The New Atheist Movement: An Autopsy

There seem to be more and more articles out there trying to explain the demise of the New Atheist movement.  Jerry Coyne recently commented on one and offered his own analysis.  Since none of these articles seems especially insightful , as a long time observer of the New Atheist movement, I thought I would help explain this movement’s demise.

There are four primary factors that came together and devoured the movement.

1.Failure To Gain Traction in Academia. Soon after Dawkins published his book, The God Delusion, he chose to pick a fight with other atheists and scholars. Dawkins argued that the problem was not creationism or fundamentalism.  It ran deeper.  It was religion itself.  Dawkins then began to mock other atheists and previous allies by likening them to Neville Chamberlain.  The problem with the “Neville Chamberlain atheists” is they were willing to tolerate religious views as long they did not amount to hardcore fundamentalism.  Dawkins, who likened himself to Winston Churchill, insisted atheists must go on the attack against all religious people.

This militant attitude came to define the New Atheists.  They expanded this vocabulary and begin to mock other atheists and agnostics as “accomodationists” and eventually Jerry Coyne began to mock them as “faitheists.”  These were the days when Jerry Coyne was bashing Michael Ruse and Sam Harris was attacking Scott Atran.  These were the days when Coyne and Victor Stenger were arguing that most scientists were cowards for not wanting to help lead the attack against religion. And let’s not forget the way Jerry Coyne used his blog to hound and attack scholar Bart Ehrman while championing the crackpot views of blogger Richard Carrier.  Or the time that Sam Harris used the pages of the NYT to smear Francis Collins, arguing his religious views should prohibit him from heading the NIH.

All of this is much more significant than many people realize.  The New Atheists had always needed to expand their reach into academia.  In fact, that was one of their objectives in the 2006 Beyond Belief conference.  This is because for any movement on the Left to thrive, it needs the support of academia.  With academia on board, your movement has a plentiful supply of thinkers and advocates.  Your movement has a continual supply of new converts in the form of students.  What’s more, by housing your movement in academia, you increase the chance your movement will survive for generations, insulated from the ever changing socio-political terrain outside of academia.

Yet the New Atheists failed gloriously at acquiring any traction within academia. The reason is simple – the extreme, militant posturing of the New Atheists was perceived by many academic atheists as just another form of fundamentalism.  In other words, the assertions and behavior of the New Atheists was deemed embarrassing.  But don’t take my word for it.  Pay close attention to the words of a Nobel Laureate who had little patience for New Atheist antics:

Higgs has chosen to cap his remarkable 2012 with another bang by criticising the “fundamentalist” approach taken by Dawkins in dealing with religious believers.

“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists,” Higgs said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”

He agreed with some of Dawkins’ thoughts on the unfortunate consequences that have resulted from religious belief, but he was unhappy with the evolutionary biologist’s approach to dealing with believers and said he agreed with those who found Dawkins’ approach “embarrassing”.

Now couple this embarrassing fundamentalism to the manner in which the New Atheists lashed out at the “faitheists” and “accomodationists” and it should surprise no one that New Atheism never secured a serious foothold within academia.  Instead, all they accomplished was a) creating a population of scholars (atheist, agnostic, and theist) who greatly disliked them while b) ensuring that for their movement to survive, they now had to rely solely on media coverage.

2.The Election of President Obama. In 2008, the floor was ripped from underneath the New Atheists.  Prior to this, they could rally around a Common Enemy – the hated and feared George W. Bush.    When Bush was president, the atheist community was in a state of panic.  Many bought into conspiracy theories about a Coming Theocracy and were convinced Bush was working with the Dominionists to make the Handmaiden’s Tale a reality.  Some even argued that Bush would declare martial law and cancel the 2008 elections.  Of course, this was all paranoid nonsense that came from the atheists believing their own propaganda and rhetoric, but such fear allowed the atheists to unite.  In those days, PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins were strong allies.  In fact, Myers (and another atheist scientist, Larry Moran) even flew to Dawkins house to meet up.  But when Bush was replaced with Obama, the Common Enemy was removed.  The Threat was over.

What’s more, the Obama Administration, which was strongly loved and supported by many in academia, began to reshape the culture such that criticism of Islam was politically incorrect.  As it turned out, this created a minefield for the leaders of the New Atheist movement who were now especially vulnerable since they depended solely on the media to survive.  These landmines would eventually take out Sam Harris, whose anti-Islam writings and postings were portrayed as racism and bigotry.  Harris could not take the heat.

