What happened to our brave, bold horsemen?


Scott Alexander has some ideas about how New Atheism failed. I largely agree with its thesis that the atheism framework was gradually abandoned in favor of an activist/social justice framework, so it didn’t exactly die, it just sort of metamorphosed. Also, it’s nice to get mentioned.

I don’t have a great sense of how this era went, since it was around the time I unfollowed every atheist blog and forum for the sake of my own sanity, but my impression is that some of the Atheism Plussers later admitted they came on a little too strong and dropped that particular branding. But the cleavage the incident highlighted (not created, but highlighted) stuck around. As far as I can tell, it eventually ended with the anti-social-justice atheists stomping off to YouTube or somewhere horrible like that, while most of the important celebrity members of the public-facing movement very gradually turned into social justice bloggers.

For example, I look at Pharyngula, which during its heyday was the biggest atheist blog on the Internet. On the day I am writing this, its front page contains posts like “Are They All Racists On The Right Side Of The Aisle?” (recommended answer: yes), a discussion of how opposing the Gilette commercial represents “classic toxic masculinity”, and an attack on Milo Yiannopoulos. Its sidebar includes links to “Discussion: Racism In America”, “Discussion: Through A Feminist Lens”, and “Social Justice Links Roundup”. There’s still a little bit of anti-religious content, but mostly in the context of Catholics being racist and misogynist.

Aside from Pharyngula, a lot of the old atheist blogs have ended up at atheism-blogging-mega-nexus-site The Orbit. When I read its About page, it doesn’t even describe itself as an atheist blogging site at all. It says:

The Orbit is a diverse collective of atheist and nonreligious bloggers committed to social justice, within and outside the secular community. We provide a platform for writing, discussion, activism, collaboration, and community.

It’s not “blogs on atheism” anymore. It’s “blogs by atheists about social justice”. The whole atheist movement is like this.

If I had any criticisms, it’s that it’s stating the obvious. Freethoughtblogs and The Orbit were explicit in stating their shift in focus. It’s not much of an insight to say that these formerly purely atheist blogs were talking about social justice a lot, when a commitment to social justice were clearly stated goals in the founding declarations in the formation of both networks. There’s also an omission: the atheism side of the Patheos network is still going strong, and it’s much more of an assortment of old-school atheist perspectives (perhaps one of the reasons I’ve lost interest in reading anything, other than a few bright lights, from that network).

Personally, what laid down a path for my own abandonment of atheism was the “dictionary atheism” nonsense from 2008. I thought the point was obvious — here are all these people attending conferences about science, atheism, Christian over-reach, the corruption of education by dogma, religious terrorism, etc., and simultaneously saying with a straight face that atheism was only about not believing in gods. It was an exercise in self-delusion and gate-keeping. By declaring their transparently false ontological purity, they were able to deny any kind of social responsibility. It was infuriating.

But Alexander also neglects to mention the huge chasm, the original Deep Rift, that shattered the New Atheism and set many of us off looking for a better paradigm. That was, of course, “ElevatorGate”. You really can’t try to discuss the history of New Atheism without mentioning Rebecca Watson and the trivial event that yanked back the curtains and revealed that a large fraction of that atheist community were flaming, unrepentant misogynists. They stomped off to colonize YouTube largely because that medium was so friendly to screaming sexism.

Still, I think this is a smart take on what happened to the New Atheism.

I think it seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement.

This probably comes as a surprise, seeing as how everyone else talks about how atheists are heavily affiliated with the modern anti-social justice movement. I think that’s the wrong takeaway. Sure, a lot of people who identify as atheists now are pretty critical of social justice. That’s because the only people remaining in the atheist movement are the people who didn’t participate in the mass transformation into social justice. It is no contradiction to say both “Most of the pagans you see around these days are really opposed to Christianity” and “What ever happened to all the pagans there used to be? They all became Christian.”

