New Atheism is reportedly fading. Not that there are fewer atheists–their numbers have gone up slightly to 4% of the population–but the movement has splintered and the general public and even many of the New Atheists themselves have lost interest in the cause.
Two insiders tell what happened.
From Rationalists to Trolls, Atheists to Social Justice Warriors
Scott Alexander, a long time “rationalist” and student of the internet, has written a post at his Slate Star Codex blog entitled New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed. He says that “New Atheism was a failed hamartiology,” referring to the branch of theology that studies the doctrine of sin.
The early days of the internet, Alexander said, had an “argument culture,” in which people took part in long, in depth online discussions. One of the biggest topics was whether or not God existed. Both sides, he said, made good arguments–with refutations and counter-refutations–and, for the most part, they didn’t get personal or insulting. Those who argued against the existence of God, he said, were old-school atheists. The decline of discourse on the internet corresponded with the rise of the “New Atheists,” who believed that religion is the source of all that is wrong in the world. These New Atheists were not interested in arguing with religious believers, whom they dismissed as evil idiots. Instead, they berated them with mockery and insults. Thus the phenomenon of “atheist trolls.”
Alexander then shows, in exhaustive detail–looking at word searches and other data–how the atheist presence on the internet has declined. But he accounts for that with evidence of a shift within the New Atheist movement.
According to New Atheist hamartiology, religion is not just wrong, but evil; indeed, the source of all sins. Over the last few years, most New Atheists, according to Alexander, have become social progressives. This involves a new hamartiology in which racism, sexism, privilege, and social injustice are the source of all sins. The atheists can blame religion too, but the social justice movement includes many religious people. These new social justice activists are finding themselves allied with Catholic Latinos, Muslims, and Black Baptists. To mock or insult the religion of these minority groups “looks pretty racist” and violates the principles of intersectional solidarity.
Those who were formerly interested in atheism as an antidote to the sins of the world changed their interests, becoming preoccupied with social justice issues rather than questions of God’s existence. Alexander concludes,
Most movement atheists weren’t in it for the religion. They were in it for the hamartiology. Once they got the message that the culture-at-large had settled on a different, better hamartiology, there was no psychological impediment to switching over. We woke up one morning and the atheist bloggers had all quietly became social justice bloggers. Nothing else had changed because nothing else had to; the underlying itch being scratched was the same.
Elevatorgate and Atheists as Anti-Social Justice WarriorsIn an article at Arc Digital entitled New Atheism: An Autopsy, Ben Sixsmith responds to Alexander’s article but brings out other factors. He points out that while many atheists have become social justice warriors, others have become anti-social justice warriors, complaining about political correctness, speech codes, and “woke” culture.
The catalyst, according to Sixsmith, was the “elevatorgate” scandal:
The particulars of this scandal are too preposterous not to explain in detail: In July 2011, a man followed the progressive atheist blogger Rebecca Watson into a hotel elevator late at night after a conference and invited her back to his room for coffee. Watson said in a video that such behavior “creeps her out” and then discussed the video and some hostile responses at a later conference. The left-wing PZ Myers wrote in support, and none other than Richard Dawkins appeared in the comments. “Dear Muslima,” he wrote, addressing a facetious post which compared the genital mutilation and honor killings experienced in the Islamic world with the somewhat overbearing behavior endured by Watson.
Dawkins would apologize some years later, but a fuse had been lit on the powder keg of political contradictions at the heart of the New Atheist movement. The progressives, as Alexander says, realized that racial, sexual, and gender inequality flowed from more than monotheistic faith. The anti-progressives, meanwhile, realized that censorious, moralistic, and utopian values could be secular as well as religious.
What followed was far less of a debate than an online flamewar. . . .
A rift had been created. PZ Myers began to talk about transphobia more than the Trinity, and Sam Harris began to discuss campus censorship more than Christianity.
Sixsmith goes on to note the lack of philosophical sophistication of the New Atheists and their embarrassing ignorance of the religions they try to argue against. Meanwhile, the arguments and pronouncements, so constantly repeated, grew stale and uninteresting. Those who were once preoccupied with arguing against the existence of God “moved on to more intense arenas of rhetorical dispute, and people who banged on about the existence of God looked increasingly monomaniacal, irrelevant, and dull.”
I especially appreciated Sixsmith’s conclusion about the decline of the New Atheism: “The greatest enemies of religious believers are not, then, atheists who reject the idea of God’s existence, but apatheists who don’t consider the subject relevant.”
Illustration: The All-Nite Images from NY, NY, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]