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?


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. As you know, I’m a great fan of PZ. But I think you’ve finally convinced me of your position. Great stuff, Jeff. Well done.

    I’ll still probably have a drink with PZ at chloes if he goes back there (and you should too)

  2. Thanks Erica. And apologies for rendering PZ as PJ in an earlier version (it’s now corrected).

  3. Jeff,
    I think I need to dissect your arguments to understand.
    I don’t think atheists should be considered ‘progressive’, I would prefer the terms neutral or repressive, to quote Gregory Corso, ‘poor caveman, so afraid of the outside, so afeared of its power and beauty, created a limit, and called that limit God.’ I don’t think we are advancing by removing a god-head but merely returning to concepts before the advent of modern thought,I personally don’t believe in an Abrahamic God, I am opposed to the hypocrisy of organised religion, however I will support any who have faith in a doctrine that does not harm others.
    Islamophobia (if the word were contracted to Isla-pho it would be perfect newspeak) is exactly as predicted in Orwell’s 1984, where 1/3 of the world will be in constant conflict with one of the other 2/3 of the world and it is incredibly sad that people cannot see that life is a reflection on a piece of tragic dystopian fiction.
    It is the ultimate in irony that so many wars have been fought in the name of religion, and now the pin-up boys of no religion want to wage a more aggressive war.
    I can see where the confusion lies in reading your NM article, you were highlighting the stupidity of the Hitchens / Harris argument and how their Mein Kampf attitudes are being smuggled into “progressive” conferences and ‘new’ atheists are concerned that you have exposed their deity’s mortal flaws.

  4. FYI PZ is a speaker at the “2012” Melbourne convention.

    He was also a speaker at the “2010” Melbourne convention.

      • Jeff – did you even BOTHER reading the links to the 2010 convention? How can you criticise something blindly without doing the proper research?

        The atheists you gave as EXAMPLES of good ones were ALL speakers at the 2010 convention – the ones you cited were
        Phillip Adams, Leslie Cannold and Catherine Deveny.

        By the way, Leslie Cannold is returning for the 2012 one. Did you bother to check on that too? Wow, so much for the overwhelming new-atheist bad ‘guys’.

        As PZ says:
        “Taslima Nasrin, AC Grayling, and Peter Singer were also at the 2010 convention — perhaps Mr Sparrow would like to cobble up a rationale for accusing them of being closet right-wingers out to exterminate the Muslim world? That would be even more entertaining than flinging Herman Cain in our faces.”

        You really are embarrassing.

        • I didn’t ask whether they were appearing — I asked whether they’d be publicly denouncing the Islamophobia that, as this conversation has evidenced, is rife throughout the New Atheism. If they did that last year, good on them. If not, hopefully they will do it next year. Certainly, someone needs to.
          As for ‘cobbling up a rationale for accusing them of being closet right-wingers out to exterminate the Muslim world’, it’s Myers himself who says that Hitchens advocates genocide. But apparently that’s just a minor flaw, because, hey, he’s really good on other issues. Why, there’s nothing about having an advocate of racial genocide opening a conference that should worry self-proclaimed left-wingers in the slightest!

  5. Let me get this right. Jeff, a Marxist, doesn’t like some atheists because

    1. They are pro-war, fair enough.
    2. Some atheists say nasty things about particular religions.

    Jeff won’t, or can’t answer the particular question of the celebratory violence that we have seen recently associated with Islam. Can he, or anyone else, point to where almost entirely Catholic, resistance fighters in 30 years of brutal civil war in Central America persistently targeted, as a strategy, civilians? I doubt it.

    On the question of ‘picking’on Islam, Jeff knows, or should know, that Hitchens has written extensively on the insidiousness of all the major religions.

    Here is a simple question that maybe useful Jeff. Does the ongoing existence of religious adherence assist or hinder the liberation of humanity? A one word answer will suffice.

    Jeff’s views on racism seeks (deliberately?) to confuse rather than clarify. In the call center I work in the practicalities of race and racism are somewhat simpler than those our academic friend offers.

    • Helen,
      Did you actually read anything in the post above?
      If so, you might have noted that it devoted considerable space to arguing exactly why the statements of some of the major New Atheists were Islamophobic.
      Quite obviously no-one in the world has a monopoly on brutal violence. The Spanish Inquisition was Catholic. Sendero Luminoso is atheist.
      Those two examples alone might suffice to suggest that some problems are sufficiently difficult to require more than a one word answer.
      But if all you get from the discussion is that ‘some atheists says nasty things about particular religions’, well, I doubt there’s much point debating any further.

      • Did a commenter above actually raise the issue of whether there was Catholic terrorism? Have people heard of Ireland or Sicily?

      • Excellent response Jeff, as was your well argued and I believe correct view of the New Atheist Islam phobia. I know atheists that are similiar in their extremes as fundamentalists making it difficult to have any real discussion about freedom of religious expression. Helen for you to equate extreme vilification of a people based on their religion as simply nasty things, I would question your reasoning full stop and by the way, excusing violence because others do it, makes you no better than them, which you clearly think you are.

  6. Ed note: We think this comment is racist.

    Maybe the reason that atheists are speaking out against so-called barbaric Muslims is because the Muslim religion is actually still barbaric. Jews and Christians have (mostly) got over being sexist and repressive and otherwise nasty folks. They’ve progressed (mostly) towards accepting that women are equals, and understanding that it’s not right to kill other people because they believe in a different god.

    Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity. Where were Christians 600 years ago? Just about to burst out in Reformation, and start loosening the chains of overly conservative religious repression – which process is still occurring today. Maybe we need to accept that Muslims have not yet fully embraced the ideals of equality and tolerance which the majority of Jews and Christians have had to come to terms with.

    Religions have a lifecycle, too. Islam has yet to enter the adolescent rebellious phase; Christians did it about 400 years ago; Jews did it millenia ago.

    It is not “Islamophobic” to point out that Muslim is as repressive now as Christianity was a few centuries ago.

    Anyway, New Atheists are NOT singling Muslims out. Jews and Christians are equally acceptable targets for an atheist’s ire – when they try to kill homosexuals (Uganda), or when they try to enforce stupid education laws (USA), or when they try to take other people’s land (Israel). It’s not discriminatory to point out the flaws in one religion, if you’re also pointing out flaws in the other religions.

      • Jeff,

        Are you saying that the argument Simon/Harris/etc makes is wrong, or merely that you don’t like the conclusion?

        Your position seems to be that anyone who doesn’t like X is racist if X is mainly propagated by people with different skin color. But do you even consider the reasons we dislike Islam?

        It is dishonest of you to call us racists without engaging our arguments against “the religion of peace”. As Simon points out, Islam is hardly singled out among New Atheists for special hatred. The basis for all religions is equally suspect, and the crimes committed in their names are to be judged on their own merits.

          • You mean the link in which Dawkins says, “should we be supporting Christian missions in Africa? My answer is still no, but I thought it was worth raising the question”?

            You seem to think it’s some sort of a crime to raise questions and to contemplate them. What are you, the thought police?

            And by the way, Dawkins said nothing about “a united front with Christian missionaries”! The word he used is ‘support’, not ‘united front’. Big difference.

            We are not afraid of raising questions and contemplating things. We are about freedom of thought, not adherence to some dogmatic party line. Questioning and contemplating things is our bread and butter!

        • To Wonderist: the point is that he does rank religions in terms of evil. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t contemplate this. Duh.

          • “Dawkins does single out Islam”

            “the point is that he does rank religions in terms of evil. ”

            And your point is ? To contradict yourself ? It’s kinda hard to ‘rank’ a set containing a ‘single’ element.

            More seriously, what do you find ‘wrong’ with ranking religions in terms of evil ? Or is it that you disagree with the ranking itself ?

          • Fred C, there is no contradiction. Clearly, Dawkins singles Islam out as the most evil of all religions. And hence he must have a rank order in mind, especially as he said Catholicism was #2 during the Pope’s visit to the UK last year.

            It would be better your cause if you addressed the substance of the argument than to play these silly verbal games.

            And on ranking religions I can’t really be bothered because they are just religions.

          • Hmmm. So, it would appear that it is perfectly O.K. for you to rank evils as you see them (see comments on US imperialism down the page), but if someone else shows any indication of doing so this, and this alone, is evidence of their being ‘nuts’…. and actually, in the context of this page perhaps even evidence of their being *racist*.

            To the casual bystander ….. rather curious, non?

            I think we can all rather uncontroversially agree that it is the considered opinion of Dawkins that most religions are actually bad, no? Given that this is the case … I’m curious as to why it appears an a-priori matter of unquestionable truth that stating that religion A is more evil than religion B is racist and/or wrong?

            I mean … your position is clearly not that evils cannot/should not be ranked. Or that human institutions cannot/should not be compared in terms of badness. Is it that religions are special in some way? Is it that Islam is? If so, why?

            I’ll do you the favour of not assuming that it isn’t because you, personally, couldn’t be bothered doing such a thing but as of right now neither you nor Jeff appear to me to have given any other cogent reason.

      • 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.

        I’m sure torture predates the Inquisition, but that doesn’t mean the ideology of Catholicism had no role in causing it.

        It doesn’t matter who originated FGM. What matters is that people justify it according to this or that dogma. The dogma is itself a problem when it produces such behavior.

