What Became of Atheism, Part One: Wearing the Uniform
or how we forgot about the biggest philosophical divide in human history
It’s hardly an original notion at this point that the New Atheists took religion more seriously than many people who are ostensibly religious. I have never been one for the “New Atheism is itself a religion” meme; it abstracts religion to the point of meaninglessness simply to dunk on atheists in a high-minded fashion. But it has certainly been true that, if modern religion is afflicted with a dearth of passion, New Atheists helped to reinfuse that passion, taking religion very seriously and in their zeal inspiring slumbering hordes to rush to religion’s defense. Now that mutual commitment to engagement and argumentative escalation is almost entirely gone. New Atheists exist and fight in forums like Reddit constantly, but where they were once getting cover stories in publications like the Atlantic seemingly weekly they now seem like a curio of the early-to-mid 2000s, like the crunk era of rap or knowing that George W. Bush is a hideous monster. (He paints now! He loves immigrants, um, kindof! He has the blood of at least 500,000 Iraqis on his hands! So cute!)
There are no doubt many reasons New Atheism receded. I think a part of it is that events post-9/11 made many Americans realize what their country had been doing to the Muslim world for decades. This is less noble than it sounds. Suddenly the country (or its liberal citizens, at least) cared about America’s conduct and attitude towards Islam where before there was apathy - driven in large measure because caring about Muslims was now a way to stick it to Republicans. Partisanship did in a few years what we in the anti-imperialist left could not achieve in half a century. The New Atheists constantly stepped into Islamophobia controversies - it’s not accurate to say that all of the prominent New Atheists were Islamophobes, but still - and the Bush era helped make attitudes towards Islam a culture war inflection point. In turn, New Atheism grew to be a binary ideological phenomenon, coded conservative.
You might find that obvious but it genuinely wasn’t at the time; it was not at all uncommon for people to casually discuss New Atheism as a left-coded community. This was a time when Christian conservatism was much more prevalent in the political discourse, after all. Once something gets pushed hard to one side of the debate, people who previously had absolutely no investment become fierce believers. And so in fairly short order the New Atheism debate went from an issue that orbited uncertainly around partisan politics to a site where liberals could engage in the only activity that gets them out of bed in the morning, showing their peers that the are One of the Good Ones. So “I’m not one of those vile New Atheists” became a new station on the cross for college educated professionals, and soon people were removing “atheist” from their online dating profiles. It became very costly to be associated with New Atheism at college or in liberal spaces, and since our storytelling industries like journalism are very much liberal spaces, the movement and its visibility shrunk.
There are of course likely innumerable other contributing factors. It certainly didn’t help that people like Dawkins and PZ Meyers were genuinely, deeply unpleasant. I also suspect that there was a macro news cycle element to the decline in relevance; it’s an issue where genuine intellectual progress seems impossible, and people got bored. You don’t really see much in the way of new facts about which to argue in the atheism debates. You just circle the same tired points. Meanwhile terrorism’s remarkable, largely-unnoticed decline as an issue of national importance meant that debates about the nature of Islam no longer showed up on cable news.
Because I find many aspects of the New Atheists to be unpalatable, and the whole phenomenon to be directly contrary to secular interests, I shared the distaste many people feel. But I am also convinced that the religious should be worried about the decline of the holy wars. These skirmishes also died down, I suspect, because so many fighting on behalf of the religious side were admittedly nonbelievers themselves, and because many of their liberal religious counterparts adopted those tactics. I can’t tell you how often, for example, commenters on liberal blogs would preface a denunciation of Richard Dawkins by reassuring everyone that they themselves were agnostic or otherwise unaffiliated. “Of course Christianity isn’t literally true,” they would always say before excoriating arrogant atheists. What they never seemed to understand is that the “of course” was a more grievous insult to sincere Christians than Christopher Hitchens could ever come up with. What the atheists felt they needed to prove, the anti-atheists simply assumed away. They took as given that traditionally religious claims about the world were so ridiculous that they could dismiss them with a footnote. The difference is stark. Angry atheists think religion is wrong. Anti-angry atheist liberals think religion is not even wrong.
