In a few days time, the Global Atheist Convention meets in the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, a huge building sprawling out next to the Yarra River, just south of the central business district of Australia’s second biggest city.
But walk north for fifteen minutes or so to Victoria Street, Fitzroy, and you’ll find a much less imposing structure with a much older connection to atheism.
From the outside, there’s little to show that what’s now called Brenan Hall, a brick building in the St Vincent’s Hospital site, was once known, rather grandly, as the Hall of Science. Few Melbournians realise that their city boasts one of the second oldest purpose-built Freethought halls in the world, a meeting place constructed by the Australasian Secular Association in 1889.
As non-believers from around the globe come to Melbourne, the Hall of Science reminds us of the city’s long atheist history. But it does more than that. On this spot in June 1890, a man was shot, as a struggle over the direction of Freethought broiled over into a violent brawl. And that long-forgotten conflict over the politics of skepticism has major implications for today.
Both supporters and critics of the New Atheism often tell us that non-belief today is more strident, more aggressive, more polemical than in the past.
They’re wrong, as even a brief acquaintance with nineteenth century Freethought shows.
In Melbourne, a versifier expressed the ASA’s general approach in its journal, the Liberator:
From Pagan Rome and Christian Rome,
To our bright and fair Australia,
Religion’s ever been a cruel
And bloody Saturnalia.
The breezy consignment of the city’s respectable Presbyterians to a category alongside Caligula and Nero reflects an organisation not given to pulling punches.
Joseph Symes, the ASA’s leader, specialized in Hitchens-like confrontations with the pious. We have a record of one Symes lecture entitled ‘Bible Lies’ (a chronicle of the various deceptions pulled by the Lord on his long-suffering followers); on another occasion, he used data from recent archaeological digs (he was a keen amateur scientist) to lampoon scriptural history. Later in his career, Symes embraced pure provocation, bringing slices of bread to meetings so he could, as he announced, ‘have a chew on the body of Christ’.
Atheists back then were as forthright as atheists today. The real difference lies elsewhere. Today, we can identify an atheism that’s not so much militant as weaponised – that is, deployed, all too often, in the service of the extreme Right.
The late Christopher Hitchens provides the most obvious example, a celebrity atheist as famous for boosting wars as for baiting clerics.
Liberal admirers often mentally separated the atheistic Hitchens from the political Hitchens but in reality the two personas were inseparable. When, notoriously, he lauded Bush’s cluster bombs, he did so – typically – by combining his two passions. ‘Those steel pellets will go straight through somebody,’ he chuckled, ‘and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, “Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.” No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.’
Because Hitchens was so rhetorically intemperate (recall his attack on the Dixie Chicks as ‘sluts’, his description of the war widow Cindy Sheehan as a ‘sob sister’ and so on); because, as Corey Robin says, he often evinced ‘a cruelty and bloodlust, a thrill for violence and apocalyptic confrontation, an almost sociopathic indifference to the victims of that violence and confrontation’ (witness, for instance, his reaction to the Fallujah offensive, his cry ‘the death toll is not nearly high enough … too many [jihadists] have escaped’); he was treated indulgently, even by liberals, as New Atheism’s mad uncle, whose uglier outbursts could excused on the grounds of his very eccentricity.
But his weaponised atheism was no anomaly.
Attendees at the convention can, after all, hear much the same thing from Sam Harris, another of the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’. Harris, like Hitchens, thinks that atheists have a special insight into the war on terror, which should, he says, understood as a conflict against ‘a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise’. Most liberals, he continues, fail to understand ‘how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are’. Indeed, ‘the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.’
Harris calls himself a liberal but his positions on Islam are to the Right of any Australian parliamentarians, with the possible exception of Cory Bernardi, a notorious conservative crank.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another conference speaker, carves out similar territory.
‘We are at war with Islam,’ she says bluntly. ‘And there’s no middle ground in wars.’
Elsewhere, Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the neonconservative American Enterprise Institute, explained the home front consequences of that total war.
‘All Muslim schools. Close them down. Yeah, that sounds absolutist. I think 10 years ago things were different, but now the jihadi genie is out of the bottle.’
Again, it’s the sort of stuff you’d expect to hear from Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer or other sinister representatives of the so-called ‘counter-jihad’ movement.
Such is weaponised atheism: arguments for war and state repression, tricked out as scepticism.
Obviously, not all speakers at the Global Atheist Convention are Hitchensian warmongers. Many denounced the invasion of Iraq. Some oppose the worst excesses of Islamophobia and have the grace to find the polemical excesses of Harris et al somewhat embarrassing.
