The Anti-God Squad

A recent article from Foreign Policy.

By Robert Wright

Three years ago Wired magazine popularized the term “New Atheism” with a cover story about the “crusade against belief” launched by Richard Dawkins (No. 18), Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. (Christopher Hitchens, No. 47, filled out the roster later.

Now the crusade is encountering powerful and possibly pivotal resistance.

It isn’t that the citadels of faith are rolling back the tide of unbelief. Among intellectuals—a target audience of the New Atheists—professing traditional faith is no more common than it was three years ago, and may even be less common.

But the 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 this year doubts about that mission have taken root among the New Atheists’ key demographic: intellectuals who aren’t religious and aren’t conservative. Even on the secular left, the alarming implications of the “crusade against religion” are becoming apparent: 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).

Dawkins, for example, has written that if there were no religion then there would be “no Israeli/Palestinian wars.” This view is wrong—the conflict started as an essentially secular argument over land—but it’s popular among parts of the U.S. and Israeli right. The reason is its suggestion that there’s no point in, say, removing Israeli settlements so long as the toxin of religion is in the air.

All the great religions have shown time and again that they’re capable of tolerance and civility when their adherents don’t feel threatened or disrespected. At the same time, as some New Atheists have now shown, you don’t have to believe in God to exhibit intolerance and incivility.

Maybe this is the New Atheists’ biggest problem: As living proof that religion isn’t a prerequisite for divisive fundamentalism, they are walking rebuttals to their own ideology.

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

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22 Responses to The Anti-God Squad

  1. If one thinks of religion as a purely material phonomenon, as do the atheists, then one cannot but have contempt for it. But as a theist myself I cannot quite make the “reasoning” of atheists in having contempt for one trend of human behavior and not all of them: If religious sentiments are a result of certain combinations of purely material systems, so should be other phenomena such as loving feelings, sense of purpose (or not), and so on. But we don’t see atheists ridiculing couples exchanging flowers on wedding anniversaries, or mothers who cry over the loss of suicide children.

    The New Atheists have not done their homework beyond the emergent extremist Islamic crisis. What they are addressing is not religion as an intrinsic and indeed defining element of the human being. They are rejecting human emotions where they have (indisputably) gone wrong, but are doing so in quite emotional terms of their own, and not making things right at that, not by a thousand evolutionary miles.

    • From what I understand, they do recognize religion to be “hardwired” into the human psychology, but for them the problem is that people take religion to be something else than these other material emotions and that is what creates the problem.

      I believe Hitchens said that it would be fine if religion was done like a knitting club and it wouldn’t affect the society in anyway but people who get that emotional satisfaction from it would still have a possibility to feel it. Of course from our perspective that kind of approach is ridiculous, but I do think it shows that they have considered the objection you just raised.

      • Audarya-lila dasa

        I’m not sure about that. I mean – people love each other and weddings are performed and laws enacted for the benefit of couples and families – no seperation of state and emoton there. People commit suicide and laws are enacted, the issue is brought before the whole society and not kept within a simple ‘suicide society’. The obvious implication is that the bigger the emotional impact and the bigger the commitment of time, resources etc. that the particular psycho/physical phenomena creates the more it will be taken from a smaller circle of individuals to the larger circle of humanity in general.

        So even if you think that Hitchen’s comments shows they have considered the objection, it is quite obvious that the comment does not adequately address it.

        • Audarya-lila, I’m not sure if I follow your reasoning.
          Love and suicide are spontaneously occurring things in human society that require no dogma or external power-structures to be maintained, as opposed to most religions. I personally think that religion as a social institution can be very susceptible to corruption and abuse and can have much further-reaching implications because of its “absolute” nature, than suidice or marriage.
          And I think the absoluteness of religion is the reason the new atheists see it as so dangerous, because superstitious and hateful customs can be upheld for generations because of the apparent absolute nature of a dogma.

          On one level it could be said that a religious person is demanding that others must have the same emotional reaction than oneself, because that emotional reaction is absolutely true. That’s what religious fanaticism is: force-feeding one’s own experience to make it a universal truth. If a knitting club would start insisting that I have to love knitting or I’ll burn in hell, of course I would resist.