Progressive Christians, for their part, often did essentially the same thing: they would constantly preannounce that they would not consider theological questions in these fights because those questions were not the real issue at hand. “We’ll never see eye to eye enough to argue!” But of course this preemptive strike did atheism a favor even if it made arguing harder for New Atheists: it deepened the sense that genuinely religious content is irrelevant, not a subject of interest for adults. And while I acknowledge that this is a kind of uncharitable mindreading, I also think that so many religious participants felt more comfortable shunting the question of God’s existence to the side because of their own ambivalence to that question. This is what I mean when I say that atheism can lose again and again while in the background secularism wins. Surveys may make it seem as such, but religious identity is not a binary, and my own experience in the world, as limited as that is, suggests that the intensity and certainty of faith is declining faster than self-identification, and to greater negative effect for religion(s).
Still, even with all these reasons that the debate died down you’d think the question would be big enough to stay centered in our minds. The reason this ad hoc détente feels weird to me is simple: if God exists then that is the single most important fact in the history of creation and nothing else can take its crown, ever. If a being exists, of whatever nature, who created reality, exists within all of reality, set reality’s physical and moral rules, watches over all of reality, judges all of us on how devout and moral we are, and determines reward and punishment based on that judgement, that clearly is the truth that trumps all other truths. Strange to let it slip out of the debate quietly in the night. But then I suppose that’s culture war; sooner or later the only question that remains is who is on what side of the line, and all the rest dissolves. If you are masochistic enough to go in search of online spaces where atheists argue with believers you might find a notable disinterest in the question that once inflamed religious America, “Is God dead?”
The New Atheists are hard to please; they want a victory that feels like victory, a grand renunciation of religion where the believers openly repent. (Similar, I must admit, to the apocalyptic Christian’s belief in the prophecies of Revelations.) But if they were less driven by contempt they may have noticed that they have won by losing. Every day religion recedes a little bit more into the background as ordinary people, religious or not, abstract religious meaning in their lives to the point where it’s hard to know how you would begin to define why the distinction between believer and nonbeliever actually matters.
Funnily enough, when I think of religion these days I often think of the modern Satanic church, defined broadly. I say that’s funny because most contemporary self-described “Satanists” have no relationship to religious questions (or Satan) at all; their Satanism is in fact a statement on the necessity of a separation of church and state and a rebuke of the Christian right. (How this came to be, I think, would be the subject of a really interesting dissertation.) What makes them provocative, when considering the question of religion’s future, is the explicit and total rupture between the forms and iconography of religion and any authentic spiritual belief whatsoever. I can tell you from personal experience that many Satanists get deeply miffed when you talk to them about Satan. I confess that, while I sometimes enjoy Satanist shenanigans, I find this all pretty annoying: if you’re going to put Satan in your brand name you should probably have a least something to do with Satan, and they don’t. Yes, they do it for the shock value, but this is just another way to say that it’s not a mature culture. Sorry.
But I think they are the blueprint, the template. People have commented for centuries on the phenomenon of religious observance carried out by people whose authentic religious belief is dead or dying. But I think the next evolution in religion is to move from the religious believer who sadly watches their faith slowly ebbing away to the religious consumer who sees sincere faith as traditionally conceived as an anachronism. This is the inevitable outcome of perspectives like those of Jonathan Haidt, who advocates for atheists to accept religion as a positive force even as we quietly snicker to each other that it’s all fake. Haidt’s belief that we should champion religion’s forms while quietly marinating in our superior understanding that religion’s truth claims are bunk can only contribute to the gradual erasure of the metaphysical underpinnings of traditional religion.
We are talking, ultimately, about abstracting religious observation from what religious identity has been for most practitioners for thousands of a years - an expression of literal belief in/about supernatural forces that exert control over the material world, determine the nature of morality, and in many traditions rule over an afterlife which provides punishment or reward in that afterlife based on your adherence to that moral code. (Whether heaven, reincarnation, or other.) After we have rejected the truth part of these truth claims there is no reason to cling to any of the beliefs about the nature of reality or morality, and a religion becomes a club like any other. You might as well join the Elks Lodge.
