New Atheism Can’t Tell Where Religion Ends And Power Begins

Looking back, Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, was almost written to offend New Atheists. In it, he not only defends religious tolerance and co-existence but also absurdly advocates for repressing atheists since, by his logic, its impossible for someone to be moral without believing in some higher power.

While he was definitively wrong about the lock-up-all-the-atheists part, he was right when he wrote that the problem isn’t religion per se; it’s power-struggles between religious institutions, at that time between the Catholic and Anglican Church. This was pointed out close to 400 years ago but still has not occurred to the so called New Atheism movement.

One example is he contentious topic of Islam and terror: major studies carried out by the University of Chicago found that “[m]ore than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation” and that it is carried out by other religions and secularists alike. The problem then is military occupation, not that any particular religion exists. Had the US invaded Mexico and Brazil instead of Iraq and Afghanistan; we might be talking about Christian extremism and “Christian terror” today.

But this is even more problematic when dealing with something virtually no one thinks were caused by religion, like the Troubles in Northern Ireland. No one that is, except for proponents of New Atheism.

For instance, Sam Harris posted on twitter that the “only salient difference between the groups is religious” and that “calling the divide “political” just confuses matters.” Even Dawkins, who is generally less strident then the rest, made some ham-fisted point that:

Yes, of course the troubles in Northern Ireland are political. There really has been economic and political oppression of one group by another, and it goes back centuries. There really are genuine grievances and injustices, and these seem to have little to do with religion; except that…without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge.

Yes, because if we used the names Group 1 and Group 2 instead of Protestants and Catholics it would have really made a difference over the distribution of power.

The point is, contrary to what New Atheists claim, very rarely is there true conflict between religious groups independent of other conflicts. The problem is powers using religion to legitimize themselves, not religion itself.