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Chris Hall on the Changing Face of New Atheism

There is a marvelously well-written and timely piece at Alternet by Chris Hall: Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris Are Old News: A Totally Different Atheism Is on the Rise (tagline: “It’s absurd to think these white males represent all organized atheism”), which has gotten enough attention to be picked up by Salon, there titled: Forget Christopher Hitchens: Atheism in America Is Undergoing a Radical Change (tagline: “Having a conversation about atheism today by talking about Hitchens and Dawkins proves you aren’t paying attention”). It’s a great read.

I’m especially glad to see this getting articulated so well and so publicly, as it corroborates a point I had made over a month ago in correcting a misperception of New Atheism in a work by Crossley. It’s also an example of the success of the ideals behind Atheism+ (the label just hasn’t been useful–except as a shibboleth for identifying the awful and the ignorant). We’ve helped make New Atheism more diverse and more sensitive to the issues and concerns of groups other than just old, white, wealthy, Anglo-American men. And it also demonstrates the need for continuing to fight for that cause, showing we still have a way to go to get all the way there, not least because, as Heina Dadabhoy commented on Facebook just recently:

The comments from atheists on the Alternet/Salon piece on diversifying atheism where I was quoted yesterday are already far more numerous & nasty than the ones I received from Muslims on the NYT piece in which I was featured.

That other piece she means, an excellent and positive coverage of the Women in Secularism conference, and ex-Muslim women involved in it (Leaving Islam for Atheism, and Finding a Much-Needed Place Among Peers), also appeared in a major mainstream media source (the New York Times), written by seasoned journalist Mark Oppenheimer (my more avid fans might remember him as the reporter who also exposed the Antony Flew scandal with my assistance some years back, which famously annoyed William Lane Craig).

Greta Christina has made a similar observation: she gets far more, and far worse, hate mail (complete with threats and vile abuse, and persistent harassing) from atheists than from Christians. And she wrote an infamous angry tirade against religion that was wholly uncompromising (Why Are You Atheists So Angry?) and is actively helping atheists come out and challenge religion (Coming Out Atheist), two definitive works in their respective subjects, so she would normally be the poster child for evil among the Christian community. Yet, they pretty much leave her alone. Now, it’s pretty much only the godless anti-feminists and anti-social-justice nuts who attack, and all too often in terms worse than any Christian ever did.

I’ve witnessed the same: I used to get threats of hellfire and menacing and harassment from theists; now I haven’t had such an email or blog comment literally in years. What I do get is abuse and harassment (albeit on a vastly smaller scale than any woman in the movement I know) from atheists…who think I’m ruining movement atheism by calling for it to be more diverse, treat women better, and to care about shit. I’ve seen the email inboxes and comment queues of numerous fellow women in the movement, and they are getting this consistently far more often and far worse.

I have been calling on my fellow atheists in the movement for years to denounce this and no longer give a free pass to such behavior. It’s an attempt to drive women (and in some cases gays and minorities) out of the movement. It’s an attempt to bolster white male superiority. Because reasons. Fuck that.

Viva la revolution.

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    movement atheism

    I think that (for now) that’s a very helpful term; the distinction between movement atheism and atheism per se is elided too often and I think that confuses people.

    (cf. “dictionary atheists”)

    • says

      Indeed.

      Although I don’t think it really gets elided quite as much as it seems. Actual non-movement atheists wouldn’t waste their time complaining about what movement atheists say and do. That they complain means they actually want to control the movement. All their talk of dictionary atheism is thus a rhetorical ruse. They aren’t really saying atheism should just be atheism. What they are really saying is that movement atheism should adopt their values.

  2. says

    “What I do get is abuse and harassment (albeit on a vastly smaller scale than any woman in the movement I know) from atheists…who think I’m ruining movement atheism by calling for it to be more diverse, treat women better, and to care about shit.”

    The only person who should find it surprising that atheists are capable of hatred are those who insist on confusing atheism with a moral framework.

    I know smart atheists and I know dumb atheists.
    I know racist atheist, I know homophobic atheists.
    I know misogynistic atheists, and I know feminist atheists.
    I know liberal atheists, and I know conservative atheists (though most tend to call themselves libertarian).
    I know capitalist atheists, and I know communist atheists, and I even know anarchist (both ancap/ancom) atheists.

    It seems perfectly obvious that atheism is neither a mitigator nor an aggravator when it comes to morality, and I can’t figure out how someone can come up with a new way to not believe in god. Furthermore I have never understood the argument that suggests the real problem with religion is all the ‘hateful’ stuff they say. This suggests that as long as they hold hands with me while singing about ‘love peace and harmony’ that I wouldn’t oppose their ban on abortions or birth control.

