New Atheism Was a Reaction to 9/11

A couple more articles about the death of the New Atheist movement have been recently published.  Atheist Adam Lee mentions them:

Is the New Atheist movement dead?

If it’s not, a lot of people seem prepared to write its obituary. Two new articles are suggesting that its time is past. And in the name of honesty, I should say that I have an article coming out soon that throws another shovelful of dirt on the casket.

I’m in agreement with PZ that I used to proudly call myself a New Atheist. I don’t do that very much anymore, not because my beliefs have changed so much, but because that label doesn’t mean what it used to. It’s collected a set of unsavory allegiances that I don’t wish to claim for myself.

How did we come to this? Let’s take a look back.

Now, I would like to draw your attention to a consensus that has emerged over the years – New Atheism was born as a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Lee notes:

It’s fair to say that New Atheism was born after 9/11, when a gang of Islamic terrorists committed a dreadful act of mass murder

But he is not alone.  PZ Myers, who was once a huge and vocal proponent of New Atheism,  himself notes

I swallowed some of my early reservations — is this just a reaction against Bush fueled by xenophobia inspired by the September 11th bombings? — but figured that would pass, that people would step in the door and then find enduring meaning in science and evidence-based reasoning.

As for the articles Lee mentioned, they too acknowledge the role of 9/11.  Jacob Hamburger wrote:

 With the Christian right in the White House, and jihadist terrorism perceived to be a constant danger in the wake of 9/11, a vocal rationalist atheism appeared to many a natural and necessary counterweight……The genesis of New Atheism can be traced back to a series of foreign-policy debates in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

And The Guardian noted:

Whatever happened to “New Atheism”? It was born in the febrile aftermath of 9/11, when belief in a deity – or, let’s be honest, specifically in Allah – seemed to some people a newly urgent danger to western civilisation.

It’s good to see that with the passing of the New Atheist movement, many have finally come to recognize this aspect of New Atheism.  In fact, I brought this point up 12 years ago.  So here’s the blast from the past:

New Atheists: A Reaction to 911

I’m pretty sure I was the first to make the link back in 2007 because a) I don’t recall anyone else making the link at the time, otherwise I would have just linked to their argument and joined in and b) many at the time reacted to my proposal with skepticism and even some scorn.  So there is a certain sense of satisfaction in watching people come to see what I saw twelve years ago.

That New Atheism was a reaction to 9/11 explains the emotional aspect of the movement.  That is, while New Atheism always tried to pass itself off as a movement that championed reason, evidence, and science, the actual evidence did not support this packaging.   The evidence pointed to a movement rooted in the emotions that flowed from anti-religious bigotry.

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23 Responses to New Atheism Was a Reaction to 9/11

  1. pennywit says:

    I recall reading Dawkins and Harris a few years after 9/11. I found that despite my nonreligious leanings, I had no interest in atheism as a political movement or a cultural identity. Also, Harris came across as pretty bigoted.

  2. Ilíon says:

    That New Atheism was a reaction to 9/11 explains the emotional aspect of the movement. That is, while New Atheism always tried to pass itself off as a movement that championed reason, evidence, and science, the actual evidence did not support this packaging. The evidence pointed to a movement rooted in the emotions that flowed from anti-religious bigotry.

    Moreover, while the *excuse* for launching the so-called “New Atheism” was Islamic acts, the *target* of the “New Atheists” was always Christianity.

  3. hikayamasan353 says:

    With the similar logic we might say that Soviet Union’s antireligious propaganda was a reaction to the Czar’s regime and misuse of religion – especially in state, public and school affairs.

  4. Dhay says:

    pennywit > I recall reading Dawkins and Harris a few years after 9/11. I found that despite my nonreligious leanings, I had no interest in atheism as a political movement or a cultural identity. Also, Harris came across as pretty bigoted.

    The problem with you moderate atheists is you enable the extremists, the New Atheists, those who are so extreme in their views that, for example, they declare they wish to make it illegal for religious parents to bring up their children (until eg age 16, at any rate) as practitioners of the parents’ religion, and who would, if ever they could put power where their mouths are and achieve their aims, separate said children from their parents either by taking them into care or jailing the parents. By holding and giving support to the same atheist views that the extremists have you moderates give support and comfort and enable the extremists.

    Not only that, it’s only your ignorance of, lack of full understanding of, or disregard for the implications of your materialist ideas that stop you from being the New Atheist your ideas entail. The only thing that makes you better than them is that you don’t know

    No, moderate atheists like you should be attacked just as fiercely as the New Atheists you enable and make seem legitimate.

    *

    Sorry about that, just channeling my inner Sam Harris.

    *

    Where else could I go? New Atheists denying everyone free choice because nobody has free will and choice anyway, we can’t says Physics. Physics says No.

