It’s no great secret that several prominent atheists have dabbled in scientific racism and islamophobia. It’s also no great secret that white nationalist and anti-Muslim movements have slithered out of the sewers of Canada to become headline news events in several major cities. Is there a relationship between those movements and atheism? How close is that relationship?
Charlottesville was a watershed moment. It was the moment the alt-right’s faux-respectable façade crumbled. Mainstream media and popular consciousness finally noticed the Nazi behind the alt-right curtain.
As if waking up the morning after an out-of-control bender, formerly cocky protesters were horrified to find pictures of themselves as torch-wielding fanatics in a B-movie mob plastered across the news. Their protective shield of Internet anonymity had dissolved, and the real world was not kek-ing to their antics. Some tried desperately to explain themselves. Others simply broke down in tears.
The splash damage from Charlottesville has even hit Canada. The most visible casualties have been The Rebel Media, and the integrities of the parade of Conservative MPs who have been falling over themselves to disavow their previously cozy relationships with it. Charlottesville-inspired rallies popped up in a few cities. In Vancouver they were spectacularly out-played by the counter-protesters. In Québec City, not so much.
It’s no secret among atheists that some of our more prominent voices have dabbled in the alt-right. From the earliest days of the New Atheist movement, the signs were there. We heard so often from the likes of Richard Dawkins that Islam was somehow especially evil, especially threatening, that we became numb to the blindingly absurd hypocrisy of the claim. We heard Christopher Hitchens sharing his masturbatory fantasy of Muslims being torn apart by cluster bombs, and laughed that off as just Hitch bein’ Hitch. When Sam Harris praised the wisdom of European fascists, his loyal followers justified that by… you know, I actually can’t say how they managed to justify that one – even Hitchens drew the line there – but I’m sure one or more of Harris’s slavish devotees will show up in the comments or on social media to rage at me about how I missed the “context” that provides the magical exculpatory nuance. Or they’ll just call me a cuck.
Atheism per se has no political implications, but atheism and atheists in general lean left. That, however, puts the average atheist at odds with virtually all prominent atheist voices. Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins all lean right – Harris and Hitchens in particular lean hard right – as do most other big name atheists: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Penn Jillette, Micheal Shermer, and so on; and let’s not even get started with the YouTube-famous atheist posse. In the past, most atheists have turned a blind eye to the neoconservative leanings of our most prominent voices, and to their troubling flirtations with anti-Muslim bigotry, scientific racism, fascism, and white nationalism. Some of us have already woken up to the uncomfortable truth. Charlottesville should serve as the alarm bell for the rest of us.
What exactly is the relationship between atheism, and the white nationalist and anti-Muslim movements in Canada? That the question can be seriously asked at all should make you sick. But it is undeniable that there is some interaction between atheists and the atheist movement, and the Canadian extreme right. We need to suss out where the rot is.
There is little to no outright expression of white nationalism within the atheist community. Atheists and white nationalists have traditionally been openly hostile to each other.
White nationalism has always had strong ties with Christianity. The KKK has been openly and explicitly Christian since its founding. The relationship between the Nazi Party and the various Christian churches was more complicated – the Old Testament, after all, was a Jewish invention, and the churches were unsurprisingly leery of having their own authority usurped by an authoritarian government – but the average Nazi Party supporter was a Luther-Deutsche (Lutheran German) all about Kinder, Küche, Kirche (“children, kitchen, church”; what early 20th Germans thought was the exhaustive list of things a woman should concern herself with). Christian elements have always been part of the iconography, such as the Celtic cross or the cross pattée.
But the relationship between mainstream Christianity and white nationalism is complicated. While white nationalism has been generally tightly entangled with Christianity, it has also been harshly critical of it. The reasons for the criticism vary from group to group and individual to individual, but they include such gripes as:
- “Jewish influence” on Christianity – basically the entire Old Testament;
- the perceived failings of Christianity to be intolerant – because most churches welcome everyone (at least everyone who’s not gay) rather than being selective in who they reach out to (translation: because they believe Jesus loves non-whites as much as whites); and
- the “weakness” of Christianity – the idea of turning the other cheek rather than retaliating (this is often blamed on the “Jewish influence”, or some other corruption).
