The Decline of ‘New Atheism’

Spurred by a recent Scott post, Why Did New Atheism Fail So Miserably, there has been a lot of discussion about what some perceive to be the decline of ‘new atheism’.

The new atheism movement arose mainly, I think, in response to George W. Bush and what some on the left perceived as the imposition of religion on society. Bush’s presidency was very religious, more so than administrations in the past including even Reagan. The ‘new atheists’, in contrast to the ‘old atheists’, saw that they had a duty or sort of moral obligation to impart their views through popular books and mass media, rather than just keep them internalized. I wouldn’t say the new atheism movement failed. Dawkins, Harris, and Bill Maher, as well as YouTube shows such as Secular Talk and The Amazing Asshole Atheist are still popular and influential.

In terms of decline, rather, what has happened is that new atheists are facing more criticism and rebuke now than in the past, in part by millennials and gen z. who are more sympathetic to religion even if they aren’t necessarily religious themselves. The meteoric ascent of Dr. Jordan Peterson, who is very popular among young people and whose lectures are imbued with biblical themes and teachings, probably also plays a role in the recent resurgence of religion–not as in going to church or being a convert–but a newfound respect for those who do. Pre-2013, it was ‘cool and edgy’ online to beat up on religious people, particularity Christians, but that has changed. Based on my own observations, aside from explicitly atheistic and far-left threads (such as r/r/atheism), comments that are anti-religious (especially in a condescending, mocking sense) tend to be down-voted whereas comments that try to empathize and explain the rationale for why people seek religion, do better. Many otherwise agnostic and non-theist young people acknowledge the value religion has on society, and unlike in pre-2013 era, are not so quick to dismiss and ridicule it.

New Atheism was a pretty significant force in the 2000’s during the Bush administration and first half of the Obama administration, but the decline of NA mirrors the failure of OWS and the post-2013 rise of Red Pill, Gamergate, and other right-wing ideologies and movements, as well as the post-2013 SJW backlash. The new atheists overplayed their hand, becoming too aggressive and dogmatic in their tactics in assuming that everyone else agreed with them, and their atheism was so ‘self-evident’ you’d have to be an ‘unenlightened idiot’ to not agree. They became purveyors of the very intolerance it purported to oppose.

From Scott and Postmodernism:

But it’s critical of reductionist theories of science and economics. IMHO, I think it’s good to be somewhat skeptical of the predictive and explanatory powers of science, but such skpeticism can be overdone. As a basic example, if I say “I know how the stock market and economy works,” this flies in the face of postmodernism. I think this explains the post-2013 decline of new atheism, which faltered not because of increased religiosity, but because people are becoming more tolerant of religion, seeing how science cannot answer everything and how the ‘evangelists’ of new atheism have turned science into just another form of dogma. Postmodernism is not anti-science, anti-facts, or anti-religion–rather it denies those are the pathways to ‘truth’.

Regarding the left, new atheism’s criticisms of Islam, although justified, made them few friends, and controversial tweets by Richard Dawkins didn’t help either. But philosophically, starting around 2016 or so, the far-left began , ironically, adopting elements of the ‘idealism’ of the right, in rejecting ‘biological essentialism’ for social construction theory and gender fluidity, related to postmodernism.

Intellectualism culture and the synthesis of wealth, individualism, and intellectualism also plays a role, in the rise of the secular Protestant and monastic aesthetic. Many smart young people see themselves as sort of ‘secular reformers’ in repudiation of a world of media hype, sensationalism, and sentimentalization, from the post Intellectualism, Individualism, and Wealth, Part 4 (philosophy of millennials):

David Foster Wallace, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett can be likened to ‘atheist Protestants’ who seek earnestness and seriousness in a society that they perceive as cynical, ostentatious/materialistic, and hype-driven…they are analogous to the iconoclastic reformers of the 1500-1600′s. This ‘new morality’ is a repudiation of values, in favor of a minimialsitic, stripped-down, de-sensationalized, serious moral relativism. In photos, Dawkins and Dennett always have stern facial expressions and austere attire, bearing an uncanny similarity to the overly-serious Simpsons character Reverend Lovejoy, but instead of revering Jesus they revere Darwin, and they preach not from the Bible but rather from On the Origins of Species.

But also the minimalist, austere Protestant aesthetic appeals to intellectual-atheist types. The monastic, spartan life of an intellectual who combs over papers isn’t much different from a clergyman or monk who combs over scriptures. They both also deal with things that are abstract. The rise of minimalism, the rejection of ostentatious materialism, and how millennials prefer to stay home than ‘go clubbing’ is also in agreement with this trend. From the post In Defense Of A Boring, Comfortable Life (analysis):

This article echoes many themes of this blog and post-2013 society and culture, such as millennials choosing to be alone, at home being introspective, reading, or watching Netflix instead of engaging in ‘adventuresome’ activities such as traveling or going to nightclubs, as part of embracing a ‘spartan’ or ‘boring’ lifestyle of frugality, minimalism, and intellectualism, not excess, materialism, or extravaganza.

Regarding wealth and intellectualism, for many millennials the pursuit of wealth, financial independence, and self-sufficiency is treated with the same seriousness as the pursuit of God and heaven is for religious people. For the religious, salvation is going to heaven; for many smart, secular millennials and other young people, it’s financial independence. From the post Wealth Creation as the New American Religion:

Holiness and virtue were once inseparable, and people sought to become closer to God through personal sacrifice such as going to church often, charity, community service, or raising a family. But nowadays virtue is measured by wealth and achivement, and millennials are living a similar monastic, minimalist lifestyle – but not to serve God or to become closer to God, but to enrich themselves and become financially independent at an early age by saving money and investing instead frittering away money on material possessions or on family. An example of a modern, secular ‘monk’ is the popular blog Early Retirement Extreme, run by a retired 40-year-old physicist who for the past decade has been able to live on a meager $7,000 a year, and thanks to his investments and minimalist lifestyle, never has to work again.

The rise of intellectualism culture has also lead to an increased interest in philosophy, which is related to religion. The funny thing is, if you tell philosophers that their field is ‘useless’ and or has no applicable value to real life, they will either ignore you (because they have heard that argument ad nauseam) or maybe even agree that philosophers need to do a better job making their work relevant and accessible to the ‘mainstream’. But say the same thing to STEM and finance people, especially on Reddit or any other high-IQ community, and you will get an earful about how useful philosophy is, how philosophy complements STEM, and so on. It’s just weird how that works. I think the same is going on with Reddit and religion, with the strongest defenders of religion not being avowedly religious people but rather smart secularists who want to entertain the opposing view.

Additionally, the decline of new atheism is in rejection of how it condescendingly presumes the ignorance and scientific illiteracy of those who disagree with a purely materialistic worldview. If you read Christian websites and writings, the prose is often meticulous and rich with biblical and historical information; these are competent, educated people regardless of their beliefs in evolution. Contrary to the stawmen promulgated by new atheism that Christians “don’t understand evolution and other science,” they actually do, but acknowledge that such theories are limited of scope and or have holes, or rationalize it away. But they know the science arguments very well. There’s a distinction between understanding an argument but questioning or rejecting it, versus being oblivious to it and rejecting it.