Perhaps that’s what people want, I don’t know. This is a famously atomized time, after all, and I would admit that though I don’t have a lot of good things to say about the actual theological content of the loosey goosey hippie dippy Congregationalist church I attended as a child (to the extent that it had a theology at all), there were many people I cared about there, friendly and kind people of a type that I never encounter in my post-collegiate lefty urban bubble life. And I do miss them. But is that what the religious want for religion? That it be reduced solely to its communal function, a kind of stuffy Meetup.com that gives lonely people the impetus to shake a stranger’s hand? (Peace to you as well.) And have we fallen that far, as a society, in terms of basic community, that we have to mutually pretend to believe in ancient stories about the creation of the universe just to come together and admit that we need more friends? Bleak, on both counts.
What makes this process quite strange for me, and part of what makes Haidt’s perspective so bankrupt, is that the meaning and rules for life which people so often praise in religion in the abstract stem from the very supernatural elements which people are now so eager to do away with. Yes, religion provides psychic comfort in an unfriendly world, but it does so because it imposes sense on senselessness through the existence of one (or many) who literally determine what sense is. Yes, religion helps guide moral decisions, but it does so because it posits an entity from whom unerring moral precepts flow. Yes, religion helps rescue people from feelings of meaninglessness, but it does so because it tells people that they have a specific moral purpose that is defined by a creature of infinitely greater wisdom than ours. Yes, religion soothes the sick and elderly, but it does so because it tells them that they will soon be joined with a maker who will grant them some sort of eternal reward. You take away the supernatural element, as so many now seem eager to do, and you’re kicking two legs out from under a three-legged stool.
I don’t see how getting catechized and joining your local temple helps you any if you also think that we are living accidental lives, the product of some chemicals happening to congeal in just the right way in a spiritually dead and directionless universe, one in which your life will flare up for an eyeblink and then cease to matter for the rest of eternity. Sartre would still stare into the heavens, soul crying out for meaning, if you gave him a set of rosary beads and told him he didn’t have to actually believe in she who inspires their use.
Since I begin writing about this topic - that is, since the very beginning, as the first thing I wrote online that more than a dozen people read was about being a certain kind of atheist - I have been known by religious people as a nice atheist, a respectful atheist. I am never sure how to feel about this condition. I still define my orientation the same way: that to come to atheism honestly and constructively you must come to it in loss and pain. You don’t accept atheism, when it is genuine. You surrender to it. Either way, I am an atheist. I think all metaphysical claims of religious are false. I think religion on balance has been a detriment to human life and human flourishing. And I think the gradual attrition of believers into nonbelievers, through apathy and distraction more than anything else, would be good for the world. Revivalism is a thing, though, so I make no assumptions about that trajectory. The question is, will I be right about the continued evacuation of meaning from religious faith? I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that, were I religious, I certainly wouldn’t take advice from John Haidt or those like him. I promise their interests are not your own.
I will have more to come on atheism in the months ahead. I will leave you with a quote from an earlier essay of mine on these themes, as I think it best expresses how I feel:
I have come to think that this is how atheism "wins," for lack of a better term: not through confrontation, but through abstraction, the abstraction of religious teachings into meaninglessness. For religion to become so far divorced from its intellectual and spiritual foundations that it becomes whatever you would make of it, for Christianity's teachings to become a pure canvas onto which one can paint whatever one feels like in the moment. Already decades of declining religiosity have brought us ostensible believers whose daily lives betray no particular orientation towards the question of God, despite the fact that to believe in God is to believe that his existence is the single most important fact in Creation. Perhaps religious violence horrifies us so deeply because it is a reminder that some people still take this stuff seriously. Perhaps the final victory will not come when everyone marks their surveys with "None," but when those who don't can't remember why.
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