        Your refusal to characterize FGM as ignorant barbarism is absurd. Is there any evil that can be conducted in religion’s name that you will not defend? It’s obviously barbaric, and it’s ignorant in that it derives from a false notion of female sexuality, namely that preventing sexual pleasure will prevent sexual desire (among other problems).

        Your noodling around about how one should be “sensitive” about using words like “barbarian” when discussing “tribal Africans” is exactly the point. (Are you telling me you didn’t wince when you wrote “tribal African”? Really?) Your PC-o-meter gags you from calling a spade a spade. Your refusal to engage the “tribal African” on his own terms and tell him how wrong he is is the true paternalistic racism here.

      • What? “This comment is racist” ? what is your definition of racist? You’re the one trying to equate an ideology (islam) with its practicioners (muslims). To criticise the ideology is not to attack the people that follow that ideology. You are only showing your debating incompetence (and no, that is not an ad hominem, because).

      • And now that I think: your rationale seems to work completelly in the other way around. You dont mind to generalize the individual (Hitchens, et al.) to present an stereotype of the ideology (atheism). Is your logic completelly backwards?

        (I’m sorry for my grammar mistakes, English is not my maternal language)

    • Replying to the Ed note, when Muslim countries knock off the Sharia law shit, we gnus will probably start being nicer when we talk about them. I don’t think the above comment is racist, although I don’t think it’s terribly accurate, either.

      Now @ Simon: 600 years ago, Muslims were the most progressive gang around. It’s only recently that a bunch of sects became oppressive dill holes. The Qu’ran is not nearly as mean about women as the Bible, and it’s tons better than the Hebrew Bible. Doesn’t quite fit with your theory.

    • Simon, When did Christianity get over any of it’s sexism? I missed that. Or are you condesplaining to the wimminz how our ongoing experience of sexism in the church(es)is wrong because you told us so?

  7. You might want to be careful labeling the great minds at the convention as “Very very right wing.” I dare say they would cringe at the idea of being labeled on the extremes of the political continuum.

    This whole “new atheist” fiction is nonsense and is detracting from the real issues and debate. It’s sad to see people conversing over this politically driven, pseudo-intellectual claptrap, that does nothing to further the cause and is akin to the religious dog fighting that makes us as atheists laugh.

  8. If any reasoning, rational, thinking person could be accused of Nazi-phobia, and I’m one of them, then we could be accused of Islamophobia as well. The two are the same. Anyone who does not agree with the dominant atheists authors on this subject is a pandering liberal lefty who has no right to speak on grown-up subjects.

  9. Ed note: We think this comment is racist.

    Since when is anything wrong with Islamophobia? Or Catholic-phobia? Or Nazi-phobia? Or Pol Pot-phobia? Or Ghengis-Khan-phobia? Or AIDS-phobia? It is good and right and rational and logical and patriotic and sceptical and intelligent and honest to be afraid of the threat of Islam. The sooner they are all destroyed and that religion has been castrated, the better.

  10. Note: At this stage, we’re allowing the racist comments through because we feel they support Jeff’s argument (i.e. New Atheism as a cover for racism) but we’ll be tagging those comments as racist so they’re easily identifiable and people can have the option of not reading them.

    • Since when has Muslim been a race?
      The ideology of Islam is what the “New” atheists are attacking. When you and Jeff learn to tell the difference come back and talk to us.

      • This is absolute nonsense. In Western countries race as a biological essentialism has long been replaced by cultural essentialist ideologies in the mainstream racist discourse, something pioneered by Thatcher with her talk of Britain being \swamped\ by other cultures.

        To imagine the New Atheists are simply criticising an \ideology\ is to separate their arguments from the real world we live in where Islamophobia, deployed as just that kind of cultural essentialism, is the justification for murderous imperial adventures abroad and scapegoating at home. Islamophobia doesn’t just look and smell a bit like racism, it’s the most predominant form of (state-sanctioned) racism in Western societies today.

        • Dr. Tad,

          Biological human ‘races’ do not exist (there is zero scientific support for the concept). But cultures do exist, though I’m unclear on what you mean by ‘essentialist’. If you mean that people are ‘born’ with their culture attached, then clearly this is nonsense.

          But where do you find significant support for such essentialism in gnu atheism? I have not seen it, and if I did, I would criticize it just as I criticize racism.

          The gnu atheists *are* criticizing ideology, and people’s beliefs. Beliefs themselves are not people, and people themselves are not their beliefs. I’m sorry, but if you don’t get this point, then you *just* don’t get it. You seem to have a very skewed idea of gnu atheism. I suggest you re-read their *actual* arguments and positions.

          The people you might find supporting cultural essentialism are *not* gnu atheists, by and large. Islam is a religion, a set of beliefs, a dogma, akin to Nazism or Stalinism or Catholicism or even Quakerism (to provide a non-violent example). I (and we gnus) will feel free to vociferiously and unapologetically criticize such ideologies, religions, and dogmas. There is nothing wrong with doing so, and it has *nothing* to do with ‘belief in the superiority/inferiority of different races’. In fact, racism is simply yet *another* dogma that a great majority of gnu atheists detest.

          • Wonderist, please re-read what I wrote. I didn’t say the New Atheists make culturally essentialist arguments but that the arguments they do make about backward religious ideologies feed into a prevailing climate of racism, which is primarily cultural rather than biological in its concepts.

            PS By “essentialism” I mean when a group is defined by perceived essential characteristics that set it apart from others. Racial distinctions used to invoke essential biological characteristics, but as you rightly point out these have fallen into disrepute, and that’s a major reason that culture has been used more lately as the ideology of racism.

  11. So the most effective antidote to religion is to change the world rather than to berate believers for their stupidity.

    I share some of your doubts about the efficacy of abuse in changing the hearts and minds of believers.

    But I have no doubt that we will wait a long time for the world to change in such a way as to remove the appeal of religions of all stripes.

    I am not even sure what such a change would look like. After all, even the comfortable classes in the US have not given up their religion, despite their distance from poverty, and despite what you quote Mr Tietze saying about the famous arguments of Marx and Engels.

    In the meantime, in the real world in which we live, we ought not let religious abuses go unremarked.

    I am not surprised that some of the noisier so-called new atheists have been highly, even perhaps offensively, critical of Islam. They would hardly be credible if they took a soft approach and reserved their criticisms for say Catholics and Scientologists while waiting for material conditions to persuade the Islamists to ditch their Korans in favour of New Matilda and Overland.

    Why should the so-called new atheists share your political views.

  12. Atheists who criticise Islam are not doing so because of racist motives. Yes, in Australia and the US, racism towards Arab and middle-Eastern people has grown since the September 11 attacks, but this has nothing to do with atheist criticisms of Islam. More often, it is right-wing Christians and Christian fundamentalists who propagate racist views, equating the race of the Arab people with Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. I have always found that when atheists argue against Islam, they criticise the religion itself and those in positions of power and influence who engender religious fundamentalism, rather than criticising the Arab people. I think that the separation of race and religion is an important distinction to make in any discussion and that perhaps you should have done so before labelling people such as Hitchens “Islamaphobic racists”.

    • Oh, I think reading basically anything Hitchens has written in the last decade+ would convince you he’s an Islamophobic racist.

      • You do realize he’s like really good buds with Salman Rushdie, right? And that inasmuch as “race” means anything at all, Rushdie is the same “race” as the people you’re saying Hitchens is bigoted against?

        Also, while reading “anything Hitchens has written in the last decade,” did you come across WHY he supported the Iraq war? Hitchens was mainly interested in preventing a genocide of the Kurds. Why would an Islamophobic racist be so interested in saving the lives and culture of a thoroughly Muslim ethnicity? Just doesn’t sound like something a racist would want…

        Oh well, just keep screaming “racist” and I’m sure the people who disagree with you will eventually slink away with their tails between their legs. Now THAT’S showing us how to justify your beliefs.

      • If you’re not islamophobic then you aren’t paying attention. Clearly being hitchen-phobic is more attuned to the current state of the world.

  13. Ed note: We also think this comment is racist.

    So being opposed to Islamofascism makes you a fascist. Okay. While being opposed to Christofascism (the religious right, in America, say) simply makes you a Leftist. I think that it is highly immoral not to punish regimes who advocate throwing acid into the eyes of little girls simply for trying to get an education. I think the wars were poorly executed because of the number of civillian deaths, but other than that, I don’t see anything wrong with toppling fascist regimes. I’d only ask that it be done surgically. And you know what? I’m a social democrat who votes Green.

    • I don’t see how being repulsed by an ideology is “racist”. I find the notion of grafting Islamism to a specific nationality both condescending and repugnant – which is exactly what Jeff’s use of the term “racism” here implies. Which nationality is he singling out? His argument is unconvincing and unhelpful for those of us who are opposed to racism. Ideology is a very significant choice (one which can be engaged in debate and influenced by reason), while country of birth is scientifically meaningless (and thus the inanity of discriminating based on nationality).

      Am I “racist” against Scientologists because I think their organization should be taxed (I feel the same way about every religious institution, by the way)? I’m not the hypocrite here. I presume Jeff Sparrow would brand laws against the genital mutilation of children as “racist” too. I invite (dare?) Jeff Sparrow to read “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

      • Way to embarrass yourself, Matt. It’s very obvious from this comment that you haven’t bothered to read the whole article, where Jeff goes to considerable length in addressing your point.

