In recent weeks much has been made of the assertion that rational atheism is “being used as a cover for Islamophobia”. The following article, written by Glenn Greenwald, is one of the more well known examples:
Harris, much like Christopher Hitchens, sometimes takes a somewhat perplexing political position for an atheist liberal. For Hitchens, politics became blurred after a famously socialist belief system and his the famous example was in support of the war in Iraq. Harris’ big issue has been with gun control, as he came out in support of individuals owning fire arms for protection.
This is not the conversation here, though. This attack, primarily focused on Harris, posits that the New Atheist argument against faith (in particularly the faith of Islam) is a cover for racism or xenophobia. Yet, it is difficult to even get the debate started. Harris and New Atheism in general have always been vocal in their criticism of all religion, with Harris himself writing an entire book on the Christian faith. Similarly, Islam is only focused on when the difference between Islam and the likes of Mormonism is described (Harris is right to point out that Broadway hit ‘The Book of Mormon’, if directed at the prophet Mohamed, would have lead to deadly terrorist attacks or threats and not just letter writing campaigns).
The articles on both sides have actually made these points already (the conversation posted by Harris explains it perfectly well: Dear Fellow Liberal). There are two further points which I haven’t seen dissected as yet.
Firstly, what should we say about the likes of Greenwald’s opinions? Harris has pointed out at various times that his criticism of Islam is primarily in defense of women and homosexuals, who are second class citizens under Islamic regimes. If American, or UK, citizens were treated the way women and homosexuals are treated under many Islamic regimes, would Greenwald be so quick to ignore the religious element? Liberals of Greenwalds position often defend themselves by releasing religion from the blame and trying to state that the problem is actually economic or social factors. The argument goes that In the US, the problem with gay marriage opposition isn’t Christianity, it’s bigoted people using Christianity as an excuse. Similarly, the problem with any Islamic regimes isn’t Islam, it is religious people being influenced by other factors.
There is a big hole in this argument…actually, there are two. Firstly, it doesn’t seem xenophobic to state that an Islamic regime is immoral because it follows Islamic law; and so noting the correlation between the two obviously connected things. That’s a factual statement. Islam is a religion, and like any religion it provides broad and arbitrary justification for more or less anything you want it to – especially, in Islam, explicit support for the dehumanisation of women and homosexuals. So even if people are just using it to justify what they already want to do, or what they feel they need to do, then the problem is still religion. In this case, the particular religion of Islam. In the UK, for instance, we do not dehumanise women under law, as we have peeled back the influence of religion by forcing an ever increasing secularization to counter the damage. It’s not xenophobic to note that many Islamic regimes are not secular and so are not reasonable.
Secondly, religion might be irrational but it does play a big role in people’s lives – for some people it provides reasons to live that go beyond the boundaries of the material. Those terrorists who flew planes into the world trade towers did believe they were going to a better place because of what they did – we have no reason to doubt this. Indeed, religion and spiritual worldviews are the only reason people ever reject rational, worldly reasoning in favour of the promise of an afterlife. If it turned out that they did not believe in what they said they did, then we would be at a loss to explain their behavior (peer pressure starts to become a weak motivation when it forces you to kill yourself in a place where your pressuring peers have little influence…). So if Greenwald were to use this counter argument, he would arbitrarily be doubting the sincerely stated beliefs of the religious – in this case Muslims. That is the very definition of xenophobia – doubting other people’s sincerity based on their cultural difference to you, whereas your own sincerity is obviously intact.
The only thing to take away from the debate – which, unfortunately, is one of liberals barking up an ever more distant tree – is to ensure that Islam is not isolated in the theory on the problems of faith. All religions are problematic in providing this justification for almost anything you want to believe and thus the separation of individual beliefs from rational consistency, not just Islam. In the west, we have started chipping away at Christianity’s stranglehold and have been successful at progressing toward a secular, more rational state – one in which even the more religious people in society are largely rational in comparison to what they were centuries earlier. But this is the only reason why Islam is currently a bigger threat than Christianity. Islamic regimes fight secularisation with violence and so long as reason and skeptisism fail to seep into public consciousness in these countries (or even into Western thought about these regimes) then Islam will always be a bigger threat to human safety than the likes of Christianity.
It isn’t xenophobic to identify these problems, but it arguably is xenophobic for liberal journalists to ignore them whilst maintaining a veneer of being ethically consistent; such a position requires xenophobic arguments about the sincerity of cultural beliefs.