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The New Atheism and Islam

Hajj Muhammad LegenhausenWhat is new in the new atheism, however, is not merely success in selling books, winning media coverage, and catching the eye of academia.Hajj Muhammad LegenhausenWhat has been dubbed “the new atheism” came into the cultural spotlight in 2006. In that year, a conference was held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California called “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. This conference, which attracted considerable media coverage, highlighted the views of atheists who contended that religion is not consistent with a scientific view of the world, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the philosopher Daniel Dennett. It was also in 2006 that several books were published attacking religion: Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. These were followed the following year by Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The mere publication by atheists of books against religion is not new; what is new are the sales figures for such books. They are selling millions of copies. Dawkins is still #24 on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list. No atheists have ever before been able to win quite so much attention. Along with the book sales, there have been numerous television programs, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. Also to be noted on the bestseller list are rebuttals to the atheists, such as Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God. There have also been numerous conferences and academic discussions of the phenomenon of the new atheism.

What is new in the new atheism, however, is not merely success in selling books, winning media coverage, and catching the eye of academia. First, the new atheism, in contrast to much of modern atheism, is militant; that is, it takes the stand that faith in God is not only a mistaken worldview, but is oppressive and must be uprooted from human cultures. Modern atheism is largely a European phenomenon. Anti-religious sentiment that came to a head in the French Revolution found expression as philosophical atheism with Auguste Comte (d. 1857) and Ludwig Feuerbach (d. 1872) and became militant in the Communist movement. The movement towards militancy is strikingly captured in the shift from the comment by Voltaire (d. 1778) (who was a Deist rather than an atheist), “If God did not exist, it would have been necessary to create Him,” to the words of the revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (d. 1876): “If God did exist, it would be necessary to destroy Him!” The term “militant atheism” was introduced by Lenin in a speech of 1922. The new atheism is not politically leftist, but it takes up the urgency of Lenin’s call to stand up against religion.

This brings us to the second major innovation of the new atheism: its opposition to Islam. Atheism is a rejection of all religion, or at least of all theistic religion, and since Islam is usually considered a theistic religion, atheism is in principle opposed to it. However, as a phenomenon with its roots in Europe, atheism has concentrated its opposition to religion on Christianity. The new atheism, by contrast, emphasizes Islam as a particularly virulent form of religion that must be opposed. Often, the new atheists claim that because of the events of 9/11, they feel compelled to take a strong stand against religion in general and Islam in particular. Because of this, atheists who focus primarily on Islam, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, may also be considered to be a part of, or at least allied with, the new atheism.

Most of the answers and rebuttals to the new atheism have been made by Christians, who are not so much concerned to defend any and every religion, but primarily Christianity. Some take the position that the new atheists are only wrong to attack their religion, and attacks on other religions may not be off the mark.

Philosophically, the new atheists do not have anything new to offer. The new atheists tend to show no interest in professional philosophy, religion, or theology and target the mass market. The arguments against the existence of God are generally versions of scientism, the view that all of life’s problems may be solved by appeal to the natural sciences, and the moral argument against religion, that religion brings out the worst in people. Part of the discourse of the new atheism grows out of the debate between creationists and evolutionists, and it often seems to stay at the level of two competing fundamentalisms: belief in the literal truth of scripture on the one hand, and belief in the saving power of science on the other. The scientism of the new atheists is coupled with their moral outrage at religious fanaticism, which is taken as normative for religious belief, and is said to be caused by not basing one’s beliefs solely on evidence.

The positivistic strand of new atheist thought was thoroughly refuted in philosophical circles, because it was found that even the natural sciences rely upon assumptions that cannot be supported by scientific evidence. Often the principle of positivism was turned against itself: there is no scientific evidence to support the principle that one should accept only those beliefs for which there is scientific evidence. As for the moral outrage, many of the horrors of so-called religious conflicts have social and political causes rather than religious ones, and some of the worst offenses of the twentieth century by the likes of Stalin and Pol Pot were committed by avowed atheists.

