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New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed

Thucydides predicted that future generations would underestimate the power of Sparta. It built no great temples, left no magnificent ruins. Absent any tangible signs of the sway it once held, memories of its past importance would sound like ridiculous exaggerations.

This is how I feel about New Atheism.

If I were to describe the power of New Atheism over online discourse to a teenager, they would never believe me. Why should they? Other intellectual movements have left indelible marks in the culture; the heyday of hippiedom may be long gone, but time travelers visiting 1969 would not be surprised by the extent of Woodstock. But I imagine the same travelers visiting 2005, logging on to the Internet, and holy @#$! that’s a lot of atheism-related discourse what is going on here?

My first forays onto the Internet were online bulletin boards about computer games. They would have a lot of little forums about various aspects of the games, plus two off-topic forums. One for discussion of atheism vs. religion. And the other for everything else. This was a common structure for websites in those days. You had to do it, or the atheism vs. religion discussions would take over everything. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

In 2005, a college student made a webpage called The Church Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was a joke based on the idea that there was no more scientific evidence for God or creationism than for belief in a flying spaghetti monster. The monster’s website received tens of millions of visitors, 60,000 emails (“about 95 percent” supportive), and was covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Telegraph. Six publishing companies entered a bidding war for the rights to the spaghetti monster’s “gospel”, with the winner, Random House, offering an $80,000 advance. The book was published to massive fanfare, sold over 100,000 copies, and was translated into multiple languages. Putin’s thugs broke up a pro-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster demonstration in Russia. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

People compiled endless lists of arguments and counterarguments for or against atheism. The Talk.Origins newsgroup created a Dewey-Decimal-system-esque index of almost a thousand creationist arguments, from CA211.1 (“Karl Popper said that Darwinism is not testable”), to CD011.1 (“Variable C-14/C-12 ratio invalidates carbon dating”), through CH508 (“Chinese treasure ships show Noah’s Ark was feasible”) – and painstakingly debunked all of them; in case that wasn’t enough they linked 133 other sites doing similar work. Their arch-enemies, creationist site True.Origin, then went through and debunked all of their debunkings. Another atheist group created the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, a version of the Bible highlighting everything bad or wrong in it. For example, if for some reason you need a hit job on the second chapter of the Book of Malachi in particular, you can look up its SAB page and find that Malachi 2:11 castigates Judah for “marrying the daughter of a strange god” (which is intolerant), Malachi 2:17 accuses the Israelites of “wearying the Lord with your words”, (which is absurd since God cannot be wearied), and Malachi 2:3 says that God will spread dung upon the faces of unbelievers (which is gross). This last entry includes a link to a 2007 YouTube video “God Wants To Smear Dung On Your Face” with 21,947 views. And the video links to a store selling Malachi-2:3-says-God-wants to-put-dung-on-your-face-related t-shirts, bumper stickers, keychains, and coffee mugs. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

Whatever media you liked, there were atheism-themed versions of it. Obviously if you liked webcomics you would never be able to finish all the different atheist options from Russell’s Teapot through Jesus & Mo through The Sheeples. If you liked TV, there were atheist TV shows like John Safran vs. God or The Atheist Experience. If you liked pithy quotes, you could read the top 10,000 atheist quotations in order of popularity. If you just liked discussion, you could go to the now-infamous r/atheism subreddit, which at the time was one of Reddit’s highest-ranked, beating topics like “news”, “humor”, and – somehow – “sex”. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

But these still don’t quite make my point, because the defining feature of this period wasn’t just that there were a lot of atheism-focused things. It was how the religious-vs-atheist conflict subtly bled into everything. Read enough old articles and blogs from this period and you’ll spot it. Some travel writer going on about how the boring small town he ended up in is probably full of fundies who hate gays and think the Earth is six thousand years old. Some logician giving an example of circular arguments: “I know the Bible is true because it says so in the Bible.” Some political writer saying a stupid policy is only to be expected in a country where X% of people still get their ethics from Bronze Age superstitions. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

It seemed perfectly normal because religion vs. atheism was the most important issue, maybe the only issue. How could you run a 21st century democracy with half the population believing in science and compassion, and the other half believing whatever they read in a 3000 year old book about a magic sky father? To truly understand the spirit of the time, you can’t just think of religion as evil. You have to think of it as the ur-evil, without which no other evil would exist. Homophobia? Only there because the Bible says to stone gay people. War? It’s all holy war of one sort or another, whether it’s Arabs vs. Israelis, Sunnis vs. Shias, or the Christian/Muslim “clash of civilizations”. Environmental devastation? Only there because religious people believe God elevated Adam over the animals and told him to exploit them for his own purposes. Poverty? Only because religious people believe in the prosperity gospel that says people get what they deserve.

Christopher Hitchens, 2008:

Now, I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion and organized religion. Absolutely convinced of that. And I think it should be—religion—treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt. And I claim that right. So when I say—as the subtitle of my book—that I think religion poisons everything, I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle. I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity. It says we can’t be moral without ‘Big Brother,’ without a totalitarian permission, means we can’t be good to one another without this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love someone whom we fear—the essence of sadomasochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship and that knows that death is coming and can’t wait to bring it on. I say that is evil, and though I do, some nights, stay home, I enjoy more the nights when I go out and fight against this ultimate wickedness and ultimate stupidity.

Where did this come from? And where did it go?

At the time, the question of where it came from seemed to have an obvious answer. As a civilization becomes advanced enough that some people throw off the yoke of religion, they will naturally come into conflict with people who have not thrown off that yoke. This will dominate discussion since atheism vs. religion is obviously the most important issue and maybe the only issue, and last until the civilization advances enough that religion disappears.

But the past decade or so has shown that advanced civilizations are perfectly capable of containing atheists and religious people in close proximity without either side caring that much about it. So what made the turn of the millennium such an acrimonious period?

As for where it went, I asked that question last year and got various responses. The most popular was that 9/11 made religion-bashing segue into Islam-bashing, which started to look pretty racist. But 9/11 happened in 2001, The God Delusion wasn’t published until 2006, and New Atheism didn’t peak until the early 2010s. Why?

In order to answer these questions, I’ll start by presenting some data confirming the picture I paint above and trying to pinpoint exactly when the peak and the beginning of the end happened. I’ll move on to some of the intellectual subtrends in New Atheism that might explain the picture a little better. And finally, I’ll present my theory explaining the mysteries above: New Atheism was a failed hamartiology.

II.

Here is a graph of US religiosity over time:

Between the first stirrings of internet atheism in 2000 and the beginning of the end in 2015, the percent of Americans identifying as Christian dropped about 10%; the percent identifying as no religion increased about the same amount. There are many different ways of looking at the data: self-reported affiliation, church attendance, even polls on whether religion can answer all of today’s problems, but they all show the same story of slow, steady decline.

By the numbers, the decline is slight: from 80% Christian / 15% atheist in 2000 to 70% Christian / 25% atheist in 2018. This could hide wider social changes. The number of gay people has barely changed since 2000, but society’s attitude toward them has totally transformed. Likewise, although religion has barely declined, and nonbelief barely risen, Christianity no longer seems to command quite the same level of political power, nor does atheism provoke quite as much revulsion.

But the sudden fall of New Atheism didn’t feel like a process of gradual social change and eventual acceptance. It felt like a movement certain of its own victory burning out spectacularly over the course of a few short years, followed by mysterious yet near-total contempt from the very people it thought it had convinced.

Here are some graphs of atheism-related search terms on Google Trends since 2004:

And here are the traffic numbers for some atheism-related websites (source: http://rank2traffic.com/):

And it may not be Internet atheism per se, but here’s word frequency in the New York Times (source: New York Times Media Analytics):

I can’t figure out how to average the traffic numbers or the NYT frequencies, but here’s an average of all the atheism-related search terms:

I think these graphs mostly tell the same story. Unlike the continuous trend in religiosity, the atheist movement appears to be going strong throughout the 2000s, peak in 2012, and start declining shortly afterward.

But this hides a division into two different patterns. Two keywords (“creationism” and “Biblical contradictions”) and two websites (Talk Origins and Internet Infidels) are declining throughout the time period measured. Three keywords (“atheist”, “agnostic”, “freethinker”), two websites (Freethought Blogs and Atheist Revolution), and the New York Times frequencies are increasing through most of the period, peak around 2012, stay strong for a few years after that, and decline around 2016.

