Sparked by a Richard Dawkins tweet, in which he drew a parallel between Islamists and (yawn) Nazis, Nathan Lean recently suggested on Salon.com that the most famous representatives of the new atheism “flirt with” Islamophobia [echoing Chris Stedman’s prescient warning to fellow atheists on RD this past August]. As the article explains, Dawkins, Hitchens, and their ilk have had a gleeful decade of “intellectual triumphalism” directed against the religion that they see as particularly adept at producing “suicide bombers and terrorists,” which “are not aberrations. They are the norm.” Such Islamophobic ideas are not unique to the new atheists, of course, but after reading Lean’s analysis, one is inclined to nominate “flirting” (the term chosen by Salon editorial for the headline) for Understatement of the Year.
An article by Frans De Waal that seeks to understand why “Militant Atheism Has Become a Religion” seems relevant here. As an Emory psychology professor who conducts research on primate behavior, and an atheist himself, his criticism is directed neither at atheists nor Muslims. Instead he writes, “I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se.” Dogmatists “are poor listeners” who “pound their drums so hard that they can’t hear one another.”
He surmises that their primary motivation is not to discover the truth but rather to show off, “the way male birds gather… to display splendid plumage for visiting females.” De Waal accuses the new atheists of going after Islam simply because it is “low-hanging fruit” in Western contexts: “Throw in a few pictures of burqas, mention infibulation, and who will argue with your revulsion of religion?” Audience after audience applauds these tired tactics as if they were original, but they are highly unscientific and do little to further understanding.
It’s not difficult to see how the character of one’s atheism may closely reflect the character of one’s religiosity. Those who leave behind lives that were deeply shaped by religious conviction, ritual, and community will likely feel they need, at least for some time, a period of “recovery from religion” in order to figure out their new identities. Depending on their families, careers, or other relationships, the break-up may be quite painful, emotionally and even materially. Religion that is hateful and judgmental is thus likely to breed atheists who respond measure for measure. Dogmatic atheism, in other words, is one obvious consequence of dogmatic religion.
The rise of the “nones” therefore raises interesting questions about the future of dogmatism. If no one is “indoctrinating” children or “forcing” religion down anyone’s throat any more, what will people rebel against or leave behind? What force will we blame when people behave badly? If, as De Waal’s article suggests, dogmatism is a natural tendency among some members of our species, then it is not going away. It will just find some other outlet. Where will it bubble up when traditional religions cease to provide the heat?
[Editor’s note: the original version of this post attributed the term “flirting” in the headline of the piece in question to the author himself. We know, as editors, that writers don’t have much say in those headlines. Our apologies to Mr. Lean for putting words in his mouth.]