New Atheists generally acknowledge that it was the 9/11 attacks that gave their anti-theistic movement its initial impetus. Not surprisingly, several of their leading lights, led by Dawkins, Harris and comedian Bill Maher, have become trenchant critics of Islam as a key example of the toxicity of unfettered religion. These critics therefore lionise the ex-Muslim atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and support her calls for an Islamic equivalent to the Protestant Reformation. But is this based on good history?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a polarising figure. A Somali-born former Dutch politician, she rose to international prominence when the film on Islamic oppression of women she made with Theo van Gogh led to a controversy that saw van Gogh murdered by an Islamist terrorist in 2004. Ali went on to write two autobiographical books criticising her former faith – Infidel (2007) and then Nomad (2010) – and then wrote her most recent book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (2015). While prominent New Atheists have applauded her work and atheist conferences have booked her as a speaker, other socially progressive atheists have found her rhetoric clashes with their political view of Muslims as a marginalised minority and this tension continues to be part of an ongoing left versus right schism in the “atheist movement” – one that some would characterise as an internecine war between the “Social Justice Warrior” atheists and their more conservative (or even “Alt-Right”) atheist opponents. Curiously, the neo-conservative sympathies of the late Christopher Hitchens seem to be becoming the norm among the New Atheist doyens, with many of them proving fairly reactionary on social and political issues.
So while some atheists have rejected Ali as dangerously “Islamophobic”, people like Harris and Maher have enthusiastically embraced her calls not just for Islam to reform itself but for “a Reformation”. And here is where the New Atheist bad history comes in.
Whig History’s Timetable
As noted many times before, New Atheist historiography is quaintly old fashioned and largely Victorian. So it happily embraces the idea that the Greeks and Romans were rational, enlightened and almost secular and that their rosy-hued world was destroyed by the wicked Christians, who plunged the world into a theocratic, anti-scientific and politically oppressive Dark Age, dominated completely by an all-powerful Catholic Church. But this was thankfully relieved by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, which broke the power of the Church and ushered in a secular Europe that in turn gave rise to modern science, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and finally, that pinnacle of historical progress, our good selves. This is a cheery, nineteenth century positivist conception of history as an inevitable “onward and upward” progression and one that Herbert Butterfield skewered nicely in his The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). As Butterfield noted, the Whiggish historical positivism of the Victorians and Edwardians was based on a series of assumptions, prejudices and suppositions, each one more dubious than the next.
The Whig Fallacy that Butterfield identified tends to rest also on value judgements based on those assumptions and prejudices. It divides history into a story about the Good Guys (i.e. those who seem closest to what we like and value today: science, capitalism, democracy) and their battle with the Bad Guys (those who represent the parts of the past that we find most alien, distasteful or weird). It sees history ultimately as a long and inevitable progress toward “us”. It therefore sees anything that can be interpreted as bringing history closer to “us” as “good” and anything that seems to be impeding this as “bad”. Modern historians have learned to be highly wary of Whig history, as it rests on nineteenth century assumptions that have since been rejected (Greco-Roman secular rationalism, the supposed “Dark Ages” and most of the more naive conceptions of “the Renaissance”) and skews historical analysis by its constant resort to value judgements about the past, measuring the past by the anachronistic standards of the present.
New Atheist historiography is utterly oblivious to all this. Most atheist activists who venture opinions on history don’t even bother to argue that the Whig perspective is valid – they simply blithely assume it. Similarly, they also blithely assume its underlying premises, including that the Protestant Reformation was an unequivocally “good” thing. As Michael Bentley notes:
“Carlyle apart, the so-called Whigs were predominantly Christian, predominantly Anglican, thinkers for whom the Reformation supplied the critical theatre of enquiry when considering the origins of modern England.” (Modern Historiography: An Introduction,1999, pp. 64–5)
Obviously Harris, Maher and Ali are definitely not Christian, but they have inherited Whig historiography and seem to accept it without question. Therefore, to them, the assumption that the Reformation moved things “forward” and helped us to “progress” is seemingly self-evident. It certainly gets no critical analysis from Ali:
“Christianity went through that process of Reformation and Enlightenment and came to a place where the mass of Christians, at least in the Western world have accepted tolerance, the secular state – separation of Church and State, respect for women, respect for gays … There were Christians, I mean, within Christianity, who came out and said hey, we need to change things, we need to reform.” (Ali to Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, March 23, 2015)
Ali thinks that so long as certain historical precedents and contingents are lined up correctly, this Islamic Reformation will inevitably result:
“I believe that a Reformation is not merely imminent; it is now under way…recall the three factors that were crucial to the success of the Protestant Reformation: technological change, urbanization, and the interests of a significant number of European states in backing Luther’s challenge to the status quo. All three are present in the Muslim world today.”
