The New Atheists, Political Narratives, and the Betrayal of the Enlightenment

The Real Delusion: Part II Noam Chomsky and the Spirit of the Enlightenment

Recapitulation of The Real Delusion part I

In our previous article, “The Real Delusion Part I,”1 we argued that, despite their emphases on religious skepticism and open scientific inquiry, the New Atheists2 * have betrayed the spirit of the Enlightenment and have instead veered toward an obdurate and uninspiring offensive against superstition that blames most of the world’s current ills on irrational religious belief. Enlightenment thinkers assailed religious superstition because it was part and parcel of a powerful institutional framework that most found abhorrent; furthermore, most Enlightenment thinkers believed that religious toleration was a noble desideratum.3 The New Atheists, on the other hand, believe that religious toleration is potentially destructive.4,5 More importantly and dangerously, they have promulgated the idea that religious belief imperils Western society, convincing myriad people that such concerns are dire and distracting attention from other, more urgent political issues.

We also noted that human political nature could be usefully understood with the aid of two important concepts: reverse hierarchy egalitarianism and coalitional competition. Using these concepts, we traced the rise of the modern state, noting that legitimation narratives are an important component of state formation and maintenance. Although the earliest legitimation narratives were religious, growing skepticism and secularism gradually eroded the efficacy of religious narratives in the West. This led to the development of secular narratives and eventually to the neoliberal nationalist narrative that is predominant today. Finally, we argued that Harris’ contentions about the nature of Islam and its effects on believers are often erroneous, unempirical, and dangerous because they could potentially contribute to Western Islamophobia.6 *

In this article, we will continue our analysis of the Enlightenment and its tradition, specifically focusing on Noam Chomsky. We will first situate Chomsky historically, noting that he is profitably viewed as perhaps the most representative intellectual of the Enlightenment heritage. His radical critique of power and ideology, exposure of moral hypocrisy, and praise for intellectual integrity, represent the true spirit of the Enlightenment and will inform our criticism of modern power and the narratives it uses to cloak its machinations. This will be accomplished by focusing on three domains: the mainstream media, domestic policy, and foreign policy. We will conclude by completing our critique of the New Atheists in light of the previous analyses.

Continuing the project of the Enlightenment

According to the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, enlightenment is humankind’s emergence from a self-created cocoon of immaturity and ignorance; and the Enlightenment, the age that finally began to offer the freedom needed to thus emerge.7 The most important obstacles to this desired freedom were powerful institutions and the narratives they propounded; the institutions because they coerced behavior and the narratives because they encumbered and enslaved reason. An important and instructive example of this spirit is found in the works of Thomas Paine, particularly in his two major treatises: The Rights of Man (1791), 8 and The Age of Reason (1794-1807).9 In The Rights of Man, Paine excoriated corrupt and tyrannical forms of government and the narratives used to justify them. Monarchy, he asserted, was an affront to reason and human dignity, and he endlessly attacked the pomp and pageantry used to mystify it. Paine believed that illegitimate forms of government were based on either superstition or power–the former government based on priestcraft and the latter on conquerors. The only legitmate government arose from the consent and reason of the governed. The age of Reason, like The Rights of Man, was a sustained attack on power and privilege, this time aimed at the “adulterous” nexus of church and state. Paine believed that the institutions of the church were iniquitous and that priests lusted power and wealth rather than human betterment. As Paine acerbically put it, “the Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue.”10 Paine also panned the doctrines of Christianity, but it is important to remember that churches wielded a significant amount of political power at the time he was writing and that his chief concern was social justice.* This concern permeates his writings and is the fount of both his bitterness and his optimism.

The legacy of the Enlightenment, then, is a healthy skepticism of power and of the narratives propounded by the powerful. It is true that Enlightenment thinkers also sought to advance scientific thinking and to dispel various kinds of superstitions, but most were satisfied with a “non-overlapping magisteria”11 arrangement: science tackled empirical problems, and religion tackled existential issues.12 (It is useful to remember that some of the most brilliant embodiments of the Enlightenment were quite religious–Newton, for example.) Viewed from this perspective, no one better encompasses the spirit of the Enlightenment than Noam Chomsky, who has tirelessly attacked powerful and unjust institutions, intellectual hypocrisy, erroneous political narratives, and the moral laziness that leads to a passive acceptance of power no matter how grievous the consequences. Perhaps Chomsky’s most general statement of the appropriate task of intellectuals is found in his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.”13 The first and most obvious responsibility, Chomsky argues, is “to speak the truth and to expose the lies” of powerful institutions like corporations and governments; this burden is placed on “intellectuals” because Western democracies “provide” them “with the leisure, the facilities, and the training” to pierce the patina of distortion that cloaks the operations of power. The intellectual does not mock doctrines that have little influence on social injustice, or those held by official enemies (say, in many cases, Islam), but rather confronts, first and foremost, the image in the mirror.14 For a citizen of the United States, that means focusing on the policies of our own government rather than self-righteously lampooning the ignorance or stupidity of the beliefs of “official enemies or those designated as unworthy in the prevailing political culture.”15 These are responsibilities that Chomsky has taken seriously for more than 40 years, working indefatigably to dismantle the narratives and ideologies of the powerful. His work offers the modern activist a fruitful heuristic for combating the myths, lies, and distortions that obscure the machinations of powerful coalitions and the institutions they control. This critique, not the New Atheists’ criticisms of religious faith, represents the true spirit of the Enlightenment.

