The New Atheist Threat, The Dangerous Rise Of Secular Extremists – A Review

Years ago, I was bored.¬† Noticing the large bookcase in the hallway of my flat, I browsed lazily through my flatmates’ book collection.

Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, no.¬† Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.¬† Jesus no.¬† Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind.¬† Oh holy lord Jesus above NO!

Just the same old shit.

With depression creeping on, I slowly turned away, resigned to my bored state.¬†¬†Just then,¬†an author’s name caught my eye.¬† Hey!¬† I know that guy!¬† I picked up the book.¬† The unremarkable reddish brown¬†cover was¬†less interesting than the title: God Is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), by Christopher Hitchens.

God Is Not Great

That infamous reddish-brown cover.

I’d heard of this book, but I’d forgotten the subtitle, and it made me smile.¬† I had a strong urge to read it.¬† I knocked on my flatmate’s door.¬† “Hey, is it ok if I read this?”, I asked, waving it around aggressively.¬† “Ok, ok” she said.¬† I never returned it.

I had loosely¬†followed Christopher Hitchen’s career.¬† I knew he was a former leftist who had taken a strange turn towards justifying right-wing¬†disasters in the Middle East,¬†apparently now¬†taking a turn¬†to the ‘left’ against Christianity.¬† I bunkered down, and read the book.¬† It wasn’t long and wasn’t tough reading.

I wish I could say I was impressed.¬† I wasn’t.¬† But at the same time, I did enjoy it.¬† It was entertaining.¬† Being a lefty myself, I found the attacks on the Christian right quite¬†amusing.

With such a bombastic title, I had expected more than just¬†a simple screed against doctrine and dogma.¬† Sure, those are bad things, obviously, but the book itself seemed weirdly pasted together, with no real underlying theme except the general idea that irrational and dogmatic thinking, a hallmark of religious faith, poisons one’s ability to grow and learn.¬†¬†The solution?¬† Science!¬† Not a disagreeable conclusion, to be sure.

The book¬†didn’t shake¬†me up to any great degree, but I was raised in a secular household, so a lack of regard for religious thinking wasn’t¬†particularly¬†new to me.

Later, I tried my hand at Richard Dawkin’s¬†The God Delusion (2006):

The God Delusion

Similarly reddish-brown cover.

I had a similar reaction, except that Dawkin’s¬†prose seemed slightly more arrogant and hyperbolic in general.¬† Some passages about the¬†atrociousness of the Christian God’s character, while entertaining, didn’t provide much food for thought.

I also took issue with Dawkin’s¬†distortion of ‘agnosticism’ and¬†characterization of¬†(his term) “permanent¬†agnostics in principle” (PAPs…??)¬†as practicing “fence-sitting” and “intellectual cowardice” ( though mercifully sparing “temporary agnostics in practice” (TAPs)¬†as having “an entirely reasonable position”, a category I suppose I would fall into).

I also dislike Dawkin’s¬†arbitrary¬†seven point scale of belief,¬†which tries to funnel non-believers into self-identifying as ‘atheist’ over ‘agnostic’, whereas I firmly believe these are¬†complimentary terms which overlap in all cases except¬†for¬†‘7’ on Dawkin’s scale (“Strong Atheist”).

With Dawkins himself at a self-proclaimed 6.9, this injects a smidgen of agnosticism into Dawkin’s own beliefs, but that is not reflected on this scale.

As for his¬†rhetoric concerning the lack of a¬†God, or¬†‘his’ potential existence being as likely as the Easter Bunny’s, perhaps these ‘revelations’ would be better suited¬†to religious people needing to be shaken out of their faith.¬† To me they were just amusing rhetoric.¬† I¬†did enjoy¬†the book however, mostly.

Fast forward 10 years, and the culture wars have been heating up.  Tragically, Hitchens has since passed away from cancer.  As much as I disagreed with his foreign policy ideas, he was a fascinating character, and an interesting person to read and watch.  His bad deeds were potentially rivaled by his good ones, rendering him enigmatic, and his presence is missed.

