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Don’t let the Islamophobes take over atheism

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Atheism in the USA seems to be on the rise, an interesting relief from the noxious religiosity that normally pervades the nation and the so-called “national discourse,” which is no discourse at all but a well financed propaganda offensive. But the seeds of piety and belief in what, on the face of it, is idiot nonsense has always fallen upon fertile soil in our country, the most religious in the Western world. No one has to force Americans to believe self-satisfying fairy tales, they are eager and willing to believe things for which there is no evidence.

Mainstream media polling has shown an uptick in the percent of people who identify themselves as having no religious affiliation, or as outright atheists. Some polls have indicated that upwards of 20% reject god and or religion. Even before the media’s discovery of this trend, atheism emerged as a hot topic and a salable commodity on some talk radio and TV programs and more widely, in the form of best selling books: You have Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great'” Sam Harris’ more tedious tomes, Richard Dawkins has written on this topic earlier than most, and there is Bill Maher’s HBO series and his movie “religulous.”

As a rule, I’m in favor of atheism and the defense of atheist ideas. This is because atheism is true and all religion and related forms of superstition, other-worldlyness, and magical thinking are false. The world is a material place and we are animals who have evolved from earlier life-forms along with all other plants, animals, fungi, etc. Humanity has developed ways to try and understand all of this. It’s called the scientific method, a way to, as objectively as possible, do research, test different preliminary theories and prove them more or less accurate or inaccurate. Investigating the truth or falseness of various propositions about many thing (“race,” geology, evolution of species, physics–all topic about whuch religion has established dogmas that everyone is required to believe) need an open mind and an ability to make provisional judgements and also to revise these judgements in light of new evidence. Religion is the opposite of this method. The origins of the scientific method are not recent. Ancient Egyptians developed mathematics, The Greek Euclid studied there; Aristotle developed the idea of research and classification; the Arab world and India made scientific contributions a thousand years ago when Europe was in a state of isolated stagnation, and so on.

Another reason to favor atheism is that it liberates your mind and also opens the way to progressive social and political ideas. Or at least I thought so until I encountered the latest crop of rightwing, neo-con, close-minded “atheists” who have become minor media stars. The emergence of reactionary atheism is a new development. For me, growing up in middle America among apolitical friends and family, atheism was a way to be progressive and go against the current. There were no leftist papers to read, no older people who had been radicals; I had to figure it out for myself. Trying to be a beatnik in late 50’s Indiana, I read Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but it took Bertrand Russell’s writings in defense of atheism and the pernicious effect of organized religion on society to give me something to use in arguments with rightist Republican fellow-students in high school. So I came of age with an association of atheism with liberal and later, socialist politics; it was the right wing that was religious.

Christopher Hitchens was a pseudo-leftist who bolted to the far right when it suited his inflated ego and pocket book. His rants against religion were not honest explanations of the benefits of atheism. Their main thrust was hysterical, racist, Islamophobia, and an endorsement of US imperialism’s endless wars. Ditto for Sam Harris, another neo-con phoney. These people are basically rightist propagandists hailing neoliberal pillage of the world’s resources by the corporate/banking/military interests that defines the USA’s permanent ruling class. We get a lot about Islamo-fascism from these guys, but the growing influence of Israeli Judeo-fascism escapes their notice.

OK, as time went by I met and worked with religious human rights workers, and anti-imperialists, and even revolutionaries (during my time in Nicaragua in the 80s). Also a rounded, sophisticated understanding of history shows that many religious movements actually reflected class and social struggles (say the Reformation and development of capitalism, or various egalitarian levelers religious movements during the English Revolution), but that’s another topic.

So, that’s my stand. Atheism is a good thing. I’m not going to let the neocons ruin it. They probably will get religion if it helps their careers.

This post first appeared on Richard Congress’s blog, Politics, Music & Irony.

Richard Congress

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15 Responses

  1. German Lefty on July 6, 2013, 1:53 pm

    Unlike religion, atheism comes without dogma. Therefore, just because someone agrees with you on atheism doesn’t mean that he agrees with you on something else. Atheists can have any political affiliation. I really don’t understand Richard’s desire to distance himself from Islamophobic atheists. Distancing ourselves from such people is not necessary because there is no atheist community, no atheist doctrine, no holy book of atheism. Atheists don’t have common views beyond the rejection of the belief in the existence of deities.

