Hardly a month goes by without me seeing some attack on so-called militant atheists in one of the intellectual magazines I subscribe to. As these are, or claim to be, intellectual magazines, the attacks usually come not from committed believers, who would simply dismiss atheists, militant or not, as bound for hell, but from avowed agnostics or amateur theologians quick to assure you that of course they don't believe the more fantastical tales from scripture. While the British misanthrope John Gray is the master of this genre -- sometimes hardly a month goes by without me seeing such a review by him -- others are eager to enter the fray. One such writer is Gary Greenberg, who in the Mach 2016 Harper's reviews Susan Jacoby's Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion and Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue between four-star militant atheist Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Islamist from Great Britain who now dubs himself a "counter-extremist." Greenberg writes that "Reading Jacoby -- who tells us that she has been an atheist since age fourteen -- on the subject of religious conversion is a little like reading a sex manual written by a nun." In other words, he dismisses offhand what I take to be her entire project, which is to account for conversion experiences in non-religious terms. It's like saying anthropologists are useless because they don't share the entire worldview of the subjects they study. But to Greenberg, Jacoby is typical of a clique of authors whom he finds as absolutist and intolerant in their assertions as those they denounce. "An apostle of enlightenment is still an apostle," he writes in an admitted cheap shot. As far as he's concerned writers like Jacoby and Harris are nothing but ideologues, which makes them extremists in his eyes. He doesn't even bother engaging Harris's ideas, convinced that he's guilty from the onset of his dialogue with Nawaz of "bad faith." What Harris is guilty of, it turns out, is daring to think that he understands Islam and can define it. Nawaz once thought the same thing, from a position opposite Harris's, but when Harris asserts that "Islam isn't a religion of peace," Nawaz answers -- correctly, from Greenberg's perspective -- that "Islam is not a religion of war or of peace -- it's a religion." In other words, no one, neither insiders or outsiders, militants or pluralists, believers or non-believers, gets to say authoritatively what a religion is. Greenberg clearly agrees with Nawaz's current position that since "any given subject has multiple interpretations, [that] demonstrates that there's no correct one," since this is the key to tolerance and pluralism. While this position may be useful to Nawaz in his polemics against his still-militant co-religionists, it's not too useful to the rest of us, since it only tends to reinforce the argument for distrust that we can't know ahead of time what any given Muslim is going to be like.
Nawaz is the hero of Greenberg's review since he apparently has moved away from the sort of militant certainty that, in Greenberg's view, possesses the militant atheists. His own aversion to certainty makes Greenberg a kind of militant agnostic, one who has himself strayed from the sort of intellectual modesty he appears to recommend. Militant agnostics, it seems, are often more interested in attacking atheists than in challenging superstition. Partly that's because some agnostics see atheists as killjoys who scowl puritanically at whole realms of human experience. There's also something postmodern in their bias, a distrust of all truth claims that goes beyond the normal scope of agnosticism. They harp repeatedly on the "faith" and "absolutism" and even the "eschatology" of atheists, on "pathologies [that] breed extremism at least as prolifically as the Koran does." This is either an attempt to heap the crimes of Leninism on atheists' shoulders -- the atheist reply usually is to label Leninism a kind of religion -- or an insinuation, often directed at Harris in particular, that atheists would be as happy to wipe out religion, if given the chance, as some Muslims, to name just the most prominent group, would be to wipe them out. Greenberg himself takes a plainly postmodern attitude toward "reason," describing "the ravages of capitalism, nuclear war and climate change" as all "products of reason." That's so nutty that I can't even attempt to answer the charge. In any event, what bothers Greenberg isn't reason so much as certainty, the trait militant atheists allegedly share with militant believers around the world. The problem with certainty, as far as he's concerned, is that it's essentially intolerant. Worse, it entitles or empowers people to act, both on their own certainty and on others' errors. The person who acts from certainty, it would seen, will not recognize anyone's right to say no to him or even dispute his premises, and that makes such a person dangerous to Greenberg, though whether atheists really are such people remains unproven to me. If no one would claim to know anything with that sort of intolerant certainty, Greenberg seems to believe, we could all get along better and life would be more peaceful. Unfortunately, it looks increasingly like human survival will depend on knowledge and a wider acknowledgement of it, while humanity may have to grow less tolerant or less forgiving of error, whether it be false knowledge or pathological doubt, if we're to survive. Like political liberalism, Greenberg's sort of agnosticism is a state of mind that requires nothing really to matter so that we can be tolerantly indifferent to outcomes. It seems increasingly like a luxury of an obsolete age.