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Archive for July 2018


One of the great celebrity “village atheists” of our day, Richard Dawkins, has “stepped in it” again by eliciting a fury over his attitudes toward Islamic culture, and his love for certain aspects of English Christian culture. Neither of these positions is novel or surprising from Richard Dawkins. For many years Richard Dawkins has expressed his love of Christmas as a cultural tradition freighted with memories which he recalls fondly. In contrast, Dawkins has long expressed a negative view of Islamic culture.

Of course, a single tweet like the above is loaded with cultural signifiers, meanings, and implications. Many are accusing Richard Dawkins of being a bigot. Here is one dictionary definition of a bigot:

…a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.

This seems to fit Richard Dawkins very well in a broad sense. Dawkins is quite intolerant of many religious groups. In 2006, during the peak of Richard Dawkins’ fame as a celebrity village atheist in the 2000s, when he was promoting books such as The God Delusion and filming documentaries such as The Root of all Evil, he made little effort to hide his contempt and disdain for religion and the religious. Consider this exchange with Colorado pastor Ted Haggard:

As an atheist from an English background, Dawkins is disdainful and contemptuous of American evangelical Protestant Christianity. Haggard becomes offended during the course of the above interview with Dawkins, today we would say “triggered”, because of Dawkins’ acidic brandishing of his infidel views with no apology or grace. He even analogizes Haggards’ megachurch worship service to the Nazi Nuremberg Rally!

At the time Dawkins’ role as a controversialist was clearly something he relished. His views were close to his heart. I doubt he was engaging in this behavior and espousing these beliefs for the sake of fame or wealth. He was already famous and wealthy because of his scientific writings. Books such as The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene are modern masterpieces of scientific exposition. When it comes to promoting to the interested public a general understanding of the logic of evolutionary biology, Dawkins is unquestionably one of the modern masters, with both talent and inclination.

His turn as an anti-religious polemicist was clearly driven by a personal passion about religion and an animus toward it. This was long evident in public pronouncements, but they reflected vigorous private views. The only time I have been in a small room with Dawkins he spoke mostly about science. But he also got a few gratuitous jabs in at the Roman Catholic Church. Many have suggested that Dawkins’ views on religion are colored by his background as a middle-class Englishman, and it is hard to imagine that he did not absorb a bit of “anti-Popish” sentiment from his Anglo-Protestant milieu.

I have very mixed feelings about what used to be called the New Atheism. But one of its most unfortunate ticks for me is that in rhetoric it often presumes that religion is a matter of ratiocination when the truth is we all know that religion is a socially embedded phenomenon which has deep emotional resonances. The New Atheists themselves reflect the reality of the latter in their passion. Dawkins is an example of this as well in his affection for certain cultural expressions of Christianity which to him recollect memories of his upbringing and broader social milieu. His clear distaste for evangelical Protestant Christianity of the American variety is almost certainly wrapped up in a particular set of reflexive aversions shared by many middle-class secular intellectuals of the Anglosphere towards that subculture, which is perceived to be down-market, crass, and quite a bit ridiculous.

But where he gets in trouble is that Dawkins’ tweets often reflect a visceral distaste for Islamic culture. His reactions indicate an emotional aversion which transcends rationality, though that aversion is rooted in some realities and not just his imagination.

The importance of emotion as opposed to objective rationality can be illustrated again by Christmas. As a child from a Muslim background who had little affinity with religion, I generally had warm experiences with secularized American Christmases. As an adult atheist raising my children as atheists (if that makes sense), Christmas is culturally important for a variety of reasons. But your mileage may vary. There are atheists from Jewish backgrounds who eschew Christmas because of its cultural and historical valences, and their dissenting from mainstream norms is one of the ways that they express their identity as Jews.

One can give more explicit examples. I was acquainted with a woman from a Bosnian Muslim background many years ago. Though not exceedingly religious, she had a strong aversion to the cultural expression of Christmas. Her reasons were personal and understandable: she had fled the Balkan conflict as a child and had been traumatized by religious persecution. For her even secularized manifestations of the Christmas tradition had associated memories which were highly negative. Her experiences were her experiences, and my experiences are my experiences. There isn’t one “objective” response to Christmas, there are different “subjective” reactions framed by one’s personal history and cultural affinities.

But there are wheels-within-wheels, subjectivities-within-subjectivities, and truths-within-truths.

