There have always been several gaps between new atheists’ self-image and reality. One gap that I have often expressed frustration with, is atheists denying that any atheist movement exists. You could argue the details about what it means to have a “movement”, but I heard such comments coming from people participating in atheist student groups in the heyday of new atheism. It’s a stubborn refusal to engage in self-understanding, a denial that there is any self to understand.
But today I want to talk about another gap. Atheists see themselves as having no heroes or leaders, and yet atheist celebrities are everywhere you look. This is a point that often comes up whenever an atheist celebrity falls from grace:
“Skeptics and atheists like to think they are above human foibles like celebrity worship,” Rebecca Watson, a prominent feminist skeptic, told BuzzFeed News. “In a way, that makes them particularly susceptible to being abused by their heroes. I think we see that over and over again.”
This is a problem composed of two opposites: (a) atheists see celebrity worship as a human foible that they have escaped, and (b) atheists are more susceptible to celebrity worship. And there are two opposite responses to the problem: (a) the tendency towards celebrities should be acknowledged, or (b) we must strengthen our resistance to celebrities.
The danger is that in focusing on just one response, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the other half of the problem. For FTB in particular, the danger is that we look at the downfall of our heroes and say to ourselves, “we’re moving beyond heroes”–without actually moving beyond heroes. By placing ourselves above celebrity worship, we may be replicating the original problem.