New Atheism, Tribalism and Ignorance of How Religion and Humans Work

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by Neil Godfrey

heatherSometimes the most slap-dash of posts get the most attention and my recent post, Atheism, Cults and Toxicity, is the latest instance. At this moment it has garnered 111 comments and today Heather Hastie of Heather’s Homilies has responded to it with Is New Atheism a Cult? with another 72 responses at this moment.

The irony behind all of this kerfuffle is that I had decided to check out a book Jerry Coyne had cryptically complained about (it was written “by an Atheist Who Shall Not Be Named” he said for some unexplained reason). I only read the first few pages of C.J. Werleman’s book —

(is there some curse pronounced on anyone who names the author? Tough — I don’t agree with Coyne’s totalitarian tactic of erasing from all records memories of those he deems to be his opponents and banning all contrary political thought from his comments pages)

— anyway, as I was saying, I only read the first few pages of this work by an author (named C.J. Werleman) and was immediately struck by how “true” it rang with my own personal experience of exchanges with fervent supporters of Coyne’s, Harris’s and Dawkins’s views on the role of the Islamic religion in Islamic extremism today. It also struck a chord with my very similar experiences with some of the less scholarly advocates of the Christ Myth theory.

So I posted a few chunks of Werleman’s early pages that I believed hit the nail on the head in their description of the toxic tone of these Harris-Coyne-Dawkins and Murdock supporters with respect to the specific question of Islam and religion as forces of evil today.

Before I continue let me say that yes, I do agree that Islam’s teachings are socially retrograde in many respects but I also recall how it is only in recent years that Christianity itself and some Indigenous belief systems have begun to struggle out of many medieval and prehistoric values that have brought misery and even death in their wake; I oppose toxic and oppressive religions as anyone who has read anything about my past knows; and I do fully support any and all constructive programs aimed at encouraging liberalization with humanistic values in all faiths.

But let’s back track a step. This current flurry began when I attempted when Coyne posted the following words of mine directed to him:

Jerry, what concerns me about the various statements made by yourself along with Dawkins and Harris is that they are not informed by specialist scholarship — sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists et al — in Islamic and terrorist studies. Rather, they seem to be fueled by visceral reactions without the benefit of broader understanding and knowledge that comes from scholarly investigations into these phenomena. It almost appears to some of us that your criticisms are willfully ignorant of the scholarship. I find these visceral responses coming from trained scientists difficult to understand.

But I do not believe that religion curses and generates evil in everything it touches, and I do not believe that Islamic beliefs themselves cause people to become terrorists. I do not believe Harris’s simplistic aphorism “As a man believes so will he act”. I know damn well that I do not follow through on many things I believe and I am very capable of changing my beliefs to suit my behaviour. And I know that there is abundant research in the fields of anthropology, psychology, political science, sociology and other scholarly areas — much of it undertaken by academics who risk their lives to talk with terrorists and their supporters — that makes a nonsense of Harris’s claim.

Anyway, back to the topic. I only read and quoted a few sections of Werleman’s book, pointing out that I had some reservations about the use of the word “cult” and wondered if “tribal” would be more appropriate, and was focusing primarily, perhaps exclusively, on the toxic tone of recent commenters (Coyne included) on the discussion of Islamic extremism. Coyne called my post “intemperate rantings“. At least he has not reduced me to a blogger “who shall not be named” status yet.

Heather Hastie was more measured in her response and from the few posts of hers I have read I have by and large been impressed with Heather’s avoidance of the “intemperate rantings” of the likes of Coyne. At least Heather has, unlike Coyne, permitted me in the past to post comments on her blog attempting to set out a reasoned objection to some of the remarks about Islamic terrorism that have appeared there.

I do take Heather’s point that perhaps the word “cult” is so inflammatory for some readers that its use only turns people off before they are even prepared to read or hear what I have tried to say.

From the little I have read I do have some confidence that I could at least have a discussion with Heather on these questions.

Here I will make just a few general comments in response. I have prioritized other tasks ahead of taking all the time it would require to read through all of the comments there. It took me a few days even to catch up with the comments on my own post here. So a few notes for now:

From the fact that religion is an evil it does not follow that the world would be a better place without it. That is because our judgments about evil are usually particular, not universal.

Here is an analogy to explain what I mean. Most insects are pests, but we know that their eradication would disrupt the eco-systems that sustain us, and ultimately make the world uninhabitable.

Similarly, religion may be noxious, but perhaps, for all we know, a world without religion would be a much worse place than it is today.