As Muslims, we should try to defend our faith with candor, fairness, and reasonableness. The new atheists seek to provoke anger from those they attack in order to substantiate their own claim that the religious are fanatics. May Allah grant us the wisdom and strength of character to display the religion He has given us as a guidance in its best light.

Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen teaches at the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom, Iran. His blog can be accessed at http://peacethroughunderstanding.blogspot.com.

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  • otowi

    The best representation Muslims can offer of Islam is to live the deen as wholly as possible and to pay particular attention to behaving with good manners, ethics, patience, forgiveness, and generosity.

  • Zahara

    I most horrible – and the most absolutely beautiful – things have been done in the name of religion. But – the very same can be said about science.

  • Hassan B

    Your analysis and candor are appreciated, thank you for your insight and overview. Very well written. Have you come accross any recent writings by Muslims Scholars in discussion of the points? Similiar to what Sayyed Mutahari did in response to the previous Athiest movements and writings?

  • Tariq Farook

    I enjoyed your piece.

    There is also another interesting article by another author Adam Deen called militant atheism.


  • New Atheist

    Most of the atheists don’t believe in science in the way someone believes in God. Science dont have to be believed, that’s a big plus of it. The theory of genom is not a belief, it’s verified by numerous facts. And if new facts arrive, theory will be changed or rejected. So, atheists dont have to be positistic scientistic, as you portray us.
    As for militancy, I think that atheists understand the fragility and great value of current Western civilization, and want to defend it. Religious people are very active, and we do nothing, there will be more converts, more religion in school and army.
    So the reason for activity is defence.

  • also known as .

    ^ Actually, atheists DO believe in your approach the same way as a person believes in a religion. For example, many seem to think that by experimentation they can explain everything. They form philosophical ideas based on the unprovable notion that all is material. That is clearly an ontological position, not one that can be proven or disproved in a laboratory.

    Furthermore, this position that humans are simply a freak of nature raises more troubling issues: are some humans more human than others due to evolution? This is the joke, that on hand atheists claim to be humanitarian, and on the other hand they leave the door wide open for some people to be considered not as human as others. It is for this reason that atheists and materialists have by far done the most damage to Western civilization, especially in the last few hundred years.

    If we add up the number of people killed by atheists/materialists and compare them with religious people, the atheists/materialists have proven to be a far more dangerous threat.

    Atheists are very active, and we do nothing, there will be more converts, more atheism in school and army. So the reason for activity is defence. 😛

  • Citizen K

    I’m sorry, aka, but you are mixing philosophical terms in a wrong way to proof that atheists are in a weak position. In fact, the whole stance against new atheism here, is full of false assumptions.

    First, there is an identification of new atheism with positivistic ideas. Actually, new atheism is nothing but a more militant, proselytizing approach to secular humanist goals. I am, as you can deduce from the nature of my text, an atheist sympathetic to new atheism, and I don’t hold a positivistic system of beliefs myself. I recognice the limitations of empirical evidence and the necessity of metaphysical categories, with is perfectly compatible with the realization that revelation is not a valid source of truth by any means. Also, some of the (new atheist) texts include the explicit denial of the limitlessness of the explicative power of science. The identification between materialism and positivism is false, as well.

    The idea of new atheism being explicitly against Islam is also a false assumption. I tis normal that in authors like Hitchkens, a great deal of the critiques to religion go to Islam, given that most of the most notorious acts of religious fundamentalism of the recent times come from it, but not all the authors referred have made such a reductionist focus and it has been never presented as an integral part of the new atheist agenda. As for the lack of interest in regular philosophy from the authors, I should say that Dawkins’ “The God delusion” is, for its most part, a concise and divulgative briefing on the history of the philosophical arguements against the existence of God, if anything, with a long focus on the creationist issue.

