In March 2009, Richard Dawkins gave a talk at the University of Minnesota on “The Purpose of Purpose.” I was eager to see him talk, as I greatly admire Dawkins’ writings on biology, and assign his work as readings for my classes. Most of his talk, though, turned out to be an attack on religion, with many references to 9/11. The main message seemed to be: religion is a menace to humanity, it motivates people to do horrible things to one another, and we would all be better off without it.
It was only when I saw this talk that I really understood how much the flurry of so-called New Atheist books – The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (2005), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (2007); god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007), and Dawkins’s own book, The God Delusion (2008) – owed their inspiration to 9/11. Okay, so maybe I’m a little slow to catch on – but not being a religious person myself, reading these books seemed a bit like, er, preaching to the choir, so I haven’t done so yet. But the main point that Dawkins made, and what I suppose motivates these other books, is this: we were attacked by crazy religious fanatics, and the best way to fight back is to attack the root of the problem: belief in God. As Victor Stegnor (author of The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009)) quips: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”
So, with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, maybe this is a good time to ask the question: will the New Atheism save us from jihad? My guess is: it probably won’t. And why not?
Well, for one, the audience for these books – educated people in rich countries, especially the United States and Europe – doesn’t really include the people who want to fly planes into our buildings. The chances seem pretty slim that someone like Osama bin Laden would pick up The God Delusion, give it an open-minded read through, and end up saying, “Oh, well, I guess he’s right. There is no God and no eternal paradise waiting for martyrs, so I should really just give up the jihad.” Even if all the educated people in rich countries stopped believing in God tomorrow, there would still be a world full of people who believed fervently in their own Gods, and in the righteousness of their own struggles.
Second, it seems at best an incomplete explanation to say that religion is what inspired the 9/11 attackers, and the rest of Al Qaeda, and their hosts in Afghanistan, the Taliban. Yes, they are all Muslims – but so are about 1.5 billion other people in the world. Why does this particular small group of people interpret Islam in such a way that it motivates them to attack us? What does Al Qaeda want?
According to Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside Al Qaeda (2002): “the ultimate aim is to reestablish the Caliphate—the empire of Islam’s early golden age—and thereby empower a formidable array of truly Islamic states to wage war on the United States and its allies.” 1
But what are they really fighting over? What was so great about the Caliphate? What did bin Laden and his allies think they would gain from its restoration?
There were a number of Caliphates. An especially impressive one, the Umayyad Caliphate, was huge. By 750 AD, it stretched from Spain to Pakistan, and included much or all of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the Gulf States, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and others. Surely there’s a huge amount of historical pride and longing for this vast empire, and dreams of what could be done if all these lands united and used their oil wealth to achieve some grand unified aim.
And what would that aim be? I don’t pretend to know for sure. But I think we can get some clues from how the Taliban ruled when they were in power, and the laws they enforce where they have regained power. Many of the laws most harshly imposed by the Taliban had to do with restricting the freedom of women. For example, a decree from 1996 states:
“Women you should not step outside your residence. If you go outside the house you should not be like women who used to go with fashionable clothes wearing much cosmetics and appearing in front of every men before the coming of Islam.”
And it goes on and on like that. There are also decrees against kite flying, pigeon keeping, beard cutting, music, gambling and narcotics, but the main thing at stake seems to be the rights of women. Al Qaeda and the Taliban hate the West, not so much because the West is Christian, but because in the West women have rights and independence. Bin Laden had five or six wives, and fathered twenty to twenty-six children with them. The West represents a threat to traditional patriarchy and male power and control of women and their reproduction. Whether or not people in the West believe in God or not, Western values like equal rights for men and women represent a threat to the polygynous tribal patriarchy that greatly benefits high-ranking men like bin Laden.
It seems like a better bet for beating the jihad is to support the momentum of the Arab Spring. I don’t think the average person in the former lands of the Caliphate really wants the Caliphate back. That would just give all the power to the despots with their harems. Instead – if what the newspapers have reported about the protesters on the streets of Egypt and Libya and Syria is any indication – what the average person wants is the chance to get a job, to earn a decent living, to be able to afford to marry, have children, and live a quiet, peaceful life with freedom, dignity, and little risk of getting blown up by crazy people. According to The Atlantic, the rebels fighting in Libya love Western bands, including Pink Floyd. Maybe they share the postwar dream that Roger Waters sings about in the Pink Floyd song, The Gunner’s Dream:
A place to stay
Enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what’s more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control
And everyone has recourse to the law
And no-one kills the children anymore.
If basic political and economic reforms succeed in giving people a reasonable chance at such a life, I don’t think it will matter much what their particular religious views are. Nobody will bother with jihad.
4 thoughts on “Will the New Atheism Save us from Jihad?”
Wow, Michael. This? This is brilliant. This should–this maybe even must–be read by a very, very wide audience. Thank you for writing it.
Many thanks, Doug!
Nice. Two thoughts on this:
1) In some ways, it seems to me that the new athiest movement is just as fundamentalist (i.e. doctrinaire, uncompromising, and uninterested in serious dialogue with its opponents) as the Christianity (and Islam) that it seeks to counter.
2) I think you could probably add “London” (or, at least, Brixton, Chelsea, Tottenham, etc.) to the list of places where protesters are looking for a chance to “live a quiet, peaceful life with freedom, dignity, and little risk of getting” arbitrarily searched, beaten or killed by the police.
Good points, Alex.
To both of them I say: Amen!
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