[Update: In the course of this article, I conjecture that the secular humanist blogger I’m engaging with would consider himself a human exceptionalist. Since then, I have found an article where he emphatically rejects this label. I stand corrected and educated, though with no fewer questions for him.]
Recently, I was approached with an invitation to have a dialogue on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio show with secular humanist James Croft, a Patheos neighbor on the non-religious network. Details are still being worked out, assuming Croft is game, but very broadly speaking, we have been invited to have a discussion of atheism and the alt-right: Is there a connection, and if so, what is its nature? As a rare evangelical humanist who has my ear to the ground on these things, I’m grateful to have been sought out for my opinion. I have long thought it unfortunate that more Christians aren’t speaking into this particular sphere. Since James has written at some length about it from his secular humanist perspective, I thought it only fair to take the opportunity to begin some engagement with his thoughts in writing.
In the first article I read while getting caught up on James’ work, James lays out a series of attributes that he believes have left the atheist movement vulnerable to alt-right propaganda. These include a lack of salient positive values, an unhealthy compulsion to break taboos, a tendency to develop intellectual superiority complexes, and a circling of the wagons around misogynistic men. James also believes that just as men who fall for alt-right propaganda are buying into a false victim narrative, so atheists have an unfortunate habit of constructing exaggerated victim narratives around themselves.
I confess that Croft’s language of social justice and group identity is not my natural tongue. I prefer to view people as individuals. But I still found a number of his observations to be of sociological interest. I have observed many of these characteristics myself, particularly when engaging with atheists on social media. It’s especially amusing to be on the receiving end of misogyny combined with an intellectual superiority complex. (Not that I’m wounded. I just want insecure atheist misogynists to feel they’re doing well.) Happily, this has not so much been my experience in the real world where people live and work and solve problems together instead of loudly shouting their most controversial opinions at each other. In person, my atheist friends and I typically have some other worthwhile task to be doing that makes our religion or lack thereof blessedly irrelevant.
I also share Croft’s alarm at the rise of the alt-right. Trump’s candidacy was an eye-opening experience for me in this respect. Too many conservative friends whose opinions I value failed to recognize the scope of the problem, dismissing it as “a handful of trolls in their parents’ basement,” or “harmless joking.” Croft discusses at some length how the alt-right has built its brand on trolling and meme culture, which has intersected with atheists’ love of provocation as an end in itself. In this subculture, the discussion and weighing of ideas for their positive merit is replaced by “whatever will get a rise out of SJWs.”
This can turn very ugly very fast, and it has gotten so wildly out of hand that people have been caught in the cross-hairs who don’t even answer to the description of “leftist SJW.” Nobody perceived as a “cuck” or a “beta” is safe, including conservatives who are perceived as insufficiently “manly” (read: conservatives whose modus operandi is principled argument versus tribalistic chest-thumping). I have over and over again pointed to the example of David French, who was attacked with an unimaginably vile alt-right social media campaign because of his adopted African daughter. If you have not read his Atlantic piece about raising his daughter, which recaps some of this dark history, I encourage everyone to do so.
Unfortunately, Croft’s analysis is severely weakened by an extraordinary lack of fairness when it comes to certain prominent atheists who have been called an ideological “gateway drug” to the alt-right. Here, I find myself in the odd position of defending Sam Harris. Harris has come under fire from Croft in the past and is again lambasted here. Things like Sam’s anti-Islam rhetoric and willingness to discuss IQ research that could reveal disparate impact on minorities seem to have put him beyond the pale for Croft. In his world, it seems Sam Harris is barely a hop and a skip away from Richard Spencer. This despite the fact that Harris has consistently opposed Trump and explicitly distanced himself from the alt-right. I have heard Harris say in so many words that the kind of people who ask questions about topics like race and IQ “with a gleam in their eye” do not deserve the oxygen of publicity. But apparently, Croft needs more infallible proofs than these that Sam Harris is not a racist.
Jordan Peterson isn’t mentioned in this post, but I doubt Croft would give him a fair shake either. I have to wonder how the Weinstein brothers would come out as well. Would he say Bret Weinstein and his wife deserved to be ostracized from the academy because they didn’t check the social agitation box of the day at Evergreen State? I won’t presume to answer that on James’ behalf, but it’s something I invite him to consider carefully.
