Why movements should not have spokespersons

Being an atheist does not carry with it any special wisdom. Just because one has seen clearly on one particular issue does not mean that one sees clearly on every issue. This is why it is never desirable for fledgling movements to be too closely identified with one or a small set of individuals because those people might say things on other issues that are unwelcome and yet all members of the movement get perceived as having the same views.

In the case of atheism in the English-speaking world, the most visible people are Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. While all of them have made immense contributions to breaking down the taboos against atheism and provided cogent arguments against religion and its dangers, the views of at least the first three on many other issues have been problematic, to say the least. Hitchens and Harris have political views that I find appalling while Dawkins seems to have this weird penchant for saying things on social issues (especially via Twitter) that other atheists find offensive and then either doubling down or having to offer tedious explanations as to why what he apparently said was not what he meant. In fact, a recent article even went to far as to pose the question “Richard Dawkins: Atheism’s asset or liability?”

There is no question that he is an asset for atheism. The problem is that he should not be the spokesperson or the face of atheism because no one should be in that role. If you suspect that you are being perceived as such, you should conspicuously deny that you occupy that niche

With Harris and Hitchens, their problem seems to be that their stands on political issues seemed to be based on the degree of the antipathy they have to the religious views of the participants on those issues. Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, and Noam Chomsky have pointed out how Hitchens and Harris used atheism to support US militarism. Theodore Sayeed argues that Harris’s views on Gaza and politics in general seem to be driven by his sense of which side has the worse religion.

Everyone has the right to have their own political views. The problem is when they are seen as speaking for others as well. Critics of Harris and Hitchens have sometimes used too broad a brush, such as when Greenwald and Hussain suggest that their political views are representative of New Atheists as a whole. For example, here is Greenwald:

That is the hallmark of this New Atheist movement: exploiting rational atheism to support and glorify US state power and aggression; they have become a prime source for pseudo-intellectual justification of US government conduct.

That is wrong. That is not a hallmark of New Atheism, it is just the hallmark of these particular New Atheists. I label myself a new atheist but I strongly disagree with Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins on many issues of social justice and international politics. I do not view them as leaders of the secular movement but just as one set of voices among many.


  1. doublereed says

    If anything, the hallmark of New Atheism is a forced flatness and expansion of atheism due to the nature of social media.

  2. exi5tentialist says

    “Richard Dawkins: Atheism’s asset or liability?” There is no question that he is an asset for atheism

    Bizarre comment. I stopped reading at that point.

  3. superlucky20 says

    At least that cuts Greenwald and his wholesale generalities down a peg.

  4. Matt G says

    It’s probably human nature to have a tendency to put a face on a set of ideas or values. Many of the atheists I have held in high regard have made insensitive/stupid comments in just the past year or two. Done with that! As Tina Turner reminded us, we don’t need another hero.

  5. lanir says

    I had what seems to be an odd journey toward atheism. I found it on my own and just assumed there weren’t too many others like me until I ended up here. Sure I met some here or there in person but never in groups. I also missed out on the books by all of the authors mentioned above so I have no allegiance to them. I’ve had Dawkins recommended to me but didn’t get around to reading his stuff at the time and now I’ve heard too much to care what his books say. He cannot speak for me, none of them can.

    I come here to learn about events, ideas and concepts I may not think of on my own and things that are relevant to interests I share. I also come here to learn about people in different situations, with different cultures and races which I will never be a part of. Perspective is priceless.

    I try not to have heroes or leaders but I know there are people I respect a lot and look up to. None of them take my agency away and speak for me. Mostly this sort of issue has me wondering if I need another name. Perhaps “atheist” or “atheism” has become tainted with nonsense. I can’t tell.

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