What Killed New Atheism?

Eulogies and post-mortems for the New Atheist movement have been incredibly popular lately if you read, well, any of the blogs of the people who were associated with it. I don’t know of any blogger of that movement who hasn’t commented on it at least once over the past few months. One of the latest is from P.Z. Myers, quoting and referencing an article criticizing Sam Harris. Myers has this to say about the charge that it was intellectually slight:

But why was it slight, and why has it fizzled out? I think we can blame that on the refusal of leading figures to get at all deep, on their shallow understanding of philosophy, and how they only used atheism as a tool to promote a regressive and ultimately racist ideology.

The ironic thing is that Myers is the person who coined the “Courtier’s Reply”, which is nothing more than an excuse for the New Atheists to not bother delving deeply into the theological and philosophical underpinnings of theistic arguments because they didn’t need to. Myers doesn’t seem to be criticizing himself here, and yet he’s clearly one of the leading figures most responsible for and that most reflects that attitude, given that what he’s most famous for is the fig leaf that allowed them to do that and still feel intellectually superior to theists. Instead, he uses Sam Harris as the epitome of that sort of leading figure, despite the fact that Harris, to his credit, actually attempts to delve into those sorts of issues. He fails at them, but at least he tries. Myers, again, is the one who essentially created the excuse for why he and all New Atheists didn’t have to bother.

In all of these analyses though, the real reason New Atheism failed, it seems to me, is being ignored. Each side points to the other and says that they were bad and unreasonable people and destroyed the movement with their badness and unreasonableness, while their side were true and proper skeptics who clung to the truth despite the attacks of the other side. While there is some truth to claims that both sides didn’t apply proper skepticism to the claims they liked, that wasn’t the real reason New Atheism failed. The reason New Atheism failed was that it, over time, in its opposition to religion built itself into an intellectual ideology that had no room for honest disagreement over anything that was considered in any way important.

One of the more consistent strands of New Atheism was, indeed, that sort of approach. I’ve already talked about how the Courtier’s Reply stifled debate and discussion by insisting that the New Atheists didn’t need to bother examining the arguments theists made. This carried on with attitudes deriding “Sophisticated Theology” as being useless and simply complicated rationalization. This carried over to theology and even to Philosophy of Religion, despite one of their most common arguments — the Problem of Evil — clearly being Philosophy of Religion. At the same time, New Atheists were railing against any form of theism that might be at all reasonable. The anti-accommodationism debate — marked by the rejection of Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” argument — worked against treating theists with respect or working with them on areas of common agreement. Victor Stenger explicitly stated that he wouldn’t work with Catholics to defend evolution because of their religious stances. Harris himself got praise for attacking those religious people who were moderates in his book, as he often claimed that they were worse than fundamentalists because their more reasonable seeming, at least, claims provided cover for the stronger claims. New Atheists embraced this hard line against moderates, seemingly for the crime of not being, at least, as obviously insane as the more extreme ideas were. Any position that even seemed like it might be reasonable seemed to invoke anger most of the time, instead of curiosity or a sense that there might be an actual intellectual challenge here.

At the same time, the New Atheists were carefully eliminating any need for them to provide any evidence or argumentation whatsoever. Aside from the Courtier’s Reply, the New Atheists had for years been insisting that they only espoused a lack of belief in God, and so the burden of proof was entirely on the theists. This despite the fact that not only did many of them actually have a belief in lack and, in fact, often made claims to know of that lack, again many of the most constantly recited claims were, in fact, arguments that provided evidence. On top of that, they then moved on to constantly asserting that theists had no evidence whatsoever, and so created a situation where the New Atheists were obviously right: they didn’t need to provide any evidence or argumentation for their claim, and any possible evidence the theists could muster came pre-rejected to ensure that theists could not possibly have any evidence for their claim.

