A contender for the most infantile, irritating criticism of atheists and secularists is that we deify celebrity atheists and engage in cultism. If you doubt this, I encourage you to do a Twitter search for the terms “cult” and “worship” against the usual list of cognitively challenged Islamic apologists.
According to mouth-breathers like CJ Werleman and Nathan Lean; agreeing with any points made by Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher or Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Christopher Hitchens, or criticising misrepresentations of their views is to engage in sycophantic hero-worship of unimpeachable cult leaders. They insist that the only motivation someone could have for arguing in favour of any of the views espoused by these people is one of personal adoration, equivalent to a school girl’s juvenile crush on her geography teacher.
A chimp brain in a jar could recognise this pathetic non-argument to be the playground taunt that it is: “You luuuurve him!! Nur nur”. But it also has other connotations; it’s a smear used to imply that outspoken atheists – or New Atheists, as idiots call them – are just as guilty of unthinking obedience to ‘religious’ authority as the pious folk they criticise. It seeks to draw a logical and moral equivalence between blind faith in religious dogma and appreciation of intelligent nuanced argument.
In other words it’s bollocks. So it’s particularly patronising when outspoken atheists themselves begin speaking in the same tone of voice.
This yoda-esque pearl of wisdom is in reference to the social media reaction to a recent podcast discussion between Maryam Namazie and Sam Harris which, on paper, should have been a genuinely interesting and entertaining experience, but in practice was the conversational equivalent of somebody trying to bath a cat.
People have described it as a waste of 2 hours of their lives and said that it should never have been published. I don’t agree. As frustrating a listen as it was, I think it was also beneficial in making Namazie’s views better known. And they deserve to be better known. Bad conversations are often as useful as good ones when it comes to exposing bad ideas. And this bad conversation allowed Namazie to expose her own views in a very unfavourable light.
Ironically enough, I noticed plenty of atheists and secularists on Twitter whose admiration for Namazie’s courageous and important human rights activism seemed to lead to them downplaying her woeful performance on Harris’s podcast. I sincerely hope this wasn’t anything to do with this worrying cult of atheist hero-worship I keep hearing so much about. Regardless, I think it’s important to heed Mr Sargeant’s smug advice, so with that in mind, I now intend to criticise Namazie’s excruciating appearance with Harris. Not because he’s Sam (The Man) Harris at whose altar we should all be dirtying our knees, or because Namazie committed blasphemy by daring to challenge his divinity – but because I think he was generally right and she was generally wrong.
The reason Namazie received an invite to a discussion on Harris’ Waking Up podcast was due to her predilection for heavily implying that Harris is a bigot. Sam reached out to Maryam explaining that he considered her an ally in many respects and suggested that they have a conversation to clear up any misunderstanding of his views she may have. She agreed. She needn’t have bothered.
It became transparent early in the proceedings that Namazie had little to no interest in correcting her understanding of Harris’ views, or in answering any questions he put to her, or even in having a dialogue of any sort. Instead she waffled on at punishing length about general human rights matters and repeatedly distorted Harris’s positions whilst irritably rejecting any of his attempted clarifications as a sign of his intolerance. Namazie is seemingly unaware that if you never stop talking you leave people with no choice but to interrupt you.
Tommy Robinson gets a mention pretty early on with Harris proclaiming that he made perfect sense in his interview with Dave Rubin but stating that he was reluctant to fully get behind him due to an inability to ascertain how much of his bad reputation is the product of a smear-campaign. I’m frankly disappointed in the amount of intelligent people who have since accused Harris of ‘supporting Tommy Robinson’ on the basis of these comments. Rather than supporting or defending anyone, Harris was simply bemoaning the state of affairs in which accusations of bigotry are thrown around like confetti to the extent that it’s become virtually impossible to make judgements about people based on first-hand experience.
Namazie drew the conclusion that she and Harris were never going to agree on her allegations that he promotes a far-right narrative and tried her best to prevent him expressing a counter argument. After several attempts from Harris to finish a single sentence without being talked over in the most condescending manner possible, he reluctantly agreed to move on to the next topic.