Nonetheless, the fact remains: leading representatives of the movement express ideas that otherwise we’d associate with the hard Right – and are celebrated for doing so. This is a phenomenon that requires some explanation.
Again, a comparison with the past is instructive.
In the late nineteenth century, religiousity formed the fabric of daily life. Of necessity, the ASA duly offered a secular alternative to familiar Christian rituals, with Symes prompting his followers through a materialist catechism (‘What is science?’ he asked, to which the congregations dutifully chorused: ‘Truth’.) He taught children at a Sunday lyceum, leading them off for excursions with their freethought banners unfurled. ‘It was a picnic in itself,’ gloated the Liberator, chronicling one of those trips, ‘to watch the horrified looks of some of the pious folk as the wagons passed down Brighton Road’.
In other words, while, doctrinally Symes might have shared Hirsi Ali’s hostility to religion, the persecuted ASA could never have adopted her police-state policiies to Muslim schools in Australia because, to all intents and purposes, it was a Muslim school in Australia – organizationally and socially a fringe sect, proselytizing ideas that the mainstream found foreign and threatening.
For atheists back then, state power was obviously problematic, if only because they were usually facing its sharp end. For example, Cole’s Wharf, located only a block or so from where today’s atheists will convene, once provided an unofficial free speech forum, a rare oasis in the desert of Melbourne’s conformity. But when Symes began drawing crowds there, the authorities closed the stumps down. That was why the Hall of Science became necessary: as architectural historian Kerry Jordan explains, the ASA ‘found it difficult to rent premises for their meetings because of their notoriety and opposition to contemporary moral standards.’ The Liberator was singled out for prosecution under the Newspaper Act and regularly seized and burnt by customs officials, while Symes was denounced in the press as a ‘leprous reptile’. Even the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria blacklisted him.
The weaponisation of atheism, then, becomes a possibility only with the mainstreaming of non-belief. In the nineteenth century, religious skepticism in Australia barred you from polite society, so that, of necessity, nineteenth century secularists rubbed shoulders with dissidents and non-conformists in a fraternity of the poor and the marginalised. Today, in most circumstances, no-one cares that you don’t believe in God. The Prime Minister is an atheist; in some professions – say, higher education or the arts – it’s considerably easier to be a sceptic than a believer (see many head scarves on Australian TV?). As Sikivu Hutchinson points out, the front ranks of New Atheism consists almost exclusively of ‘elite white males from the scientific community’, a fact that, in and of itself, speaks to the social acceptance of non-belief, at least in the prestigious universities.
These days, it is religion, not atheism, that correlates with poverty. Within Australia, the most fervent believers often belong to immigrant communities; across the world, religion dominates in impoverished states in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
That’s a substantive social shift, and it has obvious consequences for the political orientation of atheism.
But there’s more going on than that.
On 19 June 1890, a group of secularists stormed Melbourne’s Hall of Science and barricaded themselves inside.
Shortly after midnight, another group, led by Symes himself, arrived and fought their way through the doors. After a bloody punch-up, they physically expelled their opponents – and then posted armed guards to keep them away.
A few days later, one of those defenders took out his revolver to clean it. The gun accidentally discharged. The bullet struck a man called William Jackson Brown; he died the next day.
That tragedy didn’t stop the secular in-fighting. Several times over the next year, crowds of freethinkers – sometimes numbering as many as thousand people – gathered at the Hall for prolonged scuffles over its possession.
The anti-Symesites eventually prevailed but their victory proved largely pyrrhic. The divided movement could no longer fund the building’s upkeep – and the prize possession of the movement was forcibly sold, with ownership eventually passing, with tragic irony, to a Catholic-run hospital.
What was the dispute about?
The ASA was initially a very broad organisation, and included in its ranks radicals of all sorts. For a while, those differences could be subsumed into its struggle for freedom of speech. The ASA played, for instance, an important role in the campaign to force open the Public Library on a Sunday, in defiance of strict religious rules that public institutions remained closed on the only day working people might access them.
But the length and intensity of such fights spurred some in the ASA to move left.
At one of the trials of anti-Sabbatarians (yes, secularists actually went to gaol for the right to library access in Melbourne!), a police witness noted a new phenomenon.
‘They don’t confine themselves to the Public Library at all, your worship …’ he said, ‘but they denounce capitalists and even magistrates, your worship.’
