In the years since the so-called “New Atheism” burst onto the scene in the mid 2000s, the movement has not lacked for critics among nonbelievers and agnostics. Until recently, however, few of them wrote books on the subject. Of those who did, apparently the only ones who focused on the cultural and sociopolitical aspects of the movement were Chris Hedges (When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists, Free Press, 2009—first published as I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, Free Press, 2008) and Terry Eagleton (Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Yale University Press, 2009). As those dates suggest, it’s been a good while since we’ve seen anything new in this vein.
All of a sudden, though, two new titles have recently hit the market. In September, Dangerous Little Books released CJ Werleman’s The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists (280 pages). In October, Oxford University Press published Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement (262 pages). Although differing dramatically in style and tone, these studies have much in common both thematically and in terms of sharing one hugely important flaw (discussed below) likely to go unnoticed by most readers. Both books are essential reading for anyone seeking to better understand the waywardness of a large chunk of the atheist movement.
CJ Werleman is an Australian journalist, polemicist, and political columnist currently living in the United States. Author of several anti-religion books, formerly a speaker in demand on the atheist conference circuit, Werleman was for a time a popular figure within the atheist movement. Recently though, after realizing that New Atheism is itself a dangerous species of fundamentalism, he became a staunch and vocal critic.
Werleman defines New Atheism as “evangelical atheism,” or, as he emphasizes elsewhere “evangelical anti-theism.” It is the conviction that religion is the leading source of problems around the world, and thus “is an obstacle to creating human perfection and a Western civilization utopia.” Werleman insists, as Hedges did before him, that the New Atheists are “secular fundamentalists.” They display a cultish commitment to science, a childishly simplistic view of religion, a severely bigoted stance toward Islam, and a slavish faith in what they take to be “the beneficent U.S. secular state.”
The book contains 11 chapters. In the first five, Werleman tells the story, in sometimes impressively self-deprecating manner, of his journey from religious indifference to New Atheism to pluralistic accommodationist. He provides much useful information about the insularity, anti-intellectualism, tendency toward groupthink, and anti-religious bigotry that characterize large swaths of the New Atheist firmament. In the remaining chapters, Werleman focuses on the New Atheists’ obsession with Islam, the motivations of violent Muslim extremists, and how New Atheist writings and speeches serve as useful propaganda instruments for everyone from Islamic terrorists to the Israeli government to the managers of the U.S. empire and its burgeoning homeland security complex.
Werleman convincingly demonstrates that the Islam that so troubles the New Atheists, particularly its most popular luminaries, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, is a cartoonish caricature of the real thing as conceived and practiced by most Muslims; that the motivations of Islamic terrorists are mostly sociopolitical and economic rather than religious; that in its lack of concern for the welfare of Palestinians, in its inability “to see Palestinians beyond their Muslimness,” New Atheism “is a completely illiberal secular ideology”; and that New Atheist discourse provides public relations support for American imperialism and contributes to a climate of fear and resentment leading to increased harassment of and violence against Muslim Americans.
There are missteps. A minor but notable one is Werleman’s reference to the Tamil Tigers, the former revolutionary terrorist group in Sri Lanka, as “Marxist.” They were not Marxist and never claimed to be. A more serious problem is Werleman’s habit of letting long quotations—many are a third of a page or more—do too much of his work for him. Another is his claim that New Atheism has “become a pro-white supremacy movement.” Werleman discusses the work of several scholars and journalists who make an intriguing case that, in the manner in which it “others” Muslims, New Atheist rhetoric on Islam amounts to racism. But this racialization of a selected group would seem to lack White Supremacy’s universal application and rabid focus on skin color. If New Atheism promotes or supports the structural aspects of white privilege in the U.S.—and I believe that it does—then the term (i.e. White Supremacy), as defined in critical race theory, would seem to apply. But Werleman does not discuss structural racism in the U.S., or the socioeconomic aspects of religiosity and secularism among people of color, or atheism as it relates to those subjects.
What is not in doubt is that the New Atheists are, as the philosopher Michael Ruse has lamented “a bloody disaster.” As the scholar Jeffrey Nall asserts “Thinkers such as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens create a religion that amounts to a monstrous straw-man which they then burn at the stake” (Humanity and Society, Aug. 2008). The New Atheist Threat helps us to see the wisdom of such estimations more clearly. As Werleman suggests “It’s time for pluralistic and humanistic atheists to take atheism back from” the likes of Harris, Dawkins, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, antitheists “who peddle fear, suspicion, and hate.” Because Muslims are, by dint of demagogic propaganda, such central targets of that toxic combination, he wisely advises atheist organizations to reject the ugly rhetoric of the New Atheists and to “seek opportunities to work together with other discriminated-against minorities, like Muslim Americans.” “The road to broader public acceptance,” Werleman writes “does not travel through the persecution of another minority”—a belief that, while not always descriptively true, is certainly the right ethical position.
