The political incoherence of atheism

Ian Murphy has a piece called “The 5 Most Awful Atheists.” His choice of 5 is pretty much what I would pick: Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, S.E. Cupp. Islamophobes, quasi-New Age ditzes, and libertarians.

There is a serious point here as well. Sometimes it makes sense to speak of an “atheist movement” or the likes in the US, particularly in the context of efforts to increase social visibility and acceptance. But by and large, beyond such narrowly focused concerns, “atheists” are not a politically coherent group. For my taste, for example, there are far too many libertarians among atheists. (I consider libertarianism to be both vastly stupider and more harmful than liberal religiosity.) I’m sure libertarians are equally frustrated about the traces of socialism they detect among nonbelievers.

But even setting matters of political taste aside, I don’t fully accept recent arguments like that by Greta Christina that “atheism demands social justice.” Like it or not, people like Ayn Rand and her fandom are significant parts of the landscape of American atheism. More broadly speaking, hypercapitalist ideologies such as libertarianism are inescapably popular in a country like the US. You just might be able to squeeze that tendency in together with some kind of rights-based liberalism, particularly if, like most liberals, you’re prepared to go along with neoliberalism. But not anything that lists toward a more lefty flavor of “social justice.”

In other words, the most likely course for atheism in the US is that it will remain a marginal preoccupation among well-off curmudgeonly white males. To the extent that there is a “we” at all in the sense of “we atheists,” we are a remarkably useless bunch in political terms.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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