        • Way to avoid all the substance of the comment, Fraser. If anyone should be embarassed…

      • Matt you compare extreme culture practices with the non extreme side if atheism, which even many religious people agree with, including Muslins such separation if church and state. The piece is comparing the extreme side of the New Atheists so a fairer comparison is Hitchens calling for war to be waged in a people because of their religion. Practices on both sides are wrong, but violence does not solve the problem and makes you no different. I also don’t get the atheist view of eradicating religion, us not the point it is firmly separated from Government and if you believe that’s your business but you practice it with harmony and tolerance? Perhaps not

  14. Oh so you think there are a preponderance of “racist” comments. I didn’t realise it was “racist” to legitimately (without violence or hatred) criticize a religion’s fundamental tenets and the consequences of this dogma. I think the point of all the “new” atheists (although nobody associated with the movement likes this term)is that all beliefs should be subjected to the same level of scrutiny, and that religions are no longer entitled to a pass – an immunity from criticism. Could you tell me what is “racist” about this? The reason that Islam is singled out is because it is currently the most important (though not only) tool being used for repression of humanity.

    • Really? I thought the ‘repression of humanity’ was everything that came of US invasion: carpet-bombing, interminable war and occupation, economic destruction, death, et cetera…

      • That statement may well be true, Jacinta. You may wish to re-read the comment to which you are responding to see why it isn’t actually in direct contradiction with it, though.

  15. Oh I see Mr Sparrrow, it is not offensive for atheists to argue against Christianity, but as soon as it’s Islam or Judiasm, it is just racism (despite not all Muslims being from the Middle East or all Jews from Israel).

    Yes, there are ignorant and violent atheists, just as there are ignorant and violent Muslims and Jews. But Hitchens and Harris are not discriminatory in their condemnation of religion as you try and assert here. They are equally opposed to all theistic religion, as any cursory look at their body of published works will attest.

    Is Islam a more dangerous religion than Christianity at present? Most logical people (and the Governments of most of the planet) would say a resounding yes. If you choose to be oblivious to the risks then fine, but to accuse “new atheists” of just being racists by another name is merely exposing your attempt to discredit atheist thought, in favor of your Middle Eastern fairy tales.

    Poor attempt to argue that race equates to religion with one breath “The point is that the concept of race implied in the dismissal of Islamophobia is itself a product of racism, ……”
    and to then try and argue religion has nothing to do with culture, in your argument responding to the barbarism of religious inspired genital mutilation.

    Can’t have it both ways Sparrow.

  16. Jeff has got himself in an awful knot here. Does he also propose that we should not criticise religiously motivated Israeli settlers because it could lead to antisemitism? It seems to be a very similar argument.

    • Actually, that’s a pretty good example. The Palestinian solidarity campaign is not anti-Semitic. But some anti-Semites do, occasionally, express ‘solidarity’ with Palestinians. Anti-Zionists need to be able distinguish between the two, which fortunately in most cases is not very difficult.
      You see the parallel?

      • What a bizarre response. Yes, i do see the parallel, because I made it:

        The [new atheist] campaign is not [racist]. But some [racists] do, occasionally, express ’solidarity’ with [the new atheists]. [New atheists] (and observers like yourself) need to be able distinguish between the two, which fortunately in most cases is not very difficult.
        YOU see the parallel?

        The argument that: ‘atheists shouldn’t criticise Islamic theocrats because racists might take it the wrong way’ is like saying ‘leftists shouldn’t criticise Israel because antisemites might take it the wrong way’.

        • Martin:

          Great post! I really don’t see Sparrow’s argument here. Suggesting Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Myers are racist is quite a stretch.

          Sparrow has to redefine Islamophobia and racism to make his atgument. The distinction between the New Atheists’ criticism of religion and the Islamophobia of fascist ideologues is quite obvious.

          • Thanks ‘Evo’, ‘flies’ and ‘shite’. Sparrow’s argument is motivated by a need to unite the working class in this country against the ruling class in this country. In this context, religious division is undesirable.

            Unfortunately this primary concern leaves workers and progressives in many other countries out to dry. In those countries theocrats are the ruling class. In these countries, the distribution of wealth isn’t the problem, the distribution of the right to free expression is the problem.

            I encourage Sparrow to recognise this, and make their struggle against their ‘faith based’ oppressors his primary concern.

        • Martin wins the thread.

          The definition of a logically consistent argument requires that if you replace equivalent expressions (e.g. replace ‘new atheists’ with an equivalent group, and ‘racists’ with the analogous equivalent), then the equivalent argument must also be valid.

          Jeff’s argument clearly fails this rudimentary test, as Martin so clearly showed with a simple demonstration of such a replacement.

  17. Your argument that the definition of racism as prejudice against a ‘race’ is itself racist is nothing more than a tautology. A further “moments thought” might reveal that racism makes the stupid assumption that dividing humans into ‘races’ has some value before propounding discrimination between these categories. So yes, racism is racist, no doubt about it. Distinguishing between what the word does and does not mean, as according to probably any common or dictionary definition, is not racist. Saying anything to the effect that racism is simply prejudice against any group of people that is in anyway reminiscent of the language used by anti-semites I would say actually devalues the term. I’m sure the language you’ve used against the group known as ‘neo-cons’ has in some way been used in a racist manner in the past. When you say that an atheist convention means Melbourne will soon be flooded with bloodthirsty war-mongerers, doesn’t that meet your hysterical definition of ‘racism’?

    Anyway, I know Hitchen’s really hurt a lot of people on the left when he supported the war in Iraq but labeling him as just a mouthpiece of the neo-cons is lazy and avoidant. And as for Sam Harris being a nut, the briefest research will show that he is not propounding a belief in reincarnation.

  18. I think there are two fundamental mistakes made by most of the commenters above that could be solved by;
    1. reading the articles in their entirety, not just searching for quotables;
    2. dissecting the argument as it is multifaceted, not simply an attack on atheists or Hitchens or even the far right wing.
    Jeff Sparrow is simply highlighting that the pin-up boys of “new” atheism (for want of a better name) may not have the clearest motives at heart and should not be allowed to hide behind a ‘progressive’ banner.
    Making historical, timeline comparisons between Islam and Christianity serves no purpose, otherwise I would argue that Christians could project themselves as Buddhists in 4 – 600 years, and Hindu in a further thousand years.
    Quite honestly I don’t see why Hitchens &c. get so much attention, how difficult is it to disprove something that has never been proven? Why make such a big deal? Stick around, tomorrow I’ll disprove the tooth-fairy myth.

  19. I’ve generally got three points of disagreement as I guess a Progressive New Atheist.

    1. The conference is an atheism conference, not a progressive or progressive atheism conference. Rejecting the claims others make that a god or gods exist does not logically or causally flow on to any set political ideology (it merely excludes a few). While there may be a traditional overlap between progressive politics and atheism, the increasingly popularity of atheism will necessarily include a broader array of political views.

    I’m not clear on the conference program but I’m sure panel discussions would be lively from various speakers who will most likely be presenting an array of approaches to promote their socio-political goals.

    Even if I accept your characterisations of Hitchens and Harris as islamophobic and racist (which I don’t) it has no bearing on whether they should be criticised for being a part of a non-partisan conference. Progressive politics doesn’t own atheism anymore, probably best you console yourself with this fact and move on.

    2. The quotes you have used of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins are speaking about a specific sub-set of Islam. Namely, religious fundamentalists with militant and socially regressive beliefs (and their defenders). Islamophobia refers to an irrational fear of all Muslims and/or Islam. Are you saying it is irrational to have concern and lay critique against the fundamentalist Muslims? Are you equating the fundamentalist Muslims with all Muslims? I certainly hope not, that would be an awfully discriminatory category error. One you, not me, would characterise as racist.

    3. You claim, that by saying Islam is not a race, one must define what a race is and this by default is a right-wing, even fascist activity. Except, you’re the one characterising a perceived persecution and discrimination on the basis of religion as racism. So who is defining race? Does it make it acceptable by extending the term to previously unused criteria? We do not require the term ‘racism’ or the notion of ‘race’ to oppose discrimination and persuction along arbitrary lines.

    I have a longer response on my own page for those interested.


  20. There does seem to be a missing discussion. I think Jeff’s argument really is just suggesting that there are similar conclusions being made by both racists and ‘new atheists’. He does not, however, discuss their arguments in order to prove the association runs deeper.

    He does, however, offer us the Marxist progressive atheism, As a possible alternative: ‘feed the barbarians’.

    But am unconvinced that this Marxist approach would necessarily come up with a less belligerent positions than hitch and co. If religion really is connected to the material poverty of people then wouldn’t efforts to undermine that material basis incite a conflict with believers with a vested interest in those beliefs. (There seems to be evidence of this in the oft raised suggestion that the more ‘radical’ Islam is associated with growing materialism in the middle-east rather than the ungodliness of the material west.)

  21. To refer to the new atheists as islamophobes is fundamentally incorrect. we do not fear Islam rather we oppose ignorance whether in the guise of christian unreason, the intellectual shortcomings of judaism or the derivative stupidity of Islam.

  22. Enlightenment and the White Man’s Burden against the Savages – maybe we should be calling this movement the Neo-Colonialists.

    • Yeah, I bet that’ll catch on.

      Can someone please edit the wikipedia page for atheism to reflect the name change now?

  23. I don’t think the New Atheism is a movement of the Right in quite the way you imagine.

    Clearly when it comes to the Right and religion, there is no fixed position.

    Having watched that documentary film in which the Four Horsemen are filmed in a salon-like scenario, I think it’s fair to say that their definitive characteristic is great, unexamined social privilege.