    I met and worked with religious human rights workers, and anti-imperialists, and even revolutionaries. Many religious movements actually reflected class and social struggles.
    Possibly. However, you really don’t need to believe in imaginary beings in order to support justice. Religion is superfluous.

    “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” (Steven Weinberg)

  2. piotr on July 6, 2013, 4:20 pm

    I would qualify that atheism is “moderately good thing”. It is a negative quality, absence of a certain type of superstition or preconception. However, we cannot avoid preconceptions, and it is pretty hard to avoid superstitions, preconceptions that are immune to experience.

    In the social arena, “scientific method” has rather short reach because you must have at least implicit definitions of what is good and what is bad. One of my favorite examples concerns standards for cages for chicken (egg laying hens). Researchers in EU found a number of behaviors that are essencial to keep a hen happy as measured by some standards of animal psychological trauma, they have found out that the standard very crowded cages that additionally lack some amenities like “privacy screen” and a roost make it impossible for hens to engage in those behavior and thus a new EU standard for hen cages was adopted.

    Researchers in US found that hens in cages of the new type use 10% more calories per egg (well, most of “happy” behavior entail some kind of movement, hence consume calories, and the gains in health do not overcome the losses in extra feed that is needed in the new cages.

    Question 1: which cages are better?

    Question 2: what policies on the siege of Gaza should be recommended? There is actually some research conducted in Israel “how to prevent humanitarian crisis” which seems to be defined as a huge increase in mortality rates. One could try to conduct alternative research, like establish what are the essencial behaviors that are needed to make Gazans happy etc. By the way, both Israel and USA allow the traditional cages.

  3. W.Jones on July 6, 2013, 5:20 pm

    Atheism is particularly high among Israelis.

  4. Krauss on July 6, 2013, 5:33 pm

    Islam and atheism is a sensitive topic.

    After all, fundamentally, atheists – if they/we are honest – not only are not believers in religion but want a strong, secular state and, if we can dream, over the long-term would like to see a world completely ridden of religion.

    That last part will likely not occur for centuries, if ever, unless there’s a radical transformation of human nature as we seem predisposed to beliving in superstition(whether religious or otherwise).

    But we can reduce the influence of religion significantly, which has gone the furthest in Europe and some parts of East Asia.

    The main reason why Islam is in the crosshairs for many atheists is because of what has happened in Europe, but also in places like Canada. Simply put, if you offend Christians you get outrage. If you offend muslims, you invariably get firebombed or even assassinated as Theo van Gogh. Take the Muhammad cartoons.

    Even if you believe they are tasteless, in any free society you should have the right to offend without being told to censor yourself out of religious sensitivity(especially when that religion, like all religions, appeal to an imaginerary fairy tale instead of science and reason).

    And one thing’s for sure: you sure as hell shouldn’t ever – ever – think it’s “understandable” that if “provoked” some elements may resort to threats of violence or even carry it out.

    There are those who romanticize religions like Buddhism, for example, while ignoring or even being ignorant of the persecution of religious minorities in places like Burma(where the persecuted are muslims).

    But in the Western world, it is simply delusional to deny that it is far more likely that extremists will kill you if you insult, say, Muhammad than if your target is Jesus, which is why many avoid doing so, even if Christianity is pretty much dead in places like Europe, Canada or Australia and increasingly so in the U.S.

  5. Citizen on July 7, 2013, 8:16 am

    Ivan Karamazov: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”

  6. gingershot on July 7, 2013, 11:40 am

    Great article – thanks Richard.

    As an anti-theist myself I too have been watching the Zionists co-opt resistance against Zionism by trying in inveigle themselves into the anti-religion arguments. How convenient it is usually the same kind of Islamophobic tripe we hear from the Pam Gellers and Robert Spencers.

