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

The Real Delusion: Part 1

The New Atheists and the real faith

Since 2001, a group of scholars and intellectuals (for simplicity, and in line with current labels, we will call them the “New Atheists”) have become college campus celebrities for assailing the “irrationalism” of religious belief; some, like Daniel Dennett, ((Dennet, D.C. (2006). Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. New York: Viking.)) Christopher Hitchens, ((Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York: Twelve Books.)) and Richard Dawkins, ((Dawkins, R. (2008). The god delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.)) already possessed laudable resumes, and some, like Sam Harris, ((Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: Norton.)) rose in fame primarily because of their passionate pleas against faith in the immediate post 9-11 milieu. Although these thinkers differ in their analyses, their main theme is similar: religious faith is irrational and should eventually be discarded like a child’s toy by mature citizens in a modern, secular era. Although their arguments have not gone without criticism (see Atran ((Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the enemy: Faith, brotherhood, and the (un)making of terrorists. New York: Harper Collins.)), ((An Edge Discussion of BEYOND BELIEF: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival, Salk Institue, La Jolla November 5-7, 2006)); also, see Hedges ((Hedges, C. (2008). I don’t believe in atheists. New York: Free Press.)) ), a healthy number of self-designated “free thinkers” have praised their work and continue to impugn the supposed benefits of belief. At times, this criticism can be healthy and productive; at others, it can be destructive and can devolve into ugly and uninformed attacks against Islamic civilization. At bottom, however, the most egregious problem with such attacks is that they ignore the real veil that distorts most people’s perceptions of reality, diverting attention from real political issues that affect millions of lives and convincing many intelligent college students that the chief problem in the world today is irrational religious conviction.

The New Atheists believe that they are carrying out the once stalled project of the enlightenment (See Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science Mission. ((The Mission Statement reads: “Support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.”)) ), of freeing minds from the shackles of religious fundamentalism and superstition so that they can perceive the unadulterated “scientific” truth about the nature of reality. This is a noble desideratum; the problem is that the real shackles of the mind–at least in the Western world–are not chained to religion but rather to mainstream political narratives. During the enlightenment, thinkers like Jefferson, Diderot, and Voltaire assailed religion and the churches that propagated it precisely because it was a dense and powerful curtain that was drawn over the eyes of humans. In the contemporary United States, however, the church is no longer an inordinately powerful institution and religion, even among believers, is not the most potent mythology. The most potent mythology is neoliberal nationalism ((Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.)), ((Chomsky, N. (1999). Profit over people: Neoliberalism and global order. New York: Seven Stories Press.)) and the most powerful institution is the corporation. In other words, the New Atheists have retained the outdated substance of the enlightenment but have left its vital spirit behind, have, as it were, mistakenly dragged a 200 year old corpse into the modern world. This would not be lamentable were it not for the profound influence that the New Atheists wield among intelligent and open minded students and intellectuals, the very students and intellectuals that progressives require to form a broad and effective coalition that can challenge the unprecedented power of corporations.

In this article, we will argue that that New Atheists are not heirs of the enlightenment and do not fundamentally challenge existing power structures and narratives in modern American society; instead they distract attention from important issues and scurrilously attack narratives that provide meaning for millions of people. ((We wish to note that the New Atheists are not a monolithic group and that Dennett in particular has expressed great respect for the accomplishments of religion. What we are attacking, to a certain degree, is the image of the New Atheists presented by the media and by many college campus groups with which we have had contact. It is true, however, that Harris and Dawkins, especially, have scurrilously and unintelligently attacked religious traditions in a way that appears mean spirited and short sighted.)) We will first look at the interaction between human nature and political structures and how that necessitates the development and propagation of political/religious narratives. We will then trace the decline of religious narratives and the rise of secular narratives, focusing on the modern American political narrative. We will end by criticizing the New Atheists–particularly Sam Harris–for contributing to the West’s growing Islamophobia while ignoring issue of much greater political significance. In part II, we will examine the true legacy of the Enlightenment and those who continue its mission.