    Dawkins, as a specific thinker, fares well in parlour debates with others of his social type – academics, highly educated white men, etc. His argumentation is based around humorous hyperbole (like calling Jesus a “sadomasochist” or describing a religious upbringing as “tantamount to child abuse”), and Gedankenexperiments of a naive type.

    By contrast he fails to convince in any situation where he must engage with the actual devout faithful. His flustered appearance on Q&A was a good example. His views are fundamentally illiberal – he can’t permit a Rawlsian plurality of doctrines which means he genuinely can’t agree to disagree. Couple that with his toff mannerisms, and his background and it’s unsurprising he’s so unpopular outside his narrow fanbase.

  24. Have any of you even read the article? Jeff is talking about specific individuals within the New Atheist movement.

    There is a very simple statement to be made here. If you don’t agree with the racist comments made by Hitchens, Harris et al: stop defending them. And stop inviting them to the conferences.

    If you can’t detect the racism in Hitchens, Harris et al, I’m not sure anyone can help you (though from reading the comments, I doubt most of you have even read their books/articles).

    As an atheist I am really disgusted by the racism among some of the New Atheists. What I didn’t expect was so many people jumping to defend the racism (though it explains why richarddawkins.net comes across as a cult).

  25. Your labelling of some as “Islamaphobic” blurs difference between how the “shaven head hooligans” marshalled by the English Defence League compared to Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins arrive at their conclusions. Hitchens and Harris happen to agree on this issue with “The Fascists,” but not out of an irrational fear of the unfamiliar. This distinction becomes clear when you read more than the cherry picked quotes in the absence of their intended context. A belief in Islam disqualifies nobody from performing pro-social acts, in fact, some claim to do pro-social works in the name of Islam. Although, also in the name of Islam, raging demagogues advocate sharia law for the world, death to Jews, the west and a repudiation of everything that comes from our critical faculties. The moderate congregation are not directly to blame for enemies of freedom and they should not be subjected to special treatment like that of Herman Cain, which you identified as Islamaphobic as it singled out Muslims. Indeed stereotyping Muslim people as (insert derogatory term / fallacious accusation here) could rightly be branded “Islamaphobic,” however stating that raging demagogues are pernicious and identifying scripture, their inspiration, as also being pernicious is distinct from narrow minded stereotyping. A scientific and philosophical critique of Islam, such that it avoids ad hominem arguments, is not Islamaphobic. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins arrive at their conclusions by means of a critique, without beginning with irrational fear. They indict the malevolent theology and its evangelical proponents, not those who keep it to themselves and do no wrong to others. They advocate critical inquiry, not encourage negative stereotyping and irrational discrimination. Though not all may be exemplified by one or the other, the distinction between Islamaphobia and atheism really is as obvious as the distinction between skinheads and Marx.

  26. Y’know, you could probably avoid these adolescent gotchas about Islam not being a race just by saying bigotry instead.

    • Islam is an ideology. Christianity is an ideology. Fascism is an ideology. Do you believe it’s bigoted to be anti-fascism? (Assume: no) Then how could you possibly argue that being anti-Christianity or anti-Islam would be bigoted?

  27. \I don’t think atheists should be considered ‘progressive’, I would prefer the terms neutral or repressive, to quote Gregory Corso, ‘poor caveman, so afraid of the outside, so afeared of its power and beauty, created a limit, and called that limit God.’ \

    So wait, you’re accusing atheists of being right wing for criticizing Islam. First of all, let’s make it totally clear: \Arab\ is an ethnicity, \Persian\ is an ethnicity, \Islam\ is an ideology. It is not racist to criticize ideologies on their own terms.

    But if you’re going to say atheists are right wing for criticizing an ideology, isn’t it a little hypocritical not to call out comments like the one above? I fail to see how likening atheists to fearful cavemen is any better than saying Islam justifies repression of women and free expression except for the implicit — and slimy — suggestion that \Islam\ is somehow a race or ethnicity and that criticizing the ideology is therefore criticizing the people.

    Also, your editors seem to be a little trigger happy on the \this comment is racist\ trigger. Ethnicity!=religion. This should be very simple for you multiculturalist humanities types. You can’t change your ethnicity but you can always change your religion. It’s not xenophobic to criticize someone’s conscious choices.

  28. Good Evening

    This article is riveting from start to finish, as are the various comments posted.

    I am particularly interested in the discussion about the racism of ‘Islamophobia’. I know there is only one race – human. Race, or racial divisions are socially created. Racism is not a single, simple act, but rather subtle and complex interplays of political power, social structures and history. And racism (along with racial domination) is one of the major processes which both creates and maintains inequality.

    After reading this post and the responses, I have a new awareness of the massive amount of inequality ‘Islam’ is… receiving? being subjected to? suffering because of?

    • “This article is riveting from start to finish.”

      Thanks for your opinion, Mr Sparrow.

  29. “Islam” is not a person. It can’t suffer or be discriminated against. Muslims can. Personally, I often find myself in the awkward position of defending Muslims from bigoted stereotypes and attacks. I don’t care much for Islam but I do care about the individual Muslims I know who are kind & decent people, even if they are completely wrong about the whole god thing.

    Unfortunately, opposition to Islamist extremism and terrorism provides a useful cover for racists who like to assert that there’s some essential quality about the Islamic belief system that renders its adherents somehow more prone to violence than the adherents of any other religion. These people tend to treat “Islam” as synonymous with “Middle Eastern peoples” and ignore or downplay any cultural, social, economic, and political factors contributing to the rise of terrorism in such societies. They also seize upon the oppression of women in many Islamic countries as a useful smokescreen to deflect attention from the oppression of women in their own countries; I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that rather than organizing to promote access to reproductive rights in the USA, I should be protesting female genital mutilation in eastern and northern Africa, or gang rapes in the Congo. The message seems to be that I should be grateful I’m not at risk from roving rape gangs, so why don’t I shut my uppity mouth about trivial things like equal pay and abortion rights already.

    So yes, criticizing Islam can, and sometimes does, slide into an exercise in bigotry. Gnu atheists are not immune, any more than Christian Republican presidential hopefuls (what was pointing to Herman Cain supposed to illustrate anyway?). Then again, Gnu atheists are not immune to sexism (Hitch especially) or any other kind of bigotry. Sparrow’s main mistake lies in characterizing Hitch and Harris as actual leaders rather than well-published guys who are part of a movement, and ignoring the ample evidence that atheists do not shy away from criticizing bigotry in all its forms.

  30. “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.”

    At this point, I could not read any further. Your stupidity on this matter bothered me too much. Many atheists have pointed this out to other people like you, so I will repeat what I have learned. Religion stagnates cultural change because religion is intertwined with culture. You speak so much about Jews, so let’s look at the Torah for an example. It may have very well been a cultural tradition to circumcize the males before any holy texts were written. But then after this cultural tradition is written into the holy text (and it is, right away in Genesis as instructed to Abraham), another logical fallacy is added: appeal to authority–God. (Appeal to tradition being the first fallacy.) Sure, I bet there are many Jewish atheists who still circumcize their males due to cultural tradition, but maybe if evidence arose that circumcision does more harm than good, they might then stop the cultural tradition for the sake of their children. However, do you think such a consideration would be made if they were religious and believed God commanded it anyway? No, likely not. And this is the problem. Think of a fort. Religion is the outer wall protecting the inner walls of cultural tradition. You are correct that getting rid of religion will not immediately take down these other walls, but what you are missing is that you can’t get to those inner walls until you take down the outer wall. To put this another way, you are committing the perfect solution fallacy. I don’t know of any atheist who suggested that taking down relgion would lead to some great critical thinking paradise. And, yes, yes, I know you never said that, but that seems to be the implication of your statement–that everything will be peaches and cream without religion.
    (To add some honesty, it may be that the best way to take down these walls is to improve societal health, reducing the dependence on a god for providance. These Arab nations may reduce the importance of their own religion in their search for democratic ideas.)

    OK, I found courage to read more…
    “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.”
    Oh, so religion is more than a set of ideas? And your example of this is the Muslim Brotherhood? Your example is a political group with a religious-sounding name? That seems like an error in use-mention distinction to me. You yourself say, “That doesn’t mean accepting the politics or theology of Islamism. Of course it doesn’t.” Exactly! So why do you seem to be using this as an example of religion?

  31. Oh man, the Left makes me ill. Wishy-washy all around, but don’t worry, someone else will take care of the serious issues while you guys sit on the sidelines and moan.

  32. Pingback: Am I Anti-Muslim? | Meddling Kids

  33. Uhm no.
    The one with human race is definately wrong. Either we do accept that entity of race is biologically meaningful and we will have eurasians as one, amerasians(native americans + east asians), “black” africans and indo-australians. The other possibility is rejecting that race is a meaningful biological entity and saying it’s entirely something social. Then we simple have no race at all because race does not exist. So the one-race argument is always wrong no matter what you assume.

  34. I wasn’t aware Hitchens or Harris were elected to be a representative of Atheists. How did I miss this election? Or is this just another critic of Atheism beginning his entire tirade with a strawman fallacy?

