A scathing critique of prominent New Atheists


Phil Torres has published a scathing essay that looks closely at the ugly trajectories that the careers of a group of prominent people identified with New Atheist movement has taken. The title of the piece Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right, along with the subtitle What once seemed like a bracing intellectual movement has degenerated into a pack of abusive, small-minded bigots pretty much captures the essence of the essay.

He starts by saying how inspiring he initially found people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens as they exposed the fatuity of “faith-based beliefs in superstitious nonsense unsupported by empirical evidence, often delivered to self-proclaimed prophets by supernatural beings via the epistemically suspicious channel of private revelation”.

New Atheism appeared to offer moral clarity, it emphasized intellectual honesty and it embraced scientific truths about the nature and workings of reality. It gave me immense hope to know that in a world overflowing with irrationality, there were clear-thinking individuals with sizable public platforms willing to stand up for what’s right and true — to stand up for sanity in the face of stupidity.

What the New Atheists were saying was not new. The arguments against gods and the supernatural had been around for millennia. Nor were they they first to be publicly outspoken. But they did come along at a time of mass communication that enabled them to reach a much wider audience. By breaking through the veil of deference that surrounded religion and kept its doubtful premises from close examination, they enabled a large number of people with varying levels of skepticism to be more comfortable with being open about their disbelief.

But that was then and disillusionment quickly set in as these people started talking about broader issues and the reactionary nature of their other views became apparent.

Fast-forward to the present: What a grift that was! Many of the most prominent New Atheists turned out to be nothing more than self-aggrandizing, dogmatic, irascible, censorious, morally compromised people who, at every opportunity, have propped up the powerful over the powerless, the privileged over the marginalized. This may sound hyperbolic, but it’s not when, well, you look at the evidence. So I thought it might be illuminating to take a look at where some of the heavy hitters in the atheist and “skeptic” communities are today. What do their legacies look like? In what direction have they taken their cultural quest to secularize the world?

Torres examines in turn and in detail the transgressions of Harris, Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, David Silverman, and Steven Pinker “to make clear the epistemic and moral turpitude of this crowd” by showing that “Many of the most prominent New Atheists turned out to be nothing more than self-aggrandizing, dogmatic, irascible, censorious, morally compromised people who, at every opportunity, have propped up the powerful over the powerless, the privileged over the marginalized”. He says that it is telling that their paths converged with pseudo-intellectual factions of the alt-right like Bari Weiss, Jordan Peterson, Eric and Bret Weinstein, Douglas Murray, Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro to form what was self-aggrandizingly called as the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ (IDW).

Torres does not discuss the late Hitchens who aligned himself with the neoconservatives who dominated the Bush-Cheney administration and became a cheerleader for the brutal wars waged by the US against Afghanistan and Iraq, callously disregarding the destruction that befell the people of those countries and even obscenely joking that Afghanistan “is the first country in history to be bombed out of the stone age.” I am sure that the people of Afghanistan, while cowering in the rubble of their homes and mourning their dead caused by the aerial barrage, laughed uproariously at that witticism.

Torres looks at what drove this transition.

At the heart of this merger was the creation of a new religious movement of sorts centered around the felt loss of power among white men due to the empowerment of other people. When it was once acceptable, according to cultural norms, for men to sexually harass women with impunity, or make harmful racist and sexist comments without worrying about losing a speaking opportunity, being held accountable can feel like an injustice, even though the exact opposite is the case.

Another way to understand the situation goes like this: Some of these people acted badly in the past. Others don’t want to worry about accusations of acting badly in the future. Still others are able to behave themselves but worry that their friends could get in trouble for past or future bad behavior. Consequently, the most immediate, pressing threat to their “well-being” has shifted from scary Muslim immigrants, evangelical Christians and violent terrorists to 19-year-old kids on college campuses and BLM activists motivated by “wokeness.”

What ties these people together is an aggrieved sense of perpetual victimhood. Christians, of course, believe that they are relentlessly persecuted (note: they aren’t). The IDWs similarly believe that they are the poor helpless victims of “CRT” [Critical Race Theory], “standpoint theory” and other bogeymen of woke academia. But really, if “Grievance Studies” studies anything, it should be how this group of extremely privileged white men came to believe that they are the real casualties of systemic oppression.

To conclude, let me bring things full circle: At least some studies have shown that, to quote Phil Zuckerman, secular people are “markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian” than religious people. It’s a real shame that New Atheism, now swallowed up by the IDW and the far right, turned out to be just as prejudiced, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, closed-minded and authoritarian as many of the religious groups they initially deplored.

I too have watched with dismay what this group of New Atheists and their friends have become and how they have tarnished the label. I used to consider myself a New Atheist and still do but definitely do not wish to be identified with this group. The problem with labels and their definitions is that there is often an inherent ambiguity involved. One way to define a group is formally, by means of key a priori defining characteristics. Another other way is informally, to group together those who adopt the label or to whom one thinks the labels applies, and then look for some kind of family resemblance that identifies someone as a member of the group.