    New Atheists letting murderers go free because if you rewound their lives to their birth they would do exactly the same thing again. (Odd, that, because I cannot remember the peer-reviewed paper giving the results of experiments like that; it seems to be a thought-experiment where the determinism ‘proved’ is the determinism assumed — “How could the end-result possibly be otherwise” on a re-run; and it seems to be argument by personal incredulity.)

    Or New Atheists executing murderers (and even those who non-New Atheists would term innocent people) because, heck, they are nothing but leptons and baryons (matter), so they don’t have a self that can suffer or die in the first place, just a body; and the only substantial difference between a body alive and a body dead a few seconds later is the bullet in the brain. (In between they don’t even lose consciousness because consciousness is famously the immaterial ghost in the material machine, and ghosts are supernatural.)

    You moderate atheists have a lot to answer for.

  5. Michael says:

    Provided a handy distraction from the real issues around the September 2001 attacks, didn’t it? Why address the human rights issues, the militarisation of the police and the implementation of mass surveillance, when one could instead safely mock the beliefs quiet Christian down the road?

  6. pennywit says:

    You moderate atheists have a lot to answer for.

    Get up on the wrong side of the futon this morning?

  7. FZM says:

    With the similar logic we might say that Soviet Union’s antireligious propaganda was a reaction to the Czar’s regime and misuse of religion – especially in state, public and school affairs.

    It’s possible but the New Atheists didn’t actually kill anyone on account of their religious beliefs, whereas the Bolsheviks killed or enslaved large numbers of people on account of their religious beliefs,

    As things turned out, it’s doubtful the Bolsheviks had any grounds for complaining about the Czarist regime’s ‘misuse’ of religion, all of that was based on the idea that they could produce something superior to Czarism.

    It’s interesting though that the New Atheists sometimes sounded a lot like the Soviets and the uselessness of that kind crude, dogmatic anti-religious agitation was already becoming known.

  8. Get up on the wrong side of the futon this morning?

    I think it’s a parody of new atheist reasoning about the dangers of moderate religion. Admittedly it can sometimes be difficult to tell on the internet.

  9. Michael says:

    I think it’s a parody of new atheist reasoning about the dangers of moderate religion. Admittedly it can sometimes be difficult to tell on the internet.

    As Dhay noted, he was just “channeling my inner Sam Harris.” Harris, and the New Atheists, argued that religious moderates enabled the religious extremists and were thus to blame for religious extremism. So Dhay is just applying Sam Harris logic to atheism. If it strikes anyone as extreme and unreasonable, perhaps it will help people see the extreme and unreasonable position of Sam Harris.

  10. Dhay says:

    theoriginalmrx > I think it’s a parody of new atheist reasoning about the dangers of moderate religion.

    It is indeed so. pennywit and I have a perfectly amiable relationship.

    It’s a parody, but not just that, it embodies what someone here pointed out — my imperfect recollection tells me it might have been Ilíon, a few months ago, and inevitably this is a paraphrase of their idea — that if someone’s argument is a genuinely valid argument, if you substitute different terms into their argument it should remain as valid an argument with those substituted terms; if you cannot do so, if it is not a valid argument with those changes, the original argument was not valid.

    This is perhaps most easily seen in the equations of symbolic logic, where the variables are .. are undefined, substitute what you like.

    Above, it was “moderate atheist” substituting for “religious moderate.”

    The corollary is, if on substituting different terms the argument is obviously absurd or otherwise faulty, so was the original argument.

    So was Harris’ original argument.

  11. pennywit says:

    The paradox of the “moderate X” goes back a long way. The “moderate X” can actually be one of the most frustrating obstacles to progress. In the civil rights era, for example, you had any number of moderate whites who did not discriminate against blacks themselves, but who also didn’t really do anything about their fellow whites’ activities or speak up regarding the injustice.

    I think Dhay’s analogy falls down a little bit, however, because of the power differential between atheists and theists in (where I live) the United States. Moderate American Christians are numerous enough that they could speak up regarding injustices by their co-religionists, and they are numerous enough they could vote with their feet or express social disapproval of their fellow Christians, and they would be loud enough … if they chose to speak.

    Moderate American atheists, on the other hand, are not nearly so numerous, and do not have the institutional power of a moderate American theist. That said, I suspect moderate atheists have exercised a certain amount of power. The New Atheist movement began with the assumption that a bunch of other atheists agreed with them. A LOT of moderate atheists have voted with their feet — not showing up to the rallies, the meetings, the whatever. (In fact, I suspect a lot of moderate atheists have become Unitarians). And without support, the New Atheist movement has mostly faded to irrelevance.

  12. pennywit says:

    And, candidly, I think that one of my moral failures is one of apathy and laziness. I don’t do enough about the injustice in the world. I don’t do enough to speak out about what I see. It’s a fault, and I’m not sure I will ever be able to overcome this failing.

  13. Kevin Reed says:

    Most people are just trying to raise their families and find enough rest or recreation to not fall over or go nuts. “I’m going to make supper after a 15 hour work day, put the kids to bed, get the laundry started, and then go fight injustice!” said no one ever. I’m not sure that’s a moral failure.