I don’t really like being compared to Christians in that example, but sure. I wish this weren’t the case, but the label “atheist” has been tainted by the people who still put that title first in their description, and use it to justify some hideously regressive views. Nowadays if I see some new blog or account or YouTube channel with a name like “The <fill in the blank> Atheist” (or “Skeptic”, which has become just as toxic) I tune it out because I suspect it’s going to be a shit-show. I’m still just as much an aggressive atheist as ever, but now what I want to know is…what are you going to do with your self-declared rationality?

Comments

  1. says

    Blake Stacey pointed out to me that that characterization of Atheism+ “admitted they came on a little too strong” is not true, and I agree. Atheism+ was harassed out of existence by misogynistic assholes.

  2. says

    the label “atheist” has been tainted by the people who still put that title first in their description, and use it to justify some hideously regressive views

    It is irrational for an atheist to promote bigotry, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

    Once we conclude that God doesn’t exist, what other excuses are there for continuing to practice misogyny? What other excuses are there for abusing LGBTQIA+ people? What other excuses are there for racism?

    None. Historically bigotry, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. had been excused by claiming that “God said they are all bad/inferior people.”

    White, male, wealthy, cis, straight atheists who oppose social justice have accepted religious sentiments towards various minority groups. However, unlike Christians who at least have the excuse that “God hates gays,” bigoted atheists are even less rational given how they have no excuse whatsoever for their bigotry.

  3. says

    It’s a good article, and I’m always glad to see people trying to figure out what happened to new atheism. However, I feel the conclusion is too strong, based on a couple blog networks. I have to say that in my experience on the social justice web, that very few people seem to have come from a new atheist background. I have to explain the whole atheist thing all the time, and people find it mystifying.

    In my view, some atheists transitioned into social justice, and some atheists transitioned into shitheads, but most people simply left. And perhaps this needs no explanation, people leave movements all the time. I may have been blogging for over a decade, and PZ even longer than that, but we’re extreme outliers. Most people–especially those who are not leaders or celebrities–get involved for a year or a few, and then move on. What sustains a movement is not that everyone is sticking around forever, but a constant stream of new people. The stream for new atheism dried up, the stream for social justice started to flow. That’s not exactly a seamless transition, because it’s mostly a different set of people.

  4. Erp says

    Once we conclude that God doesn’t exist, what other excuses are there for continuing to practice misogyny? What other excuses are there for abusing LGBTQIA+ people? What other excuses are there for racism?

    Plenty of people have misused science (think eugenics) to justify all of these. A life stance that allows for this might be theistic or it might not. And vice versa. In the long run our attitudes on whether or not there is a god are minor; our attitudes and actions towards ourselves, our fellow humans, and our environment are most certainly not.

  5. Acolyte of Sagan says

    #2, what you are overlooking is that religion has traditionally been the justification, not the reason. People who don’t believe in gods can still display shitty behaviour, they just have to justify it without referencing religion.
    If one were to follow your logic (and the logic of all who use the same argument) to its conclusion, then one can also claim that since religion is said to be the cause of people being good, without religion there is no justification for being good.
    One cannot argue that without religion there is no justification to be bad without also arguing the reverse.

  6. chrislawson says

    I’m still a dictionary atheist myself not because I don’t believe in social justice, but because of the existence of antisocial atheists like Ayn Rand. Atheism as my cosmogony and social humanism is my morality. And yes, they are complementary, but atheism in and of itself doesn’t make an argument for social humanism.

    Having an atheist movement is not a movement I find worth putting energy into. On the other hand, even in the supposedly enlightened West we still have governments oppressing all manner of people in horrendous ways. I’m not opposed to people holding atheist conventions or building atheist communities. But I’d much rather work towards social justice with people who agree on those principles whether they’re atheists or not.

    I think the main reason New Atheism failed is that for many of its figureheads, the longer they spoke the more they revealed repulsive opinions.