Anyway, while sociological analysis is fine, I am more interested in philosophical questions than sociological questions. And I think this question, “Is there an atheist alt-right connection?” invites some pretty interesting philosophical follow-ups.
First, to return to James’ point about taboo-breaking, I would contend this is a function of the atheist conviction that nothing is sacred. I’m old enough to remember P. Z. Myers’s “Crackergate,” his 2008 adventures in consecrated host desecration. Myers took a perverse glee in publishing the subsequent Catholic outrage mail over “the cracker incident” on his blog. I am reminded of nothing so much as the initiation of Mark Studdock in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. In order to be admitted into the society of N. I. C. E., Mark must prove his mettle by trampling on a crucifix. He refuses. Why? Does he believe? No, he says. He’s refusing because it’s all nonsense. Why is it so important that he trample on this thing? It’s only a random bit of wood, after all. It should be no more meaningful to trample on it than to kiss it.
But it’s not only the body of Christ that is gleefully discarded as non-sacred in the atheist mind. It is our own bodies as well, which are most emphatically our own and most emphatically not bought with a price. Nothing we might dream up to do with them is too degrading. The kinkier, the better. Any new human bodies that might be accidentally formed along the way can be neatly disposed of in equally conscience-free fashion. And once we’ve aborted the fetus, we might as well chuck it in a waste-to-energy incinerator as bury it. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about the human body, because there is nothing intrinsically sacred about anything.
Yet James believes he has something positive to fill the definitional void of atheism: humanism. To which I say: Good luck. But to quote Douglas Murray cleverly re-purposing Christopher Hitchens, all the work still lies before you. As an openly gay atheist, Douglas hardly fits the job description of a Christian apologist. Nevertheless, he forcefully argues it is not at all self-evident that human life would be sacred in an atheist world.
While James is, ironically, a vocal proponent of abortion rights, I presume he still wants to hold onto some form of human exceptionalism. I invite him to show me how this can be extracted from the process of natural selection. Richard Dawkins freely confesses in The God Delusion that he has no logical reason to consider himself any more “special” than his ape cousins. Peter Singer made the same argument when he refused to sign Humanist Manifesto III. As far as he’s concerned, the notion of human exceptionalism is no more than a speciesist holdover from Western society’s dogmatic Christian phase. (As an aside, I note with some interest that unlike Dawkins, Hitchens was less than enamored of Singer while he was alive. In debate with John Lennox, a thought experiment comes up where Singer compared his daughter with his pet rat. Hitchens remarks that he had two thoughts when he read this: First, that he wouldn’t want to be Singer’s daughter, and second, that he wouldn’t much like to be his pet rat either.)
This brings us back to the matter of race and IQ. James is fixated on the mere fact that people like Sam Harris and Charles Murray are having an open discussion of the data. The real problem is that the conversation is taking place in a society where mere membership of species homo sapiens is no longer enough to confer worth or value. To go back to the other Murray, Douglas Murray, this point was made quite well in a conversation he had with Jordan Peterson. Douglas says he has been getting progressively more and more questions about “the IQ question” from the right wing, and it disturbs him because he fears what lies behind them. He fears a society where nothing is sacred. At minute 23, he puts a sharp point on his fears:
If the people who are most interested in it keep pushing it like this, I see some terrible concatenation of nightmares, because of course this isn’t happening in a vacuum…Let me put it this way: The concept of the sanctity of the individual, whether you define that in a religious context or in the kind of ‘secular religious’ context in which some of us currently hold this idea, the time at which the notion of the sanctity of the individual is sort of eroding in the society, the combination of that happening at the same time as an obsession with IQ in the century ahead of us just has the potential for a catastrophe of 20th-century proportions. And that’s the reason why I just fear that if this isn’t dealt with in a reasonable way, it comes at us in the most unreasonable way imaginable somewhere down the line.
Indeed, setting aside race and focusing just on IQ, Iceland has already succeeded in its own little eugenic project of “eliminating” unborn babies with Down Syndrome. They’re not the only country who would like to cross this particular item off its bucket list. Murray has also documented the progressive cheapening of life at the end of life in places like Belgium and the Netherlands, where mentally ill patients are quietly shuffled off via assisted suicide. “Enlightened places,” Dawkins once called them. The sort of place he would like to die.
Is there an atheist alt-right connection? I’ve got some answers to that question. Whether James likes them all, that remains to be seen.