T.J. Coles – The New Atheism at 20: How an Intellectual Movement Exploited Rationalism to Promote War

The New Atheists have sought to identify religious zealotry as the cause of Arab anger, disguising the obvious cause: western foreign policy.

T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Picture by AegirPhotography

As Western bombs rain on Gaza’s starving civilians, the New Atheism turns 20. The philosophical genre, which argues for secularism over organized religion, was kick-started by Sam Harris. His 2004 book, The End of Faith, promoted neuroscience-based spirituality in place of irrational groupthink. The philosopher, Daniel Dennett, soon followed with Breaking the Spell (2006), as did the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, with his 2 million unit-selling, The God Delusion. The late essayist, Christopher Hitchens, completed the quartet, known as the Four Horsemen, publishing God Is Not Great (2007).

Inspired by the attacks of September 11th, the genre appeared on the scene shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It became immediately clear that the Four Horsemen were exploiting Enlightenment principles to justify the bombing of women and children in third world nations.  Muslim terrorists are not aggrieved by Western foreign policy, the authors claim, but rather by their fanatical devotion to their faith. The decimation of Iraq was not motivated by elite US strategies to control oil markets, but because “god” told Bush to invade. The state does not exploit religious differences for cynical realpolitik; but rather, hateful mobs randomly attack each other because of their different belief systems.

As I document in my latest book, The New Atheism Hoax, the authors concocted a major fraud. In case after case, their own sources say the opposite of what they claim. This doesn’t happen a few times. It happens almost every time. Examples are cherry-picked, context is removed, and counter-evidence suppressed. In tribute to the suffering people of Palestine, consider these Arab-Israeli examples alone:


“Most Muslims who commit atrocities are explicit about their desire to get to paradise,” says Harris in The End of Faith(Free Press edition) citing the single example of Zaydan Zaydan, a failed Palestinian suicide bomber. Zaydan:

described being “pushed” to attack Israelis by “the love of martyrdom.” He added, “I didn’t want revenge for anything. I just wanted to be a martyr.” … With regard to the suffering that his death would have inflicted upon his family, he reminded his interviewer that a martyr gets to pick seventy people to join him in paradise. He would have been sure to invite his family along. (p. 31)

Source(s): James Bennett, ‘In Israeli Hospital, Bomber Tells of Trying to Kill Israelis’, New York Times, June 8, 2002.

Here’s what Harris left out. Bennett describes the painful circumstances that led Zaydan to try to become a bomber. Crucially, Bennett also emphasizes Zaydan’s efforts to kill Israeli occupational soldiers, not Israeli civilians. Zaydan makes clear that he does not hate ordinary Israelis. Bennett also implies that Zaydan wanted revenge not for particular Israeli atrocities, but rather as a means of resisting occupation and the threat of further raids into the Jenin refugee camp in 2002. Bennett (omitted by Harris) writes:

[Zaydan] gave a rare glimpse into the blend of religion, desperation, low technology and cruelty that can produce suicide bombers …  Mr. Zaydan, who is 18, spoke of his hopeless search for a job, of long days spent in pool halls before he found his way deeper into Islam, and of how his recruiter composed his last, videotaped statement for him, because, as a fifth-grade dropout, he can read but not write.

This is in direct contradiction not only to Harris’s rendering of events, but also his other claims, that no or few Palestinian bombers are motivated by poverty and desperation. Bennett provides some background: Israel raided the Jenin refugee camp in 2002; Israeli soldiers “could enter Jenin at any time”; Zaydan “sought to kill only soldiers.” Zaydan is quoted by Bennett, not by Harris, as saying: “As long as life continues like this … you will have people who think like me.”


In one chapter, Dennett writes about the Palestinian lawyer and activist, Raja Shehadeh. Dennett says: “Palestinian society, if Shehadeh is right, is beset with a virulent case of the ‘punish those who won’t punish’ meme … [W]e mustn’t assume that policies that are benign in our own culture will not be malignant in others.” (Breaking the Spell, Penguin edition, pp. 329-30)

According to Dennett’s largely vacant account, the alleged and largely undefined dogma within Palestinian society is a result of religion. Dennett is careful not to quote Shehadeh’s explanation of this condition of prolonged tension, namely the Israeli occupation and the political collusion with Israeli occupiers by the Palestinian authorities in the occupied West Bank.

The collaborationist PLO is the largely secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), also known as the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, which rules the West Bank as a dictatorship, much in the way that the Islamist group Hamas rules Gaza.

Shehadeh explains (here’s what Dennett leaves out): “The prevailing local Palestinian politics were of the crudest kind … It was feared that [judiciaries] might use their position to challenge the political hegemony of the PLO.”  Palestine, writes Shehadeh, is “a society that had to survive under difficult and trying conditions.” He goes on to recount the painful experience of meeting West Bankers living in the United States and how their American enculturation led to a naiveté among the expats concerning the daily struggles of life under occupation. Shehadeh writes of his encounter with one such individual in the US:

He did not have to worry about being stopped and harassed [by the Israeli occupiers and PLO collaborators]. He did not have to be concerned that soldiers could enter his home and do what they wished under the authority of military law. He did not live with the constant news of bombs exploding here and there and injuries and deaths and bloodshed and collective punishments and hatred and fear and no certainty from day to day whether you can go on with the education of your children or with your business or profession.