        • Thus, the beauty of The Harmonist. Promoting introspective and meditative religious thought. Go within or go without. ( Thanks for that one Maharaja.) I’ve been searching for Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s analysis of different grades of human. I believe that he posts a moral atheist superior to a materialistic and immoral religionist. Not his exact words. If someone could post the reference that would be much appreciated.

        • In Chaptr 16 of Jaiva Dharma he lists the three stages of human consciousness as budding, blossoming, and fully blossoming (flowering and bearing fruit). He then places five types of humans in these three categories.


          1. Immoral atheists
          2. Moral atheists


          3. Moral theists
          4. Sadhakas


          5. Bhava-bhaktas

          So he has not classified the immoral theist, at least not in this chapter.

        • It’s been so long since I wrote my comment and I never saw your following comment Gurunistha – anyway, I believe my point was being made regarding the conjecture of Bhaktikanda above that ‘If religious sentiments are a result of certain combinations of purely material systems, so should be other phenomena such as loving feelings, sense of purpose (or not), and so on. But we don’t see atheists ridiculing couples exchanging flowers on wedding anniversaries, or mothers who cry over the loss of suicide children’ – so the argument is that religion is a ‘spontaneously occuring natural phemonema’ to which you said the athiests agree – which still begs the question, and my comment to your response was simply that Hitchen’s idea that religion would be fine if done behind closed doors doesn’t adequately address the objection because other ‘spontaneously occuring natural phenomena’ that affect society at large are not being objected to and subjected to this type of censure. In the case of marriage the ‘spontaneous occurance’ is encouraged by the state and by society at large. Fanaticism which results from religious dogma is also addressed by state laws to varying degrees. At any rate, it seems that the majority of people spontaneously feel that there is a God and that religion goes hand in hand with that spontaneous natrual feeling. That, in and of itself, really means that everyone in society will be affected by it – even those without ‘the feeling’. So the knitting society example fails on a couple fronts. One – knitting is done by a very small minority of people so it therefore doesn’t affect society at large much quite naturally – and, two, insisting that the spontaneous natural phenomena not affect others who it hasn’t ‘naturally occured in’ is unrealistic just as much it would be unrealistic to insist that marriage or suicide not affect society at large.

  2. Robert Wright: “Dawkins, for example, has written that if there were no religion then there would be “no Israeli/Palestinian wars.” This view is wrong—the conflict started as an essentially secular argument over land—but it’s popular among parts of the U.S. and Israeli right. The reason is its suggestion that there’s no point in, say, removing Israeli settlements so long as the toxin of religion is in the air.”

    Actually Wright gives the support to Dawkins argument: Had it NOT been for the religious connotation, this would have been a secular argument over land. But it is not a secular argument – you can’t separate religion from it, because Jews claim the right to this land on religious reasons and the RELIGIOUS right in US stands firm in their support of Israel.

    As long as the religious people have dirty hands on account of their religion, all kinds of people will propose that religion itself be rejected.

  3. Then again, it could be asked if the term “immoral theist” is not an oxymoron. How about a non practicing practitioner (sadhaka). Faith in the world of BVT becomes visible as saranagati.

    • Thanks for the clarification Maharaja. I was probably mistaken. I’ll post if I find a different reference.

      • Perhaps it is easier for atheist to be moral because he/she does not have any compulsion to be so and he/she can show kindness and good things voluntarily. But for a religious person who takes the moral high ground, there is a huge pressure to live upto that standard and people fail a lot in doing that because of a number of reasons. There are different kinds of atheists and they can become theists in one life changing experience and theists can become atheists too.

  4. Question: Is there any example of Sam Harris debating with a Gaudiya Vaisnava, or even a vedantist of any stripe? These debates are all with followers of the Abrahamic religions. It like fighting an unarmed man. I would love to get a Sam Harris review of “Subjective Evolution of Consciousness”.

    • Harris seems the most aware of and even a little respectful towards mysticism. In his book End of Faith he has a short chapter on it that he was criticized for in his own community and as a result seems to have backed tracked a bit on what he wrote there. But overall he is preoccupied with Muslim and Christian fundamentalism.

      I don’t think SE would impress him though. It speaks of downward causation from consciousness to matter but offers no empirical evidence to support the idea. Harris is really an empirical positivist with no place for metaphysics. I have contemplated how to debate him and feel confident that his arguments could be neutralized and covered with a shadow of doubt. You would have to talk his language and point to the leaps he takes from empirical evidence to naturalism and center the discussion on consciousness, while being versed not only in Vedanta and speaking from experience but also in the philosophy of mind–cognitive science.

