How cultish is New Atheism?

Many people who have interacted with Gnu atheists have noticed a certain cult-like behavior among many Gnus.  To better assess this, let’s use a check off list from Lalich and Langone’s Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups.  I’ll score each characteristic, as it applies to Gnu atheists, as No Fit, Weak Fit, Good Fit, and Excellent Fit.  Keep in mind, these are my own perceptions rooted in my own experience.  Whether or not my analysis rings true to you is up to you.

Let’s get started.

The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

I’d say this is a Good Fit.  The Gnus have no Jim Jones-like leader, but they do have a set of leaders called the Four Horsemen.  In addition to the Four, there are several scientists and philosophers who regularly write for the community who likewise fill a leadership role.  What makes this a good fit is the manner in which many Gnus react to criticisms of these Gnu leaders.  Anyone who has ever critiqued a Gnu leader knows that the Gnu atheists often display excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to these leaders.

‪ Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

I’d say this is an Excellent Fit.  First, if you read any of the popular New Atheist blogs, you’ll quickly find that questioning, doubt, and dissent of New Atheism are discouraged or even punished.  Secondly, atheists who dissent, question, and doubt the Gnu movement are attacked (for example, consider the “accomodationists” ).

‪ Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

Weak fit.  Sam Harris advocates using meditation and drugs as a form of atheist spirituality.  However, there is no evidence such activity is used to suppress doubts about the group.

‪ The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

Weak-to-Good Fit.  While the leadership does not dictate, it does advocate.  And such advocacy produces a remarkable similarity of thought and opinion among the Gnus when it comes to religion.

‪ The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

This is an Excellent Fit.  The Gnus are clearly elitist, often bragging about most elite scientists being atheists and claiming some superior ability to reason and process evidence.  Gnus also tend to overestimate the expertise of their leaders, where a prolific blogger with a PhD in science is perceived as some leading scientist.

‪ The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

Excellent Fit.  Clearly, the us-vs.-them mentality defines the group when it comes to religion, but even when it comes to other atheists and agnostics, whether they be the “accomdationists” or those who don’t join the A+ movement.

‪ The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

Good fit.  Gnus accept that their leaders are accountable to the law of the land, but they don’t hold them accountable when it comes to hypocrisy and the use of double-standards.

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

Good fit.  Gnus clearly believe the ends justify the means, as behavior and positions are judged good or bad in light of how well they serve the anti-religious cause.  I have even seen Gnus atheists explicitly argue that the ends do justify the means.

‪ The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

Weak fit.  A lot of this was on display with the very public fight over Elevatorgate, but I don’t know about the inner workings of the group to know it is applied when particular Gnu members begin to think they should start easing up on their anti-religious positions/activity.

‪ Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

No fit.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Excellent fit.  Gnus constantly visit various blogs and forums in an attempt to lead people into atheism.

The group is preoccupied with making money.

Good fit.  The Gnu leaders do seem awfully invested in trying to make money off of atheism.

‪ Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

No fit

‪ Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Weak fit.  While I don’t see any public encouragement to do so, the fact remains that Gnu atheists don’t appear to socialize with religious people.  For example, do Dawkins or Myers have any religious friends?

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Weak fit.  Again, I see no public evidence that anything like this is going on, but the manner in which Gnus tend to cluster with other Gnus and viciously attack other atheists who soften their stand on religion suggest something like this could be in play.

So there you have it.  By my count, that’s 4 criteria with an excellent fit, 4 with a good fit, 1 with a weak-to-good fit, 4 with a weak fit, and 2 that do not fit.

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9 Responses to How cultish is New Atheism?

  1. Relax.. where you see a good fit, this anti-theist does not. Harris is losing it. The ‘atheist community’ advocates are getting nowhere. You’ve missed the train on this one … not altogether, but miss it you did. The ‘four horsement of atheism’ were not leaders but beacons that it is okay to speak out, you’re not alone. There are no leaders, there is no profit making other than what any author aspires to. The real cooperative value in new atheism is the fight against actual harmful things: marriage inequality, creationism in the science classroom, anti-abortion, anti-sex eduction and on and on. If the people who are atheists can be called a group, they are a group which abhores oppression and theocracy. On these they will organize and fight. After that… everyone of them is off to their very own version of a teddy bear picnic. Not to worry, they’ll regroup any time there is a need. This is how civic duty works. If you are unfamiliar with that I would refer you to the US Constitution.

    If that is not enough, perhaps American History 101 remediation course? The more you learn the more this should be clear. If it’s not getting more clear you may be beyond help. I have several remedies for that, but you might not like them.

  2. Cale B.T. says:

    Hi m.a.l.

    “The real cooperative value in new atheism is the fight against actual harmful things… On these they will organize and fight After that… everyone of them is off to their very own version of a teddy bear picnic”

    But I thought that the brouhaha surrounding Atheism+ was about that very subject: Should activism for social justice be a necessary or optional element for being considered a bona fide atheist activist?

    Take, for example, Richard Carrier:

    “are you with us, or with them; are you with the Atheism+ movement, or do you at least cheer and approve it’s values and aims (since you don’t have to label yourself), or are you going to stick with Atheism Less and its sexism and cruelty and irrationality?

    Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.”


    What if an atheist doesn’t “regroup any time there is a need” because they’re pro-life? Or do you believe that there’s a monochromatic view of this issue amongst all Brights?

    P.S., are you sure you didn’t mean to say “anti-choice” or “anti-reproductive rights”?

  3. Vedic says:

    Atheism and justice are incompatible at the level of theory, so all this bluster about “social justice” is highly amusing.

  4. eveysolara says:

    Here’s another one:

  5. myatheistlife. I am surprised you would say that the new atheism is a fight for specific causes and not for the elimination of religion in general. I can easily quote hundreds of statements that this is not the case. That may be your fight, but that is not the new atheist position. Also, I don’t believe you are keeping up with the latest political developments. For recent books relevant to this discussion, see Faitheist by Chris Stedman. Also see my book: ‘The Call: moving from Science vs Religion to a Better World’.

  6. Michael says:

    Hi Paul,

    You are correct. The only thing that unites the New Atheists is their hate. One of the reasons the “accomodationists” distance themselves from the Gnus is that the accomodationists don’t have such a visceral hate. So the Gnus respond by hating on the accomodationists.

  7. stacygturner says:

    You are misconstruing anarchy for organization and, our lack of silence for hate. Most of us have nothing in common but wanting the scientific method, logic and reason to replace harmful superstition, faith and dogmas.

    As an Anti-Theist, I do love watching fundies rage against facts and science though. We all have our vices.

    You seem upset. Would you like us to shut up and go back to pretending we believe? Stoning the apostates?

  8. Michael says:

    Most of us have nothing in common but wanting the scientific method, logic and reason to replace harmful superstition, faith and dogmas.

    And I am supposed to accept this talking point on……

    I see no evidence that most Gnus have nothing in common but wanting the scientific method, logic and reason to replace harmful superstition, faith and dogmas. From what I have seen, most Gnus don’t care much about science, explaining why someone like Coyne only blogs about science 1 out of 50-or-so blog entries and then has to scold his readers for such little interest. As for logic and reason, why don’t the Gnus actually use it to put an end to their endless elevatorgate wars?

    What unites the Gnus is their hatred of religion (and religious people).

    As an Anti-Theist, I do love watching fundies rage against facts and science though. We all have our vices.

    Look at you. It gives you a sense of superiority to compare yourself to a fundie.

    You seem upset. Would you like us to shut up and go back to pretending we believe? Stoning the apostates?

    I think you are projecting. Do you want me to shut up and stop noticing the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Gnu movement?

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