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.