The Left, the Right and the New Atheism: a response to PZ Myers

Given the interest in my recent New Matilda article, I’d already planned to write more on the New Atheism. Now that PZ Myers, a speaker at the 2012 Melbourne conference, has replied to that piece, it seems appropriate to continue the discussion as a response to him.

Myers provides the following summation of my critique of the New Atheists: I argue, he says, that they are ‘all goose-stepping fascists come to destroy liberal and progressive dreams with [their] “very, very right wing” atheistical fanaticism.’

Actually, I didn’t argue anything of the kind. The problem with the New Atheism is not its fanaticism, a word I did not use; I do not think that the New Atheists are fascists, and nowhere did I say that they are.

In fact, the only accuracy in Myers’ sentence comes between the quote marks. I did, indeed, write that many of the main speakers in the two conferences scheduled for Melbourne in 2011 are very, very right wing. That’s because … um…  they are.

Specifically, I provided quotes from Christopher Hitchens about the need to kill the Taliban without pity and to wage the war in Afghanistan more ruthlessly to support what seemed to me a fairly uncontentious point – that Hitchens is today the most high-profile warmonger active in literary circles, essentially a traveling mouthpiece for that wing of the American elite still wedded to neoconservative foreign policies.

Does Myers disagree with that assessment? If so, on what basis?

I singled out Hitchens, partly because his politics are so far to the right as to make genuinely mystifying the support he receives from self-identified progressives, but also because, in Australia, at least, he’s the most high-profile of the New Atheists. He’s not some fringe hanger-on, the crazy old uncle in the atheist family, but a major draw card, a keynote speaker, who will no doubt be featured extensively (as was the case during his last tour) on television, radio and in the press, opining about the need to plunge further into Afghanistan or launch a new war in Yemen or whatever the current neocon talking point might be.

In other words, Hitchens (the major speaker at a major New Atheist event) will appear as a representative – perhaps even the representative — of New Atheism. You would think, then, that it would be of some import to conference speakers who identify both with New Atheism and with the Left to distance themselves publicly from his bloodsoaked neo-conservatism.

I’ll come back to that later.

But the really important argument of the NM piece was the contention that, though Hitchens is more overtly political and more unashamedly bloodthirsty than some of the other New Atheists, the Islamophobia he promulgates is widespread in the movement. That was why I quoted Sam Harris (again, not a fringe figure but another of the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’) on how the ‘people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists’, an argument with which Christopher Hitchens says he agrees (in, mind you, a largely approving review of a book by the far right demagogue Mark Steyn, which claims that Muslims are breeding their way to a takeover of Europe!).

I contrasted the rhetoric used by neofascist ideologues (as well as a conservative Australian politician) with that employed by major New Atheist speakers, not to prove that Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and the rest were fascists (indeed, I explicitly said they were not) but rather to illustrate that they embrace an Islamophobia more usually associated with the far Right – which was, after all, the very point that Harris was making.

Which brings us to the guts of the argument, something with which Myers in his response entirely refuses to engage: the nature of Islamophobia.

In New Matilda, I suggested that contemporary Islamophobia replicates, almost exactly, the tropes of classical anti-Semitism. The difference, however, is that anti-Muslim racism is, in most western countries, far more prevalent and far more acceptable than racism against Jews – or, for that matter, anyone much else. Consider, for instance, the results of a 2006 study in Australia.

MORE than half of Victorian schoolchildren view Muslims as terrorists, and two out of five agree that Muslims “are unclean”, a survey has revealed.

Just over 50 per cent believe Muslims “behave strangely”, while 45 per cent say Australians do not have positive feelings about Muslims.


Almost half said they had learned “a little” about Muslims and Islam at school, but more than a third said they had learned nothing on these subjects.

When asked if schools should teach more about Muslims, 29 per cent of the teenagers said no, and 34 per cent said they did not care.

In other words, despite not knowing anything about Islam, the kids still believe Muslims are ‘unclean’ and ‘terrorists’ and ‘behave strangely’ (all, as it happens, traditional slurs aimed by anti-Semites against the Jews. Another recent and more extensive study found more or less the same thing, identifying ‘Muslims as one of the country’s most marginalised religious and ethnic groups, with many Australians believing Muslims and people from the Middle East were unable to fit in to Australia’.

