What’s the Matter with Secularism?
How New Atheism Feeds the Right
In April 2017, the influential atheist author Sam Harris interviewed Charles Murray on his popular podcast, “Waking Up.” Murray is infamous for The Bell Curve, the 1994 book that argues Black people are genetically predetermined to be less intelligent. But Harris didn’t invite Murray to challenge him. On the contrary, it was a friendly, softball interview in which Harris treated Murray’s thesis as uncontroversial truth and dismissed critics of his work as motivated by dishonesty or anti-intellectual political correctness.
Vox’s Ezra Klein responded with an article challenging Harris’s kid-glove treatment of Murray,1 pointing out that a simplistic measure like IQ scores can’t separate genetics from America’s long history of racism and unequal treatment, and suggesting that Harris’s views were influenced by tribal sympathy for conservative White intellectuals. Harris lashed out furiously, denouncing Klein’s article as “a disingenuous hit piece”2 that incited a “fake, defamatory controversy,”3 and sniffing that he would no longer bother trying to reach “the far left.”4
Later that same year, an atheist conference called Mythcon, run by the organization Mythicist Milwaukee, invited YouTube personality Carl Benjamin to be their star guest. Benjamin, who writes and speaks online under the name “Sargon of Akkad” (a reference to the empire-building Sumerian king), is known for his racist, misogynistic, and anti-social-justice views. Most notoriously, in May 2016, he tweeted “I wouldn’t even rape you” at a female British MP who helped lead an anti-internet-harassment campaign.5 On stage at the Milwaukee conference, when criticized by the moderator for this remark, Benjamin proudly affirmed it, whereupon his fans in the audience burst out into whoops and cheers.6
Last but not least, in June 2017, after the Atheist Foundation of Australia announced that feminist author Clementine Ford would headline their upcoming Global Atheist Convention, AFA’s Facebook page was flooded with rape and death threats from commenters angry that an outspoken feminist would be given a prominent platform. It was a “fountain of vileness,” someone affiliated with AFA recalled, “horrible beyond words. And all from fellow atheists.”7
Over the last few years, incidents like these have created a deep rift that’s split the atheist community. Famous atheists regularly become nexuses of controversy over remarks widely denounced as bigoted. Longtime activists have quit the movement in disgust. Others, particularly women, LGBTQ people, and people of color, have been driven out by violent harassment. At the root of these battles is a question of identity: should the atheist movement strive to be part of a progressive coalition and uphold a broad spectrum of liberal causes, or should atheists care only about secularism and welcome anyone who’s on board with that, regardless of whether they’re liberal, conservative, libertarian or even Alt Right and White supremacist?
The atheist community would seem like unlikely soil for right-wing ideas to take root. Polls consistently show that the nonreligious are among the most progressive demographics in the United States. Taken as a whole, they’re peaceful: the most anti-war, the most anti-torture, the most anti-corporal-punishment.8 They’re far and away the most pro-choice.9 They’re strong supporters of LGBTQ rights and immigration.10 And of course, separation of church and state is a classic liberal issue.
Paradoxically, in spite of its liberal leanings, organized atheism has acquired a reputation as friendly to conservatives and, in recent years, the White nationalist Alt Right. As the above incidents show, the reputation isn’t unearned. Some of the most prominent and popular atheists have proven themselves openly hostile to feminism, racial diversity and social justice.
There’s no more blatant example of atheism’s potential for racism and anti-feminism than Richard Dawkins, the most renowned name in the modern atheist movement. Although he claims to be a “passionate feminist,” he appears to believe that he, and not women, should decide what does or doesn’t count as a feminist issue. That was the point of Dawkins’ infamous 2011 “Dear Muslima” letter,11which argued that because women in Islamic theocracies suffer worse oppression, like genital mutilation, Western feminists should “stop whining” about comparatively minor issues like workplace sexual harassment (which Dawkins derisively characterized as “being inappropriately touched by the water cooler”)12or creepy, aggressive come-ons.