Many white nationalists have actually tried to create their own churches that “fix” Christianity. Hitler tried it. That was also the idea behind the Creativity church (whose founder once lived in Saskatchewan). Mainstream Christians usually consider these interpretations to be heretical and play the “not true Christian” card, and understandably object to having the white supremacists and their off-beat spin on the religion lumped under the same umbrella. In Christianity’s defence, those white supremacist interpretations are very much out-of-step with “standard” interpretations of Christianity… but then so are many other odious interpretations, like those of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Dr. Barbara Perry is one of the leading authorities on hate crime. Her Public Safety Canada project provided one of the first comprehensive overviews of right-wing extremism in Canada. In the paper “Right Wing Extremism in Canada: An Environmental Scan”, she describes three classes of right-wing extremists:
1) variants of white supremacists/neo-Nazis; 2) sovereigntists; and 3) what we will frame as “ideologues,” gurus,” and “lone wolves.” (Note that the “sovereigntists” referred to are not those advocating for Québec sovereignty, but rather freemen on the land types; those advocating personal sovereignty… a fancy way of claiming to be above the law.) One of the things underlying white nationalist ideology is “Christian Identity”; an interpretation of Christianity with some loopy ideas about white people being the descendants of some of the Biblical characters like Abraham.
(Perry also describes a fourth class, which she calls a
religious right. This is the right we normally concern ourselves with at Canadian Atheist. Perry describes them as
[l]argely evangelical in nature, the associated churches and congregants rally around the common foes of feminism, the sexual revolution, abortion and homosexuality, and specifically mentions Trinity Western University as an example. Perry excludes them from the classes she is interested in because they
do not tend to rise to the threshold of what might be considered serious threats; they don’t normally engage in violence or criminal activity.)
But the alt-right, while undeniably white nationalist – Charlottesville put any doubt of that to rest – is certainly not the traditional white nationalist movement. Birthed in the bowels of the Internet, the alt-righter is angry, scared, self-absorbed, and self-loathing, and desperate to hide these feelings behind a cloak of ironic detachment expressed as manic mirth. Like the socially-awkward kid who clowns it up for attention and validation from the “cool kids”, the alt-righter acts out using in-group memes and forum argot to signal their identity as one of the initiated, and to hysterically mock outsiders for not being in on the joke. It would be almost pathetically adorable, if it weren’t for the fact that the “joke” they’re cackling at is the idea that diverse people can live together peacefully.
It wouldn’t seem like there’s much room for Christianity in that attitude. If it’s all about the lulz, surely something as conventional as Christianity would be an inevitable target of ridicule.
And in fact, many of the alt-right’s most prominent voices have been ambivalent toward Christianity. Richard Spencer, the man who coined the term “alt-right”, is an out atheist. Several people studying the alt-right have observed that there are a lot more atheists (and “agnostics”) among them than are found in more traditional white nationalist groups. The alt-right is mostly made up of younger people, and we know from repeated polls and studies that younger people are generally more irreligious, so it certainly scans.
Angela Nagle is the author of Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right, which probes into the origins of the alt-right. Nagle frames the alt-right as a reaction to the excesses of the left, tracing it from 4chan trolling culture, right through to the craven misogyny of the men’s rights movement and “GamerGate”. The common thread through it all is an angry, near incoherent rejection of everything the progressive left stands for that can be spun as a threat to the sovereignty of the mostly white, European male adherent. They hate feminism because it emasculates and disempowers men. They hate “political correctness” because it protects the politically marginalized at the expense of the “freedom” to mock and abuse them. They hate multiculturalism because it takes away the privilege of being the dominant culture in favour of cultural equity.
It’s not religiously-minded superiority that brings people into the alt-right fold. On the contrary, Nagle considers the “alt-light” – the less-invested cheerleader section of the alt-right – to be disdainful of Christian moral influence. What brings people in is their hate for “SJWs”, for feminism, for “political correctness”, and for multiculturalism. They find their way in via Jordan Peterson’s inane “protest” against acknowledging the gender identity of his students, or Gavin McInnes’s pathetic “No Wanks” challenge to prove one is “man enough” to survive without porn when you can’t get laid because thanks to feminism those durn uppity wimmin can now choose to not have sex with losers, or similar ideologies that hinge on the idea of boldly defying the imagined decline of Western civilization.
And, yes, one of those ideologies – one that Nagle explicitly spends time talking about – is atheism.
I know there are people reading this who have already worked themselves up into a white (pun intended) hot rage, and are just itching to write a “rebuttal”. They are going say “Indi sez atheism makes you alt-right!!1!11!” or something to that effect.
But that’s not what I’m saying. And let me be absolutely clear about this: The alt-right is not an atheist movement. Richard Spencer may be an atheist, but he doesn’t believe in the things most atheists believe in. I’m not even talking about vagaries and supplemental principles and values that are more associated with things like humanism. No, I mean the man straight-up thinks we should be living in a theocracy. And when people actually sit down to define what being “alt-right” actually means, Christianity gets a prominent mention (see point 4). One of the movement’s slogans is “Deus vult” (“God wills”). As mentioned, it’s usually a very non-orthodox interpretation of Christianity, but the point is that it’s certainly not atheism.