For my part, I insist on religion’s many intellectual and moral vices. But I have suggested earlier that religions can satisfy profound emotional needs, many of them fundamental. And now I would add that no-one really knows whether these satisfactions can be relinquished without dire consequences, especially for those I described – in a sympathetic, Fanonian phrase – as the wretched of the earth.

Tamas Pataki

I think it is important not to miss the distinction between atheism and anti-theism in Werleman’s comments. Anti-theism is a hostile mindset that seeks to attack religion at all opportunities as by nature evil or damaging. We had a Prime Minister who was always acting like that and many Australians sighed with relief when he was replaced recently.

If we are going to take on religion we need to do our homework and understand what it is we are engaging with. Popular caricatures and prejudices don’t cut it. I expect scholars to know better than to ignore and even ridicule the serious research of their peers. See Where the New Atheists Have Let Us Down for details. As I have quoted several times before from Pataki, we better be sure we are not going to destroy the things we value in our environment before we start on a wholesale eradication of the pests in it that we don’t like.

A while ago I posted what an anthropologist has seen as the difference between religious and other types of thought — and then more recently posted on this topic again — but this sort of scholarly understanding is nowhere in sight in the polemics of Coyne, Dawkins and Harris. See

Science and Religion: Four Fundamental Differences;

Fantasy and Religion: One Fundamental Difference (Or, Why God’s Word Will Never Fail)

Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1

Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 2

Understanding Extremist Religion

I expect people like Coyne, Dawkins and Harris to live up to their professional obligations as public intellectuals and use their status to educate and inform the public instead of fanning ignorance and bigotry.

Meanwhile, my suggested reading in addition to the above for anyone interested is AU’s comment at http://vridar.org/2015/09/14/new-atheism-versus-old-atheism-and-what-is-a-cult/#comment-73177 and others on Heather’s site and here. My own responses sit nearby.

Exploring the Links between Beliefs and Behaviour

How Religious Cults and Terrorist Groups Attract Members

“On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne” — ***** This points to where the whole recent kerfuffle began

 Oh yes — also my new series that is actually engaging with some serious research and explanations so is definitely not for anyone who wants their prejudices massaged:

How Terrorists Are Made

Not forgetting the many other posts from the past archived under terrorism and Islam.



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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “New Atheism, Tribalism and Ignorance of How Religion and Humans Work”

  1. Thanks for your generous comments. As I said in the comments on my website, I intend to give my take on the whole Islam/violence thing at some point, but circumstances mean it may be some time before I do. I know that’s not a very satisfactory response, but it’s the best I can manage.

    I think at the core many of us actually agree on a lot of the issues here and it’s more about the weight we put on different factors that’s getting our knickers in a twist. Personally I think we’re all smart enough to listen and learn from each other, and at the end of the day we’re probably just going to have to agree to disagree on several points. Vive la différence and all that.


  2. No problem with any delay, Heather. I am doing series of posts with sometimes many months between installments — I like time to reflect.

    Just one point for now — you suggest it may be the different weight we put on different factors. Perhaps, but I think it may rather be the different perspectives from which we view the factors. For example, no-one can deny that Islam is a factor in, well, “Islamic terrorism”. From that everything hangs on the way we frame the questions. What factors cause one to resort to extremist violence? What conditions are necessary for one to resort to extremist violence? How does religion lead to violence? We know the way we frame questions can predetermine the answers we find.

    1. I agree – question framing is very important.

      I just left a long reply to you on my site. As I said, I don’t really want to get into it at this stage. I’ve got to get my thoughts around this some more too. I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer at this stage about what the cause of Islamic terrorism is, and there are so many factors it’s hard to pull all the threads together.

      1. Hi Heather,

        I’m the guy who wrote the post ‘How to be completely wrong about radicalisation – the curious case of Jerry Coyne’, on which Neil’s post was based (not trying to play the credit game, just letting you know my stake in this; Neil’s also summarised some of my other views on Vridar, which I appreciate).

