Christ has risen, and so has the bile of Nathan Lean, author of a particularly nasty bit of atheist-bashing in Salon, “Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheist flirt with Islamophobia.” It’s so over the top that it made me wonder about the guy who wrote it. Lean, it turns out, is a graduate student at Georgetown University, editor-in-chief of a group called Aslan Media, a “militant” opponent of Israel, and author of the following book (note the endorsement):
After reading several of these tirades this week, all very similar, I’m wondering about the reason behind the recent spate of attacks on New Atheists (NAs).
The main reason, I think, is their success. Despite arguments that the efforts of people like Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins have failed, new books and articles attacking them continue to appear. If New Atheism is such a failure, why do so many people continue to attack it? There’s no point in beating a dead horse.
But the dead horse refuses to lie down. And, in fact, books by New Atheists continue to decisively outsell books by its critics. That brings us to a second possible motivation: jealousy. Many of these critics, including Clay Naff (see yesterday’s post), Michael Ruse, and now Lean (see below), harp repeatedly on the success of NA books and lectures. Indeed, they even use this success to accuse the NAs of being motivated by money. But that’s clearly untrue. NAs are driven by passion to expunge a poisonous superstition from humanity. Anyone who knows them sees this is true.
Here is the Amazon ranking of three books by the NAs that Lean despises, as well as the ranking of his own book, which appeared just a few months ago. (The NA books are, of course, much older.)
Lean’s book, The Islamophobia Industry: #106,786 (Sept. 2012)
The God Delusion (Dawkins): #720
The End of Faith (Harris): #2802
God is not Great (Hitchens): #1652
Hell, even my book, at #9355, tops Lean’s by a long shot, and it came out four years ago.
But that aside, let’s examine Lean’s claims.
His main one is that the Three Horsemen he names are guilty of “Islamophobia,” which he never really defines. So let me draw a distinction here: I see “Islamophobia” as “fear or hatred of Muslims,” that is, a bigotry against Muslims that leads people to see them as less than human, to treat them worse than other people, or to discriminate against them in unlawful or immoral ways. And that’s the way critics like Lean use it. Used this way “Islamophobia” is a fear and hatred of Muslim people, not a fear and hatred of the religious doctrine they hold. The latter, which is the main object of New Atheist criticism, is not identical to the former. Granted, it’s hard to like someone who wants to kill teachers who name teddy bears after the Prophet, but the whole object of New Atheist opprobrium is exposing the irrationality of religious beliefs and the harm they do to society. There’s little doubt that Islam is the most harmful of beliefs ascendant in today’s world. To oppose it is not bigotry, but rationality.
Nevertheless, Lean trots out the usual accusations (all indented quotes are from Lean’s piece):
1. The New Atheists are strident and motivated by money. They’re just too popular!
The New Atheists, they are called, offer a departure from the theologically based arguments of the past, which claimed that science wasn’t all that important in disproving the existence of God. Instead, Dawkins and other public intellectuals like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens suffocate their opponents with scientific hypotheses, statistics and data about the physical universe — their weapons of choice in a battle to settle the scores in a debate that has raged since the days of Aristotle. They’re atheists with attitudes, as polemical as they are passionate, brash as they are brainy, and while they view anyone who does not share their unholier-than-thou worldview with skepticism and scorn, their cogitations on the creation of the universe have piqued the interest of even many believers. With that popularity, they’ve built lucrative empires. Dawkins and Harris are regulars in major publications like the New York Times and the Economist, and their books — “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins and “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Harris — top bestseller lists and rake in eye-popping royalties.
If Lean is going to accuse New Atheists of venality, then it’s fair to accuse him of jealousy. So I do.
2. The New Atheists are arrogant.
Four days after the [9/11] tragedy, Dawkins could barely contain his intellectual triumphalism. “Those people [the terrorists] were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards,” he wrote in the Guardian. “On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from. It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East, which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.”
What, exactly, is “triumphalist” about that? It doesn’t denigrate the bombers as idiots, but singles out religion as their main motivation. Is something wrong with that?
3. The New Atheists hate Muslims.
The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason. “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.”
For Harris, the ankle-biter version of the Rottweiler Dawkins, suicide bombers and terrorists are not aberrations. They are the norm. They have not distorted their faith by interpreting it wrongly. They have lived out their faith by understanding it rightly. “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge,” he writes in “Letter to a Christian Nation.”
