Adventures in New Atheistland: Jerry Coyne Calls Out Robert Wright for Being a “Blame America First” Muddle-Head in the War on Terror!

University of Chicago atheist biologist Jerry Coyne, at his blog today, summed up Robert Wright’s recent piece in the New York Times this way:

The title of Wright’s piece is “Who created Major Hasan?”, and of course the answer is “America!”

Coyne then went on to attribute to Wright a rather base motive for his lack of patriotism: he wants to win a religious prize! Coyne also got in a Sean Hannity-like swipe at Islam as well:

This is all part and parcel of Wright’s apparent bid for the Templeton Prize, most recently displayed in The Evolution of God. Well, I’m not in favor of stereotyping individual Muslims, but as for Islam, well, it does seem to be an intrinsically belligerent religion.

And if there is any danger of Coyne being unclear, he also said:

Wright explicitly blames American belligerence against Islam as the force producing the Fort Hood shooting spree by Major Nidal Hasan.

Wright’s piece is being wildly misread and given a misleading spin. I’d ask fair-minded readers to actually look at what Wright said in his essay here. Wright does not say in any way, shape, or form that Maj. Hasan is America’s “fault.” Wright is making a sociological and media observation. He is not evaluating America’s essential “goodness” or “badness” with regard to foreign policy. He is not saying that America produced Maj. Hasan.

What then, is Wright saying? It’s simply this: Living in an Internet age means that fundamentalists can magnify emotional responses to military occupations, provoking unbalanced people to rogue violence and acts of terrorism.

Barack Obama’s potential assassination is the proper analogy. Barack Obama occupies the White House (as America occupies Iraq and Afghanistan). Does it screw up moderate and liberal white Christians for Obama to occupy the White House? No. But there is a whole Fox media-Internet subculture of “patriot fundamentalists” for whom occupation of the White House by a black man makes them crazy, and if Obama is assassinated it will probably come from someone steeped in this fundamentalist Internet subcultural. Occupation is a psychologically freighted condition in which people make parental projections (the motherland, the mother religion, the father’s house) and unbalanced people can become violent when their psychosexual boundaries are broached.

It appears that Hasan is one of those people on the fundamentalist Muslim side who cracked. That’s all Wright is saying: fundamentalism in the Internet age spreads malignant viral memes very effectively, and emotionally poisons unbalanced people. And it’s one of the things that Americans have to take into account when deciding what to do about the fact that they occupy two Muslim countries: Iraq and Afghanistan.

What Coyne doesn’t like is Wright’s prescription: If America is going to continue to occupy two Islamic countries, then Americans need to be careful not to conflate Islam generally with fundamentalist Islam in particular (just as, if Obama were assassinated, we would be careful not to equate moderate Christianity or soft patriotism with the fundamentalist brands of Christianity and patriotism that might fuel an assassin).

Here’s the salient passage from Wright’s piece (and that Coyne failed to quote):

One reason killing terrorists can spread terrorism is that various technologies — notably the Internet and increasingly pervasive video — help emotionally powerful messages reach receptive audiences. When American wars kill lots of Muslims, inevitably including some civilians, incendiary images magically find their way to the people who will be most inflamed by them. This calls into question our nearly obsessive focus on Al Qaeda — the deployment of whole armies to uproot the organization and to finally harpoon America’s white whale, Osama bin Laden. If you’re a Muslim teetering toward radicalism and you have a modem, it doesn’t take Mr. bin Laden to push you over the edge. All it takes is selected battlefield footage and a little ad hoc encouragement: a jihadist chat group here, a radical imam there — whether in your local mosque or on a Web site in your local computer.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Adventures in New Atheistland: Jerry Coyne Calls Out Robert Wright for Being a “Blame America First” Muddle-Head in the War on Terror!

  1. Chris Schoen says:

    I’m a little surprised no one is calling out Coyne for his Islamophobic, Fox News-esque characterization of “widespread jubilation” in the Middle East after 9/11, that few or no Muslim leaders (supposedly) dared to condemn (proving that Islam is “inherently belligerent.”) This is the sort of thing that should discredit Coyne among any group of thoughtful, evidence-based lovers of truth. But I see no recognition of this among all the cheerleading in comments.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Chris,

    That was definitely one of the things that jumped out at me too. Here’s the Coyne quote in full:

    “Well, I’m not in favor of stereotyping individual Muslims, but as for Islam, well, it does seem to be an intrinsically belligerent religion. Read the Qur’an — you’ll find plenty of belligerence there. And if you object that the Old Testament is belligerent, too, look then all the imams calling for jihad. And how many Muslims stood up to protest the widespread jubilation in the Middle East that ensued after 9/11, or stood up to defend the right of Danish newspapers to publish cartoons mocking Mohamed?”

    Coyne does seem to be channeling Rush Limbaugh-Glenn Beck (“Bush Glenbaugh”) here, doesn’t he?

    —Santi

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