Artillery Row

The strange afterlife of New Atheism

The once dominant internet and media phenomenon has given way to more agile secularisms, but its legacy lives on

What do the terms “biological reality” and “objective truth” conjure for you? Or how about “freedom of speech”, and complaints about “orthodoxy” suppressing “scientific inquiry”? In current political debates you’re likely to think of the never-ending trans controversies, or rightwingers complaining about the lack of free speech in workplaces and university campuses. 

In other words they’re now “conservative” coded terms, and if you hear someone using them you can make educated guesses about the rest of their beliefs. But not very long ago this sort of language was deployed not by the right, but the left, in arguments about climate change, and the reality of Darwinian evolution. In the early 2000s being progressive meant being pro-science, pro-objectivity and pro-materialism. 

The great battles, we were told, were between moderate, rational liberals who just wanted to agree on objectively observable facts — we knew how old the earth was, and it wasn’t created 8000 years ago; we knew the climate was changing, and that humans were causing it. It was wild-eyed religious conservatives who put ideology before observable reality. But insisting too hard on the importance of genetics today gets you drummed out of academic institutions by the left, not the right. 

Now the left embraces an ideology of care

Not that the left has wholly given up on the imprimatur of scientific authority — you will find scientific expertise wielded on behalf of the climate or trans rights or drug policy on a regular basis. But there has been a clear rhetorical and conceptual shift. Where once the left stood for cool-headed rationalism, taking the emotion out of how we punish criminals or police drugs, and asking “what works?”, it now embraces an ideology of “care”. Peer-reviewed papers are as likely to take on board the “lived experiences of victims” and “indigenous ways of knowing” as they are data-driven approaches. Environmental policy is now less “two minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock” than it is “how do I lower my carbon emissions as a vegan who likes holidays to Thailand?”

The softening of the left has precipitated a major break with what was a once dominant internet, media and publishing phenomenon (not to mention an influential social movement): New Atheism. In the 2000s it was in the triumphant ascendant, firmly identifying with the centre and the left of politics. Against a backdrop of Islamist terrorism, a tipping point of declining religious belief in the West, and widespread climate change denial on the political right, conditions were perfect for a strident and militant anti-religious movement. 

Online atheism is a familiar phenomenon to almost anyone active on the web during this period. Would-be internet deicides followed a familiar script: they’d share videos of Christopher Hitchens DESTROYING religion, or post memes like this:

Anyone who had the ill fortune to cross swords with this type quickly discovered their curious bushido. The warriors of atheism would deploy the same quixotic sophistic arguments, saying for example that there were no atheist beliefs — or for that matter a thing called “New Atheism”. An atheist was “just someone who didn’t believe in God” (despite all being identical stormtrooper-like clones). Above all, they would never, ever, ever stop arguing with you. Having the last word was a way of life, a matter of honour. 

These eccentric souls venerated the big beasts of New Atheism: Christopher Hitchens their John the Baptist, Richard Dawkins their messiah, Daniel Dennett a font of Solomonic wisdom, and of course Sam Harris as a militant crusading Richard the Lionheart, putting the terroristic Saracens to the sword. 

There was a time when this perspective had serious appeal on the left. In the era of the climate-sceptic presidency George Bush and hysterical fears that the US religious right were about to usher in a Handmaid’s Tale style theocracy, New Atheism was seen as a potent antidote. It was certainly a source of identity and affirmation for the archetypal “only atheist in the village” Mid-Western adolescent surrounded by hordes of beaming, athletic evangelical teens sporting purity rings and enthusiastically convinced of the merits of young Earth creationism. 

Anti-religious rhetoric was now cosy, family entertainment

This movement reached its height in Britain in 2010, after the clerical abuse scandal had sharpened anti-religious rhetoric. When Pope Benedict made his official visit to England that year, many mainstream newspapers (especially The Guardian) engaged in more or less naked anti-Catholic rhetoric of a sort that seemed more suited to the eighteenth century than the twenty-first. Organisations like the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association put out a furious volume of op eds, and it was rare for a religious figure to make it onto the airwaves without being thrust into gladiatorial combat with a gobby godlessness-botherer. 

