Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has posted a fascinating set of reflections on the rise and fall of the New Atheism. Most readers of the blog will know that many New Atheists seem to have gotten caught up with right-wing or centrist politics, often with the men’s rights movement, opposition to political correctness, and so on. But Alexander argues that most of the atheist bloggers and authors were caught up with movements on the left, specifically what we might call the new social justice movement. He provides a lot of interesting evidence from search terms, bloggers changing direction, “atheism+”, and so on and so forth. I have to admit it’s plausible. And, indeed, it fits the pattern of many disagreements in American life getting sucked into our red tribe/blue tribe dispute, or what I call our cold, civil war.
A few observations to add to Alexander’s post.
First, if Alexander is right, and I think he is, by and large, it provides some support for the common Christian retort that atheism can’t really furnish a comprehensive doctrine or philosophy of life or “faith” because it really is a negative claim. Despite New Atheist retorts, it looks like they felt sufficiently incomplete that they began to take up new political causes, and now find meaning in pursuing those causes. We can now ask whether the new social justice movement furnishes a stable, enduring philosophy of life.
Perhaps it can do this. Though I have my doubts. The goals and successes are too fleeting, I think. You have to move on to fight a new bigotry pretty quickly, and you’ll eventually either run out of good targets and start picking bad targets. The nice thing about the great world religions is that they, by and large, identify the prime enemy as yourself and your bad character, and suggest teachings and practices to make yourself better. That strikes me as more enduring than any social or political ideology. That said, the new social justice movement has a similar kind of self-examination and penance practice, which is rooting out bigotry in the soul. The movement focuses on a narrower range of vices, but it does share this meaning-granting activity with the great world religions.
Second, the new social justice movement is way more effective at undermining Christianity than the New Atheism. The New Atheists tried to establish new taboos on Christian belief by establishing new taboos on epistemic irrationality. But we don’t really have taboos on irrationality. And most people don’t care about being irrational, so it only got so far. But the interesting thing about the new social justice movement is that they don’t have to invent a new taboo, they just spread an existing taboo onto theologically orthodox Christians. Lump orthodox Christians into the class of bigots, and bam!, you’ve got a much more effective weapon. Many people care a lot about not seeming bigoted and prejudiced. I don’t think this was by design. I think most New Atheists are well-meaning and their turn to social justice is sincere. But they have become more effective at achieving one of their ends than they once were.
Third, and this is a small point, but Alexander claims that the religiously unaffiliated are atheists, but that’s not true. Maybe they’re functionally atheist, but I’m not even sure this is true.