Richard Dawkins, the preppy septuagenarian and professional atheist whose work in the field of evolutionary biology informs his godless worldview, has always been a prickly fellow. The British scientist and former Oxford University professor has expended considerable ink and precious breath rationalizing away the possibility of cosmic forces and explaining in scientific terms why those who believe in a divine creator are, well, stupid.It appears, however, that some of those believers are stupider than others. At least according to a recent series of tweets by Dawkins, who served up a hostile helping of snark this week aimed at followers of the Muslim faith. It’s a group that has come to occupy a special place in his line of fire — and in the minds of a growing club of no-God naysayers who have fast rebranded atheism into a popular, cerebral and more bellicose version of its former self.
The New Atheists, they are called, offer a departure from the theologically based arguments of the past, which claimed that science wasn’t all that important in disproving the existence of God. Instead, Dawkins and other public intellectuals like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens suffocate their opponents with scientific hypotheses, statistics and data about the physical universe — their weapons of choice in a battle to settle the scores in a debate that has raged since the days of Aristotle. They’re atheists with attitudes, as polemical as they are passionate, brash as they are brainy, and while they view anyone who does not share their unholier-than-thou worldview with skepticism and scorn, their cogitations on the creation of the universe have piqued the interest of even many believers. With that popularity, they’ve built lucrative empires. Dawkins and Harris are regulars in major publications like the New York Times and the Economist, and their books — “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins and “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Harris — top bestseller lists and rake in eye-popping royalties.
The power of these New Atheists’ provocations is their ability to reach popular audiences and move their geeky discussions from lecture halls and libraries (Harris has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D in neuroscience from UCLA) to the sets of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” where hipsters and yuppies alike digest their sardonic sound bites, repeating them to their online networks in 140 characters or less.
Though Dawkins, Harris and company have been around for years, their presence on the public scene used to be more muted. An atheist then was something you simply were. It wasn’t a full-time career. But in 2001 a man named Mohammed Atta and his Middle Eastern comrades decided to fly jetliners into the Twin Towers and everything changed. A man of strong Christian faith was in the White House, leading the battle against terrorism in often-religious language. Millions of Americans who had wandered off the path of faith returned to their churches in search of answers. Evangelical pastors were jolted to rock star–like status, waving their hands over crowds of thousands in basketball arenas that soon became “mega churches.” And a small number of Muslim extremists, intent on advancing bin Laden’s violent vision, turned their faith into a force of evil, striking out and killing innocent Western civilians at every opportunity.
The New Atheists had found their calling. The occasion was, for them, a vindication — proof that modernity, progress and reason were the winners in the post–Cold War era and that religion was simply man’s play toy, used to excuse the wicked and assuage fears of a fiery, heavenless afterlife as the punishment for such profane deeds.
Four days after the tragedy, Dawkins could barely contain his intellectual triumphalism. “Those people [the terrorists] were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards,” he wrote in the Guardian. “On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from. It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East, which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.”
Until 9/11, Islam didn’t figure in the New Atheists’ attacks in a prominent way. As a phenomenon with its roots in Europe, atheism has traditionally been the archenemy of Christianity, though Jews and Judaism have also slipped into the mix. But emboldened by their new-found fervor in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the New Atheists joined a growing chorus of Muslim-haters, mixing their abhorrence of religion in general with a specific distaste for Islam (In 2009, Hitchens published a book called “God Is Not Great,” a direct smack at Muslims who commonly recite the Arabic refrain Allah Akbar, meaning “God is great”). Conversations about the practical impossibility of God’s existence and the science-based irrationality of an afterlife slid seamlessly into xenophobia over Muslim immigration or the practice of veiling. The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason. “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.”
For Harris, the ankle-biter version of the Rottweiler Dawkins, suicide bombers and terrorists are not aberrations. They are the norm. They have not distorted their faith by interpreting it wrongly. They have lived out their faith by understanding it rightly. “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge,” he writes in “Letter to a Christian Nation.”
That may sound like the psychobabble of Pamela Geller. But Harris’s crude departure from scholarly decorum is at least peppered with references to the Quran, a book he cites time and again, before suggesting it be “flushed down the toilet without fear of violent reprisal.”
Dawkins, in a recent rant on Twitter, admitted that he had not ever read the Quran, but was sufficiently expert in the topic to denounce Islam as the main culprit of all the world’s evil:
“Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.”
How’s that for a scientific dose of scientific method?
A few days later, on March 25, there was this:
“Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism.”
It’s an extraordinary feat for an Oxford scholar to admit that he hasn’t done the research to substantiate his belief, but what’s more extraordinary is that he continues to believe the unsupported claim. That backwards equation — insisting on a conclusion before even launching an initial investigation — defines the New Atheists’ approach to Islam. It’s a pompousness that only someone who believes they have proven, scientifically, the nonexistence of God can possess.
Some of Dawkins’ detractors say that he’s a fundamentalist. Noam Chomsky is one such critic. Chomsky has said that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are “religious fanatics” and that in their quest to bludgeon society with their beliefs about secularism, they have actually adopted the state religion — one that, though void of prayers and rituals, demands that its followers blindly support the whims of politicians. Dawkins rejects such characterizations. “The true scientist,” he writes, “however passionately he may ‘believe’, in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will.”