Once again with human political nature and coalitional conflict

In our previous article, we argued that humans possess a suite of behavioral propensities that interact with the environment to give rise to political systems [see reference 1]. We focused on two of these tendencies: egalitarianism and coalition formation. The first manifests itself in a hatred of despotism and in the formation of reverse hierarchies in order to thwart despotic upstarts;16 the second, in the creation of unified coalitions of people who divide the world into “us” and “them,” granting moral status to ingroup members that is denied to outgroup members. For this article, we will also focus on a third fundamental component of human political nature: the motivation to control.17 * According to cognitive and educational psychologist, David Geary, the motivation to control is “an evolved disposition and is implicitly focused on attempts to control social relationships and the behavior of other people, and to control the biological and physical resources that have historically covaried with survival and reproductive prospects in the local ecology.” [page 24] Put more colloquially, the motivation to control is a biological tendency to desire control over people and resources. Politically, this essentially reduces to a desire for power, although it does not always need to manifest in a reprehensible form. For example, an activist concerned with inequality desires the ability to implement policies that will alleviate America’s inequitable economic distribution; the activist desires, in other words, the power to control economic policy.

The combination of these propensities leads to nearly incessant conflict between coalitions over finite resources. (The conflict need not be violent. Much of it is ideological, for example, and amounts to arguing with friends, groups, and large coalitions about how resources should be distributed.) In complicated, industrialized states, human egalitarian tendencies are often no match for the power of integrated coalitions; however, the combination of egalitarian proclivities and the motivation to control leads to anger and moral outrage from people and coalitions that do no reap the benefits of the institutional and coalitional arrangements (for example, women or minorities who were/are discriminated against in the labor market or victims of the financial machinations of Wall Street.).18 This necessitates some form of population control. In more democratic societies, the bludgeon is not an effective instrument and some attention must be paid to popular sentiment.19 The control of this popular sentiment through propaganda (political narratives) is therefore vital for the power elite. It is vital because it 1) limits the domain of thinkable thoughts and 2) limits the domain of acceptable debate. In the United States, the power elite (which consists of the corporate community, the upper class, and the policy planning network),20 although only a tiny fraction of the entire population, controls a staggering proportion of the country’s available resources. This inequitable distribution of resources requires justification: it will not do for the power elite to simply assert, “we are better than the rest of you and therefore we own a significant proportion of the country’s wealth.” In the United States, as we argued in part I, the current political narrative is the neoliberal nationalist narrative. Because the mainstream media are an important conduit* of this narrative, it is important for a politically conscious person to analyze and criticize the media. Probably the most powerful framework for such a task comes from Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.21

Power nexus 1: The mainstream media (obscuring institutional analysis)

In Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky offer a compelling institutional analysis of the media. Instead of tramping down the well worn and distracting trail of liberal versus conservative analysis,* Herman and Chomsky ask a simple question: what are the media? The straight forward but illuminating answer: “…the major media–particularly, the elite media that set the agenda that others generally follow–are corporations ‘selling’ privileged audiences to other businesses.”22 That is, the media are enormous, profit seeking corporations that raise revenue by selling space for advertisers. They can charge more for such space if their readership includes the proper demographics–so, in essence, they are “selling” their audience to other businesses (namely, advertisers). In a certain functional sense, the “news” is simply a lure to attract audiences, which are the primary product that the media offers on the market.

Before continuing, it seems profitable to make a few remarks on institutional analysis. Perhaps one of the more impressive accomplishments of modern propaganda is effectively to eliminate this kind of straight forward analysis from mainstream consideration. In a famous scene from the documentary Manufacturing Consent, for example, the author Tom Wolfe calls Herman and Chomsky’s observations about the operations of the media “patent nonsense,” and conflates them with a conspiratorial view of the media, complete with elites in a “beige room” deciding what can and cannot be distributed. This is stunning because Herman and Chomsky explicitly assert the opposite: there are no central control stations or informational bureaus; rather, there are institutions functioning exactly as one would expect them to function. Wolfe, like most of the population, is almost certainly unfamiliar with the style of analysis Herman and Chomsky use and probably honestly confuses it with the picture he presents in the documentary–a confusion that is common and prevents such analysis, although obvious and highly informative, from becoming common place. Since we are surrounded by powerful institutions, this dearth of institutional analysis is particularly pernicious. For those not properly acclimated to our intellectual environment, it might seem risible that a number of intellectuals (the New Atheists) assail the “irrationality” of religious belief and fulsomely praise the virtues of skeptical inquiry while utterly ignoring the functions of the institutions that dominate modern society (and therefore greatly shape the lives of people on the planet), but such protestations of open skepticism have often been coupled with unquestioning acceptance of contemporary institutional structures and in this the New Atheists have ample company. Nevertheless, if one wishes to be serious about skeptical inquiry, one should extend its reach beyond relatively obvious belief structures and into domains of real power.

Herman and Chomsky’s basic institutional framework led to their propaganda model of the media. The propaganda model is a theoretical description (Chomsky calls it “virtually just an observation”23 ) of the forces that shape the content of the media; it also describes the type of content one would expect given the structure of those forces. According to the model, there are five basic filters that affect the content of the media: ownership, sources of funding, sourcing, flak, and fear mongering (anti-communist or anti-terrorist ideologies). Of these, the first three are the most important.

–Ownership. The media are large corporations; therefore the content is owned by large, profit seeking institutions.* Through interlocking directorates, the corporations which own the major media outlets are linked to the corporate community in general. This shapes the content of the media because it is in the interest of corporations to instill a consumerist mentality and subservience to power. And it is certainly against the interests of corporations to teach institutional skepticism.

–Sources of funding. The media “sell” audiences to other businesses. It follows that the elite media wishes to attract affluent readers and to convey a consumerist message so that businesses will desire advertising space. A newspaper, for example, that is highly critical of corporations and profit seeking in general cannot attract advertisers and is at a serious funding disadvantage. In a very real sense, the function of the “news” is not to provide trenchant analysis of the political world, but rather to attract affluent audiences or distract the less affluent*; the news, in other words, is not the primary product. (This does not mean that individual journalists are conscious of this; rather, it means that the news functions as a lure for audiences.)