I’m caught up on most of Hitchen’s¬†and Dawkin’s¬†debates, I’ve become aware of Sam Harris and read The End Of Faith (2004).¬† I’ve watched Dawkin’s, Hitchen’s¬†and Harris’s many interviews.¬† I’ve read Harris’s blog articles, and am currently reading¬†Harris’s¬†latest book (review to follow).

I’ve also been staying up to date¬†with Dawkin’s¬†and Harris’s Twitter feeds, and ‘debating’ with many of their followers.¬† Then there is (‘the forgotten horseman’) Daniel Dennett, who I feel is a casualty of his own reasonable demeanor.¬† He seems the least bombastic, least flashy, and least controversial of the bunch, so rarely gets his due.¬† Perhaps I should try one of his books.¬† I can’t think of a single controversy he’s been involved in.

Since the mid 2000s I have been a member of The Young Turks Network, an online progressive talk-show.  I was drawn to their coverage of the disastrous Iraq War, and willingness to criticize the republican power structure and sniveling democratic politicians.  Since that time, TYT has become increasingly popular on YouTube, being at the forefront of the now densely populated YouTube news and social commentary community.

In October of 2014, an¬†Australian born journalist residing in America, CJ Werleman, appeared on TYT, primarily to discuss the so-called “New Atheist” movement that formed in the wake of Hitchens and co. over the past decade, and radical Islam and terrorism.¬† I had never heard of him before.¬†¬†He just seemed very Australian, which as a New Zealander…ok.¬† It’s fine.

Werleman went on to say some harsh things about Sam Harris, painting him as a blood-lusting war hawk, indistinct from Dick Cheney, and a secular fundamentalist, as recklessly ignorant of the state of world affairs as Sarah Palin.  He asked, would we feel safe should Sam Harris have his finger on the atomic button?

This was interesting.¬† I had never thought about it in these terms.¬† Was Sam Harris essentially just a useful idiot, a shill for neo-cons to justify their greedy, tribalistic¬†wars?¬† I was aware of Reza¬†Aslan’s¬†prior criticisms (or smears?) of¬†Harris, calling him a religious literalist,¬†in that¬†he reads the text as literally as Al Qaeda or ISIS does.¬† There was also the case of Ben Affleck’s cries of “that’s GROSS.¬† That’s RACIST”, when he squared off with Harris on Real-Time With Bill Maher, on the subject of radical Islam.

Just one¬†day after CJ Werleman’s¬†appearance on TYT, it was revealed that Werleman¬†indulged in¬†serial plagiarism¬†in his articles for Salon, AlterNet¬†and other online publications.¬† Plagiarism is a grave offence in writing, and this disqualifies him in the minds of many from being a credible source of information or opinion.¬† (Werleman himself¬†addresses the plagiarism debacle in The New Atheist Threat, explaining these instances as times he¬†‘forgot’ to¬†attribute the original authors, placing them as “incidences of clumsiness and laziness”).

As far as I can tell, Werleman was completely busted on his plagiarism.  You can make of this information what you will.

Interestingly, numerous other writers have been¬†entangled in plagiarism charges.¬† Chris Hedges for example, a progressive liberal writer who is quoted heavily in The New Atheist Threat, had his own plagiarism scandal.¬† I’ve read about it extensively, and the case¬†seems inconclusive…rather a matter of ‘he said, she said’.¬† You’ll have to read of it independently, and¬†draw your own conclusions.

Werleman¬†writes¬†of Christopher Hitchens’s potential plagiarism, in his ‘borrowing’ of passages from Chapman Cohen’s Essays In Freethinking, and from Jack Keane‘s biography of Thomas Paine.¬† Given the¬†scope and breadth¬†of writing Hitchens did, this accounts for an extremely small amount of his work, but is worth noting.

Finally, Sam Harris himself was accused of plagiarism, (Harris was even accused of plagiarizing CJ Werleman, (likely just an unattributed quote)).

