Another Atheist Distances Himself from the New Atheist Movement

Philosopher/biologist Massimo Pigliucci has decided to separate himself from the atheist movement.

Apparently, this has been something that has been happening gradually, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was the embarrassing behavior of Gnu activist Sam Harris:

My disengagement has been gradual and not really planned, but rather the result of an organic change of priorities and interests. It has, however, also been accelerated by a number of observations and individual incidents. The most recent one, which finally prompted me to write these reflections for public consumption, was a private email exchange between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris, which was eventually made public by the latter [13].


So I began reading the exchange with trepidation, and gradually my stomach got more and more turned by what I was seeing. I invite you to put down your iPad or Kindle, or whatever you are using to read this post, and go read the exchange in full to make up your own mind about it. If your reaction is that Harris was trying to have a genuine intellectual discussion and that Chomsky was unfairly dismissive, then there probably is no point in you wasting time with the rest of this essay.

If however, like me, you come out of the reading with the impression that Harris was looking for easy publicity, that he displays an astounding combination of arrogance, narcissism and rudeness, and that Chomsky simply did what many of us perhaps should do more often, which is to not suffer fools gladly, then you may enjoy what I’m about to say next.

Pigliucci then notes that the problem is not specific to a celebrity like Sam Harris, but extends to the rest of the New Atheist movement:

The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.

This analysis is spot on accurate. In fact, for those who read this blog, there is nothing new here, as I have been highlighting examples of such “unpleasantness” ever since Dawkins encouraged a large crowd of his followers to mock and ridicule religious people. Of course, it has been always easy for the Gnus to dismiss my observations because I am an eeevil Christian. How do they dismiss the same observations independently coming from a highly educated atheist?

As for Pigliucci, I think there is one other factor involved in his disengagement – I think he wants to distance himself from the Gnus for the simple reason that the Gnus are embarrassing. Pigliucci seems to recognize that the Gnus are entrenching a public perception of atheists – the perception where Madalyn Murray O’Hair lives on.

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7 Responses to Another Atheist Distances Himself from the New Atheist Movement

  1. advancedatheist says:

    “Pigliucci seems to recognize that the Gnus are entrenching a public perception of atheists – the perception where Madalyn Murray O’Hair lives on.”

    And yet Madalyn’s younger son, the atheist Jon Garth Murray, never moved away from home, never had a girlfriend and apparently died a 40 year old virgin. I have yet to hear anyone who knew Madalyn and her screwed-up family dispute that. If any of Jim-Bob Duggar’s boys turned out that way, atheists would jump all over the situation and blame it on sexually repressive religiosity.

  2. Dhay says:

    Pigliucci > … Chomsky simply did what many of us perhaps should do more often, which is to not suffer fools gladly …

    This is not the first time Sam Harris has challenged a critic to an online debate: back in January 2014, Harris reproduced on his blog — it had already been published at the Naturalism website — the entirety of Dan Dennett’s “Reflections on FREE WILL” severe critique of Harris’ book of that name. The critique was extensive and detailed, being nearly as long as the slim book critiqued.

    (For the record, Dennett previously slated Harris’ The Moral Landscape.

    In Harris’ extensive reply, in his blog post two weeks later, entitled, “The Marionette’s Lament”, there’s:

    Unfortunately, your review of my book … is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering. I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.

    So Dennett, too, evidently doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

    … you and I could have done a much better job—and produced something well worth reading—had we explored the topic of free will in a proper conversation. Whether we called it a “conversation” or a “debate” would have been immaterial. And, as you know, I urged you to engage me that way on multiple occasions and up to the eleventh hour. But you insisted upon writing your review. Perhaps you thought that I was hoping to spare myself a proper defenestration. Not so. I was hoping to spare our readers a feeling of boredom that surpasseth all understanding.

    This tells us Harris had evidently sought to lure Dennett into the same kind of e-mail exchange he lured Chomsky into, and with the same aim of parading the triumph of presentation over content and declaring “victory”. Well, Harris got the brush-off.

    Note that Harris is still touting his claim — follow the link above to Dennett’s critique of The Moral Landscape — that real philosophy is “boring” and that his readers would far prefer entertainment by Harris’ rhetoric to boredom by reason.

    Of course, I can’t quite blame you for missing that putt, Dan. But I can admonish you to be more careful in the future.