–Sourcing. The media require sources of information and individual reporters desire access to “privileged” insider information. This makes the media highly dependent upon official sources, like the pentagon or the central government. If a reporter writes a story critical of some aspect of foreign policy, for example, she might lose her source. Since reporters compete for sources, such a loss can be devastating. In a larger sense, each media outlet is dependent upon information from official sources because an outlet cannot possibly put reporters all over the globe. Reporters are concentrated in informational areas: the pentagon or the White House, for example.

This institutional arrangement leads to the propagation of a corporate friendly narrative in the same way that the institutional arrangement of ESPN leads to the propagation of a sports friendly narrative. Doubtless, many journalists within the framework earnestly feel that they are “free” to publish and discuss what they desire, and visible evidence of censorship is kept to a minimum (although it is certainly not non-existent24 ). Overt censorship is rare precisely because it is not necessary. Individual journalists and reporters who succeed within the establishment do so because they have either 1) internalized the neoliberal nationalist narrative or 2) have not desired to directly confront it in any meaningful way. Those who challenge the framework, like Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Jack Rasmus, et cetera, are weeded out well before they reach elite centers of news distribution.

Perhaps one of the most pernicious effects of the mainstream media is the creation of an illusory boundary of reasonable debate. Subjugating thought to a manufactured framework with narrow limits, this boundary determines what can and cannot be discussed, even contemplated, in the United States. If one does transcend the boundary and attempt to criticize institutional structures, one is reduced to speaking an incomprehensible language. For example, asserting that the United States is the largest purveyor of terrorism in the world is not just considered erroneous, it is considered insane–it is virtually a meaningless sentence in the English language (at least in the U.S.). Most people would react to that and other similar statements in the same manner they would react to a person asserting that the home sports’ team should pull its best player so that it can lose as many games as possible–with bemused indignation. Let us consider a concrete example.

While “cool” and “rational” pundits like Jon Stewart* bemoan the increasing polarization of media outlets in America, the real polarization between the rich and the poor continues at an alarming rate.25 This was shockingly evinced in the media’s coverage of the budget battles of 2011. Representative Paul Ryan, a self-styled votary of the mythological Reagan, unveiled his budget plan on April 5 to a prodigious amount of media hype. Many fulsomely praised the unflinching “seriousness” of Ryan’s plan, which managed to manhandle reality “with both hands” and forced “everybody else to do the same.”26 Meanwhile, the progressive congressional caucus also forwarded a budget (April 13) that would balance the budget while leaving in place the legacy of the New Deal. While the “People’s Budget” received praise from some notable economists, including Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who called the plan “genuinely courageous,”27 it was not widely discussed in the mainstream media,28* apparently lacking the “seriousness” of the Ryan plan, despite the fact that it managed to balance the federal budget within a decade (the People’s Budget projected a $30.7 billion dollar surplus in 202129 ) without eviscerating important social programs. What condemns the media more forcefully than this disparity in coverage, however, is their utter disregard for the opinions and desires of the majority of the United States’ population. While David Brooks and others continue to praise the boldness, seriousness, and courageousness of robbing the poor to fund the rich (for example, while the Ryan plan cuts $4.3 trillion dollars in spending, it offset this with $4.2 trillion in tax cuts, at least two thirds of which come from programs for those of moderate means. See analyses of the Ryan plan30,31 ) the majority of the population believes that income should be more equally distributed (on the level of Sweden) and, in fact, believes that it is already much more evenly distributed than it is–a great success of the propaganda system no doubt.32

It is important to note that the Ryan plan, the People’s Budget, and other proposed fiscal policies have enormous concrete effects on normal citizens. While the New Atheists deploy witty one liners about the follies of faith, write books about why god is not great, and lament the irrationality of religious belief, millions of people are unable to perceive the reality of important political policies that will, to a significant degree, determine the future state of our society. The first and most salient reason is the shameful content of the mainstream media, something that those who desire a more “rational” world should focus their energy on combating and correcting.

Power nexus 2: Domestic policy and power (in praise of mythical markets)

The media are, in a very real sense, an extension of the centers of domestic power; therefore, it is important to understand and criticize these domestic power centers. Significantly, domestic power and policy has shifted dramatically since the 1960’s, leading from the Keynesian era to the triumph of neoliberalism (or, what has been aptly dubbed ‘the Age of Greed’ by Jeff Madrick.33 This shift has profoundly impacted society, drastically increasing inequality (see figure 125 ), while concomitantly decreasing investment in social programs and infrastructure. In other words, an increasingly small fraction of society (a small coalition) has appropriated more of the resources. Noam Chomsky has been a leading critic of this trend, consistently pointing out the astonishing disconnect between the narratives used to justify this pattern of appropriation (“free markets dispassionately distributing resources”) and the reality behind it. In a society where narratives often serve the function of the bludgeon, it is important to escape one’s voluntary servitude by increasing one’s knowledge of 1) economic and political reality and 2) the content of the narratives used to justify the underlying reality.

