Atheist compatriots, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, had already been expelled from the party. In both cases, insufficient deference to Islam was the proximate cause. Hitchens remained a committed socialist, but felt a war on Islamic terror and autocracy was needed. For this, he was denounced as a “neocon.” Harris is a liberal, straight and true, but drew the ire of Reza Aslan for refusing to except Islam from his broad critique of religion. “Islam is not a religion of peace,” Harris often says. In fact, he thinks it’s just the opposite. For that, everyone from Glen Greenwald to Ben Affleck has cast him as an Islamophobe and a bigot.
That means that three of the much-acclaimed “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism have been turfed from the left for extending their critique of religion to Islam. The fourth is Daniel Dennett, who also criticizes Islam. The only actual philosopher of the bunch, he is far too boring and ponderous to be noticed, let alone denounced, by anyone. In his place, one can add Bill Maher, a popularizer of New Atheism who has also been barred from Berkeley over criticism of Islam. One by one, these men have been excommunicated from the Left.
What has happened? Why did the Left delight in seeing these men ignorantly mock and vilify Christians, but denounce them when they treated Islam the exact same way?
Confirmation bias deserves at least a part of the blame. The New Atheists have long harbored an irrational fear of Christianity, but Christophobia doesn’t worry the Left. Combatting Islamophobia, however, is a progressive priority, and so it is noticed and addressed when it strikes.
None of this New Atheist silliness bothered the Left so long as it flattered the right tribes and battered the wrong ones.
However, the argument that the liberal obsession with Islamophobia stems from a healthy regard for the status of minorities only goes so far. As Michael Walzer, the socialist intellectual, has written in Dissent, “I frequently come across leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry.” There is a reason, after all, why many Democrats stubbornly and proudly refuse to say the words “Islamic terrorism,” preferring to speak of generalized “extremism.”
But these same people who insist that evil men have perverted Islam are usually the first to falsely bring up Timothy McVeigh as an example of a “Christian terrorist.” They present Christianity as a reflection of the actions of its evildoers (and even those who disclaim the faith). But the actions of orthodox Islamic believers, the Left suddenly maintains, are no reflection on the tenets of the peaceful Islamic faith.
Farther left, the defense of Islam becomes a defense of Islamic radicalism and intolerance. Slavoj Žižek sees in Islamism “the rage of the victims of capitalist globalization.” Judith Butler insists that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”
These voices cannot just be dismissed as aberrant: They are prominent, fiercely secular left-wing intellectuals who find common cause with Hamas — which pushes gays off of buildings and stabs children in their sleep — and with Hezbollah, the “Party of God.”
In fact, they join a long line of left-wing apologists for murderous anti-Western regimes. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian, refused to abandon the Soviet Union, even after the tanks rolled through Prague. Professors Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman spent years dismissing and minimizing reports of a genocide in Cambodia as Western propaganda. Michel Foucault, the postmodern philosopher, defended the indefensible cruelty of the Iranian Revolution by claiming that Iran does not “have the same regime of truth as ours.
Clearly, the Left’s problem is bigger than Islam. Any foreign leader who can be seen as opposing Western, capitalist domination will find some praise or at least rationalizations from progressives. As Alan Johnson, the social-democratic political theorist, has written:
“The left is vulnerable . . . because it takes its cue from what it is against rather than what it is for. In conversation with the Polish anti-Stalinist dissident Adam Michnik in 1993, the liberal philosopher Jurgen Habermas admitted “he had avoided any fundamental confrontation with Stalinism.” Why, asked Michnik? He did not want “applause from the wrong side” replied Habermas. You have to read that twice, and then think about the enormities of Stalinism, to realise just how appalling it is. But Habermas was only expressing a piece of liberal-left common sense.
In short, the New Atheists have won applause from the wrong side: the anti-Muslim, crusading Right. Christopher Hitchens, an endlessly entertaining writer who could give it to Saddam Hussein as good as anyone, was every right-winger’s favorite radical. Sam Harris started finding agreement with the likes of Douglas Murray and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Rich Lowry’s defense of Harris from Ben Affleck appeared in the New York Post. Bill Maher now delights the Right as much as he infuriates it. And the Left, smelling traitors in its midst, simply cannot tolerate this sort of transgression.
