“New Atheism”, as it’s commonly called, is something of a recent phenomena that we’re all familiar with. Inflating religion to the forefront of public debate, with unsettling confidence no matter the situation, “New Atheists” are as notorious as they are a feature of notoriety. To some, Sam Harris embodies the essence of the movement. In this article I level a critique of the movement centered on Harris, but I do not intend it to be a personal attack; what I say concerns the general gist of the movement, and I hope that centering on Harris doesn’t appear a straw man. I attempt to provide a view seldom encountered by those of the New Atheist movement. Consider it an expanded, more nuanced, analysis. The bottom line: much of what comes out of the New Atheist movement should be properly seen as a service to an American empire.
I actually really like Sam Harris’ criticism of dogma, ideology, and entrenched beliefs; he’s well-worded and articulate. I actually used to read his stuff before I discovered alternate viewpoints — those common in radical activist circles and embodied by thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti. I don’t suspect that he’s a bad guy. However, his theories should be categorically expanded.
In fact, the most dangerous religions to currently inhabit the planet are faiths like the “miracle of the market”, faith in military solutions, and other religions of the corporate-state. Little is spoken by Harris of these important topics.
Further, his use of the familiar formalized religions (Islam, Christianity, etc.) as an explanatory tool for the Middle East and elsewhere is merely the closest tool at hand — far too narrow and naive for real-world application. Indeed, this is my main contention with Harris: that religious considerations become a hammer, and the world becomes rife with nails. This is especially so considering the elephant in the room: international, exploitative state-capitalism and the search for an alternate rationalization of an oppressive system by a complicit media and intellectual class.
Harris’ recent media appearance regarding Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” highlights this approach. It is here that his astounding faith in the official word of the state is exemplified: Does Harris expect state terrorists like Israel to admit to its intent like a Disney villain? This is, after all, the same state that claims worldwide “anti-semitism” when reprimanded by a shocking majority of the U.N. Human Rights Council — with the United States the only nation in the world to vote against.
New Atheism has a priori logic — it seems reasonable from the couch — and that is its intrigue. That is, of course, in addition to its serviceability for those seeking to misdirect from the realities of empire. It seems so convincing because so many facts about the world are missing. In a state that systematically denies its crimes, we’re aware of September 11, 2001, but not September 11, 1973; the Chilean coup, strongly aided by the United States, stands a testament to dangers that should readjust New Atheist priorities. To suggest that formal religion is “the most dangerous and divisive ideology that we have ever produced” is truly stunning.
That formalized religion is somehow an integral part for suicide bombings, terrorism, and/or other military methods characteristic of the subjugated poor, is patently absurd and truly misleading. Japanese “kamikaze” pilots in the Second World War needed nationalism, not Islam. United States “shock and awe” in Iraq needed elaborately falsified pretexts. F.A.R.C. rebels in Colombia need only the struggle with oppression.
Highlighted by a recent article in the Huffington Post, many of the actual reasons for terrorist behavior are only incidentally related to formal religion. Terrorists bare many similarities to school shooters: most are male, disenfranchised, underpaid, peer pressured, and underwhelmed. Groups like I.S.I.S. are practically selling a brand to new recruits. This is what prompted the British journalist Sunny Hundal’s recent Twitter entry: “Greatest threat to ISIS comes from global Muslim opinion decisively turning against them, not bombs. This is why ISIS want US soldiers there.”
In an article last month, C.J. Werleman, always an interesting source for articles on the alternative media site Alternet, cited a quintessential cause of terrorism.
According to the Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, which accounts for all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006, it is politics, not religious fanaticism, that leads to terrorists blowing themselves up. The study shows that: “…though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving-force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.” The findings of the Flinders University study are supported by the research conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, which was partly funded by the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency. The authors, Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to present. Their research reveals that more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force.
This is the most important point: that the vast majority have seen their fare share of oppression. Although Osama Bin Laden’s letter to America proclaimed jihadism, his reasons for attacking America — not Brazil — were made exceedingly clear: aid to Israel, sanctions in Iraq, and a whole host of regional involvements in support of dictators and other elements of oppression. Where do we get off saying they have no right to violence when it’s currency for the West?
But what of Islamic terrorists’ references to Islam? Werleman goes on to quote a Mondoweiss op-ed by Theodore Sayeed: “And because Muslims often use religious language to discuss political matters, because they say ‘jihad’ instead of ‘let’s fight back,’ and because they call their dead ‘martyrs’ instead of ‘fallen heroes,’ their concerns are not territorial at all, they are irrational superstition about which there can be no prospects for dialogue.”
In so far as terrorists are “literalists”, they’re apparently very selective. Much has been written about the non-religious nature of terrorist groups like the “Islamic” State. The dangers of “literalism” seem to even have a priori reason to doubt, belied by the fact that most would consider the more radical parts of Christendom, the Middle Ages, a time of rampant illiteracy.
What can be said about formalized religion can be said about almost anything. Although U.S. elites would like to dominate a whole region of the globe without any unifying features, Islam is nevertheless there; were it a Middle East feature to eat purple crayons, such would be the subject of American skepticism. Religion is a social identity, and currently it’s an identity for the majority of the world’s population — a ubiquitous nature that makes it a tantalizing explanatory tool. Like all social identities — race, national identity, economic status, etc. — religion is often co-opted by powerful forces looking to use group identity to legitimate an otherwise popularly illegitimate rule.
Indeed, it seems that in both the U.S. and the Middle East, formal religion is merely the closest tool at hand to subsume a population to an oppressive system — though many other tools are also used. Al-Qaeda and rightwing ideologue Pat Robertson, and the Republican Party more generally, speak with a different dialect, but their methods are similar. Religion is a tool for oppression precisely because it outlines a social group. Appeals to group cliches — flag lapel pins for example — are all commonplace political tools. Also found in the same category, stooping to nationalism and flag-waving by our political classes to push for wars that benefit the select few at the expense of the many.
Clearly Sam Harris would not attract the same audience if this was the message. In this sense, Harris profiteers off of the packaging of a convenient theory. And in the larger societal context, one could even call his material demonization and propaganda. So much of propaganda is simple hypocrisy: the idea is that if you can focus on their crimes, but ignore your own, then you’ve won. Journalist Glenn Greenwald referenced Bill Maher, New Atheist and host of HBO’s Real Time, when he summed up the picture on Twitter: “I live in the country that bombs more nations & kills more w/guns than any other, but will insist Muslims are ‘uniquely violent’ #RealTime”
There’s a certain irony that the New Atheist movement as a whole seems poised to be as attractive to the powerful as the formalized religions before it. It’s a movement that seeks to “justify” militarism at the fringes of empire, a barbarism not unlike that which it condemns as “religious” violence. Empire always needs ideology to justify exploitation. As Frederick Gareau emphatically states in his book, State Terrorism and the United States: First it was “anti-communism” — counter-insurgency; now it’s Islam — counter-terrorism. Will it be communislam next? Empire always needs dehumanization to justify exploitation. Hamas is simply a “death cult” according to Harris; as is sometimes said, they “value death over life.” What could possibly be more dehumanizing than worshiping death itself? New Atheism serves all of these purposes for the empire.