When It Comes to Islam, New Atheists Sound a Lot Like Christian Fundamentalists

The Sam Harris-Noam Chomsky debate shows us that any ideology, even rationalism, can be twisted to legitimize political gain.

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What do the self-anointed high priests of non-belief known collectively as New Atheists have in common with Christian fundamentalists?

Though this may sound like the opening line to a joke, the punchline is actually not terribly funny, especially given its dire consequences. The answer is a deep distrust and a profound misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

This was amply illustrated in a recent email exchange in which the well-known New Atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris decided, uninvited, to pick an intellectual fight with America’s leading political dissident, the scholar Noam Chomsky. After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless – and in doing so, sounds quite a lot like the religious fundamentalists he so disdains.

One of the most popular methods used by New Atheists is to slam what they regard as the moral (or ethical) relativism of the presumably self-hating left and multiculturalists, arguing instead that all nations and ethnic groups must adhere to the same standards – though what they often mean by this is their muddled interpretation of “Western values.”

I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality and tolerance of others are the norms. However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against “moral relativism,” saying that we cannot allow non-Western societies to operate by different rules, are the first to invoke it in the form of “moral equivalence,” in which they argue that the West gets an exemption from adhering to the same standards they insist must be applied to all in other cases.

Take Harris, who defends torture as something that “may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror,” yet issues wholesale condemnations of the “cruelty,” “barbarity” and “approach to criminal justice” of Muslim society.

“Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century,” Harris writes in his 2004 book “The End of Faith,” an excerpt he includes as part of the email debate with Chomsky that he recently wrote about on his website. “Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments. Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way.”

And it’s not just Harris. “I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world,” writes self-described “secular Christian” and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, because “there is a belief that every word of the Quran is literally true.”

Sounds like these staunch atheists would be right at home with evangelical Christians, 52 percent of whom said in a 2013 poll that they agree with the statement “Islam is essentially a violent religion.” However, the New Atheists do not accurately reflect the views of the people for whom they are presumed to speak, given that just 20 percent of people who claim no faith or are agnostic believe that Islam is violent, according to the Barna Group poll. Similarly, the poll found that 62 percent of evangelical Christians have an unfavorable perception of Islam, compared with just 7 percent of agnostics or people with no faith.

In fact, these secularist comments don’t sound substantively different from those made by prominent evangelist Franklin Graham shortly after 9/11. Graham repeatedly called Islam “wicked and evil,” saying: “I don’t believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion” and “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.” Or take the inflammatory televangelist Pat Robertson, who has called Islam “demonic” and said it is “a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination.”

So do these similarities taint atheism itself as a philosophy? Of course not. The world is full of open-minded and nuanced atheists, but they don’t capture public attention like the outrageously outspoken militant atheists, just as religious fanatics capture the headlines while religious moderates are often ignored by the mainstream media. In fact, Islam has an ancient tradition of free inquiry and non-belief that continues into the present, though it is under attack from fundamentalists.

Take the uncompromising and highly respected Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri, a blind Syrian poet, philosopher, rationalist and hermit who died in 1057. Perhaps you might have expected Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens to say something like “The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.” But actually, it was al-Ma’arri, a vegeterian and an early advocate of not bringing forth children, who made that statement. His life and ideas, as well as those of numerous other Arab and Muslim intellectuals throughout the ages, eloquently express the role of atheism as a longstanding strain in Muslim thought. Equally eloquently, the Nusra Front’s beheading of statues and busts of al-Ma’arri show how far modern-day jihadists and Islamists have strayed from this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and how al-Ma’arri was better off in the Syria of the 10th century than that of the 21st.

In addition to living a millennium earlier, al-Ma’arri differed from the New Atheists in one significant respect: He regarded all religions, prophets and scriptures alike as “fabrications” and “idle tales.”

For all the anti-Islam rhetoric of New Atheists and Christian fundamentalists alike, if Islam and religion as a whole died out tomorrow, we would not necessarily reach a state of enlightened secular nirvana. After all, what Harris, Dawkins and their cohorts have shown us is that any ideology, even rationalism and atheism, can be twisted to legitimize the political gain of the few and to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on the many.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer living in Jerusalem. He is the author of "Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land." Follow him on Twitter:@DiabolicalIdea.