The title of this post is the title of an article over at HuffPo today [well, you can see it today, but it was published on 26 August 2011]. It can also be seen at Religious News Service. Although one who does not look for conspiracy theories everywhere, I wondered why Ms Winston’s picture was not put at the head of her article, or her curriculum vitae displayed, since HuffPo regularly includes them. So I went searching around for Kimberly, and unlike the Snark, she did not softly and suddenly vanish away. She even has a special corner at amazon.com, where you can look up her books. She’s written three: Fabric of Faith: A Guide to the Prayer Quilt Ministry, Bead One, Pray Too: A Guide to Making and Using Prayer Beads, and Faith Beyond Faith Healing: Finding Hope After Shattered Dreams. Now, this came as a bit of a surprise, since the Masthead of Religious News Service says: “The only secular news and photo service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics” — as you will see if you click on the link above. And here is her editorialteam picture and cv at RNS. You’ll have to scroll way down in order to find Ms. Winston.
However, all this private dick stuff led me to wondering just how impartial this report of the new atheism really is. She begins her article in this way:
In September 2001, Sam Harris was an unknown doctoral student who didn’t believe in God.
But after the World Trade Center crumbled on 9/11, he put his studies aside to write a book that became an instant best-seller — and changed the way atheists, and perhaps Muslims, are perceived in this country.
Now, if that’s not a biased opening, then I don’t know what prejudice is. “Unknown doctoral student changes the way we see atheists and Muslims.” The headline is just struggling to get out, and I wonder whether she thought of that before “New Atheists’ emerge from 9/11″ was chosen for her.
Her very next paragraph gives us her slant on things:
Published in 2004, Harris’s “The End of Faith” launched the so-called “New Atheist” movement, a make-no-apologies ideology that maintains that religion is not just flawed, but evil, and must be rejected.
The article is generously provided with links which I have removed; but how unbiased is this, really? Certainly, in the aftermath of 9/11 many harsh things were said, and there was an apocalyptic fever for several years, expressed, not least, by the American President — although we were assured by Billy Graham that all those who were killed in the Twin Towers were in heaven now and wouldn’t want to come back. But the idea that Harris was presenting a “make-no-apologies ideology” suggests that he never makes an argument, never supports his case, and that is simply false. But once she’s allowed this false statement, the whole article just flows quite naturally from it. All the so-called “new atheists” are tarred with the same brush, and treated in the same cavalier fashion.
Winston will have to do much more to show that this is a secular, unbiased report of the new atheism. As a journalist, though, she had another responsibility. She puts ‘new atheist’ in scare quotes in her title — or someone does it for her — but the scare quotes would have been there even if not in black and white, because she has provided no evidence at all for the provenance of the title, and no explanation as to why these atheists are new, except for remarks about their stridency, their facile ascription of the world’s evils to the sole responsibility of religion, and so endlessly and familiarly on.
But then she says this:
Now, 10 years after the 9/11 attack that launched the movement, freethinkers are taking stock of the New Atheists contributions to their community, which includes atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonreligionists.
This is just careless journalism. Almost from the start, other nonbelievers, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and humanists along with their religious brethren have been criticising the new atheism and criticising it loudly, not to say stridently and often abusively. Friendships have broken over the years because of differences of opinion over the tone and direction that those now generally called the new atheists have adopted; and the name itself has not been accepted by those so called without dissent (although I have generally made a virtue of necessity, and accepted this title as a proud and appropriate one for my point of view). Huge internet rivalries have developed, accusations and counter-accusations have been made stridently, and at length, both by religionists and freethinkers. “Now, ten years later … ” — nothing! This has been going on from the get go, and Ms Winston, had she not been so busy with her prayer beads and quilts, should know that. So, going around and asking people now is not taking the temperature ten years later; it’s missing out on the whole show, which she misrepresents from the very start. Ms. Kimberly Winston is a dead loss failure as a journalist, though she does well for a religious apologist.
She goes on to interview Tom Flynn at the Center for Inquiry, and she remarks on the rift between the Center, founded by Paul Kurtz, and Kurtz himself. And she quotes Kurtz to this effect:
“They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately,” Kurtz told NPR in 2009. “Now, they’re very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.”
Yes, got that. But that’s old news, and people have moved on since then. After this quote she remarks that Sam Harris turned down a request for an interview, Dawkins and Dennett could not be reached, and Hitchens is ill. Shouldn’t she have waited until Dawkins and Dennett were available before she filed the story? That is, if she wanted to be truly unbiased, and give an accurate picture of the way things had fallen out? Yes, she should have, but she didn’t. And so we are left with only a story fragment which tries to be the whole story.