  35. Since when were there atheist leaders? If we decry Hitchens and Harris for anti-islamic sentiments, shouldn’t we also decry that there are too many evolutionary biologists as well, a la PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins? The four horsemen are a byproduct of best-selling books, not of a universal appeal to atheists. I know of no one in [at least my] atheist circles who would refer to any of the ‘horsemen’ as figureheads; while there may be some that will, it certainly isn’t the norm (infact its antithetical to the ‘free thought’ movement). I have yet to see anyone address this issue. Is Ricky Gervais a leader too? Mr. Myers? Ayn Rand? Who makes this distinction, because to me it seems Mr. Sparrow feels compelled to~ but just because he does, doesn’t make it true.

    • Um, so Myers thinks Hitchens advocates genocide, yet still aligns himself with the warmongers? How does he justify that? Unless four years on, he’s come around to their way of thinking.

    • Wow. Just wow. Myers attends a talk by Hitchens, which he then summarises as follows:

      “Basically, what Hitchens was proposing is genocide. Or, at least, wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world until they are sufficiently cowed and frightened and depleted that they are unable to resist us in any way, ever again.”

      Yes, Myers correctly describes this as ‘insane’. Yet the New Atheists don’t have a problem with Hitchens delivering the keynote address at their conference, and people are still coming here and telling me there’s no problem with Islamophobia in the movement.
      Just out of interest, would they respond the same way if Hitchens proposed a genocide directed against the Jews? Would they still be happy to have him on their platform? If not, why not?

      • Who gets to be ‘left’ these days? Only the handful of Overland writers and everyone else is excommunicated, labelled a neo-con as the most expedient way to maintain ideological purity? News flash: racism, xenophobia, sexism etc straddle the political spectrum. The left in Australia has a particularly long history with racism. Learn to embrace the fact that people’s opinions on various subjects don’t always fit in neat boxes.

        • Isn’t it healthy to debate what being left-wing means? I mean, it’s not as though one is born left-wing and there they remain for the rest of their days.

          Political climates shift, so do people. That’s why we need the debates and the examination. And frankly, ‘a particularly long history with racism’ should give us even more incentive to fight against it in its current, ugly guises.

      • Jeff,

        I must say that was mighty poor journalism investigating no further than the review from PZ before vilifying Christopher Hitchens. The primary source is so readily available – I found it in about 10 seconds.

        I suggest you watch the actual address at the URL below.If you want to watch his attack on Islam, go to part 4/7 and start around half way.


        Hitchens was advocating war on al’qaeda, insurgents and the theocrats, NOT Muslims in general, and certainly NOT civilians or nationals who are opposed to the tyrants.

        Proposing genocide as an answer to anything WOULD BE INSANE. So is considering innocuous the theocracy of Iran’s engagement in a nuclear program, while they refuse generous offers from the UN in exchange for an opportunity to inspect the nuclear facilities. Hitchens clearly highlighted the second case of insanity without proposing genocide as the remedy. For goodness sake man, do your homework before you make further wild accusations.

        • I’m quoting Myers, the person I’m debating. He’s the one who says that what Hitchens advocated at that event amounted to genocide. Yet that didn’t stop him or his supporters objecting vehemently to any suggestion that there was anything problematic about having Hitchens on the atheist platform.

          • Jeff,

            I accept your point, and appreciate your reply. But could the case not be that PZ wrote that because of a misinterpretation? It really seems to be the case.

            Assuming that is a misinterpretation though, it is beside the point and your arguement still stands. What you are picking at seems to be the question “Would PZ Myers denounce Hitchens (or other proponents of the atheist movement) should they be advocates of genocide?” I think you will hear a resounding yes from that. It seems he tried to do that in the article four years ago so tentatively as you have criticised, because any case was without a leg to stand on. As it happened, PZ was criticised for going overboard with the genocide comment. Since the opportunity to confront somebody for encouraging genocide has never really presented itself, it appears that any arguement you could make on this doesn’t really have a leg to stand on either.

            It would be very interesting to hear what PZ has to say on the matter of the article.

            Something else you missed in the article – the CONCERN that Sam Harris expressed regarding that fascists are perhaps the only people who identify that there is a threat. The way you present this, it comes off as if he were advocating an alliance.

    • From PZ Myers’s latest response:

      ‘if we accept his claim that Harris and Hitchens are right-wingers (which I do not)’ … ‘these inspiring educators and rhetoricians and idea generators’ … ‘radical capitalism as their religion’ [and so on]

      So, in summary:
      1. Radical Capitalism can be a religion but not New Atheism
      2. Everyone can find a home with the New Atheists, including anti-Semites, Islamophobes, etc
      3. Genocide is completely compatible with New Atheism

      • “Genocide is completely compatible with New Atheism.”

        [Citation needed.]

        • Well put. I really do not thing Jacinda could have examined this more selectively.

  36. First, a point and pet-peeve for some of us which as nothing to do with atheism….

    It’s actually amazing that people nowadays would keep quote-mining (even giving the link) without actually giving the actual sentence. Dawkins didn’t claim that ‘Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today’, he said ‘I think it is well arguable that Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today’.

    From what I can understand of your position, you don’t actually believe in racism per se as you don’t see how one could define race so you declare that islamophobia is a form of racism, racism is an attribute mostly predominent in the right-wing sphere of political opinions, ergo anyone who says anything against islam has to be a right-wing supporter…

    I think this is missing the mark on the most basic level. Atheists, by definition, are religio-phobe.

    We .. do .. not .. like .. religions.

    To quote you,
    “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.”

    There’s not much reason for any atheist, left or right, to identify Islamophobia as a problem, as long as atheist are not only Islamophobic, but also Christianophobic, Zeusphobic, and so on.

    You engage in word substitutions… To quote you:
    “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”

    Islamophobia is NOT anti-muslim racist. If you want to qualify that as some kind of racism, please be honest enough to call it anti-islamist racism.

    I don’t think any of those people you cited ever said that removing the religion would magically solve all problem. The main thrust of most atheist arguments revolving around religion and theism is about the mind-set implied by blind, unquestioning belief to some higher authority. Religion is just one of the symptom. Not many of us, and certainly not P.Z. Myers, would have any sympathy for a so called atheist who would point to ‘The God Delusion’ or to ‘The Moral Landscape’ as a definitive word on what ALL atheist should believe.

    You apparently presume and assume that atheists need ‘leaders’ and people to represent them so that … what?

    We, like pretty much anyone else, tend to make reference to texts written by people with whom we agree and which were, in most case, more eloquent and/or more accurate in describing positions close to those we hold. And if we disagree with part of what they are saying we usually do not hesitate to say it.

    Finally, your attempt to qualify S. Harris as a fascist, again through partial quote-mining, is, to say the least, pitiful. The article you point to, from which you extract that particular sentence, would point to the exact opposite.

    Agreeing with one particular point, or one particular discourse, of a given ideology does NOT imply that you agree and support everything that particular ideology supports. I happen to actually agree with some part of what you were saying in your new Matilda article. I would even go as far as quote you or declare that, in that particular instance, you were “the one who spoke most sensibly about” whatever I was agreeing with. It does certainly not mean that I agree with all your views.

    • Fred,
      Have a look at my comment at 8.15. It’s a quote from Myers, about a Hitchens presentation that Myers describes as ‘insane’ and genocidal.
      Is there not a teensy problem with a movement that accords such a prominent place (top billed speaker in Melbourne) to someone given to advocating genocide? As I asked before, if Hitchens had advocated genocide against the Jews, would he still be on the platform? What makes genocide against Muslims any more acceptable?
      Does that not, in and of itself, speak to the need for Left wing atheists to actively oppose the Right wingers? I mean, expecting self-declared progressives to take a stand against people who argue for genocide — Myers description, not mine — is not exactly setting the bar very high, is it! In what other contexts would self-declared Left wingers agree to speak at events alongside people they know to be advocates of racial genocide?
      Sorry, but I am really lost for words. I knew things were bad but I didn’t realise they were this bad.

      • “What makes genocide against Muslims any more acceptable?”

        Nothing, which is why as you can see from the post you quoted, we don’t accept it. I’ve personally seen atheists line up to aggressively question, argue with, and even berate Hitchens. I’ve been to an atheist conference where I saw someone stand up and start yelling at Alan Dershowitz because he advocated similar views. You seem to have the idea that if we’re willing to listen to Hitchens, it must be because we agree with everything he says, which is just bizarre.

        Personally, I read Hitchens’ books because he’s intelligent, eloquent, extremely well-traveled, and absolutely fearless, and it’s valuable to have someone who says the things that no one else is willing to (as with his scathing, and entirely accurate, attack on Mother Teresa). Even when I disagree with him, as I often do – even when I think his views are outright crazy, as they sometimes are – I still find him interesting, thought-provoking, and worthy of at least being taken seriously.

        Your attitude seems to be that if we disagree with someone’s views, the only acceptable response is to anathematize and exile them. Well, atheists don’t all agree on politics, but here’s one generalization that you can rely on: we don’t feel the same way. We’d much rather debate, argue, have it out in public; we’re known for that. We don’t have an instinctive desire to shut out opinions that differ from our own, which is something, Jeff, that I don’t think I can say for you.

      • Here is a perhaps more relevant quote from the same Blog post. It looks like another way of saying what I (and Adam Lee) were saying. You don’t ostracize all of someone works because you happen to disagree with one part of it, and you actually cherish opportunities to expound on the reasons you disagree.
        “Later that evening, someone in the FFRF was handing out an open letter to the freethought community, one that protested the inclusion of Hitchens and opposing any future speakers of his sort. I sympathized with the sentiment (and if the writer wants to send me an electronic copy, I’ll post it here), but I think it was useful to have Hitchens stand up there and tell us what he thinks — and there was absolutely no reticence in his comments, which I admire. But while I agree with his goal of working towards a rational, secular world, a triumph of enlightenment values, I disagree entirely with his proposed strategy, which seems to involve putting a bullet through every god-haunted brain. To have a clearly stated position to which we can respond with clearly stated opposition is actually a kind of gift.”

