The Problem with New Atheism

The number of Americans who consider themselves non-religious is about 7%, accounting for both atheists and agnostics. This is a not a trivial number: it amounts to about 22 million people.

Most American atheists and agnostics are not politically active on the basis of their lack of religious belief. Nevertheless, there are political and social movements consisting of atheists organized against religion–most commonly, these days, against Islam.

Guys like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens characterize the thought leaders of these movements, sometimes referred to as New Atheism or the Skeptics’ Movement. What do they all have in common?

Rampant Islamophobia. That’s not all, though. Dawkins has a history of sexist comments, as well, often tied up in his Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, such beliefs appeal far too easily to the young white men who tend to gravitate to these movements. There is considerable overlap between Men’s Rights Activists, Gamergate supporters, and New Atheists, and the factor that binds them is a rather simple one: such groups overwhelmingly consist of young, usually straight, usually white men. This brings along with it all the problems inherent to highly privileged groups. While New Atheists may be slightly (or even severely) disadvantaged due to a lack of religion, they still generally enjoy all the benefits of white male privilege. And obviously, religious leaning is not physically visible the way one’s gender and ethnicity are. Atheists can and do face various forms of oppression, but these don’t cancel out or eliminate one’s privilege in being white and male (and probably heterosexual).

But Dawkins and the New Atheists who trumpet his sexist and Islamophobic comments fall into a trap that is very typical of highly privileged individuals, namely the overestimation of one’s own intelligence and the universality of one’s own experience. New Atheists don’t consider themselves bigoted against religion (or Islam in particular), but as enlightened, intelligent people simply speaking the truth. That it’s done in a patronizing, mansplaining fashion is par for the course. Rational objections for religion, though, certainly shouldn’t extend to bigotry, and especially not to the level of vitriol expressed by Dawkins and Harris:

Harris explained on a podcast that Republican hopeful Ben Carson understood the Middle East better than Noam Chomsky. The same Ben Carson who thinks there’s a scientific consensus that aliens built the pyramids (even though Carson knows they were actually built by God as a granary for the biblical Jacob).

Why does Harris prefer Carson’s know-nothing bluster on foreign policy to the opinions of Chomsky, one of the most influential scholars in the world? Because, you see, Carson “understands that jihadists are the enemy”. That’s also why Harris defends Ted Cruz’s proposal to screen Syrian immigrants according to their religious views, since “some percentage of Muslims will be jihadists inevitably”.

To borrow Dawkins’ title, if God is nothing but an intellectual delusion then the billions of believers are, well, deluded; a collection of feeble saps in need of enlightenment from their intellectual superiors.

That’s the basis for the dickishness that so many people now associate from the New Atheism, a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots. But that’s only part of it. For, of course, the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim.

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For the extraordinary contemporary popularity of the New Atheism also relates to something else that happened at the dawn of the new century – namely, the terrorist attacks on 2001. It’s 9/11, more than anything else, that divides the old atheism from the new.

The best illustration is Christopher Hitchens, a writer who built his stratospheric literary career by transitioning between the two atheist traditions. As a young man, Hitchens was a Trotskyist and for many years he remained a leftwing polemicist. During that time, his atheism attracted no particular attention: it went almost without saying that a prominent representative of the British left didn’t believe in God.

By 2001, Hitchens was already beginning his shift to the right. 9/11 provided the catalyst for a complete break.

Indeed, 9/11 seems to have had this effect on a lot of people, not merely atheist intellectuals. I would suggest that reductive reasoning along the lines that “Islam is our true enemy” and so forth provides a layer of ego protection for Dawkins, Harris, and their supporters. If Muslims are simply evil, there is no need to self-examine, nor to ask why we were attacked in the first place. And since you don’t negotiate with evil people–you can only stop or destroy them–there is no need for a dialogue to attempt to come to terms.

This fits in perfectly with New Atheist rhetorical tactics, which involve beating down critics with insults, distortions, and hyperbole. Dawkins himself is a master of these methods, perhaps enabled by his intimate familiarity with memetics.

As the piece in The Guardian notes, though, all is not lost. New Atheism need not be the enduring face of atheism. Atheists need not be reduced to arrogant white guys declaring that everyone else is delusional. Plenty of Americans who do not identify as atheist or agnostic nevertheless hold no meaningful religious affiliation. Many more are quite relaxed in their religious practices. The firebreathing evangelical stereotype, despite popular attention, is less common. Most religious folks in America are closer in their thinking to atheists than they are to the Westboro Baptist Church.

One thing is certain: atheists in America will continue to be distrusted so long as men like Dawkins and Harris are seen to represent us. They don’t speak for me; ideally, they wouldn’t be speaking for anyone but themselves. Their rhetoric is hateful and counterproductive, and no more rational than the blind bigotry exhibited by right-wing conservatives.

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

2 Comments on "The Problem with New Atheism"

  1. Well said. One minor criticism, though: while being atheist is not visible, being Jewish and Muslim often are. Modern Orthodox Jewish people are frequently visible as Jewish based on their specific modest clothing, and Jewish people of any denomination can have a last name recognizable as Jewish (whether it’s in the form of Germanic last names Jewish people have, or Hebrew/Hebrew-based first or last names). Muslim men and women who wear hijab are very visible as Muslims, as are Muslims who have names of well-known Quran figures (ex: Muhammad, Arabic versions of the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Hebrews, Arabic versions of names of ancient Hebrew kings).

    • Great point! You’re right. And certainly, there is bigotry that is leveled at people because of their religious dress/appearance, too. What comes to mind for me is how Sikhs are sometimes attacked, mistaken for Muslims just by their appearance.

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The Problem with New Atheism

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