Many in the ex-Muslim community are fiercely protective of Richard Dawkins. Why? Because Richard Dawkins stands unflinchingly with them, “in solidarity” as they say in 2018. To get the “ex-Muslim” perspective, it is probably best to read Ali Rizvi’s The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. Unlike myself, Rizvi and his fellow travelers were at some point confessing and believing Muslims. Something I can never say personally. My cultural background means that I can recite surah fatiha to this day, and I have performed the call to prayer, but I was not really raised culturally within Islam. This means I have neither extremely strong or negative feelings associated with Islamic culture, though I take a dim view of Islam the religion and Muslim societies. But, like many Americans, they are still somewhat exotic and alien to me. Matters of reflection rather than reaction.

The reason ex-Muslims defend Richard Dawkins and revere the New Atheists (e.g, Sam Harris) is that the cultural winds in the West over the past generation have shifted, and the Left has been engaging in “allyship” with Islam, or more specifically Muslim minorities in the West. The vast majority of atheists are on the Left, and the Left is the camp notionally more amenable to secularism. But when it comes to Islam it is now the fashion on the cultural Left to express affinity and sympathy for Islam, and more concretely Muslims.

Richard Dawkins and the other New Atheists are distinctive in being conservative in the literal sense on the issue of Islam, and not temporizing and moderating. Their stance has not changed over the decade as Islam has become almost trendy on the Left where most of them are at home. And for this, they are cherished by activists and dissenters from within the Muslim community who are pushing for a full-throated atheism. Consider the case of a Canadian woman of Egyptian ethnicity, Yasmine Mohammed, who has written a memoir, “From Al Qaeda to Atheism.” The title should give you a flavor of her personal experiences, and why she has a visceral aversion to the Islamophilia which is de rigueur on the cultural Left.

The ex-Muslim community is a minority-within-a-minority. Many ex-Muslims are in an uncomfortable position because their critique of Islam as a regressive and authoritarian religion is consonant with talking points on the Right, but most of them identify on the Left (and, they perceive the Right as the camp of regression and authority!). In The Atheist Muslim Rizvi recounts the experiences of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. When she arrived in the United States about ten years ago she took a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institution (AEI). Broadly on the Right, this affiliation drew some raised eyebrows and critiques from commentators on the Left. Her extreme anti-Islamic views had already caused difficulties, but for many liberals, an affiliation with AEI was the last straw. At the time I suspected that she was going to war with the army she had, not the army that she necessarily would have preferred. Rizvi, who brought more detailed information to the table, confirms this in The Atheist Muslim: Hirsi Ali took the fellowship from the American Enterprise Institute after being rejected by other think tanks. They were, rightly, worried about the controversy around her due to her rather strident secularism in relation to Islam (a stance she has moderated over the years).

Ali’s conundrum ten years ago is more broadly symptomatic of an issue that characterizes the cultural Left in 2018 due to coalitional politics: a strident secularism that takes an anti-Islamic tone is so out of fashion among many liberals that the ex-Muslim activists are out of fashion among many liberals. They are an inconvenient minority-within-a-minority.

The rights of women in Western Muslim communities are still a concern with Leftists. But, these issues need to be approached sensitively and carefully, because the politics of coalition and the instinct toward allyship means that it is important to not demonize Western Muslims or even Islam! (this explains why many secular white liberals feel comfortable explaining to me the “real Islam” if I am overly critical of the religion for their taste) The last part is where ex-Muslims dissent fiercely because most argue that Islam, as it is constructed today, is fundamentally and structurally oppressive and reactionary. The paradox for ex-Muslims is that the Left normally has instincts to stand with those who oppose oppression and reaction, but in this case, they are muted.

The exception being people like Richard Dawkins. Like the child shouting out, “the emperor has no clothes!”, the likes of Dawkins and Harris give voice to a primal aversion to the demon-haunted reactionary ideological edifice that is Islam. Though in public very few Left-liberals who are aware of the norms of their community will say negative things about Islam qua Islam, and even less about Muslims, in private many are quite clear-eyed about Islam as a religion and uncomfortable with the practices of Muslims. Solidary is for the public. Reality is for private. Or as a friend once explained “Of course it’s a fucked up religion. But I don’t want to get my head chopped off or be accused of being racist.”

There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. 24% if the world’s population. Their numbers are growing rapidly because of Islam’s concentration in the high fertility areas of the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Though Muslims are likely to be a minority religion in the West for decades to come, they are a majority in some regions of Europe already (mostly urban ghettos). As such they naturally impose their cultural values as the dominant ones in public spaces where they are numerically preponderant. Many of those values are quite conservative and restrictive of individual liberty. That conservatism reflects the cultural values that Muslim immigrants bring to the West, but also the historical importance of Islamic law, shariah, which dates back over 1,000 years, and as such preserves in chrysalis views of a highly archaic nature in some ways.