And she is far from alone in accepting the Whiggish idea that the Reformation led directly to the Enlightenment and then to “the secular state” as some kind of inevitable and automatic linear historical progression. The idea that Islam “hasn’t had its Reformation yet” is a commonplace in atheist circles, as though all religions are supposed to follow a historical timetable set by European history and Islam’s “Reformation” train is running late. We can also find regular comments by New Atheists about how Islam is a “younger religion” than Christianity and so not as “advanced”. Back in 1989, at the height of the controversy over the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, I heard several people observe that it was 1410 in the Islamic calendar and so “they are still in their Middle Ages”. It’s remarkable how prevalent this obviously facile and Eurocentric idea is, even among people who should be capable of seeing why it makes absolutely no sense.
Be Careful What You Wish For
In The Daily Show interview with Ali quoted above, Jon Stewart noted a serious historical problem with her references to the Protestant Reformation. He pointed out that Luther wanted a “purer form of Christianity” and asked Ali if this was not exactly what fundamentalists like Al Qeda and ISIS were trying to implement. He reminded her that Luther’s protest “created a hundred years of violence and mayhem”. Stewart actually understates things. The upheavals of the Reformation and the Catholic Church’s equally bloody reaction to it wracked Europe with wars, repression and terror unmatched in scale or viciousness until, perhaps, the killing fields of the twentieth century. Within seven years of Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg a vast swathe of Germany was convulsed by the Peasant’s War, a war inspired in part by newly Protestant princes’ attempts to strip peasants of traditional legal rights and one encouraged and even led by Protestant preachers like Thomas Müntzer. Luther himself criticised both sides in the increasingly savage conflict, though eventually sided with the princes in his 1525 tract “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants“ – Luther tended not to mince his words. The revolt was finally crushed in the same year and Müntzer ended up tortured, executed and his head displayed on the walls of Mühlhausen as a warning to others.
That did not work. In 1534 Anabaptist radicals staged a coup in the city of Münster and seized control of the city council, exiling the former mayor and his Lutheran council as well as the former Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck. The Anabaptist leader Jan Matthys was summoned from the Netherlands and soon set himself up as a prophet, declaring Münster “the New Jerusalem” and encouraging Anabaptists from all over the lower Rhineland to join him in the city. In scenes reminiscent of those seen recently when cities like Raqqa and Mosul were seized by ISIS, what followed was an orgy of iconoclasm, violence and enforced fundamentalism. Adult rebaptism was declared compulsory by order of the new prophet and dissenters were forced to flee the city. Their property was then shared out among the faithful and eventually it was decreed that all property was to be held in common.
The “New Jerusalem” soon descended into total chaos once the deposed Prince-Bishop returned with a besieging army provided by both Protestant and Catholic lords, none of whom were keen on the idea of a new political regime presided over by bakers and cobblers who regarded themselves as prophets. Matthys proved a better visionary than general and died in a divinely-inspired but militarily idiotic plan to sally out of the city with just 12 holy followers. He was killed and his testicles were nailed to the city gates. He was succeeded as prophet by John Bockelson, a 25 year old tailor’s apprentice, who decided to impose a divinely-ordained theocracy on the besieged city, with himself as the new King David complete with a crown and royal robes. Among other things he instituted polygamy, married 17 young women himself and had at least one of his wives executed for being rebellious. Exactly how many of the stories of Bockelson’s reign of terror in the city while the siege continued are true is hard to determine, but accounts later circulated about divinely-ordained children who would roam the streets to point out supposed dissenters to Bockelson’s militia and of wild drunken feasts in Bockelson’s house while the besieged city’s people starved. In any case, Münster eventually fell thanks to betrayal from within and Bockelson was tortured with red hot pincers before being stabbed in the heart and, with two others, his corpse displayed in an iron cage hung from the city cathedral’s tower. The cages are still there for tourists to admire.
And all this was just the beginning. Calvinist Protestantism spread to France from Switzerland and the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) saw an estimated 2-4 million casualties over 36 years. In one particularly notorious incident, Charles IX ordered the mass murder of Huguenot Calvinists in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on 23 August 1572, sparking a series of further mass killings by Catholics of Protestants across France with the estimated death toll running into the tens of thousands. And this pales into insignificance beside the toll of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that saw a continent-wide conflict involving the armies of over 12 major powers and even more lesser polities. This war left whole swathes of central Europe virtually depopulated and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 8 million people, mostly civilians. And these examples are just a sampler of the horrors, on all sides, that resulted from the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic backlash against it.
