Why the "New Atheists" Are Right-Wing on Foreign Policy
By Robert Wright, AlterNet
Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have enlisted in the
War on Terror because they believe that religion is not just mistaken,
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
Consider Dawkins's assertion, in his book The God Delusion, that if
there were no religion then there would be "no Israeli-Palestinian
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 Gazathe collusion of Western powers with corrupt
dictatorshipsthe 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
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
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