About a decade ago proclaiming you were an atheist was risky, and can still be risky today depending on where it is proclaimed, but for the most part it no longer carries the stigma it used to have (in the United States anyway). Thanks in part to New Atheism putting atheism in the spotlight, its safer to use the A-word now. However, New Atheism has a new stigma, and there are certainly some atheists in the spotlight (New and old) that are rough on the edges, bigoted or self-righteous, and on the wrong “side” of or entirely blind to some issues that were central to atheism’s important past. David Hoelscher has some enlightening insights:
Atheism is in fact “a complex term with an even more complex history” and “cannot be reduced to one single all-encompassing definition.” …with the rise of evolutionary theory, atheism “moved from simple negation of religious beliefs to an affirmation of liberalism, scientific rationality, and the legitimacy of the institutions and methodology of modern science—and thus from religious criticism to a complete ideological system.” Atheism, then, is “a form of belief—rather than a lack of belief—shaped by its socio-historical context” and “inextricably bound up with” a plethora of principles that emerged from the Enlightenment.
…[Stephen] LeDrew sees [Sam] Harris’s strong support for Israel vis-a-vis its relations with the Palestinians as serving “the purpose of legitimizing Western imperialism and strategic geopolitical interests.” [Russell Brand called Sam out in a similar fashion here]
if atheist groups looked something like the country itself, if they spoke to the socioeconomic concerns of minorities, radical humanists like the author Sikivu Hutchinson would not need to write passages like this one: “There is little analysis of the relationship between economic disenfranchisement, race, gender, and religiosity in New Atheist or secular humanist critiques of organized religion.” Hence what these mainstream rationalist assessments have to say about religion “has limited cultural relevance for people of color.” Or this one:
The problem with Harris and other New Atheists who espouse scientism is that their work lacks context. They provide no sociological insight into why organized religion and religiosity have an enduring hold on disenfranchised communities in the richest, most powerful nation on the planet. Religion is only one apparatus for draconian repression and inequity. Secular institutions that enforce and uphold oppressive hierarchies must also be actively challenged within a humanist framework.
Or this one: “As delineated by many white non-believers,” New Atheism “preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity. In this universe,” Hutchinson writes “oppressed minorities are more imperiled by their own investment in organized religion than [by] white supremacy. Liberation is not a matter of fighting against white racism … and classism but of throwing off the shackles of superstition.” These quotations come from “The White Stuff: New Atheism and its Discontents,” a chapter from her 2011 book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.
But LeDrew never mentions Hutchinson and he discusses none of the important issues she raises. Why he chose not to investigate the topic of racism as it relates to the atheist movement is unknown. Whatever the reason, the omission is as unfortunate as it is inscrutable.
As it happens, it would seem the first individual in modern Western history who is important as an atheist is the French Catholic priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729). Meslier, who at his death left behind a memoir revealing his disbelief in the truth of biblical stories and Catholic dogmas and his antipathy toward religion, was a staunch champion of the poor. Meslier’s book, which, Stephens writes, is addressed to the masses of peasants and laborers, attacks the nobility and “the vexations, the violence, the injustices and the ill-treatment which they commit on poor people.” Well over a century before the appearance of The Communist Manifesto (1848), he “condemned private ownership of property and called for common ownership.”
And so it often went with atheism for the next two-and-a-half centuries, a temporal landscape that, in Europe, includes the following. Denis Diderot’s The Philosophical History (produced in collaboration with others, 1770), which, as Stephens notes, opposed slavery, colonialism, and aristocracy and condemned greed and economic exploitation. Shelley’s “Queen Mab,” (first printed in 1813), which found much of its audience amongst the working class because of sentiments like this: “… many faint with toil/ That few may know the cares and woe of sloth.” The anarchist writings of the philosopher William Godwin and the many European and Russian atheistic anarchists who came later (for example, Mikhail Bakunin: “The abolition of the idea of God will be a fateful result of the proletarian emancipation”). The later, socialistic, editions of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. The humanistic social philosophy and radical political economy of Karl Marx and the many atheists who were influenced by him. The philosophy of Jean–Paul Sartre, for whom, in Stephens’ words, existentialism is a humanism “because it is dedicated to some revolutionary, anti-capitalistic scheme for elevating humanity.”
The political alignment of atheism took a very similar course in the U.S., as evidenced by, among others, the following developments and figures. An often close connection between freethought groups and the labor movement throughout the nineteenth century. The initial establishment, during the 1830s, of atheist feminism by the utopian socialist Ernestine L. Rose. The founding, by social democrat Felix Adler, of the Ethical Culture movement in 1877. Widespread support in Chicago for anti-religious anarchist labor militants during the 1880s and 1890s. During the same period in New York city, the “counterculture” comprised of atheistic, mostly working class Jewish anarchists (Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits, 1988). Humanist Manifesto I (1933), which called for replacing the “existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society” with a “socialized and cooperative economic order.” The socialistic humanism of, among many other nonbelievers, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Albert Einstein, John Dewey, Lorraine Hansberry, Erich Fromm, Stephen Jay Gould, Kurt Vonnegut, and Howard Zinn. The social democratic philosophy of Humanist Manifesto II (1973). American Atheists founder Madelyn Murray O’Hare’s active support of labor unions, her involvement first in the Socialist Labor Party and then in the more radical Socialist Workers Party, and, in the early 1960s, her switch to anarchism.