    I’ve also not ever been one to subscribe to treating people differently based on the “power” of whatever demographic checkboxes that may or may not apply to them. Far as I’m concerned, racism is racism, sexism is sexism, and the moderates of a group either are or are not complicit in the actions of more extreme members.

    I happen to not blame all members of a group for the actions of extremists within that group, because doing so is bigotry. New Atheism was nothing if not a bigoted movement.

  14. Isaac says:

    The easiest way to ignore an injustice is to rationalize it. For example, every possible pro-abortion argument has a parallel pro-slavery argument that was made 200 years ago by slaveowners and traders. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that anyone who is apathetic about abortion would also have been apathetic about slavery were they born, with their same personality and temperaments, 200 years ago.

    Anyways, here’s an obituary for New Atheism: They influenced culture. A lot. No one got any smarter, no one started caring any more about science, no one became any more ethical, no one became more logical, lots of people left religion, most of those people just replaced it with vague and vacuous spirituality, the number of douches on the internet increased 1000 fold, some people were inspired to commit mass shootings, and now we have epidemics of suicide, opiate use, and STDs. It was a good run, New Atheists. You tried.

  15. Kevin says:

    the number of douches on the internet increased 1000 fold

    Definitely their most readily apparent contribution.

  16. TFBW says:

    To be fair, Twitter started in 2006, which may be a contributing factor.

  17. pennywit says:

    I’ve also not ever been one to subscribe to treating people differently based on the “power” of whatever demographic checkboxes that may or may not apply to them. Far as I’m concerned, racism is racism, sexism is sexism, and the moderates of a group either are or are not complicit in the actions of more extreme members.

    What do you think about, say, a white person in the 1960s who does nothing about segregation because he sees nothing wrong with it, or who sees something wrong and does nothing? Would you consider that person complicit or merely indifferent?

  18. Kevin says:

    Would you consider that person complicit or merely indifferent?

    With the knowledge that small details can change the facts of the situation, I’ll try to answer broadly.

    I’m unaware of any spin that makes the support of segregation anything but racist. The only reason I know to support segregation is the belief that blacks are inferior or dangerous, so they should be kept separate from whites. Judging someone based on their skin color is a moral failing in my mind, and I would say the failing is equal between white supporters of segregation and the modern demand for “safe spaces” from white people on college campuses. (Not saying the impact of the two is equal, but rather that both stem from the same moral failure of judging based on skin color and not actions.)

    Someone who does nothing, well that depends. I live in the Arkansas Ozarks. My neighborhood is over 90 percent white. I work 12 hour night shifts, and when I am not at work or asleep I’m raising my kids. What, precisely, am I to do about racism beyond my own conduct and how I raise my children? Does the white person in the 60s have the opportunity to do something meaningful?

    I would say the acceptance or advocacy of racism is a moral failure, while “not doing more” is entirely situational.

  19. pennywit says:

    I found the quote I was looking for. It’s from The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail.:

    I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

  20. Kevin says:

    Depends on what he means by a “white moderate” (everyone has their own definition of “moderate”, and I was not alive in the 60s to experience the cultural and political climate).

    If he is only referring to white people who not only refrained from participating in activism but also opposed those who did, then I would be on his side on the substantive points even if I disputed whether those were “moderates”.

  21. Dhay says:

    pennywit > I found the quote I was looking for. …

    Thanks, that quote’s thought-provoking … along a number of avenues of thought.

  22. FZM says:

    I think Dhay’s analogy falls down a little bit, however, because of the power differential between atheists and theists in (where I live) the United States. Moderate American Christians are numerous enough that they could speak up regarding injustices by their co-religionists, and they are numerous enough they could vote with their feet or express social disapproval of their fellow Christians, and they would be loud enough … if they chose to speak.

    I think experience in Europe and other places that have becoming or are becoming highly secular may suggest that there is some kind of ‘zero sum’ situation. Religious groups supporting secularism and atheism results in the generalised promotion of secularism and atheism, secular/atheist moderates then fail to speak up for injustices suffered by religious people once there are sufficient secularists for these to start to happen (if they even share an understanding of what injustice is).

  23. Ilíon says:

    ^
    This is because, non-exhaustively:
    1) There is *always* a “god of the system” — there is no such thing as neutrality with respect to morality, nor religion(s);
    1a) All gods are jealous;
    1b) The poltics and policies considered acceptable in a polity are determined by the metaphysics, which is to say, religious understanding, embraced by the populace and their rulers;
    2) Secularism/atheism has every bit as much religious impulse motivating it as Christianity does;
    2a) The religious impulse of secularism/atheism logically entails a certain set of political possibilities, just as that of Christianity does; and the two sets are fundamentally incompatible;
    3) Toleration of other religions is very much a Biblical ideal/virtue, being grounded in the recognition of each human being as imago dei, which recognition is necessarily denied by secularism/atheism … from which denial toleration of other religions does not logically follow;

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