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Atheists Ignore Islamophobia at their Peril

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This post originally appeared on Religion Dispatches. For two insightful responses (one voicing agreement and one voicing some disagreement), check out these pieces by Hemant Mehta and Ed Brayton.

When I first heard that a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I froze. My stomach lurched and my thoughts turned to the friends I'd made in the Sikh community through my work as an atheist and interfaith activist.

In the wake of the horror I reached out to friends directly and logged on to Twitter to express my shock, outrage, disgust, and sadness--as a Millennial, I suppose you could say this is one way I engage in the collective processing of such traumas. Within minutes of my first tweet, I began to get responses from other atheists saying that interfaith work is bad, that I should be more concerned about atheists than Sikhs, and that "religion poisons everything." The next day, I was called "a traitor" when I tweeted about efforts to raise funds to rebuild a mosque in Joplin, Missouri that was burned to the ground. When I tweeted about reaching out to the Sikh community and expressing solidarity, I was accused of trying to make atheism a religion.

And I wasn't alone in facing such criticism. When skeptic blogger Kylie Sturgess wrote a post about the Joplin mosque she was called "a terrorist" by a commenter. (This comment, along with at least four other threatening comments made on her post, has been deleted.)

Of course, it's hardly reasonable to be concerned solely on the basis of comments made by Internet "trolls." Unfortunately, there are worrying indicators that public figures in the atheist movement are perpetuating and enabling a hostile stance toward Muslims--in many cases, above and beyond the criticisms they direct at other religious communities. One of the most widely-known atheists in the world, Bill Maher, for example, is alarmed by the number of babies being named Mohammed in the U.K., and said the following of Muslims and Islam: "What it comes down to is that there is one religion in the world that kills you when you disagree with them. They say, 'Look, we're a religion of peace and if you disagree we'll cut your fucking head off."

In December of last year, the president of American Atheists posted a status update to his public Facebook profile that read: "Never give up a right without a fight. I will defame Islam if I want to. It doesn't mean I hate Muslims. It means Islam is a shitty religion that worships a pedophile as morally perfect." When I expressed my concern about those comments, atheist blogger JT Eberhard wrote the following:

Islam is a shitty religion (more shitty than most, and try me if you don't think we can defend that statement) and Muhammad was a pedophile, which has resulted in several Muslims continuing the practice. If Chris doesn't like the word "shitty", I wonder what adjective he would suggest. Horrible? Morally repugnant? Should we greet the anti-science, morally fucked up religion of Islam with an, "Oh shucks, that is pretty anti-humanity and doesn't make much sense now does it?" How softly would be enough to get Stedman to relinquish his iron-clad grip on his pearls? Frankly, to call Islam shitty is like calling the surface of the sun warm.

Later in the post he claimed to just be "factually criticizing" Islam and Muslims, but even if that were his aim, several of the claims he put forth about Islam and Muslims were not only false, but were framed in a way that is likely to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment. Another example is Ernest Perce V, the Pennsylvania State Director for American Atheists, notorious for a lawsuit resulting from his depiction of "zombie Muhammad" (the judge, who called Perce "a doofus" and ruled against him, was forced to relocate shortly after the ruling due to safety concerns over threats made against him). Perce has also made several statements that have inflamed anti-Muslim attitudes in Pennsylvania--his latest being that he plans to publicly flog a Koran on the Pennsylvania state capitol steps next month in protest of a state resolution to name 2012 the "Year of Religious Diversity."

There is No Such Thing as Islamophobia

While these issues have been the subject of debate in segments of the atheist movement for some time, events this month have got me thinking about a new aspect of this issue: the problem of silence. As the Sikh community reeled from the tragedy in Oak Creek and prominent figures from a plethora of religious communities reached out to express their solidarity and sympathy, I was surprised that I didn't see more notable atheists speak up. Browsing some of the most trafficked atheist blogs I saw that they posted little or nothing about the shooting--until Pat Robertson blamed atheists for the tragedy, an accusation that a sizable majority of atheist websites then addressed.