Of course, none of these accusations on any of these authors are conclusive.  If I am writing many words on a subject, and are concurrently reading about it, I may well reproduce a line or two (even a paragraph?) from another author unknowingly.

Werleman,¬†however, was conclusively found to be stealing line-for-line¬†passages from other authors, and some of Hitchen’s examples are¬†close to¬†word-for-word reproductions.

These things said, I will assume the content of The New Atheist Threat is entirely original unless I’m shown otherwise, and leave the reader to¬†draw their own conclusions on all of¬†these plagiarism charges.

There is plenty of mud to go around it seems, but of course, not all the mud sticks.

I consider myself a (progressive) secular agnostic.¬† I have been in numerous conversations where “New-Atheists” (a label I use in quotes), have insisted¬†that I’m an atheist.

Naturally, I want to resist¬†this tribalistic demand.¬† The word “atheist” as it is technically defined, means a lack of belief in God,¬†gods,¬†or religion, so of course, my lack of belief in God is the atheistic aspect of my beliefs.

However, I choose to identify as a secular¬†agnostic instead, because I was raised without religion, and have never defined myself by my¬†lack of belief in God or superstitions.¬† I prefer the humility inherent in saying: I simply don’t know.

Yet still,¬†I don’t know about Santa Claus existing as much as you do, Mr. Atheist, but we both acknowledge, the likelihood of his existence is so¬†small as to be beyond¬†a¬†human mind’s ability to¬†comprehend smallness (yet smaller still for God).¬† This technically makes me an agnostic, and judging by the behavior of many atheists online, I’m very comfortable not identifying myself as such.

Agnostic and atheist are compatible and complementary, of course, so my lack of belief in God makes me an atheist…but it doesn’t define me.¬†¬†Still, I’m constantly being told: “no, you’re an atheist”.

Ok, but no thanks.

As a progressive, I firmly believe that tolerance and religious plurality are non-negotiable in a free and democratic society.  This means one must tolerate certain aspects of religions and groups one does not support, but structure society in such a way that through education, fair and equitable laws, and cultural outreach, radical interpretations of religion can be discouraged.

The goal should be that the recruitment tools for repugnant terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are dismantled, and we can move forward into a more secular, science and fact-based society.

The New Atheist Threat Again

So…many…reddish-brown fucking book covers…!?

In the prologue and early sections of The New Atheist Threat, Werleman makes these statements: “This book¬†warns of¬†a growing, virulent, yet hidden threat to a civil pluralistic society”,¬†“Beware: the cult of New Atheism poisons everything.¬† New Atheism is the latest threat to our democratic society”, “New Atheists and Islamic terrorists [are] locked in a symbiotic relationship.¬† Both al-Qaeda and those who echo the New Atheist chant cannot exist without the other”…”These utopian dreams gave us scientific racism, the pogroms, Nazi and Communist Sterilization programs, and the anti-religious slaughters of the 20th century”.

I remembered reading Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great, which contained such lines as: “I leave it to the faithful to burn each other’s churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can be always relied upon to do”, “It is interesting to find that people of faith now seek defensively to say that they are no worse than Nazis or Stalinists”.

I didn’t know it¬†at that time, but my continued involvement in this debate would lead me to reject such binary thinking on religion.

It began to bother me how “New Atheist” writers would¬†constantly throw out¬†extremely broad statements, that bundle up millions of people¬†within their¬†respective doctrines as a monolithic block, united in hatred for gays and women, waiting to be activated as Jihadi¬†terrorists or KKK members.¬†¬†Their petri-dish¬†minds¬†have been¬†fertilized in¬†extremism¬†by the irrational poison of faith.

I do¬†reject faith.¬† I’m a fan of science.¬† If the ‘poison’ in question were but faith, that’s not controversial to me.¬† But the “New Atheist” movement consistently paints the religious as deranged, irrational, a threat to civil society,¬†and simply downright scary.