Human political nature

In the wonderful book Hierarchy in the Forest anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that humans possess strong proclivities toward egalitarianism and autonomy. ((Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)) These tendencies, Boehm argues, do not lead to abhorrence of hierarchy but rather to a fondness for a “reverse” hierarchy. A reverse hierarchy is a system where political power is distributed among many people and despotic upstarts are thwarted by large groups of people. According to Boehm, however, humans are ambivalent and possess an undeniable potential for creating a tyrannical political system and submitting to it—especially if rapacious upstarts are not checked by the power of the many. These proclivities are illustrated by the palette of emotions humans possess and emit during perceived political events. Humans, for example, freely confer status upon certain individuals, ((Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. (2001). The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the bene?ts of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 165–196.)) submit to them, ((Mazur, A. (2005). Biosociology of dominance and deference. Lanham, MD: Rowland and Littlefield.)) and often revere them; however, humans also detest individuals who appear despotic, ((Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)) ridicule and scold them, and sometimes even assassinate them. ((Boehm, C. (1993). Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34, 227-254.)) Desirous of status and power but abhorring and envying those who possess it, humans are therefore in a precarious perch between despotism and egalitarianism.

Another important human political proclivity that influences the balance between despotism and egalitarianism is the creation of ingroups and outgroups. ((Berreby, D. (2005). Us and them: Understanding your tribal mind. New York: Little, Brown.)) That is, humans tend to form coalitions that are based on perceptions of common interests. Originally, these were based on bonds of kinship; ((Geary, D.C. (2010). Male/female: The evolution of human sex differences (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.)) however, coalitions were soon created and maintained using the bonds of “fictive kinship” ((Atran, S. (2003). Genesis of suicide terrorism. Science, 299, 1534-1539.)) or “imagined communities.” ((Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.)) So, whereas the first coalitions were units of blood relatives, later coalitions grew larger and more complicated and included entire territorial swaths like “the Roman Empire.” A member of the coalition “Roman Empire” felt him or herself to “belong” to a large unit of people through the use of collective narratives and symbols. ((Livy, T. (1962). A History of Rome (M. Hades & J.P. Poe, Eds.). New York: The Modern Library. Livy, for example, has this colorful quote about the origins of Rome:
And if license is allowed any nation to exalt its inception and make the gods its sponsors, so towering is the military glory of Rome that when it avows that Mars himself was its father and the father of its founder, the races of mankind can submit to the claim with as little qualm as they submit to Rome’s dominion. (p. 18).)) This coalitional tendency is important because it drastically affects the way humans perceive and treat each other. Perceived ingroup members, for example, are accorded respect and moral dignity, while perceived outgroup members are often accorded the status of “competitor” and extended little respect or moral dignity. ((Gat, A. (2006). War in human civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.)) The slaughter of outgroup members, if functional, is often lauded and outgroup suffering causes little guilt or compassion. ((Chagnon, N.A. (1988). Life histories, blood revenge, and warfare in a tribal population. Science, 239, 985-992.)) As coalitions become larger and more complicated, they tend to “nest.” For example, a modern citizen of the United States might consider herself a member of the large coalition “U.S. citizen,” the smaller coalition “Democrat,” the even smaller coalition “Detroit Tigers fan” and the even smaller coalition “Member of the Pronin family.” Which coalition one emphasizes depends on social identity and environmental contingency. At a Tigers’ game, one would probably emphasize the “Tigers fan” coalition, but if a political debate broke out, one might emphasize the “Democrat” coalition. Coalitions often gain power through efficient coalitional nesting and networking and control of institutional structures.

