IRichard-Dawkins read a lot of things I disagree with, but this post on Richard Dawkins by The Spectator’s Damian Thompson stands out as one of the more brazenly dishonest ones I’ve encountered in a while. Dawkins is currently in hot water with feminists and others for tweeting about rape, and a few people, like the Guardian’s Eleanor Robertson, are pointing out (rightly) that the world-famous atheist crusader has been an unhinged crank for quite a while now.

Enter Damian Thompson with this rant asserting—it’s impossible to say he’s argued anything—that the “atheist Left” didn’t care about Dawkins’ bigotry as long as it was directed against Christianity. Dawkins’ tweets about rape and about Muslims, Thompson writes, have “exposed a rich vein of hypocrisy in the Left—and, more significantly, an intellectual rift between hard-line and multiculturalist atheists.” This is presumably because now “the Left” is pushing back against his craziness now that it’s directed at feminists and Muslims, even though they didn’t seem to care when it was directed against Christians. (Dawkins, for example, called Pope Benedict “a ‘leering old villain in the frock’ who ran ‘a profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution.”)

If there’s anything more tiresome than someone on the internet accusing someone else of hypocrisy, it’s someone on the internet accusing someone of entirely made-up hypocrisy. First of all, what is the “atheist Left”? Sure a lot of people on the left are atheists, but a significant number of them are not, enough to make the such a description functionally useless. Also, if memory serves me, only about 50 percent of the British public describes itself as religious, and only about half of those believe in God. So I’m pretty sure there are some right-wing atheists in the UK. Second, Thompson has completely invented this timeline where Dawkins first arose as an anti-Christian bigot and only later turned against Muslims. The entire phenomenon of the “New Atheism” arose in response to 9/11, and therefore was always about Muslims. Sam Harris’ The End of Faith was published in 2004, and explicitly advanced the notion of a civilizational clash between the West and Islam. Dawkins’ best-known book, The God Delusion, appeared in 2006. Hitchens’ God is Not Great came in 2007. The latter two also dealt extensively with Islam. As the historian Jackson Lears wrote, “[The New Atheism] may have targeted Christianity and occasionally Judaism, but hatred and fear of Islam was its animating force.” Sorry Thompson, but these guys have been singling out Muslims from the start.

And the entire time people on the left in the UK and the US were responding that this “secular fundamentalism” was a mirror image of what it purported to criticize. Terry Eagleton, perhaps the most famous Marxist in Thompson’s country, wrote a whole book about it. This is the famous first line of his review of The God Delusion, in the bastion of the British left, the London Review of Books:“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” And the temple of highbrow American liberalism, the New York Review of Books: “Dawkins when discussing religion is, in effect, a blunt instrument, one that has a hard time distinguishing Unitarians from abortion clinic bombers.”And the liberal New York Times: “There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy.” (The reviewer also accused Dawkins of “scattershot reasoning” and “rhetorical excess.”) The American liberal magazines The New Republic and Harper’s both published strongly critical reviews.

The left has been even more unforgiving of Dawkins’ fellow New Atheists, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, not least because those two turned their arguments against religion into support for George W. Bush’s warmongering. Jackson Lears, reviewing Sam Harris in The Nation, the leading magazine of the American left: “The End of Faith, written in the wake of 9/11, bears all the marks of that awful time: hysteria, intolerance, paranoia; cankered demands for unity and the demonization of dissent.” In addition to innumerable leftist critiques of Hitchens’ politics, here’s a fellow atheist, writing in the liberal website Salon, about his “sloppy or altogether missing knowledge of theology” and his “irresponsible thinking within his own presumed area of expertise, Western philosophy and literature.” Here’s the Washington Post, which Thompson singles out for giving Dawkins a platform, reviewing Hitchens’ God is Not Great: “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject. In the end, this maddeningly dogmatic book does little more than illustrate one of Hitchens’s pet themes—the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.”