These ASA activists increasingly identified the church as merely one amongst many institutions maintaining an oppressive status quo. As one of them declared, ‘Secularism has outlived its usefulness. Our hope … [lies] in Anarchy which is based on rebellion against authority.’
The formation in 1886 of the Melbourne Anarchist Club by ASA members dramatically heightened tensions within Australian freethought, particularly in the context of the massive social polarisations. In 1889, the Maritime Dispute shut down Melbourne and prompted a huge rally on the Yarra Bank, which was very nearly fired on by mounted police. The next year, the shearers strike left the nation on the brink of a civil war, while the world plunged into the deepest economic depression it had hitherto known.
The ASA’s Left began leading Occupy Wall Street style marches through the city, burning government officials in effigy and chanting rude songs about them. Symes, on the other hand, opposed the strikes. Essentially a pre-socialist liberal, his notion of liberty meant, first and foremost, freedom to think. From his perspective, social upheavals were, at best, a distraction from the progress of science and, at worst, a manifestation of incipient barbarism. Increasingly, he turned his polemical powers, like Hitchens denouncing anti-war protesters, on those he called ‘the washed off filth of the association, collected in the Anarchist slough’.
Why should anyone care about an obscure debate amongst minor organisations from long ago?
Because the emergence of Left tendencies in the ASA was indicative of how, all across the world in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, liberal atheism was challenged by a new, more social orientation as labour activists turned, in Marx’s phrase, ‘the criticism of Heaven […] into the criticism of Earth.’ In a few decades time, the Russian revolution cemented an association between atheism and social reform, to the extent that, for many reactionaries, ‘godless’ and ‘commie’ became almost synonymous.
Of course, liberal and even rightwing versions of atheism persisted. But the existence of sizeable left-wing organisations committed to a broadly Marxist approach exerted a huge influence on the politics of atheism in the twentieth century.
That’s the context for the New Atheism, ‘new’ precisely because it emerged only after the traditional Left had more or less collapsed. Its novelty consisted largely of its separation from the communism that had more-or-less owned the movement throughout the twentieth century. In place of that Leftism, the New Atheism repackaged, for a new audience, the nineteenth century liberal positivism that freethinkers like Symes had espoused.
But, of course, the new context made all the difference.
For a start, the New Atheism was turbocharged by 9/11. The heightened, hysterical climate in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks produced some bizarre publishing phenomena – obscure academic studies of the Taliban, for instance, suddenly featured in bestselling lists. Atheist polemics achieved an equal prominence precisely because they provided a simple answer to the newly urgent question that so many anguished pundits posed: why do Muslims hate us?
Again, the political consequences of that particular conjuncture are fairly obvious. Though few care to remember it now, in the early phases of the War on Terror, some of the loudest voices touting for regime change came from so-called liberals, often deploying tropes associated with the social movements and the New Left. Thus the invasion of Afghanistan – as ludicrous as it now seems – was initially shilled, at least in part, as a campaign to liberate women and homosexuals.
Atheism was used in the same fashion. Hitchens, in particular, transformed himself from midlist radical journalist to international celebrity by spinning Bush’s military adventures as a war of liberal tolerance against theocratic backwardness, a claim that, in retrospect, seems almost embarrassingly stupid.
But there were particular reasons why the New Atheist approach was so susceptible to Hitchens’ appropriation. Symes’ project, as we have seen, began and ended with an expose of religious fallacies. For him, as for the New Atheists today, religion was first and foremost a system of ideas – ‘ignorance with wings’, as Sam Harris says. Symes’ project, then, began and ended with its exposing religious fallacies. For if theological ideas were shown to be false, rational and intelligent people would surely abandon their beliefs.
But consider the corollary. If religion is an intellectual doctrine and nothing more than that, the persistence with which so many cling to God faith becomes explicable only in terms of their congenital inability to reason. Or, to put it another way, if religion is purely and simply a fairy tale, then ipso facto those who cling to it are little better than children.
The smugness that so often accompanies New Atheist interventions is not, then, accidental but is bred into the movement’s DNA. Symes rejected the activism of the ASA’s Left explicitly because to him the masses were, at best, dullards. It was very incapacity of ordinary people that made, he said, socialism impossible. ‘The strong, the cunning, the swift … must survive, while the weak, the slow, the dull and those with no artificial advantage must of necessity go to the wall — yes, the brutal truth bids me say, they must be stamped out.’
