Robert Wright Bashes the New Atheists on Foreign Policy

Writing at the Huffington Post, Robert Wright has a very bad post up about the New Atheists and foreign policy. Let's have a look"

It must strike progressive atheists as a stroke of bad luck that Christopher Hitchens, leading atheist spokesperson, happens to have hawkish views on foreign policy. After all, with atheists an overwhelmingly left-wing group, what were the chances that the loudest infidel in the western world would happen to be on the right?

No essay that starts like that is likely to have anything interesting or insightful to say. Atheists are overwhelmingly left-wing on cultural issues, for obvious reasons. Issues like church/state separation, abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, and science education have such obvious religious dimensions that it is pretty easy to understand why atheists would tend to come down on one side. Foreign policy is a different matter altogether, and I am not aware of any polling data that shows that atheists “overwhelmingly” reject neoconservative foreign policy.

As it happens, I am an atheist who does reject neoconservative foreign policy. Do I regard it as bad luck that Hitchens is both a prominent ciritc of religion and a defender of neoconservatism? No more so than it is bad luck that one of the most eloquent and important spokespersons for evolution and science education is Ken Miller, who happens to hold religious views I find distasteful. Why should I necessarily expect someone who agrees with me about religion to also agree with me about other political issues?

Actually, the chances were pretty good. When it comes to foreign policy, a right-wing bias afflicts not just Hitchens's world view, but the whole ideology of “new atheism,” especially as seen in the work of Hitchens allies Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins doesn't hold right-wing views on anything. (Just wait until you see the one example Wright offers to refute that simple fact!) And Sam Harris' views are considerably more difficult to classify than Wright seems to think. For example, he was very ambivalent about the Iraq War.

This might be a good time to remind everyone that Robert Wright has a history of putting words in the mouths of New Atheists. Back in 2004 he desperately tried to play gotcha with Daniel Dennett, pretending that Dennett had “conceded” that there was a direction to evolution. This alledges concession came during an interview Wirght did with Dennett. Timothy Sandefur showed how dishonest Wright was being in that instance.

Atheism has little intrinsic ideological bent. (Karl Marx. Ayn Rand. I rest my case.) But things change when you add the key ingredient of the new atheism: the idea that religion is not just mistaken, but evil -- that it “poisons everything,” as Hitchens has put it with characteristic nuance.

Neither Marx nor Rand are on my list of heros, but we should point out the oddness of Wright's invocation of them. Let me remind you that Ayn Rand said things like this about religion:

[Religion] in the sense of blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.

That's just a representative sample. Marx, as I recall, thought religion was primarily a tool of oppression used by despots to keep the people under control. It would seem that Marx and Rand shared Hitchens' views about the inherent rottenness of religion, yet they were still ideologically far removed on economic issues not directly relevant to religion. If Marx and Rand illustrate that there is no intrinsic ideological bent to atheism, then they still illustrate that even after adding Wright's “key ingredient.”

This is mere appetizer. Let's move on to the main course.

Consider Dawkins's assertion, in his book The God Delusion, that if there were no religion then there would be “no Israeli-Palestinian wars.”

For starters, this is just wrong. The initial resistance to the settlements, and to the establishment of Israel, wasn't essentially religious, and neither was the original establishment of the settlements, or even of Israel.

The problem here is that two ethnic groups disagree about who deserves what land. That there was so much killing before the dispute acquired a deeply religious cast suggests that taking religion out of the equation wouldn't be the magic recipe for peace that Dawkins imagines. (As I show in my new book The Evolution of God, zero-sum disputes over land and other things have long been the root cause of the ugliest manifestations of religion, ranging from Christian anti-semitism in ancient Rome to bloodthirsty xenophobia in the Hebrew Bible to the Koran's gleeful anticipation of infidel suffering in the afterlife.)

What on earth is Wright talking about? There was never a time when the disputes between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East did not have a deeply religious cast. The very idea of trying to cleanly separate the politcs of the region from the religion is pretty clueless. Politics and religion are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate the two, which is precisely the point.