Another atheist equal in stature to Dawkins is the late Christopher Hitchens. When Hitchens joined the vanguard of atheism with his book God Is Not Great, nonbelievers hailed him for his intellect, erudition and caustic wit. Fewer seemed to notice or care about his coarse sexism, embodied in articles like his 2007 “Why Women Aren’t Funny,”13 or his entwined racism and homophobia, such as when he dismissed the comedian Wanda Sykes as “the black d**e.”14 At an atheist conference in 2007, Hitchens advocated war on the Middle East so ferociously that he drew boos and walkouts, but even this seemed to have no lasting impact on his popularity.15
There’s also the firebrand activist David Silverman, who in 2014, as then-president of American Atheists, applied for his group to table at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the preeminent annual gathering of the grassroots Right. Silverman was enthusiastic about the idea, describing it as “a serious outreach” and “the first step of many,”16 since, as he told a reporter, “the Democrats are too liberal for me.”17 He was so determined to make inroads among conservative activists that, when CPAC denied American Atheists’ request, Silverman attended as an individual to preach the godless cause. The next year, when American Atheists tried again, CPAC granted their request.18
A Movement More Diverse than Its Leadership
Atheists have formally organized for decades, but the modern atheist movement (sometimes called “New Atheism”) coalesced after 9/11 as a backlash against both Islamist terrorism and the cultural overreach of the Christian Right. Its advocates are zealous supporters of state-church separation: opposing Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses, prayer in legislative meetings and creationism in public schools. They’ve waged a public-relations battle against religion, with bestselling books like The End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and public events like the 2012 Reason Rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Based on demographic data, atheism has a bright future in the United States. Although many people cling to the idea of it being a “Christian nation,” the U.S. nonreligious demographic is growing with startling speed. (Not all unaffiliated or nonreligious people self-identify as atheists or agnostics, but many fall into those categories based on stated beliefs.19) Upon coming of age, Millennials became the least religious generation in all of American history20—until their younger siblings, sometimes called Generation Z, took the title from them.21 A quarter of Americans under 50, and a third under 30, now profess no religious affiliation.22 Nonreligious Americans outnumber every Christian denomination and, if current trends continue, by around 2050 they’ll outnumber all U.S. Protestants combined.23
Despite the early involvement of women leaders like Madalyn Murray O’Hair or Anne Nicol Gaylor, atheist activism has predominantly been a White male preoccupation. There are several, not mutually exclusive, explanations for this. One is that White men can leverage a position of greater power in society to challenge social norms, whereas women and people of color who breach conventions tend to face more severe opprobrium and harassment.
Another is that many well-known figures in the atheist community come from academia, which has its own long-standing race and gender biases governing who gets admitted, who gets hired, who gets research funding, who is invited to conferences, and who gets offered prestigious tenured positions.24 Similar dynamics have been cited in the publication industry: White men tend to be taken more seriously as deep thinkers on philosophy and world affairs, and men who write books on these traditionally “masculine” topics are more likely to get reviews and attention.25
Despite the homogenous origins of the atheist community, there are signs that nonbelievers as a whole are becoming more diverse. The Barna Group, a Christian research firm, issued a 2015 “State of Atheism in America” report26 that noted “the entry of millions of women into the skeptic ranks” and the fact that “skepticism has become more racially and ethnically inclusive.” (“Skepticism” is Barna’s umbrella term for atheists and agnostics.)
But what hasn’t changed is that the most prominent New Atheists—the ones who are treated as de facto representatives of all atheists; the ones who are sought out for media quotes, headline coverage and keynote addresses at conferences—remain almost exclusively White men. This legacy effect has resulted in a movement that’s more diverse than its leadership.