And in fact, the path to alt-right bigotry through atheism does not involve atheism per se. It’s the misogyny in the atheist community. Nagle highlights the story of “ElevatorGate”, where Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson made the completely innocuous request to consider the feelings of women before propositioning them, and found herself flooded with threats and insults for it, with even Richard Dawkins siding with the harassers. Also mentioned are Amy Davis Roth, who had to move after her home address was posted to the Slymepit, and Jennifer McCreight, whose great sin was proposing Atheism+ and for that was hounded right out of the atheist movement.
I would add that in addition to misogyny, there are other pathways through atheism to the alt-right. One example is the pseudo-intellectual, anti-PC blather of Jordan Peterson, which is bafflingly popular among atheists. Disdain for mutlitculturalism is another route, but we’ll dig deeper into that in the next section.
The only real difference between traditional white nationalism and the alt-right (in this context) is that the religious ideology has become largely unimportant. The alt-right doesn’t have a coherent ideology; it’s just a label that has come to serve as a shorthand for a long list of only very loosely related gripes… one of which happens to be the loss of white superiority. In fact, when it comes to the alt-right, incoherence seems to be the name of the game. As Perry writes:
[W]e would argue that while the far right in Canada represents a movement of sorts, this does not necessarily imply coherence. In fact, to refer to hate “groups” or [right-wing extremist] “groups” gives them too much credit. It implies the capacity to be or become disorganized. In contrast, it seems as if adherents are, rather, decidedly unorganized and constituted by small loosely linked cells, lone wolves, or as more than one police officer suggested, “three man wrecking crews.”
Evan Balgord is a freelance journalist and contributor to outlets like Canadaland, Torontoist, and Xtra. He has been following the alt-right and anti-Muslim movements in Canada for some time now. He agrees that there is no coherent, shared religious ideology:
What we’re seeing is a coalition being formed between heterogeneous groups that might otherwise be fighting … I’d say [the groups] are more concerned with being a big tent, and they’re ambivalent to other religions as long as they hate the right things.
We may be victims of our own success. It may be that it is simply no longer possible for white nationalists to be picky about who they ally with. They’ll even welcome atheists if that means more bodies at a protest.
So white nationalism in Canada is not an atheist phenomenon. But in the past, atheists were explicitly excluded; that’s changed now. For the sake of the “cause” (such as it is), atheists are now grudgingly welcomed as part of a big tent strategy. And some atheists are signing up. They’re not being drawn into the movement via the usual concerns – antisemitism, fear of Zionism, a desire to create a (white) Christian theocracy – but rather through their hate for the “regressive left”, “political correctness”, “SJWs”, feminism (the “Men’s Rights Movement” has frequently been identified as a gateway drug into the alt-right), and basically anything one would expect from a decent human being.
Keep that last point in mind. We’ll be getting back to it.
White nationalism is a serious problem across Canada, but it is arguably dwarfed in scale by the anti-Muslim movement. The biggest and most organized right-wing groups – such as La Meute in Québec, and the Three Percenters – explicitly put Muslims at the top of their agenda. In fact, Evan Balgord goes even further. In his view, white nationalism in Canada is almost like an afterthought to anti-Muslim intolerance:
In Canada, I like to characterize it this way: We don’t really have the same movement that exists in the United States. In the United States it’s this alt-right movement which is a lot of different things, and it is also very anti-Muslim, and racist, and anti-Semitic, and all of those things. But here in Canada, it’s really better understood as an anti-Muslim movement, that also has groups that would consider themselves alt-right kind of operating on the fringes of this anti-Muslim movement.
Balgord adds that while anti-Muslim animus is what’s presented up front, many anti-Muslim groups really are white nationalist groups under the proverbial (and sometimes, perhaps, literal) hood. They don’t use the same language as US groups, eschewing “white nationalist” and “alt-right” in favour of euphemisms like “European culture” and “Canadian values”. And of course, they focus on anti-Muslim messaging, a strategy I think they use to take advantage of Canadian tolerance for intolerance against Muslims.
Unlike with white nationalism, which has traditionally had an antagonistic relationship with atheism, the line between atheism and the anti-Muslim movement is a lot fuzzier. The anti-Muslim movement has cheerfully adopted core atheist ideas and language into its propaganda. And while atheism’s support for white nationalism is arguably tenuous, the naked anti-Muslim bigotry displayed by many prominent atheists has been an issue of concern in our movement for some time now.
So just how cozy is the relationship between atheism and the anti-Muslim movement in Canada? To answer that, we need to dive into the islamophobic rabbit hole.