To get an intuitive feel for the first category, look at the two sites involved. Talk Origins is almost perfectly preserved, a time capsule from an era when people really wanted to debate creationism. Internet Infidels has decayed a bit more, but even its ruins are impressive: a database of forty videotaped atheist-vs-theist debates, an online library of uploaded works by about two hundred atheist authors, and the obligatory list of several hundred Biblical contradictions. Who does that these days?

This exercise is gradually bringing back memories of just how intellectual the Internet was around the turn of the millennium. You would go to bulletin boards, have long and acrimonious debates over whether or not the Gospels were based on pagan myths. Then someone would check Vast Apologetics Library tektonics.org and repost every one of their twenty-eight different articles about all the pagan myths the Gospels weren’t based on, from Adonis (“yet another unprofitable proposition for the copycat theorist”) to Zalmoxis (“there is no comparison, other than by illicit collapsing of terminology and by unsubstantiated speculation”). Both sides had these vast pre-built armories full of facts and arguments to go to.

At some point, in a way unrelated to the fall of New Atheism, the Internet stopped being like this. The topics that interest people today don’t get debated in the same way. People dunk on each other on Twitter, occasionally even have back-and-forth exchanges, but the average person doesn’t post long screeds and get equally long responses fisking each of their points. There’s less need for giant databases containing every fact you might need to win a particular argument, organized Dewey-Decimal-style by which argument you are trying to win. People just stopped caring.

I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe it took about ten years from the founding of the Internet for people to really internalize that online arguments didn’t change minds. The first Internet pioneers, starting their dial-up modems and running headfirst into people outside their filter bubbles, must have been so excited. For the first time in human history, people interested in debating a subject could do so 24-7 out in a joint salon-panopticon with all of the information of the human race at their fingertips. Bible Belt churchgoers for whom atheists had been an almost-fictional bogeyman, and New York atheists who thought of the religious as unsophisticated yokels, came together for the first time thinking “Convincing these people is going to be so easy”. The decade or so before they figured out that it wasn’t was a magical time, of which the great argument-arsenals of the past are almost the only remaining monument.

Or maybe it was something else. Maybe it was that getting online was actually pretty hard in those days, you needed to be technically inclined or attending a college or both, and so netizens were just more educated. Maybe the sort of people who interrupt any attempt at intellectual discussion with words like “rationalbro” or “mansplaining” or “well acktually” were still stuck in their caves, fruitlessly banging AOL CDs against rocks trying to create fire. Maybe it was something as simple as Wikipedia not existing yet, leaving the intellectual world in a sort of state of nature with every man for himself. Maybe it was just that the bulletin board format was more conducive to this than the later social media style fora.

Whatever it was, the decline of this culture started no later than 2000, and is reflected in the fate of argument-related search terms like “biblical contradictions” and “creationism”, and in the fading of the great argument-armories like Talk Origins and Infidels.

But the “atheism” search term keeps rising for another decade. What happened?

The intellectuals were succeeded by the activists. Early Internet Argument Culture disappeared and was replaced by something more familiar.

The atheists of Early Internet Argument Culture were not New Atheists. The term “New Atheism” didn’t really catch on until about 2006 when Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion; Early Internet Argument Culture was just a prelude to the main event. Post-2006 atheists were brasher and more political. They were less interested in arguing with religious people about the minutiae of carbon-dating; they were more interested in posting about how stupid carbon-dating denalists were, on their own social media feeds, read entirely by other atheists. The concept of the Internet as magical place where you could change other people’s minds had given way to the Internet as magical place where you could complain to like-minded friends about how ignorant other people were.

EIAC had been timeless, examining the medieval kalam argument and the Scopes Monkey Trial with equal detachment. New Atheism was ephemeral, obsessed with the issue of the day. This was in the mid-Bush administration, after the post-9/11 spirit of national unity had disappeared. Democrats had not yet invented the hashtag #Resistance, but they had invented the spirit. George W. Bush was portrayed as a religious fanatic, basing his every decision on what he considered to be the will of God. His supporters were evangelicals, willing to follow him into any war or disaster out of blind faith. A lot of the debate centered on faith-based charities, Bush’s push to give government funding to religiously-affiliated groups like the Salvation Army. It was assumed that they would preferentially serve Christians, leaving Jews, Muslims, and atheists without aid. Once Bush had shifted all welfare into these programs, non-Christians would die in the cold, and the government would laugh evilly. Every day brought new perspectives on this and a host of similar anti-religious activist causes.

New Atheism was also more centralized. EIAC was every man for himself; you would march forth alone into your chosen bulletin board and engage, neither seeking or receiving any help beyond precooked arguments from your local armory-site. New Atheism, for the first time, started to have celebrities. Richard Dawkins, of course, and the Four Horsemen, but also random bloggers like PZ Myers and Stephanie Zvan. These were the days when bloggers filled auditoria and travelled in high-altitude balloons. Every day they would tell you the latest reason to be outraged about religion, and every day you would discuss it on social media and comment sections and get appropriately angry.

This corresponds to the peak of Freethought Blogs on the traffic graph above, and ended around 2016. What happened to it?

I think it seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement.

This probably comes as a surprise, seeing as how everyone else talks about how atheists are heavily affiliated with the modern anti-social justice movement. I think that’s the wrong takeaway. Sure, a lot of people who identify as atheists now are pretty critical of social justice. That’s because the only people remaining in the atheist movement are the people who didn’t participate in the mass transformation into social justice. It is no contradiction to say both “Most of the pagans you see around these days are really opposed to Christianity” and “What ever happened to all the pagans there used to be? They all became Christian.”

Somebody should make this case more exhaustively, but the highlight will no doubt be all the discussion around Atheism Plus, the brand name for a combination of “atheism plus social justice” which in a few years became entirely social justice. According to the original manifesto:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism…

Religion is responsible for generating and sustaining most of the racism, sexism, anti-(insert minority human subgroup here)-isms… it gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years. What sense does it make to throw out the garbage bag of religion yet keep all the garbage that it contained? I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism. I’m for getting rid of all the garbage.

Within a week, it got glowing articles in the mainstream press, from New Statesman to Salon to The Guardian (consider how weird it sounds today for a post by a mid-tier atheist blog post to result in a bunch of mainstream press articles) and support from top atheist blogging celebrities . A review a week later wrote:

Last week, Jen McCreight announced that she was fed up with sexism in the atheist movement and called for a new wave of atheist activism, one explicitly concerned with social justice, which quickly acquired the name “atheism+”.

These posts landed like a cannon shell, generating a huge wave of excitement and feedback – the vast majority of which, to my surprise, was positive and enthusiastic. Clearly, they’ve tapped into a powerful vein of pro-equality sentiment in the atheist movement, crystallizing the frustrations that those of us who care about this have been feeling for the last year or two. This is an idea whose time has come, and all it needed were some excellent posts like Jen’s to kickstart it.

Famous atheist blogger PZ Myers embraced the new label and said that “atheism ought to be a progressive social movement in addition to being a scientific and philosophical position” and that:

If you don’t agree with any of that — and this is the only ‘divisive’ part — then you’re an asshole. I suggest you form your own label, “Asshole Atheists” and own it, proudly. I promise not to resent it or cry about joining it.

Richard Carrier, an academic and another of the most famous New Atheists, told atheists who objected to the rebranding that:

Atheism+ is our movement. We will not consider you a part of it, we will not work with you, we will not befriend you. We will heretofore denounce you as the irrational or immoral scum you are (if such you are). If you reject these values, then you are no longer one of us. And we will now say so, publicly and repeatedly. You are hereby disowned.

I don’t want to dwell on this too much. I don’t have a great sense of how this era went, since it was around the time I unfollowed every atheist blog and forum for the sake of my own sanity, but my impression is that some of the Atheism Plussers later admitted they came on a little too strong and dropped that particular branding. But the cleavage the incident highlighted (not created, but highlighted) stuck around. As far as I can tell, it eventually ended with the anti-social-justice atheists stomping off to YouTube or somewhere horrible like that, while most of the important celebrity members of the public-facing movement very gradually turned into social justice bloggers.

For example, I look at Pharyngula, which during its heyday was the biggest atheist blog on the Internet. On the day I am writing this, its front page contains posts like “Are They All Racists On The Right Side Of The Aisle?” (recommended answer: yes), a discussion of how opposing the Gilette commercial represents “classic toxic masculinity”, and an attack on Milo Yiannopoulos. Its sidebar includes links to “Discussion: Racism In America”, “Discussion: Through A Feminist Lens”, and “Social Justice Links Roundup”. There’s still a little bit of anti-religious content, but mostly in the context of Catholics being racist and misogynist.