        I’m not familiar with you blog, but I appreciate your civil tone above. One thing I would like to say is that in talking about these issues, we obviously have to present ‘our’ take on the issues, but what troubles me is that this often means ‘I’ll give my take based on my own personal reflections’. You say, “I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer at this stage about what the cause of Islamic terrorism is, and there are so many factors it’s hard to pull all the threads together”. And I’d largely agree – though there’s an awful lot to say on what the leading researchers say and argue, especially as nearly all of it stands in stark contrast to the message that comes out of the writings of people like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and many others who dig their stuff. (I literally cannot understand why these guys never engage with the scholarly work that speaks to the very issues they’re ostensibly interested in – well, except for the fact that it undermines much of what they say! The crazy thing is, you can accept the scholarly literature on these topics, and not say demonstrably false things about the links between belief and behaviour, or the roots of religious extremism, and still remain a hard-core atheist who is highly critical of faith (on epistemological grounds), and specific religious traditions (on epistemological and moral grounds). FYI, I’m just that guy!)

        The big issue for me is that many people who wade into this very difficult area don’t consult the best available thinking on the complexities of thinking about radicalisation into extreme violence and prefer to rely on their own reasoning and often selective reading of the evidence as gleaned from news reports, combined with a general idea of how religion affects human behavior in particular, and how human behaviour is regulated in general. This is often off-the-top-of-the-head speculation, and in many cases has little to do with the sciences of human behaviour. (I’m lucky enough in my professional work as a science writer to get to interview many of the world’s leading researchers into a wide range of topics in human psychology, anthropology and other behavioural sciences – usually after extensively reading their work, so I get a pretty broad, and often fairly deep, account of these topics. That’s why I get so bothered when people come along and, without any reference to any of the work out there, start telling people how it is). So, I’m just checking, when you get round to exploring these issues, are you going to be basing it on a wide reading of the relevant literature? If not, I fear you and Neil are going to go round and round in circles. (FYI, I probably won’t be a participant in these discussions – I’m just too busy with other writing projects at the moment – and yes, they’re all about aspects of human behaviour!)

        I really hope you guys can have a fruitful discussion and find some common ground. Best of luck, folks!

  3. cult vs tribalism—to me, the word “cult” gives off an impression of extreme abnormal belief—tribalism on the other hand seems to be a part of/process of all human identity formation—as such, it seems as relevant to me (individual) as it does as a social/group phenomenon…..

  4. Tamas Pataki quote—-Might be an example of tribalism…?….an assumption of “us vs them”?…

    All beliefs (world-views/paradigms) can lead to benefits or harm.
    Human beings have an intellect and this necessitates that we find “meaning”—who we are and why we exist. Maybe this is a flaw—we might have been better off just eating sleeping and dying without much thought—unfortunately—we think—which means we make up “reasons”(paradigms/world-views) that explain “us”…..

  5. Let’s try to hit the reset button.

    New Atheism is not a cult, it is a political movement constructed by neoliberals/neoconservatives to secure rationalist/atheist/humanist support of a Clash of Civilization (look it up) between Jews and Christians, on the one hand, and Muslims, on the other. Most atheists who self-identify as “New Atheists” neither understand nor care about the fundamental driving forces behind the movement they’ve attached themselves to, they just know they’re the kool kids now, that they belong somewhere. They’re just playing “atheists with friends;” they mostly are not aware enough to understand they are, in fact, actively engaged in politics.

    The sad thing is that self-identifying New Atheists seem unable to understand that Sam Harris’ statement “As a man believes, so he will act” in relation to Muslims essentially states that all Muslims are Manchurian Terrorists just waiting to be activated by some unknown power. To Harris, Islam necessarily leads to terrorism, but he and his adherents fail to understand that if you believe Harris, you have made terrorists of all Muslims, not because of their actions but because of your irrational beliefs. Harris dehumanizes vast swaths of humanity who self-identify as Muslim, even when their self-identification can be somewhat coerced, as we witness with “Christians” in America.

    What Harris and other NA leaders have accomplished with their “New Atheism” is nothing less than a redefining of “atheism,” much as Murray Rothbard and his fellow neoliberals accomplished when they redefined “libertarianism.” There’s a reason why political movements lead to comparisons to cults.


    As of a few hours ago, I’ve read all the comments to the linked post on Heather’s site. What a hot mess. On the one hand, you have a bunch of rationalist types behaving irrationally because they believe they’ve been accused of being cultists (thus tending to prove they, like cultists, are irrational). On the other hand, you have another set of rationalist types believing they’re involved in a continuation of a conversation started on this site without realizing the need to start the conversation from scratch and perhaps take it in another direction entirely. Pretty sad.

    1. That’s a good post, but I think we all here agree that New Atheism isn’t a cult. Neil clarified his position, and so did I – I went onto say New Atheism can at times be like a cult. I wish Heather had read the clarifications in the comments ay Neil’s site before writing her article, because then the debate could have focused on those aspects of New Atheism where members display behaviour similar to people in a cult, as opposed to whether New Atheism is a cult or not, which all of us already agree it isn’t.