The rise of states and the evolution of political narratives

Although scholars debate the details of the evolution of human societies, a general and useful framework organizes societies into bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states, with the belief that societies evolve from bands into tribes and then chiefdoms and finally into complicated states. ((LeBlanc, S. and Register, K.E. (2003). Constant battles: The myth of the peaceful, noble savage. New York: St. Martin’s Press.)) According to scholars, bands are mostly egalitarian organizations of family units; leaders are not formally elected and their power is limited and ephemeral. Put in Boehm’s terms, the reverse hierarchy maintains a diffusion of power and overarching political narratives are not necessary because there isn’t intense conflict between competing political coalitions. Tribes are more complicated, generally egalitarian, units of organization; leaders are not formally elected, but there is a more palpable status order. Although there is still a healthy diffusion of power, there are narratives about family ancestors and more formalized “political” ceremonies. Chiefdoms are the first form of society where lineages are ranked and where hierarchies become formalized; status inequalities are hereditary and legitimizing narratives are needed to explain the inequitable distribution of power. These narratives are generally religious and most chiefs are recognized as “divine.” States are complicated congregations of peoples, with loose kinship bonds, and extremely formalized hierarchies of political power. ((Flannery, K.V. (1972). The cultural evolution of civilizations. Annual review of ecology and systematic, 3, 399-426.)), ((Carniero, R.L. (1970). A theory of the origin of the state. Science, 169, 733-738.)) Unlike other forms of social organization, states are territorial units; ruling elites have a monopoly of violence and require sophisticated narratives of legitimation. Historically, states were legitimized by a priestly class which acted as the guardians of state power. ((Fukuyama, F. (2011). The origins of political order: From prehuman times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.))

There are a variety of reasons why religious narratives were the first and perhaps most powerful deployed to maintain social order and legitimize state power. ((Wade, N. (2009). The faith instinct: How religion evolved and why it endures. New York: Penguin.)), ((It is important, however, to note that religious narratives can also be used to attack state power, as is evidenced by the history of early Christianity and the subsequent developments of liberation theology; see, for example, Stark, R. (1996). The rise of Christianity: How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.)) Despite their power and efficacy, however, religious narratives in the West were eventually countered by currents of growing secularism. During the renaissance, for example, a number of thinkers began to emphasize the impressive power of human reason and began to analyze political order from a “proto-scientific” perspective, independent of references to religion (See, for example, Machiavelli ((Machiavelli, N. (1532/2005). The prince. New York: Penguin.)) ). The seed of this style of thinking gradually blossomed into the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment and led to the decline in prestige and effectiveness of religious justifications of power. ((Hobsbawm, E. (1962/1996). The age of revolution: 1789-1848. New York: Vintage Books.)) Thinkers like Voltaire and Dennis Diderot assailed the abject subjugation of reason to dying dogmas; eventually, other thinkers like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, attempted to extend the skepticism of the enlightenment to institutions like monarchy. Paine, in particular, was scathing in his assaults on anything that enslaved humans and defied the principles of reason. ((Paine, T. (1791/1984). Rights of man. New York: Penguin.)) However, given the two important truths about human political nature addressed above, society did not become drastically more equitable or just ((This is not to say that there was no improvement in social conditions. The extent that morality progresses is debatable, but we remain hopeful.)): coalitions still competed for political power, resources were still unequally distributed, and such inequities still provoked outrage from those who did not benefit from the “new” and “enlightened” social order. New narrative themes were necessary.

The most prominent of the new secular themes was liberal nationalism, or the idea that the nation state formed a coherent coalition and that the interests of the state were the interests of all citizens. ((Hobsbawm, E. (1992). Nations and nationalism since 1780: Programme, myth, reality. New York: Cambridge University Press.)) This theme was buttressed with other themes about “freedom” and “equality” for all citizens; although it must be observed that some citizens were more “free” and more “equal” than others. Furthermore, unlike most religious narratives, which promised individuals happiness in the hereafter, liberal nationalism promoted the secular eschatology of progress, i.e. living conditions were improving and would continue to do so indefinitely. ((Wallerstein, I. (1995). After liberalism. New York: The New Press.)) Importantly, these new myths obviated the need for religious myths and replaced them with equally non-empirical but rationally effective myths about nations, replete, even, with mythical stories of founding heroes, like George Washington, who were almost supernatural in their ambition, altruism, and moral character. ((Geary, P.J. (2002). The myth of nations: The Medieval origins of Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.)) Although purportedly “objective” and devoted to the “interests of all,” these narratives, like the earlier religious narratives, continued to serve the interests of the powerful and did little to mitigate the suffering of the less fortunate.

