Once again, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins do NOT speak for the atheist movement


I have written before about how broad social, political, and religious movements on the edge of social acceptance should not be closely identified with a few individuals because those supposed spokespersons often have additional baggage that is harmful to those movements. Stephen LeDrew, author of The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement warns that some prominent atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens have, with their neoconservative political leanings, aided the rising intolerance represented by people like Donald Trump and that it is important that atheists not allow such people to be perceived as spokespersons for the broader atheist community.

He points to the case of Alexandre Bissonette who murdered six people at a mosque in Quebec City.

Soon after Alexandre Bissonnette murdered six people at a mosque in Quebec City it was reported that “likes” on his Facebook page included Donald Trump, French far-right politician Marine Le Pen, and “atheist scientist” Richard Dawkins. The immediate reaction was to point to the toxic effect nationalists like Trump and Le Pen are having on our political culture, now materialized to tragic effect in what appears to be an ethnically motivated act of violence.

But these defenders of a white Christian vision of nationhood have found curious allies in celebrity atheists like Dawkins and Harris, who echo their paranoid views of Muslims to their ostensibly liberal supporters. Bissonnette’s actions and personal “likes” highlight the weird entanglement of atheists, Christian neoconservatives and theocrats, and far-Right white nationalists, which is something reasonable atheists should reflect on very seriously.

Given the trajectory of their intensifying assault on Islam—which is singled out as a uniquely barbaric religion—it should not surprise us when Dawkins and Harris share admirers with the likes of Trump, Le Pen, and other nationalists who are leading a crescendo of ethnic tension. While Dawkins, Harris, and other New Atheists (most famously the late Christopher Hitchens, also one of Bissonnette’s “likes”) have preached a secular gospel of scientific rationality and hostility toward religion, their harshest criticism has been reserved for Islam.

The ideological purity and relentlessly unthinking approach of people like Dawkins and Harris has resulted in disillusionment within the atheist community. Younger atheists who are intolerant of bigotry with respect to culture and identity have found Dawkins’ criticisms of feminism and his stereotypical depictions of Muslims as deranged religious fanatics unpalatable.

Harris and Dawkins claim that their issue is with the doctrines of Islam rather than with Muslims as people, but in practice they take little care to make a distinction, perhaps reflecting their general view that religion is a kind of mental parasite that takes control of its host. Whether intended or not, they have granted a veneer of intellectual legitimacy to ethnic nationalism and xenophobia. Harris has explicitly said that, in Europe, it is fascists who have the correct vision of how to deal with Muslims.

His general neoconservative position, like that of Christopher Hitchens, is representative of a wing of the movement that I call the “atheist Right”—the mirror image of the Christian Right’s militaristic nationalism and libertarianism.

Advocating for reason and respect for science is a worthy cause in a world being torn apart by racism, nativism, and a corporate power structure that will destroy anything that stands in its way. It’s entirely reasonable to be concerned about religious extremism, but the most visible spokesmen of atheism are throwing fuel on the fire. The narrative of secularism must be rescued from those who would allow it to serve as a tool of fascism.

This is always a problem with minority groups that are just entering mainstream consciousness. In the early stages, it is easy for the media to get quotes from prominent members of that group. But as the group grows and diversifies, the media still continue to focus on those early prominent voices and go to them for comment when any issue relating to that group comes up, though those people might themselves be now on the fringes of that movement.

With the gay and lesbian community, the visibility of the group has grown so much that it would be absurd to think of any one or few people as speaking for the entire community but the transgender community is similar to the atheists in still being thought of as having a few spokespersons. But just as Caitlyn Jenner should not be considered a spokesperson for the transgender community, neither should Harris and Dawkins serve that role for atheists.

Comments

  1. dogfightwithdogma says

    Marcus: Will probably be hearing some from and about him soon. He is preparing to go on a speaking tour in May. Stops include Boulder, Miami, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles. I share your hope that he has taken some of the time since his heart attack to reflect and reconsider some of his views and the manner in which he expresses them.