Domestically, neoliberalism can be conceptualized as a set of policies aimed at increasing profitability while stripping away the foundations of the New Deal settlement (e.g., constraining upper class incomes, pursuing full employment, increasing labor’s share of the national income, etc.34 That is, these policies are designed to enrich the oligarchical power elite, who are, in Chomsky’s words, “vulgar Marxists, with values and commitments reversed.”35,36 These policies include liberalizing trade and finance while promoting macroeconmic stability, privatization, and deregulation.37* The monetary outcome of these policies, as indicated by a plethora of data, is continually increasing inequality and economic insecurity;38 psychologically, there are plausible but still controversial interpretations of data that claim these policies have led to increases in antisocial behavior, including narcissism, and in potentially serious mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.39 If our general outline on human political nature is correct, the increasing prevalence of these conditions is entirely understandable. Humans desire control and some form of egalitarianism. Just as a dearth of food leads to predictable physiological responses and pain, so a dearth of control leads to predictable psychological ailments.40,41 However, because of the power of the neoliberal nationalist narrative and the increasing popularity of libertarian philosophies, many people are ignorant of the causes of inequitable resource distribution and the many troubling symptoms it causes. It may turn out that many of us are suffering from a curable disease but are unable to discern its cause. Furthermore, there is good evidence that inequality promotes religiosity where as religiosity does not promote inequality–in other words, there is good evidence that inequality causes increases in religious belief (at least in the United States).42 Those who desire that religion disappear might want to pay some attention to such recalcitrant facts as they recommend a strategy much different from the currently fashionable activity of denigrating the beliefs of religious adherents.

Because the policies of neoliberalism would be repugnant to most citizens, they are justified with narratives about the efficiency and fairness of free markets.43,44 In fact, it would be difficult to find another mythical entity that provokes such effusive praise and elicits such unthinking devotion. As Chomsky points out, many miracles are imputed to the creative efficiency of free markets that were actually the result of careful social planning and federal investment: the internet, aeronautics, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, the high tech industry in general,… the list is nearly inexhaustible. In fact, one of the vital roles of the pentagon in the United States’ economy is to fund high tech industry, a simple fact that should be known by every citizen but is safely hidden by the propaganda system. The basic argument that “free market fundamentalists” (a truly scary form of fundamentalism) make thus rests upon a false premise. Consider one representative example. In a 20/20 episode on free market health care,45 John Stossel argues against Michael Moore’s concerns about the free market, noting that free markets have created all kinds of brilliant things like cell phones, computers, and helpful medicines. Unfortunately, Stossel does not bother to note the incredible amount of federal funding that went into creating these technologies, the patent monopolies that drug companies use to boost profits and thwart competition, or the direct investment line from the enormous corporations that produce these goods into politicians who doubtlessly return the favor with friendly policies. (Corporations aren’t investing in politicians so that they will increase competition and lower profits.)

Like most fundamentalists, free market votaries almost invariably misrepresent the ideas of their supposed ancestors. A particularly illustrative example is Adam Smith, the nearly flawless and peerless demigod who begat the notion of the ‘invisible hand,’ and supposedly showed how a laissez faire system could, as if through some form of economic alchemy, change the base metal of selfishishness into the gold of economic prosperity for all. As Chomsky has noted numerous times,46 the phrase “invisible hand” appears exactly once in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (it appears one other time in his other works47), and Smith does not use it to describe how selfish humans behaving for profit unknowingly but ineluctably bring prosperity to others; rather, Smith uses it to assuage fears of capital flight, arguing that people will prefer to invest in domestic markets rather than foreign markets.48 Smith’s arguments were subtle and sophisticated, but he generally favored market policies because he believed that they would produce economic equality. He had nothing but scorn for the “masters of the mankind,” who lived by the “vile maxim” of “all for ourselves, and nothing for other people.”49 Like most enlightenment thinkers, he assailed the established powers of his time: the merchants and the policies that favored them. Had he lived to see the modern corporate revolution, he undoubtedly would have execrated the corporations that eventually supplanted the merchants that he so effectively attacked.

In a country with a reasonable educational system and tolerable media content, the above would be recognized for what it is: a series of facts and truisms. Since the myths that disguise these truisms actively promote the interests of the “masters of mankind,” however, they are eagerly promulgated and the truths that they hide are relegated to the margins of scholarship. Again, those who desire to liberate the mind from the shackles of irrational mythologies, especially when those mythologies have serious repercussions, should actively attack and encourage others to attack the neoliberal nationalist narrative and the myths it promotes. To consider just one example of the seriousness of the repercussions of neoliberal policies concretely, it is worth contemplating the following: the September 11 attacks (of which more below) tragically killed 3,000 individuals. However, an estimated 45,000 Americans die every year due to a lack of health insurance.50 This is an astonishing number that is absolutely preventable, unlike the deaths that result from the actions of official enemies. It may comfort us to focus on those crimes while ignoring our own, but it does not improve our society. Although, as Noam Chomsky notes in a related context, it is not surprising that we often choose to ignore these inconvenient facts “given our principled exemption from moral truisms.”51

Power nexus 3: Foreign policy and power (noble intentions)

The neoliberal nationalist narrative promotes a consistent picture of American foreign policy: it stems from “benevolent” intentions and “clear moral purpose.”52 Sometimes, in fact, the intentions become so altruistic that it is appropriate to assert that “America is going through a noble phase” in foreign policy, one shrouded in a “saintly glow,” and committed to ideals that might actually be injurious to American interests because of their utter beneficence.53 Although the language here might be a bit hyperbolic, it is not anomalous. In a 2002 article by Dinesh D’Souza, for example, we learn that America is “the most magnanimous imperial power ever,” an “abstaining superpower” that could “conquer” the world but has not interests in doing so.54 In fact, the idea that the United States is the single greatest force “for peace and freedom, for democracy and security and prosperity” is a virtual truism.55 Attempting to find assertions to the contrary in the mainstream commentary poses an enormous challenge. If one veers to the extreme left of mainstream debate, one might find arguments that American intervention across the globe is wrong, not because it is criminal, but because it is too costly or because America is not “winning.” More often the focus is turned toward our “kindergarten” allies and their inability to cooperate.56 The function of the narrative is clear. It dissuades criticism, refuting counterarguments not with logic but with a simple tautology algorithm: if America intervened, it did so from noble intentions. Statements to the contrary are simply not allowed to register in the minds of most citizens; therefore, even on the rare occasions that such arguments are broadcast, they are nearly incomprehensible. A hypothetical Martian might be forgiven for wondering why a group of “free thinkers”* finds it so necessary to demolish the relics of irrational religions, while sedulously ignoring (or underplaying) the horrific brutality of American foreign policy and leaving the basic narratives that support it untouched. Again, to find a trenchant analysis of the exercise of institutional power (this time, in the realm of foreign policy) that preserves the spirit of the enlightenment, one should turn to Noam Chomsky.

