The resurrection of ‘new atheism’

Hamid Dabashi

In March this year, a new volume called, The Four Horsemen, hit the book market in the United States. The book boasts an introduction by British comedian Stephen Fry, three essays and the transcript of the 2007 recorded discussion among four proponents of the so-called “new atheism” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.
Prior to this encounter, all four had authored books arguing that religion and “holy war” pose the greatest threat to human civilisation and therefore, religiosity should not be tolerated in “Western societies”.
Their works – Dawkins’s, The God Delusion, Harris’s, The End of Faith, Dennett’s, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Hitchens’s, God Is Not Great – were all essentially written as a blind reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and all zoomed in on Islam and the Muslim world, demonstrating a remarkable ignorance of both.
Needless to say, neither of the four was able to offer any serious historical understanding of this terror act, why it happened, what it meant, or how to prevent similar acts of wanton violence in the future. Nor did they make any intellectually challenging or noteworthy contribution to the millennia-old debate on belief and disbelief in God.
That publishers have chosen to resurrect, today, this 12-year-old Islamophobic backslapping session advertised as a “landmark discussion about modern atheism” is indeed quite telling. With white supremacy currently flourishing in the US and elsewhere, a book on “new atheism” – a pseudo-intellectual movement that has heavily contributed to its rise – would surely sell.
Spectacular ignorance
Before proceeding any further, let us be clear: Atheism as such is a perfectly healthy proposition and the world, including the Muslim part of it, has never been devoid of atheists – all the power to them.
Across religions and cultures, there are decent and reasonable atheists, as there are equally decent and reasonable believers, who can and should openly engage in debate about religion and the belief in God without succumbing to hatred and convictions in one’s supremacy. Such open and honest conversations are indeed healthy for any community or nation and should be encouraged.
But what the so-called “four horsemen” have engaged in during their 2007 discussion and in their public appearances and writings, is not an open and honest debate. Instead, the entirety of their work is just a vicious attack on a 1.5-billion-strong, immensely diverse and dynamic community.
So who are these four “new atheist” crusaders (yes, they may deny it, but they are indeed very much the product of the white Western Christian crusader tradition)? They are all white older men, who have never embarked on studying Islam, do not speak Arabic – the language of the Qur’an – and certainly have no special insight into any Muslim community on earth. They are, literally, illiterate.
Let us take Sam Harris, for example. In his book, End of Faith, he dedicates a whole chapter to the “The Problem with Islam.” There, he explains that: “While Christianity has few living inquisitors today, Islam has many … In our opposition to the world view of Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and fourteenth-century hordes are pouring into our world. Unfortunately, they are now armed with twenty-first-century weapons.” One is left breathless considering whether to address the unabashed racism, the astonishing ignorance, or the barefaced vulgarity of such utterances.
The other rabid Islamophobe, Dawkins uses the infamous Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, which sparked mass protests in a few Muslim countries, to portray in his book, The God Delusion, all Muslims as a gang of delusional psychopaths. In his opinion: “Danes just live in a country with a free press, something that people in many Islamic countries might have a hard time understanding.” With this one sentence, Dawkins tries (but fails) to erase the long and sustained history of Muslims’ struggle for freedom of expression and truthful journalism.
In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett, too, engages in some sweeping and vastly inaccurate conclusions. For example, he makes the following mind-boggling observation: “It is worth recalling that the Arabic word Islam means ‘submission’. The idea that Muslims should put the proliferation of Islam ahead of their own interests is built right into the etymology of its name.” Yet, Islam means submission to the will of God, which is a central theological pillar in many religions and which has nothing to do with “proliferation of Islam”.
Last but not least, Hitchens is equally creative with his spurious conclusions about Islam in God Is Not Great. Just one example would suffice: “Real horror of the porcine is manifest all over the Islamic world. One good instance would be the continued prohibition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the most charming and useful fables of modern times, of the reading of which Muslim schoolchildren are deprived.”
I am a Muslim. I was born and raised in a Muslim country. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in Persian in Iran when I was a teenager. The book was translated into Persian soon after its publication in English, and ever since has had numerous Persian translations and I, myself, have repeatedly included it in my courses.