Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right

What once seemed like a bracing intellectual movement has degenerated into a pack of abusive, small-minded bigots

By Émile P. Torres

Contributing Writer

Published June 5, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It was inspiring — really inspiring. I remember watching clip after clip of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens debating Christians, Muslims and "purveyors of woo," exposing the fatuity of their faith-based beliefs in superstitious nonsense unsupported by empirical evidence, often delivered to self-proclaimed prophets by supernatural beings via the epistemically suspicious channel of private revelation. Not that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens were saying anything particularly novel — the inconsistencies and contradictions of religious dogma are apparent even to small children. Why did God have to sacrifice his son for our sins? Does Satan have free will? And how can the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be completely separate entities but also one and the same?

The "New Atheist" movement, which emerged from the bestselling books of the aforementioned authors, was the intellectual community that many of us 15 or so years ago were desperately looking for — especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which seemed to confirm Samuel P. Huntington's infamous "clash of civilizations" thesis. As Harris once put it, with many of us naively agreeing, "We are at war with Islam." (Note: This was a dangerous and xenophobic lie that helped get Donald Trump elected. As Harris said in 2006, anticipating how his brand of Islamophobia would enable Trump's rise, "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.")

New Atheism appeared to offer moral clarity, it emphasized intellectual honesty and it embraced scientific truths about the nature and workings of reality. It gave me immense hope to know that in a world overflowing with irrationality, there were clear-thinking individuals with sizable public platforms willing to stand up for what's right and true — to stand up for sanity in the face of stupidity.

Fast-forward to the present: What a grift that was! Many of the most prominent New Atheists turned out to be nothing more than self-aggrandizing, dogmatic, irascible, censorious, morally compromised people who, at every opportunity, have propped up the powerful over the powerless, the privileged over the marginalized. This may sound hyperbolic, but it's not when, well, you look at the evidence. So I thought it might be illuminating to take a look at where some of the heavy hitters in the atheist and "skeptic" communities are today. What do their legacies look like? In what direction have they taken their cultural quest to secularize the world?

Let's see if you can spot a pattern:

Sam Harris: Arguably the progenitor of New Atheism, Harris was for me one of the more entertaining atheists. More recently, though, he has expended a prodigious amount of time and energy vigorously defending the scientific racism of Charles Murray. He believes that IQ is a good measure of intelligence. He argued to Josh Zepps during a podcast interview not only that black people are less intelligent than white people, but that this is because of genetic evolution. He has consistently given white nationalists a pass while arguing that Black Lives Matter is overly contentious, and has stubbornly advocated profiling "Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim," at airports. (When Harris believes he's right about something, it becomes virtually impossible to talk him out of it, no matter how many good arguments, expert opinions or hard data are presented to him. Like Donald Trump, he's pretty much unteachable.) Harris has also partly blamed the election loss of Hilary Clinton on "safe spaces, trigger warnings, [and] new gender pronouns," released a private email exchange with Ezra Klein without Klein's permission, and once suggested that New Atheism is male-dominated because it lacks an "extra estrogen vibe."

His primary focus these days is boosting the moral panic over "social justice warriors" (SJWs), "political correctness" and "wokeism," which he apparently believes pose a dire threat to "Western civilization" (a word that has a lot of meaning for white nationalists). Consequently, Harris has become popular among right-wingers, and the sentiment of solidarity appears to be mutual. For example, he's described Ben Shapiro as being "committed to the … rules of intellectual honesty and to the same principles of charity with regard to other people's positions," which is odd given that Shapiro is a pathological liar who routinely misconstrues his opponents in service of a racist, misogynistic, climate-denying agenda.