The modern American political narrative (refining the concept of narratives)

Marshal McLuhan, the famous media analyst, once noted that the last thing a fish would recognize in its environment is water. ((Quote from McLuhan, M.)) Like the fish, the last thing a human recognizes, if at all, is the cultural/political narrative that surrounds her and shapes her thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and attitudes about the world. Although the New Atheists are often presented as a scientific vangard who have peered behind the painted veil of mythical illusions, they have left the West’s (and for purposes of this article, America’s) primary narratives alone, unanalyzed–instead, focusing on more obvious and less interesting religious narratives. Consider J. Anderson Thomson & Clare Aukofer’s (Thomson is a trustee of the Dawkins Foundation) passionate assertion: “We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.” ((J. Anderson Thomson & Clare Aukofer (July 18, 2011). Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods. Los Angeles Times.)) Perhaps true enough, and a number of serious scholars have already done so–much more effectively, it should be added, than the New Atheists. ((Boyer, P. (2001). Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. New York: Basic Books.)), ((Barrett, J.L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in god? Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.)) On the other hand, how much more vital is it, then, to “consider the real roots” of policy in America, “so we can deal with” the political and economic world “as it is”? That is, instead of criticising the crippled institution of the church, responsible intellectuals should attack centers of concentrated power and the narratives that they propound. (We do not want to be misunderstood. Centers of power certainly use religious beliefs when they can; however, attacking religion qua religion ignores the larger point and leaves the more powerful political narratives and institutions alone.) To return to the fish, if we want to change our environment, we have to learn to recognize the water that surrounds us.

It is almost a truism that those who wield political and economic power also wield the power to choose which narratives get propagated into society. It is therefore important to understand not just the history of political narratives, but also the composition of power in America and how that shapes and determines the substance of political narratives. So what coalition or collection of coalitions, wields political power in America? The answer, it turns out, is simple enough: Those who have money–or own the means of producing income. This includes, the upper class, the corporate community, and the policy planning network. ((Domhoff, G.W. (2010). Who rules America? Challenges to corporate and class dominance (6th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.)) (see figure 1)

Figure 1. The Power Elite

Taken from Domhoff, G.W. (2005). The class-domination theory of power.

The basic goals of this group of “oligarchs” (or “power elite”) are income accumulation (or more broadly, resource accumulation) and protection of gained income from taxation (income defense). ((Winters, J. (2011). Oligarchy. New York: Cambridge University Press.)) Since the power elite are composed of roughly the top 1% (to use a conservative estimate; the truth might be closer to the top 1/10 of 1%), ((Joe Stiglitz (May, 2011). Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%. Vanity Fair. )) the accomplishment of these goals will often necessarily conflict with the interests of the majority of the people. The only concrete way for the power elite to achieve their goals is through the creation of favorable political/economic policies; however, because of human egalitarian and coalitional proclivities (“our coalition deserves better”), such policies would be decried by most people. That is, a member of the power elite cannot simply assert “we are creating policies that benefit only the top 1%, while the rest of the people’s wealth stagnates or declines.” As we have noted, religious justifications of massive resource inequality have lost prestige and efficacy; therefore, modern power elites have had to use the basic enlightenment narrative, adjusted, of course, to account for historical developments (e.g., the rise of corporations and the development of state subsidized capitalism). The outcome of this adjustment is America’s most salient political narrative: “neoliberal nationalism.”

The basic principle of neoliberal nationalism is that there is a unified coalition called the “United States” that is historically exceptional and that all members of the coalition share a preponderance of interests. (see figure 2)


Figure 2. The Neoliberal Nationalist Ideology

From this principle, it naturally follows that American foreign policy is based on noble intentions, and that its only faults stem from beneficent motives sometimes gone awry due to incompetence or misunderstanding and a propensity to “judge” itself “by higher standards” than the rest of the world. ((Dinesh D’souza (April, 2002). In praise of American empire. Christian Science Monitor. )) Domestically, neoliberal nationalism propounds the idea that America is a free market country and that free markets promote happiness and justly recompense citizens for their economic behavior, or, more elegantly and oleaginously “free-market capitalism is far more than an economic theory. It is the engine of social mobility — the highway to the American Dream.” ((George W. Bush (Nov 13, 2008). Bush’s speech on the economic crisis, November 2008. Council on Foreign Relations.)) This is coupled with the idea that America is a democracy that allows each citizen to have equal input into policy formation to create a “fairness” narrative that justifies the current state of affairs by noting that “free markets” are just and that all citizens have equal political say.