From the perspective of ex-Muslims, who grew up within Muslim communities in the West, and for whom the demographic and cultural heft of the nearly 2 billion strong Ummah is a lived reality, the mainstream Left view of Muslims and Islam as marginal and oppressed is highly myopic, not factually true, and extremely conditioned by the relatively insulated worlds which most middle-class secular liberals live. To be entirely frank, for a particular set of cosmopolitan Westerner, the Islamic world, the Islamic culture, is one which they view through the lens of consumption, as a life-stage. They experience the diversity of a Muslim neighborhood as a tourist dining out and taking in the smells, or by living as a young adult in a heavily Muslim area of a European city. But they will retire in the fullness of time to a life of bourgeois contentment in a secular white community with Christmas trees. Islam is an abstraction. For those for whom Islam is more concrete, there’s a bit more skin the game.

Note: Below is a speech given by my friend Sarah Haider in 2015. I think the situation has gotten “worse” in relation to the issues she cares about.

Addendum: Since there have been some confused comments on this weblog before how as a white man I can’t have known Muslims growing up, David Hume is a pseudonym. My name is Razib Khan, and the Muslims I knew growing up were my parents.

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Recently my Twitter and Facebook timelines have been littered with references to this story: Man, 92, Allegedly Beaten With a Brick & Told ‘Go Back to Mexico’ by a Mom in Front of Her Child. Terrible. It was posted on Twitter, and Facebook, as evidence that Donald Trump’s America was horrible. Some of the Twitter reactions also talked about white privilege and that sort of thing.

When I saw that this occurred in the Los Angeles area though I grew skeptical. There are conservative parts of California. Much of the Central Valley, the far North, some of the trans-Sierra counties and even much of San Diego. But Los Angeles? Here’s Willowbrook, California‘s demographics (took me 30 seconds to find):

The 2010 United States Census reported that Willowbrook had a population of 35,983. The population density was 9,544.1 people per square mile (3,685.0/km²). The racial makeup of Willowbrook was 8,245 (22.9%) White (0.9% Non-Hispanic White), 12,387 (34.4%) African American, 273 (0.8%) Native American, 119 (0.3%) Asian, 49 (0.1%) Pacific Islander, 13,858 (38.5%) from other races, and 1,052 (2.9%) from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 22,979 persons (63.9%).

1% of Willowbrooks’ residents were non-Hispanic whites. 64% were Hispanic. Just based on nativity my assumption then was that the attacker was going to be a black American since Hispanic Americans are less likely to engage in nativist tinged attacks as so many are either immigrants, the children of immigrants, or are in communities where immigrants are common.

And yes, the attacker was a black woman.

Additionally, you can get precinct-level election results. 5% of the people in Willowbrook who voted in 2016 voted for Donald Trump for President of the United States of America.

So what you have here is that a black woman who lives in one of the most cosmopolitan metropolitan areas of the United States, in a community that has almost no non-Hispanic whites, and where only 5% of people voted for Donald J. Trump, has engaged in nativist violence. This is evidence for what is happening in “Donald Trump’s America.” As someone who is a nonwhite immigrant I do have to say that I experienced plenty of racism and prejudice, and sometimes bullying, from native-born Americans over my whole life. From white people, and black people. Under Republican and Democratic administrations. In Red America and Blue America. I’m not saying it’s all the same. But it’s not new. And it’s not limited to one race or political faction.

There are some arguments for Marxist social and economic systems where everything seems to support the theory. The theory is unfalsifiable. Similarly, the same occurs with Freudian psychoanalysis. These are theories just too good to give way in the face of facts. Facts are secondary.

Often I feel the same way about the current partisan debates in the United States. If a single immigrant kills someone, it’s an immigrant crime wave. Similarly, if there is violence against a nonwhite person somewhere, it’s because of the climate that Donald Trump is creating. There have been instances where racial events have occurred and Trump’s name has come up as a justification. But if America is becoming polarized it seems very likely that this crime has little to do with Trump, seeing as how this is an area with almost no white people and very few Trump supporters.

You might say I’m kind of being a nerd about this. That’s fine. But not being nerdy about details is how we get in a post-fact world.

For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga is one of the best alternative history science fiction novels written in the 20th century. It is literally encyclopedic. A fully realized alternative timeline, the novel takes the form of a narrative history!  I don’t know if one can say that the world depicted is better or worse than ours…it is simply different.

I think of it whenever I see pieces such as one in Vox, 3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake. There are some people offended by the timing of the piece, July 3rd. And I can see that.

