Is the New Atheist movement dead?
If it’s not, a lot of people seem prepared to write its obituary. Two new articles are suggesting that its time is past. And in the name of honesty, I should say that I have an article coming out soon that throws another shovelful of dirt on the casket.
I’m in agreement with PZ that I used to proudly call myself a New Atheist. I don’t do that very much anymore, not because my beliefs have changed so much, but because that label doesn’t mean what it used to. It’s collected a set of unsavory allegiances that I don’t wish to claim for myself.
How did we come to this? Let’s take a look back.
It’s fair to say that New Atheism was born after 9/11, when a gang of Islamic terrorists committed a dreadful act of mass murder, and a conservative American presidency responded by courting Christian fundamentalists to wage holy war while agitating for theocracy at home. With these twin threats to liberal, secular civilization, there was an upsurge of interest in atheism both as a philosophy and as a component of political activism.
Of course, atheism is as old as humanity, and organized atheism and humanism had existed in the U.S. for decades. But this new current was fearless, rapidly growing (especially among the young) and influential enough to make itself heard on the national stage. That was the “New” part. What’s more, it had cultural cachet. For a few years, it was cool to be an atheist, both because of the smash success of books like The God Delusion and because its best-known advocates displayed an edgy, politically incorrect flair.
But this points to the dark side of New Atheism, which in retrospect was visible from the beginning. We had a bad habit of getting too self-congratulatory, proclaiming that we were the sole defenders of reason and civilization and everyone else was the savages at the gates. Worse, our devotion to trampling on taboos meant that nasty prejudice could slip in among us in the guise of “telling it like it is”.
These undercurrents were always visible – like when Christopher Hitchens cheered for Iraqi genocide so lustily that people in the audience booed and walked out, or when Sam Harris argued in 2012 for profiling anyone who “looks like” a Muslim – but in better days, there was an optimism that we could table our differences and press ahead with the causes we held in common.
The problem has become more visible now that the fault lines of our politics have shifted, splitting up the coalitions of the 1990s and early 2000s. Where Republicans used to claim that Christian conservatism was their animating principle, they’ve become increasingly willing to discard the mask and say that racism and xenophobia are what drives them. But I can’t place all the blame on the right wing, as much as I’d like to, because these sentiments have found a home among us as well.
When the ugly face of racism and misogyny surfaced in the atheist movement, we were ill-equipped to respond. The seeds of this problem were sown early, when we allowed a slate of mostly elderly, mostly conservative, almost exclusively white guys to be enshrined as our leaders and spokesmen. Many of these big names proved to be defenders not of science or skepticism or rationality, but of privilege: the claim that the established social order should be preserved. They’ve proven as hostile to social justice and self-examination as they are to religion. (Yes, there’s irony in atheists advocating this when we ourselves are part of a minority.)
Since then, our trajectory hasn’t improved. Of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens has died. Daniel Dennett never rose to the same level of prominence as the others. Richard Dawkins, when he speaks on subjects outside evolutionary biology, has shown himself to be a belligerent and blustery old crank (I laughed at the Guardian’s line about how “he has a bright future ahead of him leaving pointless online comments below newspaper articles”). Sam Harris, the worst of the bunch, has made active efforts to promote bigotry. And it drops off rapidly from there, to harassing creeps who were only in it for their own sexual gratification, or the spittle-flecked ragers and gibbering clowns of YouTube.
I don’t think the New Atheist critique of religion was wrong, or unnecessary, or mean-spirited, or any of the other criticisms that were flung at it. But I deplore the baggage that came along for the ride. I’ve always believed, and still do believe, that the atheist movement should have been a progressive beacon. When people walk away from religion, they should also have discarded racism, sexism and all the irrational prejudices that were propped up and legitimized by faith. In too many cases, that’s not what happened. The decent people who were non-religious but also cared about social justice quite rightly wanted nothing to do with this movement, and that’s caused a decline in its prominence and visibility.
But I’m not throwing in the towel. Even if the movement called “New Atheism” has expired, atheism as a political and cultural force hasn’t disappeared.
Groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation or the Foundation Beyond Belief haven’t gone anywhere, and they’re quietly doing the real, important work all over the country: sponsoring charitable giving, organizing students, lobbying politicians, and standing up to bullying school administrators, proselytizing teachers, city councils and hundreds of would-be petty theocrats. They’re not just defending state-church separation, but allying with other social justice causes. Atheist conferences and blog networks (like, dare I say, this one) are still going strong.
In the population as a whole, the number of nonbelievers continues to rise. We now make up 35% of Americans, and among Millennials and Gen-Xers – everyone younger than 45 – we’re almost half. Even among those who cling to conventional religion, its importance in their lives is fading: “just 43% of Americans viewed religion as a core component of their identity in 2018.”
I’d argue that atheists really are more progressive than average, but this fact has been masked by the painfully visible blunders and bigotries of our highest-profile advocates. If New Atheism as a distinct current fades out of prominence, that might be a good thing. It would cause journalists and others to cease assuming that a few loud voices represent all of us, and free them from stereotypes about who atheists are and what we want.
Optimistically, New Atheism might have been a chrysalis. I’ve observed that people who are new to atheism, especially people who escaped a traumatic religious upbringing, usually go through an “angry atheist” phase. It could be that atheism as a whole has to go through a similar transition before it can get down to the real work of changing the world for the better.