Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A final (?) note on New Atheism

Before I actually went to college to study economics, political science, and mathematics, I was strongly considering studying philosophy. Repeated contact with academic philosophers cured me of that notion, not because I thought that philosophy itself was useless but because I found academic philosophers to be uptight and annoying. There are no small few problems in economics and political science, but I would rather have lunch with an economist than a philosopher. And there's more math in economics; I like math.

I really like Existential Comics because the author is most decidedly not uptight and annoying. The author makes philosophy entertaining and fun, and he or she is a pretty good Marxist. Seriously: go read the comic from the beginning.

However, the commentary on today's comic is kind of annoying. It reduces New Atheism, a movement I was a part of for a decade, to a caricature. Like any good caricature, it has an element of truth, but only an element, and misses a lot of the complexity of the movement and the positive gains we made.

The New Atheist movement was a phenomenon of the late 1990s and 2000s; by the early 2010s it was defunct as a movement. I don't know anyone today who calls him- or herself a "New Atheist"; I don't remember PZ Myers having used the term for many years now.

The author of Existential Comics justly calls out Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens* for their anti-feminist bullshit. But as thousands of New Atheists have been complaining since 30 seconds after The End of Faith was published, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens were not in any way, shape or form leaders of the New Atheist movement. The New Atheism movement by its very nature did not and could not have leaders. Sure we liked The End of Faith, The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and Breaking the Spell, but we also criticized the errors and weaknesses of these books. They were at best starting points, not ideological foundations.

*The author also mentions Neil deGrasse Tyson, but as far as I know, Tyson has never identified as a New Atheist. Curiously, the author does not name another noted New Atheist author, professional philosopher Daniel Dennett.

New Atheism was a movement primarily dedicated to demolishing the social, economic, and political privilege of religion. New Atheism was about criticizing religion as a popular phenomenon, not confined to dusty tomes with a readership in the high tens. The books mentioned above were important not because they codified any ideology (in contrast, say, to Marx, who, for better or worse, actually codified and established a lot of communist ideology). There is nothing in any of those books (except perhaps some cognitive science in Breaking the Spell) that would surprise any denizen of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (atheist or religious). They were important because they were popular: they challenged the taboo against criticizing religion in public, and they got away with it.

But the whole point of New Atheism was that it did not depend on noted authors. If the critique against religion had been confined to The God Delusion, there would not have been such a thing as New Atheism. New Atheists such as myself were certainly inspired by these books, but New Atheism consisted of thousands of bloggers, discussion board participants, and other contributors to internet media who criticized religion in public. The whole point of New Atheism was to make atheism ordinary.

As best I can tell, New Atheism stopped being a movement in the early 2010s. There are a lot of reasons, but I think most of the reasons were consequences of our enormous success. We made atheism so respectable that anybody could be an atheist. You didn't need to be smart, you didn't need to be courageous, you didn't even need to be a particularly good person. The neckbearded fedora-wearing atheist trope is funny precisely because today, atheism is about as intellectually and socially challenging as not liking football. I don't actually know any neckbearded fedora-wearing atheists (and I know a lot of atheists), and I suspect the trope exists just as a stereotype mocking socially awkward men.

In the early 2010s, PZ Myers fought a losing battle against "Dictionary Atheism", arguing that atheism entailed a humanistic ethic of social justice. He failed, I think, precisely because we had done our work too well (not that it was a particularly tough intellectual job). The truth is that you don't need to hold any particular ethical stance to be an atheist; you need only realize that the truth claims made by religious people are just nonsense; from there, you can go a lot of places: Marxism, bourgeois liberal progressivism, Randianism, Republicanism, neoliberalism, whatever. It is one thing to push for one ethical ideology or another, but trying to restrict atheism to one particular ethical ideology is bound to fail.

The work of New Atheism was not without its flaws. From its beginning New Atheism comprised primarily older white middle-class straight cis-men. It was never about social justice in general. Although many New Atheist authors highlighted the misogyny and racism of traditional religions, it was never really about feminism and anti-racism. But in its heyday, New Atheism was also not about preserving traditional patriarchal and racial hierarchies. We picked one pillar of racist* patriarchy, i.e. religion, and chopped away, subjecting its social privilege to ruthless criticism. And we won, at least to the extent that religious privilege is no longer taken for granted nor exempt from public criticism — at least not among white middle-class straight cis-men. Other groups will, I think, have to tackle the issue of religion in their own communities themselves, sadly without any more support from privileged groups than for any other issue. But that's not because we were fighting for our own privilege, but because we were no more able to generalize the fight against one form of oppression that affected us as any other struggle taken up by dissident members of the elite. We didn't go too far; we didn't go far enough. But we did go somewhere.

*And capitalism: I came to communism through not only atheism but specifically New Atheist activism.


  1. New Atheism also popularized internet debate with tens of thousands of people expressing their thoughts on blogs and forums. People still debate of course but now things are primarily social media based and I think the internet is a poorer place with the decline of the humble personal blog.

    New Atheism was undeniably a political movement and so energized a generation otherwise disillusioned by mainstream politics.

    In a lot of ways I miss the movement and the debate. I miss opening Stephen Laws blog and seeing 300 comments under a post. I miss the little circle of blogs that inevitably formed through link sharing. I miss reading your detailed frisking religious posts.

    But everything worth saying was said and the movement began maintaining the status quo by keeping religious authors relevant and on the best seller lists. New Atheism served its purpose and people have moved on.


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