Whereas Werleman’s book is forceful and provocative, Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism is a mostly sedate work of academic scholarship. Because it makes many more different kinds of arguments than Werleman’s book does, LeDrew’s requires a longer analysis. LeDrew, a Canadian sociologist and post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society at Uppsala University in Sweden, recently told an interviewer that, as a nonbeliever, he was initially intrigued by the New Atheists. After learning more about them however, he started to see some of their views, including their social Darwinist tendencies and “intolerance” of cultural diversity as “quite dangerous.”
LeDrew’s new book is an impressively sophisticated study densely packed with interesting and valuable insights about the atheist movement in general and the New Atheism in particular. He wants to bring a sociological perspective to the analysis of his subject, yet, thankfully, for the most part he presents his findings in an engaging, non-technical manner. The text is divided into two main parts, the first on “Atheism as Ideology,” and the second on “Atheism as a Social Movement.” In the book’s introduction, LeDrew announces that his aims include, “Most importantly” challenging “the [widely held] assumption that the secular movement is liberal and progressive.”
Sounding very much like Werleman (neither author mentions, or seems to know of, the other), LeDrew writes that New Atheism “is a secular fundamentalism, a modern utopian ideology.” Consciously echoing Eagleton, LeDrew sees it as an “essentially political phenomenon.” It is “only manifestly a critique of religion” while its somewhat veiled but veritable aim is “the universalization of the ideology of scientism and the establishment of its cultural authority.” Moreover, among other things it is “a defense of the position of the white middle-class Western male, and of modernity itself,” thought to be “under threat by a swirling concoction of religious ignorance, epistemic relativism, identity politics, and cultural pluralism.” New Atheism, then, “is ultimately about power.”
In a move as useful as it was overdue (a few people have tried this, but to my knowledge none nearly as successfully), LeDrew demolishes one of the most widely held myths that atheists have about themselves, namely, the belief that atheism is simply a matter of not believing in any gods. Atheism is in fact “a complex term with an even more complex history” and “cannot be reduced to one single all-encompassing definition.” Werleman remarks that “on its own,” atheism “is a non-positive assertion.” Unbelief, however, is rarely “on its own.” As LeDrew points out, with the rise of evolutionary theory, atheism “moved from simple negation of religious beliefs to an affirmation of liberalism, scientific rationality, and the legitimacy of the institutions and methodology of modern science—and thus from religious criticism to a complete ideological system.” Atheism, then, is “a form of belief—rather than a lack of belief—shaped by its socio-historical context” and “inextricably bound up with” a plethora of principles that emerged from the Enlightenment.
During the nineteenth century, as atheists had their differential and subjective encounters with those principles, a division with roots in the previous century grew more manifest. Nonbelievers tended to fall into one of two rather distinct camps that have regularly reappeared in new incarnations ever since, namely “Scientific atheism,” and “Humanistic atheism.” The former, epitomized by, among others, Victorian evolutionists, Comteans, Social Darwinists, and now the so-called skeptics and New Atheists, is a cognitive critique that sees religion as a thoroughly backward impediment to progress and focuses on promoting its eradication. The latter, whose “major pioneers” include Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and, in their own unique ways, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, and which is nowadays manifest most notably in the secular humanist movement, is a political and moral critique that “rejects the structure of a world that gives rise to religion,” and “posits that minimizing suffering and maximizing well-being and fulfillment in life are the only things likely to make religion vanish.” So, there are “(at least) two atheisms,” with the meaning of the term being “continually constructed and reconstructed by individuals and groups with different views.”
Many other themes, discussions, and arguments in LeDrew’s book are noteworthy, but there is space here to mention only a few. He observes that humanistic atheism “took the scientific position for granted and advanced toward a more sophisticated mode of engagement” emphasizing broadly anthropological concerns related to social conditions, morality, and public policy. He provides an excellent introduction to the so-called Four Horseman of the New Atheism—Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. He explains how New Atheism “is in part a reaction against secularism.” Like Werleman, LeDrew sees Harris’s strong support for Israel vis-a-vis its relations with the Palestinians as serving “the purpose of legitimizing Western imperialism and strategic geopolitical interests.”
And he addresses the contentious issue of gender, which he asserts is one of the main areas in which the secular movement shows its basic conservatism. He provides some interesting and relevant evidence, including quotations of controversial comments by Dawkins. Curiously, though, he never mentions a stunning remark Sam Harris made to an interviewer in 2009: “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”
To his credit, LeDrew sometimes allows forthright public intellectual-style moral critique to supplant his normal scholarly academicism. He performs a useful public service by forcefully criticizing the psychology professor Steven Pinker for his deplorable antiprogressive positions on drug addicts, incarceration, and capitalism. Moreover, the secular movement, LeDrew writes “and the New Atheism in particular, exhibit some totalitarian tendencies with respect to the use of state power” in support of dominant structures of political authority. He goes on: “Major intrusions by the state on individual freedoms, as well as imperialist projects, are frequently legitimated ideologically through the rhetoric of security and protection.”
