Robert Wright’s rant against New Atheism

On his Templeton-funded “MeaningofLife.TV” site, Robert Wright fulminates about New Atheism (click on screenshot below). I’m pleased to see that both Krauss and I are included on Murderers Row along with the remains of the Horsepersons (sadly, Wright identifies me as a “paleontologist,” which is bizarre.) His beef: New Atheists lack “intellectual humility,” instantiated by their belief that “we’re sure that God doesn’t exist”. But that’s not true: we think it highly probable that God doesn’t exist, which is the scientific attitude. (See The God Delusion.)

We’re also said to be advocates of “scientism” and that we see no good products of religion. The “scientism” accusation is a canard, and I’m sure that most of us accept that religion can sometimes motivate good works. The claim is not that, but, on balance, that religion is inimical to human progress.

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As he’s done so often, Wright argues (25:50) that there may be some teleological force behind the universe—something that may, for instance, have created the laws of physics. Although he, like John Horgan, claims to be a nonbeliever, they both fit Dennett’s definition of “believers in belief”: those who say, “Well, I see no need for religion, but it’s really good for all those Other People.” In fact, he’s loath to find any endemic problem with religion; when religion behaves badly, it’s often caused by people who criticize religion (43:30)! The lesson: we should stop criticizing religion, and I think Wright would be really happy if we’d do that.

The bit goes on if you click on the section called “the holy war against religion.” Here Wright takes out against antitheism, the attempt to dispel religious notions held by others.

As I said, was begun last year with a grant from the Templeton Foundation, and I’m sure they love the attack on New Atheism. So long as somebody attacks the antitheists and also leaves room for the possibility of the divine, as Wright does, the money will keep coming. I just found out that Wright also has an 18-month position as a Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at the Union Theological Seminary, with the mission of finding compatibility between science, spirituality, and religion. Wright’s position is, of course, funded by Templeton. 

UPDATE: At lunch I watched an hour of the 90-minute Union Theological Seminary debate between Wright and Lawrence Krauss, and I recommend it. There’s an epic quarrel about the question of “how do you get a Universe from nothing?”, and that alone is worth the time.


h/t: candide001


  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Well, this is an unfortunate development. But I still think Wright’s first book, “The Moral Animal,” is awfully good.

    • Zado
      Posted May 26, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      I got a lot out of his The Evolution of God too. It’s not polemical, as you might imagine, and he tucks some accommodationism into the last chapter, but overall it’s an excellent survey of the intellectual history of monotheism. And, like any survey of the roots of religion, it proves how man-made the whole thing is (even if that’s not what Wright was going for).

    • JBaldwin
      Posted May 26, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      I had the exact same reaction.

  2. GBJames
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 9:18 am | Permalink


  3. Kevin
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Paleontologist? That almost put yogurt through my nose. Meaning Life.TV: an unfortunate and unnecessary waste of time.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Better a paleontologist than a fossil I suppose 🙂

    • Posted May 26, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Maybe he mistook Jerry for Gould?

      • reasonshark
        Posted May 27, 2016 at 6:57 am | Permalink

        I did wonder if it was simply because Jerry uses palaeontology prominently to make the public case for evolution, but now you mention a possible mix-up, my explanation seems unlikely.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 27, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      They’re probably trying to imply that Jerry is a good-looking guy living in a flat in New York (or is it AnyCity) with lots of friends. Or am I getting my cultural references mixed up again?

  4. Posted May 26, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Wright is the incarnation of the phrase mealy-mouthed.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      I’d have to agree. He also has a penchant for coming across as slightly petulant and whiny. I find it difficult to listen / watch him or to give him the respect of making an honest attempt to listen to what he has to say.

  5. Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    As usual, Wright is wrong.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Robert Wright is lame. I used to catch his podcasts on Bloggingheads, but got tired of watching him paraphrase his guests’ words back at them, then sit back beaming as though he’d offered up his own trenchant insight.

  7. Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on having achieved a position with Lawrence Krauss on Wright’s “Murderers Row” (even as “a paleontologist”.)What a danger you are to “true believers”!

  8. Brujo Feo
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    But Jerry, OF COURSE you’re a paleontologist!

    Just look at you–your skin IS rather fair, and your discourses do occasionally deal with “the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.”

  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Wright has sold his soul to the God.

    His beef: New Atheists lack “intellectual humility,” including their belief that “we’re sure that God doesn’t exist”.

    Now we can have one of those intellectual humble analyses of the existence of magical beings again. (And again, and again, …)

    It is not like the question if Bigfoot or Nessie exist.

    There we can say that it is highly improbable that those examples of cryptozoology doesn’t exist, because even if they would be lineages of the phylogenetic tree their locales are unfamiliar for the putative clades. And there have been many claimed sightings or biosamples that are found to be false.

    The same goes for cryptomagic (cryptotheological?) embodiment of beings such as zombie carpenters or winged hominids.

    But that is just the start. We have claims of magic actions and enchantments.

    The prayer enchantments are poorly studied, but there seems to be nothing that moves the null hypothesis in a recent meta analysis of studies. But it should, so therefore we can say beyond reasonable doubt that such a magic being is non existent.

    The same happens – but with overwhelming strength – for the magic beings that act outside of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, it is beyond reasonable doubt waylaid by too many examples of completely natural systems. Among them evolution, of course, so there goes the ‘creative’ magic being.

    The Core Theory as probed by LHC can tell that there is no ‘magic particle field’ that moves around particles like the winged hominids once were claimed to do. And more tellingly the human brain has too many synapses for such an interaction to tell the status of the brain, even given a complete mapping of synapses beforehand. There goes the dualism of a soul lent by a ‘creative’ magic being beyond reasonable doubt, and with it the claim of such a being.