RationalWiki, an atheist wiki featuring a newsfeed and articles like "Atheism FAQ for the Newly Deconverted," contained no mention of the Sikh shooting, but it did list an instance where a Florida door-to-door salesman was shot, and noted the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. PZ Myers, who is among the most visible atheist bloggers in the world, did write about the shooting twice, though one of his posts simply referenced the shooting as a way to condemn America's "gun culture," while the other focused on Pat Robertson's comments. (Most of the more than 35 other dedicated bloggers on Freethought Blogs--a massive atheist blog network he co-founded--didn't address it at all.)

But while this silence is deeply troubling, I don't want to suggest that, like some of those mentioned earlier, the atheist community at large necessarily has an Islamophobia problem--or that legitimate criticisms of Islam (or any other religions) constitutes Islamophobia. The problem, I think, lies in a lack of sensitivity to or awareness of the rampant Islamophobia sweeping our society. A key offender in this respect is bestselling atheist author Sam Harris.

The day after the shooting in Wisconsin, Harris published a lengthy blog post decrying Internet trolls; bizarrely, though, he included yet another defense of his position that Muslims should face extra scrutiny at airports. He and I engaged in a back-and-forth about this issue earlier this year after he wrote a post where he first argued that "we should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it." In my response, I challenged his claims that talk of Islamophobia is "deluded" and that "there is no such thing as Islamophobia." He responded, but largely neglected my concerns about Islamophobia.

It was surely nothing more than poor timing on his part to publish his latest defense of profiling one day after a man opened fire on a community of Sikhs, who have frequently been on the receiving end of bigoted anti-Muslim profiling in the years since 9/11. (In fact, the first 9/11-related hate crime was the murder of a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi by a man shouting, "I'm a patriot!") But while Harris may be convinced that he can parse arguments for profiling people who "look Muslim" from Islamophobia, the thing about words--especially words put forth by highly visible public intellectuals--is that they have consequences. Unintentional though they may be, such sentiments reinforce and perpetuate the broader cultural climate of Islamophobia. Terry Jones, who garnered worldwide attention for "International Burn a Koran Day," indicated that he was directly inspired by "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," an event that was chiefly backed by atheists. And even when the corollaries aren't so obvious, anti-Muslim attitudes seep into the culture, no matter where they originate.

...With Liberty and Justice For All (Not Just Atheists)

When incidents like these occur, I think of the ways in which principled religious criticism can easily devolve into unthinking prejudice. I can think of any number of examples from atheist conferences I've attended, such as the time I watched with dismay as attendees shouted "show us some ankle" at women wearing burkas for a satirical musical performance, or when a group of fundamentalist Muslim protesters was encircled by a crowd of hundreds of atheist conference attendees shouting things like "go back to the Middle East, you pedophiles." We should be free to criticize all religions, Islam included, but that doesn't mean we should feel free to deride and scorn its adherents.

It should go without saying that this isn't a problem with atheism, but it is a problem among atheists and it's one that is being largely ignored. 9/11 is frequently lifted up as the genesis of "New Atheism," and it's not uncommon to see people at atheist conferences wearing shirts declaring that "9/11 was a faith-based initiative." Popular atheist blogger Greta Christina has stated that she considers 9/11 the atheist Stonewall--a symbolic equivalent to a moment many regard as the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. Statements such as this make me wonder if it's perhaps more difficult for some segments of the atheist community to empathize with members of the Muslim community.

Again, silence about the recent spike in bias and violence directed at Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, and others isn't a problem exclusive to the atheist community, but by neglecting to tackle it, the atheist movement is opting out of an important conversation about the mistreatment of certain minority groups in the United States. Figures in the atheist movement talk frequently about how our society should recognize the contributions and worth of atheists, and how everyone should decry rhetorical attacks against the nonreligious, but this argument falls flat when many atheists fail to extend that claim to other communities--especially ones facing frequent rhetorical and physical attacks.