    Zionists are using the atheists as useful idiots (Hitchens comes to mind) to sabotage the deeper levels of the anti-Zionism struggle

    Resistance to overwhelming power often has to revert to religious/grassroots means of organization because there is no other means of organization sometimes possible that isn’t immediately eliminated by the abusers.

    It revolution sometimes has to cloak itself by all means available – including religious – as a necessary STAGE in order to gain enough power – then destroying this stage of a revolution is destroying the whole successful revolution itself. That’s what the Zionists are after

    After moving thru the religious stage and succeeding to overthrow the brutal tyrant (like the Shah of Iran) a movement can gradually normalize/secularize and the natural influences of progressive thought replace elements of religious fervor that helped carry the revolution past the bloody stage where the revolutionaries were being killed by the regime
    This is probably what would have happened post the Iranian revolution if Iran hadn’t been immediately subjected to a US-sponsored war with it’s proxy Saddam Hussein, or all the other decades of shenaggins it’s pulled on Iran ever since, trying to topple an independent Iran

    • tokyobk on July 7, 2013, 6:24 pm

      You write as if religion does not really mean anything to the religious. It does. You also seem to believe the Iranian Revolution is purely reactionary to the West which would be news to the revolutionaries who are drawing from their own sources. Its a form of western arrogance to assume so and while atheism is hardly arrogant in the way it is usually castigated (in fact the opposite since it says we are not at the center of the universe) this type of argument is fairly self centered.

      The problem is assigning Islam innate, immutable qualities that are not given to other faiths. In different times all faiths, including buddhism have been used to justify violence.

  7. kylebisme on July 7, 2013, 1:07 pm

    Do you not realize that Dawkins is an islamophobe, as is Maher, or is there some reason you give them a pass? Regardless, I’m fine with letting bigots have atheism, theism, and every other form of absolutist ideology, and would prefer more people take on the humility to acknowledge the limitations of their knowledge rather than imagining themselves bearers of ultimate truths, divine truths or otherwise.

    • Woody Tanaka on July 7, 2013, 5:17 pm

      Being critical of Islam is not Islamophobia, in my opinion, so long as the person is clear about criticizing the ideas and not the people.

      “Regardless, I’m fine with letting bigots have atheism, theism, and every other form of absolutist ideology”

      If you think atheism is an “absolutist ideology” you have no idea what you’re talking about.

      • kylebisme on July 8, 2013, 10:04 pm

        Notions such as “atheism is true and all religion and related forms of superstition, other-worldlyness, and magical thinking are false” are absolutist, and hardly difference in substance as proclaiming some particular religion is true and all claims to the contrary are false. Both inherently require imagining oneself some omniscient seer of ultimate truth, which is patently absurd. As for your opinion on Islamophobia, would you make the same argument in defense of those who insist atheism is “the greatest evil in the world”, or Judaism, rock & roll?

      • Citizen on July 9, 2013, 2:50 pm

        Seems to me atheism is absolutist in that it believes there is no god. But maybe you mean it’s relative, going to what anyone thinks is the nature and attributes of god? Please explain your comment. Agnosticism is not Atheism, right?

  8. Woody Tanaka on July 7, 2013, 1:10 pm

    I am of two minds about this article. The author is clearly correct to denounce anti-Muslim racism. Also correct in noting the problems religion causes (on need only view the comments regarding the Temples and reflect on the number of people who are willing to kill over what are, at best, marginally interest historical spots.)

    But the author clearly fails when he tries to present liberal morality as being inherent in, or growing out of atheism. In doing so he makes the mistake of believing that religion (or in this case, non-religion) and morality have anything to do with each other. The don’t. Morality is a function of humanity, not religion. And liberalism isn’t inherently part of atheism, as atheism is merely a disbelief in all the gods and supernatural (whatever THAT means) stuff. Nothing else follows. One can be a reactionary atheist, a progressive atheist and anything in between and still be equally an atheist. To think that a disbelief in a god or gods must lead to a certain way of thinking is to adopt religious dogmatism, while eliminating religious dogma.

    So the fact that an Atheist is an Islamaphobe or a cheerleader for the Iraq war can’t “ruin” atheism. Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris did some incredibly important things for atheism, and that is true regardless of what else they brought to the table. I disagree with some of their positions, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t cause a crisis in my atheism, because I disagree with their political or moral positions, not their atheistic ones.

