Most mornings, the first thing I do is read my favourite website: Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, named for his book of the same name. It’s still the day before in Chicago, where Professor Jerry Coyne usually writes from. So, when I wake up a there are already a few articles ready to read. There’s always a wide range of interesting and thought-provoking, or just fun, articles on a wide range of subjects. In addition, the commenters (usually) engage in intelligent and considered debate. Yesterday morning one of Jerry’s articles was ‘Luke Savage’s vicious (and misleading) atheist bashing‘, about an article Savage wrote in Jacobin called ‘New Atheism, Old Empire‘. Jerry is especially good at showing up the arguments of those attacking atheists, and this post was no different.
There was, of course, a link to the story, and I was interested enough to read it. Jerry had warned people to read it “… only if you are of a phlegmatic nature”, which I thought I could probably manage. Well, I was wrong. I wasn’t able to comment on the article. My response would have been one that would probably have come back to haunt me. Jerry’s take down of Savage’s article is characteristically great, and I recommend you read it. It’s the next day, and I’m going to give it a go too.
I just don’t get why so many American theists are such virulently nasty gits when it comes to atheists. The truth is atheists are actually many of their best citizens. Not only that, many of them are the reason America is such a great country. This isn’t my atheist bias speaking – it’s statistical fact.
The Evidence: US Citizens Hate Atheists
First the evidence of antipathy towards atheists in the United States. Surveys show that their fellow citizens consider them immoral, untrustworthy and simply ‘not nice people’. The Pew Research Center asked Americans earlier this year to rate their feelings towards various groups on a “feelings thermometer”, ranging from 0 (cool) to 100 (warm). The lowest rating group was Muslims at forty degrees. Only one degree higher, at 41, was atheists. When those figures are broken down by political affiliation, we see Republicans have an even lower opinion of atheists than the average. Their figures for atheists and Muslims drop even further to 34 and 33 respectively. The figure for Democrats is still only 46 for atheists. The group Democrats rank lowest is Mormons (44). Democrats rank Muslims higher than atheists at 47.
Remember, this is against a backdrop where much of the world is currently under threat from multiple extremist Muslim groups. (e.g. DAESH, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Al Shabaab, and the Taliban.) Further, it’s only thirteen years since thousands of Americans were killed or injured because of a terrorist attack by extremist Muslims on home soil. It’s just over a year since more suffered in the Boston bombing. On top of that, many in the American military are dying or permanently suffering because of ongoing conflict with Muslim extremists.
Phil Zuckerman: ‘Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being’
Atheist terrorist groups not only do not exist, but statistics show atheists to be “… markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian”(Zuckerman, 2009) than the rest of the population.
This anti-atheist animus isn’t new in America. From Phil Zuckerman’s ‘Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions’:
But it isn’t just within the Bible or public opinion polls that one finds negative appraisal of secular people. Philosopher John D. Caputo (2001, 2-3) has written that people who don’t love God aren’t “worth a tinker’s damn,” and that anyone who isn’t theistically religious is nothing more than “selfish and pusillanimous curmudgeon … a loveless lout.” Psychologist Justin Barrett (2004) has described atheism as “unnatural” and an “oddity”, while sociologist Rodney Stark (2008) has publicly stated that irreligious people “are prickly … they’re just angry”. Finally, some state constitutions … actually ban unbelievers from holding public office, and in many courtrooms … divorced parents have had custody rights denied or limited because of their atheism.
The Ignorance of Luke Savage
From Savage, we get unbelievably ignorant rhetoric like:
New Atheism … is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.
It gets worse:
[New Atheism’s] leading exponents wear a variety of ideological garbs, but their espoused politics range from those of right-leaning liberals to proto-fascist demagogues of the European far-right.
For goodness sake, no. Just no. The religiously unaffiliated overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party. Since 2000, no more than 31% of atheists has ever voted Republican – in 2008 it was only 23%. It seems from the statistics in fact, that the more liberal the candidate, the more likely the religiously unaffiliated are to vote for him. Or, alternatively, the more militaristic the Republican candidate, the less likely they are to vote for him.
Typical Rhetoric Against Atheists: Attempt to Show Sam Harris is a Bigot
As always with those of my fellow liberals suffering from Islamophobia-phobia, Savage has a go at Sam Harris:
Indeed, Sam Harris’s much-discussed October appearance on ‘Real Time’ with Bill Maher — a crude spectacle in which he pigeonholed most Muslims as “jihadists,” “Islamists,” or “conservatives” — merely complements a lengthy record of Islamic demonology from him and other leading figures in the New Atheist movement.
Again, no. How you could get that from Harris’s appearance with Bill Maher is beyond me. The segment started with Maher stating:
All I’m saying is that Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles … like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities including homosexuals. These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say in the Muslim world this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.
Harris then made the point, quite calmly, that liberals have failed when it comes to theocracy in the Muslim world. They’re happy to criticize it in the West, but when it comes to criticizing theocracy in the Muslim world, they get upset. He continued:
We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of Islam is conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.
Harris tried to carry on with his point, but Ben Affleck was already into attack mode, constantly interrupting. Harris remained calm throughout.
