P Z Myers recently wrote a post-mortem on “New” Atheism of USA. Reading that I realised what happened in my own state of Kerala in India was very similar, though late by few years.
The “Old” atheist movement of Kerala focused its criticism mainly on superstitions, sorcery, primitive religious rituals and astrology. Many atheists of that generation were fans of homeopathy, naturopathy, yoga and Ayurveda. Many of them were Communists and believed that Dialectical materialism was a Science. Remember this is the state where the communist party won power through a ballot for the first time.
The “New” atheism in Kerala began about 10 years ago and was inspired by the Dawkins book , “ The God delusion “. The ideas from the book were popularised through the projection of power point slides in hundreds of meetings all over the state.
The new movement in contrast to old one were critical of the pseudo science in medicine. (Being a medical professional I became a part of it.) It also began criticising Dialectical materialism and claims of scientific socialism.
But soon the rifts became very evident. It started with the issue of women in atheism. A section of the “New” atheists began projecting wives as a stumbling block preventing the propagation of atheism in the family. They expressed abhorrence to the word feminism and propagated the myth that women are inherently irrational. When their misogyny was criticised they portrayed their critics as people pretending to be feminists to get sexual favours. This lead to a split in the movement with the anti feminists on one side and the pro feminist atheists on the other.
The next split came on the issue of caste. India’s ancient and oppressive caste system gave rise to affirmative actions by the government after independence. A major measure was reservations of seats in the government educational institutions and offices for “depressed” castes. A section of the new atheists were adamant that if someone has to be considered as an atheist, he/she should not avail the job reservation benefits because according to them caste is based on religion and atheists are non religious. They also opined that caste should not be discussed in atheist meetings claiming that will perpetuate caste system. A quote by a famous Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman which implied if one stopped talking about race it will cease to be a problem was presented as evidence.
Many atheists did not agree with this view. They pointed out that a person cannot get rid of their caste like a belief in God. Caste is a social construct that is imposed on a person regardless of his/her wishes. An upper caste person enjoys almost all of the caste privileges even if he/she is an atheist. Similarly a depressed caste person will be seen by society as a person of inferior birth even if he/she renounces their religion. So by insisting that atheists should not avail caste reservations in jobs and educational institutions is regressive and against social justice. It is a casteist view that will prevent depressed classes from entering atheist movement. Also they reiterated that highlighting caste based injustice in the society was part and parcel of a humanist atheist movement.
Thus the new atheist movement in Kerala state of India is now a divided house with one section championing social justice, and the other taking an alter Right view trivialising gender and caste oppression.