2016-01-11

THE SECOND WAVE OF THE NEW ATHEISM: A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship ​and Religious Studies

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The following is copied with permission from THE SECOND WAVE OF THE NEW ATHEISM

This Manifesto was initiated in the summer of 2015 by Hector Avalos and André Gagné.

Please contact the authors if you wish to add your signature.

Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa
HectorAvalos@aol.com

André Gagné
Concordia University
Montreal, Canada
Gagne.Andre@hotmail.com

BACKGROUND

The New Atheism is a name given to a movement represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom wrote best-selling books that were highly critical of religion.[1]

Although the New Atheism does not eschew the classical arguments against the existence of God, its focus is primarily on the immorality and harmful consequences of religious thinking itself. For some, the New Atheism is not merely atheistic, but also anti-theistic.[2]

Another main feature of the New Atheism is a secular apocalyptic outlook born out of the events of September 11, 2001. A secular apocalyptic outlook refers to the view that religion has the potential to destroy humanity and our entire biosphere.

However, many secular and religious critics of the New Atheism have charged the New Atheism with a number of flaws. One is a lack of expertise in scriptural and religious studies that has led Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens to make pronouncements that are rightly viewed as simplistic or inaccurate in some cases.

This situation has led to the perception that the New Atheism has no experts in scriptural and religious studies that could challenge religious counterparts with as much or more expertise. Others have conflated all New Atheists as followers of a neoliberal or capitalist ideology. Still others note that all the representatives of the New Atheism are white males.

Accordingly, there is a need to identify a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Such a need was discussed briefly in Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015), but it received no elaboration.[3]

The First Wave focused on the problems that religious thinking can cause. Since religion was the focus of the First Wave, then a Second Wave seeks to rethink how self-identified atheist scholars of religion and scripture approach the issues that the First Wave raised.

The recent uprising of terror attacks across the globe from groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and others, is also one of the reasons why scholars of religion and scriptural studies who identify with a Second Wave of New Atheists should speak out against the catastrophic effects of religious violence and ideology.

The authors of this statement, Hector Avalos and André Gagné, thought it useful to identify the main characteristics of what can be called a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Our hope is that other secular scholars who have similar ideas might join us or help us to clarify the nature and purpose of scriptural scholarship and the study of religion as it relates to current global events in the coming decades.

A MANIFESTO FOR SECULAR SCRIPTURAL SCHOLARSHIP AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES

Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.” We affirm that a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists insofar as that descriptor encompasses self-identified atheist scriptural scholars or scholars of religion who:

  • Are academically trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures (e.g., the Bible, Quran, and any other text deemed sacred on religious grounds);
  • Regard activism as a fundamental orientation of all scholarship insofar they agree with Noam Chomsky’s view that “[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”;[4]
  • Uphold and defend freedom of expression;
  • Question the notion that religious thinking is itself good or ethical;
  • Acknowledge that human ethics need not depend on religion;
  • Welcome as wide a diversity of scholars as possible in terms of ethnic self- identification, gender, or sexual orientation;
  • Recognize that most of biblical scholarship is still largely part of an ecclesial-academic complex that renders it very distinct from other areas of the humanities and social sciences, especially insofar as it seeks to protect and preserve religion as a valuable feature of human existence;
  • Aim to expose the bibliolatry that still lies at the core of biblical studies insofar as most biblical scholars believe the Bible should be a vital part of modern cultures or bears superior ethical values;
  • Advocate the discontinuation of the use of any sacred scripture as a moral authority in the modern world;
  • Acknowledge that the traditional scriptural canons are an artificial theological construct, and encourages scriptural scholarship to study all texts considered authoritative or sacred by ancient religions;
  • Call attention to the ethical advances or positive features of texts in the ancient Near East that have not received due attention;
  • Seek to make scriptural and religious studies relevant by encouraging scholars of sacred scriptures and religions to engage in public discussions and/or use cyber-media to educate the public about issues such as the role of religion in violence and the use of sacred scriptures to oppose gay rights, contraception, gender equality, and other social and human rights issues that should be adjudicated on non-religious grounds;
  • Encourage secular scholars of religion and sacred scriptures to help establish policies that are based on reason and democratic values instead of religion; they should be the guardians of a strict separation between religion and state;
  • View cooperation with scientists as a necessary strategy to challenge those who use sacred scriptures to deny the existence of evolution or anthropogenic climate change, among other general scientific conclusions;
  • Work to ensure that professional organizations of scriptural and religious studies, such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, insist on methodological naturalism, and not theological methodologies, in their basic approach to all research presented at its meetings, as is the case with all other areas of the humanities and social sciences;
  • Affirm that religious obscurantism can only be countered through education;
  • Insist on critical education that focuses on a historical and social understanding and development of religion; that is, teaching and education that is fact-based instead of faith-based; people should know ABOUT religions and religious texts, not in the sense of maintaining the value of any religious tradition, but to develop critical thinking about religions;
  • Regard the study of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred scriptures as important in understanding western history and       modern culture, but without seeking to retain their moral authority.