  37. Once again, if I agree with 90% of someone’s position, disagree with 10% and make that disagreement clear and well argumented, I would have no problem whatsoever going to a conference with that particular someone being one of the ‘top-billed’ speaker.

    I think, the main trouble is that you want things to be either entirely black or entirely white. It ain’t gonna happen. If you want people taking a stand, well.. P.Z. did. If you want the same people to NOT allow someone to speak because they happen to disagree with them, even on such a point as advocating genocide, you are actually making the problem much worse. If these issues are not discussed, they cannot be argued against (or for), and you put yourself in the position of being the one to determine what is allowed to be talked about and discussed. That, in my book, is anything but progressive thinking.

    And all that is assuming that Hitch will actually use his Melbourne address to keep on advocating genocide (unless you either think people cannot change their mind/conviction, or you think that once someone has a ‘bad idea’, all his other ideas are worthless).

    • The problem is that in the real world, as opposed to a rarefied world of free-flowing intellectual debate, Hitchens’ ideas connect with real and powerful social forces far more destructive than all of Islam’s influence put together. Hitchens has for a decade been a mouthpiece for the barbaric-in-practice policies of US foreign policy, making arguments like the one about genocide in order to ideologically legitimise non-genocidal but nonetheless staggering crimes.

      Those crimes rely on a whole series of irrational dogmas, almost all secular in their construction, to create a veneer of respectability for their perpetrators. One of the lines of argument is a systematic dehumanisation of people in Muslim-majority countries for their ideological backwardness and reactionary beliefs.

      The New Atheist movement, despite the very different beliefs its members have on other political issues, can only be held together on the basis of being relatively uncritical of how militant denunciations of Islam (and other religions) feed into real-world barbarity, precisely because it incorrectly locates the main problem for human social practice in the incorrect (religious) ideas some hold.

      By putting the key dividing line there (and that is what characterises this movement from simple atheism), it has to ignore the uncomfortable truth that the greatest man-made evils in the world today are depressingly secular.

      • Let see…

        1/ If you intend to just give us your opinion about those dogmas based on secular construction, I can feel free to assert that all those crimes were actually based on religious ideals I guessa as not presenting a shred of evidence seems acceptable.

        2/ The new atheist movement is held together (if such a thing is actually needed) by one simple idea: religions (whatever they are) do not get a free pass when it comes to argumentation. The free pass in question is, most of the time, a word/scripture/writing/edict purported to come from some divine source. What most of the “most pro-eminent writers” from the New Atheism have in common is mainly that, if you argue a point, bring valid references. They do so from different perspective (philosophy, biology, physiology), never assert that they cannot be wrong (and actually, all four of them give ways to prove them wrong), and, based on those premises, draw some conclusion about the state of today’s world.

        As for the “greatest man-made” evils in the world begin secular… It would help to know how you actually order them from lesser evils to greater evils and which one you include in that list, clearly continual abuse of children by the catholic church is not one, neither is on-going genital mutilation, male and female, on purely religious ground, neither is the continual debasement of women on religious ground in all of abrahamic-based religion. Clearly their are other religious and non-religious ‘evils’ happening, this is, alas, not an exhaustive list, but I am surprised that you would not include them.

        Unless you are arguing the secular roots of all those evils in the literal sense, in which case I, and ALL new atheists, will entirely, 100% agree with you: No God was actively implicated in doing those deeds, only humans deluded by other humans.

        • Er, I listed the main evil: US imperialism. Its main justification is America’s “national interest”, a very secular construction.

  38. In this climate of Islamaphobia, Muslims are expected at every opportunity to condemn those who preach hate and intolerance within Islam, and to distance themselves from Muslims who commit acts of violence. I imagine it must be exhausting to always be on the defensive. The progressive Christians I know also speak out against hate and intolerance preached by fundamentalist Christians.

    Why is it so difficult for PZ Meyers and other Atheists to condemn Christopher Hitchens and other Atheist demi-gods who spread messages of hate and intolerance? I thought Atheism was about the individual and wasn’t supposed to have leaders . Why are these bigots beyond reproach if they are not the spokespeople for the movement?

    I’m baffled at the offence taken and the level of defensiveness in comments on Jeff Sparrow’s articles (by people who clearly haven’t read the full articles). The time spent on taking it personally (when he clearly isn’t making a generalisation about ALL Atheists) could be better spent spreading messages of education, love, peace, tolerance and understanding. Why is it so hard to stand up and say, “I am an Atheist and I am not a bigot or a racist and I condemn the views of Christopher Hitchens et. al.”?

    The Global Atheist Convention and Think Inc might be great opportunities to network with other Atheists, but I cannot understand how any “Left” or “progressive” Atheist could be comfortable with the speaker lineup. I would never pay for tickets or turn up to an event (unless it was to picket it), where the speaker lineup is filled with bigots, Islamaphobes, racists and advocates of genocide. Buying a ticket and showing up to these events is silent approval.

    • When you say that Jeff is not making generalization about ALL Atheist, I can agree. But he is definitively (and in my reading of what you just wrote, so are you) making generalization about ALL New Atheists, so yeah.. any of us feeling comfortable with being called that will take it personally.

      P.Z. Myers said that he found Hitchens view on Taliban genocide “insane”. I’d call that a fairly strong condemnation and I’m not sure what more you would want from him ? To condemn ALL of what Hitch said, says and will ever say ?

      There is a BIG difference between intolerance and hate, and there I think you are working under some false assumptions. We gnus are not, and we never said we were, tolerant of everything. It’s actually one of the most common thread that we are arguing that we should STOP tolerating certain idiocies. One of the our main point is that it IS dangerous to not handle issue decided on religious ground with the same tools and arguments as those decided on other grounds. That’s were we ‘wage war’ (in the argumentative sense) against both apologists and accomodationists.

      So if you want to call us bigots, Islamophobes and racists on those grounds feel free. If you want to keep hyperboles of “speaker lineup filled with advocateS of genocide” when I can only find one which could be so called…

  39. The notion of writing about the left & right & the new atheism seems to be premised on atheism being or aspiring to be a political movement with leaders, dogmas, talking points, and a correct line.

    Atheism is not a political movement. It is a loose term used to denote the absence of belief in a theistic god.

    Atheists probably tend to be non-conservative because they don’t like religion & religion is conservative.

    But many are radical libertarians, believing in free ideas and free markets, some are apostles of Ayn Rand seeing her as the great prophet of capitalism, and a few are religious, believing in something like Spinoza’s god, or nature, or in a Westernised form of Buddhism.

    Of course many atheists are and have been progressive in the special sense Sparrow gives to that term. And in the past some progressive atheists have politicised atheism with pretty dire results. Here’s an interesting tale about “The League of the Militant Godless”: http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/roundtable/riding-the-godless-express.php

    Jeff Sparrow comes close to portraying Hitchens as up there with Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot as someone you would not want to share a speakers platform with. Be that as it may, my sense is that those atheists who admire Hitchens do so for his atheism, not for his politics. I see Jeff Sparrow’s conflation of Hitchen’s politics and atheism under so-called new atheism as a step too far, as rhetoric rather than argument.

    I sense a disappointed sense of entitlement in the piece, disappointment that the left no longer owns atheism. Atheism, so to speak, has become a broad church.

    Something about this discussion reminds me of the joke about the Irishman who asked an atheist: “Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

    • I sense a disappointed sense of entitlement in the piece, disappointment that the left no longer owns atheism. Atheism, so to speak, has become a broad church.

      I think you’ve hit jackpot with that one. It used to be:
      “Atheism is not a religion.”. It now will have to become:
      “Atheism is not a religion, nor is it a political movement.”

      Let’s see what’s the third will be.

  40. Oh how I hate these born again atheists who excuse their shrill outbursts by wearing Modernism as an arm ban. I’ve coexisted with god believers comfortably for years, despite their wafers and kneeling…and some of my best friends are theists.

    • You’ve co-existed peacefully with a few catholics, and thus all religious people are peaceful, and should be above criticism?

      Nice story.

      • All religious people are not peaceful — nor are all left people or all right people and criticism is warranted. But that’s very different from engineering a shibboleth — Atheism — as the sine qua non of political sophistication. It is similarly absurd to caricature the 1.5 billion Moslems on the planet as genetically aligned to al-Qaeda. A certain amount of spin is required to popularize that. And to that end the Atheists who bang on about Islam serve a reactionary master. TariqAli had it in one when he described the present wars as the Clash of Fundamentalisms. But then there has been politicalised Islams which are very different from one another. There is the Islamism of Malcolm X and the Islamism of Sarekat Islam which had a significant role in the formation of the PKI — Indonesian Communist Party. And even the political Islams of the Arab world vary from one another . The fact is that co-existence with a few Moslems and a few Catholics, Jews and Protestants has been the norm before it was useful to argue otherwise. And fostering pogroms, expulsions and phobias have always had a use value to those who have a stake in the exercise. Even Catholic Latin America has a great penchant for social change as did Russian Orthodox Czarist Russia or Buddhist Vietnam.Even a very Christian England bought in the first modern republic in 1640 as did Catholic France in 1789. The Ancient Greeks had their religious beliefs despite the invention of logic and great scientists like Newton, Darwin et al were determined god believers.