Aside from Pharyngula, a lot of the old atheist blogs have ended up at atheism-blogging-mega-nexus-site The Orbit. When I read its About page, it doesn’t even describe itself as an atheist blogging site at all. It says:

The Orbit is a diverse collective of atheist and nonreligious bloggers committed to social justice, within and outside the secular community. We provide a platform for writing, discussion, activism, collaboration, and community.

It’s not “blogs on atheism” anymore. It’s “blogs by atheists about social justice”. The whole atheist movement is like this.

One post I distinctly remember, but which I can no longer find, was a rousing call for atheists to switch to social justice blogging. It said something like “Instead of rehearsing the same old tired arguments for or against the existence of God, it’s time to become part of the struggle for progress and equality.”

I wish I could find this, because the sentiment it expresses is so bizarre that I worry you won’t believe me when I say it exists. Like, yes, the arguments for and against the existence of God are old and tired. Just like, for example, the arguments for and against restrictions on abortion. But if one day all of the top pro-choice activists agreed among themselves that what the pro-choice movement was really about was stopping Brexit – and they all posted supportive messages like “We’re tired of being known as those boring busybodies who go on about fetus this and right-to-your-own-body that when millions of people could be harmed by Britain’s ill-advised and bungled exit from the European Union” – and if from that day forward NARAL and Planned Parenthood were 100% Brexit-related organizations – surely we would find it strange? Surely we would think something deeper had to be going on?

I think of this as the second part of the mystery around New Atheism’s decline: why did a successful social movement so quietly and complacently agree to turn into a totally different social movement?

III.

My solution to both these questions is: New Atheism was a failed hamartiology.

“Hamartiology” is a subfield of theology dealing with the study of sin, in particular, how sin enters the universe. Orthodox Christian hamartiology says we all have original sin because Adam and Eve ate the apple. Gnostic hamartiologies say we sin because we are ignorant of our true nature as celestial beings. Some heretical hamartiologies say that all of this is irrelevant, and we sin because we choose to.

The rise of the Internet broadened our intellectual horizons. We got access to a whole new world of people with totally different standards, norms, and ideologies opposed to our own. When the Internet was small and confined to an optimistic group of technophile intellectuals, this spawned Early Internet Argument Culture, where we tried to iron out our differences through Reason. We hoped that the new world the Web revealed to us could be managed in the same friendly way we managed differences with our crazy uncle or the next-door neighbor.

As friendly debate started feeling more and more inadequate, and as newer and less nerdy people started taking over the Internet, this dream receded. In its place, we were left with an intolerable truth: a lot of people seem really horrible, and refuse to stop being horrible even when we ask them nicely. They seem to believe awful things. They seem to act in awful ways. When we tell them the obviously correct reasons they should be more like us, they refuse to listen to them, and instead spout insane moon gibberish about how they are right and we are wrong.

I can only describe this experience from my own side of the aisle, which was the progressive side. We watched the US population elect George W Bush and act like this was a remotely reasonable thing to do. We saw people destroying the environment, leaving the poor to starve, and denying gay people their right to live as normal members of society. We saw people endorsing weird ideas and conspiracy theories, from homeopathy and creationism to the Clintons murdering their enemies. We were always vaguely aware from reading the newspapers that some of these people existed. But now we were seeing and conversing with them every day.

Not only were we noticing the trend for the first time, but the trend itself was strengthening. I could use any of a hundred images to make this case, but for today I’ll use these:

And so we asked ourselves: what the hell is wrong with these people?

And New Atheism had an answer: religion.

That was it. It was beautiful, it was simple, it was perfect. We were the “reality-based community”. They were ignoring Reason and basing all of their opinions on three thousand year old fairy-tales because people told them they would burn in Hell forever if they didn’t. There was nothing confusing or unsettling at all about the situation, and we did not need to question any of our own beliefs. It was just that some people had been brainwashed by their church/mosque/synagogue to believe transparently wrong things, so they did. Sin began with the apple tree in Eden; conservatism began with the Bible in Jerusalem. Language separates us from the apes; not being blinded by religion separates us from the Republicans.

This was a socially momentous proposal. The Democratic Party is centuries old, but the Blue Tribe – the Democratic Party as a social phenomenon with strong demographic and ideological implications – can be said to have started in 2004.

As it took its first baby steps, the Blue Tribe started asking itself “Who am I? What defines me?”, trying to figure out how it conceived of itself. New Atheism had an answer – “You are the people who aren’t blinded by fundamentalism” – and for a while the tribe toyed with accepting it. During the Bush administration, with all its struggles over Radical Islam and Intelligent Design and Faith-Based Charity, this seemed like it might be a reasonable answer. The atheist movement and the network of journalists/academics/pundits/operatives who made up the tribe’s core started drifting closer together.

Gradually the Blue Tribe got a little bit more self-awareness and realized this was not a great idea. Their coalition contained too many Catholic Latinos, too many Muslim Arabs, too many Baptist African-Americans. Remember that in 2008, “what if all the Hispanic people end up going Republican?” was considered a major and plausible concern. It became somewhat less amenable to New Atheism’s answer to its identity question – but absent a better one, the New Atheists continued to wield some social power.

Betweem 2008 and 2016, two things happened. First, Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush as president. Second, Ferguson. The Blue Tribe kept posing its same identity question: “Who am I? What defines me?”, and now Black Lives Matter gave them an answer they liked better “You are the people who aren’t blinded by sexism and racism.”

Again, it was beautiful, simple, and perfect. We were “the reality-based community”. They were ignoring Reason and basing all of their opinions on blind hatred and prejudice. There was nothing confusing or unsettling at all about the situation, and we did not need to question any of our own beliefs. It was just that some people had been brainwashed by white supremacy and an all-consuming desire to protect their own privilege, and so they did. Sin began with the apple tree in Eden; conservativism began with the cotton plant in Jamestown. Language separates us from the apes; not being blinded by bigotry separates us from the Republicans.

Since I started writing this essay, I’ve noticed a surprising number of people just saying this outright. If you go to any thread on r/politics about Trump (aka any thread on r/politics), you’ll see people saying things like this:

[Trump voters] know they are being lied to, well most of them do, but look at the increase of hatred in America. THAT is what they are voting on. Hatred. Ironically, the Republicans are a large reason why their lives are so shitty and full of hatred, but hatred nonetheless. I guarantee you, you debate any of these people long enough. You back them into a corner. They say the same thing. “We are winning. We won the election. Racism is good. Hatred is good. Cheating on elections is good as long as it’s my side.” Because that is what happens when one side is the Republicans and the other side is baby murdering, child raping and trafficking and harvesting drugs from their brain, brown and black people loving devil worshippers. Go on you know what sub. Read their posts. They will say, “I was driving by a school bus stop, none of them were white.” This makes them so angry. To them, Russia [is better than] Democrats. At least Russia is white.

Google Trends shows traffic for atheism-related terms starting to decline around 2012, and really plummeting around 2015. How were other terms doing around that time?

Not enough for you? We can go deeper:

Most movement atheists weren’t in it for the religion. They were in it for the hamartiology. Once they got the message that the culture-at-large had settled on a different, better hamartiology, there was no psychological impediment to switching over. We woke up one morning and the atheist bloggers had all quietly became social justice bloggers. Nothing else had changed because nothing else had to; the underlying itch being scratched was the same. They just had to CTRL+F and replace a couple of keywords.

Eventually, things came full circle. I started this essay with a memory of noticing that my favorite early-2000s-era website had two off-topic forums: one for religion vs. atheism, and one for everything else. Earlier this year, SSC’s subreddit split in two: one for “culture war” discussions mostly about race and gender, the other for everything else.

Where do we go from here? I’m not sure. The socialist wing of the Democratic Party seems to be working off a model kind of like this, but hoping to change the hamartiology from race/gender to class. Maybe they’ll succeed, and one day talking too much about racism will seem as out-of-touch as talking too much about atheism does now; maybe the rise of terms like “woke capitalism” is already part of this process.

I’ve lost the exact quote, but a famous historian once said that we learn history to keep us from taking the present too seriously. This isn’t to say the problems of the present aren’t serious. Just that history helps us avoid getting too dazzled by current trends, or too swept away by any particular narrative.

