Anti-theism: Reason or Bigotry?

(First published for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science)


‘Islamophobia’ is a word that divides opinion like few others. Proponents of multi-culturalism see it as a description of xenophobic tendencies, whilst many nationalists unwaveringly fulfil this definition with bigoted opinions of non-native cultures. Those in favour of multi-culturalism often label anti-religion arguments as being those of ‘Islamophobes’.

This leads to all kinds of interesting questions: is it right to say that anti-theism is ‘Islamophobic’? Is anti-theism, more generally, opposed to multi-culturalism? And ethically speaking, how can we separate more bigoted fascist opinions from anti-theism? It’s these kinds of areas that I would to briefly look at.


What is ‘Islamophobia’?

Islamophobia is a fairly unique word in the modern world. As a rationalist, I spend some time arguing against the doctrine of faith present in all religions, yet I have never been accused of being ‘Christianophobic’ or ‘Judaiophobic’ like I have ‘Islamophobic’. This in itself says something about the focus: people are much more comfortable with criticisms of ‘native’ religions than perceived ‘foreign’ religions, or perhaps much more wary about prejudice toward Muslims in the aftermath of the last decade of ever increasing Islamic terrorism. I can certainly sympathise with this; after all, I do not agree with the spiritual views of Islam, but I certainly don’t think that believing in nonsense should subject you to prejudice, in general.

Ignoring the roots of its almost unique cultural existence, ‘Islamophobia’ could be described more thoroughly as ‘a fear, prejudice or hatred of Islam or Muslims’.


Is anti-theism ‘Islamophobic’?

I will simplify things by defining ‘anti-theism’ as referencing a movement opposed to the rational and ethical problems with religion. From this base there are two feasible answers.

Firstly, yes, anti-theism is ‘Islamophobic’ in the sense that it fears the effect that unquestioning Islamic belief would have in society. Anti-theism comes from a base of reason and critical thinking – believing both are necessary to progress society as a moral and technical matter. To dissolve these positive mental characteristic in favour of unquestioning faith in beliefs, which science at worst is unsure about and at best disproves, is not a good move.

A more thorough answer, though, would be a resounding ‘no’. Anti-theism is not Islamophobic any more than democracy is ‘fascist-phobic’. Anti-theism promotes reason as an antidote to religion: it is the opposite of religion, so could not sensibly be in fear of it. Those who promote anti-theism might fear the effect of widespread Islamic belief, but they do not fear or hate Muslims out of anti-theism, and neither do they single out Islam above other religions. If faith is the real problem – which anti-theism states to be true – then Islamophobia does not seem like an accurate word to describe it. To single out anti-theism as Islamophobic would be to purposefully ignore that it is, to the same extent, phobic of other religious beliefs. Given the culturally sensitive definition of Islamophobia, it seems ill suited to charging anti-theism.


Is anti-theism opposed to multi-culturalism?

It is very easy to get sucked into the belief that if one disagrees with religion, then one must also disagree with the culture that sustains it: thus it is attractive to link anti-theism with opposition to multi-culturalism. I happen to think this connection is logically flawed, and here’s why.

Multi-culturalism makes no reference to religion, it simply refers to a community that contains more than one culture. This leads to diversity, which is an extremely valuable commodity in any society. What multi-culturalists often confuse is that a mixture of cultures, and even a mixture of different beliefs, is a different thing to a mixture of fatally opposing beliefs. If churches or mosques were themselves simply meeting places, locations for communal events, there would be no moral issue with them. Similarly, if children were baptised into diverse communities, or held rugs with which to sit on in communal events rather than pray on, then it is easy to see how the cultures of many religions would not be at all harmful.

It is that specific part of religion – the actual spiritual beliefs, and valuing of faith as a reasonable way to make decisions in the real world – that causes the problems. The culture might be used as a way to keep people indoctrinated, but in a far off time much of these cultural events might also be used as diverse, communal events instead. Anti-theism is not opposed to multi-culturalism as a general matter, and an informed anti-theist should be very aware of the social, political and economic benefits that diversity brings to any society.

The confusion comes with those cultural events that are purely useful for religious purposes. Prayer, The Eucharist, religious sermons, etc. Anti-theism opposes the harm these do in allowing people to believe ridiculous things, in the same way that proponents of democracy might dismiss the cultural hero worship of dictators. It is not a marker of opposing multi-culturalism. Anti-theism believes in reason, but reason does not dictate that everyone must value the same cultural environment.


Seperating anti-theism from fascism

When we speak about the bigotry of fascism, we often see it residing in nationalist covers. The UK is a great example, with the most anti-Islam party being the British National Party – a group which is no stranger to debates on racism and xenophobia more generally.

There really are no similarities between anti-theism and parties like the BNP. The BNP have no good reason to oppose Islam – indeed they are very much in favour of Christianity, they simply dislike the idea of any immigration, or of anyone living in the country who wasn’t born here. These are incredibly irrational opinions, based on discontinuous line drawing around what constitutes a ‘British’ person, or as to what ‘belong’ means. This just seems like a really weak philosophy borne out of a fear of difference – the same fear of difference that underpins much prejudice.

Anti-theism instead grows from reason. Reason would oppose almost every policy the BNP puts forward, including those anti-Islam policies, as they are based on unsound reasoning. In fact reason underpins science, which in turn is built on the valuing of method: it doesn’t matter what your conclusions are, if you can’t prove it with a sound method then you’ve not provided good science. Anti-theism disagrees with Islam due to what Islam actually comprises of – not due to the country where it came from – and as a result it holds none of the same beliefs that nationalist groups do.

The task on everyone is to understand and argue this massive difference. It is very easy to get caught up in the emotion of a culturally sensitive word like ‘Islamophobia’, but let’s not confuse reason with bigotry. Nationalists and anti-theism might seem to share a distaste for Islam, but even that is of a very different flavour. Rationalists must not be seduced by the occasionally appealing conclusions of nationalism, just as proponents of multi-culturalism mustn’t fail to recognise when the similarities they think they spot are actually on either side of the grandest intellectual canyon.