Land disputes are a dime a dozen around the world. So what makes the ones in the Middle East so violent and seemingly intractable? Why is that land specifically the cause of so much hatred and bloodshed? Surely it has something to do with the commonly held belief that God gave that land to one ethnic group over another. And just as surely the bizarre religious beliefs of so many Muslims in the region make suicide bombing and terror seem like reasonable tactics. From the other side, Israelis have their own religious crazies exacerbating the problem with their talk of “Greater Isreal.”

Disputes over land and resources are a lot easier to resolve when the rival parties do not believe they have a special relationship with God, or that God will reward them for slaughtering civilians. As one of the commenters to Wright's post observed, religion isn't the fire, it's the fuel.

The Israeli and American right join Dawkins in stressing religious motivation in the Middle East, and there's a reason for that. The people there whose political grievances are most conspicuously caught up with religion are Muslims. If the problem is that Muslims are possessed by this irrational, quasi-autonomous force known as religion, then there's no point in trying to reason with them, or to look at any facts on the ground that might drive their discontent. And there are facts on the ground in the West Bank that the Israeli and American right don't want to talk about. They're called settlements.

So Dawkins is a right-winger because he stresses the religious dimension in the Middle East conflict? This is insane. Dawkins has almost no interest in Middle Eastern politics. The only references to Israel in The God Delusion are the throwaway comment Wright mentions, and a later criticism of the idea that God promised that land to the Jews. And I can say with almost complete certainty that Dawkins wanted no part of the Iraq War, and has no problem excoriating Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians.

The rest of Wright's paragraph fares little better. Settlements are a problem in the conflict, but it is naive in the extreme to speak as if they are the problem. Arab violence towards Jews long predates the existence both of the settlements and of Israel as an independent state. It wasn't settlements that were driving the relentless attacks on Jewish villages in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Jews started migrating in significant numbers to the region. It certainly wasn't settlements that led Palestinian leaders to be enthusiastic supporters of the Nazis during WWII. And it wasn't settlements that led to the Six-Day War, which is, after all, why there are settlements today.

It is not the New Atheists or neoconservatives who are pointing to religion as an excuse for ignoring more mundane political considerations. Instead it is people like Wright desperately trying to glom on to any excuse, no matter how simplistic or historically blinkered, to avoide having to state the obvious: That what might otherwise be a perfectly conventional dispute over land and resources is massively exacerbated by the intrusion of exceptionally obnoxious forms of religion.

And so too with discontent throughout the Muslim world: If religion is the wellspring of radicalism, why bother paying attention to any issues in the actual material world? Why, for example, would you do what President Obama has done, and address a longstanding Iranian grievance by admitting that the US played a role in a 1953 coups that replaced Iran's democratically elected leader with a dictator?

Do atheists, new or otherwise, tend to oppose Obama's recent foreign policy decisions? Ahteists voted for Obama in huge numbers, and I very much doubt they are surprised by anything he has done in office. Frankly, I'd be surprised if any significant number even object to Obama's relatively tough line with Israel. (I certainly don't.)

Sam Harris has been explicit in rejecting material explanations of Islamic radicalism. In The End of Faith, while discussing terrorism, he pondered such roots causes as “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza...the collusion of Western powers with corrupt dictatorships...the endemic poverty and lack of economic opportunity that now plague the Arab world.” He concluded: “We can ignore all of these things, or treat them only to place them safely on the shelf, because the world is filled with poor, uneducated, and exploited peoples who do not commit acts of terrorism.”

Yes, and the world is full of people who smoke and never get lung cancer. So, by Harris's logic, there's no chance that smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer -- and we never should have investigated that possibility!

This is straight from Mars. Harris' argued, quite sensibly it seems to me, that the various social factors people point to as the cause of terrorism in the Middle East can not be the whole story, since other people around the world facing similar depredations do not turn to terrorism. This suggests that an additional factor is at work, and since so many future suicide bombers have been kind enough to tell us that a desire for martyrdom is a big motivation for them, it seems reasonable to implicate religion.

Wright's caricature of Harris' argument is absurd, of course. The proper analogy would be that just as cigarette smoking dramatically increases your chances of getting lung cancer, so too do religious differences (especially religions of a literal and doctrinaire character) dramatically increase the chance of political disputes becoming violent and bloody.

