CJ Werleman’s latest book The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists acts as a nice companion to Chris Hedges’ 2008 book I Don’t Believe in Atheists. In his latest treatise, Werleman takes the reader on an account of his emotional transformation from an atheist with a “live and let live” attitude about religion to a New Atheist “I must erase all religions” fundamentalism after his experience being a witness to the 2005 suicide bombing in Bali, Indonesia. This transformation was later followed by an intellectual return to his former “live and let live” self with the added evidence-based rational justification for doing so. More importantly, Werleman uses his personal journey to issue a warning that although they hide behind slogans of rationalism and humanism, New Atheists are bigoted and provide intellectual justifications for violence against those who do not buy into their worldview.
As opposed to seeing all human on human violence to be primarily driven by religious beliefs, Werleman outlines why such a view is simpleton at best. Human societies are a little more complicated than to reduce their behaviour to a single factor or to see them in a clear good vs. evil dichotomy. Given the subject and the title, it is of little wonder why Werleman would garner negative reviews from those who felt this book was about them. After all, fundamentalists know how to dish it out, but they have a very strong aversion to pushback, especially one that obeys rules they refuse to abide by, such as citing evidence and using logic.
New Atheists, a term that refers to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and their fanboys are a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to spreading the message that eradicating the world of religion is the only way to save humanity. The rise of this form of fundamentalism is not all that surprising. Existence of anything in the world is contingent upon the existence of its opposite. Hence, fanatic religious extremism whether it is in the form of the Christian Right in America or the Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia is bound to fertilize the soil from which New Atheists will sprout. Both are sides of the same fundamentalist coin, claiming to be the vanguards of Truth and saviours of humanity. Their message is the same: if everyone believed in exactly the same things we believe in, and precisely the way we believe in them, we would finally achieve the utopia we all dream of living in. Confronted with complexity of reality, atheist and religious fundamentalists become agitated. To their minds, the world must be seen as a constant struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. To a fundamentalist, the shallow end of the beach represents the depth of the ocean. Their immediate experience is all that matters:
“Educated, predominantly white, and middle class, New Atheists live comfortably in the well-to-do suburbs of developed nations. They might experience the typical hardships that life too often hurls towards all of us, but they don’t know the despair realized in the former Western colonies. They don’t know what it’s like to survive on less than $2 per day under a regime that crushes personal liberty and freedom. New Atheists don’t know what it’s like to be racially vilified, profiled by security agencies, tortured, bombed, occupied, and imprisoned without trial. Nor do they know what it feels like to have absolutely no control over their future, or anything, that resembles third world hopelessness. Instead of seeking to understand the Other, or to put themselves in the Other’s shoes, New Atheists pontificate their material superiority. While they engage in gross generalizations and demonization of the Muslim world, they forget that the comforts of their Western lifestyle are made affordable thanks to the Muslims who work in sweat shops throughout Indonesia and Bangladesh.
‘Affluent, white, male, cishetero, New Atheists have a serious victimhood complex; they constantly complain about how they are supposedly ‘oppressed’ by religious society (but certainly not by imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy). Yet they write for mainstream corporate publications; they work at prestigious institutions or universities; many are household names,’ notes journalist Ben Horton.
The fixation on religion as the root of the world’s problems is completely at odds with reality. In fact, it’s utterly delusional.