If this is true, we might do well to study the history of New Atheism a little more seriously.

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830 Responses to New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed

  1. zima says:

    Great article, I hadn’t considered this angle before. But I think a big part of it is that atheism became much more mainstream so it is no longer seen as edgy. I remember what it was like as a closeted atheist circa 2000s afraid of openly identifying as an atheist except anonymously online, but today saying you’re an atheist is no big deal so there is not the need for the same online release valve.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Good point. I’d been resistant to that explanation because in 2000 15% of the population identified as non-religious and now about 20% does, and that didn’t seem like a big enough change to matter in terms of how mainstream it was, but I guess things can go more or less mainstream along an axis unrelated to how common they are.

      [EDIT: Added in a paragraph on this]

      • zima says:

        Maybe there’s a sorting effect where atheists are more likely to live in places and have friend/professional groups that are accepting of atheists, compared to 20 years ago?

        • keaswaran says:

          I don’t think that can be it, because most people don’t move out of the town they live in over the course of just one decade, and not enough people have changed religion to match the population density of their locale.

          • zima says:

            You can totally change your social and professional networks while living in the same town. I have lived in the same town my entire life and run with a much different and more liberal crowd now than I did 20 years ago.

          • keaswaran says:

            Good point – I had noticed the “live in places” part and ignored the “friend/professional groups” part, which is probably bigger.

          • ChelOfTheSea says:

            Young people do, though. The early-era internetters were almost universally under 40. Reddit’s median age today is now in the late 20s. Those people were in their teens at the time, and the shift occurs right around the time they were going off to college (just about the most blue-tribe space there is).

      • Mablun says:

        Is the increase in non-religious concentrated though? You have the non-religious barely being above the lizard-man constant in older sub-groups but being a fairly large minority in younger cohorts. So it might feel fairly mainstream to the younger people who are doing most of the internet posting.

      • RLM says:

        Yeah — for another example, consider that the number of people identifying as homosexual hasn’t really increased much over the last decade, but it’s become much more mainstream.

      • gwern says:

        As atheists have long pointed out, atheism is one of the most stigmatized of beliefs or identities. Even if 15% identifies in a survey, that doesn’t mean they are ‘out’ or regularly criticizing all the theist microagressions and structural theism of society, shall we say, and the true fraction may be much larger than even that: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1948550617707015 triples the percentage of atheists using indirect Bayesian-truth-serum-like methods. Even I am surprised to hear that

        Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability. Prevalence estimates of 11% were even less credible than estimates of 40%, and all intermediate estimates were more credible.

        I’m not sure there’s any other important group which is both that common and that badly underestimated. We’re not talking about surveys indicating something is 0.1% of people (1 in 1000) but is actually 0.3% (3 in 1000), but going from 1 in 10 to almost 1 in 5. That’s incredible common!

        And note how many atheist bloggers/discussions were pseudonymous, and how many worried about retaliation. Atheists are thoroughly censored and cowed, and there is no ‘common knowledge’, just a signaling cascade. One goes to church despite not believing a lick of it.

        So when you get online for the first time, you may be appalled or pleased to discover just how rife the place is with atheists (particularly given the other selection effects). Various third world countries are more appalled, which is why, as much of a dead issue as it may seem to be on the Anglophone Internet, you still hear about atheism bloggers being assassinated elsewhere. However, at a certain point it tends to burn itself out. As shocking as it was, both sides have updated their worldviews. American Christians no longer assume atheists are rare or boast about being the ‘moral majority’; now, if anything, they assume anyone not furiously signaling Christianity is a closet atheist, and that they are an embattled minority discriminated against by everyone else, and have largely retreated. And atheists don’t really have anything to press for: church and state are already quite thoroughly separate in the USA. What are they going to push for, removal of tax exemptions? How very weeny. But… there are plenty of other identities and grievances, old, new, or manufactured, which can slot in.

        The real question here is: what’s next? What’s the next identity or interest or ideology which is more prevalent than either it or everyone else thinks, which can use new communication methods to establish new common knowledge and create the next big awokening? Use of indirect methods in surveys to find the most mis-estimated groups would be interesting to highlight potential flashpoints…

        • oldman says:

          In 1997 Tony Blair was being advised to play down his Christianity to appeal to voters. Nonetheless Atheism was a big hot topic among Brits on the internet in the early noughties. I don’t think this was just because they were excited to notice how many atheists there were.

          • rjk says:

            Blair was, quite probably, a secret Catholic, which makes Christianity a tricky topic for someone who wants to be Prime Minister of a country which has Protestantism as its state religion (he officially became a Catholic about five months after his resignation as PM).

            It was much easier for him to be seen in the tradition of quiet Anglicans, who limit outward expressions of their faith to public festivals and Sunday church attendance.

          • Emby says:

            “Playing down too much Christianity” is fairly par for the course for British politics. Prostituting your religion to get elected has never been the done thing and only about 10% of people go to church each week (fuzzy numbers, but reasonably accurate for 1997). The “persuade your constituents you’re just like them” strategy means that the correct presentation religious beliefs for a person trying to get elected is something like “vaguely approves of Christianity, but not to the extent of thinking it particularly important”

        • OriginalSeeing says:

          One factor that may be involved for the next big wokeness is whether or not the factor can be hidden and how low the cost to hide it is. Atheism was easily hidden and mostly had a low personal cost hide. (So was homosexuality to a limited extent.)

          The current factors are largely externally visible and cannot be hidden (race, gender, wearing religious garb etc.). Factors that can be hidden but become more visible after popular social recognition is out are also being pulled into the same grouping.

          Once all the easily externally visible factors become old hat, wokeness on easily hidden factors may rise back into prominence.

        • nicktachy says:

          It’s not 15% or 20% atheist anyway, it’s 3.1% atheist, 4.0% agnostic, and 15.8% who identify as “nothing in particular.” Among those who identify as “nothing in particular,” only 20% say they do not believe in God.

          • Mary says:

            And identifying as atheist does not mean that they are in that 20%.

            Although Lizardman Constant may come it, it’s not sure which one is wrong.

      • John Schilling says:

        zima: Great article, I hadn’t considered this angle before. But I think a big part of it is that atheism became much more mainstream so it is no longer seen as edgy.
        Scott: Good point. I’d been resistant to that explanation because in 2000 15% of the population identified as non-religious and now about 20% does,

        May be important to note that “atheist” and “nonreligious” are not the same thing. Nonreligious runs from vaguely identifiying as some milquetoast Protestant just to not feel weird about all the gift-giving on December 25, through Unitarian and “Spiritual but not Religious” and agnostic and atheist. So it’s possible to have “nonreligious” be a common thing but “atheist” still be edgy, and you have to be particularly careful about using self-reported atheism as a proxy for non-religiosity.

        I note in particular that the google trend for “agnostic” looks a lot flatter than the rest.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I think that might be mostly because “agnostic” more often gets used in a non-religious context, eg “I’m agnostic about whether the market will rise.”

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m agnostic about whether or not the market will rise, but I’m an atheist about technical analysis.

          • John Schilling says:

            If you’re going to use “supremacy” as a proxy for “white supremacy” because that’s all Google will let you get away with, I think you kind of have to allow “agnosticism” as a proxy for “not sure whether God exists”

      • meh says:

        I don’t think in the data ‘none’ == ‘atheist’.

        Also, 15 to 20% seems like a significant increase to me, especially in a characteristic that is pretty solidified in older people.

        If you look at the very next chart, it shows religion by age (birth year), with the youngest surveyed showing ‘none’ at ~37%

        Lets say you wanted to measure the popularity of home births, you wouldn’t look at the home birth rate of the entire population, you look at the rate for new births.

        • Ragged Clown says:

          This is an important point. The jump from 15% to 20% is not distributed evenly across the whole population.

          I suggest that there are two smaller cohorts responsible for most of the hike:

          1. Teenagers who never picked up religion as a habit in the first place.
          2. Silent atheists who realized that they weren’t actually so rare and decided it was safe to come out of the closet.

          In those cohorts the changes was more dramatic than 15% -> 20% and it was just a matter of time before those smaller groups became a significant part of the population. It’s unlikely, IMO, that a lot of folks switched belief systems.

          • meh says:

            right. an even better analogy would be looking at the percent of the total population vaccinated and concluding there is no anti vaccine issue. Really you only want to look at the rate among vaccine aged kids.