    Going to your questions… the thing about some humans being less humans makes little sense, for the concept of human nature is not to be augmentated or reduced… you are a human being or you are not a human being, but you cannot be more and less human than other. The scientific racism (which destroyed itself due to the evidence), for example, held that some races were physically or mentally superior, not more humans… and I’m sure the modern day Mauritanian slave-holders, for example, know they are dealing with human beings as well, even though they are Muslims. Well, true that the Nazis ignored that the Jews are human beings, but in order to do so they had to totally ignore scientific facts that were widely known even in that time… they had even to rewrite randomly the criteria for naturalistic classification.

    As for the crimes of atheism, I am a bit tired of hearing that, and in this case is even less applicable. Nazism was explicitly irrationalist in nature, and is irrationalism what the new atheists stand against. Communism, in any variant, is a totally closed system of beliefs that cannot be refuted, for its very structure resist refutation… so communism is actually closer to a religion than to what the new atheists stand for (not for nothing, some North Korean citizens think their Dear Leader, which is dead but still rules the nation, can control climate).

    I also find very funny to note how Muslim people complain about how some, well, some extremists, think every Muslim is a plane-crasher extremist, while they set moral equivalences between Atheists and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. How compassionate of you, really.

    Finally, I find surprising the thing about the proselythism of religion as a defense to the growth of atheism, when most of religions have been proselytist from the start, centuries before atheism became a visible stance. It is quite the contrary. Between other things, there is so many people who hold prejudices like we are dispassionate, or amoral; or that line against our interests, as it has happened recetly in the Euro parliament; or just have the authorities with them and against our stances (I’m talking about plain old secularism as a political ideal that doesnt exclude believers) than defending ourselves actively is starting to be a necessity. So… see you in the trenches (not literally, of course).

  • also known as .

    Citizen K, you shouldn’t be preaching about compassion regarding how others think of atheism. The fact of the matter is, there has been far more violence done in the name of atheism and immoral real politik than people flying planes into buildings. The religious zeal with which secularists go forth into the world has done by far the most damage to the world. For example, there are people who demonize Muslims in the name of secularism and then take away our rights — we are allowed to believe, but as soon as we start to show signs of belief in our actions we are labeled as potential terrorists. Whether or not you agree with it is a moot point, we see the fruits of divorcing spirituality from our actions and we are not impressed.

    Regarding positivism, the fact of the matter is that at the end of the day most atheists believe only in the material. Whatever is constructed past that is simply post-modernism. We reject both as deeply materialistic. You can’t call it a religion when it is unpopular and say it isn’t one when it fits your way of thinking.

    As for the issue of being more or less human, this was an issue that existed before the 20th century. See the legal codes that existed for Africans that considered them 2/3 of a human being. This same thinking has persisted and was appropriated by many positivists. Eh.

    The reason atheism has not proselytized is not because it is just gaining traction as a way of thinking. It hasn’t done well because there is no leadership. There is no book. There are no symbols. It is entirely inhuman. Now there is an attempt to steal religious iconography so the God Delusion has become a quasi-holy book and individuals like Dawkins and Hitchens are being held up as quasi-prophets. The whole thing is a joke and runs on anger against others, the same thing that Hitchens and Dawkins accuse religionists of engaging in.

    A last note: I’m very busy. Let’s keep the response shorter please otherwise we will just have a million different loose threads to attend to. Thank you.

    • the bell toll

      Guys, all of you…understand that no one–past present or future–can offer any provable answer to the big question. Never have, never will. There is only function. Islam was essentially created as a form of defensive ethnic nationalism, and now it has morphed into a defensive socio-politico-economic civilizing monolith. All thought structures do this at their center; religion, science, diet plans, cybernetics, etc. Do you prefer Windows or Mac? You will find deep divisions there. Look, we all want to organize in a way that is respectful, sustainable, and productive for our species and the planet. But face it–this grandstanding on all sides has got to go. By following religion we are literally living by a set of principles which can be found in any self-help book by any two-bit author looking to establish his or her mini-empire, only in religion there is ritual and mind-numbing repetition (prayer 5 times a day anyone?) to reinforce the metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Take off the masks Christians, Jews, Muslims–you are just scared children. Scared that we will die and disappear; scared that you don’t matter; scared that the horrible and wonderful things we do and experience actually have no value beyond the immediate function they serve. The codifying and ritualization of beliefs is like having an installed software system to protect against viruses and spyware–to keep the progress and positivity consistent. In this way, religions show NO FAITH. I use science as an interpretive tool, and I understand that goodness and fairness FEEL GOOD, plus have the added benefit of endearing myself to others–thereby reducing threats to my health, status, or general well-being at the hands of jealous, malicious, or revenge-seeking others. Transcend the childish fear of death and embrace the shrill luck we have at being here at the same time. Don’t let the fear of our human frailty in death make you frail in life. Goodnight.

