The Trouble with the New Atheists: Part II

08/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last week in this space I posted an attack on the "new atheists" that got me--predictably, I guess--attacked by new atheists.

My complaint wasn't the usual complaint about them (that they're counterproductively arrogant or zealous), but rather that they exert a right-wing influence on foreign policy. By depicting religion as a prime mover of conflict--especially in the Middle East--they discourage us from addressing the grievances of, for example, Palestinians. They give aid and comfort to those on the right who believe (but generally have the tact not to quite say): "What's the point of trying to reason with those crazy Muslims? They'll hate us no matter what we do, because hate is what their religion teaches them."

I've weighed the counter-arguments that have been arrayed against me and--surprise!--found them wanting (though in one case--see point 2 below--I admit that I did a very bad job of presenting my argument, pretty much begging to be misunderstood). Let me revisit a couple of key points.

1. Is religion at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Richard Dawkins had said yes, and I said no; the conflict between Arabs and Jews started as a basically secular dispute over land and only later got wrapped up in religious fervor. Blogger Paul Fidalgo replied that the reason the Israelis thought they deserved the land was because "it says so in their holy book," and John Snider at also emhasized the power of the Bible's "cosmic claims about the Promised Land." I think the words "holy" and "cosmic" are misleading here. The leaders of the Zionist movement were secular (as Snider acknowledges). To the extent that they cited the Bible, they cited it not as a religious text, but as an historical text--to establish that their people had been on the land before the Arabs were. (Just as native Americans might point to evidence that they were in America before Europeans.) Whereas the American Declaration of Independence invokes God, the closest the Israeli Declaration of Independence comes to a religious appeal is the phrase "with trust in the rock of Israel." (That's what it says in Hebrew, though it's often translated into English as "trust in the Almighty".)

I'm not denying that the conflict has become religious, both for some Jews and some Muslims. And I'm not denying that this complicates the solution. My point is just that the prime mover is the conflict over land, and if that conflict is resolved, religious zealotry will start to subside--because, in my view, ever since ancient times [] , it's been material circumstances, not religion, that has driven "religious" conflict. Richard Dawkins, in asserting that there would be no Israel-Palestine conflict whatsoever if it weren't for religion, is not just wrong but dangerously wrong, because such claims discourage us from working hard to change those circumstances.

Speaking of Dawkins:

2. Is Richard Dawkins right wing on foreign policy? Here is where I'm at fault--not for asserting that Dawkins has right-wing views on foreign policy, but for failing to make clear that I wasn't asserting this. My point was that the new atheists' depiction of religion as the root of evil, by discouraging attention to deeper root causes, furthers a right-wing agenda whether these atheists subscribe to that agenda or not. What I should have said is that they are objectively right-wing (after Orwell's famous assertion that pacificists were objectively pro-fascist regardless of their views about fascism). And I should have thought twice before titling the piece "Why the New Atheists are Right Wing on Foreign Policy"--a title that PZ Myers at Pharyngula amusingly used as an excuse to reject my thesis without reading my defense of it. (My sloppiness of expression notwithstanding, it wasn't quite impossible to grasp my meaning, as my new friend Bonzai showed over at

Still, of the three people I discussed--Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens--Dawkins is the only one I would say doesn't have specifically right-wing views that I know of. (Harris, as I noted, explicitly discourages looking for non-religious root causes of terrorism.)

3. And, by the way, what of Daniel Dennett? He's the only one of the "four horsemen" I didn't mention. Like Dawkins, he's never struck me as right-wing on foreign policy, but as for the question of whether he's "objectively" right wing: Though he doesn't go around attributing evils to religion as recklessly as Hitchens and Harris, he does something that is the rough generic equivalent: Like Dawkins, he refers to religious beliefs as "viruses" of the mind.

Now, viruses, generally speaking, are parasites; when they have a discernible effect on their host it is almost always negative. And, more to the point, the popular understanding of the word virus is that it implies parasitism. Would Dawkins and Dennett say that religious belief is always, or even usually, parasitic in the Darwinian sense--bad for the reproductive prospects of the host? If so, how do you explain the number of Catholics in the world? In light of the fact that sometimes religious belief (however mistaken it may be) manifestly helps people flourish (and even helps them preserve their mental health), while other times it gets them killed or makes them crazy, the proper term for the God meme isn't "virus" or "parasite" but the neutral "symbiont." (When a symbiotic relationship is good for the host, it is "mutualistic" and if it's bad for the host, then it deserves the label "parasitic".) That Dawkins and Dennett have so casually used the term "virus" would seem to reflect an intellectual sloppiness that neither of them practices very often. It's almost enough to make you wonder whether the new atheism, like religion, might sometimes be parasitic on the reasoning power of its hosts.

4. Is there a "new atheism"? Some atheists objected to my making a general indictment of the "new atheism" as if there were much coherence to the label or much homogeneity to the group it is meant to cover. I'll take this issue up in a future post. Meanwhile, a golden oldie involving Dan Dennett and me: our several-year-old video discussion of whether evolution could have a larger "purpose" (as, for example, if natural selection was launched by extraterrestrials--or by some sort of Deistic God--who had designed the algorithm of natural selection and then seeded the planet with cells that were expected to eventually lead to intelligent life.) In this clip I think Dennett displays an admirable open-mindedness that might surprise some of his detractors.