            NAs ‘won’ not because the majority of the population is atheist, but in the sense that they’ve pushed the ball over the hill, and it’s just a matter of time for it to roll to the bottom.

        • nicktachy says:

          I don’t think in the data ‘none’ == ‘atheist’.

          This is a really important point, because in fact if you poll “nones” they often have a lot of theistic views, like believing in God, spirits, karma, etc.

      • Icey says:

        One thing to note is that going from 15% to 20% could be the level that allows the social networks to go from subcritical to supercritical for memetic spread.

        This interactive essay does a really good job of demonstrating how relatively minor changes in the base rates/beliefs in ideas can drastically change the long-term adoption of thoughts/ideas, using graph theory.

        This seems like it could possibly be an explanation for how it could, with a relatively minor change in belief rate, go from “weird obscure internet belief” to “common, mainstream belief”.

        • Robin Green says:

          Yes but this 5% change is the entire change over the time period. If that theory is applicable here, the long-term adoption rate would change – it would be kind of a snowball effect, or a lots-of-little-snowballs effect more like, in this case. So if we see faster adoption of atheism in the future, that might explain that, but it couldn’t in and of itself explain why atheism is perceived by many now as a common, mainstream belief, despite a relatively small change in the actual percentage of unbelievers.

      • Bellum Gallicum says:

        The easiest explanation is that with Obama’s election the Blue Tribe dominated the culture and instituted their own religion.

        Since they now control the state church why would the Cathedral amplify atheists?

        This is a mirror of my own political evolution from being horrified of the evangelists in the 80’s to dismayed by the looney SJW of the current age. I hope you can use this to examine your own beliefs and see how enmeshed they are in Social Justice and how far they are from Atheism.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          @ Bellum Gallicum:

          The easiest explanation is that with Obama’s election the Blue Tribe dominated the culture and instituted their own religion.

          I had a somewhat similar theory: Suppose people on twitter are (annoyingly) in disagreement with your party’s President. If the President is caucasian, you might have to engage with the arguments; if the President is black you suddenly have a new option – you can claim the reason people disagree with the President’s policies is because people are racist. That explanation easily fits in a tweet, it’s all-purpose, it’s hard to argue with, it doesn’t require any thought or reconsideration, and it makes your team feel good about themselves.

          Line-by-line fisking doesn’t really work on Twitter – it’s not a medium suited for it – whereas calling the other person racist totally does work on Twitter, so that’s the sort of thing we tend to get more of.

          By my theory, electing a black president made race more salient which encouraged dumb, lazy, race-based arguments. Given that theory I was pretty sure once Trump had been president for a few years all these obviously-garbage claims that the other side just disagrees with us because racism would fade away and look silly and we could go back to having substantive debate on actual issues!

          …oh well. Shrug emoji.

      • VivaLaPanda says:

        This seems like it has obvious parallels to the gay rights stuff mentioned here and elsewhere on your blog. Even if the rate in the population stays constant, sometimes there’s a tipping point where atheists felt comfortable enough being publicly atheists that it made being atheist seem more acceptable, and so on. The internet helped catalyze that accelerating reaction.

      • Prussian says:

        Scott, I’ve addressed this at some length here. Though I fear you may not like it very much…

      • hf says:

        As usual, you over-analyze while blithely assuming everyone else is wrong.

        The US evangelical category (well, white evangelical) seems to hemorrhage people over generations. (Same goes for mainline Protestant and even Catholic, I believe.) If they didn’t convert, they might be gone by now. Of course they poach most of their converts from other Christian denominations, but the None category had absolutely terrible retention in decades past and lost people to the Darkness. What you irritatingly continue to call “New Atheism” looks at present like a successful attempt to retain non-religious people for the Nones.

    • Agreed. I come from a country that’s touted itself ‘the most atheist in the world’ and though our 2000s forums did always feature the topic, it was by no means one of the more active or important. Usually it was very one-sided, on the rare occasion a theist showed up, 9 anti-theists ripped him (always him) a new one and that was that for a long while.

    • broblawsky says:

      Thinking about New Atheism as a victim of its own success seems like an explanation of equal power as compared to Scott’s hypothesis.

      • Jeff R says:

        I had the same thought. Maybe there is less debate about atheism vs religion because fewer and fewer people were willing to take the theist side of it.

        One kind of funny alternative is that the people who were around and goofing off on the internet in 2008 and arguing with each other about the truth or falsity of Christianity are all on the plus side of 30 now, and the topic is just kind of in the ‘been-there, done-that’ category for us, and the Gen Z types who missed those debates because they were still 8 years old at the time still argue about it vociferously amongst themselves, but they do so using forums or social media platforms us old folks aren’t really familiar with, so we’re oblivious to it.

        • hls2003 says:

          Yes, I think the cohort aging out is under-represented in Scott’s formulation.

        • Nornagest says:

          Well, there’s gotta be a few Generation Z kids here. What do they think?

          • Estera clare says:

            While I remember reading New Atheist arguments when I was 9 or so (so like 2010), I’ve never seen an argument about religion among people my age online (offline too, for that matter).

          • ejh3141 says:

            I started looking at Atheist related content around 2012 at the end of elementary school. All the content I consumed was on YouTube (my favorite channel was Darkmatter2525). I spent a lot of time arguing with people in the YouTube comments.

            After a year or two, I became sufficiently convinced that God didn’t exist and stopped pursuing the topic.

            I find that religion is not a subject of conversation in my generation unless it’s two religious people talking to each other. It doesn’t seem very socially acceptable to talk about religion.

        • Anthony says:

          My younger daughter (age 10) watches a vlogger on YouTube who is clearly arguing for atheism, and who seriously strawmans theist arguments. He’s also a Protestant atheist – much of his commentary is about how awful the “christians” who raised him are.

          So maybe it’s all YouTube now? I hope not – YouTube has the stupidest comment section.

    • Alkatyn says:

      Same. When I was a teenager I was the only one in my friend group who was atheist (or at least the only one who said so) most were varieties of low level (Christmas and Easter) Christian.. Now if I was to meet up with the same group of people as late 20 somethings most would be some kind of non religious, but it’s not something that’s ever really talked about. There’s maybe an analogy to how adults don’t talk about sex the way teenagers do, because people are actually having it, and there’s not much to discuss.

      • peterj says:

        It may also be the case that today’s younger generation is less confrontational, has better social skills and all around more politeness than previous generations and just avoids potentially controversial topics such as religious beliefs. From my experience, nobody anymore wants to the “that guy”: the cranky dinner table guest that so embarrassingly belittles people in public about their belief in God.

        • The Nybbler says:

          The children nowadays love industry; they have polite manners, obedience to authority, they show respect to elders and love exercise in the place of chatter. Children are now servants, not the tyrants of their households. They even rise when elders enter the room. They are in concord with their parents, quiet before company, nibble at dainties at the table, sit up straight, and delight their teachers.

        • Randy M says:

          From my experience, nobody anymore wants to the “that guy”: the cranky dinner table guest that so embarrassingly belittles people in public about their belief in God.

          You do occasionally see articles about “that guy” who embarrassingly belittles people about other beliefs that seem racist, sexist, doubt climate-change, etc.

        • illumina says:

          It may also be the case that today’s younger generation is less confrontational, has better social skills and all around more politeness than previous generations and just avoids potentially controversial topics such as religious beliefs.

          Counterpoint: Reddit.

        • onyomi says:

          Being more or less confrontational is somewhat orthogonal to social skills. If the average American moves to Japan learning to be less confrontational would probably be part of adjusting his social skills to better match local mores, but the reverse might be true if he were to move to Russia. If “kids nowadays” are less confrontational it’s a change, to be sure, but not necessarily an improvement (could be they’re worse at expressing polite disagreement or just dealing with people irl in general).

  2. EchoChaos says:

    One really interesting addition to me is that the early internet was a very, VERY free speech place. It loved Gish Gallops of enormous numbers of arguments from all sides and the idea that you would tell anyone, even the most foolish, that they should be banned was verboten.

    In fact, early atheists loved creationists posting! It gave them content because these people were so obviously wrong. And creationists the same, because it allowed them to fight back too.

    The modern deplatforming support on both sides is another sign that that era is gone.

    • matthewravery says:

      My memory of this version of the internet was reading multi-thread debates on the merits of a progressive income tax on Orson Scott Card’s website pre-9/11. Everyone was assumed to be arguing in good faith (it entirely unstated; why would you be there if you weren’t?) and was generally nice to each other even when they disagreed, so there wasn’t even really a thought about banning speech. I don’t remember free speech even being a thing people discussed or debated as relevant to the forum.