Michael Shermer: The founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, which once published a favorable review of Milo Yiannopoulos' book "Dangerous" and a defense of child-rapist Jerry Sandusky, Shermer made a name for himself as a "skeptic." However, his legacy has been overshadowed by, among other things, a protracted history of sexual harassment and assault allegations, with James Randi once calling him "a bad boy" whom numerous people at atheism conferences had complained about. In 2014, he was accused of rape, which he later flippantly joked about on Twitter. Since then, he has dedicated an impressive amount of time belittling "SJWs" and "the woke," often hurling ad hominem attacks and middle-school insults towards those with whom he disagrees. For example, Shermer has referred to "SJWs" as "mealy-mouthed, whiney, sniveling, and obsequious," and "a bunch of weak-kneed namby-pamby bedwetters." He once tweeted, in Trumpian fashion: "Know this Regressive Lefters/SJWs — you will lose. Those of us who believe in truth & justice will prevail. Yours is a failed ideology. Losers." After I wrote a critique of Steven Pinker's recent book "Enlightenment Now!", which contains many serious errors, Shermer took to Twitter to call me a "cockroach." None of this should be that surprising, since he describes himself as an anti-woke, anti-reparations libertarian who thinks Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is "a remarkable book."

But be careful: Shermer has also acknowledged, in writing, that he's fantasized about murdering people. "Or, if not actually killing the particular bastard," he reports, "at the very least I imagine dislocating his jaw with a  crushing roundhouse knuckle sandwich that sent him reeling to the pavement." This comes from his book "The Moral Arc," which received an extended, glowing blurb from Steven Pinker.

Lawrence Krauss: A world-renowned cosmologist who authored "A Universe From Nothing" and ran the Origins Project formerly at Arizona State University, Krauss was among the most academically accomplished of the New Atheists. In 2018, though, he was dismissed from his job as director of the Origins Project after an investigation found that he had violated the sexual harassment policy of the university "by groping a woman's breast while on an ASU-funded trip in late 2016." He has also repeatedly and vigorously defended his onetime friend Jeffrey Epstein, the child sex trafficker, who "donated $250,000 to the Origins Project over a seven-year span." According to a 2011 Daily Beast article, Krauss claimed, "I don't feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it," adding that he didn't believe the "beautiful women and young women" surrounding Epstein were underage. (Plenty of other people have said it was impossible not to realize that, and Krauss himself has acknowledged that Epstein favored "women ages 19 to 23," which surely should have been a red flag.) After a 2018 BuzzFeed article detailing some of the sexual harassment allegations against Krauss was published, a flood of further accusations emerged online, some of which I catalogued here.

Richard Dawkins: Once a heavyweight within the world of evolutionary biology, Dawkins energized atheists the world over with his book "The God Delusion." Over time, though, it became increasingly clear that he's neither an adult-in-the-room nor a particularly nice guy. For some bizarre reason, he obsessively targeted a Muslim teenager in Texas, who was arrested after a homemade clock he brought to school was wrongly thought to be a bomb. He also flipped out over what came to be called "Elevatorgate," which began with Rebecca Watson calmly asking men to be thoughtful and considerate about how they make women feel at conferences — for example, in the enclosed space of an elevator. This resulted in a flood of rape and death threats directed toward Watson, while Dawkins mocked the situation by writing a shocking letter addressed "Dear Muslima," in which the first line was "Stop whining, will you." More recently, he's made it clear that he isn't bothered by the allegations against Krauss, and posted seemingly anti-trans comments on Twitter. When asked why Twitter has caused him so much trouble, he claimed: "I love truth too much." (For Dawkins' troubling views on aborting fetuses with Down Syndrome, see this.)

James Lindsay: Once a promising young atheist, Lindsay published "Everybody Is Wrong About God" in 2015 and, three years later, "How to Have Impossible Conversations," co-authored with Peter Boghossian (below). Referring to himself as "apolitical" but boasting a profile page on the right-wing, anti-free-speech organization Turning Point USA, he is now one of the most unhinged crusaders against "critical race theory" (CRT), an idea about which he seems to have very little actual knowledge. (This is unsurprising, given that Lindsay has literally argued that he doesn't need to understand "gender studies" to call for the entire field to be canceled. See #10 here.) Over the past few years, he has teamed up with Christian nationalist and COVID conspiracist Michael O'Fallon, and now rakes in plenty of cash via Patreon — proof that grifting about "free speech" and "CRT" pays. Known for his social media presence, Lindsay has called women he disagrees with "bitches," while — seriously — hurling "your mom" insults at intellectual opponents who point out his mendacities. He recently argued that antisemitism is caused by woke Jews (i.e., they're doing it to themselves), spread COVID conspiracy theories, and claimed in 2020 that people should vote for Donald Trump (as he did) because Joe Biden is a neo-Marxist, or will succumb to the influence of scary neo-Marxists like Black Lives Matter.

