Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Are Atheists Really Right-Wingers?

I recently had some nice things to say in Robert Wright's defense, but not this time. He has a piece in the Huffington Post that seems to be pandering to left-leaning readers in a rather divisive way. That is, he makes the case that the new atheists are right-wing hawks, which can only drive a wedge between organized atheism and a constituency typically friendly to secular ideals. Full article here; here's the intro:
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?

One of Wright's problems: if the label "new atheists" applies only to the four horsemen, then Wright is wrong in 2 of 4 cases. Dawkins is typically silent on political questions not having directly to do with atheism; I've never seen him advocate the simple-minded "there would be peace and no problems in the Middle East without religion". Meanwhile, Dennett has described himself as an ACLU liberal, who reacts with obvious distaste in one interview to Hitchens' assertion that the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division is the guardian of secular democracy. If the label "new atheists" applies to vocal, organized atheists in the past few years as a whole, then Wright is way off, given to political diversity of atheists.

Even granting for the sake of argument that Hitchens and Harris are representative, Wright makes no argument as to the connection between their atheism and their hawkish political views. Is it possible that we're seeing founder effect? That is, you pick 2 from any group of thirty million, and they're likely to over- or under-represent many traits. Hey, 2 of 4 new atheists are English-born, and there are far fewer Brits than Americans - so there is a link between being British and being atheist! 2 of 4 new atheists have some Jewish ancestors! Another link!

Wright is also disingenuous when he picks on the distinction in terror-terms between the poor-and-exploited practicing Abrahamic religions, and the poor-and-exploited who don't. I've often pointed out that American atheists are in a unique position in our country's political discourse, because we can say "theocracy, terrorism and female circumcision are bad" without any subtext of "and we should convert those damn fur'ners to Christianity." In this piece Wright plays on the American left's discomfort with speaking too negatively of Islam, because for 8 years we had to listen to a GOP administration speaking in a code of Christianity = good and Islam = evil (though sometimes they were more direct).

Wright also says, first quoting Sam Harris:
"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!

Yes, the world is full of non-cancerous smokers, and Muslims who aren't terrorists. But smokers are more likely to be non-smokers than lung cancer victims and Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to be suicide bombers. How many data points do we need? Add to this the phenomenon of middle and upper class religious extremists, and you start to see more clearly where the problem is. I'm not sure what Wright's point is here, and I'm disappointed that someone who is typically an innovative thinker is attacking a straw man.

The broader view, and the subtext of the whole piece - unstated, which I find significant - is the old canard that the new atheists are intolerant. Of theocracy? You're damn right. And that's a criticism?


MKV said...

Well. I am personally more on the right politically (more closely I am Libertarian. Think the exact opposite of the Pope. Capitalism FTW, Social Conservatism FTL), but I think I am a minority when it comes to Atheists.

Dan said...

The real test is whether or not atheists can manage their differences through a debate of reason and evidence.

Michael Caton said...

MKV - despair not. The libetarian contingent is much bigger than you think. At the moment, to me it's mostly just an interesting bit of atheist demographics. Dan's point (whether we can manage our differences) is the central one. Atheist liberatarians, atheist leftists - we're both inheritors of the Enlightenment, i.e. people who think that you can solve problems (like organizing a government) through reason and free inquiry than because G/god(s) said the king should be king. Adam Smith and Karl Marx are not as far apart as people sometimes think.

Dan said...

I really love it when the free market handles things like pollution control, national defense, handicap access, workplace safety, data privacy, electromagnetic spectrum management, health care, highway construction, human rights, and wildlife conservation.

On a Scrabble board, Karl Marx would eat Adam Smith's lunch.

Who knows? Maybe the old Invisible Hand works better when it's not being hijacked for prayer jobs.

Michael Caton said...

Those questions are better for my political blog (given below). I really don't want to turn my atheist blog into a political one. I will say this: a) don't write off the free market because it was paid lip service by a bunch of Christian fundamentalists who didn't really understand it. b) There are certainly market fundamentalists. I'm not one of them. Clearly there are things where the market isn't the best mechanism to improve conditions, and I would agree that most of the things in your list are in that category.

Political blog: http://tompainesclubhouse.blogspot.com