They then moved on to discussing Sam’s views on profiling which, according to Namazie and many others, are tantamount to bigotry but in reality are about as controversial as saying that when looking for potential members of Jihadist organisations, time spent scrutinizing Norwegian toddlers is time that’s wasted. Namazie disagreed and expressed her doubts that being a Muslim is in anyway relevant to someone’s likelihood of being a Jihadist. Her startling assertion that merely “a large percentage of Jihadists are Muslim” was one that I had to listen to a couple of times to make sure I’d heard it correctly. Helpfully, Namazie said it twice so I didn’t even have to rewind to check.
I was left with the impression that Namazie either has no lucid position on profiling or simply has a complete inability to articulate it coherently. Either way she insists she disagrees with Harris’s position on profiling and considers it bigotry as she makes clear in a blog post:
“Like Harris, the far-Right conflates Islam, Muslims, terrorism and Islamism so as to make it seem as if they are all one and the same. And like them, he blames all Muslims for Islamic terrorism. Profiling can only be an acceptable response if one allocates collective blame.”
Next up is everyone’s favourite hot potato; immigration. Harris argues for controlling immigration, Namazie argues for open borders. Harris pre-empts accusations of bigotry by insisting that the persecuted secularist minorities of the Muslim world should be fast-tracked to the front of the immigration queue. Namazie maintains that we should accept everyone but carry out border checks.
Harris then delivers a one punch knock out and Namazie’s entire position is brought crashing down with a single question: What do you do if your border checks uncover Islamists?
A flustered Namazie, who seemingly hasn’t thought any of this through beyond generalities about human rights being universal, blurts out that they should be arrested. Harris carefully reminds her that you can’t go around arresting people for their opinions. He refrains from pointing out what a fascistic approach that would be, but it’s clear enough anyway. Namazie is then forced to admit that she would allow them into the country.
As if anybody was in any doubt as to whether she really meant this astonishing assertion, she helpfully confirms in a Twitter exchange that her position is effectively #IslamistsWelcome.
In the end, Namazie’s concerted efforts to derail the conversation from the outset, to spend the entirety of it prevaricating and refusing to listen and interrupting and disagreeing with Harris at all costs was not enough to stop her extremely suspect positions on important topics being exposed for what they are. Many listeners noticed this and she was confronted with something of a backlash. Some of it was polite disagreement and some of it was abusive bullshit. But that’s the internet for you.
Harris called for calm and urged Twitter users to refrain from insulting Namazie. Maryam reciprocated by taking pot-shots at Harris, repeating her belief that he suffers from a bigoted prejudice against Muslims and (predictably) accusing people of deifying him.
This objection to the Cult of New Atheism protecting its Messiahs, is nothing more than a desire to slander and libel and misrepresent and misquote and slur with impunity.
As Douglas Murray said recently:
“It’s too late to be willing to be blackmailed by people who are fundamentally insincere in their insults.”
It’s this fundamental insincerity that makes disclaimers of the kind I’m about to give both unnecessary and futile. However, I think it’s worth spelling out if only for my own sanity: I agree or disagree with arguments, not people. I evaluate arguments and views and opinions and positions on their merits regardless of who is making them. In as much as I disagree with people, it is to the extent that I disagree with their arguments and views and the behaviours they adopt based on those views.
I agree with much of what Maryam Namazie says on the topic of Islam and I applaud her genuinely brave activism. But I also disagree with much of what she says on this and other topics such as immigration and profiling and I have nothing but distain for her communism. Regardless, the personal abuse she has received as a result of her appearance with Harris is disgusting and contemptible and moronic.
Likewise, I disagree with Harris on a few points and am apathetic towards some of his output. I’m not much bothered about his work on spirituality and meditation for example. I can’t bring myself to share his enthusiasm for Sufi chanting music and I only vaguely share his appreciation of the auditory qualities of the Muslim call to prayer, depending in what kind of mood I’m in. However I do agree with Harris’ views on a whole range of topics and am grateful for his ability and willingness to express those views succinctly and articulately. I also think the tactic of deliberately misrepresenting his positions in order to destroy his reputation – a tactic which is prevalent among his critics – is fucking disgraceful and should be called out at every opportunity.
But it should go without saying that nothing I say in support of Harris or Namazie or anyone else is an attempt to make gods of them. I don’t do gods – I’m an atheist. But you knew that already.