Of course, none of these conflicts and massacres were purely about religion (no conflict is) and it is too simplistic to reduce the complex history of this period as “religious reform causes massive conflict and death”. But I present it as a reminder that Whiggish conceptions of the Reformation tend to accentuate what they see as the positive and brush aside the fact that the Reformation represented some of the bloodiest episodes in modern history. The Whig version of history was written in the nineteenth century by (mostly) Anglican liberals, which dismissed all of the above as regrettable but ultimately “worth it” and tended to paint the Protestant sides (plural) in this whole swirling mess largely as victims. The main British experience of these convulsions – traditionally called “the English Civil War” – was sanitised as a kind of largely Constitutional disagreement and romanticised as a jolly adventure featuring “cavaliers and roundheads” that was eventually all sorted out, ignoring the fact that it was actually a series of savagely brutal wars fought in Scotland and Ireland as well as England and was very much substantially about religion. If we include Cromwell’s “to Hell or Connaught” repression of the Irish, its death toll too ran into the millions.
You Say You Want a Reformation?
Of course, Ali is almost certainly not ignorant of the fact that the Protestant Reformation she lauds led to all this bloodshed and upheaval. It just seems that she feels, like the Whig historians she gets her historiography from, that the ultimate outcome of this pain was worth it. She and others seem to think that if a Martin Luther could arise in the Islamic world the theocratic grip would be broken in many Muslim countries and a separation of “church and state”, secularism, liberalism and modernity would dawn across the Islamic world. Thomas L. Friedman was calling for a Luther back in 2002 and thought Iranian dissident Hashem Aghajari might fit the bill. Other recent Islamic Luthers declared by hopeful western pundits include Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen and, bizarrely, repressive Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But Islam has already had its share of Martin Luthers and none of them have led to “the separation of Church and State, respect for women, respect for gays”. Quite the opposite.
Like Martin Luther, Taqī ad-Dīn Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) preached against what he saw as the corruptions in his religion. He decried the idea that dead Islamic leaders and teachers could intercede for the living and condemned the veneration of the tombs of these “saints”, including that of the Prophet Muhammad himself, declaring those who maintained these practices to be mishrik (polythesists). Like Luther, Calvin and Knox he preached a return to the true, original and uncorrupted form of his faith by the study of the practices and writings of the first three generations of Islamic believers: the “forebears” or salafs. He believed that the faithful needed to keep themselves untainted by the ideas of the infidels and taught that the world was divided into the domain of the believers (dar al-Islam), that of the unbelievers (dar-al-kufr) and the “domain of war” (dar al-harb) where the believers are under oppression by the infidels, and should be resisted by violent jihad. He also took a hard line against those who he felt had abandoned Islam and said they could be declared a kafir in what amounted to an excommunication (takfir) by a suitable authority.
If some of these concepts sound familiar to those who read the news, it is because many of Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas inspired the Salafi movement in modern Islam – the hardline fundamentalism that underlies Sunni Islamism. In its Wahhabist form it forms the basis of the Saudi regime’s ideology. The Saudis have used their considerable wealth to export their version of Salafism around the world, largely as a bulwark against the aggressive Iranian Shi’ite ideology of the post-1979 ayatollahs, but with the effect of bankrolling global jihadists (and blowback in the form of even more hardline forms of the ideology such as Al Qeda). Saudi Arabia is hardly a model of Enlightenment values.
Extreme Salafism forms the underpinnings of the Islamic State’s attempt at establishing a caliphate and its ongoing terrorist operations around the world. The equally murderous Boko Haram movement in West Africa and smaller groups from Thailand to the Philippines also subscribe to forms of Salafism. Far from ushering in a separation of church and state, secularism, liberalism and modernity, the ideology based on this Muslim “Luther” and the allied preaching of fellow reformer Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab has seen the imposition of theocracy, the practice of slavery, mass rape, the summary execution of heretics and dissenters and war and mayhem that makes John Bockelson’s “New Zion” in sixteenth century Münster look like a picnic.
The Reformation and the Enlightenment
So if the Reformation led to fundamentalism (Catholic and Protestant), repression, torture, mayhem and, occasionally, theocratic totalitarianism in Europe and if reformers like Luther have led to ideologies that bring all these things in vivid colour to our TVs today, why are New Atheists like Ali, Maher and Harris so keen on these things as a cure for Islam’s ills? It seems to be, yet again, based on their naive and simplistic grasp of history. It is a classic example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy – “since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X”. Again, the nineteenth century Whig historians could not see the problem in this reasoning. They saw themselves – liberal, educated, mostly Anglican, benevolent gentlefolk (and, I don’t really need to add, exclusively white, wealthy and male) – as at the pinnacle of an inexorable historical process of progress. Therefore everything that led to them had to be both good and, ultimately, inevitable. They saw their world as the triumph of good government, law, science and technology and a recognition of the general (more or less) equality (within decent limits, of course) of all people (so long as they were white and male and preferably not Jewish or Catholic). In their view this had all been held back in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, with its total theocratic control and its suppression of science, but that was all changed by the Reformation, which released the state from the dominance of the Church, freed inquiry from the repression of theology, opened the windows of the European mind and brought about the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. So, they thought, it was now up to them to export this to all corners of the world to the benefit of less enlightened (dark skinned) folk.