  7. robert79 says

    @2 “Historically bigotry, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. had been excused by claiming that “God said they are all bad/inferior people.””

    Except that since god doesn’t exist, it was in fact “People said they are all bad/inferior people.” and unfortunately it turns out people will still say this even when they’re atheist.

  8. says

    Erp @#4

    Plenty of people have misused science (think eugenics) to justify all of these.

    The key work is “misused.” Eugenics was bullshit with no actual scientific justification. The idea that trans women are raping cis women in public toilets is bullshit with no evidence. And so on. There is no evidence for any of the ridiculous theories that are being used to justify bigotry.

    Acolyte of Sagan @#5

    If one were to follow your logic (and the logic of all who use the same argument) to its conclusion, then one can also claim that since religion is said to be the cause of people being good, without religion there is no justification for being good.

    No. It’s easy to come up with secular arguments for why it is beneficial for humans to treat each other well. Without cooperation, humans cannot possibly survive. We’d just get killed off by the first predatory animal we encounter. Or we’d die of starvation. Never mind that raising children requires cooperation between multiple people. Humans cannot possibly cooperate without being good to each other, and without cooperation humanity is bound to die out.

    You cannot think of true and rational secular arguments for supporting bigotry. You can lie that trans women are raping cis women in toilets. You can lie that gay men are pedophiles who abuse children. You can lie that black people are less intelligent than white people. But all of those are lies, they aren’t factually correct arguments.

    There is a huge difference between a factually true argument like “without being good, humans couldn’t cooperate, and our life quality would decrease,” versus lies like “trans women rape cis women is public toilets.”

    By the way, I never said that religion is the cause of bigotry. There are various causes: personal greed (enslaving another person meant more wealth for the slave holder), tribalism and “us versus them” mentality, fear of different people (“those dark skinned people look scary, they might have cooties”). I can think of countless causes.

    The thing is that historically religious scriptures were written by wealthy men who used the opportunity to write down that bigotry is a good thing, because they themselves benefited from it. For example, the Bible endorses slavery and misogyny. Nowadays religious believers use their religions as a justification for why humanity ought to continue practicing various forms of bigotry. Once you stop believing in any religions, you can no longer use these excuses.

    Obviously, religion also isn’t the cause why people are good to each other. A pack of wolves treat each other well and care for each other, even though I’m pretty certain that wolves have no religion.

  9. PaulBC says

    The move towards “blogs by atheists about social justice” is fine, but if one goal of the New Atheist movement was to take back the term “atheist” and remove the negative connotations, it seems like that part has not succeeded. The trend of using “atheism” as an excuse for sexism, racism backed by phony statistics, and “I’m just being rational you sentimental ninny.” doesn’t help at all. There’s definitely a failure here, not just a transition.

    Does it matter? I don’t know. For instance, I have no problem calling myself an agnostic, non-believer, or former believer. It is a little tougher to say “atheist” because of the in-your-face feel to it. I am more nervous about whether the person I’m talking to will take offense. I’m not interested causing more offense than necessary and likely enough to offend inadvertently that I back off when I see the potential.

    It should still be possible not to waffle around a fairly neutral term like “atheist” without people equating it to nihilist or potential serial killer, which I suspect many do.

  10. says

    robert79 @#7

    Except that since god doesn’t exist, it was in fact “People said they are all bad/inferior people.” and unfortunately it turns out people will still say this even when they’re atheist.

    Sure. But a claim “God told me that gays have cooties” sounds better than “I say that gays have cooties.” It’s easy to proclaim that God works in mysterious ways and our feeble minds cannot fully comprehend his will, hence we must just trust his word and obey him without questioning him. You can even say that religious scriptures are all we have and therefore, unfortunately, we cannot easily ask God why exactly gays have cooties. When a human says “I say that gays have cooties,” it is easy to question the claim. Why exactly do they have cooties? What evidence do you have that they really have cooties? And why would that even be a reason for discrimination and abuse? When humans want to discriminate and abuse somebody else, they do so just because they want to, because it is beneficial for the bully. The reality is that they don’t have any factually correct and evidence-based reasons for justifying discrimination.

