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Why the "New Atheists" Are Right-Wing on Foreign Policy

Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have enlisted in the War on Terror because they believe that religion is not just mistaken, but evil.

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People are survival machines built by natural selection. (This Dawkins gets.) When they sense threats to their interests, they can not only get violent, but wrap themselves in a larger cause that justifies the violence. Here they're as flexible as you'd expect well-built survival machines to be: that larger cause can be religion, yes, but it can also be nationalism or racialism. Hitler whipped up more fervor with the latter two than the first. Whatever's handy.

Of course, when religion is handy, special problems can arise. If there were no belief in paradise, there would be few suicide bombers. Then again, there might be less charity. Whether belief in posthumous rewards has on balance done more harm than good is an empirical question whose subtlety Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens don't exactly emphasize.

Anyway, the question is how to reduce the number of suicide bombers. And I have to wonder: If some Jihadists are motivated partly by fear that the west threatens their religious culture, is the optimal counter-terrorism strategy to have know-it-all westerners tell them their God doesn't exist?

The history of the Abrahamic faiths suggests not. Making Jews, Christians, and Muslims feel threatened by other cultures has often brought out the worst in their religions, whereas doing the the opposite -- putting them in "non-zero-sum" situations, where win-win outcomes are possible -- has brought out the best.

Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris should of course write what they want, even if it's likely to increase the amount of religious radicalism in the world. But if they're going to style themselves as soldiers in the war on terror, that will just go to show that the "God delusion" isn't the only kind of delusion.

Afterthought: It's logically possible for "new atheists" to highlight the Israeli settlement problem on grounds of justice or international law, notwithstanding their implied belief that addressing the problem won't do much good until religion vanishes. And here Hitchens, commendably, has been on the right side of the issue, even if he hasn't invested much energy in it since his turn to the right.

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