The most visible example of this disconnect is the group of White male atheists ironically dubbed the Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor from Tufts University. These men received the lion’s share of early media coverage of New Atheism,27 laying the foundation for a trend that continues to this day. They’ve starred in magazine “special editions”28 and have been depicted with bizarre reverence on T-shirts29 and in comics30 as crusading warriors for science and reason. Even encyclopedia entries on the New Atheist movement often name the four of them and no one else.31
The lack of diversity at upper levels of the movement filters down to the way the public perceives who atheists are. For example, the larger atheist Facebook groups are notorious for having banner images that consist of a lineup of White male faces,32perhaps with one token women or person of color shoved in somewhere. (Ironically, the one non-White person who appears most often in these images is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who personally is agnostic but has publicly stated he doesn’t desire to be involved with the atheist movement.) Atheist publications display the same bias: The Portable Atheist, a 2007 anthology edited by Hitchens, includes just four women-authored essays out of 47.
Like any large group of people, the atheist community mirrors broader trends. As women and people of color increasingly identify as nonbelievers, there’s been a call for the atheist movement to refocus its energy on issues crucial to a diverse community. And, also as in broader society, this call has given rise to a conservative backlash from the old guard who thinks the atheist movement is just fine the way it is.
Despite their self-reported progressive leanings, the inherent narrowness of a White-male-only thought leadership means the atheist movement suffers from limitations, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion. For example, atheists have long treated LGBTQ rights as a natural extension of their activism. Yet many of those same atheists treat feminism as outside their sphere of concern,33 despite the similar way religion has historically been used to justify unequal treatment in both cases.
In 2014, Sam Harris responded to a question about the underrepresentation of women in movement atheism by suggesting that the “critical posture” is “to some degree intrinsically male” and that atheism lacks an “estrogen vibe.”34 In other words, Harris was arguing, women avoided movement atheism because they lacked the critical chops to get it, rather than because of alienating incidents like Dawkins’ "Dear Muslima" letter or Harris’ own pronouncement that, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”35
Misogyny in this movement manifests as leering, sexist comments directed at female atheists, or violent antipathy toward feminists and feminism, as in the case of Clementine Ford. Outspoken secular women get so many obscene, harassing and violent messages that, in 2014, members of the feminist/atheist site Skepchick created an art exhibit that literally wallpapered a room with printouts of abuse they’d received. They called the exhibit “an immersive experience of the daily harassment women face online.”36
Similarly, although atheists have battled against creationism and other intrusions of religion into public schools, the atheist movement seems less concerned about other vital education issues, such as segregation and chronic underfunding of schools in majority-minority neighborhoods. As Debbie Goddard, current vice president of American Atheists, writes:
I am frustrated that we-the-movement only seem to get involved with public education when a teacher puts Bible quotes on the walls of her classroom, when a football coach leads his high school team in prayer, when a science teacher spends time promoting intelligent design, when an administration prevents a student from starting an atheist club, or when a high school graduation is scheduled to take place in a church. Then we swoop in with our science advocates and Wall of Separation to make everything right... but don’t seem to worry about the fact that the high school’s graduation rate might be less than 50% and the shared science textbooks are older than the students.37
Along the same lines, when atheists write about the importance of being inclusive and welcoming to people of color, they can reliably expect sneering comments denouncing inclusion as “a complete non-issue” only noticed by “the most ardent proponents of identity politics.”38 Worse, they often get scorn from top-tier atheists like Richard Dawkins dismissing them as “social justice warriors.”39
Of course, by any reasonable definition of the term, the atheist movement is itself a kind of identity politics seeking to organize and to act on the basis of shared identity as atheists, just as Jewish, Muslim or Christian groups organize on the basis of their religious identity.
Similarly, the quest to protect nonbelievers from discrimination and oppression, and to stop members of the majority religion from claiming special privileges for themselves, is nothing if not social justice. Yet many prominent atheist leaders persist in seeing themselves as neutral and ideology-free, and their concerns as arising from dispassionate reason and nothing else, while other people are polluting the cause with their personal bias.
