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. 😉