New Crusaders?

I’m sure many of the program’s participants are familiar with the “New Atheists”: public figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, that are working to actively promote atheism globally. A couple of weeks ago, I had an argument with a friend about them that made quite an impact on me. He argued that the New Atheists are doing good work; that they are not afraid to tell the truth, to hold religious figures accountable for their beliefs, especially when those beliefs contribute to perpetuating violence.

I was reminded of this argument today, in Dr. Joseph Bock’s lecture on the role of religion in the peacebuilding enterprise. To secular, progressive activists, the New Atheists’ arguments are appealing. All kinds of violence are perpetuated and promoted by all of the major world religions, in the name of religion. And indeed, when Dr. Bock asked us to think about cases in which religion was used for peace rather than violence, we all had a hard time coming up with examples. It is very easy to think, on the other hand, of examples of religiously-fueled violence.

The New Atheists are on a crusade against religion. Personally, I don’t disagree that religion is most often a conservative force, and that it is more often than not used as an oppressive tool. Even inside a religious community, for example, religion can lead to structural violence. In Tayibe, my home town, there are no homosexuals, and all women seem to be devout believers, always wearing the hijab.

This, of course, is just a sign of religious coercion. Although I am sure that a very large chunk of the people in Tayibe are genuine believers, many of them also “act religious” in public to avoid being ostracized in such a closed community. This is just one example of the structural violence that organized religion can lead to, not to mention the kinds of violence inflicted by one religious group upon another, “in the name of God”.

Despite all of this, I strongly believe that religion can be used as a catalyst for social change, especially in areas of conflict. Religion, as Dr. Bock illustrated, is a gasoline tank, which can be used to light something on fire, or to do useful work. Although the examples are not as plentiful, there are incredible cases where religion was used to mobilize masses of people, nonviolently, for a common cause. Now, conservatism and fundamentalism are certainly problematic for progressive activists, but as we discussed today, we will never get anywhere by antagonizing the core beliefs of the communities that we try to impact. If we want to mobilize people in Tayibe, or in Jerusalem, in Israel/Palestine or even in the US, we must work with religious leaders, not against them.

Although I may agree with some of the New Atheists’ end goals – to create a tolerant, informed society that is free from all forms of oppression – I think that their strategy is deeply flawed. First we must create a tolerant and safe base in a community – a fertile ground. This can only be done by reaching out to religious communities and their leaders, especially (but not only) in conflict areas, not just because of the incredible leverage they possess but also out of respect for the people whose conditions we’re trying to affect.