I always saw New Atheism in the formal a priori sense consisting of a narrow verbal definition, as an alternative to ‘accommodationism’. As I wrote back in 2009, while members of both groups were atheists, the difference lay in their political strategy towards religion.

An interesting discussion has broken out between those scientists and philosophers of science (labeled ‘accommodationists’) who seek to form alliances with religious believers by finding common ground between science and religion, and those (labeled ‘New Atheists’) who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible, and that what the accomodationists are doing is trying to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable by covering it with a veneer of highly dubious interpretations of science.

The accommodationists argue that it is a mistake to insist that science is antithetical to religion because if science is determined to be an intrinsically atheistic enterprise, then even so-called moderate religionists will turn away from science and not support efforts to oppose the teaching of religious ideas such as intelligent design in science classes.

The accommodationists said that a better political strategy was to not publicly oppose the idea that religious ideas were compatible with science (even if they thought the two incompatible) so as to try and forge an alliance with science-friendly moderate religious groups against the anti-science fundamentalists.

But for many people, ‘New Atheism’ has been defined in the informal way and become identified with the prominent group of people that Torres lists, and as those people have become associated with all manner of unsavory political stances, the label itself has become tarnished by association. So now while I still think of myself as a New Atheist, it is in the sense that I defined, while I definitely want to distance myself from those prominently associated with that label.

Like some members of the alt-right, some of these New Atheists that Torres writes about have taken on the role of defenders of Western Civilization and also started using the label of Social Justice Warrior (SJW) as a slur against their atheist critics as a result of them being taken to task for having attitudes that go counter to the goals of social justice movements. Although I have on occasion been called an SJW, it is not something I call myself. This is not because I consider it a slur but because I think it is an honor that I do not deserve. After all, what can be nobler than to fight for social justice? But to be a ‘warrior’ suggests that one is spending most of one’s time and energy in the cause and I do not think that writing blog posts and articles as I do makes the cut. At most that makes me a mere ‘keyboard warrior’, which is definitely pejorative. I am flattered when I am called an SJW, just as I am flattered if someone thinks of me as a ‘feminist’, but I think that those are complimentary labels that one should not arrogate for oneself but have to be conferred on you by those who are in a position to credibly do so.

Comments

  1. says

    I first stumbled upon atheist content on YouTube about a decade ago (Seth Andrews’ “Bloodthirsty Bible” series). Then the algorithm recommended me more atheist videos from other authors. They were interesting and educational. Then YouTube algorithm started recommending me anti-feminist rants (probably Thunderf00t, I don’t remember for sure). At that moment I stopped looking at “atheist” YouTube content for some years. I didn’t need some sexist jerk telling me that I am destined to be frail, emotional, and feminine due to my anatomy and hormones.

    Then years later I found Freethoughblogs and noticed that there are also normal atheist authors who don’t promote bigotry.

  2. says

    By the way, when some people started excusing sexual assault during conferences, that freaked me out. Basically, people were saying that a woman “asks for it” by doing pretty much every imaginable daily activity. With such degree of victim blaming, it would be dangerous for a woman to leave her home. A woman dared to drink a glass of wine during a conference? She asked for sex. A woman dared to enter into a room where she was alone with a guy for a moment? It’s not sexual harassment or rape, she asked for it. A woman dared to use an elevator? Ouch.

    When people excuse sexual assault like this, it is frightening for people who are perceived as female by the society.

    Thus my encounter with the atheist movement went from “I had no idea that there are such statements in the Bible, this video is so interesting” to “don’t you dare telling me that I must be frail, overly emotional, and feminine” to “ouch, this rape apology is scary.”

  3. mnb0 says

    “He starts by saying how inspiring he initially found people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.”
    Compliment for his honesty.
    However it remains utterly naive, to say it friendly.

    “What the New Atheists were saying was not new.”
    On the contrary, what they said was (with a few exceptions -- the scale of Dawkins is handy) superficial at best and stupid often enough.
    The thing is: those New Atheists haven’t changed. People like PT wanted and needed “heroes” and thus were incapable of what they propagated so much: self-criticism, ie true skepticism (in contrast to pseudoskepticism that merely rejects for whatever reason what opponents postulate -- like creacrappers on evolution).
    I suppose PT also deserves a compliment for waking up. Better late than never.

    “I too have watched with dismay what this group of New Atheists and their friends have become …..”
    I haven’t, because during their heydays I already recognized what they were -- from the beginning, so “become” is misplaced. Too many atheists (and not only in the USA, also in The Netherlands) were too blind to see it, because they didn’t want to. This is why I never identified as a New Atheist.
    So let me repeat: I don’t care if religion is compatible with science. It’s not my problem, exactly because I’m a staunch atheist. My problem is with people who reject scientific conclusions because ideology/religion, whether they are atheists (anti-vaccers, jesusmythologists) or believers. In other words: give me Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins rather than Richard Carrier.

  4. says

    If you don’t follow, self-promoting scammer “leaders” will be unable to feed, and will go elsewhere.
    No movement.
    No leaders.
    No spokespeople.