Dennett omits all of the above, reducing the roots of Palestinian terrorism to the supposedly backward culture of the peoples.


Following the pattern, Richard Dawkins quotes the testament of ‘S’, “a polite young Palestinian aged twenty-seven.” ‘S’ is reported as saying:

We were floating, swimming, in the feeling that we were about to enter eternity … We made an oath on the Koran, in the presence of Allah – a pledge not to waver. This jihad pledge is called bayt al-ridwan, after the garden in Paradise that is reserved for the prophets and the martyrs. I know that there are other ways to do jihad. But this one is sweet – the sweetest. (Quoted in The God Delusion, Black Swan edition pp. 344-45. Ellipsis added).

This makes ‘S’ and by association all suicide bombers sound like lunatics motivated by visions of “paradise.” Dawkins again conveniently omits the background details.

Source(s): Nasra Hassan, ‘An Arsenal of Believers: Talking to the “human bombs”’, The New Yorker, 19 November 2001.

The rest of the article—not quoted by Dawkins—says that ‘S’ was one of 11 children born to a middle-class family that had to flee from Majdal, Palestine, to a refugee camp in Gaza due to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

‘S’ joined Hamas in his early-teens as a street activist. In 1989, he was jailed by the Israeli occupiers for his part in the overwhelmingly non-violent Palestinian Intifada (‘Uprising’ against the occupation). Hassan notes that over half of the suicide bombers he studied “were refugees from what is now Israel.” Like Harris with his case of Mr. Zaydan, Dawkins leaves out all of the crucial details.

The would-be bombers told Hassan: “The Israelis humiliate us. They occupy our land, and deny our history.” When asked why they condone the murder of Israeli civilians and in contrast to Zaydan, they told Hassan: “The Israelis kill our children and our women. This is war, and innocent people get hurt.”


In God Is Not Great, Hitchens writes of a young Palestinian woman, Yusra al-Azami, who was shot to death in Gaza in April 2005 “for the crime of sitting un-chaperoned in a car with her fiancé. The young man escaped with only a vicious beating,” says Hitchens. The culprits, he alleges, were the Hamas Vice and Virtue Squad, whose members roam the streets of Israeli-occupied Gaza looking for fellow Palestinians to harass for alleged immoral and un-Islamic behavior. “In once secular Palestine, mobs of sexually repressed young men are conscripted to snoop around parked cars, and given permission to do what they like” by the upper echelons of Hamas. (p. 24).

The New Humanist article indeed says what Hitchens claims it does.  Other accounts of al-Azami’s murder differ somewhat. Ghazi Ahmed in The Palestine Report notes that “Yusra was in fact a member of the Islamic Front”: Hamas’s student division. Her murder “shocked the Gaza Strip, and was condemned and discussed across the board by Palestinian factions, residents, officials at the PA [Palestinian Authority], writers and journalists.”

The alternative report says that “Yusra was killed on April 8, while walking with her fiancé, her sister, Majduleen, and her sister’s fiancé on Gaza’s beach,” not in a parked car. The group headed to their car when armed men shot at their tyres but hit Yusra in the head. “Hamas has been emphatic that, while the individuals are members of the movement, they acted at their own behest and not with any approval from the movement.” Ahmed notes that Israeli media picked up the story and added lies about a Hamas ‘Decency’ unit that was responsible for the murder. Ergo, the New Humanist article was probably based on Israeli propaganda.

Returning to the New Humanist, the article gives the background details on the origins of Hamas and fundamentalism in Palestine. The background is excised by Hitchens. The article says that Hamas developed from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Israeli occupation of Egypt (1967-82), Palestine (’67-present), and Syria (’67-present) boosted the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood among Arabs in the region. The article goes on to note that successive Israeli administrations backed Hamas as an Islamic weapon against the secular PLO, which was then reluctantly accepting a two-state solution.


At the time of writing, the two surviving New Atheists—Dawkins and Dennett—have been rather quiet about the Gaza genocide. Dawkins signed an open letter in support of Israel’s supposed right of self-defense, which in reality no country has while it illegally occupyies another. But he has not written or tweeted about it, as far as I know. Harris, on the other hand, has published thousands of wordson the subject (transcripts from his podcast). If his previous record is anything to go by, prepare, dear reader, to be twisted into logical pretzels and to be lied to by omission.

With the exception of Hitchens whom, in his final years, became a right-winger, the attention of liberals was diverted by the seductive, anti-religiosity of the New Atheists. Instead of analyzing the world through the only lens that matters—realpolitik—progressives were invited to divide the world into the simple dialectics promoted by George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden’s speechwriters: that of a “clash of civilizations,” to use a phrase popularized by Samuel P. Huntington.

For the New Atheists’ many critics who spent time trying to argue points of logic, none seemed to notice that the Four Horsemen had perpetrated an intellectual hoax by systematically misrepresenting their own sources.

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