Monday, July 13, 2009

Robert Wright's self-contradictory attack on the "new atheists"

Robert Wright, who has a new best-selling book out called The Evolution of God, explains his problem with the "new atheists" -- an unfortunate term that presumably includes Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (see below for the video version):

I think now it is more acceptable for intellectuals to openly ridicule religion than it was 15 years ago. But anyway, whatever the case . . . this bothers me, and it is part of the motivation for my writing th[e] afterword [in The Evolution of God]. And here's one reason it bothers me. In a way, at the root of that afterword is the belief that . . . being human is hard. . . . I think even harder is trying seriously to lead a moral life and be human.... If somebody is really making an earnest effort to lead a moral life, in the face of all the obstacles ... and really moral by our lights: they're decent, gentle people. They're trying to help. They're not going on jihads and killing people. It makes me just almost nauseous when someone walks up to them and say: "Don't you understand, the basis for this noble struggle is just not as intellectually sophisticated as I am?" OK? That just makes me sick. . . . But John, you do that! [He's talking to John Horgan. -- JAC] You're anti-religion! You want to wipe religion out!




I think that "nauseous" statement is wrong on a few levels.

First, I don't see how Wright could reconcile it with his comments in a diavlog between him and Joel Achenbach (again, scroll down for the video):
Achenbach: Is it not a fact that I asked you a straightforward question, I said -- these are the exact words -- "Bob, is there a God?" And you came up with this sort of Clintonesque answer ... "Depends on what the meaning of 'God' is," or something like that.

Wright: Well, don't you think it kind of does, Joel? I mean, for example, if you defined God as a laptop computer we could both just look around us and go, "Yeah, God exists." So it does depend on the definition.

Achenbach: First of all, it's the entity that's accountable for everything. OK? Has created everything and, ideally, cares about us.

Wright: No, wait, let me read exactly what you said on your little blog -- I mean your blog. You said: "We all know what we mean by God, which is someone who cares about us and has unlimited power." Now, I can tell you right away, that kind of God doesn't exist.

Achenbach: How do you...

Wright: Because if God cared about us and was omnipotent, could do anything, we wouldn't suffer as much as we do, Joel! So that one's easy: no, that kind of God doesn't exist.

Achenbach: OK, I'm glad we cleared that up.

Wright: For crying out loud! But you know, most gods that people have believed in for most of history have not been those kind. They have not been omnipotent. That's, like, this Judeo-Christian, this Abrahamic hang-up.



(Previously blogged here.)


Note that he doesn't just deny the Christian/Jewish/Islamic God's existence, but he also takes a distinctly pugnacious tone (it's "obvious"; the Abrahamic religions have a "hang-up," etc.).

He makes a similar statement in the same diavlog where he makes the above "nauseous" statement:
Horgan: Bob, let me just ask you, right to your virtual face: do you believe in a loving god?

Wright: Do I believe in the sense of having confidence that one exists?

Horgan: Just answer the question, Bob!

Wright: Well, the answer to that is no.*
* I've left in more discussion in the video below. If you watch the video, do you think he accurately characterizes what atheists necessarily believe about morality?





Now, Wright has publicly stated that he was raised devoutly Southern Baptist and rejected the religion. He's said he doesn't strictly follow any religion but is, at most, a "bad Buddhist." If he really believed that Abrahamic religion were essential to being good, presumably he'd still believe in it. But actually, he says that his sense of right and wrong comes from thinking about concrete facts in the world within a utilitarian framework.

Wright doesn't seem that different from Sam Harris, one of the "new atheists" he excoriates. (I don't think Harris is very concerned with disproving the existence of God, hence the scare quotes -- but that's how Wright and others refer to him.)

Both Sam Harris and Bob Wright reject Christianity/Judaism/Islam and prefer a vague Eastern mystical alternative. They both view the world through a modern/secular framework in which science tells a lot about the physical world but doesn't provide everything you need to live a meaningful life. They both recognize that a lot of evil has been done in the name of religion, and that Christian/Jewish/Islamic sacred texts include a contradictory mix of good principles (don't kill, don't steal, give to charity, etc.) and bad ones (advocating or at least condoning violence, slavery, prejudice, etc.).

The main difference I see is that Harris tends to see religion as the cause of things like the Crusades and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Wright thinks that's ridiculous because those conflicts were actually motivated by land disputes. Both of them are being far too confident that they know what would have happened in a world without religion. We'll never know what that counterfactual would have looked like. So I think it's futile to try to point to human behavior -- whether it's war or donating to charity or anything -- and say: "Aha, this was caused by religion! Gee, isn't religion good/bad/___?" Harris and Wright have each decided to adopt a posture -- Harris's being more anti-religion, Wright's being more pro-religion -- and they'll relentlessly interpret the facts to fit this stance.

I also take issue with Wright's language (in the first clip in this post) about how the "new atheists" hold themselves out as being on such a lofty intellectual level that the commoners should defer to their superior intellects. Maybe this is a fair critique of Dawkins's The God Delusion. But I don't think Harris (in The End of Faith) or Hitchens (in God Is Not Great) say anything of the sort. You don't even get that sense from reading between the lines of their books. Those books actually aren't written on an especially high intellectual level. They're easy, fast reads. (I say this as a very slow reader.) The M.O. of both authors is to collect a bunch of facts -- many of which are readily accessible and will be familiar to the average reader -- and make common-sense observations about them.

