It’s been about twelve years since the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in 2006. The initial enthusiasm for this movement was intense. At a Reason Rally, Dawkins encouraged atheists to mock and ridicule religious believers in public. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens told an audience at the University of Toronto that religion should be treated with ridicule and hatred and contempt, and thunderous applause erupted in response. It seemed that this movement was fixing to be powerful and influential, but has that been the case? Those who have paid attention to the God debate over the last decade will notice that the cultural mood around the New Atheism has changed considerably. The New Atheists themselves seem to have mostly gone on to other projects. Prominent Youtubers, inspired by the New Atheism, like Amazing Atheist, Jaclyn Glenn and Thunderfoot have stopped almost entirely commenting about religion, and in some cases, instead started attacking identity politics.
1) The Rise of Apologetics
When the New Atheist movement started, the New Atheists and their fans constantly made some very strong claims about religion. These were claims to the effect that there was absolutely no evidence for God or for Christianity. One might have thought that the title of Dawkins’ book was just hyperbole. But you find out that he, and his fans, took the title literally. They really thought that religious people were deluded. There was a widely circulated clip on Youtube of Dawkins telling a man, who was recounting his religious experiences, that he was hallucinating. And in the early days of the New Atheist movement, there were no prominent, effective, Christian apologists, so internet atheists got away with such falsehoods. In other words, there were Christian philosophers doing work in apologetics in an academic setting, but their work had not yet become popular.
Gradually, Christian academics and incisive popular apologists came to prominence: people like Frank Turek, William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Ravi Zacharias, Alister McGrath, Michael Licona, even Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga. They were invited to talk and to appear in debates with prominent atheists, and they gained more and more of a following. There was one debater who was especially effective – William Lane Craig. Craig is not only a sophisticated thinker, but he’s an extremely effective debater. He debated a number of atheists during this period, which gained popularity as a result of the popularity of the New Atheism, and mostly he clearly seemed to come out on top. This is when the famous standoff between William Lane Craig and Richard Dawkins occurred. Several people challenged Dawkins to a one-on-one debate with Craig. Dawkins repeatedly refused, but his excuses changed. At first it was because he said Craig is a creationist, and then it was because Craig defended Old Testament violence. It seemed suspiciously that Dawkins was trying to find an excuse to avoid having to debate Craig. These apologists are responsible for deflating some of the brazenness of the movement. They have pointed out that New Atheist arguments are often bad versions of older atheist arguments, and that their worldview tend to be based on long-abandoned logical positivist ideas. This may be one reason why they have failed to find any traction in academia. Christians who felt beleaguered by the New Atheist confidence eagerly latched onto these new apologists and took what they learnt to their own debates with atheists.
Also, when they were not engaged in direct debate, the strategy of the New Atheists, it seems, has mostly been to ignore these new apologists. They have not engaged them in any serious way. The New Atheists have mostly gone after easy targets like young-earth creationists and prominent Christians who say and do foolish things related to their faith.
2) Disowned by the Left
It is sometimes disorienting just how quickly a culture can change (which is why we should never make much of whatever cultural movement is now in vogue). The cultural and political left in the English-speaking world, has changed a great deal during the past few years. Issues like the death penalty, the welfare state, universal health care, and abortion used to be central leftist talking points. But over the last decade especially, the cultural left in the US has become more focused on identitarian narratives, which gradually became completely incontrovertible. The identitarians believe their tenets with fanatical zeal, they mob detractors on social media intent upon character assassination. The New Atheists fell afoul of both the old left and this new left for a number of reasons.