Concerning some of Dawkins’ past comments related to his view that parents’ encouragement of religious belief in their children constitutes child abuse, LeDrew writes that “the power that may be legitimately exercised in enforcing” limitations on parents “are as Orwellian as anything attributed to religion.” LeDrew is overly vague on this subject, and he errs in neglecting to cite any sources of his information. He seems to have in mind an incident he does not mention, namely, Dawkins’ signing, in 2006, of a petition to the British Prime Minister that called for making it “illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16.” Dawkins withdrew his signature after protests erupted from parts of the secular blogosphere, but his initial enthusiasm for the idea is certainly illuminating where the militancy of his anti-theism is concerned.
The Evolution of Atheism is a fine, sometimes brilliant academic study, but it contains at least three major flaws. One is LeDrew’s crediting of the social sciences with the predominant role in the development of humanistic atheism. That the early pioneers of humanistic atheism (noted above) considered social factors in their assessments of religion is more or less the only evidence he offers for this rather odd claim. In fact the humanities, especially philosophy, literature, and history, played a far greater role. The moral and social thought of philosophers such as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey; the ethical writings and organizational achievements of philosopher-reformers such as Felix Adler and Paul Kurtz; the Higher Criticism philology project; the literary works and social criticism of writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mark Twain; the theory and application of Historicism—these among many other influences from the realm of the humanities contributed invaluable support for the second part of “humanistic atheism” while accounting for the development and substance of most of the first part.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, humanistic atheism itself receives too little attention. In recent years, its major organizational expressions, the secular humanist and ethical culture (ethical humanist) movements, have been much influenced by the New Atheism, with the humanist emphasis being displaced to a considerable extent by atheist evangelicalism. (Some of that connection will now take on a formal, legalized character, as the Council for Secular Humanism, via its parent organization, just agreed to a merger with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science.) Yet the leading humanist organization, the American Humanist Association, receives just two very brief mentions in LeDrew’s book. Ethical culture is discussed for a little over one page, but LeDrew makes no attempt to analyze how it has been impacted by New Atheism.
This blind spot concerning the humanities is significant in another respect. It could conceivably explain why LeDrew never mentions Chris Hedges, whose aforementioned book includes lengthy discussions of novels and plays. Or why he never mentions the Islamophobic New Atheist comedian Bill Maher, quite possibly the most famous nonbeliever in America. Or why, in an inscrutably short section on godless critics of New Atheism, he says nothing at all about the powerful practical-political and moral assessments from writers or philosophers such as Nathan Lean, Arun Kundnani, John Gray, Jackson Lears, and Glenn Greenwald, or the sophisticated humanistic critiques offered by observers such as author Jeffrey Nall, historian R. Joseph Hoffman, cultural anthropologist Scott Atran, author Robert Wright, and the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.
LeDrew does briefly discuss the appalling philosophy-bashing undertaken by atheist scientists Lawrence Krauss and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It’s a fascinating section, even though he doesn’t mention other notable offenders such as Harris, Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Jerry Coyne. The issue is important, and not just because it reflects the anti-intellectualism that characterizes a good number of prominent scientists’ outlook on philosophy in particular and, all too often, the humanities in general. As the English professor Curtis White (another perceptive critic of the New Atheists who goes unmentioned by LeDrew) observes, their attitude toward philosophy is a kind of “prejudice.” “I would even go so far as to say,” he writes, that their anti-philosophy statements “are a kind of bigotry” (The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, 2014).
LeDrew relates the fascinating fact that, according to an academic study, “rates of atheism are higher among social scientists than natural scientists.” Citing social science research, he reports that the New Atheists’ cherished assumption “that knowledge of science leads to atheism is not supported by the evidence.” Such information serves, or ought to serve, to deflate some of the smugness that is such a conspicuous trait among New Atheist luminaries.
What he misses, though, is the fact that, as the atheist philosopher Dan Fincke points out, philosophy “has proven empirically to be better at producing atheists than even science is.” Along this line, it is fascinating that, contrary to what most atheists assume, it was not his scientific findings that led Charles Darwin to stop believing in God. As Mitchell Stephens points out in his excellent book Imagine There’s no Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World (2014), what undermined Darwin’s faith were the observations he made, as a kind of amateur anthropologist, of the diversity of religions around the world and the sincerity of their devotees, and his reading of the works of Shelley, the philosopher David Hume, and various other skeptical thinkers. Stephens quotes E.O. Wilson: “The great naturalist did not abandon” religion because of his work on natural selection, but rather “The reverse occurred. The shedding of blind faith gave him the intellectual fearlessness to explore human evolution wherever logic and evidence took him.”
