Thursday, November 28, 2013

New Atheism & The Unbelievers

Secular America

A search for meaning in a highly industrialized west has led to two competing streams of thought and being: one focuses on religion and faith, the other on secularism and rationalism. While these two streams have always been around and fought to capture the heart and minds of humanity, the battles are greater today, or at least seems so. Lorna Salzman writes: “Whether there is an actual revival of religion as opposed to a backlash against growing secularism and the striking diminution of religious practice is debatable. But both require the same response, because the root of religion, old or new, lies in the absence of reason.”

by Lorna Salzman

From Dec. 13–19, a documentary entitled The Unbelievers (2013) will be showing at the Quad Cinema on W. 13th St. in Manhattan. This is a film featuring Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, and Lawrence Krauss, a physicist, on the “new” atheism. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of hearing Dawkins in person, you should run, not walk, to see it.

Last weekend I attended a two day series of panels at New York University (NYU) on the theme of “Global Secularism(s)” (Try to overlook the postmodernist use of the plural). One main theme was what was called “post-secularism,” which was intended to refer to the purported revival of religious faith, reflecting perhaps a reaction to the vigorous growth of secularism, agnosticism and atheism, for which Dawkins must be thanked, along with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Whether there is an actual revival of religion as opposed to a backlash against growing secularism and the striking diminution of religious practice is debatable. But both require the same response, because the root of religion, old or new, lies in the absence of reason. Why at this point in time we are seeing so many facets of irrationality is an interesting topic, but it should not be relegated to academic discussions. It requires special attention on the part of secular society, not only because of its inferred suspicion and distrust of science but because it is being strengthened by radical Islam through both terrorist and “stealth” jihad, in a campaign to subvert the principles that underly secularism which got passed down to western civilization from the Enlightenment, and which give meaning to our own society and Constitution.

On a smaller scale we see the anti-evolution, the anti-vaccination and the conspiracy theory movements which have reverted to the human default position of irrationality by rejecting the information, evidence and proofs of modern science in favor of imaginary, fictional and supernatural forces. On the larger scale we see a reactive conspiracy: one headed by religious leaders of all faiths who have seen the secular handwriting on the wall and fear, quite rightly, for their influence and power, which continue to be on the wane in all western countries. At least one conference was convened in France a couple of years ago, resulting in a consensus of those present that secularism posed a greater threat to humanity than Islamist terrorism. And at the extreme right there are the jihadist offspring of Islamic fundamentalism, determined to blow modern nonMuslim society to smithereens body by body.

This is not surprising of course, because in a secular sandstorm like the one blowing around us all religious leaders quickly gather together behind the camels because they realize that all of their faiths are threatened. Personally I find this gratifying because it is a confirmation of the desertion of religion by millions of people. In the U.S., the most religious country in the west, 20% now profess to be non-practitioners if not outright nonbelievers, up from about 8% a decade ago. This is just about the only comforting trend today, and it is not about to reverse itself, notwithstanding the predictions about “post-secularism.”

One of the outstanding speakers at the NYU conference—in fact the only one to directly and loudly condemn Islamism—was Maryam Namazie, an Iranian leftist and founder of One Law For All in Great Britain. An activist rather than an academic, her presentation on the poison of shariah law and the oppression of Muslim women was powerful and unchallengeable. Two Muslim women on the same panel had to sit there and listen to her, after presenting their own remarks about how the hijab was “empowering” for women and why the resistance of Muslim women to the “authority” of the Canadian state to ban it in public was really resistance to “state authority.” (I challenged both of them on their statements in the question period).

It is easy to despair, but there is hope from many quarters: the annual Women in Secularism conference in Washington DC; Free Inquiry, published by the Council on Secular Humanism; One Law For All; the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason; the web sites and blogs of Dawkins and Sam Harris; Freedom from Religion Foundation; The Evolution Institute; The Lawfare Institute which defends free speech and fights against the efforts of Muslim leaders to impose Islam on our society; the Council of ExMuslims; the Discourse the important public discourse of exMuslims like Ibn Warraq, Tafiq Hamid, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Nonie Darwish, and important French and Canadian intellectuals and activists (including Tim Murray and Madeline Weld). Not least is Dr. Zuhdi Jasser’s American-Islamic Forum on Democracy, dedicated to persuading American Muslims of the imperative of religion-state separation. Ten years ago most of these did not exist. Today, despite the Obama effort to ban the use of pejorative terms when discussion Islamist terrorism or shariah law, one now finds the words “Islamic terrorists” even in the New York Times. The Times they are a-changing.

Both of these trends—anti-clericalism/atheism and the public discussing of Islamism—are now fixed and new efforts are flowing into the current that constitutes the growing secularism of our time. Now we must hope that the morally misguided post-modern and Marxist influences that have taken over many of our universities will be counteracted and demolished.

You can view a promo clip of The Unbelievers here.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author’s permission. More of her writing can be found at

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