    • says

      This suggests that as long as they hold hands with me while singing about ‘love peace and harmony’ that I wouldn’t oppose their ban on abortions or birth control.

      Indeed.

      Although the people who think such silly things aren’t the ones attacking us.

      And true the rest.

      My concern are the people who think atheists needn’t even be moral at all, or that they (themselves) can never be morally wrong, because, atheist.

      Hence we need atheism plus humanism plus skepticism. No one of those alone is enough.

  3. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    Hitchens, Hawkins and Harris Are Old News

    Hawkins? I must’ve forgotten him already. :P

  4. Al Dente says

    Viva la revolution.

    When comes the Revolution the old, white, wealthy, Anglo-American men will be the first against the wall!

    Seriously, I see more pushback, more ranting, more hatred from atheists towards the social justice branch of atheism than I see theists protesting about atheists. Many of the bigots are decrying the entrance of women and minorities into their atheist and secular clubs. There are skeptics whining that the eleventhy bazillion refutation of Bigfoot is considered less important than social justice issues and that’s not what they want. This isn’t a case of moderates complaining about radicals, it’s reactionaries refusing to admit that other people are voicing legitimate concerns.

  5. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    It’s also an example of the success of the ideals behind Atheism+ (the label just hasn’t been useful–except as a shibboleth for identifying the awful and the ignorant).

    I was just thinking about this the other day. I’m in an A+ group on Facebook, but nowadays it’s fairly quiet in there. It’s not because A+ is ‘dead’, though. It’s that the conversations we used to have in there, are being had outside in the mainstream atheism movement.

    • says

      Yes, and also, the A+ label just hasn’t had utility. So we don’t need it. We just pursue its ideals same as we did before we gave it a name.

  6. Jeff Engel says

    I suspect it may come from challenging identities: arguing for the inclusion in the face of atheism of people in any minority category, or for recognition of their interests (even existence!) in the context of atheism, gets under the skin of people who care about their atheist identity and their membership in whatever privileged community. Greta’s a challenge from inside, as it were, and you’re prodding them to rub out one of the boundaries that defines their social position. For Christians, atheists are “out there”: what they say can be ignored or explained away, who they are needn’t be relevant to who Christians take themselves to be. (Usual disclaimer: the attempt to explain is not a proposal to excuse.)

  7. millssg99 says

    Richard accepting everything you say in here about the need for more diversity in atheism and the unjustified attacks, etc. I want to comment on one specific aspect of this post.

    BTW I own and liked Greta’s first book. I haven’t read the second one.

    “so she would normally be the poster child for evil among the Christian community. Yet, they pretty much leave her alone.”

    There is a mega church a few miles from my home. It would not be surprising if I walked in there tomorrow during one of their mega services and took a poll with the result that every person in attendance has heard of Richard Dawkins and knows he’s that evil atheist and at the same time not a single one of them knows who Greta Christina is or has ever heard of her. You would probably come out the same.

    I believe but I’m not positive that The God Delusion was on the non-fiction best seller list for almost a year. Even today 8 years after it was published it ranks higher on Amazon that either of Greta’s books. I would be willing to bet that that book alone has sold more copies and is better known many times over than all the atheism+ types combined. It’s not going to be even close.

    I think it is all about influence. If Greta Christina was even remotely as influential or well known as Richard Dawkins she would be the poster child for evil among the Christian community. The fact is that the reason they don’t care about her is because almost none of them even know her. Attacking her would simply make here better known. Regardless of the seemingly large following people can have on the internet among a certain set of people, it doesn’t translate into influence more generally.

    Hitchens, Dawkins, Stenger, etc. may not represent the true diversity of atheism, but they are far more influential than others and that is why they get all the attention.

    I will make a prediction. When Greta Christina becomes the face of atheism like Dawkins has been, the hate heaped upon her will far exceed anything Dawkins ever saw.

    So not taking issue with anything else you said in this posting about attacks from atheists, I think when you or Greta get the press Richard Dawkins gets the reactions from the Christian Community will make anything heaped upon him or Hitchens look mild.

    • says

      It would not be surprising if I walked in there tomorrow during one of their mega services and took a poll with the result that every person in attendance has heard of Richard Dawkins and knows he’s that evil atheist and at the same time not a single one of them knows who Greta Christina is or has ever heard of her. You would probably come out the same.

      I concur. That’s kind of the problem.

      Of course, those same people would tell you atheism means communism and Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq.

      However, your thesis doesn’t hold up at the most crucial point: Greta and I used to get this stuff from Christians. Your theory cannot explain that. Indeed, I know for a fact I am far more widely known among Christians now, than I was five years ago, yet the flak I took from Christians five years ago was measurable, and now it’s nil.

      So how would you explain that?

      That said, I concur with one aspect of your point:

      When Christians feel threatened by us, they will attack us. What does that tell you about the atheists who are attacking us instead?