  41. “Be that as it may, my sense is that those atheists who admire Hitchens do so for his atheism, not for his politics.”

    Well, that’s exactly the point. Is it legitimate to say “well I find his politics and his bigotry repugnant, but he’s a famous atheist, so, yay!” legitimate for say Hitchens, but not Mao? As an atheist I’m horrified at anyone who puts forward the position that atheism *necessarily requires* you to support war and genocide, but that’s exactly the position Hitchens is adopting. How am I meant to admire him “as an atheist” any more than I would admire an atheist who claimed that atheism necessitated Stalinism? Either you accept Hitchens’ arguments that good atheists should support war and genocide or you don’t; if you don’t, what exactly do you get out of supporting Hitchens’ atheism?

    • Its a point if not exactly the point.

      Hitchens does not own atheism any more than Stalin did. There is no need for you or any one else to admire either man.

      Some people live within a Manichean world view where the great battle between good and evil must be fought. Sometimes Hitchens does sound like he sees the world this way. Sometimes so-called progressive people also sound as if they see the world this way.

      But if we are talking about ideas, rather than persons, we should consider their arguments, not just their public image as heroes or villains in a great ideological game.

    • - Is it legitimate to say “well I find his politics and his bigotry repugnant, but he’s a famous atheist, so, yay!” legitimate for say Hitchens, but not Mao? –


      But it is legitimate to say “I find his politics repugnant but some of his other ideas interesting”.

      It also is legitimate to say “I agree with his premise even though I strongly disagree with the conclusions he draws from them”.

      It is even more legitimate to say “I disagree with him because, when he says ….” which you would not be able to do if he was banned from speaking.

      – Either you accept Hitchens’ arguments that good atheists should support war and genocide or you don’t; if you don’t, what exactly do you get out of supporting Hitchens’ atheism? –

      You could support the reasons why Hitchens think atheist is a ‘good thing to be’, without agreeing about what being atheist implies. There is no such thing as Hitchens’ atheism (or Harris’ atheism or …). There are however several well-published authors, with varying, different and sometimes even opposite point of views. And those are the ones invited to speak because usually one will go and listen to people know and/or heard about more than listen to complete unknowns.

      Once again, apparently the point needs to be made, there is NO such thing as a new Atheist directorate, no leaders, no demi-god, no guru. We all are way too anti-parochial to even contemplate such things.

      So if you’re horrified by things that Hitchens says, well, you are not alone. You could just say so (and say why, it’s even better) but do not throw everyone who find that Hitchens can sometimes be right or relevant under the same bus.

      • Once again, let me ask, would that still be your position if he’d been on record advocating genocide against the Jews? You’d still be happy for him to headline your conference? You still wouldn’t see any problem with a hoard of people appearing on the thread to say that there was no problem with his racial attitudes, that, in fact, they agreed with everything he said?
        You wouldn’t think that a willingness to accept such a figure suggested something problematic was happening within the movement?
        So why is it different if he advocates genocide against Muslims rather than Jews?

        • You still wouldn’t see any problem with a hoard of people appearing on the thread to say that there was no problem with his racial attitudes, that, in fact, they agreed with everything he said? You wouldn’t think that a willingness to accept such a figure suggested something problematic was happening within the movement?

          That is what I have a problem with. I don’t see a horde of people appearing saying they agree with all he says. I actually don’t see a more than one, and only by implication (Hamilton June 15 2011 at 2:22 am).

          What I see is you, keeping talking about “accepting him”, about something happening “within the movement”. There is no ‘accepting him’. There is having respect for some of his ideas, revulsion for some, and indifference for some others. And if he was advocating genocide against the Jews based on the same premises, with the same reasoning , I would have the same attitude: premises are ok, can’t stand the conclusion. If he came with ‘genocide is the only solution to white american fundamentalism’, it would be the same.

          If I disagreed with ALL of what he said, perhaps I could make a (weak) case for not inviting him. But please, realize that marginalizing him or making him a martyr is the exact opposite of what anyone would want. As someone earlier said, education is one of the key to solve some of these issues and you do not educate people without presenting both sides of the arguments.

          • Let me get this straight, then.
            On the one hand, there’s his thoughts on religion. On the other, there’s his desire to commit racial genocide.
            These pretty much balance each other out, and make him an acceptable keynote speaker for your conference. After all, if you didn’t invite him, he’d be a martyr. Therefore you need to put him on a stage before thousands of people, so he can have a platform to preach the need for new genocidal wars.
            Wow. Just wow.

          • No. I’ve never said they balance each other out. What I don’t want to say either is that he HAS TO BE wrong. I’m perfectly willing to say that I think he is (utterly) wrong. I’m more than happy to say why I don’t think that his thoughts on religion, which are similar to mine, do not, for me imply any genocide (premises ok, conclusion bad). To not invite him would not make a martyr of him (you need more than that for martyrdom). It would certainly fan anyone theory that if he’s not allowed to speak, those who disallow it have ‘something to hide’. And as far as preaching the need for new genocidal wars…

            Let me put it this way, even if it’s somewhat caricatural:
            1/ I strongly disagree with the view about genocide being the ‘right solution’ (regarding the following point(s)).
            2/ I strongly agree with the view that Islam, as understood by some of its proponent, is detrimental to human well-being.
            3/ I would say the exact same thing about christianity as about islam.
            4/ I do not know that I am right. I am willing to entertain opposite point of view to any of the 3 points above.

            And, personally, I’m not afraid of anyone preaching at Atheists conferences… We are known to not react too much to that form of discourse.

          • You are willing to entertain opposite points of view about racial genocide being the ‘right solution’? You don’t think genocide is a good idea — but you’re open to being convinced!
            Again, wow. I mean, really, I am almost at a loss for words. This is a level of moral degradation that one rarely encounters.

          • Well, sorry to disappoint but I have no magic handle on any universal truth as apparently you have. I am open to being convinced about any darn thing, including creationism and God existence as long as it is actually … convincing ? So yeah. I don’t think genocide is a good idea, I don’t think God exist. I AM open to someone proving me wrong (to paraphrase MY personal God (this is sarcasm), I cannot imagine what such an argument would be like. I cannot even imagine any circumstances which would make me change my mind on that subject, but I will not reject the possibility that I am wrong).

            And, permit me to reverse the position. You and Jacinda at least are preaching tolerance ? But you would not tolerate a speech by someone you happen to strongly disagree with ? We clearly have not the same understanding about what tolerance means.

            If you are going to deal in absolutes (genocide bad, left good, imperialism bad, etc…) allow everyone to have their freedom of speech ? To actually expose WHY they think the way they do ? If only, just re-quoting P.Z. (talking about that particular point of Hitchens):

            To have a clearly stated position to which we can respond with clearly stated opposition is actually a kind of gift.

            Not knowing WHY someone you disagree with thinks his way close the door to being able to change his point of view or the point of view of people ‘on the fence’. If you think that whatever you are thinking is 100% morally evident, does not require exposition and will, just by being enounced, blow away the opposition, you are, from where I sit, guilty of the same blindness as most religious/theist people. Someone/something gave you the absolute truth.

            Finally, might I point out that your argument that

            I’m quoting Myers, the person I’m debating. He’s the one who says that what Hitchens advocated at that event amounted to genocide.

            is ground enough for anyone to call for Hitchens banning of Atheist conference seems a bit… fast. As DRMJ pointed out, the original source is fairly easy to find and THIS should be the basis of anyone’s decision to invite or forbid attendance. That you are willing to do so on the say-so of someone else (P.Z. Myers), more so, of someone you apparently do not highly regard, seems, to say the least, weird and inconsistent.

          • With the greatest of respect, that is an idiocy of an almost chemically pure variety.
            Someone who does not have an absolute moral objection to genocide either doesn’t understand what ethics mean or is a moral cripple. Aside from anything else, yours is a position that makes you incapable of political action of any kind. Which, now that I think about it, is quite possibly for the best.

          • Jeff Sparrow!

            Hitchens does not advocate genocide. The article by PZ was quite the misinterpretation. I post this message here again so that you cannot miss it.

            I must say that was mighty poor journalism investigating no further than the review from PZ before vilifying Christopher Hitchens. The primary source is so readily available – I found it in about 10 seconds.

            I suggest you watch the actual address at the URL below.If you want to watch his attack on Islam, go to part 4/7 and start around half way.


            Hitchens was advocating war on al’qaeda, insurgents and the theocrats, NOT Muslims in general, and certainly NOT civilians or nationals who are opposed to the tyrants.

            Proposing genocide as an answer to anything WOULD BE INSANE. So is considering innocuous the theocracy of Iran’s engagement in a nuclear program, while they refuse generous offers from the UN in exchange for an opportunity to inspect the nuclear facilities. Hitchens clearly highlighted the second case of insanity without proposing genocide as the remedy. For goodness sake man, do your homework before you make wild accusations.

            I will be impressed if find any encouragement of genocide in ANY of Hitchens’s debates – I will be much more impressed if you can establish a case that he advocates this. This is not a position that he has held or advocated. If you want to critisise Hitchens as broadly as you have, do your homework and watch his debates. They’re all on youtube and mostly very entertaining.

            This article in response to PZ Myers could not have been better than your initial article by a smaller margin. I would say let’s continue this trend and raise the bar a lot more but there is no way for you to continue in this debate without recanting due to the lack of evidence in your arguement.