First of all, when the New Atheist movement began, the left mostly seemed delighted at the horsemen’s tracts as a welcome corrective to religious (especially Christian) fundamentalism. However, the New Atheists, and their fans, repeatedly made clear that they didn’t like religious moderates either because they “enable” the fundamentalists. And they were just as happy to mock some New Age “spiritual-but-not-religious” type (such as Deepak Chopra) as they were to mock religious fundamentalists. The left didn’t like this, because many of them still want to believe in a god, even if their god is more heterodox and liberal than that of traditional religion. Secondly, the New Atheists attacked Islam and Judaism as brazenly (or almost as brazenly) as Christianity. A few years ago, someone who used the term “islamophobia” seriously would still do so self-consciously, and people could get away with mocking it as just some more politicized psychobabble. But today, an accusation of islamophobia is serious business. Because of its association with racism, it can have reputation-damaging effects. Sam Harris especially, but also Dawkins and Hitchens, have gotten themselves repeatedly in trouble with the left over their refusal to give Islam a pass. As a result of his opposition to Islam, Sam Harris had fairly high-profile feuds with people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (but not limited to them). And he later had a tussle with Ezra Klein who implied that Harris was a racist after speaking to Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve) on his podcast. It has often been noted that Christopher Hitchens was no conventional leftist. He had a fallout with powerful liberals in the 90s for testifying against Clinton in the Lewinsky case and he famously supported the Iraq War, which most on the left strongly opposed. Comments he made about feminism showed that he was definitely not an identitarian. Richard Dawkins also has a fondness for criticizing feminism. He wrote a short satire of Rebecca Watson’s complaint about being asked to the room of a stranger in an elevator. He posted a video on twitter which mocked a feminist who had become a Youtube meme for her aggressive defense of feminism. He was disinvited from a conference on science and skepticism for this even though he said he didn’t know that the person in the video was real. Dawkins was also disinvited from Berkeley for his opposition to Islam. Other figures associated with the New Atheism, like Bill Maher and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, were disinvited from giving talks at universities for their criticism/mockery of Islam.
Slowly but surely, New Atheist figures became associated with the right, and powerful leftists and leftist institutions started denouncing them, especially in the ranks of the new and increasingly powerful, identitarian left.
3) In-Fighting and Human Resources Problems
Christopher Hitchens passed away in 2011 at a time when the New Atheist movement was still going strong. Losing a much-loved member was definitely a blow to the movement, and it wasn’t the same after. I think partly as a result of being disowned by his leftist peers, the rise of apologetics, and his age and health, Dawkins is not as enthusiastic an atheist activist as he used to be. Harris can still be relied upon to make a jab at religion every now and again, but mostly, his interests have shifted elsewhere. He is focused on his podcast, which deals with a wide range of topics, and on the struggle with the new left. And Dennett… Where is Dennett? Dennett was the least polemical of the New Atheists and he didn’t appear with the other “horsemen” that often. He too seems to have turned his focus to other projects. Dennett also had a professional fallout with Sam Harris as a result of his criticism of Harris’ book on free will. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who became a prominent figure in the movement, has been accused of sexual misconduct, and was consequently deplatformed by his fellow New Atheist, Sam Harris. With the possible exception of Dawkins himself, none of the horsemen had intentions to become full-time atheist activists. The fight against religion was not something they wanted to devote all their time and energy to. This means that they would not be able to sustain the movement beyond its initial popularity.
There has been some dissension in the ranks driven by politics. The rise of identitarian leftism and intersectional feminism split the New Atheist movement. There are some powerful figures, not least the horsemen themselves, who have resisted the incursion of identity politics, or simply its newer more radical version. Others have insisted on incorporating it, resulting in movements like Atheism Plus.
I opened the article with references to Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ encouragements to mock religion and religious people. And there were many atheists who apparently did so enthusiastically. You only need to read some Youtube comment sections on theist vs atheist debates to see this. But this sort of cattiness is unsustainable in a movement that seeks to change things for the better. For one, it discredits those who do it. The New Atheists claimed that religion is a force for evil and that we only need to get rid of it to get a better society. So it is a movement characterized by abrasiveness, which is going to lead humanity into a new age of humanism and enlightenment? More people notice this problem than you might think, atheists included. But the New Atheists themselves grow tired of mocking and deriding others. After the initial novelty of doing it, it is probably safe to say that those who practiced it recognized that they were not changing anything. But it is also emotionally draining to do it constantly. Sure, there are some people who would “deconvert” on being mocked and derided by atheists. Most, I suspect, will only get angry and dig in their heels. It is safe to say that mockery and derision is not ultimately an effective method of persuasion. The simple passage of time therefore made the mocking enthusiasm of these New Atheists peter out.
Militant or nasty movements tend to be self-limiting, one, because it is emotionally draining to be nasty all the time, and two, because militant movements tend to provoke militant reactions. Some movements get away with it, but I think most movements which have made incivility and disrespect their bread and butter will eventually be subjected to the same treatment. Also, if mockery and disrespect is the way you handle disagreement, then what is going to happen when you start disagreeing with your fellow New Atheists? You are going to destroy your own movement through in-fighting, because benevolent disagreement is not something you strive for.