Back then, Symes’ overt elitism was largely kept in check by his organisation’s marginalisation, since his denunciations were, of necessity, usually directed at powerful clerics and politicians rather than ordinary believers. The New Atheists today find themselves in a rather different position. There’s an obvious rightward dynamic in tremendously wealthy authors (‘Sam’s fee is $25,000 which includes airfare.’) regaling audiences of the well-educated and the well-to-do about the ignorance and stupidity of immigrants and the poor.
Moreover, the West’s engagement with Muslim countries over the last decade provides a context in which the weaponisation of atheism becomes almost inevitable.
The traditional Left approach to belief begins with a recognition that religion is not simply a set of ideas. Religion is a cultural identity; it’s also simultaneously an aesthetic, a system of feeling, a guide to social and sexual conduct, an organizational framework and many other things besides. These different functions contradict and complement each other in all sorts of ways.
That’s why the same holy texts can, in different social settings, give rise to entirely different behaviours and attitudes; it’s why both the Anabaptists and Pat Robertson can claim inspiration from the New Testament.
If, then, you wanted to understand the role of religion in Iraq or Afghanistan, simply assessing the truth claims in the Koran does not get you very far – indeed, in some ways, it’s almost a category error. Islam, like all religions, functions on many different levels. It offers, for instance, meaning to people subjected to death and suffering often inflicted by the advanced countries of the West. It provides charity where no social services exist; it gives voice to nationalist resistance in nations where the secular Left was widely discredited by its Stalinism. And it does many other things besides.
Even put as schematically as that, the argument suggests a particular political response. Atheists and others seeking to fostering secularism in the Arab world might do so by, first and foremost, ending the military interventions that have brought so much suffering.
If, on the other hand, religion is seen simply as a dangerous fairy story, then it’s almost inevitable that the fervent believers of Afghanistan are cast as menacing infants – a trope that reiterates, almost exactly, Kipling’s high imperialist image as the subjects of empire as ‘half devil and half child’. Hence the neocon temptation into which so many New Atheists fall, the conviction that military force is morally justified to free the savages from their own delusions, much as the British empire justified its depredations by contrasting Western science with the natives’ pagan superstitions.
Anti-Muslim writers commonly declare that Islam needs its own reformation.
But that’s a charge that should really be leveled at atheism, a movement that urgently needs the kind of political polarization that separated the Right from the Left in the ASA of 1890.
For, at present, the loudest voices speaking on behalf of atheism trot out a crude nineteenth century positivism, a rewarmed (but far more conservative) version of Symes’ freethought. Meanwhile, the atheist Left seems entirely silent. Where, for instance, are the interventions from progressives as the Global Atheist Convention conducts a session lauding Hitchens’ career under the title ‘A Life Well Lived’? Will anyone point out that the author of God is Not Great devoted his well-lived life to apologetics for a military campaign that led to the deaths of perhaps a million people? For progressives, should the devastation of Iraq not matter at least as much as Hichens’ reputation as a witty conversationalist?
A few weeks ago, the editor of the New York Times editorial page noted that the US effectively now runs an entirely separate judicial system for Muslims. Meanwhile, across Europe, neo-fascist organisations, some of them with lineages stretching back to the Nazis, supplement their traditional anti-Semitism with a new anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s a heartbreaking historical tragedy that, with prejudice rising throughout the world, the loudest voices in a movement that once campaigned for liberty uses a rhetoric indistinguishable from the hatemongers and the racists.
But it’s not just that atheism has a Muslim problem (though it clearly does).
In the US, the Republicans have launched a savage war on women’s reproductive rights, an assault justified in religious rhetoric. How, then, should the Left respond?
We could, perhaps, reply to the bishops who denounce birth control by simply declaring anyone who identifies with Catholicism as an ignorant hick.
On the other hand, we might note that, precisely because religion is a contradictory social phenomenon, the vast majority of those who call themselves Catholics actively flout the Pope’s rulings about sex, something that provides scope for a common front against the Right. Indeed, any successful movement against the war on women will, almost by definition, involve those who consider themselves believers.
That doesn’t mean that leftwing atheists should hide their views about God. It’s simply that say that we’re far more likely to win people from religion by working alongside them against the forces of oppression in this world – and thus showing them in practice that religious consolations aren’t necessary – rather than by dismissing them as dupes and stooges.
If religion is a social phenomenon, it will persist so long as social conditions render it necessary. That’s why the defeat of the atheist Right, and the revival of an atheist Left, matters so much. Denouncing God is easy. What’s harder – and much more important – is creating a world that no longer has need of Him.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.