      There was still discussion there after the towers fell, but the hard shift in OSC’s editorials on the front page made it awkward some times.

      After that I went to college and the internet became things like YTMND, SomethingAwful, and the Best Page in the Universe. Trolling became a thing I was aware of. I suspect troll culture contributed to the deterioration of EIAC as much as anything. “Don’t feed the trolls.”

    • Alkatyn says:

      I think the influx of a wider mad younger demographic that abused it killed internet free speech. I don’t miss having to be careful that every innocuous link in a forum wasn’t going to horseporn or meatspin.

  3. tragburn says:

    I realize this is something that you mention completely in passing, but Bad Religion was active way before the New Atheism era. They’re an 80s punk band that just happened to fit in for the New Atheism era.

    • acymetric says:

      I wanted to make exactly this same point.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks, removed.

    • Max Chaplin says:

      Another minor nitpick: if you were to describe the power of New Atheism over online discourse to a Millennial they’d probably believe you because they were already online in the 00’s.

    • Zorgon says:

      To be clear, though, BR were HUGE in New Atheist circles. The Process of Belief, The Empire Strikes First and New Maps of Hell were ubiquitous during that period to an almost obnoxious level; to a large degree I (as a New Atheist of the time) considered Professor Graffin an honorary Fifth Horseman.

      They didn’t make the transition to SJW standbys, though. The Dissent of Man was kind of proto-SJW but didn’t recite enough shibboleths, so pretty much anyone can enjoy it. In addition I can only assume they were too old and too uncute, since as far as I can tell the younger, cuter Rise Against have filled the same role with mawkish tearjerkers about gay kids and immigrants mixed with thinly-veiled hymns to Antifa.

      (I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to The Age Of Unreason yet.)

  4. Jaskologist says:

    I’ve said before, probably around here, that all religions are really just hamartiologies, aiming to answer 2 basic questions:

    1. What is wrong with the world?
    2. What are we to do about it?

    Yes, by this definition New Atheism was definitely a religion (and so is Social Justice). When people drop their religion, they generally do so for another one, because the answers to those questions motivate so much of what we do.

    tldr, this post is Jaskologist endorsed.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Hmm. I’d have said that the two questions are:

      1. Where’d everything come from?
      2. I don’t really have to die, do I?

      • tragburn says:

        3. Where shall we have lunch?

      • NLeseul says:

        I’d say those are pretty much subsumed by “What is wrong with the world?”

      • Jaskologist says:

        A lot of scholars of religion do include the question of origins in this list. I exclude it perhaps because of my own bias of not considering it that important (who can get an ought from an is?).

        Usually, the origin story is presented for the purposes of explaining what is wrong with the world.

        • Exactly. Consider Genesis 3. Origin story is there to say what is wrong (people die, people behave badly).

          “I don’t really have to die, do I?” is part of asking what is wrong (people die) and what to do about it (is there a way to change that?)

      • Jaskologist says:

        Buddhism answers question 2 with “Ugh. If only I could!”

      • The original Mr. X says:

        Number (2) only seems like a fundamental part of religion because of two thousand years of Christianity. Plenty of non-Christian religions had/have very vague ideas about life after death, and/or don’t think the dead are really human anyway (in the Odyssey, for example, the souls of the dead seem to be gibbering subhumans until Odysseus sacrifices an animal, temporarily giving them back their faculties when they drink its blood).

    • Tatterdemalion says:

      I think that’s a fallacy:

      All religions are hamartiologies.
      New atheism is a hamartiology.
      Therefore new atheism is a religion.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, agree that not all hamartiologies seem necessarily to be religions. As an example, libertarianism of the more deontological sort I used to believe in basically answers the same questions with 1. the government and 2. get rid of the government (maybe that’s why I could never get that worked up about atheism–because I already had an alternative hamartiology?).

        Though it could be doctrinaire, Libertarianism (and atheism) of that time certainly didn’t strike me as a “religion” in the way social justice does today; then again, looking from the inside could be different than from the outside, as could looking at a distance of time as compared to looking at today.

        To me a big part of the “social justice is a religion” comparison derives from other, additional similarities: we are all fallen, we are required to examine ourselves constantly for sin, we may ask for forgiveness but should be ever watchful lest we fall into the trap of believing we’ve already arrived or can achieve absolution without grace. In this respect certain strains of environmentalism also seem more like a religion to me than atheism or libertarianism ever did. My wife seems to get genuinely anxious if she can’t recycle something that she knows is recyclable; but I have OCD so probably shouldn’t throw stones.

        Atheism and libertarianism didn’t tell you you should feel guilty and that you needed to examine yourself. Atheism and libertarianism didn’t require you to monitor your daily habits lest you accidentally vote or hum a Christmas carol (then again, I was never deep into atheism–would people have gotten seriously pissed if e.g. you argued for it being okay to celebrate Christmas in a secular way?). Atheism and libertarianism said “these mistaken beliefs and bad institutions are the problems; let’s get rid of them.” Or maybe atheism and libertarianism are just an older sort of religion based on fear rather than guilt or something?

        To try to sum up my half-formed thoughts on this: not all explanations of what’s wrong with the world and what’s to be done are religions, but it seems like you verge into religious territory when you offer relatively simple answers to these questions along with a suite of daily life behaviors aimed at reinforcing them?

        • Nick says:

          To me a big part of the “social justice is a religion” comparison derives from other, additional similarities: we are all fallen, we are required to examine ourselves constantly for sin, we may ask for forgiveness but should be ever watchful lest we fall into the trap of believing we’ve already arrived or can achieve absolution without grace. In this respect certain strains of environmentalism also seem more like a religion to me than atheism or libertarianism ever did. My wife seems to get genuinely anxious if she can’t recycle something that she knows is recyclable; but I have OCD so probably shouldn’t throw stones.

          I think this is true—deontological libertarianism might be a “religion,” but SJW stuff definitely seems like not only a religion, but specifically like a Christian heresy. We can genuinely credit M*ldb*g for that insight, I think.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I think this is true—deontological libertarianism might be a “religion,” but SJW stuff definitely seems like not only a religion, but specifically like a Christian heresy. We can genuinely credit M*ldb*g for that insight, I think.

            Weird as it is to have Christian heresies that don’t explicitly believe in God… yes.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Well, disbelieving in God is quite heretical for a Christian, I would think.

        • Jaskologist says:

          I feel like you’re gesturing at roughly the same thing when you call some Libertarians “doctrinaire,” though. It’s not a religion for everyone, but it sure is for some of them.

          I agree with Nick; the aspects you’re noticing in SJ are just the things you recognize because they’re aspects of Christian religion. But they’re not universal to all religions.

          • onyomi says:

            Actually, I suspect that the features I’m talking about may be as much, if not more, central features of religion in a global, historical perspective than hamartiology.

            For example, I don’t think the cult of Vesta offered a comprehensive answer to questions like “what is wrong with the world” and “what is to be done” but it did demand some priestesses observe celibacy and keep a sacred fire burning.

            The (comparatively) newer religions like Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity seem to offer such answers as part of popularization of what I believe began as mystery traditions. They also seem to be more universalist in their outlook (older religions being tightly wed to a particular place, ethnicity, temple, etc.), making them more potent political forces (see e.g. Yellow Turban Rebellion).

            So when people say “SJ is a religion,” I think they are referring to a particular kind of religion, but not just Christianity, though that is the most obvious one to get displaced in the West. It may be that offering hamartiology makes it that type of religion (though not all hamartiologies are religions), but demanding adherents take certain actions/send certain costly signals, which in the new, “hamartiological” religions includes a degree of self-examination and internal struggle, may be just as, if not more important to making something a “religion.”

          • Ketil says:

            For example, I don’t think the cult of Vesta offered a comprehensive answer to questions like “what is wrong with the world” and “what is to be done” but it did demand some priestesses observe celibacy and keep a sacred fire burning.

            Couldn’t you say that classic polytheist religions answered the first question with “the gods are angry, and taking it out on mortals” and the second with “they need to be placated by sacrificies/temple building/keeping sacred fires burning”?

            In any case, “religion” is a lot of things, and insistence of dogma and orthodoxy (and suppression of heresies) is a commonly found feature that I think is orthogonal to the question of hamartiology.

