The title of the article is What Was New Atheism?. The use of the past tense is noted. The label was coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf in Wired, and we spent the next decade sort of agreeing that there is a kind of unified movement here (while trying to explain it wasn’t “new”), while what unity we had splintered beneath us. I guess it’s over now. The “New Atheism” had a 12 year shelf life. We should have used more preservatives, I suppose.
Yes, I was a New Atheist (past tense again). I promoted it, I happily wore the label, I was initially optimistic that we were going to change the culture, I was naive and stupid. I swallowed some of my early reservations — is this just a reaction against Bush fueled by xenophobia inspired by the September 11th bombings? — but figured that would pass, that people would step in the door and then find enduring meaning in science and evidence-based reasoning.
Boy, was I wrong.
Mainly what happened is that the credibility of science was stolen to bolster rationalizing prior bigotries. People were drawn into the Church of the New Atheism by Islamophobia, but rather than being enlightened about the unity of humanity, they instead learned that bastardized evolutionary theories could be weaponized to justify all kinds of abuses, because that’s what the self-appointed “leaders” were doing.
And that’s another thing — who put Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens in charge? They got profiled in Wired with ominously shadowy portraits (omens of the “Intellectual Dark Web” to come), and they made a video in which they appointed themselves “The Four Horsemen”. Whatever the New Atheism was, it was structureless, so it was easy for a couple of early popularizers to fill the vacuum. Watching a PR move rapidly turn into a de facto powerbase that would quickly dominate conferences and writings left me uneasy — but as long as we weren’t building idols and golden thrones for the Tetrarchs I figured this, too, would pass. Unfortunately, while it didn’t get to the golden thrones stage, for too many people the four turned into oracles whose dicta should not be questioned, and dissent would lead to being ostracized. It only took a year to build a cult of personality.
This particular article views the whole brief episode through the lens of politics, and just politics, which is rather interesting. To me, politics was a side effect, but I agree that it was clear that to some it was primary.
The genesis of New Atheism can be traced back to a series of foreign-policy debates in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Christopher Hitchens’s writings in this period had little to do with atheism, as they were mainly directed against fellow unbelievers on the intellectual left. The controversies that led Hitchens to break with that left nonetheless helped lay the foundation for the New Atheist phenomenon. Like so many other apostates from the American left—from Whittaker Chambers to Irving Kristol and the early neoconservatives—Hitchens held onto his disdain for the liberal mainstream for the rest of his writing career.
Yeah, Hitchens…what a mess. He was a brilliant polemicist and one of the most artfully eloquent people I’ve ever met, but he was also politically vicious, and was adept at denying humanity to the people he wanted bombed. The most dangerously intelligent person I’ve known, he was quick to seize on the intellectual foundation of atheism as a useful tool to persuade others that his causes were legitimate. I suspect part of the reason was also that with God out of the picture, that left him the smartest man in the room.
Unfortunately, it also introduced a political rift, because now a group of people who may initially have rejected the pious stupidity of the Republicans found themselves being told that we ought to support Republican militarism. And at least two of the other three horsemen were agreeing with him.
An aspiring neuroscientist with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, Sam Harris had founded the New Atheist genre in 2004 with his anti-religious manifesto The End of Faith. Harris’s critique of religion was simple, hinging on the idea that “beliefs are principles of action.” In other words, everything we hold to be true has the potential to inform what we do, and at bottom our behavior rests on a more or less coherent set of propositions. The major world religions are illegitimate not only because they make claims that science can show to be false—though for Harris this was obvious—but because a system of belief founded on “bad ideas” will tend to lead people to bad actions. Two years later, in The God Delusion, the Oxford biologist and “Professor for Public Understanding of Science” Richard Dawkins emphasized the other side of the equation. The most commercially successful of the New Atheist best sellers as well as the most evangelical, Dawkins’s book actively aimed to convert readers to scientific rationalism. Unbelief was not only a social good which prevented irrational acts of violence, Dawkins argued, it was also a good in itself for the individual.