Wright blathers on for a few more paragraphs, trotting out the usual cliches of this genre. Sometimes people fight over things other than religion, he informs us, as if anyone were questioning that simple fact. Go read it if you must. For myself, I will close with a line that really ought to be the end of Wright as any sort of serious commentator on this issue:

Anyway, the question is how to reduce the number of suicide bombers. And I have to wonder: If some Jihadists are motivated partly by fear that the west threatens their religious culture, is the optimal counter-terrorism strategy to have know-it-all westerners tell them their God doesn't exist?

Kind of leaves you speechless, doesn't it? Wright just spent the whole essay insisting that religion is not the problem. Yet it would seem these folks are so delicate that a few books by Western atheists can actually exacerbate the problem.

It takes a special kind of blindness to deny that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is so intractable precisely because it so suffused with religion. I don't understand why people like Wright go to such lengths to deny that simple, and why they try so hard to absolve religion of any major role in the dispute.


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It's not even correct to describe Hitchens as right-wing. He supported the Iraq War, but that doesn't turn him into a neo-con, much less a right-winger across the board.

I think I've heard or read enough from Hitchens lately to describe him as a covert neo-con. Ironically, while I have found his anti-religious views quite distasteful, I have agreed more often with his foreign policy views.

By John Kwok (not verified) on 13 Jul 2009 #permalink

Gee, I haven't noticed that PZ Myers or Jerry Coyne or Larry Moran are raving right wingers.

What an excellent post. It looks like Wright is just looking for a fight. I hope that Hitchens or Dawkins (or Rosenhouse) will debate him soon.

Other far-right atheists / neocons include Karl Rove and the entire Objectivist movement.

I have no idea if Karl Rove is an atheist, but Objectivism or other less-extreme brands of libertarianism do not necessarily sync with the neo-cons. Ron Paul, after all, has always been stridently anti-Iraq War.

By Jason Baur (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

I do not think Ron Paul is an objectivist. He is quite clearly very Christian, unlike the atheist objectivists.

But of course you are utterly correct that many libertarians are skeptical of US foreign policy. I have no data but I would venture the guess that a clear majority opposed it, be they religious or atheist.

Re Jason Baur

Mr. Rove has publicly stated that he is an unbeliever.

Great article, Jason. Those damn new atheists! First, they piss off the Christian fundies who turn off to science here in the US -- as Chris Mooney would have you believe. Now, they're pissing off the Islamic fundies who threaten to blow themselves up --- as Robert Wright would try to convince you. Of course, neither of these two problems even existed before the new atheists came on the scene. Can we look forward to a new collaboration? -- Wright & Mooney as coauthors of a new book. They can call it, "The Evolution of Unscientific America".

Mr. Rove has publicly stated that he is an unbeliever.

So it was widely reported, based on interpretation of one remark. Wikipedia lists Rove as Episcopalian, and Rove denies the atheism charge.

After this was mentioned by Bill Moyers on PBS, Rove was asked about it in an interview by Chris Wallace on Fox News and denied being an agnostic, saying "I'm a Christian. I go to church. I'm an Episcopalian."

Not that Rove's saying something is reason to believe it...

By Bayesian Bouff… (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

Great post. Besides the obvious absurdities in the last line I find it interesting that westerners (primarily Christians) would try to tell Muslims or Jews that their god doesn't exist. Mostly because it is the same God. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all are Abrahamic religions, meaning that they have different intricacies in their religions, but they all worship the same God. Not that that matters...they'll probably still get us all blown up at some point.

I quote Richard Dawkins.

"Reciprocal cooperation is the best survival strategy for our species."

That sure does not sound like a right wing war monger to me.

Marilyn LaCourt

Richard Wright's contention that those who are 'hawkish' on foreign policy are as a result taking a right wing stand is a false assumption. Many people, notably Christopher Hitchens, in fact supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq from a strongly-argued left-wing standpoint: this being that the internationalist left had a history and an obligation to support those suffering under tyranny.

If I understand your quotes (reading the original would be too much like work), Wright is saying something to the effect that the (Israel-Palestine) problem isn't religion it is the settlements.

Everything I have heard about the settlements suggests that the settlers are there because they believe it is the mandate of their religion. So, yes, Wright appears to have cobbled together a very muddled, inconsistent argument. (Which is what happens when people think with their 'hearts' (emotional prejudices) rather than their brains.)