If this comes as a surprise, well, you haven’t been paying attention. To choose another example more or less at random, a week or so ago, the American politician Herman Cain said that he would only appoint Muslims to his administration provided they took a loyalty oath. This, is it happens, was a retreat from his earlier stance — which was simply that he wouldn’t appoint Muslims at all.

Now, if Cain had made the same remarks about Jews or blacks or anyone much else — if he’d insisted that other minority groups needed to swear special oaths — he would have been rightly branded a racist, and his political career would have come to an end. Instead, because he’s targeting Muslims, his stance didn’t harm him but rather catapulted him into contention as a Republican presidential candidate.

That’s the world we’re now in.

Now, whenever you argue about anti-Muslim bigotry, you can expect some sniggering wiseacre to declare, with the air of someone announcing a great discovery, that ‘Islam is not a race’, a statement then brandished as a get-out-of-gaol card enabling the wildest anti-Muslim sentiment.

But, as I said in the NM piece, such arguments are entirely bogus.

A moment’s thought reveals that, if you want to argue that ‘racism’ only describes prejudice against specific ‘races’, then you have to define what a ‘race’ is. And just how do you do that? It’s surely incumbent upon all those who peddle the ‘Islam is not a race’ line to explain what makes anti-Semitism ‘racist’. Is there a Jewish ‘race’? If so, how do they define it without resorting to the quack vocabulary of eugenics, the whole gamut of cranial measurements and blood lineages and the rest of the hocus pocus beloved by the intellectuals of fascism?

What, equally, do the ‘Islam is not a race’ crowd say about one of the earliest forms of racism in England, the bigotry directed against the Irish – a people who looked physically identical to their oppressors? What ‘race’ do the Irish belong to? What about the other historical victims of bigotry in the US and Australia: the Italians, the Poles, the Greeks? All of them would now be identified in racial ‘terms’ as ‘white’ but, at various times, the theorists of bigotry developed elaborate schemas to distinguish, say, Northern Europeans from Southern Europeans. Do we have to accept their crackpottery in order to call anti-Polish prejudice ‘racist’?

The point is that the concept of race implied in the dismissal of Islamophobia is itself a product of racism, a particular theory developed, amongst other reasons, out of the need to justify the enslavement of black Africans and then spread on an opportunistic and ever changing basis throughout the world.

As anyone who bothers to research the subject in the slightest knows, racism has, historically, taken many different forms. In the early 1980s, the philosopher Martin Barker argued that racism in the west was no longer based crudely on eugenics (for Nazism had rather tarnished that particular idea) but instead focused on the cultures of particular minorities, which were said to be somehow deficient or incompatible with the mainstream.

Thus, outside the Ku Klux Klan, no-one much says that blacks are genetically inferior to whites anymore. Instead, contemporary racists focus on lifestyle or education or other supposed cultural traits, which are then treated as if they were just as innate and determinative as skin colour was for the biological racist. Islamophobia works in exactly the same way, essentialising some aspect of the religion to tell you everything you need to know about all Muslims, all the time. Which is why, in the survey quoted above, the kids refer interchangeably to ‘Muslims’ and ‘Arabs’: religious and national identity becoming essentially the one and the same.

The argument might seem to imply that the recognition of anti-Muslim racism necessitates a complex theoretical argument. But, of course, it doesn’t. Actually, most people hear Herman Cain and know – as, indeed, they are meant to — straight away what he’s on about, simply because the rhetoric’s so familiar from earlier forms of racism.

When, a few years ago, a mob of white youths gathered on Cronulla Beach in Sydney to drive out Lebanese kids, you didn’t need to be familiar with Barker’s writing to recognize that for them ‘Islam’ was not a theological term but a racial one.

To save repetition let me quote a passage I wrote not so long ago about this very argument. Consider

the Bush administration’s normalisation of torture against Muslim detainees; the construction of Guantanamo to house Muslim prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial; the launch of a pre-emptive invasion, a war declared unlawful by most legal scholars, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Muslim; the routinisation of assassinations and other extrajudicial killings of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen; and the persistent refusal to hold anyone accountable for any of these. Is it not likely that such measures would establish throughout the industrialised world certain ideas about Muslims and their place, certain notions about how they might be legitimately treated?


