Can atheists make their case without devolving into bigotry?

Asad Dandia

Richard Dawkins once again ignited controversy on Twitter when he tweeted about the possibility of eugenics, arguing that even if eugenics were practically possible, it could still be morally reprehensible, and that these are two separate matters.

As someone who fancies himself an Enlightened free thinker of a higher moral and ethical standing than religious believers, Dawkins failed to note that even the possibility of eugenics would necessarily open up a discussion about “desirable” and “undesirable” qualities in humans – which would entail fundamentally unethical and supremacist value judgments.

His separation between “is” and “ought,” however, raises larger questions about ethics and epistemology – or how knowledge is conceived – and the role of public intellectuals in shaping our discussions on these matters. How do we grapple with questions at the intersections of theology, ethics, and critique – and how do belief or non-belief come to bear on these questions?

The Indian Muslim poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, best known for theorising the idea of Pakistan (an anachronism which has unfortunately eclipsed his voluminous intellectual output) lamented at length over the fallen and defeated conditions facing his fellow Muslims, whom he felt had lost their way in modernity.

Flustered by the fatalism and passivity which he believed had overtaken the global Muslim ummah, he issued a clarion call asking them to conceive of themselves as co-creators of their destinies with God. He radically reworked traditional literary symbols, such as Satan (the embodiment of evil), recasting him as a progenitor of world events. One of his most famous poems was called the Shikwa, a complaint to God – and a critique of religion – as a believer: “My urge to speak emboldens me to talk in language plain // Impudent and audacious me! To God I dare complain!”

A few decades after Iqbal, thousands of miles away, another impassioned writer was identifying the oppression of his people and articulating their struggles into a pungent language that could serve as a roadmap towards freedom. He, too, was troubled by traditional institutions, aiming to break the chains – both literal and figurative – of his oppressors. The black American writer James Baldwin was deeply traumatised by the centuries-long crimes perpetrated by the Christian Church against his people. He was intimately aware of how theology was used to rationalise essentialist notions of racial supremacy and how these notions were built into the very mythos of the United States.

Much of his oeuvre reflects the struggles of a man grappling with questions of theodicy. And grapple he did. At the same time, he remained acutely aware of the emancipatory potential of black religion. In The Fire Next Time, he writes: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

Iqbal was an Indian Muslim under the yoke of British imperialism, and Baldwin a black atheist born into American racial apartheid. Despite these divergent contexts, they were both pained by the contradictions of modernity, troubled by traditional authorities, and most crucially, wrestling with God.

And yet it was precisely such tensions that eventually canonised them in their respective Islamic and black radical intellectual traditions. It is possible to draw from them both – one as a believer and the other as a non-believer – because their critique was imaginative, expansive, and ethical. This is contrary to the modus operandi of the self-professed “enlightened” Richard Dawkins.

Of course, “enlightenment” is not a neutral designation but one that has a contested intellectual genealogy, a multitude of streams, and is subject to rigorous debate, both as a concept and a process.

At Columbia University, where I am a student of Islamic Studies, I have studied with scholars who view Enlightenment modernity as having uniquely inaugurated the conditions that have brought unprecedented violence and ecological disaster upon the world, and I have studied with scholars who view it not as a singular project, but as one that came in indigenous multitudes, and whose premises and promises constitute a novel process towards human ingenuity and emancipation. I count both groups of scholars among my mentors.

They include the likes of Talal Asad, the world-renowned cultural anthropologist famous for offering a critical exposition of “secularism” as a neutral and universal category; and Wael Hallaq, the world’s pre-eminent scholar of Islamic law, who argues that the premodern moral makeup of the sharia is fundamentally incompatible with the violence necessary to sustain modern forms of post-Enlightenment political arrangements.

Then there is Hamid Dabashi, the prolific post-colonial theorist who has argued that “modernity” is not the provenance of Europe, but rather comes in multiplicities that vary across time and space, and that all human beings have a place in it. And Sudipta Kaviraj, a leading Indian intellectual historian who has written about the noble Indian quest for freedom and its experiment with modernity as a unique and ongoing process whose completion we have yet to see.

While each of them would certainly disagree with one another on substantive, even fundamental issues, the one thing they share is a deep commitment to the advancement of knowledge and the human condition. The point of all this is to say that the wellspring of human knowledge is vast, contradictory, and ongoing – and one can draw wisdom from all of it. “The word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer,” the Prophet Muhammad is attributed to have said. “Wherever he finds it, he is most deserving of it.”

Could the New Atheists engage with their arguments and bring them to bear on their own approach to the world? Can its proponents make a case for atheism without devolving into bigotry? Can their non-belief offer ethical critique of the world as it is? James Baldwin provided one avenue, but are there others?

One can perhaps look to the late Stephen Hawking. He also attempted to argue against the necessity of God through scientific reasoning. Like Dawkins, he was a scientist, but he cannot be categorised with New Atheists because fervent as he was, he never conjoined his argument to stale reductionism, totalising civilizational discourse, or anti-religious bigotry.

Hawking propounded what he called “model-dependent realism”, i.e. an approach to reality based on the idea that human beings interpret the real, physical world by constructing mental models (including metaphysical ones) to understand and explain events. For Hawking, the human story was an ongoing process of newer models adding on to older ones.

Seeking to find the Grand Theory of theories, he hypothesized a theory of everything: M-theory, which he believed defied the need for a Divine Maker and Mover. Hawking, at the same time, was deeply concerned about the future of humanity.

More recently, we can turn to the philosopher Martin Hagglund, whose book makes an impassioned case for secular faith which, at its logical conclusion, leads to the most ideal life via socialism. It is precisely because of his non-belief that the urgency to act justly in the world becomes all the more necessary.

For Hagglund, it is our very mortality and transience that makes life worth fighting for, not the promise of a heavenly hereafter. It is in the here and now, in this world, where we find and make meaning. In order to do that, we must first engineer the material conditions to maximise our time so we can pursue our true calling. For Hagglund, socialism born out of secular faith provides the answer.

I am not here to make a case for religion per se nor a case against atheism as such. And it is immaterial to my point whether or not I agree with the arguments put forth by any of the above thinkers. Iqbal shows us that one can be critical of one’s own religious tradition. My Columbia professors show that critique itself takes a multitude of shades. Baldwin, Hawking, and Hagglund show us that atheism can be critical of belief without the fallacious reasoning of New Atheists.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the arguments put forth is another discussion altogether. Intellectual confidence and intellectual humility need not be mutually exclusive. The pantheon of thinkers that precede us offer a rich reservoir of knowledge to draw from and the courage to pursue new means towards the unfolding of our human story. Whether one is a social scientist or a natural scientist, a critic of the Enlightenment or a supporter, a believer or an atheist, writing the human story is an endeavour towards which we all have something to offer.

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