The alt-right is appealing to young skeptics

Some time ago, I wrote about how the alt-right coalition of fascists, neo-Nazis, and bigots was luring in young people by appealing to their sense of irony and fun, or ‘lulz’ as some say these days, acting as if the rhetoric of hate was not something to be believed in but was being used just to annoy and irritate those who were derisively labeled as ‘social justice warriors’ (though why that term is seen as an insult baffles me). The claim that they were ‘fighting political correctness’ was another shield used to deflect criticisms of this stance.

But Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain of Harvard and MIT, says in an interview in The Humanist magazine that the young people in the secular movement are being targeted by the alt-right using the allure of this appeal to irony.

I believe our movement currently contains far too many individuals and ideas that give comfort if not outright support to hatred and prejudice. We’ve seen clearly this past year, for example, that prominent humanist and secular leaders have been guilty of a number of the issues raised by the very important #MeToo movement, and the problem goes even beyond that. In the summer of 2016, after learning more about the secular beliefs of alt-right leader Richard Spencer, I did a sort of deep dive of research into the alt-right movement, reading or watching dozens if not hundreds of alt-right articles, books, blog posts, and videos. What I took from this experience was that the alt-right is actively courting well-educated humanists and secularists, and especially with young men it may be doing so even more effectively than the “mainstream” of our movement. As I argued in a lecture for the Humanist Hub in April 2017, the strategy of prominent alt-right leaders is to wink and nod knowingly that while few embrace the most extreme planks of their “platform” such as the ethnic cleansing of America, their cause is strengthened when we continue to normalize their other seemingly less offensive core beliefs, such as the supposed biological basis of racism or sexism. Thus I have to say here that smart, talented, and important people like Sam Harris may be doing great damage in their continued support for the racially problematic (that’s putting it mildly) ideas of people like Charles Murray. [My emphasis-MS]

This isn’t fun for me to talk about, and I fear the Humanist Hub may even lose support, even financial support, because of it. But if we keep silent, we’ll lose in the long run anyway. Look, I don’t have any magical solutions and I haven’t, despite trying, been able to come up with ways to turn the Humanist Hub into a paradise of racial or gender equity. But the idea that established (read: white) leaders are supposed to sweep problems away through the sheer power of their solitary genius is itself part of the problem. We need to take collective responsibility for our movement, cede enough ground and empower enough new leaders that our movement may not be entirely recognizable to us, even though it’ll need to hold onto so many of the core principles and values for which past generations of humanists have rightly fought. This is the challenge. I hope we’re up to it.

I am not all that surprised actually. Being anti-religion or disbelieving in gods can never, by themselves, be sufficient to serve as a working belief structure. They have to be coupled with a positive humanist philosophy. Social justice has to be part of the secularist message if we want to avoid people who leave religion being seduced into finding companionship in hate groups by the promise of ‘lulz’.


  1. Jenora Feuer says

    As has been noted before, at least part of the problem seems to be that a large chunk of ‘skeptics’ seem to be in it more for the ability to feel superior to those who don’t understand the ‘truth’ than they are for the truth itself.

    Unfortunately, that way lies conspiracy theories, as well as the search for other reasons to be superior.

  2. tororosoba says

    In my opinion, it’s actually the alt-right that forms a perfect target for fun, irony and lulz. Many of their theses are based in the reality of a parallel universe and are so easy to make fun of.

    The feeling of superiority is a desirable side-effect.

  3. says


    And we’re also aware that the largely cisgenderd and white L and G portions of the community outright HATE the B and T portions, and racism is a HUGE problem as well.

  4. alixmo says

    Being atheist indeed does not turn people automatically into intellectuals, nor does it give them the gift of empathy. I guess those young men were prone to misogyny/sexism, white supremacy/racism in the first place. That those “ideas” still exist and in such an extent is problematic for society and democracy. But atheism per se got weaker because of it. Those outspoken “skeptic”/atheist men with proto-fascist tendencies are seen by a wider part of society as the prototypical “atheist”. Their nasty thoughts, their lack of empathy is seen as a problem that befalls all atheists.

    Lots of leftists start turning outright against atheism because of people like Sam Harris and his “fanboys”. This is of course a mistake, lazy thinking. But nevertheless, it is not helpful in a time when fundamentalist Christian right wingers have one of their people in the White House (Mike Pence), in the education department (Betsy DeVos) etc. And soon to come a Supreme Court full of “Christian” anti-abortion hardliners.

    We have to face it, misogyny is a wider problem in society which I see as the core of lots of alt-right (or men`s rights) groups. This they share with religious fundamentalists like the Christian Right. A new “united” front is possible, bridging the gap between alt-right skeptics and religious wing nuts.

    Who or what is to blame for the new rise of misogyny? I do not know (are there any sociological studies about it?). Surely the wider culture did contribute. Socialisation into a “traditional” family may have, too. Education failed to teach young men empathy and the importance of equality between the genders (and “races”). The general climate of fear of losing out in the dog-eat-dog-world of neoliberal economics was not helpful, either. Neoliberalism (with its roots in inhumane libertarianism) is fostering sociopathic tendencies in people, making people who care to help others and show solidarity the laughing stock.

    Selfishness is seen by many young men as a sign of “cleverness”, stepping on women, minorities (“weaker” groups) just as a “natural” result of a “natural” hierarchy.

    Media and politics still ignores the crucial problem of misogyny or makes light of it. A grave mistake?

  5. alixmo says

    Seriously, the outright dislike (to put it mildly) of some (young) leftist for atheism because of figures like Sam Harris and his following is worrisome. It seems to even taint those leftist`s opinion about science! There, the nexus between Harris and Charles Murray is to be blamed.

    Instead of promoting atheism, skepticism and the interest in science, those “New” atheists seemed to have achieved the opposite!

    As an atheist who sees the absolute necessity for a proper separation of state and religion, a secular society etc, I am actually furious about people like Sam Harris. They pushed us back, not forward.

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