  11. PaulBC says

    And I just checked. Thoroughbred rules still do not permit artificial insemination, so the point is moot. (Oh never mind, misread the title. Time for more coffee.)

  12. says

    Atheism has become about like bigfoot and homeopathy – beating a dead horse. Religious believers haven’t come up with anything new or clever in the last 1000 years or so, and atheists haven’t needed any new or clever arguments, either. I don’t disapprove of my atheist comrades poking at religion, but it seems to be low-hanging fruit.

  13. PaulBC says

    Andreas Avester@10

    But a claim “God told me that gays have cooties” sounds better than “I say that gays have cooties.”

    But “Evolutionary psychology confirms that gays have cooties.” is even better, because it’s Science™. I agree that it’s a win to disallow religion as an argument, but it only solves part of the problem.

  14. raven says

    Who said that the New Atheism failed?
    It actually accomplished a huge amount.
    That we now consider the New Normal and take for granted.
    A few examples.

    .1. When I ran into the New Atheists, I was still a xian.
    The xian creationists, Dawkins, PandasThumb, and Sciblogs made me closely examine xianity and the bible.
    Xianity failed on every level I looked at.
    .2. The gods don’t exist.
    Today this statement is common, and in many places not controversial.
    It’s sort of obvious once you think about it that imaginary Sky Monster gods who do nothing don’t exist.
    We forget that this statement, not that long ago, was a death penalty offense.
    It wasn’t obvious to many people until they heard it a few dozen times.
    We lived in a society that used to be saturated with xianity, xianity maintained by every method of social control known, and believers were brain washed from birth as a matter of common practice.

    When I started following the New Atheists, the USA was 80% xian.
    It’s now 65% xian and losing 2 million members a year.
    To be sure, much of that drop was due to fundie xians being horrible people but still…
    the xians are losing members and the Nones are gaining them.

  15. PaulBC says

    raven@14 I agree things have changed, but in the 80s, which is as far back as my adult experience goes, most people I knew did not attend any church, talk about religion, or express an actual belief in religion (it might come up as “what if” BSing). There were some Christian proselytizers in college, but they were unusual. I was somewhat unusual in still making it to Catholic mass on Sundays, though pretty skeptical in my outward professions about what I really believed (I don’t think I’ve changed anything, just reset some mental defaults.) It used to bother me a little, for instance, that Balticon (the science fiction convention) was held on Easter weekend and usually created the spectacle of very-non-churchgoing fans bumping into brunch-going Christians in Easter Sunday best. Now I find it amusing mostly, but anyway, I can’t say this was incredibly shocking.

    Maybe things are different in the midwest and south. I have no experience with those regions and I’ll probably stay in my coastal bubble, thanks.

  16. davidj says

    I think Scott Alexander leaves out elevatorgate, etc because he tends to be very anti-feminist, anti-anti-racist, etc.

    But harassment and trolling tend to drive out the non-trolls, leaving woman-haters in charge of the remnant of atheist organizations. Unmoderated spaces race to the bottom. That’s the biggest factor IMO.

    @3, Siggy makes an important point about lots of people leaving. I think that happens a lot when there’s a big factional conflict. Unity is appealing, internal conflict isn’t. Plus trolling/harassment definitely aren’t appealing.

  17. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    I find myself occasionally these days explaining ElevatorGate and it’s connection to Gamergate and ultimately Trumpism to people who were in elementary school when it all started.
    Makes me feel old every time.

