Liberals have always been divided on the issue of tolerating intolerance. On the one hand, any vaguely respectable liberal (whether classical or modern) has to accept that ideas, attitudes, and practises that are disagreeable, offensive, or even abhorrent, have to be tolerated. On the other hand, this can be paradoxical; if explicit intolerance is tolerated then society as a whole can end up more intolerant.
This debate appears to be at the centre of the controversy that biologist and public atheist intellectual, Richard Dawkins, has attracted recently, especially over the last year. Dawkins, along with his fellow “New Atheists” or “anti-theists”, promotes a particularly combative form of secular atheism, which entails criticising the practise of religion (and not just the belief in gods) and vocally expressing said concerns.
Dawkins has long preached this perspective (see, for instance, 2006’s The God Delusion). He has also always been equally critical of all religions (although he focuses on Christianity the most, as this is the doctrine he is most familiar with). This includes Islam.
However, recently people have increasingly focused on Dawkins’ criticisms of Islam. In particular, certain leftist pundits have started to claim that Dawkins disproportionately and unfairly targets Islam over and above other religions. For these commentators, this is because Dawkins is a bigot who hates people from the Middle East, and is using his atheism as a cover for attacking them.
This argument is, however, patently absurd. Firstly, criticising Islam (no matter how vociferously) is not racist any more than disliking Magdalene asylums means that you hate Irish people. Secondly, Dawkins does not disproportionately target Islam. As noted above, if anything, he targets Christianity more than other religions, at least in terms of actual theology.
True, he does aim jibes at Islam (particularly on Twitter). But these are not as extreme as they have been made out to be. The exact relationship of religion to freedom and progress is debatable. However, it is clear that a literalist interpretation of any religion, and particularly a state sanctioned role for religion, is certainly dangerous and detrimental to intellectual and political progress. Any religion is a fair target if and when people actually believe what it says in the text, and where it is enforced at a state level.
Importantly, though, in the world at the moment, it is Islam that is most problematic in this regard. It is unfortunate that “Christian countries” have large contingents (some entrenched in the state) that oppose same-sex marriage, scientific research, and abortion. Whilst we struggle with legalising same-sex unions, however, in many Muslim countries, simply being gay is punishable by death.
This has little to do with the actual content of different religions. All three Abrahamic religions derive their homophobia from the same passage in Leviticus. Likewise, there are many individual Jews, Christians, and (for that matter) Hindus who would dearly love to throw stones at adulterers. However, at a state level it is Islam that, contemporarily, is being used most successfully as a tool to legitimise such practises.
In fairness to Dawkins’ critics, some comments he has made on Twitter do appear to be offensive rather than critical. However, I think it is fair to give him the benefit of the doubt. When Dawkins said that Trinity College had more Nobel Prizes than the whole Muslim world, he was clearly not making a racialist point. Nor was he saying anything about Islam that could not, in different circumstances, be equally applied to other religions.
Rather, he was advancing the argument that the saturation of these countries’ cultures with strong religion, not to mention the overreaching nature of their states, has contributed to a slowing of their economic, political, and intellectual development. This has nothing to do with Islam per se; rather, where too many people take religion too seriously, and whenever the state enforces a certain lifestyle, development is stymied. For a similar example, observe Europe prior to the Enlightenment, and contemporary Amish and Hasidic Jewish communities.
It is true that Dawkins put his case poorly, and was open to misinterpretation. It is also fair to say that he may be hyperbolic and provocative on purpose in order to attract controversy. However, this does not make him a bigot. Opposing and criticising beliefs and practises, even if this is done loudly and caustically, is not intolerant. At the very worst, it is rude. Tolerance does not mean acceptance. All tolerance means is that you do not prohibit or restrict beliefs and consensual practises.
An intolerant (or unintelligent) belief should be tolerated but not allowed to affect other people. Your belief that same-sex marriage is an offence to god cannot be respected to the extent that we actually interfere in someone’s private life for the sake of your whims. On the other hand, you have every right to voice your opinion on the matter and you can boycott the ceremonies. Equally, other people have the right to criticise, shun, and ridicule you for this belief.
We can, then, reject the opposing perspective, that it is always intolerant to target someone’s most dearly held beliefs. There are, though, other reasons for the leftist backlash against anti-theism. Among far-left and old-socialist types in particular, the underlying motivation is that they dislike focusing on religion at all. For certain brands of leftism, all socio-economic phenomena have to be explained in terms of left-wing fetishes, such as class, inequality, exploitation, and greed.
From this quasi-Marxist angle every single problem in the world has to be attributed to “the West” and inequality. Emphasis can be placed on any out of capitalism, the colonial legacy, American “hegemony”, globalisation, the Tories, artificial ideological division of the working class, exploitation through trade, and “the corporations”.
The possibility that some problems are due to other factors is downright offensive. Thus, the lack of development under theocratic systems cannot be down to the theocracy itself, and the only motivation for terrorism is legitimate anger at occupying powers. Similarly, criticising religious opposition to civil liberties is pointless. After all, same-sex marriage and freedom of speech are of minimal importance compared with attacking capitalism and hastening the revolution.
A further issue emerges where intolerance is preached by a minority or disadvantaged group. For many on the left, being the underdog automatically grants you special rights and privileges. Anything that can be construed as attacking the disenfranchised can be construed as oppression and bigotry. Hence the cognitive dissonance that allows leftists to vilify Christian critics of gay marriage whilst championing minorities who express similar sentiments. In reality these double standards are patronising and, perhaps, a little bit racist.
Whilst some people are just fairly criticising his rhetoric and approach, most of the leftist backlash against Dawkins is unwarranted. “Liberals” concerned about intolerance and bigotry are either ignorant of the meaning of these terms, or are stuck in PC-overdrive. Meanwhile, Dawkins’ most fanatical and sanctimonious opponents are really only concerned about having a monopoly on the narratives of political and social theory.