  6. “New Atheism is not a cult, it is a political movement constructed by neoliberals/neoconservatives to secure rationalist/atheist/humanist support of a Clash of Civilization (look it up) between Jews and Christians, on the one hand, and Muslims, on the other”

    Well….. Okey-Dokey then!

    On the other hand, sadly, this comment isn’t THAT far off the beaten track around here.

    1. Inherent in New Atheist thinking,at least as projected by Harris, is the embrace of certain aspects of Samuel P. Huntington’s theory as set forth inThe Clash of Civlizations, which identifies the Judeo-Christian world as Western Civilization and then goes to identify other modern “civilizations,” based largely on race or creed, including Muslim Civilization. While Harris never comes out and says he wants a clash of civilizations, he does complain that Islam poses unique problems to a global civilization. Harris does not spend any time advocating for a global civilization, he just seems to believe in it is some form of manifest destiny for Western Civilization as a whole. In context, then, Harris implicitly admits that Islam stands in the way of the West’s desire to project its power beyond its own borders. Rather than questioning whether a global civilization is a worthwhile goal of Western Civilization if it will lead to violent conflict initiated by West, Harris places the blame on Islam for essentially “standing in the way of progress.” Western Civilization wants to go global, Islam is in its way, and so of course Islam is to blame because of its ideology.

      Most people don’t spend much time studying political science, foreign policy or our history, so it comes as no surprise to me that most atheists would miss this kind of dog whistle colonialism from leading NA voices like Sam Harris. The reality, though is that Harris’ rhetoric against Islam is clearly motivated by a vision of the world dominated by Western Civilization, a vision that when carefully examined reveals the West, and not Islam, as the aggressor. Again, most atheists completely miss this obvious point because they are focused on the arguments against Islam. Unfortunately, those arguments, which many self-proclaimed NAs adopt, are rife with unspoken assumptions of Western superiority and the right of the West to shape the world however it sees fit, regardless of the consequence to human lives.

      1. Certain aspects? Harris seems to lap the whole of Huntington ‘s thesis up.

        “One need only read the Koran to know, with something approaching mathematical certainty, that all truly devout Muslims will be “convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power,” just as Huntington alleges. And this is all that his thesis requires.” (End of Faith, 130)

        Elsewhere, we see his embrace of Huntington after his odd claims about the Barbary Pirates:

        “Western conflict with the Muslim world has arisen, off and on, for centuries. Thomas Jefferson sued for peace with the Barbary Pirates who had enslaved something like 1.5 million Europeans and Americans between 16th and 18th centuries. As Christopher Hitchens once pointed out, the explicit justification for this piracy was the doctrine of Islam. In fact, this collision with Islam helped ensure the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, for it was argued that only a federation of states with a strong navy could stand against such a persistent threat. Consequently, one could argue that the American war on terror formally began in 1801 with the Barbary Wars—waged by the Jefferson and Madison administrations. This is one of the many ways to see that our troubles in the Muslim world are not purely a matter of our lust for oil, our support for dictators, or any aspect of U.S. foreign policy. As the much-maligned Samuel Huntington one said, “Islam has bloody borders.” It always has. But many people seem determined to deny this.”


        1. The point of departure from Huntington, I think, is that Huntington was not advocating a clash of civilizations, he was identifying sources of future conflict. Sam Harris is actually advocating a clash of civilizations while pretending that Islam is picking the fight.

          1. Scott and Al – interesting comments! As a writer on human behaviour, where I have some expertise, I focus on Harris’s claims about how beliefs “determine” action, or how ideology “causes” extreme acts of violence, and have historically neglected the broader cultural/historical arguments he deploys. What you both say reminds me that it might be worth returning to this, as the the belief-behaviour link might be the thin end of the wedge. One could reasonably argue that Harris’s work is NOT worth returning to, as it’s mostly not very good, but I feel it’s important for me to know specifically where Harris is coming from (especially if I publicly criticise him), but also because he offers insight into a broader current of thought that seems to draw a lot of water these days. Finally, wading in these historical waters is a good prompt to expand my own understanding in these areas. So thanks for the stimulation!

            1. I haven’t read Huntington and wonder if Al/Scot might know how/if it relates to Said’s Orientalism.

              Edward Said influenced “Oriental” studies with his 1978 work Orientalism but the popular perceptions have probably been less changed. He argues for the common roots of anti-Semitism and “Orientalism”.