But more attention is needed to the specific nature of the Left’s double standard when it comes to Islam. Why must ardent secularists from the Islamic world like Ayaan Hirsi Ali — the type of people the Left looks to for inspiration in the history of Western secularism — be deemed bigots, while Sharia-supporting conspiracy theorists like Linda Sarsour are cherished? Why has criticizing Islam caused the New Atheists to cross a red line in the progressive imagination?
These positions make no sense if one thinks of the Left as seriously secular, convinced of the need to end the reign of superstition. But American liberals profess neither the passionate skepticism of Hume nor the honest, urgent atheism of Nietzsche. They prefer to embrace a shallow, culture-war atheism instead.
This culture-war atheism provides “evidence,” quick and easy, to support the proposition that America is split into two camps: the intelligent, sophisticated, urbane, righteous liberals and the idiotic, gullible, backward, bigoted conservatives. The former are atheists and the latter are believers, flattering one side and bludgeoning the other. In fact, it is this type of thinking that made progressives fall in love with the New Atheists in the first place.
New Atheism pleased the Left as long as it stuck to criticizing “God,” who was associated with the beliefs of President George W. Bush and his supporters. It was thus fun, rather than offensive, for Bill Maher to call “religion” ridiculous, because he was assumed to be talking about Christianity. Christopher Hitchens could call God a “dictator” and Heaven a “celestial North Korea,” and the Left would laugh. Berkeley students would not think to disinvite Richard Dawkins when he was saying “Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion.”
Truth be told, New Atheism was always fundamentally unserious. It does not even try to address the theistic arguments for the existence of God. Indeed, philosopher A.C. Grayling insists that atheists should not even bother with theology because they “reject the premise.” Our new “rationalists,” it turns out, will not even evaluate arguments that do not conform to their prejudices.
Battering a fundamentalist straw-man with an equally fundamentalist materialism, New Atheism is one big category error. Over and over, its progenitors demand material proof for the existence of God, as if He were just another type of thing — a teacup, or perhaps an especially powerful computer.
This confusion leads the New Atheists to favor the rather elementary infinite-regress argument: If God created everything, then who created God? But as the theologian David Bentley Hart replies:
[God is] not a ‘supreme being,’ not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates. . . . Only a complete failure to grasp the most basic philosophical terms of the conversation could prompt this strange inversion of logic, by which the argument from infinite regress—traditionally and correctly regarded as the most powerful objection to pure materialism—is now treated as an irrefutable argument against belief in God.
The rest of the New Atheists’ arguments can be handled even more quickly. Dawkins sees God as a complex superbeing subject to natural evolution and then deems him to be statistically improbable. He may be right, but why he thinks he has in the process critiqued anything resembling “religion” is beyond me. Dennett, who endeavors mainly to show that religion is a natural phenomenon, seems to confuse his validation of a religious claim with its refutation. Hitchens offers no real argument and plenty of historical inaccuracies. He is generally content to list the bad deeds of believers, explain away or ignore the good deeds of other believers, and then pretend that he has somehow disproven Christianity. Harris, to quote David Bentley Hart once more, “declares all dogma pernicious, except his own thoroughly dogmatic attachment to nondualistic contemplative mysticism, of a sort which he mistakenly imagines he has discovered in one school of Tibetan Buddhism, and which (naturally) he characterizes as purely rational and scientific.”
None of this New Atheist silliness bothered the Left so long as it flattered the right tribes and battered the wrong ones. It was only once the New Atheists extended their critique of religion to Islam that progressives began to turn on them. Muslims, though largely right-wing before the War on Terror, had become a “marginalized group.” Seen as the victims of Western colonialism, neoconservative aggression, and day-to-day discrimination, they became a part of the coalition of the oppressed, which is to say, they became virtuous. Islam, consequently, became a faith and tradition deserving of respect, not a “mind virus” like Christiniaty, busy infecting fools.
As such, attacks on Muslims or their faith not only appeared to be “punching down” at the innocent, but also became attacks on the left itself. The New Atheists, merely by being consistent and focusing on the most-egregious religious intolerance, in effect surrendered their sophistication and, in the Left’s eyes, joined the ranks of the bigoted, reactionary Right.
There is just one problem: We don’t want them either.