  8. Steven Carr says

    Any person with any bit of basic knowledge can see that Atheism Plus has been a huge success.

  9. says

    I’ve been having a lot of fun in the comments to the alternet version of the article, I rather like internet arguments for some reason (I think I’m a brute by nature so I ethically pick places where such is acceptable). I realize that such is not fun to everyone, and you and Heina Dadabhoy are right to point out how atheists interested in social justice have been much more aggressively targeted for criticism and abuse by other atheists than by Christians. But this makes sense to me and this discussion of what is being called the “white male hierarch individualist effect” sheds some light on why.
    http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2013/6/10/what-are-fearless-white-hierarchical-individualist-males-afr.html

    It’s an emotional disgust response to a perceived social “contamination”. These people bashing the idea of movement atheism addressing social justice issues having to do with atheism (or skepticism) politics more broadly feel personally attached to the labels, but don’t like the social justice politics for personal reasons and feel a disgust (or similar) response to the contamination to their connection to the label. They personally feel a risk to their status and power (personal social health homeostasis) via the contamination, The functional actions taken due to the disgust is an attempted purge or suppression.

    I have yet to see satisfactory arguments against asking dominant atheist/skeptical political groups to include social justice issues, or against atheists/skeptics forming their own alternates that include social justice politics. Most of them are simple illogical or irrational emotionally driven rejections of the idea with no substance when dissected apart. The closest I have seen to a good argument is the one about diluting the effectiveness of atheist politics in general, but that will not solve the problems of people who need the activism. It is a simple fact that many become atheists and skeptics for reasons that are informed by social justice issues. Religion and other irrationality cause different social groups different harms. These atheists and skeptics will form form coalitions to meet those needs because that is what social primates do.

    • says

      I am sympathetic to your theory.

      And it might be an interesting way to show that this means we do have atheists using purity-based ethical reasoning (cf. moral disgust). As one model proposes:

      The five foundations [of moral reasoning observed] are psychological preparations for caring about and reacting emotionally to harm, reciprocity (including justice, fairness, and rights), ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. Political liberals have moral intuitions primarily based upon the first two foundations, and therefore misunderstand the moral motivations of political conservatives, who generally rely upon all five foundations.

      And our opponents do tend to track conservative, and do make arguments against justice and fairness and empathy by appealing to ingroup arguments (“How dare you attack my hero Dawkins”), hierarchy (“You aren’t of sufficient rank to have valid arguments”), and now as you point out, a purity-defending sense of disgust (“Feminists disgust me”).

  10. Jim Reed says

    This A+ seems like a stacked game. There are no limits on how good Atheism can be, and so we can be sure some will decide to make it good. Religion is kind of stuck with ancient traditional ways of thinking, for better or worse. They will always be divided between doing what is right, and what is religious.

    • says

      The objective is not moral purity. That is a conservative idea. All we want is baseline empathy and fairness. Baseline.

      That will never be too much to ask.

  11. says

    When I first joined the online atheist community, and saw they were ranting about how religion harms women, I thought “woohoo! I have arrived!” I felt so at home. Until… I started talking about how maybe Christians weren’t the only people who needed feminism. Turns out for a lot of atheists, the experiences of women are only useful for discussion insofar as they can be weaponized against religion. And race? Fuggedaboudit.

  12. The Divine Council says

    This may seem slightly off topic for this post but since I cannot call myself an Atheist I am not sure I comprehend the “Changing Face of New Atheism”.

    Is it possible for someone to be an Atheist and an Agnostic at the same? In The God Delusion, Dawkins claims it is illogical to be a Theist but also illogical to be an Agnostic. He has a scale from 1 to 7 where a “1” is a pure Atheist a “7” is a pure Theist and a “4” is an Agnostic. He claims that there are almost no 1’s (pure Atheists). That most Atheists are somewhere in between 1 and maybe 2 or so. This seems about right.

    Maybe I am just weird but I can’t seem to put myself on that scale anywhere straight away. There are two components to my belief system. When I consider all the Gods invented in the minds of men, on planet Earth, in the distant past, in the infancy of our species, I am a 1 on the scale (a pure Atheist).

    I don’t think any religion on this planet has even come close to getting things right in describing the real Universe.

    That being said, when I consider the 100’s of billions of galaxies in our Universe and that there may even be a MultiVerse, I don’t know what to think. I am humbled. Maybe there is some force, or energy or consciousness, that could be considered some sort of God or Supreme Being but is currently way beyond our comprehension at this time. So when I consider the MultiVerse I am an Agnostic. I am a pure 4.0 on the scale.

