Secularists Must Challenge Racist Discourse Not Enable It

Posted by on 7 July, 2018 | 0 comments

Secularism, like any other social concept, carries different connotations to different people in different parts of the world. To consolidate a purely definitional view of secularism as proposed by French academic Jean Bauberot: secularism is the formal separation of the state and religious institutions, freedom of thought, conscience and religion and no state discrimination against anyone on the grounds of their belief. No state in the world adheres to this definition entirely and because of the complexities of concepts such as discrimination it arguably never will be fulfilled for everyone in every context. It is however, a good basis on which to base, say, an NGO dedicated to pursuing the goal of “secularism”. It is the definition on which I base my views of what a secular state should look like. However, this definition of secularism is not always what springs to a person’s mind when the word is spoken. Instead, it is often conflated with promoting atheism or attacking religion. This misappropriation of the term is not confined to critics of secularism but also self identified proponents of the term. Indeed, Lee (2012) argued that there is a recognisable sociological phenomena arising out of the “new atheist” movement that conflates anti-religious sentiment and secular thought. Here we get to the central problem this piece addresses. This post argues that there is a problem of what amounts to racism not just for the fringe of the “new atheist” movement but in the writings of its core idols. Furthermore, this problem has been expressed within popular culture contexts. Finally, this is a problem that secularists must fight against due to the conflation of the terms secular, atheist and post-secular. None of this is to say that atheists tend to be racist rather that there is a strain of racist thought using the language of secularism to justify itself.

The root of this racist discourse is not on the outskirts of this movement rather it finds its roots in the discourse of some of the movement’s core idols. This is not to say that any of the big names in the new atheist movement are necessarily racist rather they use a discourse which has allowed the legitimising of racism and discrimination present in the post-secular movement. I look at some of the discourse used by three big names in the new atheist movement: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and in particular how these figures deal with the concept of Islamophobia. Let us begin, then, with Hitchens. In an interview concerning a case in which a College student flushed Qurans down campus toilets in what was deemed a hate crime it was argued that the act was performative and done so in order to provoke fear in Muslim students. This indeed happened and the rate of Muslim student drop out rose dramatically (2). Hitchens rejected this ruling and described the ruling with characteristic zeal. The crux of his argument was that the act was simply a criticism of religion and therefore to rule it a hate crime is a violation of the offending party’s free speech. The problem with Hitchen’s reading of the event was both its established effect as referenced above and the deliberately performative nature of the act. Moreover, for Hitchens to claim, as he does, that the right to commit this hate crime is more important than the rights of Muslim students to be free from discrimination or fear of violence paves the way for more extreme parties to use such justifications to disguise their outright bigotry as genuine criticism of religion.

So let us turn to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, both of whom have similar responses to the topic of Islamophobia. Harris has argued that, “the only way that Muslims can reasonably be said to exist as a group is in terms of their adherence to the doctrine of Islam. There is no race of Muslims. They are not united by any physical traits or a diaspora”. Dawkins used a similar line of argument saying that, “There’s an awful confusion in many people’s minds. They think Islam is a race, which of course it isn’t”. There are a few points to be made in response. Firstly, that race is an absolute term (an argument which is particularly jarring for Dawkins as an accomplished biologist). Secondly, the implied argument that because bigotry towards Muslims is not racist it is therefore more acceptable than racism. Let us deal with these one at a time.
The solidity of the concept of race faces challenge from both science and philosophy. From a genetic standpoint the idea of race as a method of biologically dividing humans into categories such as Black, White and Hispanic does not find much of a stable foundation. There is a huge amount of evidence to support this which I cannot explore at this time so I will make some brief points and link below some articles and videos that explain the science better than I could. Firstly, it should be stated that 89% of human genetic variation occurs across all groups of humans leaving only 11% which can be explained by human sub group variations (6). If one looks to find “racial” differences between groups at the genetic level they can be found. However, similar differences also occur within what we have typically defined as race groups. The human race could be divided into 1, 5 or 300 groups based on differences at the genetic level (6). So, racial categories such as Black, White or Asian do not really have much scientific basis.

