Reza Aslan’s latest Salon article worries me. Not just because of the content – that’s the same as always and like Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True, I’m getting a bit tired of it. What worries me is that I’m starting to recognize his style. I haven’t actually read that much of his writing, but already I know not only how the arguments will proceed, but what the conclusions reached will be. I’m clearly reading too much of his work. There are other writers whose work I couldn’t recognize as easily, but I’d be far better off being familiar with.
It seems to me he started to write an article damning atheists, but recognizing that there are a few of us now who will pick up on any errors, decided to do a bit of research first. In doing so he found out that we’re not the evil creatures many religious seem to think we are, and he had the honesty to point it out:
Unfortunately, this historical [semantic] connection between lack of belief and lack of morals is one that still plagues atheism today, despite studies showing atheists to be, as a whole, less prejudiced, less willing to condone violence, and more tolerant of sexual, ethnic and cultural differences than many faith communities.
Once he’d recognized that atheists in general are good people, he had to find a way to get in his usual dig at Sam Harris, with a side-swipe at Richard Dawkins so it doesn’t look too much like he’s obsessed with Harris. Harris and Dawkins have been labelled “New” atheists. According to Aslan, “they give atheism a bad name”. He then does his best to find quotes from both men that show them in a bad light, or are at least likely to offend religious people. Instead of repeating Aslan’s quotes, I thought I’d introduce a couple of different ones:
Aslan seems now to be on some sort of crusade to turn atheists against Harris and Dawkins:
“… it should be perfectly obvious to all that these men do not speak for the majority of atheists. On the contrary, polls show that only a small fraction of atheists in the U.S. share such extreme opposition to religious faith.
In fact, not only is the New Atheism not representative of atheism. It isn’t even mere atheism (and it certainly is not “new”). What Harris, Dawkins and their ilk are preaching is a polemic that has been around since the 18th century – one properly termed, anti-theism.”
Well, duh! Aslan has committed one of the errors common among the religious when discussing atheism. He does it again here:
In the modern world, however, atheism has become more difficult to define for the simple reason that it comes in as many forms as theism does.
Well, no. There’s only one form of atheism. All atheism means is a lack of belief in gods. Atheists, of course, are people, and like all people, we’re complicated. Each of us is different and unique. No theist can be solely defined by the fact they are a theist, and no atheist can be defined by that one thing either. Most of us are anti-theist as well as atheist, and some aren’t. That doesn’t mean we have any plans to go around attacking theists. Aslan, however, characterizes the anti-theist stance as follows:
“… religion [is] an insidious force that must be rooted from society – forcibly if necessary.”
Neither Harris nor Dawkins has ever, as far as I’m aware, advocated violence. In fact, they have spoken out against it. To imply otherwise is inflammatory and irresponsible. To imply that any atheist is planning to force religion from society, especially when his research has shown him that atheists more likely than most to oppose violence, is a reflection of his own intellectual insecurity. Further, it’s reinforcing the negative stereotypes of atheists he’s just acknowledged don’t stack up.
The idea that atheism is an ideology is simply false. I asked the question, “Is atheism an ideology?” on Twitter a couple of days ago to see what other atheists thought. The response was quick and universal. Atheism is NOT an ideology. One even wanted to know what possessed me to ask such a stupid question, so I let everybody know about Aslan’s article in Salon. Below are some of the responses I received within about ten minutes: (Double-click to enlarge.)
Atheists have a wide range of ideologies, of which atheism is only a part. Statistically, there are positions on other matters that an atheist is more likely to hold, but those positions have nothing to do with being an atheist. However, the open-mindedness that often leads to atheism is consistent with the fact that atheists are more likely to be tolerant, non-violent, and accepting of difference. The problem seems to be that society seems to think religion has a special place when it comes to its tenets being questioned. Most people accept the right of others to disagree, but when that disagreement is over religion, the religious often have the opinion that disagreement is abuse. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (mainly via Pakistan) has been bringing resolutions to the United Nations to try and make defamation of religion a crime since 1999. Numerous non-binding resolutions have been passed by the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council), although they have resisted these calls as incompatible with the UNHRC International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Included in those countries that have neither signed nor ratified the Covenant are: Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Fiji, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Sudan, and the UAE. (North Korea tried to withdraw its signing/ratification, but there is no withdrawal provision.)
One of the sources Aslan linked to was Phil Zuckerman’s Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions. Its many findings include the following:
It is often assumed that someone who doesn’t believe in God doesn’t believe in anything, or that a person who has no religion must have no values. These assumptions are simply untrue. People can reject religion and still maintain strong beliefs. Being godless does not mean being without values. Numerous studies reveal that atheists and secular people most certainly maintain strong values, beliefs, and opinions. But more significantly, when we actually compare the values and beliefs of atheists and secular people to those of religious people, the former are markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian.
If religion, prayer, or God-belief hindered criminal behavior, and secularity or atheism fostered lawlessness, we would expect to find the most religious nations having the lowest murder rates and the least religious nations having the highest. But we find just the opposite. Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is deep and widespread. And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon. Furthermore, although there are some notable exceptions, rates of most violent crimes tend to be lower in the less religious states and higher in the most religious states. Finally, of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries, and of the eight cities within the United States that make the safest-city list, nearly all are located in the least religious regions of the country.
To me, it is an example of the irrational fear theists have of atheists, which comes from knowing deep down the atheists are right, and there is no god. Coming to the realization that there is no god is a very scary idea for many people, and I can understand why that would make them lash out. However, the constant attacks on atheists that they are wrong for questioning religion, rather than religion for being unable to answer, is very frustrating.
The only real difference I can see between “New” atheists and old atheists is that “New” atheists speak up and challenge religion. Religion is not used to being challenged and doesn’t like it. The many countries where punishments as heinous as death for blasphemy and apostasy are testament to that. In the West we can at least speak out these days, but for many that means alienation and vilification, which writers like Aslan unconsciously support. (When I became an atheist it didn’t even occur to me that my family would treat me any differently, and they didn’t. I’m one of the lucky ones.)
As always, Reza Aslan acknowledges the negative stereotypes (this time about atheism), gives the evidence that they are wrong, then makes up a way to justify his negative opinion, especially of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. This is exactly what he does as an apologist for Islam; he acknowledges the criticisms of extremist Islam are valid, then denies Islam has anything to do with the actions of fundamentalist Muslims, then gets in a dig at Harris and Dawkins. His cognitive dissonance never ceases to amaze me.