    Most Atheists seem to be pretty sure that all the God’s of Homo Sapiens are made up and I agree with that, but some seem to be pretty sure that there is nothing else out there that we haven’t discovered yet. That nothing even resembling a God is even remotely possible. That may be presumptuous.

    I believe in Evolution, of course, but I don’t think that rules out some sort of Creation event 3 or 4 billion years ago. What if the most advanced race of Beings in our Universe sent a starship to Earth 3.5 billion years ago and they launched a probe with basic DNA into the ocean. What if the Supreme Leader of the most advanced Beings in our Universe gave the order to do this. Then for all practical purposes, the Supreme Being would have started life on this planet.

    I don’t think it happened this way. Life probably just started on its own, but we don’t know that for sure yet.

    • says

      Is it possible for someone to be an Atheist and an Agnostic at the same?

      Yes.

      Agnostic means don’t know, atheist means don’t believe. If you don’t know, you by definition don’t believe.

      Agnostic is sometimes used to mean “undecided” (even though that would actually be anapophasist). In that connotation, you are still an atheist, but it could be useful to distinguish (A) the fact that you aren’t yet decided or teetering between atheism and theism (or deism), from (B) being persuaded there is no god. The problem is, “agnostic” comes from “a-gnosis,” “absence of knowledge,” and has from its inception been used most commonly in that sense, so expecting people to automatically know which sense you are using (if you are using it in the awkward sense of “undecided”) is not a practical way to communicate.

      In the end, the distinction always dissolves into a fuzzy blur on any analysis of your beliefs from a perspective of your assignment of epistemic probability.

      Just always ask yourself, “What’s the probability that any god exists?” (Limiting “god” to actual gods; we all agree metaphorical gods exist. And we aren’t talking about aliens.)

    • John Morales says

      I believe in Evolution, of course, but I don’t think that rules out some sort of Creation event 3 or 4 billion years ago. What if the most advanced race of Beings in our Universe sent a starship to Earth 3.5 billion years ago and they launched a probe with basic DNA into the ocean. What if the Supreme Leader of the most advanced Beings in our Universe gave the order to do this. Then for all practical purposes, the Supreme Being would have started life on this planet.

      It is out-of-topic, but since Richard has addressed one of your points, I’ll chance addressing another: When theists refer to Creation (capital C) they generally refer to the ex nihilo creation of the universe, not to biogenesis.

      (But you are correct in separating evolution from biogenesis; they are two different concepts which creationists typically conflate into one)

  13. Slimy Man says

    “Agnostic means don’t know, atheist means don’t believe. If you don’t know, you by definition don’t believe.”

    I disagree. Applying this logic to theism would mean that because a theist does not know whether God exists or not, then that theist does not believe that God exists. Belief does not necessarily require proof, if it did then all beliefs would roughly equate to knowledge (justified beliefs which have a high probability of being true). Many theists do not claim to know whether or not God exists, but they believe that He does. Perhaps I have misinterpreted your message.

    Agnosticism, in the literal sense, is somewhat of an empty term when applied to the atheism / theism debate. Atheists do not proclaim to know whether or not God exists. If I was provided with strong evidence for the existence of God, and / or witnessed His works myself, then I would believe. As Hitchens always put it, atheism is not a commitment to there being no God, it is the acknowledgement that no convincing evidence or case has ever been offered to substantiate the claim that a God does exist. So that makes me agnostic, and Hitchens an agnostic. Agnosticism is really the default position. Unless there are people out there whom God has spoken to secretly (as history suggests has tended to be the case), then we are all agnostic, and it is belief which separates peoples’ standpoints. There are those of us who see no reason to believe, and so don’t. Then there are those who believe so wilfully and strongly that they reach a point of inner certainty, whilst still knowing that they don’t know. As you pointed out in ‘Proving History’ (if I recall), whether or not we acknowledge it, we all do the mental arithmetic when assessing evidence, developing hypotheses / beliefs, and determining the probability that our beliefs are true. I’m sure most people know why religious adherence is overwhelmingly referred to as ‘faith’, and know there is always the chance that they are wrong. Even ostentatious charlatans like Ravi Zacharias sparingly claim their beliefs equate to knowledge.

    As you said, I think people tend to understand agnosticism as an ‘undecided’ position. That being said, I cannot imagine what this adds to the picture because the reason they have not decided is precisely because they do not know whether or not God exists (referring back to the true definition of agnosticism) because the evidence is so scarce. But regardless of what they know or do not know, they will still have a belief. A workmate of mine claims to be agnostic, and I always respond with “yes, but what do you believe?” Or “do you live your life as though a God exists or not?”

    Maybe I’m just tired and muddled up. Care to rebuke (if this is not off-topic enough already) :P?

    • says

      We aren’t talking about people going around saying “I’m an agnostic, I have faith in God.”

      So that’s not really a significant issue here.

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