A second serious problem is that LeDrew says almost nothing about racism. This neglect is a major mistake for at least two reasons. First, as many observers have noted, people of color are vastly underrepresented in the so-called skeptic movements. That atheist organizations are mostly “white” would seem, to a large extent anyway, to stem from the fact that the issues they focus on are not among those which, in general, people of color see as being immediately relevant to them. Second, although many atheist activists claim to be humanists, and even many of those who don’t claim to care about racial equality and social justice, a serious emphasis on those ideals is not a prominent feature of movement atheism.
But if atheist groups looked something like the country itself, if they spoke to the socioeconomic concerns of minorities, radical humanists like the author Sikivu Hutchinson would not need to write passages like this one: “There is little analysis of the relationship between economic disenfranchisement, race, gender, and religiosity in New Atheist or secular humanist critiques of organized religion.” Hence what these mainstream rationalist assessments have to say about religion “has limited cultural relevance for people of color.” Or this one:
The problem with Harris and other New Atheists who espouse scientism is that their work lacks context. They provide no sociological insight into why organized religion and religiosity have an enduring hold on disenfranchised communities in the richest, most powerful nation on the planet. Religion is only one apparatus for draconian repression and inequity. Secular institutions that enforce and uphold oppressive hierarchies must also be actively challenged within a humanist framework.
Or this one: “As delineated by many white non-believers,” New Atheism “preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity. In this universe,” Hutchinson writes “oppressed minorities are more imperiled by their own investment in organized religion than [by] white supremacy. Liberation is not a matter of fighting against white racism … and classism but of throwing off the shackles of superstition.” These quotations come from “The White Stuff: New Atheism and its Discontents,” a chapter from her 2011 book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.
But LeDrew never mentions Hutchinson and he discusses none of the important issues she raises. Why he chose not to investigate the topic of racism as it relates to the atheist movement is unknown. Whatever the reason, the omission is as unfortunate as it is inscrutable.
There is one place in LeDrew’s book where he briefly tells us something related to race and the information happens to be quite useful for what it shows us about the state of organized atheism these days. In 2013, Ronald Lindsay, head of the Center for Inquiry, gave the opening address at a CFI conference on Women in Secularism (WS). Some of what he had to say about feminism touched off a firestorm of protest within skeptic circles. LeDrew points to a fascinating aspect of the episode that I, and apparently all except those in attendance, was unaware of. Lindsay didn’t just raise objections related to feminism. He also strongly criticized the idea of linking feminism and anticapitalism. After quoting the relevant remarks by Lindsay, LeDrew writes:
In this formulation, Marxists and feminists conspire to turn the middle-class white man into a secular Satan. The subtext of Lindsay’s talk is a message to the middle-class white man, who, Lindsay suggests, is under attack, vilified by a Marxist- feminist conspiracy to challenge his dominant position. This speech is an excellent representation of the beliefs and goals of the atheist Right, bringing its support for capitalism and patriarchy together in a defense of the established socioeconomic structure and its relations of power and authority.
If only it were true—the Marxist-feminist part I mean. Unfortunately, the only place where such a conspiracy seems to exist, across the landscape of the so-called freethought movements anyway, is in Lindsay’s imagination. In fact, as LeDrew says at least five different times in the book, across the mainstream secular movements nearly all the concern for social justice takes the form of identity politics. Critiques of capitalism and economic oppression, as he says at least eight different times, are nearly nonexistent. The uproar over Lindsay’s WS comments is a perfect case in point. As LeDrew observes, the criticism “focused exclusively” on Lindsay’s remarks about feminism.
The Big Flaw
This brings us to what is both the third serious problem in LeDrew’s book and the major flaw, alluded to above, that the two books considered here have in common: neither explores in any depth the problem of economic injustice.
Why, some readers are wondering, should they be expected to do so? There are several reasons, but let us briefly survey two of them. First, as these new books clearly show, New Atheism is a political movement. And some of the ways in which it is political are not hard to see. Through its approval of the National Security State, New Atheism supports the various systems by which, on a massive scale, the U.S. government violates the civil liberties of its citizens. Through its obsequious acceptance of liberalism, it helps to legitimate a neoliberal order that is destroying the middle class and throwing ever larger numbers of people into poverty. Through its general support of U.S. imperial projects overseas, it promotes the interventionist agenda of neoconservatism. All of which is to say that New Atheism readily gives its stamp of approval to the oligarchic military-industrial-financial complex.
Most of the time, in one way or another, politics is about economics. This is an important truth to remember as we ponder another truth that, in the clamor of commentary and reporting and debates and propaganda concerning geopolitics and terrorism, is often sort of forgotten, namely, that imperialism is essentially about wealth. It’s a set of systems and methods for, and chauvinistic ideas about, coercively acquiring or controlling wealth and resources belonging to peoples outside the national border, and for using the power that comes with that wealth to further enhance the oligarchy’s elite position. So, when Sam Harris talks about the need for “benign dictatorships” across the Middle East, to be installed through the intervention of the West whenever the West deems it necessary, it is not easy to think of anything more political.