According to Chomsky, the basics of inter-state relations are simple and are captured to a first approximation by the maxim of Thucydides: “the strong do as they wish, and the weak suffer as they must.”57 Because the United States has been the most powerful country on the planet since World War II, it has done what it wishes, and its victims have suffered as they must.* The important thing, then, is to understand what America wishes; or, in other words, to understand its goals and how they lead to the particular interventions it has engaged in. The most basic goal “is to ensure a favorable global environment for U.S. based industry, commerce, agribusiness and finance.”58 Countries that do not cooperate with this motive are punished through the two basic weapons America has at its disposal: military might and economic leverage. The examples of Chili and Indonesia are highly informative in this respect.

In 1970, Chile (democratically) elected Salvador Allende, a nationalist and Marxist, president. American policy planners were horrified. According to a 1975 Church Commission Report,59 Washington had spent millions of dollars campaigning against Allende in prior elections even carrying out “spoiling operations” to prevent an Allende victory.60 In 1970, however, he won by a narrow margin and policy planners immediately scrambled to undermine his regime. Nixon feared that Allende might become another “Castro,” meaning someone who refused to take orders from Washington, an overwhelming fear of policy elites. Two basic plans were designed: a Track I strategy that relied on political sabotage and economic warfare (making the “economy scream” according to the notes of DCI Helms.61 Nixon believed this would have “one hell of an effect.”62 ); and a Track II strategy that involved the CIA initiating a coup to prevent Allende from taking office. Both strategies failed to prevent Allende from taking over, but the economic warfare did have a serious, deleterious effect on the country. Eventually, General Augusto Pinochet was able to organize a bloody coup and overthrew Allende on September 11th, 1973 (now sometimes called “the first 9-11.”63 ). Although there is no evidence that the CIA was directly involved in this coup, they were quite aware of it, and the Nixon administration was privately delighted (this was somewhat disguised in public).The death toll of the coup was over 3,000, and the horrors of the tortures implemented during Pinochet’s regime are ghastly.64,65 Not unsurprisingly, little time was wasted by policy elites ruing these tragedies. Today, the Pinochet regime is often remembered for being “tough,”66 but for creating an “economic miracle”–one orchestrated by the “Chicago Boys,” who were “inspired” votaries of Milton Friedman’s “free market” principles. As Chomsky notes, this “miracle” is more mirage than substance, as the economy under Pinochet actually floundered, and the state had to take over much of the banking system to save the falling fragments of a failing economy. This is sometimes sardonically called “the Chicago road to socialism”–an apt phrase, although one not ordinarily encountered in mainstream literature on the topic.

In Indonesia in the 50’s and 60’s, after briefly expressing tepid support for him, America worried that president Sukarno was a dangerous “neutralist” and decided to take covert action to oust him. This attempt failed, so America decided to build up the Indonesian military, hoping for a coup. In 1965, there was a bloody coup and a subsequent “purging” of “communists” in the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI).67 Suharto ascended to power and an estimated half a million people were killed.68 While America was not directly involved in the coup, policy elites supported it, desiring to extirpate the PKI.69 This support went as far as providing lists of thousands of “communists” to the Indonesian military.70 In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor and overthrew the Fretilin headed government. They continued to occupy the island until 1999, when Clinton finally noticed that some bad things had happened and “informed the Indonesian military that Washington would no longer directly support their crimes.”71 Although the exact number of dead in East Timor is unknown, it is estimated that at minimum 102,800 East Timorese perished; while a higher end “speculation” of the number dead due to “conflict related hunger and illness” reached 183,000 (the CAVR report, from which these numbers are taken, did not issue a maximum estimate).72 Staggering numbers made even more heinous because they could have been easily prevented: Without direct support from Washington, as is clear from later events, the massacres would not have happened.73 * As noted by Chomsky, what is astonishing about all of this is that it has been converted into a proof that America had entered a “noble” phase of foreign policy.74 Meanwhile, most citizens remain unaware of the horrific tragedy, another impressive achievement of the propaganda system.

What the examples in Chili and Indonesia (the cases could be multiplied ad nauseam) incontestably illustrate is that American foreign policy is not about high moral values, benevolence, altruism, or other idealistic phantasms; rather, it is about the exercise and continuation of power. In Latin America, the U.S wanted to guarantee itself access to important resources while concomitantly allowing for a continued corporate presence in the region. Allende threatened these goals; consequently, the people of Chile had to suffer while their economy “screamed.” In Southeast Asia, the goals were the same, and the people of Indonesia, regrettably, were just some of the hapless victims. The horrific invasion of South Vietnam, saving it from “internal aggression” (against U.S. military and an U.S. supported regime), and near destruction of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, follows the same pattern. Importantly, U.S. foreign policy is not the manifestation of a “national interest,” unless one conflates the small coterie of elites who control foreign policy with the American population. Indeed, foreign policy follows the same basic pattern as domestic policy: a group of elites controls and benefits from the policies, while the vast majority of the population either suffers or reaps marginal rewards (and massive consequences from “blowback.”75 It should be sobering to recognize that these terrible crimes, with prodigious and horrendous body counts, occur with the implicit consent of American intellectuals who, although granted unknown luxury and freedom, seldom rise from the comfort of their positions in academic institutions or branches of the government to protest against them.