Some of the most glaring examples of atheist leaders’ selective attention revolve around Islam. For example, take the case of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Texas freshman who brought a homemade clock to school to show his teachers, and was arrested when the school administrators had an over-the-top panic reaction because he was brown and Muslim.40 Instead of encouraging and defending this young inventor, Richard Dawkins, who for over a decade was Oxford’s Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, took to Twitter to denounce and insult Mohamed: calling him “Hoax Boy,”41 bizarrely accusing him of lying about building the clock, spinning conspiracy theories about how he must have wanted to get arrested,42 and for the topper, comparing him to an ISIS child soldier.43
Like Dawkins, Sam Harris appears to have a particular bias against Muslims. He’s argued that airport security should profile anyone who “looks like”44 they could be Muslim (prompting many to ask: what does a Muslim look like?), and has advocated harshly restricting immigration from majority-Muslim countries, arguing: “You can’t have too many Muslims in your culture if you want it to remain enlightened.”45
In addition to the “Horsemen”, there are lesser-known but still prominent atheists who’ve been friendly to Alt Right ideas. One is Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, who’s asserted that the underrepresentation of women is because skepticism is “more of a guy thing.”46 When criticized for this, Shermer took it upon himself to speak for women and people of color and to say that they’re not worried about racism or sexism: “[W]omen & blacks don’t want prostrate pity of white males... Drop the race/sex obsession.”47
Under Shermer’s leadership, Skeptic gave a sympathetic review in July 2017 to the Alt Right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos48 and uncritically accepted the Alt Right concept of “cultural Marxism”—the idea that a secret liberal conspiracy is plotting to undermine Western culture from within. In December of 2017, Skeptic also gave the psychologist Carol Tavris a column to denounce the #MeToo movement, which she compared to Satanic ritual abuse hysteria and predicted that it would lead to a “Mike Pence world where [women] cannot have a business dinner or go to a party without a chaperone.”49
Skeptic also hosted an attempted James O’Keefe-style50 hoax on the field of gender studies, written by conservative-leaning skeptics Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, who assert that “gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil.” To prove this, the two wrote an intentionally ridiculous article and sought to get it published in a reputable gender-studies journal. As it happened, their hoax article was rejected by the first legitimate journal they submitted it to, and only published in a low-quality pay-to-play journal. Nevertheless, Boghossian and Lindsay wasted no time in taking a victory lap—publishing a column51 in which they boasted that their paid publication proved the entire gender-studies field to be a sham—with White male atheist leaders lining up to congratulate them.52
Just as atheists like Sam Harris argue that religious moderates give cover and respectability to toxic fundamentalism, the regressive views of these so-called thought leaders give license to even more extreme anti-feminist and White supremacist ideologies in the atheist community. The cross-pollination between atheists and the Alt Right is most evident on YouTube, where some of the most prominent atheist video bloggers, boasting tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers, openly disseminate racism and misogyny in addition to criticizing religion.
Besides Sargon of Akkad, another YouTube character is TJ Kirk, a.k.a. “The Amazing Atheist,” whose videos display a similar mixture of toxic ignorance and casual cruelty. His worldview is steeped in misogyny. He is indignant about the term “rape survivor” (because “Rape isn’t fatal”) and told an actual rape survivor “I think we should give the guy who raped you a medal.” He also sneers at Black culture as “a victim cult.”53
There’s also Phil Mason, a.k.a “Thunderf00t,” another YouTube personality who started out with videos aimed at countering creationism, but subsequently began to argue that sexual-harassment policies at atheist conferences are a waste of time since, he argued, “talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.”54 Lately, his antipathy to feminism has grown, and he’s branched out into videos with titles like “Why ‘Feminism’ is poisoning Atheism” and rants against the media critic Anita Sarkeesian. Mason, like Sargon, was a strong supporter of the “Gamergate” movement55 that arose as a backlash to feminist criticism like Sarkeesian’s and which is recognized as a contributor to the rise of the Alt Right.
Despite the bigoted and incendiary views they espouse, all of these figures have attracted sizable and enthusiastic followings. Mason and Carl Benjamin each have over 800,000 subscribers on YouTube, and Kirk over 1 million.
The racist ideology that the Alt Right has rebranded is experiencing a resurgence in general, and it’s unsurprising that atheism, like other spheres of society, is affected by it. But there are points of attraction between the two communities that make this pairing more likely than others.
