Atheist movement postmortems

PZ Myers recently linked to a postmortem of New Atheism written by a Jacob Hamburger, and offered his own postmortem. I looked around and it seems this is a bit of a genre, with articles appearing in The Stream, Slate Star Codex, and The New Republic.

I also wrote my own postmortem, when I finally quit atheist student groups in 2017. I would identify the problem as a lack of organization, and lack of ambition to do better. But perhaps that’s symptomatic of a movement that was simply failing to engage people, which could itself be symptomatic of even deeper problems.

I don’t think anyone really knows what caused the death of New Atheism, but it gives everybody an opportunity to raise their favorite grievances about the atheist movement, and pretend that’s why it really died. It’s fuuuuuun. Let’s look at what people are saying.

I think Jacob Hamburger gives a journalist’s perspective of New Atheism. In mainstream media, New Atheism was all about the celebrities. That mostly means the four horsemen. I’m so sick of talking about the horsemen! On the one hand, the atheist movement had quite a tendency towards celebrity culture, and towards denying that it had a celebrity culture. On the other hand, journalists tend to overestimate just how important the celebrities really are. Seriously, Dennett is irrelevant. And while Hitchens had detestable political views, I have never heard any atheists actually express support for them, and he died in 2011 before the atheist movement was in decline.

However, I like how Hamburger highlights the political trajectory of the atheist movement, starting as a reaction to 9/11, and moving towards a sort of anti-PC group. The connection between the two is Islam. And personally, I was never in the atheist movement to talk about Islam. I grew up with Catholicism, lived in a context dominated by liberal Christians, and I wanted to talk about that. Especially when I started out, I was 18 and not very politically conscious. While there is something to be said for caring about things that don’t directly impact you, there is also something to be said about caring about things whose impact you can understand through direct experience. So it was kind of a shock to see the anti-Islam part of the atheist movement go bad.

There’s probably more to be said about why the atheist movement had a tendency towards the whole anti-PC thing. The atheist movement contains an implicit critique of SJ/multicultural ideals: Why is belief seen as just another axis of diversity? But this is a tangential thought, that may deserve to be expanded elsewhere.

By the way, I’m skipping the part of each article, where they point to Elevatorgate, and the whole feminist/anti-feminist schism. It’s a really obvious answer, therefore probably a correct one. But I didn’t feel like writing about it at this time.

Next, we have the Stream article, by Tom Gilson. The article seems to be a collection of disconnected ideas so poorly written I wonder why I’m including it. (It was at least more readable than that Baffler article that he links.)

Anyway, the most laughable remark is about atheists’ “failure to gain traction in academia,” and “failure to produce any intellectually respectable thinking on their side.”

Most academic philosophers are nontheistic, and that’s been true since before New Atheism was a thing, does that count as traction?  And what does it matter? I note that the feminist and queer movements did get traction in academia, but: a) academics are not that relevant to activism, b) activists frequently disagree with the academics, and c) the academics do not get much respectability out of it.

As for “intellectually respectable thinking”, well it is true enough that Dawkins wasn’t very good at philosophy and Harris wasn’t very good at anything. But I don’t think that was their job. Their job was to rally people. If you rally enough people, you’ll find some with the relevant expertise to make it more intellectually rigorous. And you’d never hear about it, because intellectual rigor is fundamentally boring and does not get read by the people who clamor for it. Tom Gilson doesn’t seem to understand that atheism is a social movement, and social movements typically prioritize getting things done over acquiring “intellectual respectability”.

Next, Slate Star Codex! Scott Alexander notes that while religion is still a dominant force in the US, atheism is a complete non-issue in his social circles, and thus seems obvious and irrelevant. I have the same experience too. While atheism was more relevant earlier in my life (I did leave a church, and atheism was more socially relevant in general back then), it eventually became a non-issue.

Scott asks how this makes atheism any different from any other political cause. Generally, people of similar views live in similar geographic locations, and frequent the same spaces, and every political cause ends up preaching to the choir. Why should this cause atheism to fail, and not other movements?

I think there are two main ways that the atheist movement engaged people. The first way is that there was a lot of marginalization and microaggressions against atheists (not usually phrased that way, but that’s what it was). This remains relevant to many people, but it has diminished in importance. So, we’re left with the second way it engages people, through politics. And the political issues simply haven’t sufficed. George Bush is gone, creationism lost a lot of power, same sex marriage is legal, religious displays on government property were never important. Social justice was a real possibility but then it turned out that a lot of atheists aggressively didn’t like that one. And then there’s the whole Islam thing, and look how that turned out.

The New Republic article is older, from 2015. Premature, or prophetic? The article discusses how political differences between religious and non-religious people has shrunk over time, and atheism is more socially acceptable, and so there’s a lot less conflict between atheists and religious people. This fits with the argument above, that atheism has become a social non-issue for most people, and therefore there is little to engage people with the movement.

This is the one article that doesn’t refer to Elevatorgate, and it’s sobering to think that maybe that social justice stuff didn’t really matter and it’s all about long-term social trends. On the other hand, maybe there’s a connection. Early on, atheists were very socially progressive compared to religious people, and were big outliers e.g. in their support for same-sex marriage. Since then, the atheist movement lost that progressive edge, maybe because they scared all the progressive people off.

Of course, readers are invited to offer their own postmortems in the comments.


  1. John Morales says

    Well, what I think is that movement atheism (and movement New Atheism in particular) is distinct from personal atheism. Which means that, even though that movement New Atheism has drifted off course, my own stance hasn’t changed, though the appellation is no longer apposite.

    Still, I think it was a success at the end of the day despite its current irrelevance, and as you allusively note (“atheism has become a social non-issue for most people”), helped mainstream atheism in general.

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