The New Atheists are once again provoking controversy, this time with their comments on Gaza which has prompted divisions among those better known for presenting a united front against religion.
Over the past decade, the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Richard Carrier have tended to focus their criticism on Abrahamic faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam, insisting that religious beliefs play a central part in fuelling wars and violent conflicts across the globe. While they share a political commitment to radical secularism, the New Atheists often vary in their wider worldviews, and the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has exposed the raw nerve endings of some of these differences.
When it comes to Israel, Harris argues that it is “obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state centred around a religion”. Having said this, he is a passionate defender of Israel itself, arguing that the historic persecution of the Jews provides sufficient grounds for the Israeli state. He contends that while the Israelis have been brutal in the Gaza conflict, this has been caused “by the nature of their enemies”. Hamas is presented as a genocidal organisation, committed to terrorism and seeking to create “a 7th-century theocracy in the Holy land”.
So his view of the recent conflict is that the Israeli government is engaged in a justifiable defence of its people and Palestinian civilians have been unfortunate and accidental casualties in efforts to disarm Hamas. Despite his radical secularist starting point, Harris ends up providing a strikingly conservative defence of both the status quo in Israel and the military action in Gaza. However it is a defence which also contains a warning to the West about Islamism, as he concludes: “The truth is we are all living in Israel. It is just that some of us haven’t realised it yet.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali similarly suggests the conflict involves the defence of democratic values against those who have a “creed of death”. As an atheist Hirsi Ali insists that our current mortal life is the only one we will have – and that while Israel holds to a “creed of life”, its Islamist opponents view life as merely transitional and are willing to destroy and sacrifice populations on a massive scale. So impressed is she with the current actions of the Israeli government that she proposes Benjamin Netanyahu should be awarded a Nobel peace prize.
As you can imagine, Harris and Hirsi’s arguments have found passionate opposition from their colleagues in the New Atheist ranks, some of whom feel their views all-too-closely resemble the polarising attitudes of the American Christian Right towards Middle East politics.
Richard Dawkins has described the recent destruction in Gaza as “obscene”, reflecting the widespread anger within the UK at the high Palestinian death toll. Dawkins has also spoken of the problems of raising difficult questions to people from either religious “side” of the conflict. For example he argues an “emotional taboo” can prevent otherwise rational people from confronting questions such as whether the Palestinians are ultimately being made to pay price for Hitler’s crimes against Jewish people.
Richard Carrier says he is disinclined to believe claims that the Israeli military are not deliberately targeting schools and hospitals in Gaza. He argues:
There is a difference between responding justly with necessary force to legitimate terror and danger, and using that legitimacy as cover for trying to get away with evils even greater than those achieved by the enemy you are answering.
Carrier points to what he calls the “Armageddon Lobby” in America, elements of the Christian Right, which support Israel as they believe war will eventually erupt in the region to bring on the “End Times” and the return of Christ. It’s the political power of this lobby has helped provide Israel with a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for the “evil” it sometimes commits, he says.
What unites all four, though, is what they perceive as the international threat posed by radical Islam. Dawkins has been widely criticised described for describing Islam as the “greatest force for evil” in the world. But Dawkins and Carrier are not as centrally motivated by opposition to forms of Islam as are Harris and Hirsi Ali – particularly the latter whose opposition to Islamism may partly account for her much more forgiving attitude to the actions of the Netanyahu administration.
That such original and highly divergent thinkers differ in their views on Gaza is to be fully expected. Atheism itself entails no particular political perspective. But their divisions on Gaza highlight a strategic dilemma for New Atheists: what should their attitude be towards the continuing influence of religion in world politics? Is it a case of a plague on all your houses? Or is it a case of prioritising the greater of several “evils”?