From these principles, a number of corollaries follow. For example, the idea that the mainstream media presents an accurate picture of political reality because all voices are allowed equal access to the media and are weeded out through the just and fair mechanisms of the free market–Fox, on the right, is balanced by MSNBC on the left. Or, the idea that the government should intervene only sparingly, if at all, into the operations of the market. This last notion, although accepted on faith in modern times, is rather strange and affords insight into the ways in which political narratives are tailored to interact with pre-existing human proclivities. Throughout the seventies and eighties, the government and its employees were depicted as “outsiders” or people who did not share interests with the majority of “real” Americans. The government was, in other words, an alien and hostile coalition working only to engorge itself on the wealth of regular Americans. As Larry Kudlow succinctly put it when discussing Obama’s campaign proposals on the economy, “This isn’t free enterprise. It’s old-fashioned-liberal tax, and spend, and regulate. It’s plain ol’ big government. The only people who will benefit are the central planners in Washington.” ((Larry Kudlow (February 28, 2008). Obama’s Big-Government Vision. Townhall.)) (Notice that this is complicated: the same ideas about government were not extended into the realm of foreign policy.) In this way, Americans were/are taught to fear the tyrannical power of the government and to side with “benevolent” free market institutions like corporations. This also means that taxes are terrible because they pilfer money from average people and give it to government bureaucrats.

This narrative serves two important functions for the power elite: 1) it constrains cognition and 2) it narrows the range of acceptable debate. It constrains cognition because it literally makes it difficult to contemplate the world outside of its framework. Just as a religious person cannot think of reality outside of the framework presented by his or her theology, so the average American cannot think of politics outside of the framework presented by the neoliberal nationalism narrative. And it narrows the range of acceptable debate because discourse that does not accept the narrative’s basic principles is misunderstood and ridiculed. The bounds of acceptable debate, in other words, are determined by its principles. One can argue, then, that America’s war in Iraq was “dumb” or “rash”; one cannot argue, however, that America’s invasion of Iraq was a massive war crime, no different in motive from the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. ((These words are taken from Obama’s supposedly devastating 2002 speech against going to war with Iraq. Since that speech he has, of course, “tempered” his criticisms. Note that he never once says that going to war would be a crime or an act of aggression. Rather, it would be rash and dumb. See, Barak Obama (October, 2002). Speech Against the Iraq War delivered at the Federal Plaza in Chicago.)) Or, one can argue about whether or not the mainstream media are “too liberal” (meaning, too far to the left of the accepted narrative) or “too conservative” (meaning, too far to the right of the accepted narrative), but one cannot not do a straightforward institutional analysis of the media and American foreign policy without being labeled a “Marxist” or a “conspiracy monger” (see for example, George Shadroui’s screed against “anti-Americans” such as Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson). ((George Shadroui (September 6, 2004). Dissecting Chomsky and Anti-Americanism. Intellectual Conservative.)) In other words, this narrative shackles the mind to a superstition every bit as powerful and quite a bit more pernicious than religion; and it does so in a way that benefits elite coalitions at the expense of the majority of the peoples of the world.

