What a relief. This is my first day off without a mountain of grading hanging over my head, and I was thinking I was going to have to deal with the idiot complaints that I’m a hypocrite because I despise Islam and Christianity, while we ‘social justice warriors’ are supposed to love Islam more and make excuses for the atrocities perpetrated in its name.
Which, when I put it that way, is so patently stupid that I shouldn’t have to even address it. You can regard beheadings with horror and reject the religious justifications for it while recognizing that somebody can be Muslim and feel exactly the same way. But Marcotte spells it all out: Liberals are not soft on, sympathetic towards, or defensive about Islamic terrorism. I’ve banned a surprising number of people this week who have barged in and triumphantly acted is if the fact that the killers in the San Bernardino were radicalized Muslims was a repudiation of the idea that we should regard Muslims as human beings.
This has gone on long enough. It’s time to say it straight: Just because conservatives believe there’s some kind of global battle between Christianity and Islam doesn’t mean that liberals have to agree, much less that they take the “Islam” side of that equation. On the contrary, most liberals see fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam as categorically the same and categorically illiberal in their shared opposition to feminism and modernity.
I’m a vocal atheist. I have not gone soft on Islam or Christianity, yet all this week fools have been pointing out that I destroyed a Koran once, assuming that now I think Islam is a nice religion as some kind of “gotcha” point. I certainly don’t! In the Islamic world, we still see women stoned to death for adultery, people flogged for not believing in gods, and atheists butchered with machetes. There are also lots of Muslims who are uncomfortable with the violence, but because they don’t have to face it directly themselves, will use the excuse of faith to justify the excesses of fanatics. What I object to is that certain atheists (I’m looking at you, Bill Maher and Sam Harris) who use the crimes of the powerful few to condemn the passive majority, and to excuse the use of weapons of mass destruction against entire nations. Oh, but Amanda says that, too.
What liberals object to is the conservative tendency to erase all distinctions between the relatively few Muslims around the world who have violent views and the majority of Muslims who, whether they are conservative or not, do not agree with ISIS or Al Qaeda’s distortion of Islam. Imagine how Christians would feel if liberals blamed Christianity, categorically, for the attack on Planned Parenthood. They would be angry and they would have a right to be. After all, a lot of Christians are liberal and believe abortion is a perfectly acceptable choice. And many others may disapprove of abortion, but they think it should be legal and they generally support Planned Parenthood’s overall reproductive health care mission. There are even some Christians who are anti-choice but disapprove of the heated rhetoric that fueled this attack. Just as it’s important to maintain these distinctions when talking about Christianity, it’s equally important to keep these distinctions in mind when talking about Islam.
There’s nothing in that logic that suggests that liberals have some secret googly-eyes for demagoguing radical Muslim fundamentalists, anymore than we love Pat Robertson. On the contrary, we tend to see them as basically the same kind of misogynist, homophobic authoritarians who hide behind God to get their way. To suggest otherwise is not just dishonest, but irresponsible, since it can hinder the very diplomatic efforts we need to keep people alive.
But for the radicalized atheists who use their atheism as a club to bash whole cultures, I have some other shocks for you. You’re free to use these as excuses to accuse me of hypocrisy, too.
I enjoyed The God Delusion was an entertaining popular approach to promoting atheism, but the book that I thought gave a far better and more effectively documented explanation for religion was Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. I don’t know why he wasn’t one of the Four Horsemen. He took too complicated a view, perhaps? Academically challenging but not exactly popular fodder.
While I sometimes thinks he goes too far in dismissing the role of religion in supporting social violence, Scott Atran has a far more useful and intelligent perspective on the Middle East than Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens had the eloquence and the rhetoric, but deep down he was a neocon thug who thought more violence was the answer.
If we were to honestly look at the people who should be a positive influence on modern atheism, we should include Annie Laurie Gaylor and Susan Jacoby. These were the people I was looking up to and reading attentively (and still reading — they’re both still active contributors to atheism and secularism), and it was as if they were just overlooked by the media the instant a couple of men spoke up, called themselves the “horsemen”, and appointed themselves the leaders of atheism…and a large number of atheists happily accepted that.
I know what’s coming next, and allow me to preempt the next round of accusations of hypocrisy. In 2009, I gave a talk to the American Humanists which the usual loons will cite as evidence that I wanted to be one of those Four Horsemen. They haven’t read it very carefully. It’s the opposite of what they claim, and it says many things I’m still saying today: I mention Boyer and Jacoby and others, and wonder why they aren’t given ‘horses’ of their own; I point out the poverty of the narrow perspective of our leadership; I don’t want to be a leader, I want to see a popular atheist movement with humanist values, values that are too often trampled by a tiny clique of right-wing sympathizers who think they are in charge of atheism.
I actually ended that talk with a statement about the only way I want to be a ‘horseman’.
So let me close with one more Bible quote that will answer a question I raised at the very beginning, which was, why only four horsemen? Revelation 9:16 is very useful. It says, “The number of the army of the horsemen was two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.” You heard it, the horsemen need two hundred million riders. So my final message is this: humanists, mount up.
I still think this is our major problem, that we’ve allowed the media to think that the popes of atheism are two people named Richard and Sam, especially when so many of their views are embarrassingly regressive. And especially when they’ve become so representative of the loudest assholes in the popular approach to Muslims.