Last week, Jacobin published an essay by Luke Savage on three of the leading lights of the “New Atheist” movement – Richard Dawkins, the now deceased Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Savage’s argument is clear and sound: obsessed with the threat of some monolithic entity called “Islam,” Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have aided, abetted, and very much contributed to the racist political discourse that informs and supports American imperialist projects in the Middle East.
Savage’s article is the latest member of a now large family tree of essays taking down the New Atheists – many authors, including myself, have spilled much ink trying to explain why the protestations of figures like Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins (who claim they are merely standing up for reason and civil liberties) cannot be taken at face value. My experience with this project had a particular edge to it, because I came to that position from within what its members refer to as “the atheist community.” For a while, I was rather active in this sphere, and have been to the talks of, and indeed even taken photo-ops with, Dawkins and Harris.
But the story of how I became disillusioned with that community is not one I need to tell here – nor is an extended explication of how many of the New Atheist leaders participate not only in racism, but also sexism. If anyone is curious about it, they can check out any of the excellent pieces written on the subject or refer to my own previous writing.
Rather, what I want to talk about here is the peculiar reflections the discourse of the New Atheists might generate for those who do intellectual history. For, in a nutshell, the argument that Harris and others pursue is a kind of monstrous, deformed version of what intellectual historians do.
Consider the following line from an essay by Sam Harris on what he considers to be the very direct and entirely obvious connection between “Muslim hysteria and violence” and Islam: “This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas.” To Harris – as with the majority of major voices in New Atheism – the wire linking ideas and actions is simple, straight, and unobstructed by anything else. Social, economic, and political dynamics – history, in short – matter only insofar as they can be read as results of ideas. Or, as he puts it, “Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.” Thus it is not simply that Harris pursues a narrative that gives predominance to the power of ideas – rather, he offers an analysis where culture, structure and power barely exist at all, and do little to nothing to inform or shape those ideas. The world is a vacuum into which ideas enter and create nearly the entirety of social reality.
Consequently, religions – and especially their holy texts, should they have them – are not to be understood as social products open to a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations, but rather concrete, never-changing truth claims that will tell us in a very straightforward manner exactly what the followers of a broadly defined religion believe and why they believe it. And understanding what people believe, Harris insists, is the only thing we really need to know if we seek to understand their behavior. Hence, the cause of terrorism carried out by fundamentalist Muslims is entirely clear, and Harris can confidently go on national television and incredulously defend himself against charges of racism by arguing, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas.”
Even as I write this, I am tempted to go ahead and unpack how frustrating this quote is – how it can’t make any sense to refer to “Islam” as a monolithic, essentialized thing, how Harris uses the posture of a defender of critical thinking as a cover for his selective and entirely unthoughtful obsession with his fictional version of this totalizing threat called “Islam,” and how he uses the same logic to blithely reply to anyone trying to complicate his narrative with the blank, impervious-to-knowledge reply of “ok, but have you actually read the Qur’an?”
Yet that’s not what I intended to do, but rather to think about the implications of this kind of rhetorical strategy for intellectual historians. Thus, back to our specific concern here.
First, it is quite clear that what Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins do is not good intellectual history – indeed, it’s not even history at all. At least all the intellectual historians I am well familiar with – who knows what Harris is reading! – insist that the significance and the consequences of ideas can only be understood in the larger matrix of which they are a part: the ever present, perhaps tyrannical importance of Historical Context. Culture, power, politics, even aesthetics – all of these are engaged in both shaping and limiting ideas and vise-versa, and the joy of doing intellectual history is discovering these relationships and then, as an extra treat, getting to argue with one another about which factor is the most important or the least important (or equally important?, inherently inseparable?, or moving through as much as bouncing off of one another?) in any given case.
Of course, all of this is preaching to the choir – but the point I am pursuing is that this does, at least, give us an opportunity to make some kind of positive intervention in all of this. We, as intellectual historians, can do the best we can to explain to whoever is listening – atheists, Americans haunted by nightmares of racialized Muslims, or assorted friends and family – why the assertions of people like Harris simply do not withstand scrutiny.