    When I heard Christopher Hitchens’ “drain the swamp” I realized we should cross the street to avoid people like him and Sam Harris. Someone might mistake us as supporters or fans.

  5. says

    We shouldn’t be so surprised that “new atheists” turned out to be repugnant. As we’ve seen elsewhere, those educated in the sciences and other empirical fields can easily fail to be educated in others (e.g. scientists who turned out to be harassers and rapists, computer geeks in Silicon Valley who turned out to be sexist and racist).

    Anagrams of “new atheists” include “hate witness” and “nastiest hew”. In the case of Silicon Valley, “has twenties”, and for Sam Harris, “at whiteness”.

  6. John Morales says

    Good post, good take.

    For me, the main problem with the featured peroration is that there’s a difference between employing metonymy and conflating concepts which is ignored.

    That is, [New Atheism] ≠ [certain prominent New Atheists].

    As Mano put it, “I used to consider myself a New Atheist and still do but definitely do not wish to be identified with this group.”

    (Or: There’s the idea and the attitude, and then there’s “the movement”)

  7. says

    I should have also said:

    Advocating atheism is no longer my primary focus. Intersectionality is far more important to me, marching forward together and everyone’s concerns being addressed.

  8. says

    John Morales@#6:
    That is, [New Atheism] ≠ [certain prominent New Atheists].

    When those people are being promoted as spokespeople for new atheism, identifying themselves as new atheists, sitting on conference panels on the topic, etc., the point is to engender exactly that confusion. You may be cynical enough to resist but many are not, and make the connection.

    You can’t expect otherwise; humans are suckers for that move and it was deliberately used to turn new atheism into a vehicle for some skeevy characters. Standing on the side yelling “don’t get confused!” is pissing into a fan.

  9. Matt G says

    I’m embarrassed to say that I own books by most of these folks. So disappointing to see the real foundation of their worldviews.

  10. Silentbob says

    Like some members of the alt-right, some of these New Atheists that Torres writes about have taken on the role of defenders of Western Civilization and also started using the label of Social Justice Warrior (SJW) as a slur against their atheist critics as a result of them being taken to task for having attitudes that go counter to the goals of social justice movements.

    “SJW” is soooo 2010s. The modern term is “woke”. They appropriated it from African Americans who used it to mean ‘alert to systemic prejudice’, but outside of that context, anytime you hear someone use “woke” unironically you can be sure they’re fans of reactionary propaganda.

  11. Kile Baker says

    The one thing that I notice is the one missing person. Remember that the so-called four horsemen included Daniel Dennett. I guess I have to conclude that Dennett is still one of the good guys.

  12. Mano Singham says

    Kile Baker @#11,

    Dennett has largely avoided saying anything or taking up causes that have seriously harmed his reputation. But he has been associated with the infamous Jeffrey Epstein, flying with him and Pinker and Dawkins on Epstein’s private plane (known as the ‘Lolita Express’) to a TED conference in 2002. Whether that association extended to anything beyond is not clear but he has not been accused of anything other than accepting a free flight from someone who was later in 2008 convicted of being a pedophile.

  13. garnetstar says

    @12 Mano, I like you thoughts on not complimenting yourself by calling yourself a feminist or an SJW. I do that too.

    (PSA to New Atheists: it’s always a bad idea to label your opponents with a nickname that’s actually a compliment! It is also too revealing of your own bias and hatreds.)

    Intransitive @17, yes. Religion is one thing, just one thing, that has been used to oppress people. I am interested in all the ways that people are oppressed, finding out more about them, and and seeing if society can be more just in all those ways.
    Ed Brayton used to say that he was a humanist, in the sense that he’s pro-human. Yeah, me too.

    When those authors’ books came out, I read them, and thought they were mostly good, modern expressions of the traditional arguments for atheism. At that point, those authors (and/or their publishers) were less interested in bigoted polemics, so the books were mostly only about atheism. It was later than they sunk themselves, and mostly on line, not in published works. I admit I skipped whole sections of them (such as Harris’ chapter in The End of Faith about how right torture is) out of complete boredom, lack of interest, and no confidence that the author(s) knew what they were talking about, and have never read those sections. But, would not recommend that anyone else read the books.

    Never took Hitchens seriously, just as someone who could snap out pointed remarks. His bigotry was evident even back then.

  14. Deepak Shetty says

    @mnbo

    The thing is: those New Atheists haven’t changed. People like PT wanted and needed “heroes”

    Mind readers, are we ? Only heroes I follow are Superman and Batman and I too can attest to whatever Phil is saying. For a brief period of time it felt like we non religious people cared and we were going to make a difference till I realized that a lot of the “leaders” only cared about criticising the “other” and had no intention of doing the hard work needed to make things better.

    @Marcus

    No movement.
    No leaders.
    No spokespeople.

    You quote this many times but do you have examples of movements that have effected real positive change that didn’t have leaders or spokespeople or movements ? I think the above refuses to recognise the reality of humans. Its probably better to have “Hold leaders accountable , and drop them when they turn out to be bad.”

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