In Holland, Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, seems set to play kingmaker for a new government. Wilders advocates banning the Koran, prohibiting immigration from Muslim nations and forbidding the construction of mosques. In Switzerland, a historic centre of tolerance, the state has constitutionally banned the building of new minarets. In Austria, the Freedom Party (yes, it’s a popular name), which polled 17.5 per cent at the most recent election, wants to do the same, while also outlawing face veils. France has already prohibited the burqa; similar laws are mooted in Italy and Belgium. The English Defence League marshals shaven-headed hooligans to chant ‘Muslims out!’ in towns across the nation. In Germany, former finance minister Thilo Sarrazin sold, in a month, 600 000 copies of a book claiming that high fertility rates among the Muslim community have diluted the country’s collective IQ.

Crucially, this rising tide of prejudice and hatred correlates not with anything Muslims might have done but rather with what is being done against them. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a time when you’d expect anti-Muslim sentiment to peak, George Bush – scarcely a model of sensitivity – visited an Islamic centre to absolve Muslims of collective responsible for the atrocity and declare Islam a religion of peace. Today, that entirely asinine statement – delivered, mind you, while the rubble of the towers still smouldered – would be considered electoral poison by senior Republicans, many of whom have embraced hysterical protests not only against the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ but against the construction of mosques as far apart as Tennessee and California.

That’s the context in which this debate is taking place, the context in which Richard Dawkins’ claim that ‘Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today’ is received.

And that’s why the question of Islamophobia should be of central concern to anyone who identifies with the New Atheist movement.

Now, none of this means that atheists can’t or shouldn’t talk about Islam. The oft-repeated claim that a recognition of Islamophobia puts religion off limits is a complete furphy, since, despite what you might think from the howls produced when people are called on their bigotry, it’s not actually that difficult to, like, not be a racist.

Atheists don’t believe in the god of the Torah, either. But most of us are able to make a philosophical argument about the non-existence of a deity without inadvertently declaring that, actually, the Jews are secretly taking over Europe because they breed like rabbits. In other words, the distinction between atheism and anti-Semitism is not a difficult one to maintain – and neither should be the distinction between atheism and Islamophobia.

OK, now maybe Myers agrees with all of this. Certainly, he says in his piece that he’s a man of the Left, and then accuses me of ‘cherry-picking a couple of prominent New Atheists as proxies for all of us.’

Now, as I’ve argued, given the quotes I used come from ‘prominent New Atheists’, it’s a bit rough to accuse me of cherry-picking them. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins are three out of the four major speakers in Melbourne – scarcely a random assemblage, one would have thought.

But, more to the point, if Myers objects to these people serving as proxies for him, why doesn’t he – and other self-proclaimed atheists – take them on?

If, for instance, Myers belonged to a movement in which one of the leading figures opined that ‘the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Judaism poses to Europe are actually fascists’, and then another leading figure chimed into agree, would he not feel compelled to say something a little stronger than ‘I do disagree with both of the quotes to a certain extent’?

That’s why I think it’s legitimate to identify the New Atheism as a rightwing trend that’s supplanting an older, more progressive atheism. Partly, of course, throughout the twentieth century, atheism was largely associated with the labour movement and socialist politics. The collapse of the Left has left a vacuum, which has now been filled by the New Atheism – a movement that, as Myers says, does not see itself in political terms (even though most of the key New Atheists books make political claims of one kind or another).

But the Old Left approached religion in a quite different way, a methodology expressed most classically through Marxism. As Tad Tietze explains in a recent Overland article:

Marx and Engels famously argued that, while the fight to prove the irrationality of religious ideas had been won through cultural advances underpinned by capitalism, it was the suffering caused by a system of exploitation, oppression and alienation that explained the continuing hold of those ideas, despite the existence of anti-religious proofs. Attempts to undermine religion simply through rational argument or state repression were doomed to failure. Rather, the Left’s task was to fight to transform the social conditions in which those ideas were rooted. Most predominantly, Muslim nations are racked by poverty, and this poverty remains an important reason for the weakness of purely secular ideologies within such countries.