One of the more bizarre images come out of the M-103 protests was members of the Jewish Defence League standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Soldiers of Odin to provide “security” for Sandra Solomon. What a weird crossover. How did that happen?
Well, it turns out that anti-Muslim bigotry is a multifaceted little turd. On one face, there’s simple, straight up racism. I know, I can already hear the objections: “Islam is not a race”, “Muslim is not a race”, yadda yadda. I didn’t say they were; I said racism causes anti-Muslim bigotry. You’re wasting your time pointing out to me that there’s no such thing as a “Muslim race”, because I happen not to be an idiot, and am thus already aware of this. Anti-Muslim bigots, on the other hand, are idiots… and they are the ones who don’t understand that you can’t correlate “Muslim” with any “racial” characteristics. There is plenty of evidence linking anti-Muslim animus to simple racism – from this woman screaming anti-Muslim slurs at a pair of men she saw filming near an airport (they were Brazilian comedians filming a skit), to faux-intellectual calls to
profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim. (Yeah, that’s Sam Harris. He’s going to come up a lot.)
Another facet is religious nationalism. Evan Balgord says the anti-Muslim movement
has a lot of Zionists, which would certainly explain the presence of the JDL. The Israel–Palestine conflict is a major issue. Some might believe in the eschatological fantasy that driving the infidels (Muslims) out of Jerusalem will lead to the building of the Third Temple, the harbinger of the second coming of Christ (well, that and a red heifer). But for most it’s just a tribal pissing contest, and Israel is the team they’re backing.
That’s led to an amusing conundrum for anti-Muslim bigots. Racists are rarely all that particular about the targets of their ire, and Jewish people are usually the go-to choice for bigotry. Writes Balgord:
We’re seeing indications of a conflict in the movement right now between the Zionist – or just not anti-Semitic – groups and members, and the white supremacy organizations like the WCAI and their allies which are also anti-Semitic.
It’s not just Zionists, though. The protesters who marched against the Peel District School Board decision to accommodate Muslim student prayers came mostly from Peel’s Hindu community. Whether it’s the West Bank or Kashmir doesn’t seem to matter, so long as Muslims are the bad guys. And, it goes without saying, there’s the Christian crowd. They are all concerned about the non-existent threat of “creeping sharia”; their paranoid nightmare of Islamic authority taking the place of their own legally-enshrined privileges.
But neither racism nor religious nationalism have any real connection to movement atheism. It’s the third facet where the problems really start: extreme anti-religious sentiment.
Being anti-religious in and of itself is not necessarily problematic. There are perfectly rational reasons to dislike religion as a concept, religious influence, or religion in practice. And there are perfectly justifiable things we should demand of our government and society, not least being equal treatment of religious and non-religious belief, and the elimination of undeserved privileges traditionally granted to religion.
But just because there are rational reasons to dislike religion does not mean that all dislike of religion is rational. There are a lot of atheists who, depressingly, proudly crow about how much they hate religion. They fantasize gleefully about hurting religion and religious believers any way they can, sometimes even about destroying them. Sure, they rarely rise to the level of hoping for physical suffering… though sometimes they do! However, they very often call for violating the basic human rights and freedoms of religious believers. Sometimes they try to offer up cod “rationalizations” for it, but just as often they don’t even bother. “They’re religious,” the justification goes. “If they don’t like having their rights violated, they can quit their religion.”
To put it in the simplest terms:
- if you think religion is bad, no problem; but
- if you think religion is bad, and thus religious people should have their rights and freedoms taken away… there’s a problem.
I imagine some readers – those who want their anti-religious attitudes viewed as rational and righteous – will object to me connecting anti-religious sentiment with anti-Muslim hate. I suppose they’ll try to argue that there’s no direct line between hating religion and hating Muslims, thus I’m an idiot, QED. Except… there’s also no direct link between either racism or religious nationalism and anti-Muslim hate, and I expect you nodded along quite happily when I connected those. Mere racism, religious nationalism, or anti-religious hate alone don’t result in anti-Muslim hate. There are other factors that result in the specific identification as Muslims as the targets of ire. Racism, religious nationalism, and anti-religious hate are merely the soil that anti-Muslim hate grows out of. They need fertilizer to become fecund. And there’s plenty of fertilizer on the Internet.
So how do you get from atheism to anti-Muslim bigotry? What’s the path?
You start from an innocent enough place: frustration at the privilege given to religion in our society, concern about human rights violations in the name of religion, and desire for secular, evidence-based governance. There’s plenty there for you to chew on; you can spend your entire life in that space, with no end of legitimate issues to be concerned about, and battles to fight. If all of movement atheist lived in that sphere, there wouldn’t be a problem.