That’s an anodyne summary of Harris’s position. It needs to be mentioned that one of his themes is that Islam is particularly evil and that we’re in a great clash of civilizations and must overcome the Muslim hordes. I’d fully agree with that summary of Dawkins’ book, though. But again, the article looks at everything from a political perspective, which, while I agree that it’s valid, it doesn’t align well with my personal reasons for committing to the New Atheism, which were more humanist and scientific. But yes, these emerging political differences were definitely part of schism that was tearing the movement apart.
In this regard, the New Atheist critique of religion reflected liberal America’s defining worry about George W. Bush and his Christian voter base’s hostility to science and technical expertise. Under the Democratic consensus of the time, it was unnecessary to agree on whether the wars were just so long as everyone under the liberal tent could agree that the people in charge of these wars were irrational and incompetent—or simply stupid. American liberalism has a technocratic streak that long predates the 21st century, but both at home and abroad, the tenure of George W. Bush provided it with a counterpart that appeared uniquely ignorant of “facts, logic and reason.” Many liberals wanted no part in Bush’s personal crusade against the enemies of Christendom; others believed that they were more competent to win America’s wars than their boneheaded conservative opponents. New Atheism affirmed both of these impulses simultaneously.
From my perspective, though, the deepest of the rifts was the emerging anti-feminist wing and the active neglect of social justice issues. It wasn’t just that the New Atheism had a specific, narrow focus (on, apparently, oppressing Muslims), but that it loudly denied that anyone else within the movement could have other priorities. Feminism was wrong and bad and you should shut up about it, and there was the lie that atheism could only be about denying the existence of gods while not-at-all-subtly promoting other philosophical positions.
In the early 2010s, New Atheism was less in the headlines than it had been during its heyday. But at the conferences where the surviving New Atheists spoke and on the online forums where their books were debated, shouting matches regularly broke out over accusations that they were Islamophobic apologists for American empire. In addition, the 2010s also saw an increasing number of polemics concerning sexism within the atheist community, starting with a 2011 episode known as “Elevatorgate,” in which the feminist vlogger Rebecca Watson complained of being propositioned in an elevator late at night during an atheist convention, only to be scolded online by Dawkins that women have it far worse under Sharia law.
These kinds of incidents produced a schism among prominent atheists. On one side were proponents of an atheism explicitly tied to progressive values, such as the biologist PZ Myers, the “atheism plus” movement, and media figures like The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur and Kyle Kulinski. On the other were most of the prominent New Atheist celebrities—including Harris, Dawkins, Michael Shermer and Dave Rubin, a former employee of The Young Turks—who felt that the emphasis on feminism, diversity and anti-imperialism distracted from the fight against religious extremism.
The rest of the article is describing an ongoing tragedy. The New Atheism has been successfully co-opted by the Alt-Right, and now is all about policing political correctness, whining about how white people are oppressed, and how women are ruining everything. The “celebrities” are all about sneering at social justice and promoting old conservatives, like Charles Murray, while denying that they’re actively working for conservative causes.
It’s interesting where the old guard have ended up.
Hitchens has died, but his fans continue the process of apotheosis. I don’t even want to talk about him anymore, because it usually prompts a deluge of people trying to patch over the ugly bits of his reputation. He was a saint, don’t you know.
Dennett has basically retired from the fray. Maybe he was the smartest of the four. Although I would argue with him fiercely on his misunderstandings of evolution, at least he kept his discussions on a philosophical plane.
Harris, the worst of the bunch, is also the most successful. He has successfully pandered to the most regressive members of his audience, and continues as an alt-right, “Intellectual Dark Web” figurehead, and is continuing to profit. If anyone is a symbol of the moral and intellectual corruption of the New Atheism, though, he’s it.
Dawkins had the most well-earned prestige, and has ended up squandering his reputation with repeated foot-shootings.
And me. I was never on a par with those big names, but I was a madly typing proponent of the New Atheism. Now, though…that period is the deepest regret of my life (not that that means much, I’ve been lucky to live a life with few regrets). I’m still a strong atheist, and will be on my deathbed, and I do not regret promoting godlessness and a reason-based life, but I was unfortunate to be part of that traveling shit-show before I realized it’s destination was where it is now: a shambles of alt-right memes and dishonest hucksters mangling science to promote racism, sexism, and bloody regressive politics.