Scholars who share these views may not identify themselves as any sort of New Atheists or as part of any Second Wave of the New Atheism. Indeed, some of the following signatories do not necessarily apply those labels to themselves. When the co-authors say that “a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists…” they are affirming the existence of people who already think this way, but may not have identified as such explicitly up to now.

However, we invite all scholars who share these views to join us in expressing, or putting into practice, any or all of the ideas and goals that we have outlined here.

SIGNATORIES:

Marc-André Argentino, PhD student, Department of Religion, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Kenneth Atkinson, Professor of History. University of Northern Iowa Department of History, University of Northern, Iowa, (Cedar Falls, Iowa, USA)

Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa, USA)

Carol Delaney, Associate Professor, Emerita, Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University (Stanford, California, USA)

Matthew Ferguson, PhD student, Department of Classics, University of California at Irvine (USA)

André Gagné, Associate Professor, Departments of Religion and Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Karen Garst, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin (USA)

Daniel Gullotta, Graduate student, Yale Divinity School (New Haven, CT, USA)

Jaco Gericke, Associate research professor in the subject group Theology and Philosophy, School of Basic Sciences, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University (Vaal Campus, South Africa)

James Linville, Faculty, Department of Religious Studies, University of Lethbridge (Lethbridge, Canada).

David Madison, PhD in Biblical Studies, Boston University (USA)

Ivan Miroshnikov, Graduate student, Department of Biblical Studies, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland)

Emmanuel Pradeilhes, MA in Biblical Studies, Faculté de théologie et de sciences des religions, Université de Montréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

Jennifer Tacci, Graduate student, Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

_______________________________
Notes

* This Manifesto was first published on The Bible and Interpretation website on January 7, 2016

[1] According to Victor Stenger (The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason [Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009], p. ii), who describes himself as a New Atheist, the New Atheism was motivated primarily by 9/11 and began with “a series of six best-selling books that took a harder line against religion than had been the custom among secularists.” Harris (The End of Faith, p. 323) states that he “began writing this book on September 12, 2001,” which clearly shows the link between 9/11 and the rise of the New Atheism. On the New Atheism among ethnic minorities, see Hector Avalos, ‘The Hidden Enlightenment: Humanism among US Latinos’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 20 (2012), pp. 3-14.

[2] When speaking of the atrocities in the Bible, Christopher Hitchens stated “…it helps make the case for ‘anti-theism.’ By this I mean the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it” (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything [New York: Hachette, 2007], p. 102).

[3] Jaco Gericke (“A Fourth Paradigm?: Some Thoughts on Atheism in Old Testament Scholarship,” Old Testament Essays 25/3 [2012]: 518-533) speaks of the emergence of a Fourth Paradigm in Old Testament scholarship that is essentially atheistic. This Manifesto extends to all scriptural and religious studies, not just the Old Testament.

[4] Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in The Chomsky Reader, edited by James Peck (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), p. 60.

 

 

20 Comments

  • paxton marshall
    2016-01-11 03:48:01 UTC - 03:48 | Permalink

    This piece betrays the anti-Islamic bias of the New Atheists. All of the examples of terrorists are Muslim. Not a word of the terrorism and exploitation of Muslim countries by US/UK/Israel/France etc.

    And this foolishness: “Another main feature of the New Atheism is a secular apocalyptic outlook born out of the events of September 11, 2001. A secular apocalyptic outlook refers to the view that religion has the potential to destroy humanity and our entire biosphere.”

    Yes, humans have the potential to destroy humanity, though probably not the whole biosphere. But why single out religion as the primary danger? Why not communism, or capitalism, or greed, or excess testosterone? All of these things, just as much as religion, could contribute to the destruction.