  9. Richard Congress on July 8, 2013, 10:07 am

    re: kylebisme, that Maher and Dawkins are Islamophobes is obvious. I intended to write a brief article. I also could have gone on and on about the leftist and revolutionary religious people I have worked with (during the civil rights movement I spent a lot of time in black churches since sociologically speaking it was the only institution that was really owned by the black community.

    re: Woody Tanaka, yes, not believing in any god is politically neutral. However, in this country for nearly it’s whole existence being anti, or skeptical about religion has been associated with free-thinking and advocating social equality, justice, etc. against a conservative, or reactionary status quo that says god has ordained that white people have to lead society, or that social stratification that has the few rich dominating the poor mass is god’s will.

    The recent public appearance of secular, right-wing atheist writers and talking heads is a new phenomenon, maybe reflecting the rightward drift of former liberals who are aligning themselves with the USA’s permanent warfare state.

    • kylebisme on July 8, 2013, 10:23 pm

      So if you do see the bigotry in the prominent leftist atheist voice as well as those on the right, who exactly do figure atheism is being taken over from? Again, it seems to me that it is what it is.

  10. Woody Tanaka on July 8, 2013, 10:57 am

    “that Maher and Dawkins are Islamophobes is obvious”

    Is it? How so? I am not familiar enough with Maher to say (although I did see his movie.) But I’ve read enough Dawkins and heard him speak often enough to know that unless you are defining “Islamophobia” to simply mean being opposed to religious ideas, rather than as being bigoted against a people (which would be a very odd definition indeed for an atheist), that you are wrong, that he would say that there is nothing about these people that is bad; it is their ideas that are bad (on secular and humanist grounds) and he wishes that these people would stop believing them. That’s not Islamophobia or bigotry, that’s simply an analysis and an opinion. An I an “anti-Christian bigot” because I wish all the Christians in the world would stop believing their Christianity, with, in many quarters, its misogyny and anti-gay beliefs? I don’t think so. Dawkins very well may be wrong about the nature of Islamic religious beliefs, but being wrong and being a bigot are two wildly different things.

    “in this country for nearly it’s whole existence being anti, or skeptical about religion has been associated with free-thinking and advocating social equality, justice, etc. against a conservative, or reactionary status quo ”

    All well and good, and atheists may be overwhelmingly to the left politically, but they are still two different things, regardless of the connections between them. Right-wing atheists can’t be a threat to atheism, only to left-wing political thought. I, for one, think it’s a good thing that there are more right-wing atheists, because it simply means there are more atheists. As atheism becomes more accepted, we are going to see all kinds of atheists, because there are all kinds of people. What would you rather have, more atheists, even if it meant dealing with right wing atheists, or having fewer atheists, on the fringes of society, but a “purer” more politically homogeneous bunch? No question, in my mind that the former is way better than the latter.

    “maybe reflecting the rightward drift of former liberals who are aligning themselves with the USA’s permanent warfare state.”

    It could, but I think that you are making an assumption here as to what a liberal must think in order to be a liberal thinker. Hitchens favored armed intervention in places like Afghanastan and Iraq because he believed it was the more liberal alternative to the people in those countries living under the regressive governments of the Baathists and the Taliban. One can disagree with that assessment (I do, but not with his diagnosis of the nature of those governments), but not with the fact that sometimes the liberal with have common cause with the conservative.

    Being oppossed to American imperialism and American arrogance and abuse of power in international politics does not necessarily mean that the exercise of force by the USA is automatically and in every case the least liberal option or that liberals should oppose all such actions. The USA, USSR and UK were three racist, expansionist, imperial governments with horrible human rights records against both their own citizens and foreigners overseas. Nevertheless, their efforts in fighting the Second World War was a net positive for progress in the world.

    I think Hitchens’ thoughts on this is, in some ways, a refusal to commit the “liberal sin” of the past 80 years of excusing away oppression when it is committed by ostensibly or proclaimed leftist governments. None of which, it should be noted, means squat to his atheism.

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