As a brand, “New Atheism” has become toxic. For the past few years, article after article has bashed New Atheists for their arrogance and ignorance. The strange aspect of the critiques, however, has been that so many of them come from people who seem to be roughly aligned with the secular left. It’s not Christianity Today or The Zoroastrian Journal going after New Atheism, it’s Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian, and The Baffler. The very people who most vocally hate the movement are the very people one would expect to be most sympathetic to its core philosophy of rationality and skepticism: after all, how many Young Earth Creationists are there on the staff of these magazines? How many Salafists?
Scott Alexander, in wondering why New Atheism has become such a widely-detested failure, suggests that it was because New Atheists were telling cosmopolitan liberal types what they already believed, and doing so very annoyingly. But as Alexander admits, this can’t be a complete explanation: The Nation, too, spends much of its time telling cosmopolitan liberal types what they already believe, often annoyingly, and it hasn’t been met with the same kind of revulsion. Why, alone among the values of Blue America, has atheism seen a backlash?
It’s not as much of a puzzle as Alexander thinks, though. The progressive critiques of New Atheism are mainly founded in the New Atheists’ violations of other left-wing values. New Atheism is attacked not solely for being arrogant, but for putting this arrogance in the service of right-wing tendencies like sexism, hawkishness, and bigotry against Muslims. And because leftists believe that holding prejudiced beliefs about women and religious minorities is fundamentally irrational, this makes New Atheists not just obnoxious, and not just right-wing, but also hypocritical: they state that they are committed to reason, logic, and evidence, yet they pervert the meaning of these terms by using them to describe ideas that are not reasonable, logical, or evidence-based.
One of the central problems is that the main public ambassadors for New Atheism have been entirely intolerable people. Richard Dawkins is an asshole, who obsessively disparaged “clock boy,” and even managed to alienate prominent female atheists by mocking liberal feminism. Christopher Hitchens was an asshole, who supported one of the bloodiest atrocities of the 21st century and used to creepily fantasize about how steel pellets could kill someone even if they were bearing a Koran over their heart. Sam Harris and Bill Maher are massive assholes, who possess none of the qualities of open-mindedness and self-doubt that actually characterize the scientific enterprise. (Even biologist-blogger P.Z. Myers, far more compassionate than the rest, had a sick streak: when a Brazilian priest died in a ballooning accident while trying to raise money to build a rest stop for truckers, Myers wished more priests would be carried off by balloons.) These men, between them, managed to singlehandedly make New Atheism seem like a movement of incredibly pompous white men for whom Reason is just a word used to justify whatever stereotypes one already held in the first place.
So one reason why leftists have soured on New Atheism is obvious: it may be “secular,” but that is about all it has in common with leftism, and as “clash of civilizations” rhetoric about Islam has become more and more central to the New Atheist pitch, it has become far more closely aligned with the alt-right than the socialist left. Alexander is also correct, though, to point out that New Atheism simply didn’t offer very much to millennials to begin with. They are an unusually secular generation, and Christianity seems to be of decreasing importance in American public life, making it all somewhat irrelevant. In the Bush years, an unabashed atheist was refreshing. But now we live in the age of universal same-sex marriage, and the most recent two presidents have both placed little importance on religious matters. The country has grown so secular so quickly that one prominent Christian commentator has concluded that the faithful will need to segregate themselves into intentional communities if they are to keep their values alive.
I’ll admit, religion doesn’t ever really come up as a matter of contention in my own life. I live in New Orleans, where nearly everyone is either black, Catholic, or both. The black church is incredibly hard to dislike, and Catholicism is now presided over by a social justice warrior of a Pope who seems one encyclical away from fully endorsing the principles of revolutionary socialism. On my bike ride to work each morning, I do pass a guy on Canal Street who holds a sign and yells about Jesus, but he is a fairly minor irritant. There just seems no real reason to wage a battle against religion, beyond the fact that I find religious beliefs to be incomprehensible nonsense. But since I also find large portions of academic writing and political speech to be similarly nonsensical, I have little reason to be more concerned about religion.
There are, of course, incredibly poisonous dimensions of organized religion. I still get angry when I see Peter Popoff selling “miracle water” on late-night television, trying to bilk sick old people out of their Social Security checks. The Catholic Church still hasn’t fully dealt with its massive worldwide epidemic of child abuse. I was horrified by the Christian parents who tormented their transgender daughter until she killed herself. And in my Florida hometown, the influence of socially conservative Christians has consistently kept teenagers from getting access to the kind of sex education they need in order to have safe and healthy sexual experiences.
But perhaps that means that instead of the “New Atheist” critique, which condemns all religious faith with equal vigor in all times and places (it “poisons everything”), atheism’s utility varies from context to context. I am sure that for many people who grew up in secular households, Richard Dawkins simply seemed like an asshole, a man telling you what was obvious while being willfully blind to his own absurd prejudices. And yet I am also sure that there have been plenty of teenagers in Indiana and Arkansas for whom Dawkins has been an incredibly comforting voice. All their lives they’ve been told a bunch of bullshit in church, and they’ve felt incredibly alone and crazy, because they knew everyone around them was saying things that simply weren’t true. People mock New Atheists for thinking their positions are “brave,” but when their major books came out ten years ago, these positions did feel somewhat bold and controversial. It is, perhaps, partially a testament to the success of these authors that their positions now feel so banal and obvious.
One strange thing about controversies over the New Atheism is that they seem to get away entirely from the question of the validity of atheism itself. The aforementioned critiques have nothing to do with whether or not God exists, and in most of the articles about Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc. it’s not clear whether the author is or is not an atheist themselves. It’s true that whether God exists is not really relevant to whether these particular men are warmongering misogynistic blowhards. But there’s also something odd about having dozens of critiques of an ideology that don’t take any kind of stance on whether that ideology is true or not.