    Harris signed off with an obvious sneer at Dennett’s incompetence at philosophy.

    Let’s see: Eric MacDonald, Jon Overton (, Frans De Waal (, and now Massimo Pigliucci.

    My guess is, it will be Dan Dennett distancing himself next.

  3. I’ve usually read your posts via email subscription for a couple years, but this is one where I feel compelled to comment.

    Back in the day before I went through a “conversion” in light of new information, I was part of a few atheist hangouts because that was my source of air at the time.

    I expected that the focus would remain entirely on why we *didn’t* believe the same things many other people did, but this was not the case. Politics and other issues unrelated to atheism became the topic of discussion. It soon became a source of strife I thought was limited to religion at the time. And of course, there was disagreement about whether we were obligated to go out and “deconvert” everyone. Soon many of the meetups shrank dramatically and one almost disbanded altogether.

    The take home lesson I got from the multiple year experience was that “organized atheism” (or whatever you want to call it) is a vacuum waiting to be filled. You can’t organize a group of people around a LACK of belief in something and expect everyone to get along forever. “What now?” questions are bound to come up and these divide up non-believers left and right as they argue over the prospective answers.

    I’ve been following your blog for a while (know you mainly from the refreshing book on origins you wrote several years ago) and I think much of what you’ve covered seems to be the same trend I thought was limited to local meetups. Atheism has reach a peak in which people like Harris and Pigliucci can have beef with each other over *implementation* of their lack of belief.

    The entire atheism plus boondoggle is something an honest sociologist could write an entire book about in order to illustrate the instability of secular groups nowadays.

    Never said this before, but by all means keep this blog going! It’s a nice corner of the net that enjoy reading now and then 🙂

  4. Billy Squibs says:

    advancedatheist, why do many of your comments on this blog focus on the sexual prowess of atheists? (This is perhaps the 3rd time that you have mentioned O’Hair’s 40 year old virgin son or the lack of sex that teen atheists get.) Am I missing the relevance?

  5. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    PZ Myers is sorta irritated with Pigliucci’s essay, seemingly implying that the philosopher misunderstands his reasoning behind combining social activism with disbelief. Myers’s post seems toned down however, perhaps because launching into an attack on a critic who points out his irrationality and nastiness would only demonstrate Pigliucci’s point. People like Myers can’t be too introspective for long because he relies upon strident vitriol and hatred to have relevance and get hits on his blog. I wonder how it must feel to be lumped in with Sam Harris, who just a few days ago, Myers took apart as fanatical. I wish no ill will on these people, but I find them so vile.

  6. UpstateIslandersFan,

    Are you sure PZ Myers’ blog still gets the same level of hits it once did?

  7. Dhay says:

    Looking on Amazon to see who has endorsed Jerry Coyne’s forthcoming book, and mindful that Coyne will have sought support from as many of his circle as he can obtain support from, I find listed first a couple of independent book reviews: one is supportive and gives the book a star; the second review declares, “An important book that deserves an open-minded readership” — a judgment which is so ambivalent to British eyes that it might readily be a caustic comment — but it awards no star of commendation (unlike Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, which was given a star.)

    Note that there is no endorsement of Coyne’s new book by Dan Dennett, and none by Massimo Pigliucci.

    I call that damned by faint praise.

    After those two reviews come three ‘usual suspects’: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. The first two, Harris and Dawkins, are named and shamed by Massimo Pigliucci in his “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements” article; the third, Pinker, is not shamed by name, but from what Pigliucci says here in the article …

    (You may have noticed that the only prominent New Atheist I don’t take to task is Dan Dennett. That’s because I honestly think he is a better intellectual than the rest of them combined, and he also happens to be a genuinely pleasant individual. The fact that moreover he is the only philosopher of the group may or may not be coincidental, we don’t have enough data points to make that judgment.)

    … it would appear that Pinker escapes the general censure because he is not a prominent New Atheist.

    Note that delicious, “I honestly think he [Dan Dennett] is a better intellectual than the rest of them [the prominent New Atheists] combined“. Yes, Pigliucci says, “combined“.

    In order of mention, the “rest of them combined” comprise: Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, “the Horsemen” — right, the list does include Jerry Coyne “with whom I [Pigliucci] often disagree” — plus Christopher Hitchens and P.Z. Myers.

    Dan Dennett is a better intellectual than these eight prominent New Atheists combined.

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