Critics of the New Atheists and the curious case of Vridar’s Neil Godfrey

voldemort The Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz calls it the “Voldemort effect”: we must follow Obama’s lead and refer to “extremism” and never mention that we actually mean “Islamist extremism”. For most people, the idea that Islamist theology contributes to the extremist nature of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is obvious. But, to others, this idea is anathema. Since criticism of ideas can be misinterpreted (deliberately?) as condemnation of people, any critique of Islamist ideology can be disallowed and dismissed as “racist”. For wanting to reform his own religion, Maajid Nawaz has, bizarrely, been labelled an “Islamophobe”.

New Atheists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris get called worse. Many people delight in denigrating New Atheists whenever they can, accusing them of everything from a lack of scholarship to being unthinking “fundamentalists”.

At this point, let’s state the blatantly obvious. The causes of ISIS-style extremism are never simple, with multiple factors always being involved. As Nawaz and Harris agree in this recent discussion, the factors leading someone to become radicalised are multiple, and some of them are: (1) Western foreign policy and interventions in Muslim-majority countries; (2) their own personality; (3) their friends, social groups and exposure to radical preachers; and (4) their theology and their interpretation of their theology. The combination of all such factors, and more, is important. It would be quite wrong to say that any one of these factors, by itself, would always lead to violent extremism. Human beings are never that simple.

If one is a critic of US foreign policy, as many liberals are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that US foreign policy plays. If one is a critic of religion, as New Atheists are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that religion and theology play. That is all fair.

The problem comes from those who want either to exonerate religion entirely, or just to sneer at New Atheists for the sake of it. Such a person might then claim that Western foreign policy is the only relevant factor leading to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and that the presence of religion is irrelevant.


To illustrate such a claim I’ll use the particular example of the blogger Neil Godfrey. The main topic of Godfrey’s blog, Vridar, is the early Christian Church and the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person or a constructed myth. Godfrey’s style, in such posts, usually involves copious quoting of the views and evidence that he is discussing. As a result, the blog has become a valuable resource on such issues.

But Godfrey also has a bee in his bonnet on the topic of New Atheists and Islam. In multiple posts, he says that he desperately wants to bring to the attention of New Atheists scholarship which, he says, refutes their ideas and shows that Islamic theology is not relevant to Al-Qaeda-style and ISIS-style terrorism.

This started with a 2013 post “Islamophobia and (some?) New Atheists. Godfrey opined that “prominent public intellectuals”, naming Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and others, “have become mouthpieces for ignorance and intolerance”. He says that “Coyne, Harris and Dawkins … are fanning social attitudes that facilitate bigotry and popular support for war”.

Now, compared to most other posts that Godfrey writes on Vridar, this is a strange article. Not once does it quote anything by Coyne, Harris or Dawkins. Instead of quoting, it attributes views to them, particularly the simplistic view that the Muslim religion is so evil that it is an automatic conveyor-belt to violent extremism.

The central paragraph is (added bolding):

“This is the error that Coyne, Harris, Dawkins make. They rely upon mass media impressions and distortions to lay the blame for suicide bombing on religious belief systems. Their thinking is ankle-deep and logically fallacious. Because some of these bombers believe they will receive a heavenly reward after death they jump to the conclusion that it was because they believe in the heavenly reward that they were in part motivated into a suicide bombing mission.”

So, according to Godfrey, even the idea that suicide bombing is in part motivated by belief in a heavenly reward, is “logically fallacious” and “ankle-deep thinking” that is refuted by scholarship. Godfrey seems to be declaring that such beliefs are not even a part of the psychology of suicide bombing. Really?

Islamists have developed a whole mythology and theology of suicide bombings. Not only do martyrs go immediately to heaven, but they can intercede for seventy of their relatives, gaining them places in heaven also.

As Al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri explains:

The Martyr is special to Allah. He is forgiven from the first drop of blood. He sees his throne in Paradise where he will be adorned with the ornaments of faith. He will wed the Aynhour [virgins] and will not know the torments of the grave … And he will couple with seventy-two Aynhour and be able to offer intercessions for seventy of his relatives.

Such rhetoric pervades places such as Gaza and yet Godfrey implies that it has no effect at all on the number of volunteers. Why develop the idea that martyrs can redeem their relatives, as well as themselves, if it has no effect on people’s willingness to be martyrs?

The leader of the 9/11 hijackers left a long screed detailing his thoughts. You can read it here. I defy anyone to read it and conclude that religious ideology and the idea of a heavenly reward were not even a part of Mohamed Atta’s motivations.

