Robert Wright on New Atheism’s Real World Impact

piece on the New Atheist movement, written by Robert Wright, appeared this past week at Foreign Policy’s website:

[T]he New Atheists’ main short-term goal wasn’t to turn believers into atheists, it was to turn atheists into New Atheists — fellow fire-breathing preachers of the anti-gospel. The point was to make it not just uncool to believe, but cool to ridicule believers.

And the result?:

Though the New Atheists claim to be a progressive force, they often abet fundamentalists and reactionaries, from the heartland of America to the Middle East. If you’re a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won’t turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world’s most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world’s most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies. So too with foreign policy: Making “Western” synonymous with “aggressively atheist” isn’t a recipe for quelling anti-Western Islamist radicalism. And there’s a subtle but potent sense in which New Atheism can steer foreign policy to the right. Axiomatic to New Atheism is that religion is not just factually wrong, but the root of evil, which suggests that other proposed root causes of the sort typically stressed on the left aren’t really the problem. Sam Harris, in discussing terrorism, wholly dismisses such contributing factors as “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza,” “the collusion of Western powers with corrupt dictatorships,” and “the endemic poverty and lack of economic opportunity that now plague the Arab world.” The problem, Harris states, is religion, period. Most New Atheists aren’t expressly right wing, but even so their discounting of the material causes of Islamist radicalism can be “objectively” right wing (as in George Orwell’s assertion that pacifists were “objectively pro-fascist” regardless of their views about fascism).

Ideas have consequences, and I don’t think that Wright is engaged in an unfair characterization of New Atheist rhetoric. On November 28th, for example, one prominant New Atheist, Jerry Coyne, could be found, at his website, sounding for all the world like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck:

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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Robert Wright on New Atheism’s Real World Impact

  1. Roger Salyer says:

    I love Richard Dawkins.

    Objectively speaking however, one must admit that he is a nitwit. Despite his pretensions, he is neither intelligent nor novel. That is, he is no Bertrand Russell.

    What is implicit in the analysis by Wright–and even moreso in comments by Cohn (Limbaugh, etc.)–is that moderation America is something laudable. Not so. At least not all Americans think so. However, with Wright, one is taken aback by the gall of someone describing the subterfuge to be used to prevent dissenters from New America from resisting until it is too late. “Hide the apostasy and lampoon the critics!” Wow, he should be in line for Cardinal Mahony’s job.

    What is also implicit is the notion that moderate Mohammedans are real Mohammedans, while fundamentalists, particularly violent ones, are not. Upon what basis is this stated? Certainly such a theological argument can be made, but one hazards that G W Bush could not make it when he advanced the bufoonery, “Islam is a religion of peace.”

    Islam’s expansion through the centuries was not fueled by and large through missionary activity. Like Cortes, Mohammed appears to have been a conquistador. Of course, one man’s conquistador is another man’s liberator, but that is hardly the point, now is it? The Taliban believe. The good Mohammedans, well, their collaboration might indicate that they believe not.

    From a certain perspective Islam, Christianity, and Liberalism are none religions of peace.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I have a much higher opinion of Dawkins than you do. I think that he’s every bit Russell’s equal. As for Wright, from your vantage you see him as the guy trying to hold up the atheist curtain to keep Dorothy from seeing the fraud being perpetrated on Kansas?


    I wouldn’t call any religion or ideology peaceful. I reject essentialism. Most ideologies are capable, under the right circumstances, of turning toxic, or being read in toxic ways. Some ideologies are violent or toxic from the get-go, and have no redeeming value (like Nazism). I don’t believe that any of the historic monotheisms are fairly characterized in that way.


  3. Pingback: Richard Dawkins, Patricia Marquez, and Reductio Ad Absurdums « Prometheus Unbound

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