    As a long time atheist, though raised religious, I think you are going astray in modeling this manifesto on the new atheists islamophobia and apocalyptic outlook. They are not just anti-theist but anti-religion. One can easily dismiss gods and angels, but dismissing the importance and value of a social practice that has pervaded every society that we know of is incredibly arrogant.

    I applaud you folks for studying religion with a strictly skeptical attitude and recognize there has been too little of that. But I suspect that few of you dismiss the value of religion, or you wouldn’t be studying it. Your manifesto makes many important points. But I think you are making a mistake in hitching your cart to the new atheists.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-01-11 05:20:24 UTC - 05:20 | Permalink

      By “you” do you mean the authors of the Manifesto, Avalos and Gagné?

      I would like to think that the Manifesto has the potential to serve as a corrective to the anti-theist/anti-Islam/Islamophobic bias that we came to see was part of the first wave of New Atheists.

      My own reservations about the Manifesto and program of the Second Wave is that there appears to me to be too little emphasis on scholarly research into understanding the origins and nature of religion itself and its functions in societies. That is, I’d hope that anthropological studies could be drawn upon to better inform the Second Wave program.

      • paxton marshall
        2016-01-11 17:39:15 UTC - 17:39 | Permalink

        Yes, I was replying to the authors of the manifesto. I think the manifesto itself is reasonable, although the suggestions for improvement made by you and J. Quinton seem to have merit also.

        My quarrel is with the background section, and in particular with their identification with the new atheists and their apocalyptic outlook.

        If they had to reference the new atheists at all they might have framed their manifesto as an attempt to move beyond the shallow simplistic view of religion exhibited by the new atheists. A corrective to that is badly needed and these seem like appropriate people to undertake the effort.

        The authors don’t adequately distinguish an apocalyptic attitude based on Islamic extremism, and an apocalyptic attitude regarding environmental deterioration. The former is absurd, but is the chief focus of the new atheists. All Islamic entities, if they joined their forces, have no where near the military or technological resources to be a existential threat to civilization. The biggest threat to humanity is nuclear holocaust and the most likely perpetrators are the US, Russia, and China.

        When the authors say: “The recent uprising of terror attacks across the globe from groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and others, is also one of the reasons why scholars of religion and scriptural studies who identify with a Second Wave of New Atheists should speak out against the catastrophic effects of religious violence and ideology.” They are buying into the new atheists obsession with Islam as the source of the apocalypse we should fear. How about the terror attacks of the US/UK on Iraq, and of Israel on the Gazans as far larger examples of violence and poisonous ideology? And yes, the western ideology is primarily one of power and greed, but there is plenty to investigate regarding Christian and Jewish contributions to the “catastrophic effects of religious violence and ideology”.

        I hope you are right “to think that the Manifesto has the potential to serve as a corrective to the anti-theist/anti-Islam/Islamophobic bias that we came to see was part of the first wave of New Atheists”. But I don’t see that in their announcement. They seem to see their work as being to carry on and extend the work of the new atheists, not to serve as a corrective.

        • David Ashton
          2016-01-11 22:29:31 UTC - 22:29 | Permalink

          Events usually have several causes. Christian, Jewish, Islamic and other ideologies are not sole explanations of violent conflict. Zionism and Islamism have both contributed to conflict in the Middle East, along with other factors, such as “western colonialism”. To isolate a single factor is as inaccurate as to take one “side” is unhelpful.

          Personally I would like a debate between Hector Avalos and Raymond Belliotti on: “Do the Gospel ethics offer us anything useful today?” Even better, if arranged by an atheist skeptical both of universal altruism and of the current “race, gender, class, disability & orientation” secular western “religion”.

          • paxton marshall
            2016-01-13 14:52:27 UTC - 14:52 | Permalink

            David, could you elaborate on “the current “race, gender, class, disability & orientation” secular western “religion”? I thought that capitalism was the secular western religion.

            • David Ashton
              2016-01-13 18:16:50 UTC - 18:16 | Permalink

              Well, there’s a good point in that big business and leftist revolution, despite their ostensible opposition, share a mutual support for materialist globalism, especially the transnational movement and cultural displacement of cheap labor, from whose presence both interests hope to benefit.