Godfrey’s piece continues: “… all suicide bombing can be attributed to political causes”. Coupled with rejection of the idea that religious motivations might be even a part of the picture, this presumably means that Godfrey thinks that political factors are 100% of the explanation and that religious doctrines play no role whatsoever.

If that’s what Godfrey means then it’s quite an extreme position! People like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who know Islam and the Islamist mindset much better than either myself or Godfrey, certainly think that religious ideology is a large part of the picture — along, of course, with political and social factors.

After Godfrey recently returned to the theme, and said that he would “… love to make this point to Jerry Coyne and his followers and to elicit a response from them”, I (being a reader of Coyne’s website) headed over to Vridar to find out whether Godfrey really does hold to a 100%-political, 0%-religious analysis of ISIS-style extremism.

It didn’t go that well. Godfrey seemed to me to be advancing the highly simplistic idea that there can only be one “cause” of extremism, and that if that cause is political then it cannot be religious. The idea that multiple different causes and factors are always relevant was one that Godfrey didn’t seem to acknowledge.

Maybe I’m being unfair on him, but judge for yourself. Godfrey stated (added bolding):

“The logical fallacy here is surely obvious (but apparently not to Coyne). If “Islam” is in any way responsible then we have a real problem — How on earth do we explain the millions and millions of Muslims who don’t commit this crime?”

As I replied:

“Oh come on, there is no logical fallacy there. In the real world causes are always multi-factored. “If smoking causes illness, how on earth do we explain all the smokers who are not ill?” ”

Godfrey made no reply to that comparison. I then quoted the above passages saying that he “… seems to be claiming … that belief in a heavenly reward is not even a part of the motivation” and asked how else I should interpret the passage. Godfrey did not demur from my interpretation nor give any other one.

Godfrey then asked me a question that started (added bolding):

“Those who attribute much of today’s terrorism, in part at least, to something fundamentally sinister or violent inherent in the Islamic religion itself sometimes speak of these Islamic ideas as “memes”…”

He asked whether I agreed with such ideas, and I replied that I did. But I also added (emphasis in original):

“… obviously humans are a lot more complicated than that, and any few-sentence account will only be one part of the overall picture. But, if the question is whether I think that Islamic memes, such as the ideas that questioning of Islam and blasphemy and apostasy are morally wrong, are very harmful and are among the factors leading to a lot of violence and dysfunctional societies today, then yes I do.”

Godfrey replied with:

“That model flies in the face of all scholarly understanding and research. …” [and said that] “… this model that you are convinced is the way Islam produces terrorists is without any support in the scholarly research …”.

I was confused by what “this model” was supposed to refer to so asked:

“You retreat into generalities here. What do you mean by “this model” and exactly what evidence has shown it is wrong?”

Godfrey clarified:

“By “model” I meant your explanation for how terrorism works when you agreed to [the ideas about memes just quoted].”

Here Godfrey had taken my agreement to a statement that certain Islamic ideas were at least part of the explanation of Islamist terrorism and had turned it into an “explanation for how terrorism works”, as though that one aspect, the idea of memes, was the full and entire explanation, the only relevant factor, not just of Islamist terrorism but of terrorism in general!

So I pointed to the phrase “in part at least” in what I had agreed to and explained:

“It was not a “model” of terrorism or an “explanation for how terrorism works”, it was merely one aspect that is pertinent.”

I added:

“All along you over-interpret what people like Coyne and Dawkins say. What they say is actually correct (but only one limited part of the picture). You then interpret that as a claim of an over-arching model, and then reply that it is horribly simplistic. Well, yes, your criticism would be fair if they had actually meant what you suggest.”

But Godfrey didn’t seem to get my point. He complained:

“I quoted in full what you said “yes” to — I modified or deleted nothing. I even pointed out where you had qualified your “yes”. That explanation is demonstrably wrong.”

He seemed oblivious to how he had modified what I’d said about it being part of the explanation to it being the explanation. He insisted:

“You agree with Coyne’s and Dawkins’ understanding of how Islamic terrorism originates and I am over-interpreting nothing.”

Here he was insisting that Coyne’s and Dawkins’s “understanding of how Islamic terrorism originates” is that it is 100% about religious memes and that political, social and personality factors play no role at all.

So I replied, once again emphasising that I had only agreed that religion …

“.. was part of the explanation. It was not “the” explanation, nor a “model” of how terrorism originates, it was merely one relevant factor”.

I insisted that an explanation pointing to religion “… is not demonstrably wrong, it is only demonstrably not the whole story. But then no-one ever claimed it was”, and went on to insist that “all sorts of political, social, personal and economic factors” were also part of the overall set of causes.