      He did debate Deepak Chopra. Chopra unfortunately was not very impressive. It’s probably on Youtube. Watching the debate I felt I could have done much better, even pinning him to the wall.

      • Nice, if any Visnu Fan can pin any Mundane/Atheistic Person to the wall philosophically, I will lick the dust from their feet (on Youtube)!

      • “I felt I could have done much better, even pinning him to the wall.”

        Who? Harris or Deepak Chopra?

        Either way it would be interesting to see…

        • I don’t know if you are joking, but Harris of course. Chopra has his demerits no doubt, but I would not mind meeting with him and talking with him about a better strategy for defending mysticism against naturalism than what he has come up with.

        • Dandavats Maharaja,
          I was joking actually, although I would like to see you take on Chopra as well (which would certainly be a pushover for you!)

          I would be very interested to know on what points you would pin Harris to the wall. It seems that most (if not all debates) with atheists are with proponents of Abrahamic religions. It would be refreshing to actually see a Gaudiya Vaisnava scholar up against Harris or Dawkins. Abrahamic religions are theologically a push over for most atheists, but I think Vedanta is another matter altogether…

        • I would have to look at the debate again to refresh my memory, but Harris acknowledges a kind of secular mysticism (this does not come out in the debate). He accepts that the mystical experience of “enlightenment” and ego effacing is arguably the most evolved and happiest state of consciousness but does not agree with the metaphysical descriptions of what that state of consciousness is or the religious baggage that often accompanies it. So he is more aware of Vedanta than it appears when he debates Muslims and Christians. In one sense there is not that much to debate with him on mysticism. No one can prove the metaphysical claims arising from the mystic’s experience and no one can disprove them. Although one could erect a roughly empirical basis for those claims. Having reached such a stalemate with naturalism, one could make the case for the practical superiority of the mystics’ claims, but this would be difficult to sell to materialistic people who have no experience of such expanded/evolved consciousness, and embracing the practical superiority of these claims would affect the world on just about every level.

        • Here is something from Harris himself on the empirical basis of the mystical experience:

          The feeling we call “I”—the sense that there is a thinker giving rise to our thoughts, an experiencer distinct from the mere flow of experience—can disappear when looked for in a rigorous way. Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation…

          He is of course Advaitin or Buddhist above, but as you can see he has some fascination with the bottom line of Vedanta. He would like to separate it from its religious surroundings, but that may be more difficult than he realizes. Then again many “religious” people also reject religions mystical conclusions. That’s the whole debate between Karma Mimamsa and Vedanta.

  5. In human developmental psychology we discuss how all of us begin with some sense of the proto-“I” and relate to the environment beyond the “I” as an extension of the self, sometimes even within our magical control. Advaita Vedanta is something like this, but it says that ultimately the “I” is a part of the environmental impersonal “other”.

    However, in psychology it is considered an important developmental achievement when the “I” can cognitively reach beyond the “I” and recognize that the environment is not some magical impersonal environmental provision but rather is a subject, a caretaker, needed and of significance, with a center of his/her own awareness, needs, desires, and feelings. This achievement is an advance because it ushers in relating, loving, and new possibilities outside of what we can imagine for ourselves. Our solitary mind is ultimately a very small space when compared to the relational mind. Gaudiya Vedanta tells us that when we pull back the veil of our solitude there is a world of subjects on the other side, and the center of that group is a subject so big and charming, the idea of self-centeredness is dwarfed.

    Here’s hoping….

    If we start from the “I” it will usually not be long before we start to reach for the “other”. Descartes did this himself. As a natural skeptic myself, when I hear of the researches into the ends of the universe, and inquire into what is beyond these ends, my mind begins to doubt doubting. I say to myself, “The universe –the context of all we know to exist– has a context as well? That is enough to stimulate the reach for another… and arguably justifiable.

  6. Swami Tripurari ki jay!

    I would love to see a debate actually with Guru Maharaj and Richard Dawkins or any other atheist. Swami is well versed in the scripture but also knows the philosophy of the Vedanta in the eyes of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. I feel he would pin one of them against the wall. =]

    Hare Krsna

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