And as the writer Phil Rockstroh argues, it’s a politics of the most putrid and profligate kind, “the same old, odious White Man’s Burden palaver that Western imperialists have been churning out since the Plundering Class got its start during the Age of Discovery.” Referring to Harris and Hitchens, he goes on:
Their casuistry goes thus: “Those foreign jungles and deserts are seething with savages, heathens, cannibals, and headhunters. You just cannot reason with those heartless primitives; therefore it is our duty, as reasonable, civilized men to subdue them, dress and educate them in our manner, and, of course, kill them when we must — and the fact that the wealth of their native regions is flowing westward and enriching the already bloated coffers of our ruling and economic elite has absolutely nothing to do with it.
In Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Eagleton points to another absolutely crucial aspect of the situation. Islamic extremism, he explains, is not just a backlash against “predatory” Western politics. It is also a reaction to “the crushing of various forms of Muslim secularism, liberalism, nationalism, and socialism.” Islamic fundamentalism, he continues “is among other things a virulent response to the defeat of the Muslim left—a defeat in which the West has actively conspired.” “The solution to religious terror,” then “is secular justice.”
Fascinating considerations to be sure, made all the more so by a recent news development. In late November, Thomas Piketty, author of the mega best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in the French newspaper Le Monde a new article about inequality. As summarized by Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post, Piketty argues that economic inequality in the Middle East, both between and within countries, is a “major driver of Middle Eastern terrorism.” Furthermore, Piketty says that economic disparities in the Middle East are the widest in the world, that they are largely the fault of Western nations, and that, as Tankersley puts it “Terrorism that is rooted in inequality … is best combated economically.”
The refusal by Harris and other New Atheists to acknowledge the fundamental practical importance and profound ethical implications of such considerations constitutes a pattern of denial as shameful as it is intellectually dishonest.
Second, few people have noticed it, but there is a massive logical contradiction at the heart of the worldview of many New Atheists and other so-called freethinkers. Convinced that nothing is doing more to slow down human progress than religious belief, they tell us over and over again that they want to rid the world of religion, or at least vastly diminish its influence. But, for the most part, they completely ignore the most effective strategy for accomplishing that goal, namely, increasing the percentage of people who don’t have to cope with the traumas and anxieties that come with economic deprivation.
As professors Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, the leading scholarly promoters of the Existential Security Hypothesis (ESH), have convincingly demonstrated “transcendent religion is usually weakened by a sense of existential security—that is, the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted” while religiosity is strengthened by “feelings of vulnerability to physical, societal and personal risks.” The decline of religion, they point out “has occurred most clearly among the most prosperous social sectors living in affluent and secure post‐industrial nations.” The “driver” of secularization, then, is socioeconomic security—the result of sustainable development, reduced economic inequality, and an adequate social safety net.
Or as Marx so nicely puts it in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) “The demand to give up the illusions about its [i.e. the people’s] condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”
“The criticism of religion,” Marx goes on “is therefore in embryo the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo … Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” Existential insecurity is certainly not the only driver of religion, but undeniably the latter serves to a considerable extent as “the heart of a heartless world.” As the Marxist literary theorist Aijaz Ahmad argues (as quoted by Eagleton) “The secular world has to have enough justice in it for one not to have to constantly invoke God’s justice against the injustices of the profane.” Noting that atheism tends to be “disproportionately frequent among the bourgeois, the privileged, [and] the educated,” the atheist and Marxist writer Ben Norton rightly suggests that if the atheist “truly wishes to do away with religion,” he or she should “address the material, class basis of religion, not write screeds about how ‘stupid’ and ‘superstitious’ the masses are (as many a New Atheist is wont to do).”
I would submit, then, that to insist, as the New Atheists do, that religion must be thrown onto the scrapheap of history forthwith, while at the same time mostly ignoring the problems of poverty and inequality, is the height of irrationality. As a matter of pure logic, it’s really no different than believing in the existence of angels.
Most of what little discussion LeDrew does devote to economics is characteristically insightful. He observes that through the promotion of its scientistic ideology, which includes the belief that “techno-scientific progress is equivalent to social and moral progress,” New Atheism “legitimates the current neoliberal world order,” while religion is made a “scapegoat” for whatever problems society faces. Concerning libertarians, who in recent years have come to have a sizable presence in the world of organized freethought, LeDrew rightly points out that their extreme capitalist ideology is a case of perverting the theory of evolution and misapplying it to society in order to advance “a radically individualistic political agenda” that seeks to do away with all restraints on the market. He suggests that, where issues of economics, foreign affairs, and gender are concerned, the atheist right, including the New Atheism, has far more in common with the Christian right than with humanistic atheism.