But what about the premise? The author makes three assertions:

  • Slavery would have ended sooner
  • The Native Americans would have done better under the British
  • The British system of parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy is superior to the presidential republican one

The last point really isn’t about the American Revolution. It’s an argument about a presidential system vs. that of a constitutional monarchy. The second point seems the simplest and most straightforwardly defensible. The reality is that there is a consistent pattern of monarchs and authorities being more benevolent to marginalized subjects than those nearer to those subjects. The Spanish who settled the New World were brutal to the native peoples, and though the rulers of Spain could not ultimately stop them, it is clear that they did not condone or encourage the brutality. Similarly, the white settlers of Australia treated the native peoples brutally and genocidally, but this occurred because of the relatively free hand that the British Empire gave the white settler colonies. And finally, even in the United States, in the 19th century, the most pro-Native sentiment was often found in places like New England, where the local Native population was mostly gone due to earlier wars (during which Congregationalist ministers had justified the tossing of Indian children into rivers to drown).

Though it is likely that the Native Americans would have been marginalized and decimated by white settlers in North America no matter what timeline you look at, it seems plausible that if the American settlers had not taken over their government the British crown probably would have suppressed some of the more overt brutality. It is likely, for example, that the Cherokee would never have been relocated to Oklahoma, at great human cost.

But the phenomenon of slavery brings to mind a major issue when weighing the cost vs. benefit of American independence: as tacitly acknowledged in the Vox piece the very secession of the American colonies from the British Empire likely had an impact on the British themselves.

In Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America he points out that the removal of the American colonies (or the majority at least) in the late 18th century, and the mass exodus of the Catholic Irish in the 1840s, transformed the white population of the British Empire. In 1800 the population of England and Wales was about 10 million and the population of Ireland was 5 million. By 1900 there 30 million people living in England, and 3 million living in Ireland. In 1850 there were about 15 million people in England and 25 million people in the United States of America.

The removal of the Catholic Irish from the United Kingdom, often to the United States, shifted the cultural and ethnic balance in the United Kingdom to one where people who adhered to the established Anglican Church were numerically dominant. The United States itself when it had been the American colonies were dominated by dissenter Protestants. With the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, only a small minority of the population was affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Arguably the only part of the British Empire which could ever compete with the metropole as producers of manufactured goods would have been the New England colonies and the northern Mid-Atlantic region. The American exit probably had fortuitous long-term consequences for British cohesion and singular purpose in terms of imperial policy.

Overall I think considering the morality of the American Revolution is a good thing. In the year 2000, the film The Patriot depicted the British as proto-Nazis, committing heinous acts against the American populace. One reason that this was not plausible is that a substantial minority of the American population was pro-British, and a large number were ambivalent or neutral. By all estimates, the hardcore revolutionaries were a minority, though this varied by region and period (e.g., New England was a hotbed of revolt, while New York City and much of the Mid-Atlantic remained loyalist). And the reality is that the British treated white Americans colonials with kid gloves in part because those American colonials were seen as part of the British people in a way that nonwhites never were. The issue for the Americans is that the metropole did not see them as exact equals.

I was taught history in the United States, and so it was written and presented in a way which did depict the British as villains who were imposing unjust demands on the American colonists. As I got older I realized that though the revolutionaries had cause to be angry, the British also had a rationale for their behavior. 1776 was not 1986.

But even aside from that, the Vox piece suffers from not acknowledging the fact that history is nonlinear and the knock-on effects of a British victory may have been much more drastic and unpredictable than the movement of a few parameters here and there (e.g., slavery abolished in the USA in 1830 rather than 1860). Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval documents just how radical the American regime was in its time. The American republic was an exotic and strange experiment and served as a model and beacon. It is quite possible that without its model of revolutionary success the French Revolution may never have occurred. As a conservative, I think that would be a good thing, but I’m not sure many progressives would agree.

Additionally, the democratic republican model of government was shown to work in the modern world at large political scale by the United States. Most Europeans were skeptical of its feasibility, as ancient republics and democracies had never been able to sustain themselves beyond a certain size. And, unlike most every other nation at the time the United States also had a federal government which eschewed the mixing of religion and state, so that the republic was not sanctified by a divine or supernatural principle.

As an exercise in historical analysis, or entertaining alternative history, wondering about the consequences of a British victory over the rebels in the war in the American colonies is interesting, and possibly important. But I’m not sure there are truly deep moral lessons across the full arc of history, because the success of the rebellion itself had consequences far outside of the American colonies.

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