Then you notice some atheist talking heads pushing the idea that Western atheists – or Westerners in general – are not criticizing Islam enough, or not criticizing it stridently enough. This is still a somewhat rational area, because there is demonstrable evidence of Western mainstream media giving deference to Islam that they wouldn’t give to other religious traditions and normalizing more extreme Islamic interpretations. But it’s in this zone that reasonable, tolerant atheists and islamophobes-to-be start diverging.
Some atheists will start buying into a more extreme version of the above idea. It’s not just major, mainstream media outlets that aren’t criticizing Islam “enough”. It’s everybody. Even within atheism. You’ll start listening to voices claiming that most or many movement atheists are pulling their punches when criticizing Islam, in a way that they would never do when criticizing Christianity. It will start seeming like they might be on to something, as you notice that it’s true that most Western atheist writers, speakers, bloggers, and vloggers talk far more often about Christianity, and make far more cogent and damning arguments against Christian beliefs, practices, and organizations than they do about their Islamic counterparts.
And this. This is the moment where the sensible atheists and the bigots-to-be separate.
Because the sensible people will realize that of course Western atheists talk more about Christianity! Using Canadian numbers, almost 90% of religious Canadians are Christian, versus just over 4% Muslim, and just under 7 1⁄2% everything else. Even if everything else were equal, it would be expected that Canadian atheists talk about Christianity around nine times as often as any other religion, and over twenty times as often as Islam. But everything is is not equal; the cultural and political influence of Christianity is far more than twenty times that of Islam. Christianity pervades Canadian culture. Islam is really only a recent immigrant with effectively no cultural or political clout. Indeed, the fact is we don’t talk about Christianity twenty times as much as Islam, and that is what we should be concerned about; we shouldn’t be giving Christianity a break just because Islam is better click bait.
But the other kind of atheist will be seduced by the idea, and start going down a spiral that takes them further and further from reality. The fact that Islam gets less attention from most Western writers becomes evidence of a conspiracy of cowardice. Like all conspiracy theorists, these folk believe they can see the Truth™ that the sheeple around them are too afraid to see.
It never occurs to this kind of atheist that if they really want to see more discussion and critique of Islam, one merely has to follow atheist writers who came from Muslim backgrounds, and there are plenty of them. No, that level of rational, intelligent thought is way beyond the capabilities of people who have managed to go this far down the rabbit hole. Instead of informed, nuanced criticism by intelligent ex-Muslims, these atheists drift toward more and more outrageously outspoken pundits, who masturbate themselves to declarations of their own courage at “saying what no one else dares to say” while ejaculating their ignorance all over their slavish fandom. The only ex-Muslims they bother to pay any heed to are those given the seal of approval by their heroes, and those are usually the most strident and least nuanced ex-Muslim voices, who gleefully reinforce the narrative.
And the narrative is not just that there is a problem of extremism in Islam. That would be an undeniably true, perfectly rational point to make. Instead, it’s that Islam is particularly prone to extremism. It’s not just that Islam is bad. It’s the greatest force for evil in the world today. It’s not rational criticism of Islam. It’s straight-up islamophobia.
At first the imagined “silence” of the West is a symptom of liberal weakness and colonial guilt. But soon it even implies collusion with the worst elements of the Islamic world. It’s not just that the West holds back on criticizing Islam because they’re ignorant about it, and wary of jumping to stupid, racist conclusions. No, the West is covering for the worst elements of Islam. Hell, “multiculturalism” is actually “code for Islam”, according to Dawkins (I can’t provide a direct link to him saying that, unfortunately, because his site is broken – but there is plenty of third-party evidence if you care to google it).
At this point, our anti-Muslim bigot-in-training has sunk so far into delusion that they actually believe they have a calling to save Muslim women from Islam. After all, actual feminists won’t help; they’re just as bad as the worst of the deplorables in Islam. No, it’s up to our valiant hero to save all those Muslim women from Islam. What’s that? Muslim women never asked to be saved? Who cares what they think! They’re Muslims!
You’ll notice that we left any legitimate criticism of Islam behind quite a ways back. In fact, it hasn’t been about criticism of Islam at all for a while now. It’s been about criticizing liberal weakness and the imaginary “regressive left”, and protecting the “vulnerable” from the barbarian tyranny of “Islam”. Not real Islam of course, but rather a caricature made up of the most lurid fantasies of the cruellest and most intolerant interpretations of the religion. These people don’t read the Quran. They have no clue what’s in it, and they don’t care. They’ll regurgitate an ayah if and only if it’s been handed to them, and never check the context. They have only the vaguest idea of what hadith are, but no idea which hadith are relevant to which branch of Islam. And the only reason they know that Islam has branches at all is because Muslim-on-Muslim violence in the Middle East is all over the 24/7 cable news. They can name Sunni and Shia, but have no idea what the differences between the two are.