  18. anbheal says

    I agree with most of this post, but I feel they left out a piece of the alienation many (including myself) felt from “movement atheism”. There are a great many people who don’t self-identify as “atheist” — these people represent the new largest “religion” in America: videlicet, “None”. The supernatural simply plays no part in their daily lives. But they don’t see themselves as part of a “movement”. They just don’t spend time worrying about faeries and elves and unicorns and gods, but simply go to work, love their families, eat, sleep, (don’t pray), walk their dogs, cook their dinners, toss a ball with their kids, fix their cars and sinks, listen to music they like, watch movies they like. “Atheism” isn’t how they describe their world view.

    More importantly, their ethics are not dependent upon not believing in deities. They support civil rights, justice, peace, feminism, education, climate activism, etc., just because they believe it’s right and fair and important, not because they don’t believe in gods. Modern movement atheism has been a bit doctrinaire in shoe-horning them into a philosophical and psyco-social box they just don’t feel. “I don’t think shooting unarmed black men or treating women in STEM like shit is bad because Jesus means nothing to me — I think these things because I’m a decent sort of bloke.”

    So the arguments that “Atheism-+ must include a recognition of transgender rights” is missing the mark, with many decent thinking people. Transgender rights are important, regardless of whether you read Luke 2 on Christmas Eve. The connection that various Movement Atheists try to concoct is quaintly obvious, the argument being that religious beliefs drive a lot of bad things, so a lack of religion should drive good things, and when it doesn’t, we get upset. But that’s simply not how a great many fine hardworking activists think. They want social progress because it’s a decent and rational goal, with no bearing whatsoever on whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics, none. What I would guess is a large majority just don’t even bother thinking about supernatural superstitions. And they certainly don’t care to be labeled or hectored by people telling them that having gay friends is something they need to reflect upon under the rubric of atheism. It’s not.

  19. says

    One of the common problems atheists face is the accusation that if they don’t believe in (a) god, they have no moral framework or compass. (Try — just try — to imagine being an atheist objecting to immoral and illegal actions perpetrated by a government department filled with proud members of the Moral Majority in the 1980s and 1990s. You won’t even come close to the vehemence of the response.)

    The focus on social justice, however, isn’t just a philosophical response; it’s a refutation-by-action of the Moral Majority precept that “morals mean god.” For that reason alone, it’s entirely appropriate, even if a particular quote-unquote atheist doesn’t agree with every specific precept; socially, in the West (and, for that matter, in most of the rest of the world), “morals” and “faith” are so intertwined that an overt denial of one implies an utter lack of the other. Of course, you can draw your own conclusions on the moral framework or compass possessed by some of the more misogynistic (etc.) proclaimed atheists; but then, one can certainly say the same for proclaimed christians, proclaimed muslims, proclaimed jews, proclaimed hindus, etc., etc., etc.

    Because contrary to the rhetoric that’s out there and the presumptions of those who don’t look, “faith” and “morals” are at best intersecting considerations, and the overlap is far smaller than common memes accept.

  20. Erp says

    @#8

    The key work is “misused.” Eugenics was bullshit with no actual scientific justification.

    Unfortunately there were a lot of well known scientists who bought into it so it was difficult for most of the public to realize a lot of the underlying science supporting eugenics was bogus. Note that some parts made sense. One could breed humans to achieve certain ‘desirable’ traits or avoid ‘undesirable’ ones much as we breed dogs, horses, or cows; however, the ethics of coercing individual humans to breed or not to breed was ignored or considered of lesser importance. People still practice it voluntarily on themselves; a couple may voluntarily forego having biological kids or even marrying because both are carriers of a nasty recessive gene (e.g.., Tay Sachs) and so a quarter of their children on average would die young and painfully (or they may choose genetic testing and abort fetuses which have two copies). People with the gene for Huntington disease may decide not to have any children since 50% would likely carry the gene and face a nasty death.

