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 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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8 Responses to Robert Wright takes on the “New Atheists”

  1. Daneel says:

    A few comments on point 3: Brazil is an independent and sovereign country as much as Palestine. The big mistake was even thinking about making a new country out of nothing while forcefully taking other country’s land. Even worse is the nonsensical need for a “jewish country”.

  2. Daneel,

    Don’t get me wrong…I was referring to buying unoccupied tracts of jungle, not the forcible taking of Brazilian territory.


  3. I Am says:

    Thanks for linking to the Huffington Post piece by Wright and for your detailed and eloquent reply to counter his claims.

    The more the man speaks, the less respect I have for him. After your interview with him, he certainly can’t be speaking out of complete ignorance about atheism. This means he is either just choosing to believe there is a monolithic “new atheism” movement, or else he wants to attack it anyway because it’s a convenient straw man.

    It’s becoming more apparent that he’s anti-atheist. Maybe his intention was to get atheists to read his book and then try to convert them? But convert them to what? The question still remains, what is this “Greater Purpose” he believes in?

    Maybe Wright will take a break from openly bashing a movement he is either willingly ignorant of or purposely misportraying, and explain to us why his mysterious vision of the world is better than that held by the so-called new atheists he is so willing to criticize.

  4. Rob T. says:

    Good points all around, John. And now my two pennies…

    Mr. Wright’s assertion that the “New Atheists” are somehow drumming up anti-religious fervor in an attempt to advance some sort of unified political agenda, is nearly as laughable as his explanation for the use of the term “higher purpose” that he attempted to provide during his interview on your podcast.

    Sure, there may be religiously-charged opinions held by these brilliant men that may cross over into the realm of the conservative “dark side”. Yes, Christopher Hitchens supports the Iraq war. Ok, so Sam Harris doesn’t believe that socioeconomic factors play a role in Islamic terrorism. Those are both true statements – but what’s also true is that these opinions can be argued for or against, by both sides of the religious and political fences. It’s a bit offensive that Wright seems to insinuate that all atheists might simply be herded towards a specific political agenda based on what these men may or may not have to say on a particular matter.

    Based on the public opinions of men like Dawkins, Hitchens & Harris, what is clear and noble about them all is that they support causes based on logical, moral, scientific thinking. And what Wright fails to note, is that on many issues (albeit mainly domestic ones), this goes head-to-head against many conservative viewpoints. Does Mr. Wright really believe that advancing the cause for gay rights, stem cell research, or evolution literacy are legitimate issues that most American right-wingers would be inclined to support? As a resident of a Bible-belt red state for 25+ years, let me succinctly answer that rhetorical question for him – Hell naw!

    Perhaps Mr. Wright hasn’t read or heard enough from the leaders of the atheist community to appreciate their positions on these important social and political matters – for I believe if he did, then he would surely not equate their opinions to being supportive of right-wing ideals. Or, perhaps it’s simply that he chooses not to look at issues like these as ones with a religious bent or bias – although I find it hard to believe that he would truly be that naive.

  5. Daneel says:

    “Don’t get me wrong…I was referring to buying unoccupied tracts of jungle, not the forcible taking of Brazilian territory.”

    Erm.. Do you realize that those “unoccupied tracts of jungle” ARE Brazilian territory?

  6. OK, I’ll try again. I’m talking about a voluntary transaction between two parties. The Brazilians would be willing participants. Just as the United States purchased Alaska from a willing Russia, so the Zionists would purchase a tract of land from a willing Brazil.

    But you’re completely missing my point. Instead of Brazil, it could be Canada, or Australia, or wherever. The point is the Zionists could have established a homeland someplace other than Palestine, thus avoiding the unsolvable religious problems they’re dealing with now.

    Do you understand now?

  7. Daneel says:

    Yes. And I do agree that in order to stablish a new country the best way is a willing arrangement between two parties. But what I don’t really know is which country would be willing to sell a part of its territory to make a new country. In my opinion this whole idea of a “Jewish state” is bullshit to begin with.

    But, anyway, I recognize that I was nit-picking.

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