Atheism Muslim

Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists

“Popular author and neuroscientist Sam Harris’ pseudoscientific characterisations of Muslims dovetail nicely with his extreme right-wing views on military intervention in Muslim-majority countries,” writes author [EPA]

Scientific racism is a term seldom used today but which has a long and ignoble history in the modern world. In the late 18th century, the renowned scientist and philosopher Christoph Meiners published his famous treatise The Outline and History of Mankind. Central to his analysis was a qualitative comparison of peoples by race – a comparison which his own popularly-accepted findings claimed revealed a clear hierarchy.

Drawing in large part on the now-discredited science of Phrenology (the measurement of human skulls), Meiners described whites as being endowed with clear superiority to all races in both their intellectual as well as moral faculties.

About blacks, his scientific analysis was far less generous – finding them not only to be inferior to whites in every mental capacity but in fact “incapable of any mental feeling or emotion at all“, as well as “unable to feel physical pain“.

As influential as it was, Meiners’ work was par for the course in the institutionalised science of racism of the age. Famous philosopher Voltaire – whose works were among the most significant of the French Enlightenment – wrote of his empirical research on those humans who possessed dark skin:

“They are not men, except in their stature, with the faculty of speech and thought at a degree far distant to ours. Such are the ones that I have seen and examined.”

While they wore a veneer of disinterested scientific analysis in their conclusions, in the context of their times it can be seen that such proponents of scientific racism had the specific goal of legitimating certain policies. With regard to those of African descent, the intention of then-contemporary scientists was often – implicitly or explicitly – to report findings which could be used to justify the socio-political institutions of slavery and colonialism against African societies.

Institutional racism

Alongside routine characterisations of blacks in scientific analyses as naturally childish and in need of patronage from “superior races”, were outright claims regarding the scientific necessity for slavery as a natural phenomenon. While the prominent American physician Josiah Nott wrote that “the negro achieves his greatest perfection, physical and moral, and also greatest longevity, in a state of slavery”, others such as Samuel Cartwright diagnosed aversion to slavery among blacks as a full-fledged disease unto itself.

Calling the purported malady “drapetomania“, Cartwright wrote that it was a legitimate mental defect which could be treated by visiting corporal punishment upon blacks – up to and including amputation.

We rightly recoil with horror today at what we know to be the false claims and methodologies of the pseudoscience of the past. The level of institutional racism masked under scientific study reached a particularly horrific apex at Paris’ infamous “human zoo” – where peoples of different races lived their lives for both scientific observation as well as the enjoyment of the general public.

Viewed in proper context it can be seen that the crudest racism has often been cloaked in the guise of disinterested scientific inquiry. Those claiming this mantle have often felt licence to engage in overt bigotry using science as a smokescreen, and yet far from being a relic of history, many celebrity-scientists of today show startling parallels with their now-dishonoured predecessors.

In the present atmosphere, characterised by conflict with Muslim-majority nations, a new class of individuals have stepped in to give a veneer of scientific respectability to today’s politically-useful bigotry.

At the forefront of this modern scientific racism have been those prominently known as the “new atheist” scientists and philosophers. While they attempt to couch their language in the terms of pure critique of religious thought, in practice they exhibit many of the same tendencies toward generalisation and ethno-racial condescension as did their predecessors – particularly in their descriptions of Muslims.