Most of what LeDrew has to say about atheism and the class problem is located in the book’s final chapter, titled “The Atheist Right,” and in the book’s conclusion. Several claims he makes therein are problematic, but there is space here to discuss only one. The only people in the secular movement who focus on the issue of capitalism, he asserts, are the libertarians, who “do so ideologically in order to celebrate capitalism and defend the legitimacy of the vast and expanding chasm that separates the wealthy from the lower classes.”
The first part of that claim is not true. If, as indeed we should, we consider the movement (a larger phenomenon, I would argue, than what atheist activists call, rather cliquishly and self-servingly “the atheist community”) in a broad sense to include its atheist and agnostic critics on the radical left, whose work and activism reflects and promotes humanistic values more than the humanist organizations themselves do, then there is in fact a second group that focuses on capitalism. Let us call it the atheist Left. LeDrew is too busy marveling at the fact that “Just as there are liberal Christians and a Christian Right, there seem to be both liberal atheists and an atheist Right” to notice, but a variety of atheists and agnostics have commented on the fact that organized secularism fosters economic injustice. They are socialists, communists, anarchists, and radical humanists united by opposition to both the scientism and illiberalism of the anti-theists and to capitalist political economy.
LeDrew’s readers, though, could easily come away with the mistaken impression that there is no notable secularist opposition to atheist neoliberalism. It is almost completely ignored by secular bloggers, conference speakers, magazine editors, and organization leaders, but opposition does exist. It is a motif in the books by Hedges and Eagleton mentioned above. It has been expressed by authors Chase Madar, Chris Wright, and Jeff Sparrow; by the writer and host of the radio program Equal Time for Freethought Barry Seidman; by the journalist and humanist activist Steve Ahlquist; by the Marxist blogger and archivist Ralph Dumain; by the writer and journalist Ben Norton; and by New York University professor and historian of secularism Michael Rectenwald. It is a motif in Hutchinson’s Moral Combat, as well as in her book Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (2013). I have devoted more than 30,000 words to the topic (most of them here, here, here, and here).
Werleman himself belongs in this group. Although, unfortunately, he does not include in his new book any in-depth discussion of the class problem, he has, to an extent, addressed the subject elsewhere. He has called wealth inequality “the most pressing moral crisis of our time” and deemed income disparity America’s “greatest moral crisis since the civil rights movement, and its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.” Last year, in an article titled “The atheist libertarian lie: Ayn Rand, income inequality and the fantasy of the ‘free market’,” he produced one of the finest short thrashings of economic libertarianism ever written. In April 2014, in a speech titled “What The Corporate Totalitarian State Means for Humanism” he told an audience in San Diego that “America is in dire need of a revolution” in the form of a “radical” campaign against corporate power.
And he’s a Democratic Socialist. Without socialism, he avers, we will never have any real human rights beyond the right to property. Recently, he tweeted that “99% of Americans would love Democratic Socialism if they knew what it is”—a claim that, although exaggerated, reflects an admirable enthusiasm.
If either of our authors had included in their new books a substantive discussion of atheism and the class problem, what sorts of topics might they have addressed? Here are ten ideas out of many that could be offered:
1) The significance and relevance of the Existential Security Hypothesis (neither book ever mentions it).
2) The possibility that the movement’s emphasis on identity politics is an expression of neoliberalism (utilizing a related argument made by Adolph Reed, Jr.).
3) The nearly complete absence of socialists and other anti-capitalists as speakers and panelists at secularist conferences and on any of the skeptic blogging networks (much like, as Werleman points out, major atheist conventions never include presentations on the history and effects of Western colonialism, or on the impacts of economic sanctions, or on how U.S. foreign policies result in “crushing poverty and social chaos” in places under the sway of American empire, etc.).
4) The high cost of attending secular conferences, to which it seems, quite often anyway, the proletariat is not invited. (For example, the registration cost for the CFI’s weekend get-together last June was $279.)
5) The Secular Coalition for America’s decision, in 2012, to hire Edwina Rogers, a conservative Republican lobbyist and economic advisor to President George W. Bush, as its executive director.
6) Statements about poverty and inequality made by leaders of major atheist/humanist organizations over the past three years as compared with those made by Pope Francis and other religious leaders.
7) The rarity of discussions among “freethinkers” about economic injustice and poverty on blog sites, in atheist/humanist magazines, at conferences and panel discussions, and elsewhere.
8) The right-wing economic views of American Atheists president David Silverman and the involvement of his organization at the Conservative Political Action Conferences of 2014 and 2015.
9) Atheist and humanist organizations’ habit of frequently making reference to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights statements on freedom of thought, conscience, and expression, while seldom if ever mentioning the UDHR’s economic provisions.
10) The fact that regular contributors to the major Humanist magazines, in protest over perceived insults to feminism, have sometimes threatened to boycott those publications and their parent organizations, while no such threats are ever made in response to the magazines’ general neoliberal and libertarian tendencies.
