Celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins appear to claim the moral high ground when it comes to violence. Dawkins, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, insist that because religion is intrinsically violent, then atheism is inherently more pacific. After all, if all the evils in the world can be blamed on religion, then arguably eliminating religion is not only desirable but a moral obligation for atheists who believe in peace.
Yet our research shows that in the War on Terror, these atheists have been surprisingly willing to align themselves with policies which are at least as violent – and in some cases more so – than many of those perpetrated in the name of religion.
Our study (jointly conducted by a Christian, an agnostic and an atheist) involved analysing the writing of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens – the so-called “New Atheists”. We sought to establish their positions on US and UK foreign policy since the September 2001 attacks. We critically examined their bestselling books, along with their op-eds, social media posts and videos, to ascertain their positions – not on science or morality – but on politics, especially foreign policy.
They each argue that religion inherently incites violence, whereas atheism is more peaceful. Dawkins in particular asks: “Who would advocate killing in the name of a non-God?”
Atheism, ancient and modern
The word “atheism” stems from the Greek a-theos, “without deities”. Although the term was coined in antiquity, it is only in the Enlightenment that the first self-professed atheists became known.
This modern European atheism promised emancipation from superstition – but quickly morphed into extreme violence. At the apex of the French Revolution, the Jacobin government implemented the original “reign of terror” in its murderous effort to impose state atheism. The early USSR’s campaign against religion, spearheaded by “The League of Militant Atheists”, involved the violent persecution of religious believers and institutions.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and a global resurgence of political religion from the 1970s onwards, some authors believed that atheism was in terminal decline. But the early 21st century has witnessed the rise of writers like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. They emerged as public intellectuals advancing ferocious attacks on religion as both untrue and uniquely dangerous.
Their arguments are not new. But, unlike more ponderous academic atheist philosophers, they seemingly cultivated combative and acerbic, media-savvy personae. Their success at writing bestselling books, giving engaging public talks and cultivating a global following through social media, has made them minor celebrities. For example, Dawkins has been depicted in South Park, Family Guy and The Simpsons – and even made a cameo appearance in Dr Who.
New atheism and the ‘War on Terror’
All three of these New Atheists were sympathetic to the attack on Afghanistan in 2001. Hitchens also vociferously supported the 2003 Iraq invasion, while Harris saw Western engagement with Islam and the Muslim world as part of a war that the West must win, or else face “bondage”. In his 2004 book, The End of Faith, Harris says (p.131):
While it would be comforting to believe that our dialogue with the Muslim world has, as one of its possible outcomes, a future of mutual tolerance, nothing guarantees this result – least of all tenets of Islam. Given the constraints of Muslim orthodoxy, given the penalties within Islam for radical (and reasonable) adaption to modernity, I think it is clear that Islam must find some way to revise itself, peacefully or otherwise. What this will mean is not all obvious. What is obvious, however, is that the West must win the argument or win the war. All else will be bondage.
And in specific reference to the Afghan war, Harris adds (p.53):
There is in fact no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified killing them in self defence. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.
We argue that the three supported this war because they read global politics through the lens of their atheism. They appear to see the West as locked in an existential war with religion, particularly Islam. There are four striking aspects of this atheist vision of global geopolitics.
First, they see religion as essentially violent. “Religion is the most prolific source of violence in our history,” says Harris. The 9/11 attacks “came from religion”, adds Dawkins, who claims it is the “deadly weapon” which is “the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East”. This analysis obscures the murky role of foreign powers and corrupt rulers in the Middle East and the ability of charismatic leaders to co-opt religion and fuse it with legitimate grievances.
Although highly critical of Christianity’s historical record, they regard Islam as an existential threat to modern, secular societies. Whereas US President George W. Bush insisted that “Islam is a religion of peace”, the New Atheists disagree. Dawkins singles out Islam as “one of the great evils in the world”. “We are at war with Islam,” argues Harris, not merely with “an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists.”
The New Atheists are convinced that their version of Western civilisation is superior to what they understand to be the religious-based cultures of the Middle East. “All the world’s Muslims,” tweeted Dawkins in 2011, “have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.” Hitchens wrote that the 9/11 attacks led him to feel “exhilaration” because they plunged the world into an “unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated”.
Finally, they exhibit a version of the “white man’s burden” to rescue Afghanistan, Iraq and other places from their own religious backwardness. Adopting what looks like a classic colonial attitude, Harris writes that “however mixed or misguided our intentions were” in invading Iraq “we are attempting, at considerable cost to ourselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people”.
Imagine no religion
Harris extends his argument by suggesting that the racial profiling of Muslims and judicial torture of terrorists may be ethical in what he calls “our war on terror”. At its extreme, he contends that “Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence” because theologically they don’t fear death. He reasons they are immune to the usual logic of Mutually Assured Destruction. Therefore, if an Islamist government acquired nuclear weapons, then “a nuclear first strike of our own” may be “the only course of action available to us”. The irony in this argument, which began with the declaration that religion is uniquely violent, is apparently missed by Harris, who has since qualified his position on torture as this:
My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (‘torture’ by another name) is essentially this: If you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to water-board a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like him).
Our research demonstrates the paradox that although New Atheists claim that their ideology is more enlightened and peaceful than religion, they often end up advocating violence. This is because they exhibit a simplistic view of the world as being divided between two civilisations – secular and religious – which cannot coexist. In this, ironically, they arguably mirror the hardline religious leaders whom they so vociferously denounce.
Fifteen years after the invasion of Iraq and the chaos it unleashed, it is clear that there needs to be a more nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern societies and politics. Those nuances are as unlikely to be found in the analysis of fundamentalist atheists as they are in their religious antagonists.