By contrast, the New Atheism sees religion as largely a matter of foolish and dangerous ideas to be supplanted by rational and modern ones. You can see how this works through in Myers’ article, where he contrasts the response of progressives and New Atheists to an Islamist intent on inflicting genital mutilation on a child.

The example is in itself instructive, since female genital mutilation in fact predates the monotheisms in Africa and Asia, and is practiced by both Christians and Muslims. Though some Islamists might defend FGM, it’s basically a cultural practice and not a religious one – and so would not be curtailed by the defeat of Islamism.

But let’s leave that typical slippage between culture, Islam and Islamism to focus on another aspect of the example. Myers has his New Atheist respond like this: ‘NO. There is no ambiguity here: your children are individuals, you have NO RIGHT to butcher them. And being an ignorant barbarian is no excuse.’

Now most left-wingers would have the grace to wince at an American intellectual using terms like ‘ignorant barbarian’, particularly in a context where it probably refers to a tribal African.

But the phrase follows from the New Atheist methodology, its emphasis on religion as simply a set of ideas, the intellectual relics from premodernity. In that schema, a religious believer is, almost definition, both ignorant and a barbarian.

The reality, of course, is quite different, with Islamist movements in the real world often recruiting the smartest, most sophisticated people in a generation. Why? If you were a kid in Egypt, a society where the Mubarak dictatorship used the billions of dollars it received from the US to brutally torture any dissenters, well, the Muslim Brotherhood might appeal, not only because its cadre historically led much of the resistance to the dictator, but also because it provided a ideology that seemed to make sense of the situation, in a context where the secular Left was either impotent or had made its peace with the regime.

Let me quote Tietze again:

Political Islam has also been strengthened by the historic failure of secular nationalist and communist currents to resolve the Middle East’s deep social contradictions, let alone defeat Western imperialism and its Israeli watchdog. In this vacuum, Islamism has been able to pose as a viable alternative, acting, as Marx wrote of religion, as both ‘the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering’. It is in that contradiction that its reformist character emerges. […]

The Left can only win the mass of people to its cause, and away from more conservative oppositional forces, by showing in the course of united struggle that it offers better strategies and policies in practice.

That doesn’t mean accepting the politics or theology of Islamism. Of course it doesn’t. Rather, it means acknowledging that religious ideas have material origins, and that the most effective antidote to religion is thus changing the world, rather than berating believers for their stupidity.

By contrast, once you’re comfortable denouncing the religious as ‘ignorant barbarians’, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to arguing that they need to be taken in hand by the partisans of modernity. It’s the classic articulation of liberal imperialism, where the identification of a genuine piece of brutality (suttee in India, foot binding in China, human sacrifice in the Americas) provides the moral basis for imperial intervention.

The argument’s explicit in John Stuart Mill, the godfather of liberalism, who famously explained that restrictions on individual freedom were only legitimate when those liberties harmed others but then went on to make an important exception.

‘It is,’ he explains, ‘perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. … Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.’

This, it seems to me, is precisely the logic that allows people like Martin Amis to make a big hue and cry about their liberalism, their atheism, their commitment to modernity, even as they say things like:

There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. . . . They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs—well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people.


(The link, by the way, is to Hitchens again, who quotes the passage and then tells us that Amis is ‘profoundly humanistic and open-minded.’ No, really.)

Now, I don’t expect Myers to agree with me here, since our philosophical differences are too great.

But, given he identifies with the Left, perhaps we can find some common ground on immediate political questions. As I argued in New Matilda, two of the major issues for Australian progressives the war in Afghanistan and mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Hence the sharpness of these polemics. In both issues, Islamophobia plays a major role (we can’t leave Afghanistan because of the Muslim menace; we can’t treat refugees decently because all Muslims are terrorists), which is why it’s hard to see much that’s positive in the arrival of a collection of intellectuals who, to pinch a phrase from S. Sayyid, speak about Islam like Alf Garnett would if he’d swallowed a thesaurus.

So where, then, is the atheist Left?  Will Myers, and others like him, speak out against the Islamophobia that’s self-evidently rife in the atheist movement?

That’s not a rhetorical question. It would genuinely make a difference for a prominent atheist to come out and identify Islamophobia as a problem, one to which the atheist Left needs to face up. Will Myers take that step? And if he won’t, who will?


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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