              The “egalitarian” obsessions regarding “race, gender, class” that originated partly in anti-consumerist utopianism of e.g. Herbert Marcuse have developed into a phenomenon among many of our western “academic” and “political” clerisy that has acquired features of a cult or group of similar cults, i.e. intolerance of fundamental criticism, exclusion of contrary information, techniques of indoctrination, promotion of followers in key positions, vilification of dissenters.

              • paxton marshall
                2016-01-13 20:48:51 UTC - 20:48 | Permalink

                David: “The “egalitarian” obsessions regarding “race, gender, class” that originated partly in anti-consumerist utopianism of e.g. Herbert Marcuse have developed into a phenomenon among many of our western “academic” and “political” clerisy that has acquired features of a cult or group of similar cults, i.e. intolerance of fundamental criticism, exclusion of contrary information, techniques of indoctrination, promotion of followers in key positions, vilification of dissenters.”

                Wow, sounds ominous. I haven’t read Marcuse but I’m completely in favor of ending historic race, gender and class discrimination. We still have a long way to go, in the US at least. On race and gender I think we’ve made progress, but on class, 35 years of the very wealthy scarfing up all the gains in economic productivity have exacerbated that problem.

                Could you elaborate with some specifics about who your are referring to and what they have done?

  • 2016-01-11 05:28:49 UTC - 05:28 | Permalink

    What I’d also like to see in this Second Wave is more attention paid to how people form beliefs and the relationship between belief and action. A lot more scholarship like what you’ve posted about the (not quite) link between terrorism and Islam.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-01-11 21:09:29 UTC - 21:09 | Permalink

      This question works at two levels: the psychological and the historical/sociological explanations. I want to return to the psychological studies. Meanwhile as you probably know I have been focussing a lot on studies of Islamist extremism lately and am currently completing Thomas Hegghammer’s Jihad in Saudi Arabia where various models and concepts other than “religion/Islam/religious beliefs” are used to more narrowly target the specific agents and factors involved in the violence. Of course religious beliefs play a part, but a close look at the dynamics of who, what and when render “religion” per se as an inadequate, even problematic and contradictory, explanation. I should take another look at Hector Avalos’s Fighting Words in the light of some of these historical-sociological studies of jihadist violence.

  • David Ashton
    2016-01-11 18:33:36 UTC - 18:33 | Permalink

    Something ESSENTIALLY inappropriate in being born and raised as a “white” + “male” ?

  • David Ashton
    2016-01-14 01:26:34 UTC - 01:26 | Permalink

    In reply to Paxton Marshall, I shall have politely to decline a request for specifics, not because the evidence is slender but because there is too much to gather in my presently restricted time. In brief, Marcuse and others of similar outlook wanted to break the consumerist-militarist society by politically enlisting minority groups – blacks, women, immigrants, &c – to break the supposed domination by the white patriarchy. This has gone onto automatic pilot, so to speak, spawning a variety of related movements with particular impacts on academic teaching and political legislation; e.g. the “closing of the American mind” (Bloom) and campus “safe spaces”. In particular, this has resulted in the ostracism and persecution of intellectuals, who wished to bring genetic data into thinking about race, gender and class. I could supply a contrarian book-list, but when I did so here in relation to Islam it proved a waste of effort.

    • David Ashton
      2016-01-17 01:46:25 UTC - 01:46 | Permalink

      I tried to assemble an adequate reply to Paxton Marshall from many original sources, articles and reports, but my time proved too limited, and possibly futile in view of his commitments on “race, gender, class”.

      Marxists and Postmodernists have made some useful social comments. However, pressures against rational dissent in crucial areas in the “academic world”, especially in the USA, has developed further than organized “intolerance” against the “right” demanded by e.g. Herbert Marcuse, and outlined by e.g. John Searle, “The Campus War” (1972), and sufficiently illustrated by e.g. Bruce Bawer, “The Victims’ Revolution” (2012). (More detailed documentation is available from e.g. the Discover the Networks on-line bibliographies, a website admittedly pro-Zionist in orientation though also unsympathetic to e.g. Patrick Buchanan.) The ideological impacts on UK and EU legislation have been fairly extensive, with latest spin-offs including e.g. proposals to legalize genital mutilations of “trans” or “intersex” minors.

      Critical studies of “Critical Studies” and their New Left “philosophers” have been made by intelligent conservatives, e.g. John Kekes, “The Illusions of Egalitarianism” (2007), and Roger Scruton, “Fools, Frauds and Firebrands”, writers thereby automatically reviled rather than effectively refuted. Mr Marshall may be interested in the last three works listed here.

