From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How "new atheism" slid into the alt-right

A movement supposedly committed to science and reason has decayed into racism, misogyny and intolerance. I'm done

By Émile P. Torres

Contributing Writer

Published July 29, 2017 7:00AM (EDT)

Sam Harris; Milo Yiannopoulos   (Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/AP/Seth Wenig/Salon)
Sam Harris; Milo Yiannopoulos (Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/AP/Seth Wenig/Salon)

The “new atheist” movement emerged shortly after the 9/11 attacks with a best-selling book by Sam Harris called "The End of Faith." This was followed by engaging tomes authored by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, among others. Avowing to champion the values of science and reason, the movement offered a growing number of unbelievers — tired of faith-based foolishness mucking up society for the rest of us — some hope for the future. For many years I was among the new atheism movement’s greatest allies.

From the start, though, the movement had some curious quirks. Although many atheists are liberals and empirical studies link higher IQs to both liberalism and atheism, Hitchens gradually abandoned his Trotskyist political affiliations for what could, in my view, be best described as a neoconservative outlook. Indeed, he explicitly endorsed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, now widely seen as perhaps the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history.

There were also instances in which critiques of religion, most notably Islam, went beyond what was both intellectually warranted and strategically desirable. For example, Harris wrote in a 2004 Washington Times op-ed that “We are at war with Islam.” He added a modicum of nuance in subsequent sentences, but I know of no experts on Islamic terrorism who would ever suggest that uttering such a categorical statement in a public forum is judicious. As the terrorism scholar Will McCant noted in an interview that I conducted with him last year, there are circumstances in which certain phrases — even if true — are best not uttered, since they are unnecessarily incendiary. In what situation would claiming that the West is engaged in a civilizational clash with an entire religion actually improve the expected outcome?

Despite these peccadilloes, if that’s what they are, new atheism still had much to offer. Yet the gaffes kept on coming, to the point that no rational person could simply dismiss them as noise in the signal. For example, Harris said in 2014 that new atheism was dominated by men because it lacks the “nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

This resulted in an exodus of women from the movement who decided that the “new atheist” label was no longer for them. (I know of many diehard atheist women who wanted nothing to do with “new atheism,” which is a real shame.) Harris’ attempted self-exoneration didn’t help, either — it merely revealed a moral scotoma in his understanding of gender, sexism and related issues. What he should have done is, quite simply, said “I’m sorry.” These words, I have come to realize, are nowhere to be found in the new atheist lexicon.

Subsequent statements about profiling at airports, serious allegations of rape at atheist conferences, and tweets from major leaders that (oops!) linked to white supremacist websites further alienated women, people of color and folks that one could perhaps describe as “morally normal.” Yet some of us — mostly white men like myself — persisted in our conviction that, overall, the new atheist movement was still a force for good in the world. It is an extraordinary personal embarrassment that I maintained this view until the present year.

For me, it was a series of recent events that pushed me over the edge. As a philosopher — someone who cares deeply about intellectual honesty, verifiable evidence, critical thinking and moral thoughtfulness — I now find myself in direct opposition with many new atheist leaders. That is, I see my own advocacy for science, critical thought and basic morality as standing in direct opposition to their positions. 

Just consider a recent tweet from one of the most prominent new atheist luminaries, Peter Boghossian: “Why is it that nearly every male who’s a 3rd wave intersectional feminist is physically feeble & has terrible body habitus?” If this is what it means to be a “reasonable person,” then who would want to be that? Except for the vocabulary, that looks like something you’d find in Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. The same goes for another of Boghossian’s deep thoughts: “I’ve never understood how someone could be proud of being gay. How can one be proud of something one didn’t work for?” It’s hard to know where to even begin dissecting this bundle of shameful ignorance.

More recently, Boghossian and his sidekick James Lindsay published a “hoax” academic paper in a “gender studies” journal (except that it wasn't) in an attempt to embarrass the field of gender studies, which they — having no expertise in the field — believe is dominated by a radical feminist ideology that sees the penis as the root of all evil. I’ve explained twice why this “hoax” actually just revealed a marked lack of skepticism among skeptics themselves, so I won’t go further into the details here. Suffice it to say that while bemoaning the sloppy scholarship of gender studies scholars, Boghossian and Lindsay's explanation of the hoax in a Skeptic article contained philosophical mistakes that a second-year undergraduate could detect. Even more, their argument for how the hoax paper exposes gender studies as a fraud contains a demonstrable fatal error — that is, it gets a crucial fact wrong, thus rendering their argument unsound.