Terrorism: Theirs and ours (intentional ignorance)

The events of 9-11 were, in many ways, the catalyst for the development of the New Atheism. Prior to 9-11, America had enjoyed almost absolute immunity from the kind of horrifying crimes it regularly doles out around the world. On 9-11, that changed. Understandably, many people were confused and emotionally disturbed by the tragedy and looked for answers to George W. Bush’s poignant question “why do they hate us”76 * (Although, as Chomsky notes, the question is improperly phrased. “They” do not hate “us.” They hate the crimes that are perpetrated by the government, which should not be confused with the population of America.71 ) As Chalmers Johnson notes, this is a part of the blowback phenomenon.75 Civilians, unaware of their government’s machinations in the affairs of other countries, suffer the consequences without knowledge of the reasons. Into this vacuum, a number of intellectuals provided a simple answer: they hate us because they are “simply evil” adherents of a “kind of death cult” religion,77 a religion of a failed civilization that despises Western freedoms and values. And the attacks, so Richard Dawkins informs us, were made possible by the alluring image of 72 virgins in a paradisaical afterworld.78 This, Dawkins also notes, is the source of the “underlying divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated” the attacks in the first place. In light of the grisly consequences of the 9-11 attacks, these intellectuals asseverated that it was no longer morally proper or decent to remain taciturn in the face of irrational belief systems, supposedly sacred or not. A number of subsequent bestsellers were penned and published, including Harris’s The End of Faith, Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Hitchens’ God is not Great, that assailed religion and the supposedly heinous crimes it can compel believers to commit.79,80,81 One of the consistent themes of these books is that religion, at least the Abrahamic religions, is a barbaric relic of the middle ages and should be eschewed by rational and enlightened adults in an enlightened society (“the delusions of our ignorant ancestors,” according to Harris82 ). It is also implied, both implicitly and explicitly, that without religion, the horrific 9-11 attacks would not have occurred. (This is spelled out quite clearly in the rather unfortunate posters that read “Imagine a world without religion” and show the twin towers standing in front of a glistening sun.)

The New Atheists, then, systematically ignore or downplay the importance of politics. Specifically, they ignore the legitimate rage that many around the world feel because of years of suffering from American atrocities and cast blame at a more palpable (because easily known) target: religion. Harris, for example, goes so far as to say that we are at war “with precisely the vision of life prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.”83 (It is hard to tell if Harris is aware of the last 60 plus years of Middle Eastern history.) This trajectory of thought is often presented (in tone and rhetoric) as a continuation of the Enlightenment, a desire to use reason to slay the bogeyman of superstition and promote the values of skepticism and science. We have no disagreement with the second part of this desire. However, the most noble traditions of the Enlightenment would recommend a rather different course of action: acutely analyze political reality–the nature of the institutions and power structures that dominate the world today, the effects of foreign policy interventions, past and present, and the struggles of those who have not benefited from the “values” and “freedoms” of the West–and contextualize the behaviors of others in light of this analysis. Moral decency also offers another simple recommendation: look in the mirror before excoriating official enemies. In the political arena, this is often called “liberal masochism,” but in everyday life it is recognized as a noble virtue.

There were edifying responses to the events of 9-11, responses that followed the better spirit of the Enlightenment. Of the responses, Chomsky’s stands out for its lucidity and moral integrity*. Instead of using the tragedy to foment hatred, attack religion, or clamor for revenge, Chomsky sought to contextualize the event, noting that “we have a choice: we may try to understand, or refuse to do so, contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies ahead.”84 That is, we may imitate Nietzsche’s portrait of the powerful and ignorantly persevere, paying no attention to the myriad legitimate grievances of those we regularly victimize, or we may behave like enlightened citizens and attempt understand the causes of the almost global antipathy against the U.S., antipathy that does not justify senseless murder, but that remains, in itself, reasonable given the history of U.S. foreign policy. Germane to the topic of terrorism are many polls, pointed out by Chomsky in his initial responses, that demonstrated that the majority of Muslims were (and still are) angered by U.S. policies, especially toward Iraq and Israel/Palestine. Further concerns included the U.S. role in propping up oppressive regimes and appropriating the great wealth of the region.85 This is a view shared by Supervisory Special Agent James Fitzgerald, who, in testimony before the 9-11 commission, asserted that “[Al Qaeda and other ‘terrorist’ groups] identify with the Palestinian problem, they identify with the people who oppose repressive regimes and I believe they tend to focus their anger on the United States.”86 This is a conclusion that stems back to the Eisenhower presidency. Eisenhower was concerned about a “campaign of hatred” against the United States–a concern apparently elicited by NSC explanations that majority of Arabs believe that the U.S. is concerned with protecting its oil interests by supporting the status quo, a status quo that stultifies economic and social progress.87 Recent psychological research supports this general outline, and indicates that coalitional commitment, not religious belief, is a strong predictor of support for suicide attacks.88,89, 90 If one is committed to a coalition that is regularly victimized, it is not difficult to understand why one might desire some form of violent revenge. Suicide bombers, then, are not psychologically different from average humans nor are they “misguided missiles” who are mindlessly infected by extremist religious memes.* Rather, they are committed members of a coalition they feel is existentially threatened by the actions of the U.S.. Although their actions may be barbaric, their motivations, contra Hitchens, are not. It might not be palatable, but it is true that the same basic psychological forces that lead to suicide terrorism also lead to some of the most noble behaviors humans are capable of. The goal is to guide humans to the noble path and away from the destructive.


