Over the past month a refreshed debate between atheism and Islam has been raging in the Anglosphere. While hardly new—Atheists have been intellectually attacking religion in general and Islam in particular since 9/11—this debate has intensified since the exploits of the “Islamic State” have given rise to a new brand of religiously-inspired violence which has terrified much of the West. Bill Maher, Reza Aslan, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris have been the most high-profile participants in this debate by shouting past each other on television.
But while religion genuinely has much to answer for regarding its place in and contribution to the modern world, much of the criticism by the so-called New Atheists has been simplistic and Orientalist—offending many and leaving others unconvinced.
An atheistic point of view
For those who view religion and religious belief as outsiders, it is clear that there are many troubling features of religiosity which seem antiquated at best and dangerous at worst. For example, one of the many objections to religion by Western seculars is the jailing of people like Jabeur Mejri or the repeated attacks and calls for murder against Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. Both men merely posted depictions of the Prophet Mohamed. Indeed, the mocking or disrespect of any idea should never be met by the threat of physical or legal force. The schoolyard rule remains true here: words are fought with words, and only physical attacks, or the imminent threat thereof, warrant physical responses.
When attempting to discredit religiously based actions, atheists generally ignore arguments of moral relativism and instead argue in favor of universal human rights: protections for free expression, blasphemy, apostasy, and other actions which have been claimed to violate various religious traditions such as homosexuality and a denunciation of gender roles. While some see religion as the source of the conception of universal human rights, atheists find no need for religion here either, and instead find secular sources of human rights.
In the face of violent actions which are claimed to be religiously motivated, many mainstream theists (not to use moderate) attempt to distance themselves from the perpetrators thereof. However, when peaceful adherents of a religion state that violent adherents are not actually following the faith, they are engaging in a no true Scotsman argument which merely pits their interpretation of ancient texts against that of their co-religionists, whom often similarly denounces the pacifism or tolerance of the mainstream.
Reza Aslan tells us that often both the violent and peaceful versions of religion can often be validated by interpretations of the same religious text. As such, deciding who ‘truly’ represents the religion is often a fruitless and impossible task. In defending religion, Aslan states,
People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives... If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs. If you are a peaceful, democratic feminist, you will also find justification in the scriptures for your point of view.
So the pious judge religion by their previously-held views, they do not judge their views by their previously-held religion. If this is so, then it is clear that secular foundations of understanding what is right and wrong are the initial sources of our values, and only later do we mold religion to fit that understanding. It has been clear for some time that religion is not a source of scientific knowledge, and Aslan seems to unavoidably imply that it is not a source of ethics, either.
Nietzsche may not have killed God, but Darwin and now Aslan have certainly neutered him, rendering impotent his follower’s claims of wisdom and social value.
Over simplified argumentation
Despite this seemingly strong intellectual foundation from which atheists can argue, their talking points have undermined their positions by being blatantly simplistic.
For example, whether reading about conflicts in the vast majority of human history or the contemporary Arab world, separating politics, religion, and economics is not only difficult, but it renders analysis nonsensical. Attempting to blame this war or that conflict on religion—or even claiming that certain atrocities would not have occurred sans religious motivation—is an illusory argument which engages in counter-factuals and an anachronistic view of human social organization, as most societies have not viewed these concepts as inherently separate. When even the “Islamic State” imposes a claimed “Islamic customs duty” at the edge of their controlled territory, the goals seem more financial than faithful.
Attempting to remove mixed and alternative motivations like individual variables in a physics experiment shows how much more complicated the human world can be than the physical world. If religion provided the only necessary motivation toward violence, then all religious people would be violent. Once another variable is admitted, the confidence in our conclusions must be questioned: is religion the driver and politics or nationalism or patriotism or xenophobia the passenger, or vice versa? This ambiguity shows that it is supremely foolish to conclude that religion is the source of all of our troubles.
Religion is not ‘off the hook’ for providing an excuse to systematically oppress women, nonbelievers, homosexuals, and others for a majority of human history, however. It simply must reasonably share the blame with other human fears, desires, motivations, and institutions.
The original sin of Orientalism
More insidious than poor reasoning is Orientalism. Herein the term will be used to mean a Western tendency and attempt to simplify, other, and impose external interpretations on Islam. While figures like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher have attacked Christianity and religion in general, Islam has been somewhat of an obsession of these vocal critics.
Harris argues that Islam is simply different: its falsehoods more false, its dangers more dangerous. Harris’s contention that modern terrorism flows from Islam dances dangerously close to belonging on Fox News—and is simply incorrect. But the criticism does not stop at an association with terrorism. “Islam breeds theocracy!” many Western atheists have claimed. Any more than Christianity? The goals and methods of Christians have been, both historically and presently, little different than the goals and methods of Muslims, and 34% of Americans want the United States to be a Christian theocracy. While the support for theocracy may be higher in many majority Muslim countries, it’s important to note that the difference is numerical, not categorical. Up until the 1960s Catholic Church had no requirement that non-Catholics be given rights to practice their religion, a guarantee found in the Quran and many historical interpretations thereof (though subject to the problems of interpretation mentioned above). “Islam is anti-democratic!” other Westerners have claimed. Less democratic than Catholicism, with its patriarchal, trans-national hierarchy which emphasizes lay obedience? Many questioned whether Catholic countries could become democratic back when they were the popular group to be othered.
Make no mistake, however: It is specifically Islam which is the object of derision from the New Atheists, not simply non-Western religions. Ignored has been the violence of Buddhists against Muslims, as well as Hindu attacks in India against Hindu female -Muslim male weddings. Just as religious people can justify their motives with religion, these prominent atheists justify their xenophobia toward Islam with critical argumentation. Islam is historically no aberration with respect to other religions on issues of tolerance and violence. Many of its adherents, however, have been the victims of historical and structural violence against their identity groups, the results of which they deal with daily. While there is no acceptable justification for offensive violent action, it is important to understand that this is a background to some of the violence in the Muslim world. Having empathy can allow one to see the broader social and political context in which violence in the name of Islam sometimes occurs. Given similar political and historical backgrounds, violence would find a similar audience within our society, as well. Such empathy would allow us to work with Muslims to mitigate the causes of these exacerbations of violence instead of only addressing their symptoms. But because we live in a post-9/11 world where many Anglophones are unfamiliar with the anthropological context of Islam, the religion of a growing number of those with whom we share our communities, attacking the entire Muslim world is an easy way to sell books and gain applause.
Suggestions for future discussions
Where does the conversation go from here, then? Here are four suggestions for analyzing the role of religion in society and dialogue between atheists and theists:
First, social commentators must take theists at their word when they state religion is the motivation for their actions. Yes, religion is a scapegoat for many, but to impose onto an actor our external ideas of what are his or her real motivations are is simply another form of imperialism. If someone is willing to kill or die for a belief, who are we to not take that person at his or her word, and to simply make presumptions about authenticity and intentions? If the societal value of religion is strong enough to inspire others to commit violence and act immorally, it is a social force worth critiquing. Nonetheless, be mindful about what implicit motivations might also exist: What are their stated goals? What are their methods of achieving those goals? What are the steps taken toward those goals?
Second, religion is simply an identity, which, like any other identity, breeds shared experience, exclusion, animosity, a sense of belonging, and social division. Reza Aslan writes, “As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation.” Even Richard Dawkins has conceded that volunteers for the “Islamic State” sign-up more out of a sense of tribalism than religion. Political science has known for some time that divided societies are generally harder to govern than monolithic ones, and in that way the continued existence of religion presents a political challenge across the world.
Third, all beliefs, including democracy and Islam, must be criticized, defended, and mocked. This is because correct beliefs will be found through a free marketplace of ideas, wherein beliefs are attacked, allowing us to see if they are strongly grounded in reason. Otherwise, we would be engaging in censorship, allowing an authority to determine which beliefs are correct or incorrect. Stifling debate and the flow of beliefs artificially limits the scope of belief destruction and creation, impeding the progress of human thinking and innovation.
Fourth, atheists are generally literalists. Many atheists can only read texts, religious or otherwise, literally. In an odd way, atheists need the religious fundamentalist, the person who thinks Adam and Eve really existed and Noah’s Ark was really built. Atheists know how to counter factual claims, and thus take comfort in easily uncovering the meaning of a text upon its first reading. This is why atheists discount religious texts which have inherent contradictions or are as vague as horoscopes in supplying wisdom. Atheists must realize that religion for many, but of course not all, is an emotional connection with others, a sense of comfort, and something which many believers are fine with not analyzing line-by-line. All the Muslims that I have met, similar to any other religious group, simply want to be good people and to have those they respect view them as such. To the extent that religion is involved in that, which varies greatly, they are religious.
Secularism, especially coupled with humanism, offers a strong alternative to religion as how people see the universe and reality. However, when criticizing religion, atheists must be diligent in crafting arguments. Making shallow statements about the blood on the hands of religion or launching thinly-veiled xenophobic critiques toward Islam will not lead to apostasy, but will encourage Muslims and others to do what all humans do when their identity is being challenged by an outside force: double-down and become stubborn. As is true for much of life, humility and empathy on the part of the religious critic here can go a long way.