The New Atheism as a betrayal of the enlightenment, focusing especially on Sam Harris

Voltaire once sardonically noted that “the human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.” ((Voltaire quote. )) Although certainly true, the goal of enlightenment thinkers–like Voltaire himself–was to make those reasons more difficult to find, and, in a sense, to make humans face the truth about themselves more directly. It is even more important to accurately perceive the motives and behaviors of powerful people because their actions entail greater consequences. Certainly, there will never be a paucity of justifications for the even the most rapacious and brutal of behaviors; however, if we strain to see beyond the webs of an erroneous narrative, we can at least grasp at political reality and attempt to guide political policy in a more salubrious direction. This makes the New Atheists all the more disappointing. Instead of using their considerable intellectual talents to deconstruct the powerful myth of neoliberal nationalism, they waste them on attacking various religions, most of which have little direct influence on the welfare of American citizens. Worse still, some, like Dawkins and Harris, use their talents to disparage Islam, blaming the tragedy of 9-11 on “Islamic fundamentalism,” despite evidence that such blame is an extremely simplistic footnote in a much larger story. ((Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: Norton.)), ((Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the enemy: Faith, brotherhood, and the (un)making of terrorists. New York: Harper Collins.)), ((Richard Dawkins (September 15, 2001). Religion’s misguided missiles. The Gaurdian.)), ((Ginges, J., Hansen, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2009). Religion and support for suicide attacks. Psychological Science, 20, 224-230.))

While Dawkins seems to believe that superstition can compel all kinds of horrific atrocities, and therefore that all religions have the capacity to compel horrendous acts of terror, Harris deserves special ridicule for his singular and anti-enlightenment insistence on attacking Islam and making baseless assertions about ethical and political issues, while sedulously avoiding anything too critical of official state dogmas. While Harris does sometimes offer vague “support” for “moderate Muslims,” ((Sam Harris (February 16, 2006). Who are the Moderate Muslims? Huffington Post.)) he more often than not denigrates Islam for being a violent religion, the very tenets of which “are a threat to us.” ((Sam Harris (February 16, 2006). Who are the Moderate Muslims? Huffington Post.)) In fact, according to Harris, we are not at war with “terroism,” but rather with “Islam,” in a phrase that would no doubt impress the most fervent of religious votaries during the Crusades. ((Sam Harris (February 16, 2006). Who are the Moderate Muslims? Huffington Post.)) For Harris, any kind of criticism of the ghastly and grisly effects of American foreign policy is essentially beside the point and can be dismissed, if he does not like it, as “leftist unreason.” ((Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: Norton: 138.)) To be fair, Harris follows a familiar script and concedes that the United States has been guilty of tremendous crimes in the past ((Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: Norton: 138-147.)) but notes that such crimes would not be tolerated anymore. (This is a standard, “yeah we made mistakes in the past, but we have changed” statement. Notice this would provoke only laughter if made by an official enemy; so if Saddam had said, “We have done some horrible things but that is in the past,” before the invasion of Iraq, few would have taken him seriously.) Harris also parrots the neoliberal nationalist narrative, noting that we are, in many respects, a well-intentioned colossus; ((Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: Norton: 142.)) apparently this means that our atrocities are “well-intentioned” and therefore superior to the “ill-intentioned” atrocities of others.

Harris professes to love science and reason and asserts that the time has come to “subject our religious beliefs to the same standards of evidence we require in every other sphere of our lives.” ((Sam Harris (February 16, 2006). Who are the Moderate Muslims? Huffington Post.)) Unfortunately, Harris does not inform us what these standards are and judging from his writings, they are not very stringent. For example, the majority of his asseverations about the unspeakable evil that is Islam are made in an empirical vacuum. He often asks his readers to engage in “thought experiments,” surprisingly discovering that the answers he desires are the ones his hypothetical reader must have come to. ((Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: Norton: 146.)) The reason Harris must resort to such tactics is that the precise causal links between religion, war, and terrorism are not well understood. As Harris must know, there is little extant empirical evidence on this complicated issue and confident pronouncements cannot take the place of rigorous research. ((Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the enemy: Faith, brotherhood, and the (un)making of terrorists. New York: Harper Collins.)) Ignoring for the moment the geopolitical situation of the Middle East (see part II), what evidence we have suggests that Harris’ views of Islam are incorrect. For example, Arab opinion of the US is highly contingent upon perceptions of US foreign policy. When Obama was elected, the number of Arabs who viewed the United States favorably increased dramatically. However, as Obama’s policies unfolded, Arab opinion of the United States dropped to levels as low as during the last years of the Bush presidency. Most of this change in opinion was tied to dashed hopes. Arabs do not despise the United States because they consider it a part of “Dar al-Harb” but rather because they are against the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and American interference in the region. ((Zogby Internationl (accessed July 21, 2011). Arab Attitudes, 2011.)) It is also worth noting that Arabs comprise less than 20% of the world’s Islamic population, in sharp contrast with common perceptions in the United States. ((PBS Caught in the Crossfire (accessed July 22, 2011).)) In short, the “religious war” that Harris and others persistently warn about is a figment of the imagination.