  2. polishsalami says

    It’s pretty sad that that you’re signal-boosting an atheist-basher with a book to plug, just to take a swipe at Dawkins and Harris. Promoting garbage to play tribal politics didn’t seem like your game, Professor. Not impressed.

  3. Dunc says

    @3 Regardless of whether he’s “an atheist-basher” or not*, he’s right. Who’s really playing “tribal politics” here?

    (*I see no evidence to substantiate this charge, unless “atheist-bashing” simply involves voicing any criticism of any atheist. Also, his book was published in 2015, so it seems a little late to be plugging it.)

  4. Mano Singham says

    polishsalami @#3,

    LeDrew is an atheist himself and in the essay that I link to explains his goal: “I, like many other atheists who were optimistic about this movement’s prospects when it came alive about ten years ago, have been dismayed by how willingly some of its members subordinate reason to blind ideology.”

  5. Somite says

    I’ve read everything by Dawkins and Harris and have not seen examples of:

    “bigotry with respect to culture and identity have found Dawkins’ criticisms of feminism and his stereotypical depictions of Muslims as deranged religious fanatics unpalatable?”

    Could someone direct me to one. And I mean a primary reference. Not a derivative article arguing without reference.

  6. says

    @polishsalami
    On what basis are you calling him an “atheist-basher”? I don’t know the guy, but the quoted text doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

  7. says

    One of the first things about the anti-Muslim terrorist (I refuse to write his name) that jumped out at me were his likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. I really expected conservatives to jump on that and claim it he was a murderous atheist. But no, just as with any other white terrorist, they just preferred to stop talking about the incident completely.

    Harris and Dawkins claim that their issue is with the doctrines of Islam rather than with Muslims as people…

    We know that “love the sinner, hate the sin” is bullshit when Christians spout it, so it’s no more true when atheists babble similarly.

  8. says

    FWIW – this is exactly why I prefer to deny that atheism is a “movement”
    It’s a general intellectual across-the-board push but it does not have leaders or an organization or a papacy or spokespeople. Sure, there are a few self-appointed noisemakers but those are everywhere, from the local bowling league to the church to atheism.

    No leaders. No heroes. No movement.

  9. Saad says

    Somite, #6

    You may also wish to look at Dawkin’s Twitter page back when the Ahmed Mohamed clock thing was happening (I wanna say late 2015).

    Then there’s Harris’s article(s?) on profiling Muslims.

    I’m pretty sure those would be primary.

  10. polishsalami says

    Mano Singham #5:

    LeDrew is an atheist himself

    This sounds like the ‘Trump can’t be an anti-Semite because his daughter married a Jew’ argument.

    LeDrew’s article is full of wild accusations and crude insinuations. The idea that Dawkins and Harris are intellectual figureheads for white nationalism and neo-fascism just doesn’t fly, whatever flaws they have. There is more substance to the criticisms of Hitchens, but given that he has been dead for six years, these have little relevance to how the atheist “movement” functions in 2017.

    For the record, the comments Harris made regarding European fascists holds up, imo. Compare LePen in Lebanon with the Swedish government in Iran.

  11. polishsalami says

    Marcus Ranum #9:

    It’s OK to have heroes — just not living ones! My personal favourite is al-Ma’arri; Matthias Knutzen and Bakunin would be the runners-up.

  12. Mano Singham says

    polishsalami @#12,

    That is a good point. But all I was suggesting was that since he was an atheist, his message could not be dismissed as simple atheist bashing. In fact, I think the points he makes are not that controversial and are not critical of atheism at all.

