The New Atheists and the Alt-Right
I’ve never liked the so-called “New Atheists,” those inspired by the “Four Horsemen” of Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. When writing about atheism, those four have never impressed me as particularly deep thinkers. My co-author and I have a new book coming out soon that takes exception to the version of Darwinism put forth by Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. I lost a great deal of respect for the late Christopher Hitchens when he embraced Bush’s Iraq war. And Sam Harris is, in my opinion, a shallow and unimpressive thinker who feeds the bigotry of thinkers who are even shallower and unimpressiver then he is.
I mostly never liked them because of Jennifer Michael Hecht. I got to know Jennifer a bit when I reprinted an essay of her’s in a volume I edited. About the time those men in the previous paragraph started making waves, Jennifer published Doubt: A History a deeply-researched, wonderfully-written study of the history of those who have doubted the existence of God. While Hitchens and Harris were repackaging David Hume for the umpteenth time, and Dennett and Dawkins were offering their cramped understanding of Darwinism (as if it had anything to do with the existence of God), Jennifer’s wonderfully original contribution to atheism was swept aside, perhaps because she was a woman (which would not be surprising, given the misogyny in the movement), perhaps because she doesn’t call her intellectual opponents irrational or stupid. Whatever the reason, I always thought the movement chose third-rate thinkers when they could have chosen a first-rate one.
Phil Torres, in a recent post over at Salon, notes the unsettling similarities between the views of some of the so-called “New Atheists,” and the Alt-Right. His drophead nicely summarized the piece: “A movement supposedly committed to science and reason has decayed into racism, misogyny and intolerance.” Torres documents the increasing hostility the movement has towards feminism and the embrace of the “scientific” proof of an innate difference in intelligence between white and black people. All of this with a heaping dose of Islamaphobia that would make any alt-rightist happy.
The comment thread once again proves Lewis’s Law: “”Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”
“They are not politically correct which makes them true classical liberals, a label which the new left co-opts because it has respectability, something to which the politically correct – an entirely different beast – can never aspire to.”
“So the author basically thinks that all atheists should be left wing SJWs who abide by some Marxist principles and identifications. This is an admission that the left is, yes, without moral or deity. This article actually made me like new atheism because at least they have the balls to be honest. It seems that the author just has a problem with the truth.”
“I don’t see the unreasonableness of misogyny. Women exist, and men can observe them. If some male atheists don’t like what they notice about women – well, you can’t blame that outcome on the gods, now, can you?”
“So now I cant even be an atheist without you toxic feminists bitching about it.”
Why might an outspoken atheist be attracted to antifeminist positions or outdated scientific notions like the race/IQ argument? I think there are two interrelated reasons. First, some atheists pride themselves on their independent thinking. One commentator on Torres’s post claimed that “Atheists are by nature non-conformists and independent thinkers. Just as you cannot herd cats, you cannot rationally herd us into a neo-atheist mode of thinking.” This also explains who so many fans of Harris et.al. deny there is a “New Atheist” movement at all; no bandwagoners they! Wrote another commentator, “Atheists aren’t a group. we don’t have meetings , we don’t have a leader.” Another: “I don’t have meetings, I don’t have a group, and I don’t have heroes. What the hell do I need any of that shit for?” No, they all sat down as individuals, calmly and rationally assessed the evidence and concluded that there is no God the same way they rationally assessed the evidence and concluded that black people just weren’t as smart as white people.
The second reason has to do with argumentative style more than content. Stylistically, the New Atheists tend to be confrontational and aggressive, The best we can hope for is a pose of the weary schoolteacher who has to again explain to the slow kid in class that there is no God. For example, some atheists have declared themselves “the Brights” which must mean the rest of us are “the Dulls.” among other things, this
group “constituency of individuals” preaches argues that morality is grounded in human evolution. Which means, while the atheists have read the parts of Hume about Miracles, they seemed to have skipped the part about moving from “is” to “ought.”
There is a historical precedent for the link between atheistic thinking and racism expressed in aggressive terms. In a previous post, I noted that many people in the 1950s and 1960s grounded their defenses of segregation in religion. It was a common tactic in those religious times, particularly in the American south. However, people also enrolled science in defense of racial segregation. I wrote a whole book on the subject. The most outspoken racists in that book were gathered around an atheistic periodical named Truth Seeker.