    Undaunted we increase the scope of our hunt for magic beings to the universe and its laws. Core Theory is obviously a low energy effective theory that is defined by and sensible only in our universe. But Planck and Core Theory Lagrangian agree on systemic properties: the universe is null energy (flat space; behaves like a null energy system). Either the multiverse is eternal or a Kraussian fluctuation started it. But, beyond reasonable doubt, in no case could an “external” system be involved or even exist as far as our universe goes.

    To sum up an analysis that intellectually humbly attempts to go from the mundane to the cosmic, the hypothesis of a magic being flounders on the cliffs of Scylla – the mundane aspects are less likely than Bigfoot – and Charybdis – the cosmic aspects are beyond reasonable doubt not there as they should.

    So the source of difference may lie between a (two sigma?) “highly (im)probable” or a 3 sigma “no way”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      I think everyone can see where I put in a rong blockquote…

  10. Dr. Jim
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Oh, man, I gotta start writing. I REALLY want to be on his list!

  11. Richard Bond
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    something that may, for instance, have created the laws of physics.

    Many of the most fundamental laws of physics are conservation laws, shown by the great mathematician Emmy Noether to arise from symmetries. These in turn are default states: it would take interference from some supernatural power for them to be otherwise. In other words, the existence of the conservation laws is good evidence that a designer god does not exist.

    • Posted May 26, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Also, what would be involved in creating objective patterns in everything anyway?

  12. Posted May 26, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    What a terrible speaker!


  13. janny11
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on PACIFIC ISLAND BEACON.

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    In an interview Wright did years ago with Chris Hitchens he kept falling back on the point that it is wrong to insult religion. Surely, the notion of criticizing ideas rather than people is a valid one!!

    I found Wright’s book “Evolution of God” to have many interesting observations which simply failed to gel into a coherent whole- the whole was vastly less than the sum of its parts.

  15. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I long admired Wright as a thinker and writer. He certainly didn’t always show this attitude. Even in bloggingheads days, you can find one where he takes Karl Giberson apart. I trace it to the publication of The Evolution of God, which is really a very good book until he decides, toward the end, to take on Steven Weinberg and suggest that the universe can’t be meaningless. From then on, he seems to have anointed himself Defender of Faith.

    Wright’s behavior after the Charlie Hebdo massacre was particularly disgraceful. He used bhTv as a platform to, repeatedly, make the case that they deserved it. (Although he met his match with David Frum, as many do.)

    Personally, I don’t get it. Does Wright honestly think that it’s a good idea for people to claim unjustified knowledge? I guess we all play our parts.

  16. kelskye
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    The deeper I looked into the question, the more sure I became of my atheism. I was happy to be an agnostic atheist and say “I don’t know, but I don’t think so”, but theists kept claiming there I needed to dig deeper on the issue. So I did.

    What I found was that God simply isn’t even unevidenced, but not even a coherent topic. Religious language taken literally is merely false, but taken analogously fails to produce anything coherent. So we’re left talking about approaching a question with intellectual humility where the believers themselves don’t know what they mean with their own language!

  17. kelskye
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    “Wright argues (25:50) that there may be some teleological force behind the universe—something that may, for instance, have created the laws of physics.”
    There may well be, but how do we get from that to God? Have Hume’s criticisms of teleological design been answered?

  18. Markus Koebler
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    “Whose bread I eat: his song I sing”


    “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut”

  19. yiamcross
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    You shouldn’t call yourself an atheist unless you’re sure there’s no god? Really?

    Ah ha. quantum physics, so weird even Einstein couldn’t accept it! There’s entanglement which allows influence to be transmitted instantaneously and things happen in the physical universe for which there is no cause in the physical universe. I’m not sure how accurate his interpretation of these aspects of quantum physics is but it seems disingenuous to lay them out as evidence from science that the universe is pretty weird in such a way as to imply something spiritual.Weird does not mean spiritual anymore than thunderstorms mean angry gods. Weird means a lack of understanding somewhere not an excuse to invoke gods or spirit.

    All in all this guy shows a lack of understanding or deliberate misinterpretation. Take your pick.

    • Posted May 27, 2016 at 12:39 am | Permalink

      « Weird does not mean spiritual anymore than thunderstorms mean angry gods. Weird means a lack of understanding somewhere not an excuse to invoke gods or spirit. »




  20. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 26, 2016 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Palaeontologists get all the credit. They steal the limelight away from archaeologists all the time too! 🙂

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 27, 2016 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      They say it the other way round in Britain – not because of a lack of spectacular palaeontology, but because of a decades-long run of really quite good popular archaeology programmes on TV (‘Time Team’ and it’s spin offs, with the un-de-badlrickable Tony Robinson).

  21. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted May 27, 2016 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Templeton-funded “MeaningofLife.TV”

    Two thumbs down for this disastrously failed attempt to adapt a classic Monty Python movie to an internet teevee format.

    Not only does the writer fail to carry forward any of the brilliant wit and message of the original movie, he somehow also manages to descend into a mindless blathering that convinces me he either never watched it at all or somehow missed the entire point!

    • Posted May 27, 2016 at 12:58 am | Permalink



    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 27, 2016 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      I think you nailed it. To the perch,

  22. Markus Koebler
    Posted May 30, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Pascal’s wager in new clothes ? Now called theological force?
    Wright won (Templeton money) but lost the last modicum of respect I harbored.
    He is a walking instantiation of the confirmation bias (credit to him, he admits it).

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