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Coffee House

It’s fine to be a ‘new’ atheist, so long as you don’t object to Islam

22 July 2013

5:21 PM

22 July 2013

5:21 PM

Rationality can be an overrated quality in politics. Communism was, after all, so rational that it imagined humans as lumps of clay to be moulded at will – with unsuitable ‘elements’ consigned to the Gulag.

The attempt to apply rational political criteria to the actions of psychopathic movements has also historically led to erroneous political decisions at home: appeasement in the case of Nazi Germany and a frivolous desire to find materialist ‘root causes’ of Islamic extremism.

As the great documenter of Stalinism Robert Conquest put it:

Reliance on reason alone is itself irrational: It neglects the instinctual and deep-set elements of the real human being.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn, then, that there has been something of a backlash of late against the so-called ‘new’ atheists. In some respects this is justified. Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens together with Sam Harris have at times come across as aggressive curmudgeons demanding complete ‘rationality’ from all – in the process turning off many would-be allies.

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What’s interesting, however, is that the backlash is increasingly coming from the non-religious left, which traditionally has been rather fond of rationalist politics.

The American liberal magazine Salon has recently run a series of pieces denouncing the new atheists, with one article accusing them of ‘anti-Muslim hate’. New darling of the Anglo-American left Glenn Greenwald has accused Dawkins and co of ‘fuelling the sustained anti-Muslim demonization campaign of the west’; while Independent columnist Owen Jones claimed last year that there is a “rising tide of anti-Muslim prejudice which dresses itself up as secularism”.

To the casual observer this may seem slightly confusing. A closer examination of the polemics, however, reveals why Dawkins and co have so upset the left. They have fallen foul of an important unspoken code: while Christianity may be cursed to the skies, criticism of Islam must be bookended with ‘religion of peace’ disclaimers or refrained from entirely. The problem is not that the new atheists exult rationality at the expense of a deeper understanding of human affairs; it is that they are too consistent in their denunciations of religion.

Being ‘tolerant’ is also very often seen on the left as more important than being correct. It is certainly considered safer. Criticise Islam too strongly and you may fall out with your multicultural peers, face accusations of colour prejudice or, worse still, provoke a fanatic with a penchant for something stronger than polemics. Have a go at Dawkins on Twitter and someone may start a forum thread about you at Atheism UK.

In sum, should you wish to apply your critical faculties objectively to all religions, be prepared for the shrill accusations of prejudice that will inevitably follow you around – not so much from believers, but from your fellow liberal atheists.

As the American commentator David Frum has phrased it: ‘It’s ok to be an atheist, so long as you omit Islam from your list of the religions to which you object’.

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