  42. Christopher Hitchens has about as much impact on US foreign policy as Jean-Paul Sartre’s fellow-travelling accounted for the popularity of French Communism. Zero. Culture wars have very little impact on real world politics.But lets have an argument about what we think other people think about what other people think. Meanwhile anti-discrimination legislation is being wound back in Vic under the direct influence of the religious right.

  43. Healthy debate is based on respecting differences in opinion. Rational debate is not owned by any political viewpoint or any ideological stance. Call Hitch on his shit but it is far more interesting to do so without denying his affiliation with many left-leaning priniciples. And it seems spurious to paint all atheists with a single brush. Besides, I don’t know how seriously I can take any debate that is organised around a Wired Magazines trend piece which is where this silly ‘new Atheism’ label came from. It’s also hilarious calling a bunch of well-known 70-something atheists the ‘new’ anything. But hey, it helps sell books.

  44. “We gnus are not, and we never said we were, tolerant of everything. It’s actually one of the most common thread that we are arguing that we should STOP tolerating certain idiocies.”

    So why don’t we work with that definition. The difference between an atheist and a “New Atheist” is tolerance: New Atheists are not just nonbelievers, they are actively INtolerant of any religion and religious philosophy, and therefore any practical, real-world application of that religious philosophy to public life.

    So yeah, I reckon we can call New Atheism a political movement with real-life political goals: primary political goal being the eradication of religion from public life. As I see it, it’s a movement organised enough in Australia to even have a party: http://www.secular.org.au/ Their mission statement being, right there on the front page, to “fight for the separation of religion from state institutions, impartiality between religions and the protection of human rights from violation on the basis of religious doctrine.”

    So if, as a political movement, New Atheists do not advocate Islamophobia – from the casual demonisation, marginalisation and abuse of Islamic people in the real-life contemporary Western world (and anyone who appears to be Islamic… you know, looking like they might be Islamic… wait, what does an Islamic person look like? Oh you know, wears a veil, probably has dark skin and comes from somewhere in the Middle East… no, that’s not racism, of course not) right up to the calls for genocide from high profile New Atheists who, and this is the crucial point, use atheism as a *justification* for those politics – then they should call them out.

    Because surely even New Atheists can agree that even if people are “idiots”, as so many people in this thread and elsewhere keep accusing theists of being, that is no excuse for the violation of their human rights.

    • So why don’t we work with that definition. The difference between an atheist and a “New Atheist” is tolerance: New Atheists are not just nonbelievers, they are actively INtolerant of any religion and religious philosophy, and therefore any practical, real-world application of that religious philosophy to public life.

      That would be your definition. Mine would looks more like: We are actively INtolerant of using theist justifications as arguments. I think that would be the main thing which kinda/sorta unite us. And that is just my opinion. Ask someone else, you will get another one.

      So yeah, I reckon we can call New Atheism a political movement with real-life political goals.

      You can call what you want with any name you choose, that doesn’t make it so. If you have an issue with the political mission of Australian secular party, it’s with them you should take it. I don’t see Hitchens, Harris, Denett, Dawkins, Myers in any list of candidates for any election. What I see them doing is exposing their views, and their reasons to hold such views so people can make their own ideas. New Atheists do not advocate islamophobia, even if some do. New Atheists do not advocate genocide, even if some do. New Atheists do not advocate bowing down to our sephalopod overlord, even if P.Z. does…

      In other words, someone (Wired from what I can remember) decided to attribute a ‘label’ to an amorphous collection of people who happened to share a subset of ideas. The label stuck, but it isn’t more than a label. If you want political activism, ask a Political party. And as far as the Secular Autralian party is concerned, I haven’t seen anything there referencing Hitchens (or any others covered by the New Atheist label):

      The Secular Party claims as its heritage the philosophy of the Enlightenment, in particular the works of David Hume, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham.

      That is first line of the Philosophy page for that party.

      … the calls for genocide from high profile New Atheists who, and this is the crucial point, use atheism as a *justification* for those politics – then they should call them out.

      And those who disagreed with that particular world-view did indeed call Hitchens out on it. Even Jeff sparrow acknowledged that. What a lot of us will not willingly do is mount an autodafé of Hitchens work because we happen to disagree about some of it.

    • You are a bit confused Stephanie

      Secularism, Humanism, & Rationalism are rather venerable ideas that well and truly predate so-called new atheism and the writings of the dreaded Hitchens.

      Secularism as a word was invented in the mid-1800s but as an idea about separating religion and state and respecting individuals it goes back to ancient times. It has a long positive connection with politics, particularly in relation to the state provision of education.

      The mission statement you quote echoes sentiments that were around in the 18th century, some of which even found their way into the US declaration of independence and constitution.

      Its a long stretch indeed to paint secularism and humanism as Islamophobic or even as closely linked to so-called new atheism. Some of the noisier so-called new atheists see secular and humanist ideals about tolerance as accommodationist, as too soft on religion.

      You may be aware that there are tensions between atheists about “tone”, essentially about tolerance and language and whether or not confrontation works better than softer dialogue. Many atheists hold that using abusive language about believers is counterproductive. Going by the posts here, they have a point. We seem to be discussing caricatures rather than ideas.

  45. So why is it racist to criticize Islam, but not racist to criticize Christianity, when Islam is basically just a regurgitation of the same Christian fiction?

    • Firstly, nobody’s saying “it’s not racist to criticise Christianity”. I’m sure there are certain circumstances where it could be – in fact, Jeff cites a good example, when a popular prejudice up until c. the middle of the C20th was against the Irish with their benighted Catholicism, their loyalty to papacy above country, etc. etc. Prejudice and (if you like) racism against Irish people was justified on religious grounds (“Catholicism is a barbaric, primitive religion”).

      That was racism because, as Jeff also points out in his piece, ‘race’ is itself a racist category. In the US and in Australia in the 19th century, Irish Catholics were considered to be outside of the ruling elite by virtue of their Irishness/Catholicism. They faced a great deal of the same institutional barriers that black people did – witness the New York draft riots during the US Civil War where Irish people beat up on black people in competition for the lowest spot on the table.

      Given that “race” is a category that is developed and used by racists, and it’s generally accepted that anti-Semitism is in fact racial prejudice even though there’s no such thing as a “Jewish Race”, when we see criticisms of a group in society which, convieniently enough, occupies a low-status position in the West, with its members demonised and castigated for being part of “barbaric” and “primitive” civilisation, we can start to think that racial prejudice and lazy stereotyping are at work once again. And – here’s the beauty of it – we can call out racism and prejudice without ever having to accept that believing in gods is a sensible idea.

  46. “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.”

    This is important – it underlies Jeff’s whole argument about the uncomfortable dance that atheism can sometimes take with racism. As Jeff points out, one of the earliest documented forms of racism in Europe was against the Irish. Why? Because they were Catholic, i.e. “ignorant barbarians”. We see the same arrogance and racism today being directed against Muslims from some (not all) flag-bearers for a resurgent atheism.

    It is this underlying arrogance, and the assumption that atheists are right and religious believers wrong, that really bothers me. I do not believe in a theistic God, but I was raised in a religious family – Catholic – and I cannot bring myself to disdain my own family for their sincere faith. Organised religion has been the cause of great violence and pain in the world, but for my part I think it is important to maintain a distinction between organised religion and personal faith. Church hierarchies wield great power and wealth, and not for the common benefit of humanity. But opposing such abuses of power does not have to entail heaping scorn upon those who believe in God, simply because they believe.

    Sometimes I think it would be more instructive and more honest for the radical left (of which I count myself a member) to take a look at how radical political beliefs can mirror, in their teleology, religious faith itself. There is a fascinating history of religious dissent and radicalism – religious communism, even – that is historically tangled up with radical politics and action. The two cannot be so easily separated from each other, which is partly why the drumbeat of atheist ‘rationalism’ holds so little appeal for me, personally… the belief that the world can be changed – either through religion or politics – surely requires a dash of irrationality, of romanticism, of belief without proof…

    I’m sorry if this strays somewhat off-topic.

    • Speaking for myself, and myself only, I would not qualify religious people in block as ‘ignorant barbarians’, even though I certainly would be tempted to qualify fundamentalists in such a way. Rationalism is not so much about knowledge as it is about method (as far as ignorant goes anyway). How you approach a problem, a question, an argument is for me as important as the conclusions you will draw. And the Atheism/Theism schism is about the method, the approach. We like proofs, or at least data tending to prove something. We dislike (to say the least) arguments of authority. We will trust some people without actually re-doing their work because we know/trust/believe that we actually could do it and/or that some other people did it already. In other words, any hypothesis is worth considering IF it is presented with a method which can prove it wrong.

      It is this underlying arrogance, and the assumption that atheists are right and religious believers wrong, that really bothers me.

      We all tend to believe that WE are right and THEY are wrong, whomever happens to be covered by THEY. I don’t think it’s arrogance per se. What is arrogance in my book is refusing any discussion about the reasons which led you to your own world views. As an atheist, raised in a catholic family also, I have had to change my views at least once. But whatever my friends/neighbors/coworkers believe, I have no issue with it.

      When any religion starts to intrude into everyday life, shaping the way people act and react to others, I start having issues.

  47. Look, this has clearly devolved into uninformed name-calling. I suggest that the commenters (you know who you are) actually read those who label themselves the ‘New Atheists’.

    The comment thread is now closed.

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