The invective is not against human beings, but against their beliefs and how those beliefs make them—à la Steven Weinberg—do bad things. It’s against Islam, not Muslims.
I see nothing wrong with what Harris wrote. “Backwoods racists”? Really? And Lean’s accusation of “bigotry” is way off the mark. Is someone who opposes the ideology of the Republican party in the U.S. an “anti-Republican bigot”? Is someone who despises homophobia and the claim that gays are sinful an “anti-homophobic bigot?” Only opposing religion earns you the label of “bigot.” As always, religion demands special privileges.
4. New Atheists are theologically unsophisticated. This comes from one claim: that Dawkins hasn’t read the Qur’an:
Dawkins, in a recent rant on Twitter, admitted that he had not ever read the Quran, but was sufficiently expert in the topic to denounce Islam as the main culprit of all the world’s evil: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” How’s that for a scientific dose of proof that God does not exist?
A few days later, on March 25, there was this: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism.”
It’s an extraordinary feat for an Oxford scholar to admit that he hasn’t done the research to substantiate his belief, but what’s more extraordinary is that he continues to believe the unsupported claim. That backwards equation — insisting on a conclusion before even launching an initial investigation — defines the New Atheists’ approach to Islam. It’s a pompousness that only someone who believes they have proven, scientifically, the nonexistence of God can possess.
Curiously, Lean doesn’t mention that both Harris and Hitchens have read the Qur’an (as have I), or that even atheists know the Bible better than do Christians. Does that mean that Christians are less qualified to defend Christianity than atheists are to attack it? And Dawkins’s point is right: do we really need to read Mein Kampf before criticizing neo-Nazis? How many of us who readily and rightly decry the Nazis have read Mein Kampf?
This is all a distraction, of course, for Lean spends his whole piece attacking New Atheists as bigots without addressing their arguments against faith. He also manages to say that some right-wing people—genuine bigots—are also opposed to Islam, as if somehow that invalidates the arguments of Dawkins & Co. This shopworn guilt-by-association trope is like saying that anyone who favors highway construction is evil because Hitler built the Autobahn.
Lean closes by instantiating his own ignorance of what New Atheism is all about: the eradication of baseless superstition by pointing out a lack of evidence for God, our inability to know what a god wants, even if it existed, and the damage that religion does to society:
How the New Atheists’ anti-Muslim hate advances their belief that God does not exist is not exactly clear. In this climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment, it’s a convenient digression, though. They’ve shifted their base and instead of simply trying to convince people that God is a myth, they’ve embraced the monster narrative of the day. That’s not rational or enlightening or “free thinking” or even intelligent. That’s opportunism. If atheism writ large was a tough sell to skeptics, the “New Atheism,” Muslim-bashing atheism, must be like selling Bibles to believers. After all, those who are convinced that God exists, and would otherwise dismiss the Dawkins’ and Harris’s of the world as hell-bound kooks, are often some of the biggest Islamophobes. It’s symbiosis — and as a biologist, Dawkins should know a thing or two about that. Proving that a religion — any religion — is evil, though, is just as pointless and impossible an endeavor as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist. Neither has been accomplished yet. And neither will.
Lean apparently doesn’t realize that religious superstition, which leads one to believe that he possesses the absolute truth, is of a piece with actions based on those superstitions. For if you have a pipeline to God’s will, it’s almost incumbent on you to do something about that. Ergo opposition to abortion, meddling with peoples’ sex lives, suicide bombings, witch-burnings, and so on. Decrying the harms of religion is not a “digression,” but the very reason we oppose the follies of faith.
Maybe we can’t convince people that religion is evil (and not all are, I think, viz., Quakers), but I think that religion would be better if we left out the goddy parts. Then it wouldn’t be religion any more, but secular humanism.
As for proving that God doesn’t exist, we don’t do that. We argue that the evidence is overwhelming that God doesn’t exist—certainly not the Abrahamic “disembodied-person” God who is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient. I suppose Lean would also criticize us because we haven’t proved that the Loch Ness monster or UFOs don’t exist.
In the end, it’s Lean who looks like a bigot, for he simply smears the New Atheists as people without taking on board their arguments. It is he who hasn’t read the relevant texts, and dislikes a group as people without engaging their views.