Of course there are leftists out there who hate religion and enjoy Dawkins’ antics. But presenting this recent response to Dawkins’ unhinged Twitter account as a sudden leftist awakening to his intemperate intolerance is selective reading of the highest order. Or perhaps more likely, it’s evidence Damian Thompson doesn’t read at all.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

7 Responses to No, Damian Thompson, the ‘Atheist Left’ Has Never Been a Dawkins Fan

  1. Patrick Sawyer says:

    While I do think many on the left look the other way in terms of egregious civil rights abuses in Islam and in Islamic states, it is absolutely the case, as Sessions underscores, that the “New Atheists” have been targeting Islam from day one. I might also add that I just re-read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, and was struck at how many times I had underlined Harris singling out Islam and Muslims. It is noteworthy that this book from Harris was published 9 years after 9/11.

  2. JL says:


  3. biomuse says:

    The author seems to be unaware that Terry Eagleton, in addition to being a brilliant and celebrated man of letters and a Marxist, is also a Christian. As such, citing his definitively reasoned and early takedown of Dawkins’ written exercise in public onanism is hardly a defense against Thompson’s critique.

    • But the host of his review, the LRB, is not a religious publication; quite the contrary. And in Thompson’s opinion, “atheism” and “left” are coterminous. If I couldn’t find any secular-left critics of Dawkins, it might be relevant, but in this case it’s not; Eagleton is one of many orientations on the left, and that diversity helps illustrate how narrow and ridiculous Thompson’s notion of the “atheist left” is.

      • biomuse says:

        I have no idea whether Thompson views “the Left” and “Atheists” as one and the same. I am not a regular reader of Damian Thompson and so don’t know what axes he might regularly grind. When he wrote “the atheist Left,” I took him to mean by that, “the atheist Left,” that is, that subset of the Left who are also atheists, or vice versa.

        However if, as you say, Thompson views “the Left” and “Atheists” as a coterminous set, then one excellent way to refute that is by showing that there exists a “religious Left.”
        That is accomplishable simply by not overlooking the identities of its members, such as Terry Eagleton.

        If, on the other hand, Thompson meant exactly what he wrote, then I would think you’d have to admit that his point is rather better taken. I assume you’re not going to argue that the extreme popularity of the antireligious polemics by Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. is the result of a large number of confused right-wing fundamentalist Christians who lost track of what books they were buying. Nor that the recent decline in Dawkins’ stock is the result of those who already saw the problem suddenly being more widely read. You’ll note that those now critical aren’t citing Allen Orr, but Dawkins own missteps.

        The nonsensical, ahistorical work of the “New Atheists” has been to frame science and religion, reason and faith, not as coexisting spheres of individual behavior but, instead, as warring monoliths immiscible within a single person. They have, deliberately and repeatedly, declared either null or nonsensical the set of which Eagleton is a member: that of a highly learned, vigorously rational, keenly critical and *religious* Left.

        The intended effect of this slanderous polemic – that there should be thought to exist no intellectually honest religious who are worth engaging, and thus no arguments that the New Atheists have not both defined and won – has been to hollow out the middle, destroying space for dialog.

        I know you’re not in favor of that. But as a scientist for 25 years, I’m here to tell you that they’ve made more headway with that effort among those in the sciences – and at the very highest echelons, where I spent that time – than in other disciplines.

        It’s telling, and should be more than a little disturbing, that the critiques of Dawkins’ work that you cite are, without exception, by humanities scholars or other non-scientists. You cite the
        work of Curtis White – but have you read it? Having done so, you will understand why a scientific community in thrall to this stuff is such a calamity, dangerous, and a negative for science to boot.

        For all I know, Damian Thompson may well be a right wing blowhard whose crowing is unearned and misplaced. But as a member of a large group of people who have been airbrushed
        out of existence by the popular, know-nothing narrative perpetrated by New Atheism, it’s hard not to root for a little discord and hopefully more widespread dialectic about how this was allowed to happen among those – and by those – whose minds are ostensibly open.

        To my thinking, the transgressions aren’t comparable. It is more needful that many who consider themselves of the Left be reminded that far too many fell prey of late to Great Man syndrome, than that such reminders, coarse and inaccurate though they may sometimes be, should be blunted and our consciences whitewashed by reminding us that, yes, there were some who dissented.

        • Patrick Sawyer says:

          This will seem random. I realize by your comment that you’re a scientist and “immiscible” is part of your native tongue so to speak, but still, great word. As a professor in a communications department in a large university, I appreciate the use of a good vocabulary. Sincerely, nice job. Cheers.

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