Salon Writer Misrepresents Sam Harris and New Atheism… Again December 11, 2015

Salon Writer Misrepresents Sam Harris and New Atheism… Again

Another week, another hand-wringing screed at Salon about New Atheists.

I see straw men everywhere.

The headline this time declares “Sam Harris can’t be redeemed: Ben Carson, Noam Chomsky and the defining hypocrisy of the New Atheist movement,” and Ben Norton‘s article details what he sees as the “anti-religious fundamentalist” views of New Atheists.

Norton focuses on comments by Sam Harris, but he mentions Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher as well; and from this rather small sampling of New Atheists, he decides that New Atheists are essentially just a bunch of anti-religious fanatics.

Like fellow “New Atheists” Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, Harris is not so much a secularist as he is an anti-religious fundamentalist. The difference between the so-called New Atheists and the “Old Atheists,” if you will, is that the Old Atheists did not adopt a knee-jerk contrarian zealotry. Old Atheists were opposed to all forms of fundamentalism, including the anti-religious variety; the New Atheists embrace it.

Welcome to a master class in painting with broad brush strokes.

This theme continues throughout the piece. Again and again, Norton takes issue with the views of specific New Atheists, and attributes them to New Atheists in general. The fact that many New Atheists take issue with (and are outspoken about) the same points Norton raises doesn’t seem to register. We are described as a monolith, with all the lack of nuance and distinction you’d expect from a right wing demagogue describing Muslims.

To the New Atheist, as long as brutal Western-backed dictators like [Egyptian leader] Sisi or violent religious militarily occupying powers like Israel defend Western civilization, it does not matter how much blood they spill. (This is naturally quite easy to say when it is not your blood being spilled.) Such is the price of preserving civilization.

These are not only weighty charges to level against that extraordinarily broad field of people, but they’re not even well supported by Norton’s own evidence against the specific individuals he mentions. For instance, he highlights some comments by Hirsi Ali regarding Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In this, one of the only attempts in his article to offer qualifiers, Norton writes that “many New Atheists adore Sisi.” (Don’t be too impressed with this nuance; a paragraph earlier he was writing, without any limiters, about how “Ayaan Hirsi Ali exemplified the inherent conservatism of New Atheism.”)

They adore the brutal dictator because he overthrew Egypt’s moderate Islamist government and brutally repressed the elected Muslim Brotherhood party. They adore the blood-soaked despot because he is ostensibly secular, and because he called for reform in Islam.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Ali characterized Sisi as a “special” reformer. “He’s not only locking them up; he also wants to engage intellectually, and he also wants to engage with what is it about the religion that is wrong. And I think we need to give him that.” In Ali’s eyes, Sisi is an enlightened despot, and his religious beliefs are what make all the difference.

Now, aside from the stretch of calling the Muslim Brotherhood “moderate” (a peculiar term indeed for a party that is, for instance, staunchly opposed to basic rights and protections for women and LGBT people), this illustrates that Hirsi Ali views Sisi favorably, at least compared to the alternative. If that was the extent of his point, fair enough. But nothing here indicates that Hirsi Ali is unconcerned about bloodshed, much less that she thinks that “it does not matter how much blood” is spilled. On the contrary, she specifically refers to locking people up and engaging with them intellectually.

If Norton quoted this to examine the impact on free speech, or something of that nature, again, fair enough. But to suggest that she doesn’t care how much blood Sisi spills when she specifically, favorably highlights how he’s doing things other than spilling blood is dishonest. You don’t have to agree with her to recognize that she is not endorsing wanton slaughter.

But it’s Sam Harris who bears the brunt of Norton’s ire — and serves as his model for what New Atheists believe. (Never mind the fact that Harris’ opinions are regularly criticized throughout the atheist community when warranted.) It’s Harris’ recent comments about casting his vote for Ben Carson in a hypothetical match up between Carson and Noam Chomsky that particularly irritate Norton.

Most striking in the approximately two-hour-long discussion [of the November episode of his “Waking Up” podcast] were comments Harris made about renowned left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky and far-right Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.

“Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time,” Harris said in the podcast, without hesitation.

“Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile… The fact that he is a candidate for president is a scandal,” Harris continued. “But at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.”

Harris was arguing that some on the far left have a perception of jihadists that is so unrealistic that even a Christian fanatic like Carson would be preferable. (This is, for the record, a point of view I do not at all share; throwing your weight behind one set of religious fanatics in order to combat another is a dangerous and likely futile move, and one I certainly would not support, regardless of how naïve I believed the alternative to be.)

It’s worth noting that Harris’ comments were met with disbelief from plenty of atheists, eliciting reactions like “Oh, Sam Harris. Do shut up now.” And “Jeebus, Sam Harris again.” And “Sam Harris goes totally bonkers.”

But these, again, don’t register for Norton. As he sees it, Harris’ remarks were not only an expression of conservatism (despite the fact that they were in no sense an endorsement of the “dangerously deluded religious imbecile” conservative candidate), but seem to represent the views of New Atheists as whole.

Anti-religious prophet Sam Harris has, once again, exposed the conservatism at the heart of the so-called “New Atheist” movement.

There are, it seems to me, two striking problems with Norton’s assessment. The first is his insistence that the views of a few prominent atheists are representative of all atheists, with no thought to the frequent and often heated rebuttals from within the New Atheist community. The second is the straw-manning of Harris’ actual points, to suggest that Harris is genuinely supporting people like Ben Carson.

Or European fascists.

This is by no means the first time Harris has expressed approval for far-right politicians. Harris’ remarks vis-à-vis Ben Carson are strongly reminiscent of his public insistence, in a 2006 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, that “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.”

Norton is wildly misrepresenting Harris’ words here.

Far from expressing “approval” for fascists in the referenced op-ed, Harris was warning that a naïve worldview from liberals would actually further the political fortunes of religious fanatics and fascists.

Harris wrote:

Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies. Religious dogmatism is now playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game.

While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.

The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.

To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.

Again, you don’t have to agree with Harris to realize that he’s not advocating fascism or expressing support for fascist politicians. But Norton seems to be looking for sound bites to support his preposterous suggestion that New Atheists are conservative, anti-religious fundamentalists, rather than engaging with what’s actually been said. It’s a tactic we saw CJ Werleman use in his own dishonest book about the New Atheist movement.

Which is too bad. In attempting to show how “fundamentally reactionary” New Atheists are, Norton missed the opportunity to offer thoughtful critiques of specific positions, opting instead for baseless generalizations and straw men.

(Image via Shutterstock)



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