Turning to domestic issues, Harris is only slightly less confused but equally irrational. Dismissing other less obvious but more potent reasons, e.g., corporate owned media, Harris opines that “religion is the reason why our political discourse in this country is so scandalously stupid.” ((Sam Harris (March 21, 2008). What Barack Obama Could Not (and Should Not) Say. Huffington Post.)) And he further laments that Obama’s candidacy is “depressing” because “it demonstrates that even a person of the greatest candor and eloquence” has to feign religious belief to have a successful political career. Apparently Obama’s (and the Democrats in general) abject subservience to the corporate sector (especially Wall Street) and dedication to American imperialism are non-issues, but his feigned faith is tragic because it insults Harris’ reason. ((Paul Street (November 4, 2008). Barack Obama as a Ruling Class Candidate. ZNet.))

Like the other New Atheists, Harris appears to possess an unhealthy fixation upon a peculiar notion of religious belief, betraying the spirit of the enlightenment, and attacking “the hideous fantasies of a prior age” while fully embracing the hideous fantasies of the modern age. ((Sam Harris (accessed July 24, 2011). Science Must Destroy Religion. Edge.)) As such, it is not difficult to discern the reasons for Harris’ rise to fame in the United States. He has chosen the appropriate out-group to denigrate, while comforting powerful state and corporate coalitions. In the end, one is entitled to ask whether or not Harris “is ready for the audacity of reason,” or if he would prefer to continue his religious quest to rid the world of his accepted definition of “superstition.” One is also entitled to believe, as Voltaire did, that “an atheist who is rational, violent, and powerful, would be as great a pestilence as a blood-mad, superstitious man”– a statement born out by the many atrocities of our blood stained century. ((Sam Harris (December 1, 2004). Mired in a Religious War. Washington Times.))

Conclusion: The true spirit of the enlightenment

As we have discussed, humans possess propensities for creating reverse dominance hierarchies and coalitions with sharp ingroup/outgroup divisions. These tendencies have interacted with technological, environmental, and ideological innovations to give rise to the modern state. Although humans can be egalitarian, there is a struggle against individual and coalitional upstarts; one of the most effective weapons that powerful coalitions wield against subservient and less organized coalitions is the legitimation narrative. Such a narrative attempts to convince the rank and file that their interests are identical (or close to identical) with the powerful; it also often prevents them from forming their own unified coalitional counterweight by fomenting strife between different groups (e.g. workers and immigrants, Christians and Muslims, Caucasians and minorities, et cetera). Enlightenment thinkers attempted to demystify the narratives of powerful aristocrats, monarchs, and clergymen because those were the most powerful coalitions (individuals) of their day and as such controlled the most powerful institutions (e.g., the church and state). The New Atheists have continued the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the value of religious skepticism, but have forgotten its purpose; they have consequently distracted attention from the real inequities of modern society. Instead of attacking the powerful and the narratives that they propound, the New Atheists have kicked up a cloud of confusing dust, impelling many to write passionate pleas from both sides of the faith divide that unfortunately amount to little more than a side show to real issues of political importance.

This article has focused on the New Atheists and the betrayal of the Enlightenment. In part II, we will explore legitimate heirs of the Enlightenment, focusing especially on Noam Chomsky and on how the praiseworthy goals of the Enlightenment can be accomplished in the modern world.

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: 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: Read other articles by Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard.