New Atheists are a new and aggressive breed of atheists currently taking swings at all faith based belief systems around the world. Islam particularly, is facing heavy and sustained fire from them these years. Yet, with waves after waves of terrorists who claim to be committing atrocities in the name of Islam, we really can’t blame them for this fixation.
New Atheists have hurled criticism at many other religions of the world almost consistently. But due to the prevalence of “Muslim” anarchists, Islam has just become the centerpiece in their discourse. Notwithstanding, some of them are also justifying this apparent anisotropy by exclaiming, “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas”; so there’s that too.
It, however, has to be admitted that these new atheists comprise of some of the brains belonging to the highest rungs of intellectual brilliance of this scientific era. With the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to name a few, the apostles of this new breed of atheism are drop-dead-gorgeous – intellectually speaking!
Actually, I am a fan of the chutzpah they display when dissecting and analyzing religious discourse. The way they don’t pull any punches, the way they put sacrosanct beliefs to the test and the way they have made it a no holds barred type of contest, is all very indulging for me. I do not agree with most of their findings, but I’m a huge fan of their endeavors and the blood and sand in these battles. Confused eh? No need to be. I think that in their discourse about Islam they are genius, reasonable and sincere…yet mistaken!
I don’t agree with most of their findings because of, among other things, the sound methodologies they apply indelicately to ascertain the validity of doctrines. And without appropriate delicacy, these methodologies become as ominous and doomy as any other farcical ones. One of these methodologies that I wish to dilate on in this essay has been explained by Sam Harris in one of his responses to controversy. He writes:
“Contrary to Greenwald’s assertion, my condemnation of Islam does not apply to “all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group.” My condemnation applies to the doctrines of Islam and to the ways in which they reliably produce these “bad acts.” Unfortunately, in the case of Islam, the bad acts of the worst individuals—the jihadists, the murderers of apostates, and the men who treat their wives and daughters like chattel—are the best examples of the doctrine in practice. Those who adhere most strictly to the actual teachings of Islam, those who expound its timeless dogma most honestly, are precisely the people whom Greenwald and other obscurantists want us to believe least represent the faith.”
While these are Harris’s words, one can find similar underlying propositions as explicit or implied motifs in many such works.
So if I understood the methodology correctly, it comprises of two distinct steps: first, the doctrine is interpreted from its original sources, and then results this interpretation espouses to produce are drawn in a second step.
This seems to be a good enough approach. Nevertheless, as will be shown here though, it can very easily produce a false positive. Not in any way because the methodology isn’t sound, but because the exhibition is. It’s very first step – the interpretation part – is almost never exhibited with any semblance of diligence people believe it has been. Thus, consequently, this lack of due diligence sets the otherwise sound process up to fail.
There are varied reasons for this professed yet nonexistent exegesis: sometimes, the interpreter approaches the source text with a closed mind, and the exercise is merely limited to confirming that the verses linked with the doctrine are in fact there; at others, the interpreter is already sold on a particular interpretation and isn’t willing to interpret it anew; and more often than not, he isn’t an expert in this field to begin with and doesn’t understand the procedures involved in investigating the purports of a religious doctrine (like scientists interpreting literary and/or religious texts). Hence either in denial of a drossy effort or unaware of own bias and/or ignorance, he interprets the doctrine with utmost satisfaction of certainty.
I’ve seen it happening over and over again in the interpretations reached at by these critics, and not once have I seen them exhibiting any exegetic-correctness, much less exegetic-excellence, whatsoever. This is not only true for Islam espousing terrorism, but also true for other controversial doctrines such as Apostasy, Blasphemy, FGM… and whatever they have delved into, to date.
Let me tender here a thought experiment to demonstrate that ceteris paribus, sans an exegetic due diligence, how effortlessly any other belief system, or new atheism itself as in this experiment, can be subjected to the same criticisms Islam has been subjected to.
Consider that not in the too distant future, about 1/3rd of the world population has become new atheists. Most people of Ireland, Afghanistan, Africa and Middle East have doffed their traditional beliefs and have donned beliefs, as the new atheists believe. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are their apostles (you know what I mean!) in this new belief system; and their books are their Bibles (source texts!).
As fate would have it, these new atheists are indirectly ruled by those still holding onto traditional faith based beliefs. That is to say that new atheists are not at the helm of affairs of the world, but are rather dependent on the whims and wishes of the all-powerful rest of the developed world. The developed world has attacked some of these new atheist states under pretexts that these states believe are unjust: not to mention that false/fabricated pretexts for some of these attacks have been accepted by the attackers as well. Moreover, many other practices and rules of engagement employed by the attackers are perceived to be against internationally recognized ethical principles.
After having suffered many such attacks on their countries or other countries belonging to same belief system, some frustrated groups, filled with indignation, decide to undertake an armed struggle against these attackers. In order to garner widespread support among the likeminded, these groups decide to invoke the source texts. (Whether they cite the source texts merely to legitimize their struggle, or they truly believe it to be the position of the source texts, is obviously irrelevant). They cite that Dawkins described religion as “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus”. They quote Harris declaring, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion”. They cite that at one place in these scriptures, torture has been accepted as an ethical necessity. They say with evidence that one of these luminaries unconditionally supported attacking another such country in his time; while another unapologetically allowed killing people merely for some kinds of pernicious beliefs.
Thus, they convince their followers that fighting to eradicate all traces of religion from the face of the earth through a merciless killing spree was the esoteric intention of new atheism from the very beginning. If their founders had their way, they would’ve hounded all religious believers, tortured them, killed them if their capture was not easily possible and wouldn’t have expressed any qualms on massive collateral damage.
The founders have long passed away, and thus cannot be called to bear witness to this idiocy. Nevertheless, the bulk of new atheists endeavor to identify the folly of these egregious interpretations – but to no avail. They tell them to read other places in the scriptures of the very founders themselves, where they have clarified their stance – but no love. They beseech them to study the overall narrative of new atheism and affirm how their interpretation is diametrically opposite to its core fundamentals – but no yanking their chain. Yet, to undermine them wittingly or unwittingly, many intellectuals among the attackers analyze the source texts quoted by these “terrorists”, albeit superficially, and alarmingly declare that their interpretation is the correct one – and the hashtag #NothingToDoWithNewAtheism starts to trend on twitter. They conclude: the founders did compare religion to smallpox; they did express their unwavering intention to eradicate it; and they did allow waging of war for such purpose…..and thus, haplessly surrendering to the findings of a shabbily executed exercise and a deluge of apparent meanings, the very antidote to religion-ism itself became the disease it set out to cure… and nobody could live happily ever after.
Is it hard to imagine, or incoherent to sustain??
Now by no means would I endorse the above-mentioned interpretations. But can they be done? Absolutely! In fact, some critics have already done such interpretations even after careful deliberations.
The success of this methodology thus hinges hopelessly on an intricate consummation of the first step. Any failure to do so, spells disaster from the get-go. And I’ve seen it too often in the criticisms so far proffered by these luminaries. In fact, some critiques are so facetious and/or abysmal, that the very verses that debunk a popular interpretation most certainly, have been cited to support it.
You ask me then, how can an interpretation be trusted? Well, follow these steps:
The only way to establish if a doctrine has been correctly understood, is to first of all isolate it from all advocates’ claims and all adherents’ actions; sever all tethers to external stimuli. Then put the doctrine under the microscope, remaining very conscious of that thing called observer-bias. Then recognize your limitations in interpreting the source texts: seek help if doubtful or apparently inadequately skilled for the job. And then realize that there are only three rules to understanding any doctrine of any religion –but more so, Islam– and they are: Context, Context, Context! And finally, before you announce infallibility of the interpretation done, share your findings with actual experts of the field. Only after you are convinced that no opposing arguments, if any, are significant enough can you go around declaring the doctrine as inherently harmful. Word!
In the end, I humbly beseech these luminaries to allow me to explain where and why they have utterly misinterpreted the source texts of Islam!