That would have been annoying enough, but what’s more important here is where it led to. Since the New Atheists had applied their critical thinking and skepticism to the matter and found that atheism was just obvious, that meant that anyone who disagreed with them after being made aware of their powerful arguments — that, again, often simply consisted of insisting that their opponents had no evidence and their position was the default — had to have something wrong with them that made them reject the obvious truth. Sometimes it was that they weren’t rational enough, or failed to use their rationality properly. Sometimes it was that they weren’t empathetic enough and didn’t care enough about other people, which was commonly used against anyone who challenged the moral arguments like the Problem of Evil, often despite the fact that they didn’t actually understand morality or the counter-argument (I was essentially banned from Jason Thibault’s blog because someone referenced an argument I had made at Daylight Atheism supposedly supporting genocide in a discussion where people were trying to use the genocides in the Bible to prove that God was immoral. My actual reply there had been that Utilitarians could never say that genocide just is morally wrong because if there was a case where doing that increased utility then it would be morally right. And that argument was at all relevant to the blog post I was commenting on anyway). This also included the argument that theists were delusion or were deluding themselves or were simply brainwashed by their childhood upbringing in the religion, leading to the arguments that if there was no such indoctrination there would be no religion and that such indoctrination should count as child abuse. Even when disagreeing with people whom they respected, the most common sentiment was that they couldn’t believe how someone who seemed to rational could believe something so obviously ridiculous, with the New Atheists never stopping to think that maybe it was because it wasn’t that obviously ridiculous after all.

So, if you disagreed with the New Atheists, something was wrong with you. And then … they started to disagree with each other.

Now, when these disagreements arose one possible outcome would have been that they would indeed have looked internally, seen that these were good skeptics, and so been motivated to look deeper at the arguments to see if they were reasonable. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they reacted the same way to those disagreements as they did to their disagreements with theists: we’re obviously right, so there’s something wrong with you. You’re racist. You’re sexist. You’re irrational. And so on and so forth. New Atheism splintered, it seems to me, pretty much along the divide I outlined above: the ones who cared more about reason and insisted their opponents were irrational or not properly using critical thinking on the one side, and those who took the more moral tack who would insist that theists were morally flawed on the other. And, in general, they responded to the other side with precisely those sorts of accusations, with the one side insisting that the progressive/feminist side wasn’t using reason properly and the other side often rejecting reason and insisting that the other side were just morally inferior sexists and racists, or at least leaning that way. Instead of looking at the potential concerns and arguments from each side, they continued to see themselves as obviously right and the other side as obviously wrong. And as that continued on, the same sort of venom that they used to hurl at theists was hurled at each other. And they didn’t care for that any more than the theists did, but when they complained the other side simply responded to that in the same way as they responded to the theists when they complained, and so now both sides were acting like dicks to the other side, and reacting badly to the other side doing so. Obviously, no cohesive movement could survive that.

The most damning piece of evidence in favour of this interpretation is the fact that at times both sides have accused the other of “acting like theists”, or of having what is effectively a religion, despite them being atheists and so not actually having one by one of the tenets of New Atheism. After spending all that time accusing theists of having something wrong with them that was stopping them from coming to the “proper” conclusions, they couldn’t resist making the exact same sort of claims to the New Atheists they disagreed with.

So, the careful building of an intellectual ideology where they were obviously right and there was no room for honest disagreement meant that, well, there couldn’t possibly be any honest disagreement. And so when they disagreed, the disagreement had to be dishonest. And so the people who disagreed were bad people. And they didn’t want to associate with those they considered bad people, like they had done for theists. And so the New Atheists splintered.

This isn’t the fault of one person. Myers can’t sit by and accuse Harris for causing this without acknowledging his own part in this, which was arguably far more critical to it than Harris’ was, as he provided one of the big excuses for the New Atheists to never have to look for or consider whether there was an honest disagreement. The fault is in the ideology that they embraced that they were right and that those who disagreed were not merely wrong, but had something wrong with them that caused them to not embrace the obvious truth. And the former New Atheists are maintaining that ideology and blaming the clashes it causes on other people and not on the ideology … in short, blaming their clashes on everything except the thing that actually caused it. So much for rationality and critical thinking.

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