I do like James Bloodworth and I think he's done a great job building up the profile of Left Foot Forward since taking up the reins. But his recent piece for The Speccie, It’s fine to be a ‘new’ atheist, so long as you don’t object to Islam reads like it was written in haste. As such it is unsophisticated and limited, the article fails to think through the object of his polemic. And it lacks the unpardonable N-word: nuance.
The point he makes is a well-worn one. James argues that the so-called New Atheists of the Dawkins/Hitchens type are getting it in the neck for criticising Islam from some parts of the left. The exhibits wheeled out are Glenn Greenwald and Owen Jones, but you could take your pick from many, many more. Comrades like Glenn and Owen contend that against the background of a generalised antipathy toward Islam which, in turn, is stoked up by powerful vested interests on either side of the Atlantic; the reactionary and the bigoted can use the critiques of Islam by the trendy atheists for their own ends. Hence the latter have culpability for their arguments. After all, the right to free speech comes with the responsibility for it.
Think of it like this. Imagine the new atheism arrived in Britain three or four decades ago. The Provisional IRA's campaign on the British mainland was in full swing. Irish people living here have to put up with a press backlash, which gives succour to occasional bouts of harassment, victimisation and violent assaults. Now, if the Dawkins analogue or one of his apostles went out of their way to attack Catholicism in the name of secularism and atheism, what are the likely consequences of those arguments? No effect at all? Or, when among the more backward and lumpen elements of the population, Catholicism and 'being Irish' is synonymous; will it add to the climate of hostility Irish residents had to face?
Well, we don't have to play historical thought experiments because this is the case now, albeit Muslims are the scapegoat and hate figures for the Tory press and far right. Take, for example, the recent controversy over Anne Marie Waters' shortlisting for the Brighton Pavillion seat and her endorsement of Catriona Ogilvy in Croydon Central. Naturally, Waters has every right to claim Islam is "new to Europe" and argue "it is not a peaceful religion". But in so doing, she absolutely deserves to be called out for it. After all, what kind of leftist sets themselves up as the atheist scourge of Islam when Mosques are getting bombed, fascist thugs are on the streets "protesting" against Muslims, and that for large swathes of the population 'Muslim' is just another word for 'Paki'. That to me is a "leftist" who needs to re-examine their politics.
It's a question of bridging the gap between criticising Islamism and attacking Islam. Some elements of the left are prepared to soft pedal the former because, despite themselves occasionally, they believe there is a fundamental identity between each. Anti-Islam secularists and atheists are of the same view, but draw diametrically opposed conclusions. I think it's perfectly reasonable and possible to distinguish between the mainstream and the extreme, have a critical relationship with the latter, and yet defend Muslims from the racist right and their useful idiots in the liberal-left.
James concludes, "should you wish to apply your critical faculties objectively to all religions, be prepared for the shrill accusations of prejudice that will inevitably follow you around – not so much from believers, but from your fellow liberal atheists." This won't do. Context, as they say, is everything. James's plea to abstract rationalism is naive in the extreme and treats this dispute as a question of debating ethics. It's not, it's a political problem and as such is tied up in a mess of interests and struggles. And as such, whatever the intentions of the new atheists and their fellow travellers, the way their arguments are pushed and framed have consequences in the real world - consequences that are ultimately inimical to the rationalist values they hold dear.