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New atheism, old empire

Image courtesy Jacobin magazine
New Atheists: Bill Maher, Lawrence Krauss, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.
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n explaining his transition from radical polemicist to neoconservative hawk, Christopher Hitchens insisted that his politics had not changed. It was perfectly consistent, he opined, to have opposed the Vietnam War on anti-imperialist grounds and unapologetically supported the invasion of Iraq; perfectly consistent to have abandoned confraternity with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said and sipped champagne at the White House as a guest of Paul Wolfowitz.

Hitchens liked to claim that a single intellectual thread united his positions, namely opposition to “totalitarianism”: “The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy — the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.”

But for all his pro-imperial bluster, it was Hitchens’ attacks on religion that finally garnered him international fame. These, too, he claimed, were fundamentally “anti-totalitarian,” analogous to resisting North Korea or Joseph Stalin. A leading light of the “New Atheist” movement, the former socialist spent his final decade at war with religion and at peace with imperialism.

As Richard Seymour observes in his book Unhitched, Hitchens’ transformation, though unorthodox, was not without precedent:

The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the ‘Free World’. In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.

It is through polemics like Hitchens’ God Is Not Great that “New Atheism” has gained mass attention. Alongside Hitchens, the movement’s two other leading disciples, Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), have engaged in innumerable public debates with religious figures, making them doubly influential as Internet celebrities and popularizers of antitheism.

At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.

In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.

Whereas some earlier atheist traditions have rejected violence and championed the causes of the Left — Bertrand Russell, to take an obvious example, was both a socialist and a unilateralist — the current streak represented by Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris has variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture, and even, in the case of the latter, genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.

Its leading exponents wear a variety of ideological garbs, but their espoused politics range from those of right-leaning liberals to proto-fascist demagogues of the European far-right.

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