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.