Evan Balgord makes this point as well:
Anti-Islam is often a veil for anti-Muslim. It’s possible to be very anti-Islam and not anti-Muslim, but it’s really rare. Eiynah, one of the liberal critics of Islam that I speak with, tells me that a lot of the examples of ex-Muslims or former Muslims even verge into anti-Muslim territory. So it’s really important to parse what so-called critics of Islam are saying.
It’s easy to see what what Balgord is getting at. He suggests three examples of things to watch out for:
Are they criticizing the religion as one monolithic thing? That’s a red flag. Are they saying that all practitioners of Islam do one thing or want one thing? That’s a red flag. Do they use the term Islam or Islamist as synonymous with Muslim? That’s a red flag.
Let’s put that to the test.
How about we go alphabetically, and start with Ayaan Hirsi Ali:
Reason [Rogier van Bakel]: Should we acknowledge that organized religion has sometimes sparked precisely the kinds of emancipation movements that could lift Islam into modern times? … Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?
Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.
Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?
Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.
Reason: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?
Hirsi Ali: I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.
How about Bill Maher next? Sure, a lot of atheists write him off for his anti-science positions, but he’s still held up as a hero for his positions on Islam:
Cooper: So I mean, why is Islam the one religion about which so many in America and the west censor themselves when it comes to talking about it or making fun of it? Is it just fear?
Maher: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because they’re violent. Because they threaten us, and they are threatening. They bring that desert stuff to our world. I said the same thing Friday night. You know, we don’t threaten each other; we sue each other. That’s the sign of civilized people. And – and they don’t. You know, yes, we do have religious nuts in this country. There was a cleric in Iran who recently said that earthquakes were caused by slutty women. Well, Pat Robertson once said that abortions caused hurricanes, I think. But the difference is Pat Robertson doesn’t have the power to cut your arms off.
You know, I mean, people who want to gloss over the difference between western culture and Islamic culture and forget about the fact that the Islamic culture is 600 years younger and that they are going through the equivalent of what the west went through with our Middle Ages, our Dark Ages, when religion had way too much power and we had inquisitions and things like that, do so at their peril. You know, when they caught this guy – yes, go ahead.
Cooper: When you hear, you know, the oft refrain from American Muslims is the vast majority of American Muslims abhor this kind of stuff. You know, they will say, look, Islam is a religion of peace. Do you buy that?
Maher: Yes, they blow you up. There’s a piece of you over there. There’s a piece of you over there. There’s a piece of you over there.
Next up is you know who:
While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization. The world, from the point of view of Islam, is divided into the “House of Islam” and the “House of War,” and this latter designation should indicate how Muslims believe their differences with those who do not share their faith will be ultimately resolved. While there are undoubtedly some moderate Muslims who have decided to overlook the irrescindable militancy of their religion, Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed. The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the “enemies of God.”
I’m not picking on these people out of any particular animus toward them. I’ve singled them out because of their enormous popularity and prominence, and the fact that they are generally not considered to be fringe kooks in the atheist world. Were I to seek out islamophobic comments from sources like /r/atheism or YouTube atheists two things would happen: 1) many readers would surely object that I would be scraping the muck from the bottom of the atheist barrel, and not fairly representing atheism broadly; and 2) it would be a lot easier to find many more comments way more odious than the ones I’ve shown.
The evidence is pretty stark. Not only is there no effort to isolate violent extremism away from what the majority of Muslims believe, there is open disdain for even attempting to do so. And the oft-repeated lie that they’re just criticizing Islam and not Muslims simply won’t play here. Ali says “Islam” must be defeated (while deliberately conflating Islam and Islamism)… but then adds,
[t]hey’re not interested in peace [emphasis added]. Harris explicitly states that it’s Muslims who fantasize about subjugating us all. (And no, the qualifier “devout” is not a get-out-of-bigotry-free card here, because the context – which Harrisites love to cite in their attempts to explain away the foulness in his arguments – makes it clear that “moderate” Muslims believe the same thing, but merely do mental gymnastics to avoid admitting it. Far from letting them off the hook, one of the major thrusts of his article is to scapegoat moderate Muslims for enabling the extremists – a common theme in anti-Muslim rhetoric.) And when Maher says
they’re violent and
they blow you up, the “they” he’s talking about is not the pages of the Quran.
We started with rational, cogent criticism of Islam, and slid in very subtle steps all the way to demonizing the entire global body of Muslims without distinction or nuance, casting them as bloodthirsty savages just itching to murder and subjugate us all. And all the way our slide was greased by the words of prominent atheist voices.