She does point out, though, that, after Harris’ book was published, Americans were less trusting of Muslims:
While multiple factors have affected Americans’ negative views of Islam after 9/11, many American Muslims partially blame the New Atheists. A 2010 Pew poll found that only 30 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Islam, down from 41 percent in 2005, a year after Harris’ book.
“I would say they have harmed,” Omid Safi, a Muslim and a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “They direct much of their venom against Muslims, and I have seen some of their material used by Islamophobes.”
Remember, Sam Harris’ book was a response to 9/11, when Muslim terrorists hijacked planes full of innocent people and flew them into buildings which were full of innocent people too. And remember too that from that moment the United States has been at war with Muslim terrorists. It’s still at war with them. Not only that, but 2005, when the first Pew Forum Survey mentioned by Winston was taken, was the year during which Muslims carried out a campaign of suicide bombings in London. In 2006 plots to blow up airliners over the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans by Muslim terrorists were revealed and thwarted, and suspects arrested. Pew Forum did an analysis of American attitudes towards Muslims after the Fort Hood massacre in 2009 in an article entitled “Modest Rise in Concern About Islamic Extremism.” This, and other information is widely available, but Winston does not use it. She offers no evidence that the change in American responses to Muslims is due to new atheist “extremism” to any degree at all (which one of her sources compared hyperbolically to Fox News!), or that the Muslims she consulted are right. (And her qualification “While many factors …” does not excuse such sloppy journalism.) The fact that a 2004 Pew Survey of religion in public life showed that Americans, by a significant margin, would vote for a Muslim for President before they would vote for someone without any religion (38% would not vote for a Muslim, 52% would not vote for someone without religion) suggests at least that the new atheist phenomenon had very little to do with American attitudes.
My complaint, for what it’s worth, has all along been that the new atheists do not criticise Islam sharply enough, for it is surely a more dangerous religion than Christianity, since it was founded in war, expanded by war, and, in many of its guises advocates death to those who are not faithful to the teachings of Islam* After all, the world outside regions dominated by Islam is known as the ”house of war” (Dar al-Harb), which in itself is disturbing. (Christianity itself, of course – and it would be unfair not to remark upon it – once mandated the same penalty for heresy, and carried it out; but that was then, this is now.) It has seemed to me dangerous for those living in what were, historically, the lands of the Christians — viz., Christendom — to criticise Christianity excessively, and leave Islam as the only large religious group in the West largely uncriticised. The fact that the criticism of Islam can be dangerous is even more reason not to make this mistake. This may be one reason why Ayan Hirsi Ali has chosen to commend Christianity to Muslims, as a suitable religious replacement for Islam, which, as she continues to warn us, is incompatible with democracy and freedom. That is an issue upon which the jury is still out, but Hirsi Ali’s opinion surely counts for something here, despite her detractors, prominent amongst whom are the well-known journalists Timothy Garteon Ash and Ian Buruma, whose intemperate attacks on Ayan Hirsi Ali have been characterised by Paul Berman (justly, in my view) as The Flight of the Intellectuals.
Winston brings her article to a close with what she calls a more qualified assessment:
Ryan Cragun, a sociologist of religion at the University of Tampa, is more qualified in his assessment. In their extremism and intolerance, he likens the New Atheists to Fox News Channel — “so far to the right,” he said, that they opened up the middle.
“Now it is OK to be a moderate atheist because you can point to the stridency of the New Atheists and say, ‘At least I am not one of them,”‘ he said. “It opens up a bigger space for freethinkers to actually communicate.”
We are often advised to see ourselves as others see us, but did Winston go looking for the answers that she wanted, or is she, as RNS claims, providing us with “unbiased coverage of religion and ethics.” You know what I think. She started with it, and she ended with it too. It’s called bias.
Definition: This is the act of identifying someone as a kafir – unbeliever. Some Muslims believe that the right to do this lies only with God.
Some, however, think that humans are allowed to make such an identification. Doing so has been an important part of Islamic fundamentalism – Muslims are not allowed to wage war on each other, but they can wage war on unbelievers. Thus, if a society or group can be labeled as unbelieving, it becomes religious acceptable to engage in even armed battle with them. [Hence takfiri -- those who consider killing such apostates a religious duty] (about.com)