I’ve been godless since I was a teenager, and have been vocal about it, too. Richard Dawkins was a life-long atheist, too, and he sat on the idea for The God Delusion for years, his agent telling him the time wasn’t right. Something changed in the early years of the 21st century, though, and rather abruptly, atheism became cool. All of us long-term atheists suddenly had growing audiences; we were mentioned in pop culture; our enemies became even more shrill; and we had this monicker thrust upon us, the “New Atheists”, against our protests, because we were all aware that there was nothing new about it. Maybe we were more aggressive, or maybe suddenly people were listening to us, but really, it was the same old atheism with a fancy artisan label.
And it took off. “The Four Horsemen” — weirdly inappropriate as it was (which one’s Death, which is Pestilence?), as bizarre as it was for four guys to basically declare themselves the inspirational leadership of an intellectual movement, it was a phenomenal PR move. Atheism became associated in the public eye with New Atheism and these four, turning into a vanity project, which was the worst thing that could happen to us all. Now all the flaws in those individuals transferred to how the public saw atheism.
There was the Philosopher, who has probably aged the best by staying out of the public eye to a large degree, and focusing on academic endeavors and ideas like the Clergy Project. If only the others had kept their ego as free of the atheism movement as he has.
There was the Scientist, who contributed so much clarity to atheism, but is now even more strongly associated with deplorably regressive ideas about feminism, and also leapt happily on the anti-Islam bandwagon fired up by his fellow Horsemen. Unfortunately, part of the growth of 21st century atheism was fueled by the burning of the Twin Towers, and we got sidetracked into damning Islam rather than promoting secularism as worthy in itself.
There was the Eloquent Polemicist, the guy with the confident turn of phrase, the certainty buoyed up with wit, who was on board specifically to chant for the neocon agenda, who wanted war, war, war with a third of the world. He was a brilliant speaker and writer, but he was also one of those responsible for turning atheism towards the darkness of ethnic hatred and misogyny. He had help, though…
There was the Dilettante, Mr Hollywood, the fellow who won over a horde of pre-Alt-Right fan boys by cloaking himself in the mantle of [motivated] Reason and doing his best to make racism palatable by saying it all in a mind-numbing emotionless drone. Read the summary. It’s not pretty.
This is how the New Atheism was shaped, by this handful of high profile proponents. I regarded myself as a New Atheist, too, for the longest time (heck, I’m even cited in The God Delusion, making me pretty damned New Athey, I would think), although for the past few years I’ve mainly been criticizing the direction it’s been taking. Too much blithe sexism, too much flirting with racism, far too much association with regressive conservatism, way way too much fucking libertarianism. The captains of the ship have been steering it into catastrophe while being too busy polishing their uniforms.
Symptomatic of the problems is the offense to reason du jour. We’re living in the age of Trump, when evangelical wankers rule the senate and the Supreme Court is being stocked with Christian conservatives. Planned Parenthood clinics are being shut down all across the country. Our president panders to the Evangelical Right by trying to ban transgender people from the military, and flirts with the war hawks by rattling sabers at Iran and North Korea. There are a million crimes that a movement dedicated to secularism, reason, and Enlightenment values ought to be driven to oppose, but no…what we’re supposed to be concerned about is that Richard Dawkins’ Free Speech was curtailed by a radio station deciding they didn’t want to host one of his talks.
Oh, please. If only we could apply some of that outrage to the case of every woman denied the right to control her own body because Bible-thumping fetus-worshippers hate autonomy. That would be an atheist movement worth following (I should mention that the FFRF, at least, does take a clear position on that).
So…this article by Phil Torres in Salon on the New Atheists. I have to say that Salon has a poor record on writing about atheism — they’ve published some awful crap, and seem to lack any editors competent to evaluate articles on religion or atheism — so I read it with some trepidation. But worse, the article turns out to be dead-on. Don’t you just hate it when someone effectively criticizes something you have been a part of? I’m actually going to have to recommend it, because it does summarize well all the problems with the New Atheism. I agree with it.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news.
That version of atheism that is all neocon, libertarian, anti-feminist, and smug cult of personality crap? It has conveniently lumped itself together under the label of “New Atheism”. Reject it. Repudiate it. Scorn it as being soooo 2005.
I say this as a former proud New Atheist, but New Atheist no more.
But still an atheist. Man, that religion junk is so inane that I’m not leaping into its arms because I refuse to accept the baggage of the New Atheism — but you can still be a proud Social Justice Atheist, or SJA, without accepting any fragment of superstition and god-belief.