This delusion is a byproduct of an obsession with reductive methods of inquiry taken from science with the assumption they will be valid elsewhere. William A. Stahl, Professor of Sociology at the Luther College at the University of Regina, points this out in his essay “One-Dimensional Rage: The Social Epistemology of the New Atheism and Fundamentalism” where he notes how New Atheists assume that “religion can be abstracted and reduced to cognitive beliefs separated from culture…[which] is a one-dimensional and impoverished understanding of religion.” This delusion is further reinforced by the echo chamber they operate within as Werleman points out how New Atheists have constructed an intellectual scene for themselves that excludes everyone but New Atheists, which has made them into a “full-throated cult.” Being a cult, New Atheists are the last people to recognize they are a cult, which also mirrors the state of religious fundamentalists as Stahl observes:
“New Atheism and fundamentalism present us with two totalities: closed, one dimensional, and incommensurable systems of thought, neither capable of persuading the other nor anyone else not already party to their assumptions, and with no common standard of evaluation. Each can only be maintained by the will to power of its adherents. Beneath the rage and polemics of both groups lies nihilism.“
The problem with New Atheists and religious fundamentalists is that neither side believes there is a chance that the problems we face in the world today may just be a reflection of our own internal states. Both proceed from the position that everything and everyone else external to themselves is in disorder and chaos, and only they alone have the solution. The arrogance, self-righteousness, and derogatory language employed to describe those who do not ascribe to their worldview are all signs of total lack of introspection. This may very well be a defence mechanism, because once one engages in such self-questioning, doubts will follow. It is in certainty that fundamentalists find solace. Once again Stahl notes:
“For all their outward differences, the New Atheists and fundamentalists mirror each other in their epistemology. Both are engaged in a quest for certainty, for an authoritative foundation that can ground a normative order. Both claim to find certainty through their beliefs, understood as intellectual assent to a series of propositions. Although obviously the content of their beliefs are different, there is symmetry to the structure of how they go about believing. And both groups display a ‘Cartesian anxiety,’ in that both see deviation from their foundational cognitive order as directly threatening to moral order as well.”
Werleman has deviated from the New Atheist cognitive order, and as a result of his apostasy he has received much anger, backlash, and even threats from New Atheists. As a previous resident of the New Atheist Echo Chamber, Werleman’s understands why he may have difficulty convincing the Dawkins and Harris’ diehard fans. But anyone who is on the edge may be open enough to heed his warning against this pseudo intellectual cult.
There is an important criticism regarding Werleman’s treatment of Islam and Muslims. Although he took an important step towards understanding Islam and Muslims that goes beyond the facile quoting of isolated passages from the Quran or Hadith as Harris’ often does, Werleman has unfortunately restricted his academic investigations to authors on comparative religion like Karen Armstrong and professors like Reza Aslan, who are quoted extensively by Werleman. While Armstrong and Aslan may be considered public intellectuals with published books, neither one can authentically speak for Muslims, and this is more crucial a point to make about Aslan than Armstrong.
The notoriety Aslan has gained among many Muslims over the past year is a byproduct of him speaking up against New Atheists like Bill Maher for their facile arguments against Islam. It is the same reason why Ben Affleck gained more Muslim fans than he ever could have dreamt of after he told Sam Harris and Bill Maher that their views on Islam are “gross” and “racist”. Muslims have been on the receiving end of much stigmatization in the media, and having anyone come to their defence was bound to make them instant celebrities for Muslims. However, outside of his defence of Muslims, Aslan has hardly, if ever, said much on how Muslims actually view their faith at a personal level that would resonate with practicing Muslims. He offers his personal views on religion in general as a valid objective interpretation for results obtained from polls on Muslim beliefs. This became very clear after his tweet this past August, which many average Muslims, scholars of Islamic studies and non-scholars alike, have disavowed:
Aslan’s views on Islam and Muslims and why they say or do certain things may be acceptable in a Western Orientalist academic book or setting. He says what the intelligentsia wants to hear about religion and genesis and influence in society. But much of his statements have no merit for Muslims when asked to assess their veracity to Muslim experience. It would have given Werleman more authenticity and gained him a better understanding of Muslims, the Quran, and how Muslims approach their tradition if he interviewed active imams, scholars, and Muslim community leaders such as Omar Suleiman, Suhaib Webb, and Nouman Ali Khan just to name a few. There is a false sense of objectivity in looking at behaviour and extrapolating one’s own explanations for them. Nevertheless, despite this shortcoming, it does not invalidate everything on Islam and Muslims that Werleman has put forth in this book. Indeed, The New Atheist Threat is a valuable and necessary contribution to the battle against bigotry and fundamentalism no matter what title it goes under.
“The world of everyday reality is a socially and personally constructed world. If one confuses that world with reality itself one then becomes trapped in one’s own delusions, one projects one’s wishes and fears onto others and one acts out of one’s own madness all the while believing one is a clearheaded realist.”