Last year, Lindsay co-authored the commercially successful book "Cynical Theories," which received a glowing endorsement from Steven Pinker but repeatedly misrepresents the ideas of those it hysterically, and incorrectly, claims are tearing down "Western civilization." And let's not get into his wildly delusional conspiracy theories about the "Great Reset," which apparently, as someone Lindsay retweeted put it, "aims to introduce a new global planetary diet"! If you want to understand Lindsay's worldview, I suggest reading Jason Stanley's excellent book "How Fascism Works," which captures the anti-intellectual, anti-academic, anti-social justice spirit of Lindsay's activism perfectly.

Peter Boghossian: A "philosopher" at Portland State University and "longtime collaborator of Stefan Molyneux" (a white supremacist demagogue who once declared, "I don't view humanity as a single species …"), Boghossian wrote "A Manual for Creating Atheists" in 2013. A year later, he tweeted: "I've never understood how someone could be proud of being gay. How can one be proud of something one didn't work for?" This was followed by a defense of Nazis (no one outside Hitler's Germany should ever be called a "Nazi"), and a stern rejection of the historically accurate claim that "slavery … was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people. It was an … American institution, created by and for the benefit of the elites."

In 2017, Boghossian and Lindsay attempted to "hoax" gender studies by publishing a fake article in a peer-reviewed gender studies journal (note: the journal had nothing to do with gender studies). But it turned out this was based on a demonstrable lie, which they of course never admitted. Their paper ultimately ended up in a pay-to-publish journal. That was followed by an even more elaborate and even more bad-faith "hoax," which resulted in a response from Portland State University professors alleging that "basic spite and a perverse interest in public humiliation seem to have overridden any actual scholarly goals." Indeed, Boghossian and his crew failed to get institutional review board approval for this experiment, resulting in serious accusations of unethical actions. "I believe the results of this office's view of your research behavior," wrote the vice president for "research and graduate studies" at Boghossian's university, "raises concerns regarding a lack of academic integrity, questionable ethical behavior, and employee breach of rules." On May 6 of this year, Boghossian — a vocal critic of "cancel culture" — called for "the defunding of Portland State University," which he incorrectly described as promoting "illiberal ideologies." (See here for more.)


David Silverman: Silverman made a name for himself as a "firebrand" atheist, even appearing on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show several times to take on "Papa Bear" himself. But "explosive … allegations of sexual assault and undisclosed conflicts of interest" got Silverman fired from American Atheists, where he was president. In the years since, he has given voice to a stream of grievances about feminism, social justice and the like, referring to social justice as "a cancerous social movement" that "has to be undone," adding: "I have a lot of regrets for being in your whiney culty immitation [sic] of feminism." The same day, he spoke with Sargon of Akkad (aka Carl Benjamin, a member of Britain's far-right party UKIP) about "Feminist Tyranny." (More here, here and here.)