      • Paxton Marshall
        2016-01-17 15:14:13 UTC - 15:14 | Permalink

        Thanks for your efforts David, but I was hoping for an explanation not a bibliography. Do you deny that there are still racial, gender, sexual orientation injustices, and discrimination against a whole raft of minority groups all over the world, and not just in Muslim countries? Your position strikes me as similar to those in the US who call any attempt to mitigate the terrible things we have done to blacks, racism.

  • David Ashton
    2016-01-17 20:13:16 UTC - 20:13 | Permalink

    Discriminations of various kinds against minorities of various kinds occur and have occurred the world over.

    I don’t include myself among the “we” who have done “terrible things” particularly to “blacks” – my star pupil from the West Indies is now a top civil servant in the UK. I do not believe in collective racial guilt, but support the mitigation of unfairness to individuals of all kinds. My “position” is to avoid derogatory labels for anyone, until their actual views or activities have been thoroughly examined. On the free expression and rational assessment of evidence and argument, I prefer Mill, Keynes, Popper and Hospers to Hitler, Stalin, the Church of Scientology or the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society.

  • Dr. Hector Avalos
    2016-01-26 08:39:39 UTC - 08:39 | Permalink

    Dear Paxton Marshall,
    Thank you for your comments, and here I will address only a couple of your objections to our Manifesto. Dr. André Gagné, who co-wrote the Manifesto with me, has read this response and agrees with it.

    Let me start with this sentence in our Manifesto because you are attributing far more agreement with, and “hitching” to the cart of, the New Atheism than is actually in the text: “Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.”

    Note that this sentence qualifies and restricts our explicit agreement with the New Atheism to one premise, and that is the potential of religious belief to incite violence leading to the destruction of our planet.

    Therefore, our Manifesto ought not be construed to mean that we agree with the New Atheism on every other issue. Some of the signatories may agree beyond that statement, and some may not.

    At the same time, the Manifesto ackowledges a valuable service performed by the New Atheists in calling new attention to the role of religion in violence, especially as there are many scholars denying that role. We don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging that contribution to the intellectual history of atheism.

    The New Atheist books became best sellers for a good reason. They struck a chord with a wide audience after 9/11. They encouraged far more people to identify as atheists than ever before.

    In addition, the New Atheists are activists. They don’t just write for the academy, but also to educate those outside of it. Many of the signatories of our Manifesto deem activism to be important, as well.

    RE: “This piece betrays the anti-Islamic bias of the New Atheists. All of the examples of terrorists are Muslim. Not a word of the terrorism and exploitation of Muslim countries by US/UK/Israel/France etc.”

    Manifestos are not treatises, but summaries. Our Manifesto identified specific groups that were actors in current events at the time we wrote and published it. We also added the phrase “and others” to encompass any other religious group, even if it is non-Muslim.

    Note that our Manifesto makes an effort to identify specific groups (ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab), and not entire ethnic or religious groups (Islam, Christianity, Syrians) as instigators of violence.

    I have no problem including Christian terrorist groups like the KKK or certain Christian Identity churches.

    The Manifesto is actually more cautious than your far more generalizing characterizations. You refer to the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and France as though those entire countries are responsible for the acts you mention. Why not mention the specific people in those countries who actually are responsible for those actions to which you object?

    You allowed yourself the privilege to use “etc.” to cover all other relevant groups, just we used the phrase “and others.”

    Otherwise, and by your logic, you could be characterized as anti-American, anti-United Kingdom, anti-Israel, and anti-French bias because there is not a word about China or Russia and their exploitation Muslims in their own countries and outside of their borders.

    But we understand what you mean by “etc.,” and so you should allow us the same privilege without having to list every possible perpetrator of religious violence we can name.

    Anyone familiar with my writings knows that I have also stood up in my community when Muslims were threatened. See: http://amestrib.com/opinion/hector-avalos-speak-darul-arqum

    RE: “Yes, humans have the potential to destroy humanity, though probably not the whole biosphere. But why single out religion as the primary danger? Why not communism, or capitalism, or greed, or excess testosterone? All of these things, just as much as religion, could contribute to the destruction.”

    Again, Manifestos are summaries, not treatises. I explain the ethical differences between religious and non-religioius violence in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005).

