by Donovan Schaefer
Karl Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” is a systematic critique of the particularism of religious commitments as an obstacle to the coalescence of the true community of a non-sectarian state. Both Christianity and Judaism are slotted in the same way in Marx’s analysis: as antiques of an earlier stage off human evolution, as “snake skins cast off by history.“
But Marx’s selection of Judaism as an example is not neutral. In order to make his case, Marx traffics in any number of risible cliches about Jewish people, accusing them of “huckstering” and of making “alienated man and alienated nature into alienable, vendible objects subjected to the slavery of egoistic need and to trading.” For Marx, “the real nature of the Jew has been universally realized and secularized,” made into a cancerous mantra that pervades society. Judaism may be just as false as other religions, but it is first among equals.
In the past month, two members of the “New Atheists,” Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, have re-ignited the latent (Dawkins) and flamboyant (Harris) currents of Islamophobia in their published work. After a critical op-ed by Murtaza Hussain appeared in al-Jazeera English online, Sam Harris was drawn into a semi-public debate with Glenn Greenwald about the uses of anti-Islam rhetoric emerging from atheist camps in supporting western imperialist projects such as the invasion of Iraq. A few weeks earlier, Dawkins lit off a pair of tweets, first confessing that he hadn’t read the Qur’an but that Islam is the “greatest force for evil today,” then defending his own profession of non-expertise by stating that “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur’an. You don’t have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism.”
This second statement highlights one of the reasons why contemporary atheism–particularly as practiced by white bodies–so often trips into the same mistake that Marx did: it presumes that Islam is one thing, a binary computer program run by a single book. Like “the Jews,” Islam is assigned an essence, a set of macro properties that are radically determinative of how individual bodies, communities, and nation-states will operate. Students of religion do not hear the word “Islam” in the same way: for us, Islam sounds much more like “democracy” or “American”–a massively wide, internally heterogeneous set of parameters that are reassessed and reconfigured in different times and places. Islam is not just a book, a few hundred pages of unwavering, prescriptive text. (Even if it were, the meaning of that book would always be subject to local interpretation.) It is a broad, fluctuating historical matrix.
This early mistake–of assigning Islam a simplistic essence–leads to two serious problems for contemporary atheism. First, there’s a presumption that there is some sort of universal, abstract thing called reason, and that everyone in the world is sitting at the same table having a conversation about what that means. What this overlooks is the way that fields of knowledge are shot through and made uneven by power relations. It overlooks that a speaking body, even when it invokes the name of reason, is coming from a particular place, and standing inside a particular history and a particular set of relationships. It assumes the prerogative to enter any community and begin shining the light of reason in their eyes. When white male bodies enter cross-community conversations without recognizing how historical relationships position them before they even set foot in those spaces, it puts pressure on the community they are addressing without having any impact within it, often merely causing a retrenchment of conservative forces.
Second, even more dangerously, the failure to see Islam as anything other than a predictable script that always culminates in burqas and roadside bombs rapidly leads to lapsing into crude cliches: Jews are hucksters, Muslims are fanatics. As Hussain points out, there is a parallel here to scientific racism: the dismissal of a vast and internally fractious group is propped up by rational-sounding arguments. (This is particularly true when the argumentative style of the conversation–the affective parameters–are set early on as sarcastic, acidic, and sneering.) There is a failure, on the part of the New Atheists and their followers, to pick apart the media ecology from which their limited information about the Muslim worlds is drawn. There is a failure to realize that where you stand gives you a particular perspective that has its own limitations and blind spots. This doesn’t mean permanent intellectual dismemberment, but calls on atheists to launch their critiques, as much as possible, from within their own near sphere of understanding and experience.
Nothing is more difficult for straight, white, male bodies than to ask ourselves “Where do I stand?” before we ask a question, before we interject into an ongoing conversation, or before we make a statement about a topic or field we may know little about. This is the mistake of asking “the Muslim question”: it starts with an aloofness, a distance, and an intellectual shallowness from the conversation being discussed that immediately leads to critical errors, in addition to a defective style of argument. But if straight white male atheists are going to be part of the conversation around secularism and postsecularism, this is exactly what we need to do: it is the only way to make sure that the project of atheism remains faithful to justice and to compassion rather than abstract, disembodied, broken reason–or, worse, self-serving militarist propaganda. As Murtaza Hussain writes, “[j]ust as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview.”
Donovan O. Schaefer is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities. His graduate work was done through the Department of Religion at Syracuse University, and he has taught at SU and Le Moyne College in addition to Haverford. In his research and teaching, he looks at the intersection of religion and embodiment using feminist, poststructuralist, and evolutionary biological approaches. Specifically, his interest is in the relationship between religion, bodies, and emotion, and in his dissertation, “Animal Religion: Evolution, Affect, and Radical Embodiment,” he argued for understanding religion in terms of a set of affective bodily practices that are shared by human and non-human animals. He is currently preparing his dissertation for publication and preparing a new project on atheism.