If the relevance and critical importance of the class problem make LeDrew’s choice not to focus on it rather puzzling, some of his comments make the decision a downright head scratcher. “The rightward political drift of atheism,” he writes in the introduction “is an amazing development for a movement with roots in socialism, revolution against established powers, and social justice.” At the end of the final chapter, he suggests that the class problem is perhaps “the unspoken but most important issue for those researching” the secular movement. “It is fascinating,” he continues “that today even atheists who advocate for social justice have little to say about capitalism.”
Yes, the neglect by nearly all high-profile atheists of this particular social justice problem, which more than any other is intimately related to all the rest, is fascinating. Some of us have been saying that for years. Yet, despite the fact that, as I’ve shown, class oppression is an essential issue, LeDrew chooses to leave this topic (mostly) out of his analysis. Unfortunately, in doing so, in a way he helps to foster the message, which the “freethought” groups broadcast to the world in a thousand different ways, that it is perfectly okay to put the issue off until, well, some other time—one that, curiously, never actually comes.
A good treatment of atheism and economic injustice would include some detailed historical background related to the class issue. LeDrew doesn’t provide that, but at least he does point us in the right direction. Atheism, he explains “was born of—and took shape in association with—politically radical intellectual and social justice movements.” However, he observes “The old interests in socialism and the conditions of the working class that featured prominently in the early years of the secular movement are virtually invisible today.” So the coming together of right-wing politics and atheism is “a radical break from its traditional” political course. The historical references are to mid-nineteenth-century England, where Anglo-American secularism as an organized movement began.
LeDrew does provide a synopsis of the key role played by George Jacob Holyoake in the formation of that movement. He discusses Holyoake and the aforementioned “major pioneers” of humanistic atheism in different chapters, but as a matter of historical record, and implicitly by LeDrew’s own account, Holyoake belongs in that group. In 1851, he founded the London Secular Society (later the National Secular Society), basically the organizational component of a working class movement to advance the general principles we now associate with secular humanism. A socialist, Holyoake was much concerned with what he called (as quoted by LeDrew) “the ‘mitigation of harsh destiny’ and rectification of the ‘inequalities of human condition.’” Holyoake’s’ emphasis, then (as LeDrew puts it), was on “social justice and the mitigation of suffering.” LeDrew adds that Holyoake thus “recognizes the major insight of humanistic atheism: that religion is not strictly a cognitive operation relating to the nature of material reality, but a response to the experience of social existence.” For Holyoake, atheism and secularism “were fundamentally, and necessarily, related to improving the conditions of life for all of humanity.” (For more on this subject, see Michael Rectenwald’s forthcoming book Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature.)
Consider briefly, though, the kind of information LeDrew’s book, the title of which, it is worth remembering, includes the word “evolution,” leaves out. In light of everything I’ve said so far, to read the facts contained in the next few paragraphs is to immediately recognize their importance for assessing the state of the atheist movement today.
As it happens, it would seem the first individual in modern Western history who is important as an atheist is the French Catholic priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729). Meslier, who at his death left behind a memoir revealing his disbelief in the truth of biblical stories and Catholic dogmas and his antipathy toward religion, was a staunch champion of the poor. Meslier’s book, which, Stephens writes, is addressed to the masses of peasants and laborers, attacks the nobility and “the vexations, the violence, the injustices and the ill-treatment which they commit on poor people.” Well over a century before the appearance of The Communist Manifesto (1848), he “condemned private ownership of property and called for common ownership.”
And so it often went with atheism for the next two-and-a-half centuries, a temporal landscape that, in Europe, includes the following. Denis Diderot’s The Philosophical History (produced in collaboration with others, 1770), which, as Stephens notes, opposed slavery, colonialism, and aristocracy and condemned greed and economic exploitation. Shelley’s “Queen Mab,” (first printed in 1813), which found much of its audience amongst the working class because of sentiments like this: “… many faint with toil/ That few may know the cares and woe of sloth.” The anarchist writings of the philosopher William Godwin and the many European and Russian atheistic anarchists who came later (for example, Mikhail Bakunin: “The abolition of the idea of God will be a fateful result of the proletarian emancipation”). The later, socialistic, editions of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. The humanistic social philosophy and radical political economy of Karl Marx and the many atheists who were influenced by him. The philosophy of Jean–Paul Sartre, for whom, in Stephens’ words, existentialism is a humanism “because it is dedicated to some revolutionary, anti-capitalistic scheme for elevating humanity.”