Yet at the same time, listening to New Atheist leaders talk occasionally makes me conscious of the ghosts – or zombies, if you will – of intellectual history. For while the legacy of the traditional, ethnocentric approach to intellectual history has come under so much criticism, it still sometimes seems to haunt its current practitioners, who are well aware that some possess a basic suspicion that anything labeled “intellectual history” must participate in deeply rooted elitism. This is not so much because of the way New Atheist figureheads talk and write – as I said before, almost nothing they do resembles history as historians currently practice it – but by the way they use ideas as a measuring rod for the value of entire societies.
Take for example, one of Richard Dawkins’ more infamous gaffs – a tweet that read, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” Note here that it is not just any ideas that this statement celebrates – it only applies specifically to the type of (largely scientific) knowledge that is recognized as valuable and legitimate by western liberal civilization. So it is hard to read this and not think of a thousand old-fashioned syllabi for World History, where the uncivilized brown people are regulated to a distant past of lost splendor, only to reappear as the passive beneficiaries and/or victims of Western Civilization, which itself can be best understood through a progressive reading of Plato, Descartes and Voltaire. If contemporary intellectual historians want to do better, observing the ethnocentrism and racism at the heart of New Atheist rhetoric reminds us how much damage remains to be addressed.
Fortunately, I believe we do want to do better – but here is where an apparent irony steps in. At one plenarysession in Indianapolis, “What is U.S. Intellectual History?,” presenters and the participating audience focused largely on the question of how far we can, and should, expand what and who are deemed appropriate subjects for intellectual history. Edward J. Blum powerfully reminded us all of how some contemporary intellectual history continues to exclude women and people of color, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen advocated for an expanded understanding of intellectual history as dealing with “ideational stuff,” and Kathryn Lofton made a case for the relevance of even Kim Kardashian to the subjects and processes that concern intellectual historians. Indeed, there seems no project more pressing for intellectual historians than, as Blum recently put it at this blog, desegregating our scholarship.
Yet interestingly, democratizing intellectual history can sometimes mean deemphasizing the importance of ideas – at least as the Western tradition has traditionally conceived of them. For in debates and conversations I’ve had with genuinely intellectually curious atheists, the main assumption I’ve had to uproot is the belief that ideas, in and of themselves, can change the world and possess enormous independent power and value. Thus the historical contingency of a reactionary discourse arguing for the supreme power of ideas has compelled an intellectual historian to argue that ideas aren’t actually quite as powerful as some assume. And although this might seem awkward or contradictory at first, I think it holds out to us a delightful possibility: if we want to democratize intellectual history, there is more than one way to do it. In addition to including people and subjects not traditionally considered appropriate topics for intellectual history, it could also involve encouraging ideological shifts just as important as the first necessary step of inclusion as subject matter. It might also, in fact, include exploring why some ideas have much less agency than others. So in other words, the value of our field rests not merely in talking about where ideas were very important, but also where – and why – they weren’t.
 And as Kathryn Lofton’s lovely talk at the recent S-USIH conference attests to, the very idea of what one believes is a concept fraught with difficulties and ambiguities; a problem which Harris, if he deals with it at all, only deals with from a neuroscientific perspective and never a historical or sociological one.
 I say “perhaps tyrannical” not so much out of a personal inclination, but in recognition of a desire, expressed partially in the Q&A session of the “What is Intellectual History?” panel and more subtly elsewhere, to occasionally allow ourselves the kind of freedom found in political theory or other humanities to appreciate ideas in some sense outside of, or perhaps regardless of or in spite of, their historical roots.
 It has also occurred to me, although I’m not entirely sure what to make of the connection, that the “power of ideas” idea (if you will) has been very popular on the neoliberal New Right, which has devoted enormous resources to think tanks and public relations campaigns which not only emphasize certain ideas, but encourage a way of thinking about ideas in general that celebrates them to the point of worship (think Ayn Rand and the supreme value of the creative and exceptional individual). So I suspect that there is a connection between this tendency and the pro-imperialist politics of some New Atheist figureheads.