The Evidence Regarding Muslim Attitudes
Harris’s point is one I completely agree with, and is the reason I have such a problem with those who attack any criticism of Islam as Islamophobia. Of course there are millions of good Muslims, and there are people who are Islamophobic, which I unreservedly condemn. However, the religion itself contains many teachings that are frankly appalling, especially when you add Sharia (Islamic law) into the mix. Islam is, as Harris now (in)famously put it, “… a mother-lode of bad ideas”. It’s also not accurate to say that the it’s only a tiny proportion of Muslims who hold what those of us lucky enough to live in free countries call extremist views.
From the 2013 Pew Research Center report The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, we get the fact that literally millions of Muslims believe that the penalty for leaving Islam should be death. In some countries, where Sharia law has been instituted, this actually occurs.
As mentioned above, Maher spoke of equality for women and homosexuals. So what do Muslims really think about these issues? From the Pew report, we have the evidence that most Muslims consider homosexuality immoral. As can be seen from the graphic, the results are unambiguous and shocking. I doubt you’d see such a strong anti-homosexual bias even in an American Southern Baptist Church, except maybe Westboro.
The statistics aren’t much better when it comes to equality for women. Overwhelmingly, the opinion is that women should ALWAYS obey their husbands. Good luck with getting equality in that environment.
By refusing to criticize Islam, the far-left is giving cover to these appalling attitudes, even while they continue to make the false criticism that atheism is giving cover to imperialism.
Savage Misrepresents Harris’ Book ‘End of Faith’
Savage tries to attack Harris with the following:
In The End of Faith, for example, he argues: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” Elsewhere, he writes: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.”
The statistics above, and you will find many more in the Pew report, show Harris is correct about Islam. Savage’s attempted criticism falls flat. For example, on page 52, and depending on the country, among those who think Sharia should be the law you will find between 28% and 88% favour capital punishment for theft. On page 54, again depending on country, between 21% and 89% think stoning to death should be the punishment for adultery if they favour Sharia law. Page 70 shows that among all Muslims between 1% and 40% (depending on country) think suicide bombing can often or sometimes be justified. On page 76, between 51% and 98% think drinking alcohol is morally wrong. Page 79: between 0% and 15% consider abortion morally acceptable. Page 80: between 0% and 26% consider pre-marital sex morally acceptable. I could, of course, go on; the report is 226 pages long.
Jerry Coyne on Luke Savage
This constant vilification of Sam Harris by misrepresenting him as anti-Muslim really has to stop. He’s become the American far left’s favourite whipping boy. I’m just going to quote Jerry Coyne here, because my opinion is so close to his I’d be in danger of plagiarism if I didn’t:
As for the imperialism and bloodthirstiness of New Atheists, you can get that only by extreme cherry-picking, as in the case of Sam’s musings about torture. Those were Gedankenexperiments, of course. And those “genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes”? Another philosophical thought experiment, as are most of the statements that Savage uses to paint Sam as a genocidal maniac.
Savage goes on to say:
Islamic fundamentalism — which no one, incidentally, believes to be a fiction — is insidious not because of its adherence to some ossified medieval tradition, but rather because of its eager and effective embrace of modernist dynamism.
“Modern dynamism”? WTF even is that? Seriously? Like much of the phraseology in the article, it’s used in an attempt to sound intellectually superior, and make some kind of excuse for the failure of much of Islam to allow criticism. When your response to a female child wanting an education is to shoot her in the head, I really don’t think “modernist dynamism” is what’s driving you.
Savage Attacks Richard Dawkins and Supports Mehdi Hassan!
He then starts on Dawkins, with more intellectual dishonesty and misrepresentation. He writes:
Richard Dawkins … [infers] that then-New Statesman columnist Mehdi Hassan is unqualified to be a journalist because he is also a Muslim.
That would be the same Mehdi Hassan who wrote that journalists should face sanctions if they write articles that criticize Islam. The fact that Hassan is a Muslim obviously informs this opinion. Personally, I consider it’s an opinion that does disqualify someone from being a journalist, although not, of course, a columnist. One of our most important freedoms is freedom of the press, and Hassan seems not to support that.
Savage goes on in the same vein for some time in a constant tirade that shifts from topic to topic. It’s the type of writing I find intellectually pretentious. It usually comes from a young zealot who is still forming his worldview. (I have no idea if this is a correct characterization of Savage himself.) He finishes with:
Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins may masquerade as intellectual insurgents, leading a crusade against the insipid tolerance of liberal politics. But ultimately they are apologists for some of its most destructive tendencies.
The Far Left is Not Liberal
I prefer Jerry’s closing:
It still mystifies me that the Left, which is supposed to embrace Enlightenment values, is so loath to criticize the faiths that continually try to dismantle those values.
Jerry is right, of course. I would add that in failing to criticize those faiths, the far left actually becomes an apologist for them. They are allowing the anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and intolerance of difference in Islam a free pass. While the American far left is busy attacking their most tolerant, educated, fair-minded citizens (atheists), the religious far-right both at home and abroad, are gaining traction.
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