How ‘new atheism’ slid into the alt-right

Phil Torres writes: The “new atheist” movement emerged shortly after the 9/11 attacks with a best-selling book by Sam Harris called “The End of Faith.” This was followed by engaging tomes authored by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, among others. Avowing to champion the values of science and reason, the movement offered a growing number of unbelievers — tired of faith-based foolishness mucking up society for the rest of us — some hope for the future. For many years I was among the new atheism movement’s greatest allies.

From the start, though, the movement had some curious quirks. Although many atheists are liberals and empirical studies link higher IQs to both liberalism and atheism, Hitchens gradually abandoned his Trotskyist political affiliations for what could, in my view, be best described as a neoconservative outlook. Indeed, he explicitly endorsed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, now widely seen as perhaps the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history.

There were also instances in which critiques of religion, most notably Islam, went beyond what was both intellectually warranted and strategically desirable. For example, Harris wrote in a 2004 Washington Times op-ed that “We are at war with Islam.” He added a modicum of nuance in subsequent sentences, but I know of no experts on Islamic terrorism who would ever suggest that uttering such a categorical statement in a public forum is judicious. As the terrorism scholar Will McCant noted in an interview that I conducted with him last year, there are circumstances in which certain phrases — even if true — are best not uttered, since they are unnecessarily incendiary. In what situation would claiming that the West is engaged in a civilizational clash with an entire religion actually improve the expected outcome?

Despite these peccadilloes, if that’s what they are, new atheism still had much to offer. Yet the gaffes kept on coming, to the point that no rational person could simply dismiss them as noise in the signal. For example, Harris said in 2014 that new atheism was dominated by men because it lacks the “nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

This resulted in an exodus of women from the movement who decided that the “new atheist” label was no longer for them. (I know of many diehard atheist women who wanted nothing to do with “new atheism,” which is a real shame.) Harris’ attempted self-exoneration didn’t help, either — it merely revealed a moral scotoma in his understanding of gender, sexism and related issues. What he should have done is, quite simply, said “I’m sorry.” These words, I have come to realize, are nowhere to be found in the new atheist lexicon.

Subsequent statements about profiling at airports, serious allegations of rape at atheist conferences, and tweets from major leaders that (oops!) linked to white supremacist websites further alienated women, people of color and folks that one could perhaps describe as “morally normal.” Yet some of us — mostly white men like myself — persisted in our conviction that, overall, the new atheist movement was still a force for good in the world. It is an extraordinary personal embarrassment that I maintained this view until the present year. [Continue reading…]

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