One of the ironies here is Jason's consistent use of "religion" and "science" as though they are independent, self-existing, simple and definable entities.

Wright's caricature of Harris' argument is absurd, of course. The proper analogy would be that just as cigarette smoking dramatically increases your chances of getting lung cancer, so too do religious differences (especially religions of a literal and doctrinaire character) dramatically increase the chance of political disputes becoming violent and bloody.

Not "religion", Jason, but "belief systems". Atheism (not a religion but certainly a belief system) made the 20th c. the bloodiest in human history.

#17: Huh?

According to my understanding, all your assertions are wrong. Atheism is not a belief system, it is a lack of belief in Ra, Allah, Odin, what have you, based on the evidence as we see it. There is no system, no catechism, no hierarchy, et cetera. As the saying goes, if atheism is a belief, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.

There were definitely belief systems involved in most of the major conflicts of the 20th century, though not all. The two major belief systems involved were Nazism and communism. Some of those who practised either belief system also incorporated other religious beliefs and some did not (the early Christians were rather communistic, I understand), but what they did was driven by the beliefs they had, not those they didn't have.

In The Fourteenth Century, A Distant Mirror, by historian Barbara Tuckman, I read that the population of Europe was reduced by about 40% during that century, due to plagues and wars. Religion held complete sway over Europe's population at that time.

If one were given the option of being born into Europe of the 14th century or 20th century, I think the 20th would be a far wiser choice.

Atheism (not a religion but certainly a belief system) made the 20th c. the bloodiest in human history.

Find me one serious Historian who says that not believing in god was a motivation for killing people. It does not logically follow. That is all that atheism is, and I have a feeling that you know that. Anything else that a person believes is not atheism, but something else, obviously.

Joseph Stalin built a cult of personality around himself and Lenin. To all intents and purposes, Stalinism was a religious cult. As it says in "Russian Literature and its Demons", By Pamela Davidson, one of any number of sources:

"Throughout most of his rule, from 1929 to 1953, Stalin was portrayed as god. He was eulogized in quasi-religious terms in countless songs, poems, and novels with a hagiographical extravagance which has surrounded few rules in history. The religious overtones of the cult of the leader, which clashed with the professed secularism of the Soviet state, sprang from Russia's deep-rooted autocratic traditions: age-old peasant respect for personal authority, and the Russian Orthodox veneration for the tsar as a divinely appointed ruler. Many epithets and images in literature of the "cult" period are those associated with God or gods in religious literature: Stalin is constantly addressed as "father", described as a "sun", "star, or a source of light, and presented as "immortal", "eternal", or the master of nature."

Sounds very atheistic, Colin! Of course, despite that, I'm not about to blame those deaths on religion. It is Stalin that is to blame, and it is quite clear that his persecution of the church (though he had a far more complex relationship with it than some will admit) had more to do with his attempt to promote himself as more than human (godlike), rather than a hatred of religion, and to do so, he needed to remove all competing forces. It's all about power.

Indeed, Mao Zedong also built a cult of personality around himself. It makes sense, as well. Rather than attempting to use the major religions and/or god, as Hitler did, it is far better to promote yourself as being godlike, and to encourage religious devotion to yourself.

Re Collin Brendemuehl

Mr. Brendemuehls' claim that the 20th century was the bloodiest in history is true if one counts the number of people killed. However, if one counts the number of people killed as a fraction of the total population, then the Thirty Years War, which was strictly a religious war, was bloodier as the fraction of the population that was killed was greater then in the 20th Century. The virulence of religion was even even more pronounced if one takes into account the differences between the weapon systems available in the 20th century and in the 17th century. Wallenstein, Tilly, and Adolphus et al didn't have automatic weapons, bombing aircraft, nuclear weapons, rail transportation systems, etc. to facilitate their killing machines.

Re Collin Brendumuehl

Gee, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are somehow examples of the liberal movement. But, I guess that he thinks that Wallenstein and Tilly were liberals too.

A couple updates:

Robert Wright may not be such a bad guy after all. Guest-blogging on Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish", he says that the article in question was poorly written and that he has "half-apologized" for it:…

Recent scientific support for my view that the 20th century was actually less violent than previous periods in history: