Islamophobia and the secularism of fools

by David Mertz on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 12:00am

It is disturbing to see many English-speaking "professional atheists" use their sensible stance against religious belief as a pretext for a truly ugly and ignorant Islamophobia.  Sam Harris is certainly a prominent example in this regard, and Christopher Hitchens little less so.  Filtering down from these prominent writers of books preaching against religion, I have seen with unfortunate frequency the same bigotry echoed by some "amateur atheists" of my personal acquaintance.

All of these "secular" Islamophobes--to a person--come from predominantly Christian countries, and the large majority of them are not far removed from Christianity in their own familial histories, either rejecting the religious belief systems of their own parents (and often their own younger selves), or possibly at a step further removed to the grandparents with whom they have a certain cultural identification.  This particular prejudice is most certainly an obvious product of Christendom, even where it does not reflect actual Christianity.  Beyond the broader historical context, it is also clear that these "thinkers" are largely just boosterists for US neo-colonial policy in predominantly Muslim countries, with just the thinnest veneer of "skepticism about religion" propping up or rationalizing these political agenda.

As a first brush, religion is obviously indeed bad and wrong.  I'm with them at the sort of surface philosophy level in that there aren't any gods, spirits, souls, whatever, but for me it is sort of a fairly indifferent matter... I'm an atheist in the much same way that I'm a heliocentrist.  It is difficult for me not to see the professional atheists as suffering a bit in the "protesteth too much" direction.  Their demons are not mine, and mostly they seem to misunderstand directions of causality.  Marx, as always, understood matters much more subtly, e.g.:

"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions." -Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

The modern professionals repeat Feuerbach's inversion--150 years after the greater philosopher made his mistake--and see causes where only effects are present.

These recent atheist authors seem to have unconsciously absorbed a worldview of "Christendom", even while demurely denouncing that religion along with others.  And specifically, they have bought into this a dangerous bigotry that a few acts of violence by a few Muslims in the last decade or two show something intrinsic to the religious doctrine... never mind that the vast majority of Muslims do not share these political views, that those who act this way also come from a small sliver of the Islamic world in terms of ethnicity, nation, denomination/tendency, etc. More specifically, they seem unable to see--or perhaps simply to care about--the specific socio-historical conditions that have given rise to a specific--albeit deeply misguided--ideology of resistance to Western hegemony.  Perhaps the most fundamental mistake they make is in fantasizing that a few people (but only if they happen to be Muslim) who do actually horrible things do so because of their religious belief rather than using that doctrine as a cheap pretext to rationalize or justify something that is far more historically specific than a doctrine that has proven quite flexible over 1500 years.  Rarely have the empires of this religion been especially violent in the context the many wars and conquests the world has seen in that period--not to say Muslims have been very often pacifistic, but what they have done in terms of violence pales compared to, say, the Christian Crusaders and Inquisitors, or the rather secular Mongols and Nazis, or for that matter that nascently secular sentiment of the only nominally Muslim Ottoman genocide in Armenia.

Moreover, these authors and advocates seem completely unable to recognize the enormous atrocities performed (both in the last decades and before) by self-proclaimed Christians, Hindus, Jews, and even by Buddhists.  To these misguided "secularists" the few bad acts of some Muslims cast a sort of "blood libel" against all the believers in Islam generally.  If a US general, in 2004, proclaims that it is his "Christian mission" to terror bomb Fallujah--and kill thousands of civilians--these advocates assume that religious justification is incidental and unimportant, while if Muslims mention religion in commission of far less brutal acts, a collective guilt, in their minds, falls upon all followers of that religion. 

Obviously, I think the doctrines of Islam are wrong.  But they are wrong in the same sort of plain ontological and ethical way that Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and the rest are. It believes in a non-existent God and claims to find sustainable ethical principles in that false belief. 

As a matter of actual doctrine, I tend to find Judaism probably the worst of the batch, since others are not inherently exclusionary (with the exception of Zoroastrianism, I suppose, and perhaps the Druze)--they don't preach that God has a genetic preference for a certain subset of humanity, and smites all the rest (or at least has a distaste for them on a racial/ethnic basis... well, Mormonism had some of this, but eventually gave it up).  The others just want people to convert to belief in their "true God."  But as much as I dislike the religion, I would equally little think that such doctrinal disagreement warranted antisemitism.  Moreover, someone like Harris or Hitchens would say roughly the same thing about Judaism while holding this vile bigotry towards Islam.

It's a damn shame these modern secularists haven't read, or have so thoroughly forgotten, their smarter predecessors, such as August Bebel (to whom my paraphrased saying is generally attributed) or even just to Marx in "The Jewish Question" (hell, even Sartre, whom I mostly disdain, at least got this much right).