The political alignment of atheism took a very similar course in the U.S., as evidenced by, among others, the following developments and figures. An often close connection between freethought groups and the labor movement throughout the nineteenth century. The initial establishment, during the 1830s, of atheist feminism by the utopian socialist Ernestine L. Rose. The founding, by social democrat Felix Adler, of the Ethical Culture movement in 1877. Widespread support in Chicago for anti-religious anarchist labor militants during the 1880s and 1890s. During the same period in New York city, the “counterculture” comprised of atheistic, mostly working class Jewish anarchists (Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits, 1988). Humanist Manifesto I (1933), which called for replacing the “existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society” with a “socialized and cooperative economic order.” The socialistic humanism of, among many other nonbelievers, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Albert Einstein, John Dewey, Lorraine Hansberry, Erich Fromm, Stephen Jay Gould, Kurt Vonnegut, and Howard Zinn. The social democratic philosophy of Humanist Manifesto II (1973). American Atheists founder Madelyn Murray O’Hare’s active support of labor unions, her involvement first in the Socialist Labor Party and then in the more radical Socialist Workers Party, and, in the early 1960s, her switch to anarchism.
And we should include a few brief items about language. The popular humanistic saying “my country is the world, and my religion is to do good” comes from The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine—a stalwart champion of the poor and the working class (as a deist, Paine was about as close to atheism as most people could realistically get in the late eighteenth century). The socialist Holyoake coined the word “Secularism” in 1851 (LeDrew mentions this, but he does not make it clear that the term was meant to name a movement). The freethought slogan “No God, No Masters,” generally assumed to be the work of some atheist celebrity or organization, in fact comes from the early twentieth-century literature of the radical labor union Industrial Workers of the World.
In the past, then, organized atheism was often a radical force fighting against an unjust socioeconomic order. Today, however, it gives us what LeDrew cleverly calls “evolutionary neoliberal apologetics.”
You would think this history would have profound meaning for atheists today. In 2014, political scientists at Princeton University released a study confirming that public policy in the U.S. is mostly shaped by the interests and preferences of economic elites “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” In other words, as close observers have known for decades now, democracy has been dislodged by oligarchy. When the subject of political philosophy comes up, most atheists claim to firmly believe in liberal democracy, yet this scientific confirmation of the death of democracy was completely ignored by the mainstream atheist commentariat.
Reflecting on the perils of atheistic fanaticism, with its devotion to “Holy Reason,” Stephens writes that “What was morally wrong with the religion of no religion that was briefly institutionalized during the French Revolution, as [Thomas] Paine argues, was not that it was too profane but that it was too orthodox.” Stephens is referring to the fact that, just as Christianity had often done, atheism, in many quarters anyway, had become intolerant and vicious. But there are many ways of being orthodox besides chopping off the heads of large numbers of fellow citizens who don’t agree with you. Today’s atheist movement demonstrates this in many ways, but none more clearly than in providing, as Luke Savage put it a year ago “a smokescreen for the injustices of global capitalism.”
In fact, given the ways in which neoliberalism has pushed the decimation of the middle class into high gear over the past decade or so, atheists who support or enable status quo economics are helping to forcibly move us to within shouting distance of the dystopia dreamt of by the libertarian atheist Ayn Rand. According to new research findings, the 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the population and the richest 03 percent of families “own more than twice as much as the bottom 90 percent combined.” Stunningly, one-half of the American people are now poor or low income.
Bereft of any organizing principle other than the sociopathy of social Darwinism, the abyss into which our society is descending shows us, with high definition clarity, that rationality, unshaped by compassion and affection, easily becomes merely instrumental support of goals involving domination, exploitation, and countless modes of anti-human (to say nothing of anti-animal and anti-environmental) cruelty. Thus, to organized atheism, preoccupied with starry-eyed visions of the supreme reign of science, the aforementioned history, worsening inequality and growing human misery, the socioeconomic and political bases of terrorism, the intimate link between socioeconomic wellness and secularization—none of it matters.
These days, the movement sides with the oppressors. It supports what Curtis White calls “the most massively destructive social system in human history—capitalism and capitalist militarism.” Humanist ethics, which many atheists claim to embrace, logically entail that economic injustice and poverty be eliminated. But that means actually, you know, focusing on those issues both intellectually and practically. The typical atheist activist would just as soon be tied to a chair and forced to listen to audio books of the collected works of Pat Robertson.
It was not some historical accident that the evolution of atheism in modern times was intimately tied up with social justice movements and that those reform efforts nearly always centered on, or had a great deal to do with, class conflict. Properly understood, atheistic Humanism, the main emphasis of which is human flourishing, entails practical ethical (moral-philosophical) imperatives that, more than anywhere else on the political spectrum, find their expression and defense on the radical left. Marx, whose thought inspired a still vibrant radical humanist tradition, and for whom the main point of philosophy is to change the world for the better, wrote that “Philosophy can only be realized by the abolition of the proletariat, and the proletariat can only be abolished by the realization of philosophy.”
Given the current state of the world, the realization of Humanistic philosophy will require nothing less than an ecosocialist perestroika—a radical, earth-friendly restructuring of political and economic life. Being a mother lode of bad ideas, New Atheism is an impediment to such a transformation. Socialists and other promoters of human welfare should seek to undermine it wherever possible.