First and foremost is a shared antipathy toward Islam. The New Atheist movement arose in response to 9/11, and many atheists still assign collective blame to all Muslims for the attacks. This bias is most evident in views such as Sam Harris’, who has implied that Islam is an inherently more alien or more dangerous religion than others. Richard Dawkins has also joined in with musings on how Christian cathedral bells sound “so much nicer” than the “aggressive-sounding”56 Muslim call to prayer.
Another is that the atheist movement has frequently employed taboo-breaking and intentionally provocative rhetoric. When wielded against irrational and harmful religious dogmas, these tactics have their place. Ex-believers will testify that, to overcome the programming of religious indoctrination, deliberately breaking a taboo—eating forbidden foods, reading forbidden books, wearing forbidden clothes, having forbidden kinds of sex—can be a powerfully liberating act.57 And the subversive power of ridicule is an effective way to puncture the pretensions of religious authorities who claim that faith occupies a sacred place and ought to be exempt from criticism.
However, too many atheists have overgeneralized from this lesson to conclude that every widely held belief ought to be transgressed in the same way: using provocation as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Taken to an extreme, this can veer into mean-spiritedness or can reinforce discriminatory attitudes against minority religions. And because provocation for its own sake is also a tactic of the Alt Right,58 when they come across conservatives or White nationalists who claim they’re only resisting “political correctness,” these atheists mistakenly believe that they’ve found kindred spirits.
A third avenue that’s led atheists astray is evolutionary psychology, the field of study that posits that human preferences and values are shaped by our evolutionary past. Again, this isn’t an inherently illegitimate subject for research. Evolutionary psychology can be wielded fruitfully to explain some human traits. However, it becomes a pseudoscience when it’s misused to claim that our current wealth distribution, gender roles or racial hierarchies are “natural” and therefore immutable. When distorted in this way, evo-psych resembles a modern version of the old “great chain of being” fallacy that placed White men of European descent above all other races and genders. And of course, that’s exactly how Alt Rightists and White nationalists have used it, leading some unwary atheists to conclude that White male superiority is scientifically proven.
One proponent of these views is Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist who argues that atheists are more intelligent;59that Black women are “objectively” less attractive than other races; that money and power make men happy whereas having children makes women happy; and that an appropriate response to 9/11 would have been to drop nuclear bombs throughout the Middle East.
There’s one more fallacy specific to atheists that has made the atheist community uniquely resistant to changing course. This mistaken idea could best be summarized as, “Because I am rational, my opponents must be irrational, otherwise they’d believe the same things as me.” Many atheists assume that, because they so often defend scientific skepticism against outside attacks, that makes them the supreme advocates of reason and gives them the right to speak with the authority of science on whatever topic they address, regardless of how much or how little familiarity they have with it.60 Worst of all, it lures them into believing that they can’t possibly be susceptible to unconscious bias and other common errors of thinking.
This perception hasn’t been helped by the fact that many of the New Atheists’ original adversaries really do treat their own faith-based worldview as immune to evidence. (For example, the Christian apologist William Lane Craig has said that if a conflict arises between “the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.”61) Too many atheists have applied the same approach they use against such dogmatic believers, assuming that everyone they disagree with must hold the same mindset.
It can’t be denied that many prominent atheists, as well as some of the louder and most vehement voices in the community, have supported Alt Right ideology and White male supremacy. However, many of the larger atheist and secular groups have gone in the opposite direction and are quietly engaged in serious work on social-justice and intersectional issues. Organizations like the American Humanist Association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the atheist charity Foundation Beyond Belief have a solid record of supporting women’s equality and reproductive justice, promoting the voices of people of color, and supporting non-church-based charitable programs in underserved communities worldwide.
These groups and others like them have recognized that society is diversifying, and so must the atheist movement. To remain narrowly focused on the issues of greatest concern to White men, and no others, would lead the secular community into an ideological dead end. To actively scorn the concerns of women and people of color isn’t just morally abhorrent, but self-eradicating. As for atheists, there are strong currents pulling the movement in both directions. Which one will win out, and how that victory will reshape the movement’s priorities, are very much open questions.