That’s topsy-turvy logic for a man who says he’s never read the Quran but seconds later hocks up gems like this from his Twitter account:
“Islam is comforting? Tell that to a woman, dressed in a bin bag [trash bag], her testimony worth half a man’s and needing 4 male witnesses to prove rape.”
Then there was this:
“Next gem from BBC Idiot Zoo: ‘Some women feel protected by the niqab.’”
Dawkins’ quest to “liberate” Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berzerk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims. Without researching the facts, Dawkins assumed that gendered seating was compulsory, not voluntary, and quickly fired off this about the “gender apartheid” of the supposedly suppressed Muslims:
“At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males and females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave.”
And then this:
“Sexual apartheid. Maybe these odious religious thugs will get their come-uppance?”
Of course, the fact that the Barclays Center in New York recently offered gender-separate seating options for Orthodox Jews during a recent concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman didn’t compute in Dawkins’ reasoning. Neither did the case of El Al Airlines, the flag carrier of Israel, when, in August of 2012, a stewardess forced a Florida woman to swap seats to accommodate the religious practice of a haredi Orthodox man. Even if Dawkins were aware of these episodes, he likely wouldn’t have made a fuss about them. They undermine the conclusion he has already reached, that is, that only Muslims are freedom-haters, gender-separating “thugs.”
Where exactly Dawkins gets his information about Islam is unclear (perhaps Fox News?). What is clear, though, is that his unique brand of secular fundamentalism cozies up next to that screeched out by bloggers on the pages of some of the Web’s most vicious anti-Muslim hate sites. In a recent comment he posted on his own Web site, Dawkins references a site called Islam Watch, placing him in eerily close proximity to the likes of one of the page’s founders, Ali Sina, an activist who describes himself as “probably the biggest anti-Islam person alive.” Sina is a board member for the hate group, Stop the Islamization of Nations, which was founded by anti-Muslim activists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer and which has designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Dawkins is also on record praising the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a man who says that he “hates Islam” and that Muslims who desire to remain in the Netherlands should “rip out half of the Koran” (Later, he blabbed that the Muslim holy book should be banned entirely). The peroxide-blonde leader of the Party of Freedom, who faced trial in 2009 for hate speech, produced an amateurish flick called “Fitna” the year before. The 17-minute film was chockablock with racist images such as Muhammad’s head attached to a ticking time bomb and juxtapositions of Muslims and Nazis. For Dawkins, it was pure bliss. “On the strength of ‘Fitna’ alone, I salute you as a man of courage who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy,” he wrote.
When it comes to ripping pages out of books, Dawkins is a pro. His rhetoric on Muslims comes nearly verbatim from the playbook of the British Nationalist Party and other far right groups in the UK. BNP leader Nick Griffin once told a group in West Yorkshire that Islam was a “wicked and vicious faith” and that Asian Muslims were turning Old Blighty into a multiracial purgatory.
For his part, Dawkins spins wild conspiracy theories claiming that ordinary terms like “communities” and “multiculturalism” are actually ominous code words for “Muslims” and “Islam,” respectively. The English Defence League, a soccer hooligan street gang that has a history of threatening Muslims with violence and assaulting police officers, has made identical claims, as have leaders of Stop the Islamization of Europe (SIOE), a ragtag coterie of neo-Nazis whose hate franchise spans two continents: Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), its American counterpart, is led by bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. In July of 2011, Dawkins re-published a lengthy diatribe by former SIOE leader Stephen Gash on his website. Gash, too, has an aversion for scholarly decorum. He once unleashed a public temper tantrum during a debate on Islam at the esteemed Cambridge University Union Society, shouting and storming out of the auditorium when the invited speaker, a Muslim, rebutted his ideas before the audience.
Dawkins has no monopoly on intellectual flimsiness, though. As does the teacher so does the student. And Harris is every bit the Dawkins student. In “The End of Faith,” Harris maintains that Israel — the untouchable, can-do-no-evil love of so many Islamophobes — upholds the human rights of Palestinians to a high standard.
The Israelis have shown a degree of restraint in their use of violence that the Nazis never contemplated and that, more to the point, no Muslim society would contemplate today. Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews if the Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism? It would be no more likely than Muhammad’s flying to heaven on a winged horse.
It’s obviously impossible to prove such a farcical statement, but Harris, to his everlasting discredit, tries. His evidence? A statement made by attorney (and plagiarist), Alan Dershowitz, one of America’s strongest (and loudest) supporters of the Israeli right wing.
How the New Atheists’ anti-Muslim hate advances their belief that God does not exist is not exactly clear. In this climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment, it’s a convenient digression, though. They’ve shifted their base and instead of simply trying to convince people that God is a myth, they’ve embraced the monster narrative of the day. That’s not rational or enlightening or “free thinking” or even intelligent. That’s opportunism. If atheism writ large was a tough sell to skeptics, the “New Atheism,” Muslim-bashing atheism, must be like selling Bibles to believers. After all, those who are convinced that God exists, and would otherwise dismiss the Dawkins’ and Harris’s of the world as hell-bound kooks, are often some of the biggest Islamophobes. It’s symbiosis — and as a biologist, Dawkins should know a thing or two about that. Proving that a religion — any religion — is evil, though, is just as pointless and impossible an endeavor as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist. Neither has been accomplished yet. And neither will.
This piece originally appeared at Salon on March 30, 2013.