Truth Seeker was first published in 1873 and is still published to this day–although the periodical of today in no way resembles that of the 1950s which I am discussing here. In the years I’m discussing, Truth Seeker was under the editorship of Charles Lee Smith (1887-1964). Smith had earned his place among atheists in the 1920s when he became the last person in the United States to be indicted for blasphemy for handing out atheistic literature in Little Rock. Smith took over the editorship of in 1937, but by the 1950s, he gave the journal the subheading, “Journal for Reasoners and Racists.” Smith expounded on his idea that both Christianity and Communism were “jewized” ideas with their noxious “brotherhood of man” ideas. The Truth Seeker, and its stable of writers, proudly declared themselves racists, which is remarkable in and of itself.
The motto, “Liberty – Quality – Fraternity!” was a twist on the motto of the French Revolution, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Smith had no problem with “liberty” (though he meant the property rights idea of freedom rather than a more expansive definition. He also had no problem with “fraternity” as long as the brothers were the true brothers of the white racial group and not this “brotherhood of all mankind” nonsense peddled by the hated “equalists.” Smith coined the word “qualism” from the center term of his journal’s motto to show that he, like many conservatives, strongly opposed the idea of “equality.”
The article entitled “A Catholic Review of ‘Sensism'” refers to Smith’s two-volume treatment of his racist philosophy entitled: Sensism: The Philosophy of the West, now out of print but there is an abridged audiobook available for some reason. Neither I nor the Catholic review recommend you bother with Sensism. This short piece published in in Truth Seeker in November 1958 kind of sums up both prolix volumes;
Returning to the table-of-contents, you’ll also see an article on “Keith’s New Theory Applied to Man,” a reference to Sir Arthur Keith’s notion that racial prejudice was necessary to human evolution. Keith’s biggest booster at Truth Seeker was biochemist Robert E. Kuttner who developed a whole theory of “biopolitics” based on it:
Kuttner was able to translate his notions of racial nationalism into a more acceptable vernacular when he was speaking to those outside his inner circle. He did this by borrowing the language of freedom. When testifying on behalf of Willis Carto’s Liberty Lobby against the Civil Rights Act in 1963, Kuttner sounded very much like a libertarian when he trotted out their old argument that laws, because they coerce behavior, will alway make a social situation worse. He told Congress in his testimony:
The fact is that it is believed that there would be some benefit obtained for the Negro if he could enter into public accommodations engaged in interstate trade to some extent, and that there is legislation to this end.
I want to make the fact of compulsion here central to my argument, because in this case this is a factor that remains visible to people who are opposed to this integration.
The Negro has a high social visibility and is a distinct individual, racially distinct, and when present in a forcefully integrated situation, he is a reminder of the fact that rather than welcome, it was law which entitled him to enter into this facility.
Then this is a chronic irritation and opposition to this type of integration, which might before have been the result of a mild negative attitude on the part of the whites, may now become active hostility because of that element of compulsion and because of the fact that there is a constant reminder there. (pp. 1966-67)
Kuttner was able to easily adapt his racial nationalism into the kind of language that was all to common at the time. Certainly Kuttner was not the only one to write about “a forcefully integrated situation” when discussing integration. A quick search for the word “forced” in the hearings on the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Bill shows the way most opponents of the measure used the language of “forcing” integration upon the weak and defenseless white people.
Today, some atheists may be drawn to the alt-right because they revel in rejecting “PC Culture.” As one commentator noted, “Very few of them are actual fascists or neo-Nazis. Most of them are people frustrated with the PC culture and the left’s attack on free speech. That is why they are so edgy. It is protest.” Most of them are not “actual fascists or neo-Nazis,” of course, means some of them are. Just as Kuttner could adopt the language of the time to advance his “biopolitics” today’s alt-righters can adopt their agendas to our time. Our bugaboo is “PC culture.” Just what “PC culture” is supposed to be is never sharply defined, but, given what people claim to be objecting to PC Culture is apparently suggesting that one should not call black people stupid and women irrational. Sure, you have the right to say such things, but when the only thing you can say in defense of your position is that it literally is not illegal to say it, perhaps you should say something productive instead.
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Sam Harris is a hasbara troll.