Overall, I don’t fully¬†buy it.¬† There’s too many religious people in the world for such a¬†generalized rendering of religion to hold¬†up under scrutiny, outside of atheist sloganeering and the online echo-chamber.

The often broad approaches of God Is Not Great and The God Delusion, and their respective inabilities to delineate clearly between extremists and¬†the ‘average’ religious person, not to mention a total lack of intellectual curiosity¬†about what makes extremists tick,¬†was off-putting, and gives credence to an ever¬†expanding¬†‘moral-panic’ around Muslims and religion.

Therefore, broad statements about “New Atheists” in the opening pages of The New Atheist Threat were just as off-putting, and likely to alienate anyone from that ‘movement’ from exploring alternatives or additions to their own¬†rigid thought processes.

How are “New Atheists” a ‘threat’ to a civil pluralistic society, anymore than any¬†other people with backwards views (racists, bigots…but, c’mon guys!¬† I’m¬†not calling “New Atheists” racists and bigots, ok?) are a ‘threat’ to such a society?

Are MRAs (Men’s Right’s Activists) who are so virulent and outspoken against women¬†going to lead a ‘rape-based’ culture in the future?¬† (Beyond¬†that which already¬†exists?)¬† Are “New Atheists” going to topple religious pluralism and tolerance in society through their condemnations of faith, and the faithful, on Twitter?¬† Is there any evidence besides a few isolated examples (a few of which Werleman scrounges up),¬†that this rhetoric, specifically from “New Atheists”, has lead directly to violence?

I don’t think so.¬† But, I believe it is more insidious, in the sense that it creates a narrative about Muslims and other cultures, which infects the body-politic, and changes how foreign policy and religion is approached in society.¬†¬†A direct impact is not¬†entirely measurable, but it is indirectly corrosive.

I never bought the view that a majority of Muslims believing in Sharia Law means they actually want to overthrow their own law systems (and¬†if they do, that they are¬†actively trying to), or that believing in capital punishment for leaving Islam means that¬†they are directly¬†involved in petitioning for such laws.¬† We constantly hear about “polls” of the Muslims world, about the terrible things they believe…but rarely do we¬†encounter¬†an informed,¬†in-depth analysis of what¬†these figures¬†really mean.

So¬†the attempts by Werleman to draw a direct link between “New Atheist” ideology and hate crimes on Muslims, in my view, makes him guilty of the exact thing he is accusing them of, which is paint their opponents as a monolithic block who have a corrosive impact on society.¬† For this reason, I expected The New Atheist Threat to be no more than a bitter, reactionary screed, unaware¬†of it’s own hypocrisy.

Well, yes.¬† But also, no.¬† I was pleasantly surprised by the trajectory of the book, following the short-sighted¬†opening chapters.¬† Instead of spending the entire book just bashing “New Atheists” as a cult of maniacal anti-religionists, Werleman goes on to provide a historical context for “The Roots Of Muslim Rage” (chapter 9).

In this chapter, Werleman provides a detailed counter-narrative to the proverbial “clash of cultures” which has become¬†the dominant narrative in¬†“New Atheist” circles, by outlining in detail the trajectory of¬†Islamic opinion towards the America and ‘the West’ post-9/11.

Muslim’s opinions of America were very negatively impacted by the invasion of Iraq, plummeting considerably, only to rise again with the election of Barack Obama, and then plummet again when Obama provided support to Egyptian strong-man Hosni Mubarak.¬† This flat-out contradicts the “New Atheist”¬†narrative that doctrine and religious faith somehow trumps all¬†‘terrestrial’ motivations, and¬†that¬†Muslims would ‘hate the infidels’ regardless.

Perhaps some would, but I’ve never seen any compelling evidence or studies¬†outline the specific link between religious faith, terrestrial grievance, and then subsequent action.¬† No matter how many “New Atheist” blogs or articles or books I read, nobody has even attempted¬†to quantify the degree to which religious faith trumps real world motivations.¬† The “New Atheists” would have us believe that faith places an invisible barrier between the believer and the real world.