If there is no genetic basis for the way in which we conceive of race then they must be socially constructed categories. If that is the case then what are the common factors that define a race? Cornell and Hartmann (1998) argue that a race (as a distinct concept from ethnicity) must have a perceived common human trait. So, to return to Harris’ comments, do Muslims tend to be perceived as having similar traits? It can be reasonably argued that the perception of Muslims in “the west” is that they look of Middle Eastern descent (Sheridan, 2006). Indeed, Sheridan (2006) found that women were twice as likely to be subject to Islamophobic abuse (even if they were not Muslim) if they were perceived to be of Arab decent. To argue anecdotally, if you search “anti Arab hate crime” on Google you receive pages on the topic of Islamophobia. So, not all Muslims are defined by a common physical trait but there is a common perception in Western states that they do. There is a socially constructed view of Muslims that conflates Arab descent and Islamic religious identity. Does this make “Muslim” a race or does it just cast further doubts on the firmness of the concept of race as a whole?
My overall point here is that because the concept of race is nebulous and complicated to dismiss the idea that Islamophobia is racism off-hand is intellectually irresponsible. Harris and Dawkins cannot claim they are just stating a uncontroversial fact when they deny Islamophobia is racism. Even if you do not believe Islamophobia is racism the effect of religious based discrimination is functionally similar to racism. What, then, is the point of arguing Islamophobia is not racism? Racism is a powerful, evocative charge. When these figures of the atheist movement dismiss Islamophobia as racism the effect is to contribute to a discourse in which Islamophobia is not only not as bad as racism but arguably justified through individual’s choice to be a Muslim. These key figures in the “New Atheist” or “Postsecular” movement not only create the space in which the discrimination against Muslims can grow but arguably actively contribute to that discriminatory discourse.

So, how has this discourse from the “new atheist” intellectual tent poles affected post-secularists in popular culture? I will look specifically at the so-called “skeptic” community on YouTube. This YouTube community is largely white men and includes names such as Armoured Skeptic who has close to half a million subscribers, Amazing Atheist with over a million, and Sargon of Akkad with over 800 000. I have linked to the channels of these individuals below. Clearly these individuals have a significant cultural reach and, because of the conflation of atheism and secularism, how they act will have some impact on how secularists are viewed. These self-described skeptics began their YouTube careers making videos attacking fundamentalist religion and creationism but soon diversified into attacks on feminism, socialism and Muslims. These videos now often contain not only outright Islamophobic language but racist and anti-immigrant language as well. Importantly, these figures justify their bigotry by invoking the concept of reason. Anti-muslim rhetoric is not racism to these figures but a reasonable response to a whole class of people. This is a natural progression of the type of discourse figures like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens used and while they individually may object to anti-Muslim discrimination they must accept their role in facilitating its growth among members of the “New Atheist” movement.

The central point of this post is that there is a strand of thought baked into the “New Atheist” movement that legitimises and contributes to Islamophobia which is functionally no different from racism. Anyone who considers themselves a secularist must disavow that strain of thought if the movement is to have any success at all. Furthermore, secularists should deny the label of secular to anyone who uses such a discriminatory discourse. Secularists must stand in solidarity with all those who are subjected to discrimination, racism and attacks on their human rights. Criticism of religion is legitimate. There are many reasons to fight the power structures of religions. However, such criticisms should never be allowed to evolve into a discourse which is functionally no different from racism. The secular movement needs members of all religions on its side if it is ever going to be successful in separating the formal institutions of religions and the state and ensuring freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Cornell, S. and Hartmann, D., Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World, Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Genome Res. 2004. Evidence for Gradients of Human Genetic Diversity Within and Among Continents. Genome Res. 2004. 14: 1679-1685.…

Lee, L., 2012. Locating Nonreligion, in Mind, Body and Space: New Research Methods for a New Field. Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, 3, pp.135-158. (1)

Sheridan, L.P., 2006. Islamophobia pre–and post–September 11th, 2001. Journal of interpersonal violence, 21(3), pp.317-336. Hitchens on Islamic based hate crime (2) Hitchens on Islamic based hate crime (3) (4) (5) (6)

Leave a Reply