Perhaps I’m completely wrong about this, but it almost seems to me that among left-leaning millennials, there is an inclination to evade questions about religious belief. There’s a kind of quiet agnosticism, where people simply don’t want to have to think very much or talk very much about what exactly they believe. Few people want to be an atheist, because to be an atheist means being Bill Maher, and anyone who becomes Bill Maher will soon cease to have friends. Plus, anything resembling “certainty” seems embarrassingly presumptuous in such an unfathomable universe as this one.
I’m probably part of the problem here: I’m reluctant to call myself an atheist, precisely because people I loathe have done so much damage to the label’s reputation. And yet, I suppose I count as one. My position is actually not quite atheistic: I don’t believe that the proposition “God exists” is false, exactly. Instead, I believe the proposition is so incoherent that it makes no sense to call it either true or false, because I don’t think the word “God” has any kind of meaning that I am capable of grasping. (This, like essentially all of my other beliefs, is essentially just a reformulation of Noam Chomsky’s view on the subject.) That makes me thoroughly a-theistic, in the sense that I lack any kind of theological belief, but I’m not going to get into arguments with Christians about the existence or nonexistence of a Supreme Being, because I don’t understand what such a “being” could even be.
Far more important to me than my a-theism is my libertarian socialism, because I think we’d do far more good by eliminating tyranny and inequality from the world than by convincing everyone to believe in the Unfathomable Morass rather than the Heavenly Father. Yet I’m also committed to spreading reason and scientific thinking, not in the popular understanding of science as absolute certainty, but in the real sense of science as humility and doubt. One way in which I think Dawkins has done irreparable damage, despite making many people more secular, is in furthering the idea of the scientist as someone who grasps things as they Really Are, rather than someone who questions every idea of how things Really Are. I remember a particular dialogue between Dawkins and Mehdi Hasan, in which Dawkins questioned whether Hasan could really believe the words of the Quran. Dawkins said that Hasan couldn’t possibly believe that Muhammad ascended into the skies on a winged horse, as the book says. Hasan replied that of course he believed it, since it was in the Quran. Dawkins’s response was to repeat, over and over, variations on the phrase “You can’t be serious. How are you a journalist?” The incredible thing to me about this exchange is that Dawkins is actually refusing to engage in rational argument. “You can’t be serious” isn’t an explanation of why we should disbelieve a story about a winged horse. It’s asking someone to change their mind by mocking them, rather than by persuading them through the use of reason and evidence. A true scientist would say “Well, alright, let’s look at the claim. Why do you believe it? Why do you think the Quran’s word should be trusted?” and work through questions of evidence and knowledge. Dawkins simply became belligerent and hostile.
In fact, like Dawkins, many of us who think of ourselves as Rational believe many things on faith. George Orwell once wrote a short article called “How Do You Know That The World Is Round?” He pointed out that many of us, confronted with a Flat Earther who had alternate explanations for many observed phenomena, would have a hard time proving that the Earth was round. We believe it, like we believe many things, because we have been taught it. I’ve pointed out the same thing about climate change: those of us who believe it’s real, and appeal to “the evidence,” still form our beliefs partially through faith: faith that experts wouldn’t mislead us. We haven’t independently conducted experiments to prove that climate change is happening. We read reports from people who study the thing, and we assume they’re correct. Nobody can independently prove all of the things that we take to be true about the world. Because we all have to believe things that we have not actually proven, everybody should be somewhat modest about their knowledge.
Still, while I am dubious about certitude and I don’t think religion poisons everything, I do believe that the world should probably, eventually, cease to have religions in it, just like I think it should cease to have postmodernist academic texts and vacuous political rhetoric. To the extent that religion is intelligible to me, it seems to offer beliefs that can’t be justified by evidence, and I think we should try to hold beliefs that are justified by evidence. (That’s why I think everyone should, if they have time, think about how they would satisfactorily prove to a Flat Earther that the world is round. Personally, I haven’t had time. If the Flat Earther had some clever answers, I’d lose the argument.)
Arguments that religion is somehow necessary have always struck me as flimsy. Philosopher John Gray, for example, says that it should make atheists uncomfortable that religion is so universal in human societies, because this means it might serve a useful evolutionary purpose: “there is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion.” But there’s no contradiction at all here: a cognitive error may have evolved for discernible reasons, but that doesn’t make it somehow not an error. We are not prisoners of our natural inclinations; and if we care about trying to understand our world better, we should be trying to overcome things that seem natural to us but actually make no sense.
I wish, then, that there were a kind of gentle secular socialism, one that did not contain the blustering bravado of New Atheism, and had a better grasp of economics, while still believing that it’s important for ideas to make sense. I am sympathetic to Pope Francis, and we seem to share the same political inclinations, but I don’t believe in hierarchies, I don’t like men who live in castles and issue pronouncements, and I don’t think the doctrines of Catholicism are in any way true. I think religious dogma frequently asks people to surrender their judgment even more than we all already do, and I’m opposed to institutions that tell people they need to stop questioning and listen to authority.
I hope, then, for something that gets past New Atheism, that doesn’t see religion as the most important issue but that also values Socratic doubt. My model secularist is Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, who is highly critical of Islamic teaching, but in the service of an uncompromising leftism. She is not an apologist for imperialism or capitalism, and she sees the struggle against religious hierarchy as part of a broader effort to give people autonomy and prevent them from being controlled by unjust institutions. The New Atheism simply replaced God-worship with state worship, but a true secular socialism follows that old anarchist dictum: No Gods, No Masters.