    Even if all the things you mention can contribue to the destruction of our planet,they cannot be viewed as ethically equivalent to religious violence which can generate conflicts over resources that cannot be proven to exist at all.

    You also seem to believe that “communism” and “capitalism” come only in non-religious forms, and so your objections rest partly on false dichotomies.

    If you subscribe to the notion that we are now in the anthropocene epoch, wherein human actions have already changed, and can further change our biosphere, then it is perfectly reasonable to explore how religius thinking can lead to the destrucion of our biosphere.

    The acquisition of nuclear weapons to purposely bring about the apocalypse is certainly one way to do it, and scholarship has shown that ISIS has an apocalyptic view of history. See William Mcants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (2015).

    Some climate change denialists, who have the power to formulate government policy on pollution and toxic emissions, use the Bible to justify their beliefs. John Shimkus, a self-described Christian, is one example: http://www.politico.com/story/2010/11/shimkus-cites-genesis-on-climate-044958

    That is not to say that other actions, religious or secular, cannot contribute to such destruction, but our Manifesto is meant to focus on the areas of our expertise, which is religious and scriptural studies.

    RE: “But I suspect that few of you dismiss the value of religion, or you wouldn’t be studying it.”

    One should not conflate “the value of religion” with “the influence of religion.” I study religion because I see its influence. I, for one, study religion in order to better assess the problems it causes, and how to solve them. I do not study religion because it has any positive value for me otherwise.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-01-27 03:48:06 UTC - 03:48 | Permalink

      Dr Avalos — Thanks for the comprehensive response. A query. You wrote:

      At the same time, the Manifesto acknowledges a valuable service performed by the New Atheists in calling new attention to the role of religion in violence, especially as there are many scholars denying that role.

      What has come to my attention more is some of the New Atheists (in particular Sam Harris) “falsely” making this accusation against certain scholars (Scott Atran is one example). Or do you see such charges (let’s say Sam Harris accusing Scott Atran of denying the role of religion in violence) as valid?

      Do you have in mind prominent scholars engaged in the debate and denying the role of religion in violence? I ask because some of the public debate, especially the more heated kind, strikes me as so simplistic it is doing little more than fueling popular prejudices and social division. It is useful to target specific ideas/scholars who stand for specific points of view.

      In this context, there is this interesting passage in a 2010 article in Terrorism and Political Violence by Lorne L. Dawson, “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue” (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09546550903409163) (my bolding)–

      I also suspect that dialogue has been hindered by a reluctance to treat the religiousness of some terrorist groups seriously. Most contemporary social scientists, and perhaps government bureaucracies in general, are profoundly secular in their official orientation and professional habits of thought, inclining them to view these groups as primarily political organizations using religion as a ruse to justify their actions. Such a mindset meant, at least initially, that even when religious factors were given some consideration there was a tendency to favour the critical, sceptical, and often anti-religious interpretive framework of the anti-cult movement. Cunning cult/terrorist leaders used outlandish religious beliefs and practices to manipulate and “brainwash” their naive and enthusiastic followers into sacrificing their lives for specious cause.

      New religious movement scholars noted the marked reliance on this simplistic scenario in the early media treatments of 9/11, al-Qaeda, and instances of suicide bombing, often with the support of declared “terrorism experts.” This rhetoric cast a chill on the desire to address the instructive parallels between new religious movements and religious terrorism. In the late 1990s the study of new religious movements was just emerging from a protracted and acrimonious debate over the social scientific and legal credibility of notions of brainwashing or mind-control. With the end of the so-called “cult-wars” there was as little appetite amongst the most active researchers to be drawn into this old debate once again. With a few exceptions, the consensus view is that brainwashing does not exist, and the kinds of deconditioning and resocialization operative in most new religions is essentially the same as that used by traditional religions, the military, therapists, and many other legitimate social organizations. In each case, individuals are subject to certain well-recognized social psychological processes of influence, of varying degrees of intensity and potential coerciveness. But the members of new religions do not lose their capacity to think for themselves or determine their own actions. People are active participants in their own conversion and resocialization, not the passive victims of exploitive leaders. This does not mean exploitation never occurs, but joining a new religious movement is the result of a process of negotiation, as is being induced to adopt a more radical stance within such a group. The rhetoric of mind control obscures more than it clarifies, hindering our ability to discern the variables and patterns of interaction that do produce the ‘‘deployable agents’’ new religions use for proselytizing or other more extreme and threatening activities.