The general desideratum of the Enlightenment was, we believe, a noble one. Skeptical thinking and science are undeniable virtues. It is tragic, then, that the New Atheists actually betray these virtues by expending their cognitive resources in an obstinate battle against religion–without citing or apparently consulting important scientific research on the topic–while ignoring the more powerful institutional structures and narratives that shape and will continue to shape the social life of humans on this planet for years to come. We believe that the motivation to control provides the “best guess” at the puzzle of human (political) nature and that, combined with the other sources of human political nature we covered (reverse hierarchy formation, and ingroup/outgroup propensities), it should provide a starting point for a basic analysis of political phenomena. These (psychological propensities) interact in important ways with institutional structures and political narratives and give rise to the multifarious political behavior manifested in the world. In order to create a just, moral, and decent society, one should focus on the effects of these institutions and narratives on human well-being. There is good evidence that the current structure of society does not promote human flourishing; and there is incontrovertible evidence that the current structure leads to terrible consequences across the globe. The responsibility of intellectuals, to rephrase Chomsky, is to remain as impervious as possible to the propaganda of power and to criticize the shortcomings of institutional structures. This was a consistent theme of Enlightenment authors and we should honor their legacy by continuing that task. To this end, the New Atheists represent a betrayal of the Enlightenment and Chomsky, one of its most productive offspring. The planet will remain replete with apologists for power, no matter how grievous its crimes; we should honor the few who resist this all-too-human propensity and fight to promote the always precarious inheritance of skeptical inquiry.


* “New Atheists”: The term was first used in Wired magazine91 to refer to people who are not just atheists but who believe that irrational religious belief should not be tolerated and should be impugned by science and reason. Wired specifically cited Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett as examples of New Atheists. More recent members of the informal group include Victor J. Stenger and Christopher Hitchens. Whether or not there is anything “new” about the New Atheism is debatable. Frederich Nietzsche, to name one example, had nearly endless scorn for religion (although for different reasons than the New Atheists adduce) and did not believe “tolerance” was an appropriate reaction. It is perhaps unfortunate to lump a number of intelligent people into one group; however, for the purposes of our articles, the lumping is not terribly unfair and makes exposition much easier. Where appropriate, we attempt to single out particular scholars. At times, we are also more interested in the cultural idea of “New Atheism” than the actual people referred to by the term.

* “Islamophobia”: Sam Harris has argued that “Islamophobia” is a concocted “psychological disorder” used by “apologists” of Islam to protect it from legitimate criticism.92 We do not believe–and in fact, few people who use the term do believe–that Islamophobia is a disorder. It is, rather, the result of an ugly but “natural” proclivity toward demonizing the beliefs of outgroup members. Harris also argues that it is not possible to be “Islamophobic” because Islam is a set of ideas and practices that one can attack like any other set of ideas. This ignores two important facts. First, religion is not just a set of beliefs or practices; it is, rather, a system of sacred values that is often essential to a person’s sense of identity. Attack the beliefs and practices too vitriolically and you inevitably attack “the person.” This is not always illegitimate–but it should be approached with caution and civility. (We can see a person legitimately attacking Nazism, for example, or the ideas of Jihadis–and many Muslims do.) And second, what is objectionable in Harris’ writings (what contributes to Islamophobia) is not his abstract criticism of Islam, but rather his insistence, often absent of evidence, on blaming Islam for everything from terrorism to genital mutilation. We note that the great theologian, Hans Kung, offers pointed criticisms of specific aspects of Islam while presenting a historically grounded and balanced appraisal and no reasonable scholar would accuse Kung of Islamophobia.93 John Esposito has written an excellent article on Islamophobia and contends that it consists of these beliefs:

1. Islam, not just a small minority of extremists and terrorists, is the problem and threat to the West
2. The religion of Islam has no common values with the West
3. Islam and Muslims are inferior to Judaism and Christianity
4. Islam is an inherently violent religion and political ideology rather than a source of faith and spirituality
5. Muslims cannot integrate and become loyal citizens
6. Most mosques should be monitored for embedded cells
7. Islam encourages its followers to launch a global jihad against all non-Muslims but in particular against the West.94

As with any term that can be misused (e.g., anti-Semite, racist, misogynist), one should be careful when using it.

* “…was social justice.”: We have not and do not wish to argue that it is inappropriate to pen a book about the silliness of certain religious doctrines. What we object to, instead, is the strident tone, the unempirical assertions, the intolerance, and the unfair and inflammatory attacks against a specific religion (Islam), found in the books of the New Atheists (particularly in Sam Harris’ books). The rest of our objections–the main substance of our argument–is found in part I and the end of this article.

* “motivation to control.”: This was assumed but never explicitly articulated in our previous article.

* “Because the mainstream media is an important conduit…”: We note that the mainstream media is only one part of a larger “opinion-shaping network” that includes public relations/affairs institutions, think tanks, academia, etc.

* “…liberal versus conservative analysis…”: Debates about political bias in the media are not only a complete distraction but are often astonishingly removed from empirical reality. For example, self proclaimed media watchdog and president of the Media Research Center, Brent Bozell, in a review of the media’s performance in assessing Barak Obama’s first 100 days, plaintively asserts the following: “None of the three broadcast networks aired a single story on whether the new president’s economic policies were driving America towards European-style socialism. Not a single network news reporter used the term “socialist” to describe how his policies are shifting economic authority to the federal government. On only four occasions was the word “socialist” used on-camera at all – all by outside sources.”95 We have yet to confirm if Bozell’s spaceship is set to return from his long sojourn on Neptune.