As a minority community in America's religious milieu, it makes strategic sense for atheists to ally with Muslims, Sikhs, and others. But as a Humanist atheist, I feel a sense of moral obligation to stand up against identity-based hatred, no matter whom it's directed at. Not only is it absurd to hope that people should care about the lack of acceptance for atheists in the United States without also hoping that society will similarly embrace other communities, it's also selfish. Atheists who remain silent about Islamophobia aren't just missing out on a strategic opportunity to highlight the parallels between their own experiences and those of other disenfranchised religious minorities--they're opting out of an opportunity to do what is right, to take the moral high road, and to demonstrate what we keep telling the rest of the world: that atheists can be "good without God."

There's been a great deal of discussion in the atheist movement recently about social justice focused on anti-atheist bias, sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, and more. These are, of course, crucial hurdles to overcome in the quest for human progress, but social justice should mean justice for all, including religious people. In fact, this is exactly what "social justice" means. From dictionary.com: "the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society."

A recent study by sociologist Jeremy Stangroom may shed some light on why some atheists' definitions of social justice don't seem to include the religious. He found that 32% of atheist respondents felt that "they are not morally obliged to help somebody in severe need in India, even though to do so wouldn't cost them much, compared to only 22% of Christians who respond the same way (a difference that is easily statistically significant)." He continued:

In other words, the data shows that people who self-identify as Christians are considerably more likely to think there is a moral obligation to help somebody in severe need (in India) than people who self-identify as atheists...

A possible (partial) explanation for this failure, supported by the data noted above, is that many (online) atheists don't believe they have a strong moral obligation towards relatively anonymous or distant others, or don't feel the pull of such an obligation even if they believe they have it (or think they believe they have it).

Stangroom also noted another recent study that asked whether respondents would be willing to give a small donation to an overseas aid agency:

The data shows that only 31% of people who self-identify as atheists respond that they are morally obliged to make such a donation, compared to 36% of people who self-identify as Christian, a difference that is statistically significant... Moreover, if we also look at people who also self-identify as Muslim and Jewish (i.e., as adherents of Judaism), then the gap between how atheists and people who self-identify as religious respond widens (31% to 38%).

I wonder if one of the issues at work is that many atheists see Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious individuals as distant others. There are female atheists, queer atheists, and atheists of all different races and ethnicities, so social justice for women, LGBT folks, and racial and ethnic minorities is accessible--these issues impact many people in the atheist community. But what about people in other communities?

If this is the case, then interfaith outreach and cooperation is imperative as it strives to decrease the distance between "others" and create opportunities for people to identify shared values and a sense of shared humanity--an understanding of identity that allows people to see another's freedom and value as connected to their own.

Beyond Tribalism

Fortunately, there are indications of progress in this direction. A number of atheists did speak out against the shooting, and the conversation about positive engagement with the religious and the intersections of oppression is advancing. I was fortunate to witness cooperation between atheists and religious individuals in the week following the shooting when 25 atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Pagans, Christians, Zoroastrians, and others met at the Humanist Community at Harvard to attend a memorial for the shooting victims at a gurdwara in Medford, Massachusetts.

An atheist in attendance told me that he had never experienced anything like it before, but perhaps the most moving sentiment came from a Christian minister who said during the memorial: "Personally, I am embarrassed that it's taken a tragedy for me to come here and introduce myself to you."

All of us--atheist and religious--should consider it an embarrassment that there isn't more goodwill and cooperation between religious communities and the nonreligious. There have been at least nine additional attacks on American Muslims and Sikhs in just the last couple of weeks since the gurdwara shooting, so no community can excuse their silence any longer.

We can disagree about the veracity of religious claims, but I worry that these disagreements lead some atheists away from defending religious individuals against injustice (and, to be sure, many religious individuals and communities likewise neglect to extend their support to atheists in need). But if the atheist community doesn't speak loudly against Islamophobia now, when will it?

If too many are only willing to stand up against hate directed at ourselves and other members of our community, then we are not truly against hate or for social justice--we are merely for ourselves and for our community. Social justice cannot mean in-group tribalism, or it's not justice at all.