    Of course with eugenics a lot of what they thought of as genetic traits weren’t and just fit their pre-existing prejudices

  21. chrislawson says

    raven@14–

    I’m not diminishing your personal experience of New Atheist writers having a profound effect on your beliefs. However, it’s hard to give confident claims to either credit or blame* them for trends in popular opinion. Gallup data shows the percentage of Americans identifying as no religion has increased steadily from 2% in 1948 to 20% in 2018.

    If you look at the graph, you can see that there was a huge shift from the mid-60s to mid-80s, then a chaotic plateau, then a big increase starting about 8 years before the book that is widely regarded as the start of New Atheist writing, Sam Harris’s End of Faith. I think we can safely say that New Atheism didn’t damage the uptake of atheism in the US as some of its critics have claimed, but there’s no overwhelming evidence that NA pushed the results up either.

    My own feeling is that the surge in atheism over the last 20 years is largely due to the availability of the internet. It’s harder to keep kids in ignorance now. Anyone interested in looking into atheism can find chockloads of material going back to the ancient Greeks. I also suspect that the theatrically craven behaviour of so many evangelic figureheads is making a lot of younger people question their claim to divine authority.

    *Yes, some critics blamed NA for the rise in evangelist political influence, ignoring the far more obvious power shifts within the conservative movement that were really at root.

  22. chrislawson says

    As Erp@20 says, it was hard for laypeople to know that eugenics was bad science because (a) it was similar to the very real science of animal breeding, and (b) a large number of very prominent scientists said eugenics was scientific.

  23. John Morales says

    chrislawson @21:

    I think we can safely say that New Atheism didn’t damage the uptake of atheism in the US as some of its critics have claimed, but there’s no overwhelming evidence that NA pushed the results up either.

    I disagree; I won’t dispute that you think that, but it’s hardly convincing. For me, the significant thing is that it helped to normalise atheism.

    I remember at the beginning of the phenomenon writing that the internet was the difference, where anyone there could have access to that viewpoint, so there, we are in accord.

    FWIW, I was a “new atheist” before it was a thing, and remain one still now that it no longer is. Unapologetic about it.

    (Though, when I was a youngster, it behoved me to pretend to conform so as not to suffer consequences. That’s much ameliorated these days, in no small measure to the Overton shifting gnus achieved)

    BTW:

    Gallup data shows the percentage of Americans identifying as no religion has increased steadily from 2% in 1948 to 20% in 2018.

    That metric is less meaningful than you intimate; it refers to established religions, not to personal religiosity. Or, for that matter, personal woo (spiritualism, newageism, mysticism, etc).

    So yeah, perhaps not-so-much formalised woo, but nonetheless.

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the huge chasm, the original Deep Rift, … “ElevatorGate”.

    Uh, before that the Official Atheist Deep Rift® was confrontationalism vs accommodationism. Ah, those were the (spitting, hissing, hair-sticking-out) days!

    Remember (e.g.), Matthew C. Nisbet & Chris Mooney? (Both now focus on climate change poltiics, last I heard.)

  25. asteraceae says

    Looking back, it seems inevitable that there should be a schism and people would end up on either side depending on why they were active in atheism to begin with.

    The fact is that atheism per se is a pretty dry well: Great, you don’t believe in gods. Now what? What do you do with that information?

    For some of us, the concrete problems with religion had to do with social justice. The rapes of children by the Catholic church. The discrimination against and murder of gay and trans people by evangelicals. The kidnapping of indigenous children by state-sanctioned churches. The subjugation of women. Etc. Etc. You could argue that in all of these cases, religion is proximate to the real goals of the system: the maintenance of power and control.

    So when the task of proving religion false and moving society away from uniform religiosity (at least, in the organized sense) is well underway, the natural and necessary next step for social-justice atheists is to move into the secular political realm and continue that work.