* “…owned by large, profit seeking institutions.”: As of 2009 there were six major media corporations: General Electric, Walt Disney, News Corp., TimeWarner, Viacom, and CBS. These massive corporations own and control output in the television, publishing, film, and internet industries.96

* “…but rather to attract affluent audiences or distract the less affluent”: Chomsky, for example, makes a distinction between the elite “agenda setting” media which attract the most privileged audiences (business managers, professors, political managers, etc.) and the “mass media” proper which attract the rest of the population. As Chomsky puts it: “The real mass media are basically trying to divert people. Let them do something else, but don’t bother us (us being the people who run the show). Let them get interested in professional sports, for example. Let everybody be crazed about professional sports or sex scandals or the personalities and their problems or something like that. Anything, as long as it isn’t serious. Of course, the serious stuff is for the big guys. ‘We’ take care of that.”97 Since 1997, when these lines were written, the awesome ability of the mass media to distract the population has substantially increased.

* “…pundits like Jon Stewart”: Despite Stewart’s facility with humor, his analysis of the media is unenlightening. The “rally to restore sanity” and other subsequent interviews illustrate the virulence of the neoliberal nationalist virus.

* “…it was not widely discussed in the mainstream media”: A google search of the terms “the Ryan plan” and “The People’s Budget” brings up 224 million and 69 million hits respectively. Thus, the Ryan plan has received 3.24 times as many linked pages as the People’s Budget. This is obviously not a a scientific survey but it is telling.

* “…and deregulation.”: We note that the precise causes of these policies are hotly debated, complex, and would take a great deal of space to explicate. See the referenced sources for more thorough analyses.

* “…group of ‘free thinkers.’”: Christopher Hitchens certainly addresses foreign policy issues, but a conversation about his political beliefs would require another article. Harris and Dawkins generally stick to more parochial concerns about the deleterious effects of religion on foreign policy (theirs, not ours). Dennet, so far as we can tell, does not bother much with politics. Many campus groups, inspired by “free thought” movements, exist and few, to our knowledge, seriously challenge current political narratives save for when they are directly related to religious issues.

* “…and its victims have suffered as they must.”: For an extensive, though partial, list of the victims one can do no better than read William Blum’s Killing Hope.98

* “…massacres would not have happened.”: Kissinger noted somewhat cryptically that these events had taken place not willingly but “illegaly and beautifully.”99 It is unclear which “events” in particular Kissinger is referring to. However, the illegal component rings true enough.

* “…George W. Bush’s poignant question ‘why do they hate us.’”: These plaintive questions and the jejune answers, which almost invariably support elite interests, are reminiscent of debates about Spanish policy toward the native inhabitants of the New World. Bartolome de las Casas described the treatment of the indigenous peoples of Hispanolia in graphic detail:

“The Spaniards first assaulted the innocent Sheep, so qualified by the Almighty, as is premention’d, like most cruel Tygers, Wolves and Lions hunger-starv’d, studying nothing, for the space of Forty Years, after their first landing, but the Massacre of these Wretches, whom they have so inhumanely and barbarously butcher’d and harass’d with several kinds of Torments, never before known, or heard (of which you shall have some account in the following Discourse) that of Three Millions of Persons, which lived in Hispaniola itself, there is at present but the inconsiderable remnant of scarce Three Hundred.”100

It is not difficult to understand why the indigenous people were angered by such brutal treatment–allowing for the fact that de las Casas utilized hyperbole for effect. However, rather than comprehend the obvious, apologists for the colonialists and landowning elite, such as Jaun Gines de Sepulveda, argued that the Spaniards were simply superior to the “Indians” and had no option but to declare war against them, enslave them, and, ultimately, Christianize them.101 If the native Hispanolians had succeeded in a stunning and brutal attack against innocent Spaniards, Sepulveda could certainly have been counted on to explain that the indigenous people practiced a barbarous type of paganism that instructed them to eat human flesh and that this superstition was both the necessary and sufficient cause of the attack. If de las Casas mentioned the brutality of the colonial project as a contributing factor, he could be dismissed as an “apologist for terror” and Sepulveda could wax about Spanish freedom and benevolence. He could even dub the attack “simply evil” and attempt an hermeneutic of the “Indian mind” to better explain their hatred of freedom. While we rightly scoff at the notion of books explicating the “Indian mind,” it is worth noting that there are many books about the “Arab mind.”102,103,104

This is not to say that the events of 9-11 were not a terrible atrocity. They certainly were. It is only to underscore the point, using a detached, historical example, that it is important to understand the grievances that lead to terrorism rather than bloviate about how “good” we are and how “evil” they are.

* “…lucidity and moral integrity.”: This is not to compare the value of the responses, but to note that Chomsky’s response was particularly compelling and worth contemplation.

* “…mindlessly infected by extremist religious memes.”: While studies on the motivations of suicide bombers can elucidate and potentially have salubrious purposes, there is something rather distasteful in the obsessive quest for fundamental motivations. As Chomsky notes, “[e]veryone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s an easy way: Stop participating in it.”105 That is, as American citizens, we have a responsibility to stop the terrorism perpetrated by our government. In other words, instead of attempting to penetrate the supposedly unfathomable depths of the “terrorist mind,” perhaps we should worry about our own global atrocities. We have yet to see a book on the “Depraved soul of the American: Explaining global terrorism that emanates from Washington.” To paraphrase G.W. Bush’s favorite philosopher, we should examine the log in our own eye before we criticize the sliver in another’s.

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Ben Winegard is a graduate student studying evolutionary and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri. He has published peer-reviewed articles on sports fandom and female body dissatisfaction. He also has an interest in radical politics and activism. Ben can be reached at: Bo Winegard is a graduate student at Florida State University studying social psychology under Dr. Roy Baumeister. He is interested in political justice, self-deception, political psychology, evolutionary psychology, art, literature, classical film and baseball. Bo can be reached at: Read other articles by Ben Winegard and Bo Winegard.