Steven Pinker: To many of us early on, Pinker seemed to genuinely care about maintaining his intellectual integrity. But, once again, high expectations only meant a harder crash. Consider that Pinker has claimed that rape is often "over-reported." To support this, he cites right-wingers like Christina Hoff Sommers and Heather MacDonald as primary sources. Over the past few years, he has become unhealthily fixated on "political correctness," social justice and "wokeness," and participated in the 2017 "Unsafe Space Tour" of college campuses, organized by the right-libertarian magazine Spiked. It also came out, much to Pinker's chagrin, that he'd assisted the legal defense of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, even appearing in photographs with Epstein taken after the latter was convicted of sex crimes in 2008. Here's a picture of Pinker with Dawkins (and fellow New Atheist Daniel Dennett) flying to a TED Conference with Epstein. Pinker's response? It's hard to make this up: despite being a vociferous "opponent" of censorship — bad ideas must be exposed to the light! Free speech must never be hindered! — Pinker blocked half of Twitter to stop people from mentioning his past links to this rapist and pedophile. Of course this backfired, drawing even more attention to the issue, a phenomenon that I call the "Pinker-Epstein Effect" (which is nearly identical to the Streisand Effect but specific to, well, Pinker and Epstein). Although Pinker was never as prominently connected to "New Atheism" as the others, his influence within the movement, partly because of his advocacy for secularism, is undeniable. (See here for more.)

This is hardly an exhaustive list. But it's enough to make clear the epistemic and moral turpitude of this crowd. There is nothing ad hominem in saying this, by the way: The point is simply that the company one keeps matters. What's sad is that the New Atheist movement could have made a difference — a positive difference — in the world. Instead, it gradually merged with factions of the alt-right to become what former New York Times contributing editor Bari Weiss calls the "Intellectual Dark Web" (IDW), a motley crew of pseudo-intellectuals whose luminaries include Jordan Peterson, Eric and Bret Weinstein, Douglas Murray, Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro, in addition to those mentioned above.

At the heart of this merger was the creation of a new religious movement of sorts centered around the felt loss of power among white men due to the empowerment of other people. When it was once acceptable, according to cultural norms, for men to sexually harass women with impunity, or make harmful racist and sexist comments without worrying about losing a speaking opportunity, being held accountable can feel like an injustice, even though the exact opposite is the case. Pinker, Shermer and some of the others like to preach about "moral progress," but in fighting social justice under the misleading banner of "free speech," they not only embolden fascists but impede further moral progress for the marginalized.

Another way to understand the situation goes like this: Some of these people acted badly in the past. Others don't want to worry about accusations of acting badly in the future. Still others are able to behave themselves but worry that their friends could get in trouble for past or future bad behavior. Consequently, the most immediate, pressing threat to their "well-being" has shifted from scary Muslim immigrants, evangelical Christians and violent terrorists to 19-year-old kids on college campuses and BLM activists motivated by "wokeness." This is why Lindsay has teamed up with a Christian nationalist and why Boghossian talks about the "Great Realignment" in which anti-woke alarmists, like him, end up joining hands with "conservative Christians" in "Culture War 2.0."

What ties these people together is an aggrieved sense of perpetual victimhood. Christians, of course, believe that they are relentlessly persecuted (note: they aren't). The IDWs similarly believe that they are the poor helpless victims of "CRT," "standpoint theory" and other bogeymen of woke academia. But really, if "Grievance Studies" studies anything, it should be how this group of extremely privileged white men came to believe that they are the real casualties of systemic oppression.

An excellent example of this delusion comes from an inadvertently hilarious interview with Boghossian for the Epoch Times, a media company associated with the Falun Gong movement that is "fueling the far-right in Europe" and has spread COVID conspiracy theories. In it, Boghossian warns that "woke ideology" has produced "a recipe for cultural suicide." This has led him — the co-author of "How to Have Impossible Conversations" — to spout extremist rhetoric like this:

I'm done playing. … I am waging full-scale ideological warfare against the enemies of Western Civilization. … We must broker absolutely zero tolerance with this ideology, and the only way forward at this point is full-scale ideological war, and I will take no prisoners, … . I seek the complete eradication and extirpation of the ideology from every facet of life.

That's scary, intolerant and even fascistic. And it's exactly where the New Atheism movement has ended up, to the exasperation of those who still care about secularism.

To conclude, let me bring things full circle: At least some studies have shown that, to quote Phil Zuckerman, secular people are "markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian" than religious people. It's a real shame that New Atheism, now swallowed up by the IDW and the far right, turned out to be just as prejudiced, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, closed-minded and authoritarian as many of the religious groups they initially deplored.

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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