The anti-Muslim movement in Canada is certainly not an atheist movement, but I think I’ve just shown that there is a very clear path through atheism to anti-Muslim bigotry.
There is another worrying connection between atheism and the Canadian anti-Muslim movement: their co-option of secularism as a cover for their bigotry. This is a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. Ironically, while the US has much stronger support for secularism in its constitution, American bigots haven’t picked up on the tactic yet.
The game is 1–2–3 simple:
- Talk up the benefits of a secular government.
- Take advantage of the fact that not many people understand what secularism really is to disorient them.
- While they’re disoriented, slip in some anti-Muslim bigotry in the hopes they won’t notice.
It’s a sweet little con. Just about any reasonable person knows that secularism is a key component of any modern, civilized society. It’s about as fundamental as democracy and freedom of speech.
But just like democracy and free speech, few people understand the details of secularism. They get the general gist of it: It’s about the “separation of church and state”. It’s the opposite of theocracy. It’s about keeping religion out of the halls of government.
But what exactly does all that entail? Okay, obviously it means we shouldn’t let priests dictate our laws. But… should we allow Parliament to hold a prayer when starting a session? After all, it’s not really part of governance, it’s just symbolic, and it’s traditional. What about allowing religious groups to petition the government? They’re not actually part of the government, so they are not obligated to be secular, but should government acknowledge their religious concerns at all, or should it just completely ignore the concerns of a segment of the population? What about allowing members of Parliament to display visible signs of their private religious beliefs? What about allowing people who use public services to display their religion?
Once you get into the weeds, people’s certainty of what secularism actually requires fades. People start guessing, and going with their gut. And that’s when they’re vulnerable to the con. The anti-Muslim propagandists swing in and dazzle them with faux-intellectual arguments claiming that discriminating against Muslims is rational, and even required by secularism. The grifters know their gull doesn’t have an intellectual grasp of secularism, so they play to the basest emotions with lurid tales of women being reduced to chattel. And people get suckered by the grift.
In no way is the banning of wearing religious symbols at any level “secularism” in any form. That’s true even when it’s spun as religiously “neutral” – that is, not targeting any particular religion(s). But more often than not, when the idea is raised in Canada, it’s quite blatantly not religiously “neutral”, and clearly aimed primarily at Muslims. And make no mistake: religious symbol bans, while they may claim Sikhs and Jews as collateral damage, are primarily aimed at Muslims. That’s clear in the rhetoric of proponents.
All this leads to the very uncomfortable conclusion that there is a symbiosis between the atheist and the anti-Muslim movements in Canada. Atheism not only provides a pathway for some people to find their way to anti-Muslim bigotry, it provides pseudo-intellectual cover for the movement as a whole. Most of the people out marching in the name of more “secularism” to make it harder for Muslim kids to pray really couldn’t give a fuck about secularism in general; none of the groups actually out on the streets for those protests were organizations that push for secularism generally.
So what do we do?
If the white nationalist or anti-Muslim movements really are breeding in the shadows of atheism, then it’s time to delouse the movement. We’re way past the point where the whole “just ignore it and they’ll go away” thing has any play left.
The first step is always admitting you have a problem. I think that if I haven’t managed to make that case in this post, then surely one of the numerous other articles out there highlighting the racist, misogynist, and anti-Muslim shenanigans within atheism have. If you still refuse to accept with all that evidence that there is a problem in movement atheism, then you are the problem.
And because I have to repeat this to stave off the angry jackasses with poor comprehension skills:
- I am not saying that atheism itself is racist, misogynistic, or anti-Muslim.
- I am not saying that atheism necessarily leads to racism, misogyny, or anti-Muslim bigotry.
- I am not saying that atheists in general are racist, misogynistic, or anti-Muslim.
- I am not saying that prominent atheists who say racist, misogynistic, or anti-Muslim things are themselves racist, misogynistic, or anti-Muslim.
I am saying that in the current climate of the atheist and freethought community, there is a clear path through atheism to racism, misogyny, and anti-Muslim bigotry, and not only are we not doing enough to stop it, some of us are actively greasing the path with their irresponsible behaviour.
We need to learn how to better recognize racism, misogyny, and anti-Muslim bigotry, both so that we can insulate ourselves from its pernicious allure, and so we won’t be tricked into passing it on. We don’t need to become virtue police scanning everything everyone says for anything with even the slightest whiff of racism, misogyny, or anti-Muslim bigotry that we can “call out”. But when we do spot something that seems suspicious, that hasn’t been adequately justified with evidence or rational argument, we should be ready to challenge the source. We should always have our skeptical armour up, even when analyzing things coming from within our own community.
