Book Review: The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremism, by C J Werleman
“Every religion needs its heretics. For me heresy is critical to the viability of religious experience and the authenticity of religious experience. So to keep the door open for heretics is really a blessing for every religion.”
– Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im.
It used to be that certain traits came with being an atheist. You were a free thinker. You were a dissident. And as the terms implied, you were skeptical of power in both its clerical and government forms, if only because they were often in cahoots with each other. Atheism was the outlier’s creed. The peripheral man’s belief. Perhaps they were communist or libertarian, socialist or anarchist. Perhaps they were just mavericks. Whatever they were, they were not on easy terms with officialdom. There weren’t many atheist monarchists.
If atheism was a competitive sport, it would be MMA, mixed martial arts. It was a no-holds-barred, anything goes free for all. And we loved it for it. It was a noble tradition of dissent from the imbecile superstitions of theology and the infamy of the politician class. The names of its heroes inspire reverence: Mark Twain, H L Mencken, Gore Vidal and Bertrand Russell. What made them so iconoclastic was the boldness of their lonely defiance of public opinion. They were hated more than they were loved. It is doubtful if they ever expected a glimmer of approval at all.
Today, atheism is in vogue. It’s not even called atheism any more. That’s so yesterday. Like any media phenomenon, it has to be rebranded, repackaged and resold. If you tire of reading the anti-religion essays of Voltaire, why we’ve got something new for you. It’s the New Atheism, the Old One being not fit for purpose. Books fly off the printing press denouncing God faster than you can read them. Conferences, lecture circuits, and prime time TV slots await the heirs to the persecuted theophobes of old. There are careers to be made by making jibes about dumb hillbillies and their Sky Daddy. Just point and laugh.
All very droll and all very easy. It takes about as much pluck to be a Western atheist today as being an abolitionist. That ship has sailed. Which would be hunky-dory if not for the sheer rancid politics of some of its leading lights. The old radicalism is dead. What remains is either a harmless enough liberalism among the likes of Richard Dawkins and, among two of the principal celebrities in the movement, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, a full bore degeneration into invade-the-world politics. The New Atheist Threat by C J Werleman is a corrective to this phenomenon. It is a study of this current’s menace to the dissident movement of which atheism has historically been a branch, as well as to the integrity of Old Atheism itself. It is a critique of a narrow kind of religion-bashing that reduces all political analysis in the age of terrorism to sacred texts and holy books. Its thesis is that an atheism that does battle only with imaginary spirits and ghosts to the neglect of pressing international issues of war and peace cheapens the legacy of the old free thinkers.
Werleman has several things in his favour that make him uniquely qualified to write about unbelief in the age of Islamist fanaticism. He has lived a decade in the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia; he was an eyewitness to the Bali bombing which massacred his fellow Australians; he is the author of a book on the Koran that is more readable and intelligent than most; and having published two books on the case for atheism, he’s seen the New Atheist bonanza up close. This is his field report.
A mistake that critics of the New Atheists often make is to lump them all together as if they shared the same views on everything. Atheism aside, they are not a cohesive body politically speaking. Werleman is careful to avoid this trap by focusing on, say, the militaristic opinions of Harris and Hitchens specifically where foreign policy is concerned. Dawkins and Dennett are not guilty of the persistent war-lust that marks the work of the former two who are rather unique among atheists in their enthusiasm for international violence.
What distinguishes them from old fashioned critics of religion in the mold of Isaac Asimov, and what gives them a certain cache, is their denunciation of Islam. They bask in the aura of being considered the only figures with courage enough to be hard on the Saracens. The likes of Hitchens and Harris flourish because few leftists talk straight about the problems of Islam. Gore Vidal and Johann Hari are notable exceptions. They combine strong opposition to Western imperial designs with a muscular atheism that does not spare the Meccan philosophy. Vidal said “Islam, Christianity and Judaism are the three great evils of the world”. Hari has been even more contemptuous. But such plain speaking is rare in Leftism. The reticence of decent people gives an opening to war junkies who smuggle violent politics into what should simply be religious criticism. Until the peace movement gets over its cringe about talking freely about Islam as it does about the Christianity which it lampoons at every turn, we shall be afflicted by the chickenhawks for some time yet.
Whilst the New Atheists are more candid about the Islamic question, Werleman is right to say that their analysis is more entertaining than it is acute. They say they want to reform and modernise Islam. They want to help the cause of freedom in the Muslim world. Yet their writings about Islam overlook Muslim dissidents who labour to change attitudes on the ground and who command greater influence in Islamic circles where such critiques ought to be directed. People such as the reformist Muslim thinker Abdullahi Ahmed An’naim whose quotation opens this review, the humanistic imam Shabir Ally, the academic Ebrahim Moosa, the historian Said Aburish, and the columnist Yasmin Alibhai Brown. They pass over Muslim human rights activists with a link to the community they serve in favour of ex-Muslims who, though admirable and more congenial to one’s values, enjoy no grassroots support and are thus incapable of effecting Islamic reform.
Shabir Ally says much the same thing about religious extremism and gets a respectful hearing from Muslims. You would think the New Atheists would make better use of a lavishly bearded imam who churns out videos urging a humane Islamic view on the death penalty, apostasy, blasphemy laws, penal reform, and an enlightened reading of hadiths, but it’s doubtful they’ve ever heard of an Islamic thinker not featured on Jihad Watch.
This omission of broad-minded Muslim intellectuals makes them a propaganda asset for hawks in the US and Israel keen to portray its opponents as just religious zealots. And some of them go beyond merely being useful to power. They are in active collusion with it. Werleman notes that “Harris parrots far right wing, pro-Israel propagandist [Alan] Dershowitz, who has often called for genocide against specific Palestinian villages; smears any critic of Israeli policy as an anti-Semite, including the Reverend Desmond Tutu, and is known for heinous racist remarks, including his assertion that all criminals in South Africa are black”.
The New Atheism succeeds as entertainment value. Hitchens and Harris are witty and charismatic figures with great appeal to their admirers. Like the urbane William F. Buckley before them, they know how to spin a good joke, and they bring the fun back into an arid intellectual life. But the new atheism fails as a coherent strategy for engineering political change. It is the triumph of personalities over principle. For making these pointed observations C J Werleman has been the subject of a hate campaign by Hitchenites, Harrisites and kindred parasites. 72 hours after publication the book was deluged by 20 negative reviews on Amazon by the fanboys, none with an Amazon verified purchase. Reading books before you review them is for suckers. Just bash the wicked malefactor who blasphemes the demigods of Reason. They did the same to Richard Seymour’s critical biography of Hitchens when it came out. And to Chris Hedges before that. The cult is amusing, but if the findings of The New Atheist Threat are anything to go by, the truth will out.