The conversation didn’t get much further before Godfrey brought it to an end. But he continued to use wording that suggests he was always looking for a single cause, and just didn’t get the idea of multiple causative factors.

Am I being unfair? Maybe, but I’ve done my best to interpret what he’s saying, and he really does seem to have an all-or-nothing mindset. He seems to be maintaining that Islamist extremism is 100% political, nothing at all to do with religion, while he seems to be attributing to the New Atheists the equally ludicrous strawman that it is 100% religion, nothing at all to do with politics.

For example be said that:

“[Scholars] explore the evidence [about terrorism] and not one has put it down to “religion” as if that explains all there is to know. […] The simplistic answers of Coyne, Dawkins, Harris and co are not helpful.”

Have any of Coyne, Dawkins or Harris ever said that religion is the only factor that “explains all there is to know” about terrorism? Godfrey doesn’t actually quote them!

I offered Godfrey the suggestion: “If Neil [Godfrey] … were to say something like, well of course religion is 50% of the mix, but politics is in there as the other 50%, then Coyne might say “sure, ok, we’re agreed”.”, but got no take up.

Godfrey’s black-and-white approach to this subject leads him to make rather bizarre interpretations of people like Coyne and Dawkins. In one post he accuses them of being “embedded in the political Right”, whereas actually Coyne and Dawkins are both clearly left of centre in the politics of their respective countries.

Coyne’s dismissive reply was:

Only a moron who ignores everything we’ve written would claim that those of us named above are “embedded in the political right”.

But when questioned on this Godfrey insisted that:

“… they clearly express support for State Power and justifications for wars of aggression. In that sense they are very much aligned with the “Right”.”

As usual with Godfrey’s comments about Coyne and Dawkins, this claim was not supported by evidence. I asked him for quotes, but he didn’t reply. Wars of aggression? Come on! Coyne was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War! And Dawkins has frequently criticised the invasion of Iraq.

An example Dawkins tweet is:
Dawkins tweet

(Which, as well as being anti-war and anti-“Right”, shows Dawkins pointing to the role of politics and US foreign policy in the rise of ISIS, the very thing Godfrey claims he doesn’t do.)

As so often, the complaints about the New Atheists are about strawmen made up by the critics. Lately Godfrey has taken to siding with the serial plagiarist CJ Werleman, whose new book was fairly reviewed on the Godless Spellchecker blog. Is Werleman really Godfrey’s choice of bedfellow now?


Anyway, the main point of this post is to ask for a more sensible debate. All sensible people agree that it is blatantly obvious that religious, political, social and personal factors are all important in today’s Islam-related terrorism and in determining who ends up being radicalised and turning to terrorism. I wrote this post after listening to Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris both agree on that point. It is refreshing to read their straight-talking article on the “Voldemort effect”, and I look forward to reading their imminent book.

As for Neil Godfrey: you write sensibly on early Christianity, and you could probably do so on terrorism. But the world is complicated, causes are always multiple, and you should stop adopting simplistic single-cause accounts of complex issues and stop attributing simplistic single-cause accounts to others. If you think they’re saying that, then likely you’re misinterpreting them owing to your own over-simplistic way of thinking.

Update: The discussion with Neil Godfrey

5 thoughts on “Critics of the New Atheists and the curious case of Vridar’s Neil Godfrey

  1. Heather Hastie

    Excellent post Coel. Also, thank you for all your measured contributions and responses to Godfrey on my post on a related topic.

  2. Roo Bookaroo

    “If you think they’re saying that, then likely you’re misinterpreting them owing to your own over-simplistic way of thinking.”
    Accurate analysis of Neil Godfrey’s method of analysis. Can be explained by his own intellectual education, which started as that of a high-school teacher, and progressed by leaping from one set of simplistic views to another set of again more simplistic views —giving them his 100% adherence at each new step of his leaping progression, and basically structuring his understanding with varying levels of black vs white contrasts. His whole mindset essentially reflects a poor familiarity with the nuanced, multi-stranded history of Western rationalism. That forest is far too complex, and his method is to fix his attention from one tree to another to guide him in the intellectual maze of Western thought

  3. Malcolm Hutton

    After presenting Neil Godrey with numerous comments in reply to his intricately worded ideas on his web page, and getting no response, I can only see the usual hard wired fundamentalist that cannot come to terms with real facts. It is so typical of those brainwashed by deep religious beliefs and are unable to hold on to an open mind. What is different though is that instead of the usual total silence he is trying to present a case that he is dealing with all of the problems that a fantasy religion has created. What we see though in the end is a mind that hasn’t been able to cope with reality.


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