              All the popular negative stereotypes of the Oriental — the dark, the unknown, the wild, the irrational, the dangerous — are erupting in popular perception with the “Oriental’s” intrusion into “our home” with terror, war and now uncontrolled migration….

              Anyone interested who hasn’t read it yet will be happy to know it is available free online: http://bookzz.org/s/?q=said+orientalism&t=0 — His later discussion on Islam and especially his survey of The Cambridge History of Islam …. pp. 302ff….

              His observation that the Koran is studied as the alien, wild, dangerous text that does not throw any real light on people, and this modern archetype of “the Oriental” is “studied” in order to “explain” the “threat” that the Oriental now supposedly poses to “us” — I find such observations and reflections interesting.

              (I have just seen that Huntington’s book is also available online, by the way.)

              1. Said did several critiques of Huntington. The most notable was an article in The Nation.

                Unsuprisingly, Harris called Said’s critique disingenuous and defended Huntington:

                “Samuel Huntington has famously described the conflict between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations.” Huntington observed that wherever Muslims and non-Muslims share a border, armed conflict tends to arise. Finding a felicitous phrase for an infelicitous fact, he declared that “Islam has bloody borders.”21 Many scholars have attacked Huntington’s thesis, however. Edward Said wrote that “a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization.” Said, for his part, maintained that the members of Al Qaeda
                are little more than “crazed fanatics” who, far from lending credence to Huntington’s thesis, should be grouped with the Branch Davidians, the disciples of the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana, and the cult
                of Aum Shinrikyo: “Huntington writes that the world’s billion or so Muslims are ‘convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power.’ Did he canvas 100 Indonesians, 200 Moroccans, 500 Egyptians and fifty Bosnians?
                Even if he did, what sort of sample is that?”It is hard not to see this kind of criticism as disingenuous. Undoubtedly we should recognize the limits of generalizing about a culture, but the idea that Osama bin Laden is the Muslim equivalent of the Reverend Jim Jones is risible. Bin Laden has not, contrary to Said’s opinion on the matter,
                “become a vast, over-determined symbol of everything America hates and fears.” One need only read the Koran to know, with something approaching mathematical certainty, that all truly devout Muslims will be “convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power,” just as Huntington alleges. And this is all that his thesis requires.” (The End of Faith, 130)

              2. One need only read the Koran to know, with something approaching mathematical certainty, that all truly devout Muslims will be “convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power,” just as Huntington alleges. And this is all that his thesis requires.” (The End of Faith, 130)

                That is the very mindset that Said addresses in his section on Islam in Orientalism.

            2. Dan,

              You probably don’t have to go into the history, but you may want to read Edward Bernays’ Propaganda and Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, both written at the dawn of America’s systematic use of propaganda against its citizens, politically and socially (as consumers).

              To me, Harris is a just a globalist propagandist in atheist’s clothing. His objective is to persuade atheists to support the global expansion of Western civilization, not the truth.

  7. Both Said’s and Huntington’s main books quoted here have been criticized for generalized overstatement, yet both, like many works of “metahistory” have important insights that broke through conventional assumptions; and if overlooks their contrary perspectives their material mutually integrates in several respects.

    Whatever diverse Muslim societies resemble today, you DO get, surely, the feel of the “Arabian Nights” from the Qur’an, the Hajj, the “cavern and bazaar” culture that Oswald Spengler called “Magian”, and various customs and costumes that feel as alien to modern Europeans and Americans as to the returning crusader in one of Chesterton’s “xenophobic” poems. (I felt this even as a boy in Egypt and Aden, and as an adult visiting the Norwich mosque even when run by white converts; and I refuse to celebrate the ethnic cleansing of my home-area in Waltham Forest, which e.g. turned my aunt’s old shop into a base for a sky-bomb plot). We have no need or grounds to despise positive aspects Muslim heritage, or deny its past contributions to western civilization, and can commiserate with those who feel failure throughout the Ummah to “modernize” – whatever the reasons. But there is an assurance of heavenly Paradise for “the best community” who believe in Allah” unlike Jewish and Christian “perverted transgressors” (Qur’an 3.110) whose societies have largely abandoned any similar belief in postmortem judgement. A regrettable qualification to this last statement is the fanaticism of those Christian Zionists who can hardly wait for their own version of the Last Days, another expectation of Spengler that unfortunately is raising the temperature in the Middle East.

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