  13. deepak shetty says

    Could someone direct me to one. And I mean a primary reference.

    if you are looking for statements of the form “we hate muslims” or something similar you won’t find it. As an example Harris says stuff like “Islam is the most dangerous (or violent or misogynistic) ideology” etc – And but of course that doesn’t imply anything about Muslims and he is not bigoted towards Muslims , right ?
    But Islam is an inanimate entity. It needs human beings to enact it out , right ? So what then does the statement Islam is X mean other than Muslims are X(more so than other religions) ?
    Or lets say its objectively true that the Quran recommends more violent actions than the Bible , so what ? I have read novels that are worse (in terms of violence) – who would care , if not for the fact that Muslims do care what the Quran says ? A lot of the statements that Harris or Dawkins make use “Islam” but it really can only be interpreted as Muslims.

  14. Somite says

    Rob @#10
    This is the type of article that attempts to derive racist inclinations for Dawkins and Harris but offers no quotes. The links are to other articles with people expressing opinions. Not direct quotes.

    Saad@#11
    I think the clock thing was a combination of goading by the kid and a poor response by the school admin. This was Dawkins opinion. Sam’s profiling is what is currently used by law enforcement to avoid harassing people with no dangerous profile. It is not based on religion but contacts with extremists. Harris is the first to criticize Trump and his blanket ban of muslims.

    Deepak@15
    And Dawkins and Harris criticize all religions as being wrong, not just Islam. Muslims are wrong, just like any other religious people. There is no way to be an atheist and not reach this conclusion.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    Somite @16: I posted the links in that article to Harris’ own writings. There were eight of them, so that comment is in moderation (maximum is what, 6, Mano?). If it doesn’t turn up soon, I’ll post them in smaller groups. Or you could actually spend the couple of minutes it takes to find them yourself.

  17. Ichthyic says

    clearly though. Somite was lying when they said they had read “everything by Dawkins and Harris”.

    which does not surprise me a bit, frankly.

  18. deepak shetty says

    And Dawkins and Harris criticize all religions as being wrong, not just Islam.

    So does everyone on this side.
    The difference is that Harris et al believe there is something unique special(ly dangerous) about Islam. They advocate all kinds of policies on the basis of that belief – e.g. Harris still supports racial profiling of Muslims. He has said that it is not unreasonable to prefer Christian refugees (ted Cruz) . he has claimed that as nutty as Carson is , he feels Carson is more qualified on the topic of Islam than Chomsky.(links available from primary source using Google)
    Anyone living in America should be able to recognize that one of the biggest problem America faces is from fundamentalist Christians not from some middle eastern terrorist – so yes while Harris criticises all religions he seems to have a peculiar dislike for Islam – i.e. the muslims that practice it – after all the policies he likes – racial profiling , going to war against islamic countries, preferring non-muslim refugees, impact muslims much more than they impact the abstract entity of Islam.

  19. hyphenman says

    @ Marcus, No. 9

    I agree completely.

    Being an atheists says nothing about an individual’s morals, ethics, intelligence or politics. Being an atheists simply means that an individual rejects—for lack of evidence—the existence of any being or beings meta to the reality we exist in.

    I have no doubt that there are plenty of atheists whose morals, ethics, intelligence and politics I would find severally lacking or disagree with and, at the same time, they would find qualities in me that they disapprove of. That we are both atheists has nothing to do with probably 90 percent, or more, of who we are.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  20. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Harris has explicitly said that, in Europe, it is fascists who have the correct vision of how to deal with Muslims.

    Minor nit, IIRC, what Sam Harris actually said was something more like “it’s only the fascists who recognize that we have a problem with Muslims” without endorsing fascism and xenophobia as the answer. AFAIK, Sam Harris never said that the white supremacists have it right, and I’m very sure Sam Harris has repeatedly decried and attacked white supremacists.

    Of course, Sam Harris also explicitly supports religious discrimination at airport screenings against anyone who “looks Muslim”, and he also explicitly wants torture to become widespread and practically legal for Muslim terrorists. So, it’s still sounding pretty fascist.

    I guess I’m quibbling over the word “explicitly” in that quote, because Sam Harris is – if he’s anything – not explicit about his horrible positions. He hides them under layers of abstractions, dodges, thought experiments, etc. It’s quite difficult to actually get something concrete out of him on certain things, like torture. He’s only made his actual position on torture clear on a few rare occasions.

