Secular Right | Reality & Reason



On the semiotics of secularism and nakedness of village atheism in the culture war

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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  • neal · July 18, 2018 at 8:09 pm

    Postmodern Man cannot hold to place or time of birth.

    In the sense of holding, for good or the other.

    We are now defined by the wandering, not the holding.
    I could never be an atheist. Damned for that.

  • Your momma · July 19, 2018 at 12:18 am

    Great article. One of the surprising experiences I have taken away from my travels through the Islamic World is that many Muslims actually living in that part of the world are happy to admit that their part of the world and the people around them are nuts. Forget liberals, atheists and weirdos, even quite conservative Muslims are freaked out by wheels off Islam as practiced in Cambridge or Hamburg.
    The worst thing ever though is getting lectured by some dig-dong vanilla leftist on all these matters. I imagine an Iraqi intellectual getting off the boat, being greeting by Justin Trudeau wearing a pakol and the guy just pulls out a gun and shoots himself.

  • chrisare · July 19, 2018 at 3:27 am

    I live near a mosque and most of the muezzins have bad voices that sound grating and overly strident. This is harder on the ears than the sounding of a clear, impersonal church bell IMO.

    This statement of preference for an aspect of one religion over another does not imply bigotry.

  • James Waddimgton · July 19, 2018 at 5:21 pm

    When I saw a Dawkins churchbells racism tweet I wanted to reply, then thought, this is a bit complicated. I’m glad I didn’t, this is what I thought should be said but didn’t have the skillor knowledge to say



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