  • otowi

    I agree that there is no need to paint all of any group with one brush.

    Just fyi, some atheists actually do proselytize – there are some in my city who do so at religious fairs, tolerance fairs, print media, street corners, etc.

  • Rhyzomatic

    Please take the time to realize ALL OF YOU that the REAL PROBLEM in the world today is the oversimplification of the individuals immense complexities and uniqueness of personal thoughts, beliefs, race…and all other extra-enternal connections and experience that they have in the world that collectively make up each individual.

    But stating that either the Athiests or the Muslims (or religious) are a certain wayis completely irrational by both parties involved in this discussion. Please remember that your discussions here are ONLY from an individual; what right do any of you have to representing ALL of the Muslim or religious world or in
    representing ALL of the athiest world. Before attacking each other realize that within your affiliated group there are conflicting views/beliefs/actions/etc.

    Much of the world today is territorialized and plagued by the binary. Humanity seeks to oversimplify the world in its attempts to understand it. It is constructed of black and white force(good/bad, holy/evil, white/black, male/female) that create the conflicts by valorizing the first term, while oppressing the second. Is not your arguments based upon your differing belief of a binary? While the religious believe in the construction: religious faith/scientific evidence and ultimately religion/science…the Athiest believes in its construction as its opposite (scientific evidence/religious faith and science/religion).

    REALIZE THAT NOTHING IS BLACK AND WHITE. There are exceptions, ambiguities, conflictsto each duality………. Some thoughts to enlighten:

    -Hitler was actually an avid church goer
    -Although the Catholic Doctrine states, “We believe that this one true religionsubsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church”, is also recently included the belief of Evolution
    into its Doctrine.
    -The Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 was passed through the U.S. House while many of its signers were religious. In fact during that time of history, there were VERY FEW athiests within the U.S.
    -Roughly, how many Muslim Terrorists are there in the world? Now compare that to the whole Muslim population which is the largest religious population in the world…further, think of the groupings of sunni’s and she’its
    -There is a whole spectrum on “diffferent kinds of athiests” Some may simply choose not to choose to believe…some are Positivists…some are militant, some are demonic, most see is as irrational, SOME WERE BORN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE AND HAVE NEVER EVEN HEARD OF MUHAMMAD OR JESUS…

    Further, Athiesm is NOT a religion. There is no unifying discourse of beliefs to a central unity (a bible), there is absolutely nothing that can be “expected” or assumed opon meeting an athiest, there is no hierarctical power or order subsisting to athiests….

    Further, the idea of “all Muslims being terrorists” would be conflicted upon readingthe Koran and the foundations of the Islamic faith. A diversity of religious communities is a natural human condition within their scripture, “If Allah had so willed he would have made you a single people…it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ya despute” (5:48).


  • Robb Wilson

    I appreciate this article and the manner in which Legenhausen shares graciously with Christendom the struggle with atheism. The comments to date are also enlightening. I posted my two cents at http://scholar-redeemer.blogspot.com/2011/11/isaac-and-ishmael-together-again.html

    • Emerson de Oliveira

      Yes. I’m christian. I like some things of Islam but I don’t like of fanaticism (even in some nomalists christians). Congratulations.

  • Emerson de Oliveira

    I’m christian apologist from Brazil but I like of this article. Very good.