Popular science programmes openly mocked not only theism, but the softer sciences, with Brian Cox regularly offering denunciations of both organised religion and the entire concept of philosophy on the radio programme The Infinite Monkey Cage. What made these interventions striking was their context: a whacky popular science programme that aimed at younger audiences. Hardline materialism and anti-religious rhetoric were now cosy, all-age family entertainment. 

This was also a high point for interest in scientific solutions to social problems and human psychology. Around the same time there was a flurry of media interest in evolutionary psychology, with Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness coming out in 2008. Back then, it was classed firmly with the heroic progressive forces of liberalism.

But there were always tensions. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in particular were both strongly associated with hostility towards Islam — a feature of right wing politics. Dawkins was more of an equal opportunity offender, but his rhetoric against Islam was scarcely less ferocious. The very male and rational world of New Atheism was never a fully natural fit for the rising influence of sociological disciplines steeped in subjective emotion, postmodern philosophy and a strong sympathy with (often highly religious) ethnic minority groups. 

Much of what New Atheism embodied has now migrated rightwards. The young rationalist male of today is watching Jordan Peterson videos and listening to the Joe Rogan podcast. Dawkins himself is now an “anti-woke” figure. The people that are most furiously applying evolutionary psychology to human relations today are incels — with concepts like “hypergamy”, “assortative mating”, “alpha” and “beta males” popularised online by lonely young men looking for explanations as to why they can’t get a date. 

As a movement, New Atheism has fractured and lost its original spirit. Its afterlife on the right sees it allied with pseudo-mystical Jungianism, veneration of the nationalist mythos, outright neopaganism and strategic alliances with religious conservatives. Another portion has moved leftwards, embodied by the “I Fucking Love Science” woke nerd of today. Where once nerd culture was marginal, it is now the dominant commercial force, and it is forcefully allied not with rationalism, but progressivism.

The nerd of yesteryear railed against a hysterical right which blamed D&D for satanic ritual murder (yes, really) and accused violent video games of inspiring school shootings. Now however, the Rick and Morty-watching, comic book convention-attending, board game-playing geek is an enthusiastic supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, and bearded, pot-bellied podcasters take breaks from reviewing the latest superhero franchise to pontificate about police violence and women’s representation. His heroes are not Dawkins (though there’s lingering affection and shared canon there), but Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not religious, but he’s a gentler sort of atheist, one who can spare a tear for the plight of Palestine and cheerfully celebrate his friend’s tasteful same-sex ceremony in a suitably enlightened Evangelical church. Science, this sort of character can assure you, is firmly on the side of every progressive cause and opinion.

New Atheism is dead, but the materialism that underwrote it lives on more powerfully and subtly than ever. Its curious brand of pugnacious integrity has departed, and been replaced with a far more pragmatic and amorphous spirit, one appropriate to the age of liquid modernity. Whilst New Atheists were perversely very concerned with questions of metaphysics and epistemology, a newer generation of materialists of both left and right are generally concerned only with power, not capital “T” Truth. In many respects the neoconservative and New Atheist moment of the 2000s was, however perversely, the last gasp of idealistic, traditionally religious politics that prioritised truth over power, and imagined that society was united by a shared rationality and sense of the common good. But they also served to destroy the civilisation of which they were the final embodiment — and have left only sophistry and cynicism as their legacy.

The modern left and right do not care about truth. Whether you label it revolutionary fervour or fascist ruthlessness, they are united in their steady movement towards totalitarian habits of language and mind. Science, like religion, culture, ethnicity and history, is treated as something to be mined for elements that advance the ideological narrative and pave the road to political power — which is sought for the purpose of destroying the rival ideology. These ideologues are materialists and naturalists not by dint of lofty intellectual commitments, but rather implicitly; because no idea is allowed to be larger than the cause. Justice, truth, beauty and compassion are second order principles to be credited to whatever project you support and denied to opponents and rivals.

The religion of science has degenerated into the cult of technology. The search for truth has become the pursuit of profit and productivity. The materialism of immanent wonder in the face of the natural world has become an indifference to everything but pleasure and consumption. The liberation of the human mind promised by atheism has fast descended into the liberation of individual licence and selfishness. The high idealism of liberal humanism and experimental science has proved unsustainable once shorn of the last remnants of the enchanted religious cosmos that it sought to banish.

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