We have evidence in the¬†opposite direction.¬† We are expected to ignore what Muslims actually think.¬† Caring about their opinions¬†is to be an ‘apologist’ for some odd reason.¬† Well in my opinion, it isn’t always faith, it isn’t always the real world, but it almost always is both, to varying degrees.

To say this, is to be realistic, rational, sane…not a ‘blame the¬†West first’¬†sort of person,¬†nor an¬†‘apologist’.¬† But somebody who cares about the¬†whole¬†truth of the matter.

Needless to say, CJ Werleman has become one of the “New Atheists” most hated figures.¬† This is particularly evident in the Amazon reviews for this book.¬† 24 one-star reviews as of this writing.¬† Now, this book is not the best book I’ve read.¬† It has numerous spelling and grammar errors (I’ve been reading the Kindle version, maybe the print version is better?), and the substance of the book is sandwiched between hysterical fear-mongering over the encroaching “New Atheist” threat, but there’s no way that¬†many¬†one-star reviews doesn’t represent¬†an atheist down-voting army¬†out for¬†revenge.

How many of these people do you think actually read the book?  With reviews like the following:

“CJ Werleman’s bitter little pill is more an indicator of the depths to which an exposed plagiarizer will sinker to get some attention.¬† The only fact I can cite form (sic) the book is that it’s ink on paper.¬† The book might be better marketed as satire, if the writing weren’t so poorly executed”.

That this reviewer can’t cite “one fact” from this book, goes to show how the vicious verbal battling between these authors resulted in¬†a divided tribalism amongst their fans, suspending critical thought.¬† Now, we no longer judge a book on it’s merits (and I admit, it’s not the world’s greatest book!), but the extent to which it insults our chosen tribe, or how much we hate the author.

Not being a “New Atheist”, I read this book with no personal feelings of being affronted.¬† If somebody wrote a book slagging off ‘regressive leftists’ (and I’m sure many are incoming), I can still dismiss the criticisms that don’t ring true,¬†or adjust my outlook should any be valid.

The New Atheist Threat, with it’s alarmist tone, will only drive Werleman’s ideological opponents further towards intransigence.

This is¬†Werleman’s greatest stumble in producing this book.¬†¬†The excessive fear-mongering about “New Atheism” which occupies the opening chapters will send atheists on the fence¬†scrambling to their protective bunkers, clutching their End Of Faith‘s and God Delusion‘s.¬† The real crux¬†of this¬†issue is in¬†the detailed exposition on the Middle East in the latter half of the book, and the facts¬†which support¬†the idea that radical terrorism is¬†significantly¬†a product of Western interference in the Middle East.

This is not ‘apologetics’ for religion, and the left has faced accusations of ’emboldening our enemies’ for many years already, these things are measureable and¬†evident in real-world events, such as the 1953 CIA-instigated coup in Iran (and decades of consequences), the tracking of Western activities abroad to Muslim’s view of ‘the West’ (feeding terror recruitment), or how the invasion of Iraq destabilized the uneasy power¬†dynamics between Sunni and Shia Muslims…indirectly¬†leading to¬†ISIS.

If the book had been¬†called The Roots Of Muslim Rage, and offered a less hyperbolic demonization of “New Atheists”, appealing to their secular and scientific¬†sensibilities, he¬†might have gained some converts to the¬†progressive and geo-political view on¬†radical Islam.

Instead, he is like a man mowing the lawn with a chainsaw.

It’s counter-productive, as Werleman does in the conclusion of this book, to say: “Billions of religious believers have long ago chosen to ignore the worst aspects of their respective ancient texts, and thus coexist peacefully with their alternative theistic and non-theistic neighbors.¬† New Atheists can choose to do that, too”, in the same book in which he says: “New Atheism simplicity is the by-product of collective groupthink, and the internalization of self-congratulatory jingoistic clich√©s and generalizations”.

