Atheism ≠ fascism

Jeff Sparrow is very worried about the Global Atheist Convention coming to Melbourne, Australia next April. Why? Because we’re all goose-stepping fascists come to destroy liberal and progressive dreams with our “very, very right wing” atheistical fanaticism. Which leaves me baffled and confused. Don’t I count? I’m a guy who finds Barack Obama to be far too conservative (I know, that’s setting the bar low), surrounded by wanna-be theocrats in a land straining to escape the Enlightenment, with the giant heads of O’Reilly, Beck, and Hannity howling at me from the television, and somehow, I am the problem?

Sparrow doesn’t mention me at all, of course, but that’s the thing: I consider myself comfortable and not at all an oddball in the company of New Atheists, but Sparrow simply damns the whole movement by equating all of New Atheism with neo-fascism. He accomplishes this by ignoring the diversity of political views within the New Atheists — we’re a madly disorganized mob, united only by our dislike of the god-thing, so politics isn’t a criterion for being one of us — and cherry-picking a couple of prominent New Atheists as proxies for all of us. So he quotes Christopher Hitchens, probably the most belligerent critic of Islam in our ranks, and Sam Harris, who can also be harshly critical.

It is … impossible to compromise with the stone-faced propagandists for Bronze Age morality: morons and philistines who hate Darwin and Einstein and managed, during their brief rule in Afghanistan, to ban and erase music and art while cultivating the skills of germ warfare. If they could do that to Afghans, what might they not have in mind for us? In confronting such people, the crucial thing is to be willing and able, if not in fact eager, to kill them without pity before they get started.

Christopher Hitchens

The […] failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants.The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.

Sam Harris

And here’s where I’m in an awkward spot, because I do disagree with both of the quotes to a certain extent. I am a knee-jerk pacifist who would not ever want to encourage eagerness to kill anyone, and I also would not praise the sensibility of fascists without also immediately stomping on their ‘nads with my Steel-Toed Boots of Sarcasm +3 (which, for all I know from this partial quote, Sam might have gone on to do himself). So I distance myself somewhat from their views.

The will to kill, and actually killing people, is not a sensible approach. Not only is it practically impossible to exterminate all of our enemies, but even if it were, it would be abhorrent and evil, and make us worthy targets of genocide ourselves — so we’re left with the historically common strategy of selectively murdering a scattering of opponents, which never works. At best we could temporarily cow a population, and perhaps deprive a generation or two of children of freedom and security, but we would never win over a nation to a common cause, or even away from revenge. It always baffles me that right-wingers can cheer for a cartoonish revenge fantasy movie like Red Dawn, which shows brave Americans nobly and self-sacrificingly resisting an imaginary Soviet invasion, and yet not realize that every time our tanks roll into some small country, we are replaying that movie for them for real…and we’re the villains.

I disagree with Harris and Hitchens, especially Hitchens on this one issue, but I also defend them, and not just in the sense of defending the principle of free speech, but because I also agree with them in part. Somehow, the meaning of “progressive” has weakened so much that it can be equated to radical, militant tolerance of every blithering looniness someone might spout, with tactics that constitute little more than limp-wristed surrender to the excuses of bigots.

Too often, the conversation between so-called ‘progressives’ and their opponents is one of gelatin-spined appeasers trying desperately to stave off the tyrants of the right by frantically retreating from the conflict.

“I want to chop off my daughter’s clitoris,” says the Islamist. “Oooh, that’s not nice,” says the ‘progressive’, “and your deep, rich cultural traditions make me hesitate to object.”

Meanwhile, the New Atheist says “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.”

“I demand that the public schools respect my mythology and teach everyone that the earth is 6000 years old,” says the Christian Dominionist, “and also, you can’t ever say a word to my children that contradicts Scripture.” The ‘progressive’ replies, “Well, we wouldn’t want to offend anyone, so maybe we can find a curriculum that doesn’t use the “e” word and doesn’t stir up any conflicts between science and religion. Let’s compromise.”

The New Atheist says, “You’re wrong. You’re worse than wrong, you’re stupid. We’re going to educate your children whether you like it or not, because they have a right to grow up without your self-inflicted brain injury.”

“Belief in God is an essential part of being human and must be nurtured for the good of civilization,” says the Evangelical. The ‘progressive’ cheerfully agrees, ignoring the sectarian tribalism that religion fosters, ignoring the absurdity of the Evangelical’s very specific, very peculiar adherence to a dogmatic mythology, for which this happy acquiescence to an absence of critical thought is a convenient foot in the door.

The New Atheist instead argues that religion must be relegated to the status of a personal quirk, an affectation or hobby, and that the real heart of modern civilization lies in science, and reason, and evidence-based decision-making. Religion is a barbarous obsidian knife poised over our chests — put it in a cabinet and admire it as a work of art, but don’t ever wield the damned thing ever again.

“Homosexuals are a disgusting abomination,” scream the fundamentalists. The ‘progressives’ respond, “Oooh, well, we were going to advocate tolerance and equality, but in the light of your rousing certainty, we’ll yank this commercial that blandly suggests that maybe gay people are human just like you.”

The New Atheist, at this point, just facepalms incredulously and walks away from these lily-livered fair-weather advocates for equality.

Mr Sparrow’s argument that all New Atheists are fascists rests on one point: the blanket claim that we’re all Islamophobic bigots who want to exterminate all Muslims, and he suggests that it is reasonable to disbelieve in a god, but we have to do it while somehow not annoying Islamic fundamentalists. Somehow, in his mind, the Global Atheist Convention has become a staging area for a few days of focused hate on Islam — and he demands that we take a stand and denounce the speakers. Having attended the last Australian convention, that’s a weird characterization of the occasion. Sparrow might want to look at the Dublin Declaration on Religion in Public Life, which is a much more accurate summary of the attitudes expressed in these New Atheist gatherings.

It’s a very progressive document. Not in the sense that some ‘progressives’ believe, in which the only progressive value is surrender, but in the sense that it actually stands firmly for positive values, like freedom of conscience and thought, equality before the law, and secular education for all. That we actually believe in something, and that we stand up for it in speech and deed, does not imply that we’re totalitarian fascists, except to people who think the only true progressive response must be silence, and inaction, and acquiescence.

Sparrow knows this. He has another column where he rebukes the idea of reform by conciliation and appeasing the right, but he only takes that stand on purely political issues. It’s strangely common to see how adding religion to the mix of issues seems to make so many people drop to their knees and start bowing in obedience.