The point is this: One would expect skeptics, of all people, who claim to be “responsive to the evidence,” to acknowledge this factual error. Yet not a single leader of the new atheist movement has publicly mentioned the factual problems with the “hoax.” Had someone (or preferably all of them) done this, it would have affirmed the new atheist commitment to intellectual honesty, to putting truth before pride and epistemology before ideology, thereby restoring its damaged credibility.

Even worse, Boghossian and Lindsay explicitly argue, in response to some critics, that they don’t “need to know the field of gender studies to criticize it.” This is, properly contextualized, about as anti-intellectual as one can get. Sure, it is a fallacy to immediately dismiss someone’s criticisms of a topic simply because that person doesn’t have a degree on the topic. Doing this is called the “Courtier’s Reply.” But it decidedly isn’t a fallacy to criticize someone for being incredibly ignorant — and even ignorant of their own ignorance — regarding an issue they're making strong, confident-sounding claims about. Kids, listen to me: Knowledge is a good thing, despite what Boghossian and Lindsay suggest, and you should always work hard to understand a position before you level harsh criticisms at it. Otherwise you’ll end up looking like a fool to those “in the know.”

Along these lines, the new atheist movement has flirted with misogyny for years. Harris’ “estrogen vibe” statement — which yielded a defense rather than a gracious apology — was only the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned above, there have been numerous allegations of sexual assault, and atheist conferences have pretty consistently been male-dominated — resulting in something like a “gender Matthew effect."

Many leading figures have recently allied themselves with small-time television personality Dave Rubin, a guy who has repeatedly given Milo Yiannopoulos — the professional right-wing troll who once said that little boys would stop complaining about being raped by Catholic priests if the priests were as good-looking as he is — a platform on his show. In a tweet from last May, Rubin said “I’d like a signed copy, please” in response to a picture that reads: “Ah. Peace and quiet. #ADayWithoutAWoman.” If, say, Paul Ryan were asked, he’d describe this as “sort of like the textbook definition of a misogynistic comment.” Did any new atheist leaders complain about this tweet? Of course not, much to the frustration of critical thinkers like myself who actually care about how women are treated in society.

In fact, the magazine Skeptic just published a glowing review of Yiannopoulos’ recent book, "Dangerous." The great irony of this intellectual misstep is that Yiannopoulos embodies the opposite of nearly every trend of moral progress that Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, identifies in his book "The Moral Arc."

Yiannopoulos is a radical anti-intellectual, often ignoring facts or simply lying about issues; he uses hyperbolic rhetoric (e.g., “feminism is cancer”) that stymies rather than promotes rational discussion; he holds some outright racist views; he professes nonsensical views, such as the idea that birth control makes women “unattractive and crazy”; he uses hate speech, which indicates that he’s not a very nice person; he once publicly called out a transgender student by name during a talk; and he supports Donald Trump, who has essentially led a society-wide campaign against the Enlightenment. Oh, and need I mention that Yiannopoulos once said that if it weren't for his own experience of abuse by a Catholic priest, he never would have learned to give "such good head"? The merger between the alt-right and the new atheist movement continues to solidify.

Perhaps the most alarming instance of irrationality in recent memory, though, is Sam Harris’ recent claim that black people are less intelligent than white people. This emerged from a conversation that Harris had with Charles Murray, co-author of "The Bell Curve" and a monetary recipient of the racist Pioneer Fund. There are two issues worth dwelling upon here. The first is scientific: Despite what Harris asserts, science does not support the conclusion that there are gene-based IQ differences between the races. To confirm this, I emailed the leading psychologist Howard Gardner, who told me that “The ‘racial difference’ speculations of Herrnstein and Murray remain very controversial,” as well as James Flynn (world-renowned for the Flynn effect), who responded that, “Taking into account the range of evidence, I believe that black and white Americans are not distinguished by genes for IQ. However, the debate is ongoing.”

The point is simply this: Scottish philosopher David Hume famously declared that the wise person always proportions her beliefs to the evidence. It follows that when a community of experts is divided on an issue, it behooves the rational non-expert to hold her opinion in abeyance. In direct opposition of this epistemic principle, Harris takes a firm stand on race and intelligence — even receiving adulation for doing this from other white men in the new atheist community. A more thoughtful public intellectual would have said: “Look, this is a very complicated issue that leading psychologists disagree about. A minority say there is a genetically based correlation between race and IQ while many others claim just the opposite, with perhaps the largest group holding that we simply don’t know enough right now. Since I am rational, I too will say that we simply don’t know.”