    For others, atheism was really nothing more a vehicle for self-aggrandizing, self-justifying masturbation. We are intelligent and sophisticated; you are stupid and primitive. Bend to our will! It’s a bit like libertarianism or Objectivism. It’s great fun when you’re thirteen, but you grow out of it pretty quick — at least you should! No coincidence that so many of the people on that side of the schism identify as such. Being mean to people for believing in things that don’t exist is neither particularly intellectually challenging, nor fulfilling, but it does seem to pay the bills. But you have to be kind of a mercenary (moral) nihilist to do it. An asshole, in other words.

    Of course hindsight is 20/20 and this is an oversimplification, but it’s really not surprising to see the Harrises and Shermers on one side and the Myerses on the other.

  26. John Morales says

    asteraceae:

    The fact is that atheism per se is a pretty dry well: Great, you don’t believe in gods. Now what? What do you do with that information?

    Well, for one thing, you don’t get sucked into believing goddism-derived ideas; for another, you can use it as a start to not getting sucked in to other forms of woo and magical thinking.

    the natural and necessary next step for social-justice atheists is to move into the secular political realm and continue that work

    Necessary? For you, maybe.

  27. dexitroboper says

    One thing that this doesn’t mention is the impact of US-style libertarianism. A lot of people who were promoting New Atheism also bought into this right-wing ideology and it ignored at best or demonised at worst anyone who wasn’t a white cis male.

  28. F.O. says

    Last time I read Scott Alexander he was making fun of feminist in his otherwise great Unsong and happily accepting biological essentialism “this woman is good at chess because she has Jewish genes”.
    Now he seems a lot warmer towards social justice.
    Did something change for him?

  29. says

    “What happened to our brave, bold horsemen?” sounds like the opening line of an Anglo-Saxon lament:


    What happened to our brave, bold horsemen?
    Sharp of talking-point, snark wide-dispensing;
    Volubly vigorous, fallacies upending?
    Gone, all gone now, to grift tediously toiling
    Their crying, “debate me!”, roundly rebuffed

  30. asteraceae says

    John Morales @26 It’s fairly clear that atheism doesn’t protect anyone from magical thinking. Note the popularity of evolutionary psychology on one side of the schism.

    Nor does it prevent unreflective people from exhibiting the qualities they disavow.

  31. booberry says

    But Alexander’s post was not really about HOW atheism shifted to social justice, but WHY. His thesis is that New Atheism was a failed Hamartiology, and that social justice is a second Hamartiology in response. All this is, according to Alexander, due to an increase of contact with people who’s opinions we don’t share ( thanks to the internet). Alexander thinks new atheism and social justice are ways to explain to ourselves the presence of opposing viewpoints which we find bewildering. It’s quite a cynical take on both new atheism and modern manifestations of social justice movements. Given that it was the entire point of Scott Alexander’s post, I’m surprised PZ didn’t mention it.

  32. consciousness razor says

    Personally, what laid down a path for my own abandonment of atheism was the “dictionary atheism” nonsense from 2008.

    Then you found Jesus, but in a few microseconds became an atheist again. It was a very turbulent moment in your life….

    I’m still just as much an aggressive atheist as ever, but now what I want to know is…what are you going to do with your self-declared rationality?

    “Atheism” has content that “rationality” doesn’t. You probably don’t want to mix them up. And probably, the point isn’t about insulting regressive atheists, for supposedly “declaring themselves rational.”
    Instead, you wanted to say (more or less) that there are important questions to ask about how we should act, given a naturalistic understanding of the world (not “given that you’ve declared yourself rational,” a pointless gesture which wouldn’t have important implications). We can try to understand the world we live in. Nothing wrong with that. And there is more work to do, in terms of sorting out which kinds of ethics work in such a naturalistic setting and which ones don’t. Nothing wrong with that either. That’s more or less the idea, isn’t it?
    Brand names/slogans like “social justice” or “secular humanism” aren’t magic answers either, of course, although some treat them like magic. Even there, you can still make this same move of asking “so what then?” If you’ve ever taken a test where all of the questions had the exact same answer, it should go without saying that somebody made your test way too fucking easy for you. It’s definitely hard to avoid cheating, when we need to make the test for ourselves and not have it handed down by a god; but like it or not, that is kind of what we have to do.

