New Atheism finds new targets on the left

While the New Atheist movement, represented by such authors and spokesmen as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has lost much of its public prominence, its contentious form of atheism is now more often directed at academic liberalism as well as Islam. In the magazine The Point (number 8), Jacob Hamburger writes that 2014 was the year a number of New Atheism’s celebrities began making their comeback, such as Harris, who targeted liberals as being too soft on Islam and what he saw as its intolerance for such principles as women’s equality and freedom of speech. “The following year saw a wave of terrorism in Europe, as well as the launch of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the return of media scandals over ‘political correctness’ on American college campuses. New Atheist celebrities formed a vocal contingent of an emerging collective which has sought to link these disparate developments into a common narrative” charging that a new irrationalism has made many mainstream liberals incapable of defending or even recognizing their core principles. Such developments “produced a schism among prominent atheists,” with one side, represented by media figures such as The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur and Kyle Kulinski, linking atheism to progressive politics, and the other side, including prominent New Atheist celebrities, feeling “that the emphasis on feminism, diversity and anti-imperialism distracted from the fight against religious extremism.”

Hamburger adds that during this same time, “some fans of New Atheism began to flirt with aspects of the growing online far right, posting in forums such as r/atheism on Reddit.” Although many atheists are critical of the alt-right and its association with white nationalism, these posts shared in a common discourse lampooning liberal sensitivity and “political correctness.” “In 2017, the repentant liberal atheist Phil Torres [even] went so far as to conclude that New Atheism had undergone a ‘merger’ with the alt-right.” But Hamburger adds that any such merger is far from clear, as most New Atheist leaders continued to insist they were good liberals and agreed that Trump was damaging the Republican Party. Meanwhile, campus controversies—from disinvited speakers at Berkeley to a “cultural appropriation” scandal at Oberlin to the confrontation at Yale over Halloween costumes—served as a sign to many New Atheists that liberalism too was in decline.

Since Trump’s victory, “the issue of political correctness has only become more pressing for many prominent New Atheists. Increasingly central to their arguments today is the idea that American liberalism has in fact become illiberal, obsessed with the primacy of group identities over the individual…. As many of those associated with New Atheism have taken up the fight against political correctness—including Harris, [Bill] Maher, [Michael] Shermer…and Steven Pinker—they have gravitated towards a larger group that includes not only self-described liberals, but also conservatives like the former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro and the celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson,” Hamburger notes. What unites these apparently dissimilar figures is the belief that the contemporary left has abandoned both rational thinking and liberal values, and that this left must be defeated by appealing to a more authentic liberalism.

(The Point,