The second issue is ethical: Is it right, wise or justified to publicly declare that one race is genetically inferior to another, given the immense societal consequences this could have? Not only could this claim empower white supremacists — individuals who wouldn’t be sympathetic with Harris’ follow-up claim that generalizations about a race of people don’t warrant discriminating against individual members of that race — but science tells us that such information can have direct and appreciable negative consequences for members of the targeted race. For example, “stereotype threat” describes how the mere mention that one’s racial class is inferior can have measurable detrimental effects on one’s cognitive performance. Similarly, “teacher expectancy effects” refer to this; if teachers are told that some students are smart and others are dumb, where the “smart” and “dumb” labels are randomly assigned, the “smart” students will statistically do better in class than the “dumb” ones.

To broadcast a scientifically questionable meme that could have serious bad effects for people already struggling in a society that was founded upon racism and is still struggling to overcome it is, I would argue, the height of intellectual irresponsibility.

Although the new atheist movement once filled me with a great sense of optimism about the future of humanity, this is no longer the case. Movements always rise and fall — they have a life cycle, of sorts — but the fall of this movement has been especially poignant for me. The new atheists of today would rather complain about “trigger warnings” in classrooms than eliminate rape on campuses. They’d rather whine about “safe spaces” than help transgender people feel accepted by society. They loudly claim to support free speech and yet routinely ban dissenters from social media, blogs and websites.

They say they care about facts, yet refuse to change their beliefs when inconvenient data are presented. They decry people who make strong assertions outside of their field and yet feel perfectly entitled to make fist-poundingly confident claims about issues they know little about. And they apparently don’t give a damn about alienating women and people of color, a truly huge demographic of potential allies in the battle against religious absurdity.

On a personal note, a recent experience further cemented my view that the new atheists are guilty of false advertising. A podcaster named Lalo Dagach saw that I had criticized Harris’ understanding of Islamic terrorism, which I believe lacks scholarly rigor. In response, he introduced me to his Twitter audience of 31,000 people as follows: “Phil Torres (@xriskology) everyone. Mourns the loss of ISIS and celebrates attacks on atheists.” Below this tweet was a screenshot of the last two articles I had written for Salon — one about the importance of listening to the experts on terrorism, and the other about how the apocalyptic ideology of the Islamic extremists of ISIS is more likely to evolve into new forms than go extinct.

First of all, Dagach’s tweet was overtly defamatory. I wrote him asking for a public apology and heard nothing back, although he quietly deleted the tweet. But even that did not happen until I had received a hailstorm of disturbing responses to Dagach’s false statements, responses in the form of internet trolls aggressively defending Harris by asking me to kill myself and proposing new nicknames like “Phil Hitler Torres” (seriously!). This is the new atheist movement today, by and large. The great enemy of critical thinking and epistemological integrity, namely tribalism, has become the social glue of the community.

I should still be the new atheist movement’s greatest ally, yet today I want nothing whatsoever to do with it. From censoring people online while claiming to support free speech to endorsing scientifically unfounded claims about race and intelligence to asserting, as Harris once did, that the profoundly ignorant Ben Carson would make a better president than the profoundly knowledgeable Noam Chomsky, the movement has repeatedly shown itself to lack precisely the values it once avowed to uphold. Words that now come to mind when I think of new atheism are “un-nuanced,” “heavy-handed,” “unjustifiably confident” and “resistant to evidence” — not to mention, on the whole, “misogynist” and “racist.”

And while there are real and immensely important issues to focus on in the world, such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, food production, ocean acidification, the sixth mass extinction and so on, even the most cursory glance at any leading new atheist’s social-media feed reveals a bizarre obsession with what they call the “regressive left.” This is heartbreaking, because humanity needs thoughtful, careful, nuanced, scientifically minded thinkers more now than ever before.

By Émile P. Torres

Émile P. Torres is a philosopher and historian whose work focuses on existential threats to civilization and humanity. They have published on a wide range of topics, including machine superintelligence, emerging technologies and religious eschatology, as well as the history and ethics of human extinction. Their forthcoming book is "Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation" (Routledge). For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter." For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

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