Another undertone to Wright's "nauseous" comment -- with its vivid language about the new atheists "walking up to" religious people and so on -- is that Harris and Hitchens are simply rude to write their books. (I'm picking on Wright, but many others have made this argument.) Well, the content of most nonfiction books that make persuasive arguments would be rude if you repeated it in the wrong company. If you've noticed that your co-worker has a lot of anti-war bumper stickers on their car, you probably won't tell them about all the great arguments made in the book you just read by Robert Kagan -- but Kagan still writes smart books about foreign policy that are worth reading.

I think it's quite common for people to have blunt discussions about what they like and don't like about this or that religion (or about those who don't subscribe to any religion). You might not choose to talk about it, say, at work, or even with certain close friends or family members, but maybe you'll have the conversations with other close friends or family members. I don't see what's wrong with writing books about these issues that people are going to think about and talk about anyway.

It's also too easy to forget the fact that criticizing religions -- even in a harsh or over-the-top way -- isn't unique to the "new atheists." It's done all the time by people of all religious stripes. The adherents of one religion will regularly criticize those of other religions. People within a religion will even criticize other followers of the same religion. And when there are criticisms being made out there in the world, they're probably going to be reflected in books if they're on enough people's minds. Whether you like it or not, Christians (for instance) are going to write books supporting their Christian views, secular humanists are going to write books supporting their secular humanist views, and so on.

Now, the fact that secular humanists enjoy this kind of freedom of expression along with religious people hasn't been true for most of human history. But we're not in most of human history; we're in 2009. It's inevitable now.

And I'm not too worried about the possibility that Hitchens/Harris/Dawkins might hurt religious people's feelings. People who are easily offended by criticisms of religion aren't likely to read those books anyway. But to many people -- including people who are kept up at night wondering if they're evil for disagreeing with the faith of their family, and including gay people who wonder if they're going to go to Hell, and even including devout believers who simply enjoy reading an honest polemic from the other side -- the books might be quite welcome.

So, go ahead and criticize the "new atheists" for making specific points you disagree with. But don't criticize them just for harshly criticizing religion -- unless you're also going to criticize everyone else who does so. That includes a whole lot of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. And it certainly includes Bob Wright.

7 comments:

LemmusLemmus said...

"Both of them are being far too confident that they know what would have happened in a world without religion. We'll never know what that counterfactual would have looked like."

We can't know about specific cases, but here's a conceivable research design: Take a sample of conflicts about land or whatever, look at how religious the parties in question are, whether those are different religions, and count the bodies. Such a study would have to deal with many problems (e.g., maybe if the parties in question don't have different religions then the conflict doesn't surface in the first place), but I'd rather see an imperfect study than none at all.

The best-known regularity in war studies is that democracies hardly ever fight each other. But, if you look at the world's countries throughout the last 100 years or so, democracies also tend to be the most secular nations. Maybe there's more to it than just democracy itself?

Danielle Pouliot said...

Thoroughly observant; a very well-written and astute post.

Jason (the commenter) said...

So, go ahead and criticize the "new atheists" for making specific points you disagree with. But don't criticize them just for harshly criticizing religion -- unless you're also going to criticize everyone else who does so. That includes a whole lot of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. And it certainly includes Bob Wright.

Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Bob Wright criticize some religious practices and praise others. New Atheists say religion is destructive. That's the difference.

Also, the New Atheists are the ones who coined the term, so I think you can drop the scare quotes and just capitalize the phrase.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Bob Wright criticize some religious practices and praise others. New Atheists say religion is destructive. That's the difference.

Can you really say that Christians, Muslims, and Jews don't criticize any other belief systems as destructive? All of them?

As for Wright, I addressed that in the post. Specifically, I recognized it as a genuine difference between Wright and Harris that Harris imputes more bad (destructive) acts to religions, whereas Wright thinks religion tends to be a surface feature of bad acts that have secular underlying motivations. Again, all of this amounts to futile attempts to pinpoint causation, which I don't find very productive either on the anti-religion or pro-religion side. I don't think you can attribute any characteristics of human behavior to "religion," because religion is too ubiquitous throughout human history to be able to do a controlled experiment.


Also, the New Atheists are the ones who coined the term, so I think you can drop the scare quotes and just capitalize the phrase.

But which ones? Sam Harris? Anyway, it's not a given that people accurately label themselves.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Can you really say that Christians, Muslims, and Jews don't criticize any other belief systems as destructive? All of them?

I'm not sure how that question would pertain. All New Atheists see religion as bad, it's the definition. Not all Christians, Muslims, and Jews necessarily see all or any other belief system(s) as bad.

Speaking of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, none of them I've ever known has bothered me about being an atheist, although I have criticized them for not going to church/temple/mosque more/at all.

As for Wright, I addressed that in the post.

Yes, I see it as a self-contradictory attack on Wright.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Not all Christians, Muslims, and Jews necessarily see all or any other belief system(s) as bad.

Speaking of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, none of them I've ever known has bothered me about being an atheist...


I didn't say all Christians/Muslims/Jews criticize other belief systems, just that many of them do.

You've never encountered any Christians hectoring non-Christians? I envy you. I see them demonstrating on a regular basis. And they're telling people they will be tortured for eternity if they don't follow Christianity. You can't get much more extreme than this.

Jason (the commenter) said...

You can't get much more extreme than this.

I accept that challenge.

It's practically a genre in the underground movie scene. You can check out some of the trailers using Google's video search.