      In addition, most scholars of new religious movements have been reluctant to formally cross the disciplinary boundaries because they lack adequate training in Islam and the Middle East, and they fear the simplification, distortion, and misapplication of their findings by researchers ill-informed about religion, and more particularly the special methodological dilemmas posed by the social scientific study of religion. They recognized the need to exercise professional caution on both counts.

      I don’t know what progress has been made between religion scholars and those in the social sciences, if any, since the appearance of that article.

      (I also think the nature of Islamic terrorism has mutated in significant ways since 9/11 and some of the arguments at that time have become less relevant today.)

      You also mention the danger of apocalyptic beliefs and point out that ISIS embraces apocalyptic beliefs. Do you mean apocalyptic beliefs in and of themselves are dangerous? I think that McCants (whose work you cite) would see them as dangerous when combined with specific human condition scenarios. I suspect you would not deny any of this, but I raise it to seek further clarity in a discussion that is somewhat complex and often very heated.

      Thanks.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-01-27 09:07:23 UTC - 09:07 | Permalink

      As a postscript — What I have in mind is that apocalyptic beliefs seem to lead to violence (suicidal and/or murderous) among specific types of religious groups. Apocalyptic beliefs as held among mainstream religionists do not seem to have any such negative record. The point being that we need to understand something more than simply the fact that some people hold apocalyptic beliefs . . . .

      • Paxton Marshall
        2016-01-27 15:33:30 UTC - 15:33 | Permalink

        Neil, note that the manifesto identifies (correctly I think) the New Atheists as having apocalyptic views (see Sam Harris’ essay, Sleepwalking towards Armageddon regarding his perception of the danger of radical Islam). The manifesto itself expresses the apocalyptic danger of global warming. Neither show any signs of violence, although some of the apocalyptic claims of the NAs may well contribute to violence against Muslims. Any kind of apocalyptic views should make us wary.

    • Paxton Marshall
      2016-01-27 15:15:38 UTC - 15:15 | Permalink

      Dear Hector, Thank you for your thoughtful response. This is a discussion I am eager to follow and participate in. While I agree with much of your comment, I still have a few concerns about your perspective.

      I think it is important to distinguish the question of the truth of religious beliefs, from the question of the social impact, negative or positive, of a religion. Thus it concerns me that you seem to assume that religion has no positive value, and you are studying it only to understand the negative consequences. IMO, the ubiquity of religion ( and yes, I’ll accept that communism, capitalism, and nationalism can function as religions as well), strongly suggests that religions have positive social value for the societies that adhere to them. This is confirmed by my own observations of many people finding comfort and sustenance in beliefs that are clearly false. Yes, I know that the same beliefs that crate internal cohesion, can motivate hatred violence and cruelty towards outsiders. But an honest assessment of the impacts of religion must include the benefits as well as the costs. One of my biggest criticisms of the new atheists is that their only interest in religion is to implicate it in every incident of violence or hatred.

      Or at least every incident of violence and hatred committed by Muslims. Although they criticize Christianity and Judaism for other things they ignore their role in violence against Muslims, and ignore the fact that western violence against Muslims dwarfs their violence against the west.

      In sum, any valid assessment of the influence of religion must address both positive and negative influences, and must place criticism of one religion in the comparative context of other religions.

      On your identification with “New Atheism”. I agree that the NAs have done good work in undermining religious beliefs for which there is no evidence. But they have identified themselves, and are identified by others as being obsessed with the evils of Islam. Their apocalyptic tone that you note in the manifesto is more concerned with the threat of Islam than with global warming. You may try to distinguish where you agree with NAs and where you don’t, but as long as you identify yourself so clearly with them, you will be perceived by many as islamophobes.

    • Paxton Marshall
      2016-01-29 14:46:07 UTC - 14:46 | Permalink

      Hector, I assume you have seen this?

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2016/01/dawkins-tweets-feminists-love-islamists-pandemonium-ensues/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=progressivesecularhumanist_012916UTC010106_daily&utm_content=&spMailingID=50580039&spUserID=MTE0MTcwOTgyMzM4S0&spJobID=843905402&spReportId=ODQzOTA1NDAyS0

      While you conduct careful well-researched scholarship, the New atheists have made themselves ridiculous with their simplistic accusations against Islam, and their childish attacks on their critics. Are you sure you want to define your work by association with them?

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