How are “New Atheists” supposed to react, when you are calling them jingoistic and products of collective groupthink? ¬†Regarding Muslims as a monolithic block is abhorrent to Werleman, so why the double standard?¬† If there are¬†‘fundamentalists’ within both,¬†are there not¬†also moderates?¬† Who will appeal to them,¬†and make¬†the progressive case?

Personally, I enjoyed the book.  But I wondered what the point was.

In my opinion, the progressive viewpoint on radical Islam is superior.

It gets to the root of the problem: an ever widening cultural divide brought about primarily by political engineering and war profiteering, not to mention xenophobia and racism.¬† This is¬†also¬†fueled by radical Islamist’s extreme and opportunistic interpretations of the Quran.¬† The justifications for violent Jihad can be found in the Quran, yes, but primarily, it is¬†events in the real world that drive their¬†interpretations.

Radical Islamists funnel Muslim rage into religion, but the rage is not born¬†from it.¬† There has always been tribalism, and every religion and movement throughout history, from the Canaanites to “New Atheists”, have found themselves in opposition to somebody or something.¬† The overwhelming determinative factor in the relative violence or extremism¬†of their existence is their¬†circumstances and¬†relationship to other groups.

This is simply a more logical argument than the idea that religious doctrine springs from the pages of the Quran, turning men into bloodthirsty, mindless beasts, unshackled from the complications of real-life circumstances.

The relative peace and prosperity of the Ottoman Empire, or modern day Turkey (with all it’s political problems)¬†disproves that idea.¬† The counter-point, that the Ottoman Empire for example¬†subjugated and dominated non-Muslims,¬†is to somehow believe that almost¬†every other empire in history didn’t also subjugate some group.¬† In fact, is there¬†even a single¬†example of one that didn’t?

Christianity itself is a case study in how religious doctrine is eventually marginalized by modernity and enlightenment.  Anybody who says otherwise is flirting with the quasi-racist idea of Muslims being inherently prone to evil, who are after all, just humans.

As for The New Atheist Threat, it’s not going to change anybody’s mind, and it’s hypocritical.¬† If Werleman was trying to change the debate, this can only be¬†seen as a¬†missed opportunity.¬† If he was looking¬†to harden or strengthen existing viewpoints, it will suffice.¬† It’s quite a shame, as the book is¬†decently sourced and researched, and includes a variety of compelling arguments¬†to support¬†the progressive case re:Islam.

Rule of thumb: the worst way to shake a group out of tribalism is to attack it even more.

Post-script –¬† Atheist blogger Stephen Knight, known as “Godless Spellchecker”, wrote the definitive ‘atheist’ review of “The New Atheist Threat”, here.

I didn’t read the review before writing my own, because I didn’t want to prejudice my own impressions.¬† Now that I have, I have a few thoughts concerning it.

There were a few points I¬†totally agreed with, particularly¬†Werleman’s sheer over-reliance on quoting Chris Hedges.¬† I am yet to read Hedges work in any¬†real way and I¬†intend to, but as GSSpellchecker noted, he is quoted no less than 73 times.

It would have been nice to have more of Werleman’s own original writing on display.¬† Still,¬†I was satisfied with the range of other quoted individuals (despite many of them being objectionable to “New Atheists” substantively).

Also of note was GSSpellchecker’s investigation into whether Stephen Hicks, who shot three Muslims to death,¬†was inspired by ‘Islamophobia’¬†or “New Atheism” to do¬†the killings.¬† It’s clear that this has been debunked, and I’m not a fan of painting entire movements as responsible for the actions of certain individuals, or the¬†radical sub-groups within it.

I don’t wish to do it to Muslims nor to “New Atheists”.¬† Werleman, it seems,¬†was chomping at the bit to find something to ‘get’ them with.¬† But he may have bit himself.

The rest of the review involves the nitty-gritty of Werleman’s (questionable) character, but¬†not being his fan nor married to the man’s integrity, I’m just focused on his work…the parts that are his work.

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