And that is true especially if the source is a big-name atheist. For all its talk of being a movement rooted in rationalism and the rejection of dogma, atheists have turned out to be a pretty typically tribal group – one which has the usual unfortunate tendency of anointing priest-leaders and then slavishly worshipping them.
Throughout this post I have taken the rather dangerous tack of naming names. I know this will probably result in hate and rage directed at me. I know their fans will attack me viciously – not my points and not my arguments for them; me, personally. I know they’ll quibble over every little instance of alleged bigotry, fixating on the trees and ignoring the forest. But I stand by every name I’ve mentioned. I think the evidence is manifold that these people have been horrifically irresponsible with their platforms, and have said things that are completely unjustified and unjustifiable. Whether they actually harbour the ignorant and bigoted ideas they’ve promoted is beside the point, as far as I’m concerned. All I am concerned with is the fact that they are promoting racism, misogyny, and anti-Muslim bigotry in the name of atheism.
However, I will point this out: Sam Harris has said racist things and promoted racist ideas on multiple occasions. That’s not the thing I want to point out; that’s just obvious, common knowledge at this point. But do you believe that he is not a racist when he defends himself by saying he is not a racist, that he doesn’t hate anyone, that he just wants to have a discussion about these topics and that he’s just exercising his freedom of speech? Do you accept those arguments as a defence?
Because, actually, those arguments aren’t from Harris. Oh, they’re almost certainly similar to the things Harris has said in his own defence… but that’s not where I got them from. Those are the arguments Peter Cvjetanovic made in his own defence, after he was photographed at the Charlottesville rally holding a torch, wearing an Identity Evropa shirt, screaming racist chants.
Here’s the funny thing with bigots: Most of them very sincerely don’t believe they are bigots. They really, really don’t believe they’re bigots, even after being recorded doing something astonishingly bigoted and having it pointed out to them. They will try to justify and rationalize the fuck out of what they did, and really smart people – like Harris – can do a damn good job of that. They will get pissed off at you for having the chutzpah to call them out – how dare you call them racist when they’re just trying to make a point that needs to be made and that most people are too afraid to make. Why, they’re big, damn heroes for saying what most people are too afraid to say!
Whether it’s Peter Cvjetanovic or Sam Harris – or any other atheist celebrity – the rationale they give for why they said something bigoted doesn’t matter. Their outraged assertions that they’re not a bigot don’t matter. Their attempts to distract from their own bigoted statements and actions by scapegoating an even bigger threat – usually “Islam” – shouldn’t matter. What matters is the bottom line: If they are unable to make whatever points they have to make without providing support for racism, misogyny, or anti-Muslim bigotry, then they should really just shut the fuck up. If they are that goddamn incompetent, they should find another line of work. On the other hand, if they are unwilling to cut out the bigotry, then we should stop listening to them, stop passing their messages on, and get serious about labelling what they’re doing as promoting bigotry.
And as bright a spotlight as we should be shining on the things being said by most prominent voices in our community, we should turn no less scrutiny on our own words and deeds. Look, we all hold racist beliefs; every single one of us. Our society is so steeped in racism, misogyny, and anti-Muslim bigotry, we can’t not have picked up some stupid, ignorant, bigoted ideas along the way. We have to realize that, and accept it, and thus take personal responsibility for continually analyzing our own beliefs to catch and root out any bigotry that has slipped in. We need to do this every day, every time we open our mouths to parrot something we picked up in the Internet. Are Muslims really that big a threat to Canada? More so than every other religious tradition? Has feminism really jumped the shark and become superfluous? Even though women still don’t get the same opportunities or compensation as men? Is Canada really “post-racism”? Even considering the way the government and most of society treats First Nations communities?
Freethought isn’t something you do once then you’re set for life. Being a rational person is not something you are, it’s something you do. It’s a process. You should always be alert and scanning for bigotry, both in your own beliefs and in the ideas being propagated in your community. And you will find some. What will you do when you do? Quietly let it pass to avoid rocking the boat? Or take a stand for reason, and for what’s right? You will have to decide that for yourself.
That’s what we have to do, as Canadian atheists, to clean up our act, and stop allowing bigotry to find a conduit through our movement. We have to stop ignoring racism, misogyny, and anti-Muslim bigotry in our midst. We have to start recognizing that we all have a responsibility for providing oxygen to hate if we’re not actively trying to choke it out. We have to stop defending the celebrities who promote racism, misogyny, or anti-Muslim bigotry – doesn’t matter if they are doing it deliberately or not – and demand that they get whatever messages they have to get across without providing fuel for bigotry. And we have to hold them accountable if they fail to do so.
It’s going to take a long time to fully scrape the rot out of our movement. But it’s something worth doing, if we’re really serious about what we (don’t) believe in.