Even if some of these assumptions are still accepted by many people, at least some of them will be recognised as dubious by most today. And, in fact, pretty much all of them have been substantially revised or wholly rejected by modern historians. To take them in turn: the medieval Church was not a theocracy, never had the state under its thumb (certainly not as much as it would have liked) and for most of the Middle Ages was actually very much dominated by secular powers. The Sunday school conception of the Church in the Middle Ages was informed by centuries of Protestant rhetoric and reflected a caricature of the later medieval Church, which had emerged from centuries of trying to extract itself from secular domination, won a degree of autonomy and then proceeded to lose it by trying to become dominant itself. Far from bringing about some clear division between church and state, the Reformation broke apart the uneasy and distrustful medieval truce between “the two swords” of ecclesiastical and royal power and generally created little theocracies – either small, crazy and short-lived ones like Bockelson’s Münster or larger, more stable but often no less repressive ones like Henry VIII’s England. The long, slow process of finding the modern western compromise between the religious and political spheres had far more to do with politics and economics than religion itself, as some rulers (especially in Britain and thus the fledgling United States) found increasing liberalism and democracy was good for business and sectarianism simply was not. In Europe things took a more violent turn and several revolutions, with an often extremist anti-clerical element, and then restorations and a traditionalist backlash before France, Italy and Germany finally worked out the same thing as the Anglosphere.
Of course the whole Draper-White thesis about the Church suppressing science is a pseudo-historical myth, as discussed here before, as is the idea that science burgeoned more in Protestant countries than Catholic ones. The same can be said for the Enlightenment movement, given that there were as many thinkers from Catholic countries (Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, Montesquieu) as Protestant ones (Hume, Locke, Kant) at the forefront of those ideas. Finally, the conception that our liberal values, which we tend to share with our Whiggish forebears and hopefully apply more consistently to others than they did, stem wholly or even substantially from the thinkers of the Enlightenment is dubious as well. While many of the ideals of the eighteenth century philosophes certainly did permeate modern thinking to the point where many of them are unquestioned today, it is also true that many of the practical steps to bringing liberty and education to the masses came not from bewigged aristocrats in Parisian salons or London coffee houses but via earnest Quakers and evangelical vicars. After all, things such as universal suffrage or the Emancipation Movement may have drawn on some of the philosophes’ ideas, but they also drew (as much as New Atheists hate to admit it) much older Christian ideals of human equality and dignity. Oxford’s Allan Chapman may be exaggerating slightly and speaking with a little bias towards his faith, but he has a point when he notes:
“What the ‘Enlightenment’ really was, however, was a great elite talking-shop in which gentlemen in brocade coats and ladies in rich silks, it was said, ‘talked about freedom and the Rights of Man once the servants had gone to bed.'” (Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith, p. 74)
That is probably a little harsh, but what is clear is that our ideals come to us as a confluence of many streams of thought and tradition and as a consequence of a vast array of historical accidents, large and small. Any attempt to plot some linear progression of “Reformation” + “printing” + “science” + “Enlightenment” = “Us” is clearly going to be nonsense. And that is ignoring the fact that most of the assumptions that lie behind that progression, even in a less reductionist form, are problematic at best and plain wrong in most instances.
Which leaves us with the problem of how Islam is going to continue to intersect with the ideals of the western world which have, for better or worse, become the dominant culture in modernity. Islamist terrorism is just one of the more prominent results of the fact that this intersection has never been a neat one and is unlikely to be so in the near future. History can certainly help us to understand why this is so and could even show us, collectively, ways to try to reduce conflict. But that will not work while activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her New Atheist boosters work from a grasp of history stuck at the level of a Victorian Era children’s school book.
Colby Cosh, “It’s popular to suggest Islam needs a ‘Reformation,’ but an Enlightenment makes more sense”, National Post, Feb 13, 2017
Nick Danforth, “Islam Will Not Have Its Own ‘Reformation’”, Foreign Policy, Jan 2, 2015
Danusha V. Goska, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Hope for Islam’s ‘Reformation'”, Frontpage, Aug 14, 2015
Tom Holland, “We must not deny the religious roots of Islamic State”, New Statesman, Mar 17, 2015