Earlier this month, Richard Dawkins stirred a huge controversy by tweeting that Trinity College at Cambridge University has had more Nobel Prize winners than the entire Muslim world. Prominent columnists and academics such as Owen Jones and Nathan Lean slammed his inflammatory assertions and those of his ideological allies, the “New Atheists.".
Murtaza Hussain, a frequent contributor to Al-Jazeera and co-editor at Muftah, recently wrote a piece titled “A litmus test for anti-Muslim bigotry,” criticizing the likes of Dawkins and other New Atheists such as Sam Harris. Recently, Hussain sat with me to discuss the recent Dawkins controversy and the phenomenon of New Atheism.
Criticism of religion has happened in the era of Karl Marx and Frederick Nietzsche. What makes New Atheism different from the historical critique of religion?
I think there is a great difference between attacking religion and attacking people, using supposedly academic religious critique as a bludgeon to push forward other agendas. Atheism has traditionally been seen as a leftist cause, in large part because it was identified with people such as Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky and concepts such as anti-imperialism and socialism. Their criticisms were borne in large part out of compassion for the downtrodden and outrage at the role they saw that religious authorities played in perpetuating oppression, and this was admirable.
This “New Atheist” movement comes across as quite different. In stark contrast to the atheism of Russell or Chomsky, it seems to be based in large part out of hatred and contempt for religious people themselves. There is little attempt to understand the role that religion plays for people who make up the oppressed and poor around the world, or to understand the humanistic arguments made by actual theologians. It is an atheism for the elite, a new way to sneer down at lesser peoples.
What seems to be the goal of the New Atheist movement?
They put forth a narrative in which religion is the basic cause of the world’s ills, and if it could be eliminated all would be well. This strikes me as incredibly utopian. The way in which this argument is made seems to evince a lot of moral certitude and to be almost fanatical in its conviction. One of the problems I have with their critique is that they only seem capable of criticizing the most retrograde religious beliefs in the world. Most of the supposedly unimpeachable criticisms are the kinds of things which are debunked in the initial stages of actual theological study in any tradition.
None of them have studied theology at any length, and they seem unable to engage with any of the intelligent arguments that actually exist for God or theism. They argue against an anthropomorphic God which few people believe in, and build huge strawmen arguments which they then gleefully burn in order assert their own intellectual and moral superiority. This is anti-intellectualism masquerading as enlightenment, pop-culture atheism for a generation that demands instant gratification.
You criticized Sam Harris in one of your earlier pieces. What exactly is the crux of your argument against his assertions about religion, Islam in particular?
Sam Harris has made very strident and sweeping criticisms of Muslim people and Islam, and has been among the most vocal in insinuating that we need to start using broader means against Muslims in order to deal with the threat they pose. He specifically talks in sweeping terms about “Muslims” and not “criminals” or “extremists," which is either an oversight or deliberately intended. He also seems to imply that he has some unique knowledge to the innate savagery of Muslims and Islamic ideology based on his own study.
What I find especially curious about this is that Harris doesn’t appear to have any actual experience in the Muslim world, doesn’t speak Arabic, and doesn’t appear to know anything about Islam other than having flipped through a copy of the Quran on a weekend. I’m not sure where he thinks he got the authority or knowledge to make these sweeping claims, which are vociferously disputed by people who have actually lived for years in Muslim societies. He is clearly scared of Muslims, and his fear has allowed him to demonize them as an abstraction, and as this force which must be dealt with using any means necessary. This is especially malign when he starts doing things like articulating a calculus for violence against Muslims based on his tabloid caricature of what their beliefs are.
When it comes to Islam as a religion (separate from “Muslims”), there is a huge Quranic exegesis out there that Harris does not even attempt to engage with. His Islam is essentially the same as that of the Taliban. They’re both anti-intellectual but at least the Taliban can plead poverty and ignorance. I read a piece by him recently in which he tried to refute charges that he was bigoted by showing that he liked Sufi music. This is like trying to refute charges of racism by talking about how much you love jazz.
Has Dawkins recently been on a tirade against Islam? How do you perceive his latest attack?
Dawkins is basically “trolling” Muslims. What he is saying might be true, but it can also be applied to many groups such as Hindus, blacks, Chinese people, etc. In fact, it can be applied to every group in the world besides white males who live in Western countries. This is largely a function of the fact that over the past 100 years during which the Nobel Prizes have existed, the primary institutions of power have only been accessible to certain groups of people in the West, and I think he knows this.
For a man of science, it was a dumb comment to make, and while I don’t believe he is a bigot I do believe throwing around comments on Twitter about the underachievement of minorities is a bit of a bigoted thing to do. This is unfortunate because Dawkins is someone who I have disagreed with very much in the past but also have admired at times for principled stances he has taken.
What has been the reaction to the criticisms that you have made from the followers of Harris and Dawkins?
Some of it has been thoughtful, and some has been very reflexively emotional and irrational which I found a bit ironic. To me it just shows that all humans are basically alike and are very prone to succumbing to the same follies, in whatever form they may take. It is just as easy to become a blind dogmatist for scientific materialism and its tenets as it is for religious orthodoxy. When you believe in something with great moral certitude you can very easily start demonizing people who don’t fall in line with your views, and often even start countenancing violence against them in the name of "progress." Eliminating religion doesn’t do anything more than creating a vacuum, and it’s entirely possible that that vacuum could be filled with something bad or even worse than what preceded it.
We should be compassionate with one another and not succumb to arrogance, or to act like we are the chosen people and that everyone else is merely standing in the way of the real, cleansing truth that we have been sent to bring. This is the same way that religious fanatics behave, and they also feel like it’s OK because “we have the truth.”
In your latest article, you we should avoid generalizing about Muslims. What do you mean when you say that?
Believe it or not religion is inextricably tied up with culture, history, and identity, and it’s not some abstraction that can be analyzed in a lab to understand its properties. We should judge each other based on our merits as individuals as opposed to based upon generalizations and stereotypes. If you want to know what any individual person believes the best thing to do is ask them and get to know them instead of relying on demagogues to mediate your views from a distance.
Murtaza Hussain can be reached on Twitter at @MazMHussain.
For further comment or questions for me, you can reach me on Twitter @UsaidMuneeb16.