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Answering the New Atheist View on Islamism

Professor Richard Dawkins, author of 'The God Delusion.'
Professor Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The God Delusion.’

“Brothers and sisters have you heard the news? The storm has lifted and there’s nothing to lose. So swap your confirmation for your dancing shoes, because there never was no God.” — Frank Turner, Glory Hallelujah

 

There is a subsection of those concerned with countering extremism who see the problem essentially as one of religion. They typically argue that religion is an outdated superstition which holds humanity back, by keeping us enslaved to archaic rules that are not only no longer relevant, but which actively harm us. 

There is no shortage of historical, sociological or scriptural evidence to support this type of atheist position. From the wars of religion that wracked Europe in 16th and 17th centuries, the social control and repression of free thought practiced by corrupt religious leaders of all faiths and, of course, today’s global threat from radical Islam. That’s before you even look at the rational difficulty of accepting many of religion’s claims about the world, such as the notion of prayer, believing some of the more outlandish tales in scripture, etc.

It is totally understandable how a person could look at religion and say, “The less of that we have in the world the better.”

On the issue of Islamism, many such atheists will argue that the problem is Islam itself. When pressed to compare Islam to other faiths they may say, as prominent atheist Sam Harris did after far-right terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway:

The emergence of ‘Christian’ terrorism in Europe does absolutely nothing to diminish or simplify the problem of Islam—its repression of women, its hostility toward free speech, and it’s all-too-facile and frequent resort to threats and violence. Islam remains the most retrograde and ill-behaved religion on earth.”

This is the despite the fact that in his opinion, “There is no text more barbaric than the Old Testament of the Bible–books like Deuteronomy and Leviticus and Exodus. The Qur’an pales in comparison.”

The difference, Harris says, is that “Obviously, people are no longer burning heretics alive in our public squares and that’s a good thing. We in the West have suffered a sufficient confrontation with modernity, secular politics, and scientific culture so that even fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews can’t really live by the letter of their religious texts.”

Taken at face value, the arguments Harris makes, which are echoed by many other atheist thinkers, are intrinsically appealing. They offer a simple solution to the problem: Drop religion and embrace modernity and everything will be alright.

Yet the atheist position doesn’t explain why millions of people worldwide find such comfort and solace in religion, and why they will kill and die for it. And it doesn’t offer a palatable replacement for that framework once you take religion away.

Aside from the issue of truth (which is presumably a big issue to the believer), organized religions meet people’s psychological needs. For the thousands of years before we had psychologists, therapists and life coaches, we had priests, rabbis, shamans, imams and spiritual healers. Religion provided a framework for life’s big moments, most notably births, marriages and deaths. Every religion has a different way of marking those events.

They have rituals to initiate young men and women into the community. They have works of comfort and hope when family members unexpectedly fall sick. They have inspirational messages to rescue the broken from the pit of despair and set them on the pathway towards a better life.

Whether religion is a social-construct or not, it gives people meaning, something to connect to and something to look forward to. When done right, it can save lives.

Atheism has not yet adequately provided the answers to those questions in the way that religion can.

Atheists themselves even acknowledge this. Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion and one of the leaders in the New Atheist movement calls himself “a secular Christian in the same sense as secular Jews have a feeling for nostalgia and ceremonies.”

Atheist Churches have even sprung up, in an attempt to plug the gap left by religion. A BBC article described a service in a London atheist church thus:

So we bow our heads for two minutes of contemplation about the miracle of life and, in his closing sermon, Jones speaks about how the death of his mother influenced his own spiritual journey and determination to get the most out of every second, aware that life is all too brief and nothing comes after it.”

Sounds pretty religious to me.

Asking people to give up Islam because an atheist views it as irrational or harmful is not going to work, because Islam is fulfilling the psychological needs of millions of people around the world. It is their background, providing comfort, joy, hope, inspiration and a framework for one’s life.

By all means oppose the damaging political ideology of Islamism. But in doing so, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and destroy everything good about Islam in the process. To do so would do tremendous damage to the millions of people for whom Islam means so much.

 

RELATED STORIES

How Much Religion is OK in the State?

Why Do We Keep Talking About Ideology?

The Six Levels of Countering Islamism

 

EF
Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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