And we should include a few brief items about language. The popular humanistic saying “my country is the world, and my religion is to do good” comes from The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine—a stalwart champion of the poor and the working class (as a deist, Paine was about as close to atheism as most people could realistically get in the late eighteenth century). The socialist Holyoake coined the word “Secularism” in 1851 (LeDrew mentions this, but he does not make it clear that the term was meant to name a movement). The freethought slogan “No God, No Masters,” generally assumed to be the work of some atheist celebrity or organization, in fact comes from the early twentieth-century literature of the radical labor union Industrial Workers of the World.
In the past, then, organized atheism was often a radical force fighting against an unjust socioeconomic order. Today, however, it gives us what LeDrew cleverly calls “evolutionary neoliberal apologetics.”
You would think this history would have profound meaning for atheists today. In 2014, political scientists at Princeton University released a study confirming that public policy in the U.S. is mostly shaped by the interests and preferences of economic elites “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” In other words, as close observers have known for decades now, democracy has been dislodged by oligarchy. When the subject of political philosophy comes up, most atheists claim to firmly believe in liberal democracy, yet this scientific confirmation of the death of democracy was completely ignored by the mainstream atheist commentariat.
Reflecting on the perils of atheistic fanaticism, with its devotion to “Holy Reason,” Stephens writes that “What was morally wrong with the religion of no religion that was briefly institutionalized during the French Revolution, as [Thomas] Paine argues, was not that it was too profane but that it was too orthodox.” Stephens is referring to the fact that, just as Christianity had often done, atheism, in many quarters anyway, had become intolerant and vicious. But there are many ways of being orthodox besides chopping off the heads of large numbers of fellow citizens who don’t agree with you. Today’s atheist movement demonstrates this in many ways, but none more clearly than in providing, as Luke Savage put it a year ago “a smokescreen for the injustices of global capitalism.”
In fact, given the ways in which neoliberalism has pushed the decimation of the middle class into high gear over the past decade or so, atheists who support or enable status quo economics are helping to forcibly move us to within shouting distance of the dystopia dreamt of by the libertarian atheist Ayn Rand. According to new research findings, the 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the population and the richest 03 percent of families “own more than twice as much as the bottom 90 percent combined.” Stunningly, one-half of the American people are now poor or low income.
…These days, the [New Atheist] movement sides with the oppressors. It supports what Curtis White calls “the most massively destructive social system in human history—capitalism and capitalist militarism.” Humanist ethics, which many atheists claim to embrace, logically entail that economic injustice and poverty be eliminated. But that means actually, you know, focusing on those issues both intellectually and practically. The typical atheist activist would just as soon be tied to a chair and forced to listen to audio books of the collected works of Pat Robertson.
It was not some historical accident that the evolution of atheism in modern times was intimately tied up with social justice movements and that those reform efforts nearly always centered on, or had a great deal to do with, class conflict. Properly understood, atheistic Humanism, the main emphasis of which is human flourishing, entails practical ethical (moral-philosophical) imperatives that, more than anywhere else on the political spectrum, find their expression and defense on the radical left. Marx, whose thought inspired a still vibrant radical humanist tradition, and for whom the main point of philosophy is to change the world for the better, wrote that “Philosophy can only be realized by the abolition of the proletariat, and the proletariat can only be abolished by the realization of philosophy.”
Given the current state of the world, the realization of Humanistic philosophy will require nothing less than an ecosocialist perestroika—a radical, earth-friendly restructuring of political and economic life. Being a mother lode of bad ideas, New Atheism is an impediment to such a transformation. Socialists and other promoters of human welfare should seek to undermine it wherever possible. read more
What more can I say, and certainly not as well as Hoelscher above? Atheism, and the skepticism it carries as a praxis gave me the confidence to question everything proclaimed as Truth, including the religion of the state, media, economics, and whatever we consume in popular culture. However, this transformation occurred in early 90’s before the New Atheist movement. I was on my own for the most part, and had not much more than Prometheus Books and American Atheists to help me find the new atheist me. I was certainly influenced by the punk culture I grew up with, which perhaps helped me during my evolution into an atheist in seeing the logic and credibility of the radical politics of some notable atheist figures, or political figures that were atheists. New Atheism’s blind spot here has certainly let me down. I’m confused as to why radical politics didn’t follow suite, or why it didn’t evolve or blossom when the Occupy Movement occurred. I’ve been asking myself the very thing Hoelscher brings up above: When will the New go back to its roots and radicalism, back to Humanism and a leftist, if not anarchist, political tilt? Bring in the New New or Post New Atheism. Until then I’ll do what I can to undermine it as Hoelscher suggests.