Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
Berkeley is at it again. This time it’s Berkeley’s KPFA canceling a talk by famed atheist Richard Dawkins, which the liberal radio station was sponsoring at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. Why? Because it discovered some alleged hate-speechery in Dawkins’ tweets toward…Islam.
Yes, you read that correctly. Over the last decade and a half Dawkins has repeatedly cursed Christianity, jabbed at Judaism, battered the Bible, and the Left loved it. The Left loves that kind of hate speech, calling it “free speech.” As long as the vitriol is directed at anything Judeo-Christian, it’s quite cheerfully affirmed. But say anything against Islam, and you’ve stepped over the liberal line from “free speech” to “hate speech.”
Dawkins’ comments on his treatment by KPFA sum up the irony. “I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that,” his notes. “Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticize Christianity but not Islam?”
Why, indeed. The answer is a bit surprising. That’s what secular liberals have been doing for hundreds of years. It’s an ingrained habit, and hence part of a long-standing historical pattern.
This strange attitude of the secular Left has its origins in the Radical Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s. The Radical Enlightenment was self-consciously secular, but it was a revolution that took place within a Christianized culture, i.e., specifically against Christianity. Even though in principle it attacked all religions as superstitious, Christianity was its main, defined, cultural enemy, and it had no qualms about praising Islam to demote Christianity, or even championing Islam as theologically and morally superior. Anything to de-throne Christianity from its cultural dominance.
As historian Jonathan Israel notes, while some of the radical secularists of the 17th and 18th century criticized Islam (as Dawkins does today), most of the “radical texts” set forth “an image of Islam as a pure monotheism of high moral caliber,” superior to Christianity. As a superior religion, it could be used against Christianity as “a revolutionary force for positive change,” the secularist rebels believing that Islam was “both more rational and less bound to the miraculous than Christianity or Judaism.”
If I might offer some particulars, this positive view of Islam by the secular Left was early on championed in Frenchman Pierre Bayle’s generally positive account of Muhammad and Islam in his very widely read Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697). But soon to follow, the French nobleman Henri de Boulainvilliers more brashly and openly asserted the intellectual and moral superiority of Islam over Christianity in his Life of Mohammad, which was published in 1730. The same approach was taken by (among others) the Irish freethinker John Toland (1670-1722), the Italian freethinker Alberto Radicati (1698-1737), the freethinking Huguenot Jean-Frédéric Bernard (168-1744), the French materialist Nicholas Fréret (1688-1749), the French philosopher Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens (1704-1771), radical political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and even the greatest and loudest of the Enlightenment philosophes, the great enemy of Christianity, the Frenchman Voltaire (1694-1778).
The superiority of Islam consisted in great part—so these authors claimed —in Islam being more tolerant than Christianity. Their continual chant was that Islam was essentially peaceful as contrasted with the warlike nature of Judaism and Christianity. The Radical Enlightenment was especially firm on this historical point: Islam had spread so quickly, not by the sword (as ignoble Christians maintained), but by the fact that it was so tolerant, rational, and benevolent. It was simply a better deal, the radicals reported, to be ruled by Muslims than by Christians. So much so that even Christian populations ran to embrace the Islamic advance!
Unsurprisingly, the Crusades, in this radical revisionist view, were not an attempt to protect Christianity from invasion by an ever-encroaching, expanding Islam, but a typical warmongering attack upon peaceful Muslims by morally inferior Christians.
All of this is all too familiar as the position of the Left today. But that is precisely my point. It’s the position of the secular Left today because it was the position of the secular Left three centuries ago. Political correctness has a much longer pedigree than we may have thought, but that means that these ideas are also far more deeply embedded in the liberal psyche than we may have supposed.
The secular revolution that began in late 17th century was both anti-Christian, and, ironically, Muslim-friendly. This allows us to understand the strange paradoxical attitude of the secular Left to Islam today, and why it continues to welcome Islam as an ally against Christianity, sanitizing the former while demonizing the latter.
So sorry, Mr. Dawkins. While it may be ironic that Berkeley de-platformed you, it is perfectly predictable.