3.Elevatorgate. In 2011, a small dispute about the behavior of a man in a elevator at an Atheist Conference became extremely heated among internet atheist activists. With the Common Enemy long removed, the atheists began to turn on each other.  No longer would they restrain themselves to mocking religious people, or even “faitheists,” they began to mock and spit at each other.  The fulcrum was feminism and the Great Schism among atheists was born.  What made it all so much worse was Richard Dawkins, who, for some unknown reason, decided to weigh in by posting comments on PZ Myers blog.  If you’ll remember, this was the time when Myers’ blog was wildly popular among atheists.  In fact, you could say it was the #1 atheist blog in the world.  So when a celebrity like Dawkins decides to post sexist comments on the most popular atheist blog out there, Elevatorgate creeped into every corner of the atheist community.  It became time to “choose sides.”  Richard Carrier, who would later be accused of sexual harrassment, sided with the feminists and loudly declared war on atheists who sided with Dawkins.  PZ Myers too began to attack Dawkins and would expand his attacks to Sam Harris, who was labeled Islamophobic, a deadly sin in the Obama years.

Once one faction of atheist activists began to label the other faction sexist and racist, the media took notice and began to pile on.   This was devastating for the New Atheist movement.  As I mentioned before, without academic support, the New Atheists depended solely on that positive (or at least neutral) media spotlight.  But not only did they lose the support, the media began to devour them.  During this time, Jerry Coyne’s blog was the voice in the wilderness, desperately trying to knock down each and every anti-Dawkins and anti-Harris article that appeared on the web.  Eventually, he got worn down and threw in the towel, where today, he is far more likely to post about cats or food than atheism.

4.Richard Dawkins. Finally, we need to acknowledge Dawkins’ role in the demise of the New Atheists. It’s worth keeping in mind that the New Atheist movement was largely all about Dawkins.  He was the popular science author who used all his celebrity status to draw attention to the New Atheists.  But when things go bad for the celebrity, the media that made you can also just as easily break you.  And if you take down Dawkins, the sheep will scatter.

We’ve already seen how Dawkins put a gigantic spotlight on Elevatorgate and thus catalyzed the schism and made himself a target.  But don’t overlook another factor – Dawkins learned how to tweet.  Without an editor to clean up his words, Dawkins exposed the world to his stream of consciousness.  And with close to a million followers, the media paid attention.  And who can blame them?  About every month or so, Dawkins would post some tweet that many viewed as outrageous.  In effect, you could count on Dawkins to eventually post some tweet that would reinforce the image he was a sexist or racist.  And as  an added bonus, you could rely on Dawkins to tweet something that was either bizarre or creepy – such as his defense of something he called “mild pedophilia.”  Or insisting that a woman who was pregnant with a Downs Syndrome baby had a moral duty to have an abortion.

In essence, Dawkins shredded his credibility with a thousand cuts courtesy of Twitter.  It all culminated with the once popular science author being deplatformed, an event that contributed to his stroke and the end of his twitter popularity.

And with that, the New Atheist movement was gone.  Oh sure, there will always be New Atheists pounding away on their keyboards, running off to conferences in the hope of finding a date, and rallying somewhere to protest how they are being traumatized by some religious monument.  But the Movement is dead.  Dawkins’ latest book was a flop, his speaking tours get no media attention,  and he seems to restrict most of his twitter rants to Brexit and Trump these days.  Harris restricts most of his efforts to trying to restore some of his credibility by using podcasts to rub shoulders with various intellectuals.  Hitchens is dead and Dennett was always just the guy someone needed to make the Four Horsemen metaphor work.  Myers blog has become an obscure wasteland as he expresses his desire to punch Nazis.  And Coyne’s writing a children’s book in between posting about cats.  As for the community?  The schism continues to deepen and become more bitter, where the two factions are trying to ban each other from each other’s conferences, all in the age of Trump.  Even the Common Enemy isn’t enough these days.

So who killed the New Atheist movement?  The answer is obvious.

The New Atheists.

With a little help from Obama. 😉

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11 Responses to The New Atheist Movement: An Autopsy

  1. David Robertson says:

    Very interesting. The schism is something I’m becoming more and more aware of on YouTube for example, watching divisions between SJWs and anti-SJWs (for lack of a better term), Dave Rubin and the Amazing Atheist on one hand and SJW channels like Cracked and Vox on the other. Very interesting watching it unfold, reminds me a little bit of the South Park episode that predicts a future where three atheist movements are warring amongst themselves.

    I think another reason for their decline that wasn’t mentioned in this post was the role that intellectual religious folk played. Figures who would go out and debate New Atheists, proving that there was intellectual basis for faith, and that the New Atheists spent most of their time creating strawman arguments against religion. I think these figures, perhaps not quite swaying people to become theists, but at least taking religious and spiritual ideas more seriously.

  2. Mechanar says:

    thanks obama! 😀

  3. essiep says:

    Meanwhile, most atheists rarely give much thought to religion, it rarely encroaches on their lives.

  4. TFBW says:

    The schism continues to deepen and become more bitter, where the two factions are trying to ban each other from each other’s conferences, all in the age of Trump. Even the Common Enemy isn’t enough these days.

    Trump is not actually a common enemy. In fact, he has accelerated the decline by dividing them along political lines. One of the key features of the new schism is that it’s a division along the axis of Political Correctness, now roughly synonymous with Social Justice, Identity Politics, and Cultural Marxism. Trump is the sworn enemy of the Politically Correct, and one must actively deplore Trump in the strongest terms in order to maintain status as Politically Correct.

