Robert Wright takes on the “New Atheists”

Author Robert Wright (The Evolution of God) posted an essay over the weekend at Huffington Post that’s causing quite a stir: “Why the ‘New Atheists’ are Right-Wing on Foreign Policy.”  This is something Wright touched on in the latter half of his interview with us (see podcast #58).

In a nutshell (and I hope I’m fairly summarizing his point), Wright argues that the venomous “religion is all bad and the cause of most of the world’s problems” attitude of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is a stumbling block to peace in the Middle East.

I posted a response on the HuffPo website yesterday, but for some reason (either it was not approved by the admin, or I committed some fatal technical error) it never appeared in the comments section.  So, I’ll try to recreate here what I wanted to say there.  [Update: I just got an unsolicited email from HuffPo saying they’d deleted my comment “as the result of an error.”  They’ve now approved my comment, which you can read here.]

1) The term “New Atheists” (and for that matter, “Four Horsemen”) is largely a creation of the media.  Journalists love, love, love to put things in boxes, to label them, and kudos to whoever can coin the next catchy phrase.  The only thing new about the New Atheists is their discovery by the media.  Kind of like discovering the “New World.” (What means this “new,” white man?)  From reading and listening to the news, you’d think Hitchens/Harris/Dawkins/Dennett were the only four atheists saying or publishing anything.  The truth is that the atheist community is more diverse than generally depicted.  Wright admits as much at the beginning of his essay when he says “Atheism has little intrinsic ideological bent.  (Karl Marx. Ayn Rand. I rest my case.).”  It’s true that the supermajority of atheists are politically liberal, if not downright socialist, but there is a significant minority who consider themselves independent, libertarian, or even conservative.  At any rate, Wright fails to point out that few atheists would agree with Hitchens’ absolutist proclamation that “religion poisons everything”  (everything, after all, is a lot of stuff).  He also fails to point out (maybe because he doesn’t know it, since he admitted in our interview that he doesn’t follow “the movement” all that closely) that Hitchens is regularly booed, or at least met with stoney silence, on the occasions at atheist conferences when he espouses support for the War in Iraq.  Similarly, Sam Harris is met by furrowed brows whenever he suggests that meditation might be something worth looking into.

2) Before I get too far off into the weeds, I wanted to address the idea of who the “leaders” and “spokespersons” are for the atheist community.  As I mentioned above, the media creates its own monsters, and it’s no accident that the go-to guys for religion-v-atheism are the guys who are going to offer the most colorful views and provide the scrappiest debate.  The only moderate voice that gets any regular airtime is the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United (but I suspect it’s mostly because the media loves the irony of a Reverend–and thus presumably not an atheist–advocating for the separation of church and state).  How often do you see the true leaders and spokespersons on the news?  When was the last time Robert Wright’s bloggingheads.tv invited the president of American Atheists to participate in a “diavlog”?  How about the president of Atheist Alliance International?  Secular Coalition for America? American Humanists Association?

3) While it’s true that the situation in Israel/Palestine is a complicated mishmash of politics, culture and religion, I think Wright is dead wrong when he claims that, in the beginning, it wasn’t about religion.  It’s true that the original Zionists were largely secular socialists, but it’s no accident that they chose Palestine for the Jewish homeland.  Had the Zionists not been able to point to the Old Testament, with its cosmic claims about the Promised Land, the hoi polloi would never have gone with it.  Why didn’t they just buy jungle in Brazil and set up a Jewish state?  For that matter, had the inhabitants of Palestine been Jewish to start with, there would never have been any displacements.  It wasn’t Jewish Arabs who got displaced.

4) Since when was it only the right-wing who viewed the situation in the Middle East as largely a religious problem?  The only difference between Democrats and Republicans on this matter is NOT what the root cause is, but what to do about it.

5) Wright is also pretty selective in what opinions of the “New Atheists” provide covering fire for the right-wing.  While criticizing Hitchens/Dawkins/Harris for focusing on religion as the problem in the Middle East, Wright conveniently forgets that they simultaneously accuse Christian fundamentalism for being part of the problem within Western (particularly American) culture!  Were Hitchens able to snap his fingers to make it happen, he would rid both the Middle East and the American heartland of their respective religious influences.  How this warms the cockles of rightwingers in America is beyond me.  And did Harris not devote an entire volume to his Letter to a Christian Nation?

Wright is correct that in saying that it isn’t JUST religion that’s the problem in the Middle East, but I think he underestimates the extent to which religion is a continuing, exascerbating factor that won’t go away, even–the thesis of The Evolution of God notwithstanding–if the Muslims feel less threatened.

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