  21. deepak shetty says

    @hyphenman

    Being an atheists simply means that an individual rejects—for lack of evidence—the existence of any being or beings meta to the reality we exist in.

    to nitpick – the lack of evidence is not needed . Why an individual rejects God does not factor into this.

  22. hyphenman says

    @deepak shetty No. 26

    I’ll see your nitpick and raise you a nudge: If I turn my back on a particular religion because adherents treat me badly, am I still an Atheist or am I simply a disgruntled former believer?

    Seriously, I see your point. I wonder about the active component though. Does an atheist (non-theist) need a logical, affirmative reason for rejecting a gawd or gawds, or does any (or even no) reason—“I don’t believe in gawds because my dog never barks up the chimney on spring equinox eve, but fairies are absolutely real”—suffice?

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  23. Somite says

    Rob@19
    That’s precisely the problem. None of those links contain racist or sexist points. You need to quote the authors to impugn them and these links don’t contain examples of racism or sexism/

    For those that say Harris advocates religious profiling, he doesn’t. And he has openly criticized Trump’s Muslim ban, and actually everything Trump. Sam has advocate profiling based on past history regardless of religion, which is what law enforcement did before Trump’s Muslim ban.

  24. Rob Grigjanis says

    Somite @28:

    For those that say Harris advocates religious profiling, he doesn’t.

    Harris;

    We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.

  25. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Somite
    Also, regarding his positions on torture, he made them clear here:
    https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/response-to-controversy

    And yet, anyone who would defend the water-boarding of a terrorist like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad will reap a whirlwind of public criticism. This makes no moral sense.

    So, here is Sam Harris, naming a specific person who was tortured, and he claims that he should have been tortured. We have left the realm of abstract hypotheticals. Sam Harris is calling for actual torture of actual prisoners of war / arrested criminals. That’s fucked up.

  26. Somite says

    Rob@29
    I should have said that Harris doesn’t advocate racial profiling. A white person who is a Muslim and dresses like a Muslim, and that maybe visited the middle east, should be profiled. It simply raises the risk. And realistically it is what law enforcement currently do. It is known as extreme vetting for immigrants, for example. Sam should have probably included a white person with the confederate flag and swastikas to make the point.

    EL@30 you do know who Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is, right?

  27. John Morales says

    Somite:

    A white person who is a Muslim and dresses like a Muslim, and that maybe visited the middle east, should be profiled.

    Ahem.

    A white person who who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim includes those who do not dress “like a Muslim” and those who have not “maybe” visited the middle east*.

    * Are you familiar with the global geographic distribution of Islamic people?

  28. says

    Somite@#31:
    Harris was specifically recommending profiling as recently as 2 years ago. He debated Bruce Schneier about it at length and was unable to grasp that it doesn’t work. Maybe he isn’t recommending it now (I stopped tracking Harris at that point) but he certainly has recommended profiling. Even to the point of alluding that it would affect people who look like him (presumably referring to his hair, complexion, and features)

  29. says

    https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/inside-the-mission-to-catch-khalid-sheikh-mohammed/255319/

    KSM was tortured because of who he was and what he did. There is no valid argument that torturing him prevented some ticking bomb scenario, which Harris likes to hide behind.

    We can talk about whether there is any value in torturing someone to punish them or to threaten others, but KSM as an intelligence target? Worthless. Ramzi Binalshibh was worth more (but not much). But it’s odd you mentioned KSM: why not Tim McVeigh or UNABOM?

  30. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    EL@30 you do know who Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is, right?

    A real human being, who was tortured, and a person with whom I can sympathize.

    Are you really attempting to justify torture with the reason “he did bad things”? Really? Have you no empathy? Have you no basic human decency? Have you no shame? What a horrible person you must be. The retributive theory of justice is abhorrent, barbaric. No decent human being should ever say “we should hurt him because he hurt others”.

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