    Islam is another touchstone of Political Correctness, as mentioned in the OP. Dawkins and Harris haven’t managed to adapt to this new political reality. It used to be the case that you could disparage Islam as well as Christianity, but the new divide doesn’t work this way. On the A+ side, the new enemy is not Christianity as such, but the “Far Right”, and said “Far Right” is demonising Islam. Islam must be defended from such attacks by asserting that the Far Right is responsible for more terrorism (an assertion so outlandish that even the leftist apologists at Politifact demur over it), and that Muslims are the True Feminists.

    Meanwhile, the A- side of the equation has been so disgusted by this flagrant disregard for facts, that they’ve actually found it in their hearts to concede that Christianity deserves some credit for making Western Civilisation the great thing it is, so the old New Atheist tactic of lumping all religion together as malign isn’t flying as well as it used to on that side either. Of course, the A+ side asserts that Western Civilisation is just plain evil, and so the fight is drawn back to culture and politics over religion again.

    Hardly anyone on either side is actually promoting atheism as such any more: it’s taken a back seat to the political bickering. The A+ side censures the A- side for their callous lack of empathy, and the A- side censures the A+ side for their flagrant disregard of evidence.

    I never tire of pointing out that a common lack of belief in God is no grounds for unity.

  5. FZM says:

    Meanwhile, most atheists rarely give much thought to religion, it rarely encroaches on their lives.

    This will depend on where you live and who you spend time with I guess.

    I moved to live in Eastern Europe a while ago and was surprised by the irrelevance of atheism and hostile secularism, even in a country that has a high number of non-religious and low levels of religious practice.

  6. pennywit says:

    I think Hitchens’ death has a lot to do with it. The man was arrogant as all get-out, but he was also charming and a very talented writer. Without him, the New Atheist movement is largely angry white men.

  7. hikayamasan353 says:

    Literally, any movement which is based on mockery, ridicule and hatred, is destined to fail from the beginning. It used to be that way with Soviet state atheism, now it’s with the Dawkins New Atheism. And it will always be with any sort of antireligious movement, masquerading antitheism as atheism and insisting that it’s “just a lack of belief in God”, while actually having beliefs that there is no God, no Satan, no heavens, no hell, no angels, no demons, and there is only natural world. Atheism is a lack of belief in God, yes, but it doesn’t give anyone who doesn’t believe in God a right to mock/ridicule religions. Even Hemant Mehta has said about mocking religions: “It’s part of who we are”.
    Also, there’s Jaclyn Glenn. She makes a lot of videos that might be commonly perceived as “antireligious satire”. But that’s no different from mocking/ridiculing religions. She made an April Fools prank about converting to Islam. She even said that she’s actually “a Christian in atheist’s clothing”. And so on…

  8. Dhay says:

    It’s not often I get my finger on the pulse of rapidly moving current events:

    Wow, the Atheism+ and Atheism– guys are really into mutual hatred.

    At the time, a few weeks back, the ‘Atheism–’ was very tongue-in-cheek; but now I find I was prescient: an ‘Atheism Minus’ has been announced by a Philip Rose via YouTube. Albeit I was only sort of prescient, for it looks just like Atheism Minus is actually a re-badged Atheism+, so much so that PZ Myers’ venom has been reserved for its detractors, detractors who look like the Atheism– guys I had referred to a few weeks back. And Atheism Minus is plainly SJW+, because (Myers likes it and):

    … as Philip points out, you can’t fight for the rights of an atheist minority while denying the rights of far more oppressed groups.

    So there we are, then, there now is an Atheism Minus, though it’s the same as Atheism+, a distinction without a difference. (It’s really a combined Atheism±.)

    Wow, the Atheism± and Atheism– guys are really into mutual hatred.

  9. TFBW says:

    In case any further evidence was needed that New Atheism no longer has a pulse, “we regret to advise that the 2018 Global Atheist Convention, Reason to Hope, has been cancelled.” Said conference was to have taken place on 9–11 February, in Melbourne, Australia, but “ticket sales have been substantially below expectations and below the levels for previous conventions, so, unfortunately, the Convention cannot proceed.”

  10. Dhay says:

    Hemant Mehta has a 25 November 2017 blog post entitled “It’s a Church Choir… Minus the Church”; it’s an atheist group’s a capella choir mostly singing to the atheist ‘congregation’.

    What got me responding in this “The New Atheist Movement: An Autopsy” thread is Mehta’s comment that:

    A quick glance at some of their videos online suggests the choir is larger than most atheist groups altogether.

    I took my own quick glance at those same videos online and counted: according to Mehta, most atheist groups have fewer than thirteen members; or if accompanying guitarists don’t count as part of an a capella (unaccompanied singing) group, by Mehta’s testimony most atheist groups have fewer than a dozen members.

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