  33. says

    F.O. @28

    Now he seems a lot warmer towards social justice. Did something change for him?

    No, Scott hates Social Justice with a passion. Whenever he calls something “Social Justice” – especially with capitals – it’s the most venomous curse he can think of. Possibly even more venomous than when he says “feminist”.

    So it’s surprising and pleasing that he still managed to write a short history that PZ didn’t think was obviously wrong.

    Buuuuuuut, that’s why Scott left out Elevatorgate – it doesn’t fit his model.

  34. Kagehi says

    @6 chrislawson

    I agree, to “some” extent. The problem then becomes though the same as say, me describing myself as an Arizonan, or even a Lake Havasu Resident. The former might get people asking “which part”, but then I have to go on to the second bit, and anyone that knows the local politics, even slightly, is going to then leap to, “Oh, so a Republican then? And you probably voted Tea Party back when that was happening.” This “city” was one of those that was utterly, practically to the last person standing (with rare exception), clueless that the concept was almost immediately hijacked (or just faked early on as having legitimate ideas), by lunatics, and its so pro-Trump here, in some respects, that we actually have an idiot that, who no one has done a thing about, who rides around town each day, blaring out 80’s cold war music, from his loud motorcycle. And I do mean “every parking lot in town he rides through”. Until about 2 weeks ago this was also flying both an US and confederate flag as well.

    Sure, there are a few sane people, but almost every damn car has either a Trump sticker, or some other stripe of right wing BS, an NRA sticker, or something referencing Jesus (if not all three).

    So, yeah, if I “described myself” as merely someone from here, guess what the assumption is likely to be?

    What is my point? Simply this – language necessitates precision to get people to understand what the F you mean by something, and a single word is worthless if half the people using it are using a completely different dictionary, or looking at a Wikipedia like page (or just word of mouth), in which describes “atheist” as some variation of, “Arrogant SOB, who loves all the horrible things in the world, but doesn’t like god.” What the F good does it do to be a “dictionary” atheist, any more than it would me to be a “dictionary” Lake Havasuan, if the conclusion more than half the people you meet will leap to is the exact opposite of everything you stand for.

    While I am often really annoyed by the whole, “Take back this word.”, theme that runs through so many movements, and I think “Christians” that reject most/all of the bad stuff badly need to find a better label, and give up on this soiled, badly abused, worn through in patches, bit of refused they cling to, I have to also, to some extent, emphasize with the view that its utterly worthless to keep using “atheist” if the best defense of that use is, “But the dictionary technically says it only means ‘blah’!!!”, because the rest of the world, including everyone shitting on it, ultimately, DOESN’T CARE, what the correct definition is.

  35. Owlmirror says

    Scott hates Social Justice with a passion. Whenever he calls something “Social Justice” – especially with capitals – it’s the most venomous curse he can think of. Possibly even more venomous than when he says “feminist”.

    Really? I mean, this paragraph:

    I can only describe this experience from my own side of the aisle, which was the progressive side. We watched the US population elect George W Bush and act like this was a remotely reasonable thing to do. We saw people destroying the environment, leaving the poor to starve, and denying gay people their right to live as normal members of society.

    certainly looks like he would accept the broadest expression of social justice — that racism, misogyny, and homophobia are wrong and should be opposed, and perhaps also other forms of bigotry as well, or something to that effect.

    But perhaps I’ve missed something. I haven’t read slatestarcodex that deeply.

    Buuuuuuut, that’s why Scott left out Elevatorgate – it doesn’t fit his model.

    Interesting catch.

    I note that in the comments, there are mentions of Elevatorgate — and the sub-comment thread below one of them immediately recapitulated Elevatorgate. Gah.

    But Scott does not comment on either of those threads, as best I can see refreshing the page now.

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