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Robert Wright

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Why the "New Atheists" are Right-Wing on Foreign Policy

Posted: 07/13/09 09:58 AM ET

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?

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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?

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!

People are survival machines built by natural selection. (This Dawkins gets.) When they sense threats to their interests, they can not only get violent, but wrap themselves in a larger cause that justifies the violence. Here they're as flexible as you'd expect well-built survival machines to be: that larger cause can be religion, yes, but it can also be nationalism or racialism. Hitler whipped up more fervor with the latter two than the first. Whatever's handy.

Of course, when religion is handy, special problems can arise. If there were no belief in paradise, there would be few suicide bombers. Then again, there might be less charity. Whether belief in posthumous rewards has on balance done more harm than good is an empirical question whose subtlety Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens don't exactly emphasize.

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?

The history of the Abrahamic faiths suggests not. Making Jews, Christians, and Muslims feel threatened by other cultures has often brought out the worst in their religions, whereas doing the the opposite -- putting them in "non-zero-sum" situations, where win-win outcomes are possible -- has brought out the best.

Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris should of course write what they want, even if it's likely to increase the amount of religious radicalism in the world. But if they're going to style themselves as soldiers in the war on terror, that will just go to show that the "God delusion" isn't the only kind of delusion.

Afterthought: It's logically possible for "new atheists" to highlight the Israeli settlement problem on grounds of justice or international law, notwithstanding their implied belief that addressing the problem won't do much good until religion vanishes. And here Hitchens, commendably, has been on the right side of the issue, even if he hasn't invested much energy in it since his turn to the right.


Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal, and, most recently, The Evolution of God

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