          • onyomi says:

            An additional thought on religions, hamartiologies, and universalism:

            I think the cult of Vesta maybe does answer the questions “what is wrong with the world” and “what is to be done” if one uses a sufficiently narrow definition of “world”–so narrow, in fact, I think it would be something like “clan” or even just “family”:

            The problem with the family is that people die. The solution to the problem is to have children and teach them your values. Keeping the sacred hearth fire burning symbolizes such a commitment. Confucianism in many ways is similar.

            I think we still see “vestiges” of this in e.g. Zoroastrianism today, which is not only a fire worshiping religion, but also not open to converts. You have to be the child of a Zoroastrian to be a Zoroastrian (at least that’s how some Parsis explained it to me).

            Arguably the difference between older and newer religions is just their scale: from religions of the family to Athena representing all of Athens to Christianity or Buddhism as the universalist religion of a Roman or Mauryan empire.

        • illumina says:

          Though it could be doctrinaire, Libertarianism (and atheism) of that time certainly didn’t strike me as a “religion” in the way social justice does today

          Trust in the Invisible Hand of the Truly Free Market and worship the Randian Ubermensch.

          • onyomi says:

            I think Randian objectivism has some cult-like features. It was certainly a cult of personality while Rand was alive. But none of the libertarians I hung out with were Randian objectivists. They had read Ayn Rand, but they didn’t mainline the total Randian worldview.

            Regarding “the truly free market” as some kind of millennialist fantasy, I just don’t see it. Sure, some people could be extreme in prescribing more privatization and more free markets as the answer to all ills, but that belief didn’t really demand anything of you on a personal level in terms of behavior, self-examination, etc. nor was it a “jealous” belief, in the sense that I could, and did, buy into both New Atheism and libertarianism in the 2000s, and would happily criticize both organized religion and government as sources of society’s ills, though I definitely blamed government more.

            What feels unusual (and maybe a bit religiony?) to me about SJ is not just that it wants to view everything through a relatively narrow lens, but that it seems actively resistant to the idea of any solution to the problem other than constant self examination and struggle (this seems to be a feature of leftist thought in general I have trouble accepting or understanding, present also in e.g. Saul Alinsky, whom I recently read).

            People like David Friedman actually propose and attempt to think through how society could function on a practical level without a government as we currently understand it/with all such functions privatized. It may be something that could never happen all at once or which many would claim could never work, but it’s not a utopian vision the way SJ seems to view a world without any racism or sexism.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            but that belief didn’t really demand anything of you on a personal level in terms of behavior, self-examination, etc.

            Very minor, but it was very interesting to see this and then Bugmaster comment below:

            The cool thing about the fight for Social Justice is that you can fight it by not really doing much of anything.

            SJ demands constant personal struggle. SJ is the ticket to an easy sense of morality.

          • onyomi says:

            @heelbearcub

            Interesting observation. It may be that having a hamartiology or being a “true believer” creates a situation where the believer invests in the cause what seems like a ton of work from an outsider or opponent’s perspective but which does not feel like “work” or even particularly restrictive from the insider perspective because it seems righteous and/or even entertaining.

            I certainly suspect some of those involved with antifa are actually quite enjoying it.

            This also reminds me of Saul Alinsky: he notes how the best tactics are those which are bewildering to the opponent but fun for the activists.

            Did I put in a lot of work that didn’t feel like work as a hardcore libertarian? Maybe? Maybe some would say that my SSC posting history is evidence, but to me it just felt like writing about stuff I thought interesting.

            What seems an important special feature of SJ, however, is that its demands on you are, at least to some extent, explicitly identity dependent.

          • Aapje says:

            @onyomi

            What seems an important special feature of SJ, however, is that its demands on you are, at least to some extent, explicitly identity dependent.

            And one of the pastimes seems to be to figure out and signal identities that you can plausibly have that make you more oppressed and thereby more immune to being punched up at.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @HeelBearCub:
            My point was that, if you are an activist for Social Justice, you can easily fulfill your sense of morality, resolve your personal struggles, and generally feel like you are advancing your cause, by doing relatively easy things — like destroying someone’s life on Twitter.

            By contrast, if you are e.g. a Mormon, you can only satisfy your moral precepts by converting (or at least attempting to convert) souls for Christ; going on missions to foreign countries; donating 10% (or maybe more) of your money to the Church; etc.

            Similarly, if you’re a staunch activist for the New Atheist movement, then you can only advance your cause by de-converting people; torpedoing theocratic legislation; and establishing anti-theocratic legislation in its place. That is significantly harder than just calling someone “Hitler” on Tumblr; thus, if a person has a choice between Social Justice and New Atheism, it is in fact rational to choose Social Justice — the payoff is the same, but the cost is a lot lower.

          • Nick says:

            @Bugmaster
            That doesn’t make much sense to me. Why wasn’t being a New Atheist activist as easily as sniping fundies on r/atheism? Alternative, why is being an SJ activist not as difficult as passing new anti-discrimination legislation? There were definitely changes of platform, like the move from fora and blogs to Twitter and other social media, but I’m not sure that made that much of a difference.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Nick:
            You are right in saying that “bashing fundies on reddit” is also quite an easy way to obtain moral satisfaction; still, I think that one difference between New Atheism and Social Justice is the breadth of the goal. The goal of NA is roughly, “secularize society”. This is a fairly broad goal, but it is still at least somewhat measurable. A lot of the effort was focused on preventing state-mandated Creationism, which is a very specific target. On the other hand, the goal of SJ is something like “fight oppression”; there’s always a lot of oppression everywhere, and, when you take intersectionality into account, it becomes quite literally fractal. Such a broad, intractable goal lends naturally itself to easy-sounding solutions such as “call people Hitler a lot”, because the problem is so poorly defined.

            Additionally, I think the choice of platform for each movement does have a non-trivial impact on its culture. Even if you are just “bashing fundies on reddit”, you generally implement this by writing long-form posts, making arguments, etc.; and there’s at least some effort to moderate the worst offenders who just post “u suk lol” all the time. The intellectual leaders of the movement were known for writing multi-page articles on their blogs. All of this is technologically impossible to do on Twitter, which instead lends itself to short and snarky comments rather than moderated articles.

        • Bellum Gallicum says:

          libertarianism is not only a belief system but a farcical one.
          dependent on believing people have extreme economic rationality and preference for freedom over safety.

    • AC Harper says:

      My somewhat simplified view is that there is only one question:

      “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

      Arguably New Atheism (not really an organised movement, more of a surge in opinion) argued that Religion was the reason for bad things happening to good people. It became clear that this was a partial answer at best so interested people moved on to argue that racism, or sexism, or class, or poverty, or transgender rights was the reason…. views even less possible to justify as a single compelling answer when the world is so messy and chaotic.

      And bad things still happen to good people. For certain values of bad and good.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      Smart theists like Jaskologist (and Troy, remember him?) co-existing peacefully with atheists in the comments section was one of the first things that drew me to SSC, for the record.

    • viVI_IViv says:

      1. What is wrong with the world?
      2. What are we to do about it?

      Hamartiology only deals with 1 and therefore it’s only half of the equation. All religions attempt to answer 2, not just in a negative way “X is what is wrong with the world, therefore don’t do X / destroy X”, but in a positive way, as instruction manuals for how to live a good life. Atheism fails at the latter, for the intrisic reasons that it’s fundamentally opposed to arguments form authory and tradition, and because you can’t derive a notion of “good life” from scientific principles (anybody who tried, from the communists to the utilitarians, failed).

      Atheism+ was an attempt to merge atheism with progressive morality, which as many have observed, is a heretical offshot of Christian morality. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work: if I am not supposed to listen to the Pope when he says that gay sex is wrong, why am I supposed to listen to PZ Myers when he says hitting on women at conferences is wrong? More fundamentally, if humans are just clumps of cells shaped by billion years of evolution in a nature red in tooth and claw, in a universe racing towards its entropic death without any purpose, why am I supposed to care that some clumps of cells are temporarily having a slightly better time than other clumps of cells, in the brief time before they all fade into oblivion?

      Social justice seems better at providing people with some sort of meaning and purpose. I think it’s still very much on the negative side, but it’s a negativity that seems to drive people towards anger rather than apathy, as atheism does, and many people seem to need that emotional high to get through their lives.

  5. journcy says:

    Am I misunderstanding what you’re referencing, or is your dating of Ferguson as “between 2008 and 2012” a mistake?

  6. Le Maistre Chat says:

    Summary: Scott believes that people traded basing “Who am I? What defines me?” on a respected philosophical position (materialism, which leads to atheism because there’s no physical evidence for this “God” dude) to basing it on some weird racialized postmodernism that sincerely uses the word “herstory” instead of “history.”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not sure what you’re trying to say.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        That this really seems like trading down intellectually, since atheism falls out of mainstream analytic philosophy and BLM doesn’t.

        • Organs says:

          The idea that culture and race artificially create inequality between people doesn’t arise from materialism? BLM does not represent the entirety of social justice philosophy, just as not all New Atheists were reading Engels.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            “The idea that culture and race artificially create inequality between people doesn’t arise from materialism?”

            This might be a topic for another thread, but what’s the relationship between ideas and materialism?

            I know a Marxist who (if I understand him correctly) believes that material conditions cause ideology rather than the other way around.

          • roflc0ptic says:

            @Nancy

            As I understand it, philosophical materialism and materialism in the marxist sense, aka “historical materialism” are two different beasts. You’re correct – historical materialism holds that culture/ideology arises from material conditions. The dictionary definition for philosophical materialism touches on wholly different concerns – “the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.”

            Based off of thin recollections of undergrad – This plays out in academic fields, where e.g. (historical) materialist anthropologists ascribe cultural trends to the means of production – e.g. there are particular cultural patterns that emerge from the use of pottery, different from those that arise from hunting.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            The idea that culture and race artificially create inequality between people doesn’t arise from materialism?

            I find this kind of argument really interesting. Reminds me of how Any Rand liked to say that Objectivism flowed from “A is A”.

            I think most of us here believe that the right basic epistemology plus the available evidence will lead to correct answers. So in a sense, “Social Justice is correct” and “Social Justice follows from basic philosophy (plus evidence we all have access to)” are equivalent statements, and obviously the former is something many here agree with, so the later must be reasonable, right?

            But at the same time, my common sense shouts very loudly that atheism clearly flows from materialism in a way social justice does not. And I think the difference is that most rejection of atheism is caused by rejection of materialism, while most rejection of social justice is not caused by rejection of materialism.

        • Zamiel says:

          To be fair, isn’t BLM falling out of mainstream sociology? (disclaimer: I’m not actually familiar with BLM beyond a surface level)

          • Nornagest says:

            I’d hesitate to draw a causal relationship — there’s been activism against police brutality coming out of black communities more or less continuously since the 1950s civil rights movement, and I haven’t seen much to show that BLM is unusual in that regard. It does have an unusual level of buy-in outside those communities, though, and that might have something to do with the modern state of sociology.

        • Timothy M. says:

          Is this a relevant distinction to most of the people involved, though? I don’t think the average self-identified athiest came to it independently from first principles. A large number of adherents to any religion/philosophy are just tribal participants following a group they identify with. Even if the underlying school of thought is solid, that doesn’t mean they themselves are solid thinkers who deserve credit for their careful selection of it.

        • illumina says:

          That this really seems like trading down intellectually

          If this is trading up intellectually, I’ll take the downgrade.

          that sincerely uses the word “herstory”

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      “Herstory” is a red herring here. Its use on a BLM article is exceptional, not typical. It’s a second-wave feminism catchword and its heyday was decades ago, e.g. in Andrea Dworkin’s early work.

  7. herbert herberson says:

    You should put the 2008 economic collapse right next to Ferguson. “Religion is main axis of societal conflict” had zero explanatory power in that situation. Even if you didn’t take the straightforward leftist/populist view that a bunch of non-churchgoing Wall Street guys blew up the economy and paid no price for it, every alternative narrative/explaination I’ve ever heard is also totally orthogonal to religion. From 2001-2008, the most important things that happened in the West (9/11 and Iraq) had obvious religious salience from multiple perspectives. After 2008, that was no longer the case.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      This makes sense. It’s pretty hard to blame Christianity for a recession.

    • keaswaran says:

      The 2008 crisis led to the 2010 twin movements of the Tea Party and Occupy. But Occupy faded pretty quickly, and the Tea Party somehow morphed into Trumpism, when it had started as just generic Bush-era Republicanism.

      • Evan Þ says:

        As I heard it (from the Right side of the aisle), Occupy got captured by the Social Justice movement and the Progressive Stack, which impeded it into uselessness.

        • illumina says:

          As I heard it (from the Right side of the aisle), Occupy got captured by the Social Justice movement and the Progressive Stack, which impeded it into uselessness.

          Which is hilarious, because from the left side of the aisle, the Austrian Economist/AnCap crowd hijacked it for their purposes.

          • onyomi says:

            We hijacked Occupy? I feel like I never got this memo. Can you point to any prominent examples where some individual or group heavily active in Occupy later became a Ron Paul/Mises Institute sort of libertarian?

      • @keaswaran

        Did the Tea Party really morph into Trumpism? Trump came out of the Birther Movement at least. The origins of the recent right wing populism are a bit more obscure than the origins of recent left wing radicalism, but perhaps that’s because the latter had an academic origin, and the former was more reactionary in the literal sense of the word.

        @Evan Þ

        Correct, in my opinion. There were also examples of banners reading “my revolution will be intersectional or it will be nothing” during the protests.

        Occupy Wall Street presented a trial run for post-Crenshaw leftism in a real world context, after a new generation of students had been introduced to this next level spin on things. You can see some of the tension between the more generalized post-60s hippy leftism and the modernized intersectionality in the above video; “Isn’t this supposed to be an egalitarian movement?” asks the guy there to protest corporate malfeasance.

        2011-12 was a breakthrough year/s for intersectionality for whatever reason, although the explicitly formulated ideology goes back to the late 80s. The various strands had existed before then in the feminist movement of the 70s, and came out of the critiques from black feminists of “white feminism”. This collected together into a theory of all oppression which started the “political correctness” trend of the early 90s, that quickly petered out for reasons I can’t fully account for. It’s only been the ’10s, the decade we are soon to leave, that has allowed it to truly grip hold and stay there, building a mainstream presence and percolating into the language of establishment center-left organizations.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          For the record, as someone who would have identified himself as a Tea Partier but also a NeverTrumper, I don’t think the Tea Party became Trumpism.

          The Tea Party was organized around the idea of actually cutting government spending – something Bush Republicans notoriously failed to do. You’d see signs at marches like “It’s the Spending, Stupid” and “Taxed Enough Already!”

          Naturally, as a right-wing populist movement, the media denounced it as horribly racist and sexist.

          The Tea Party basically vanished because, well, in 2010 they elected most of their guys. The 2010 Congress failed to really cut spending, but it did at least halt the growth. By 2016 Ferguson had blown up and other issues so dominated the conversation that concerns about the national debt seemed quaint.

          I don’t doubt that Trumpists and Tea Partiers draw from much of the same demographics, but intellectually I don’t think the movements are related much beyond “right-wing populism.”

          • Enkidum says:

            Interesting perspective. But wouldn’t you say that a lot of the same individuals were prominent in both? Certainly there may have been “pure” Tea Partiers who were solely concerned with government spending and overreach, but my impression (absolutely 100% obtained through an unfavourable media filter) was that a very significant fraction of the rank and file are now attending Trump rallies. I’d love to be wrong about this.

          • Nick says:

            @Enkidum
            I think he’s already admitting that in the last paragraph:

            I don’t doubt that Trumpists and Tea Partiers draw from much of the same demographics, but intellectually I don’t think the movements are related much beyond “right-wing populism.”

            The more interesting question might be prominent voices. Are there populist pundits who were pro–Tea Party and then pro-Trump? Like talk radio people maybe? (Sounds plausible, but I don’t know; when I think of pundits I actually pay attention to, they tend to be NeverTrumpers or very reluctant supporters.

          • Enkidum says:

            I’d reverse the question and ask if there are any prominent voices in talk radio or Fox News who were pro Tea Party who aren’t pro Trump. I thought that Venn diagram of prominent supporters of the two is a circle (well, for people who were prominent in both time periods).

          • Koken says:

            It seems to me that there was an intellectual vanguard to the Tea Party that had ideas quite different to Trumpism, but that the two projects drew much of their energy and support from the same people. Trumpism has basically supplanted the old Tea Party in terms of being more successful in securing their loyalty.

            I recall an interview with Republican politician Mark Sanford on the Ezra Klein show that seemed to encapsulate this (link below if anyone is interested). He was elected as one of the earlier wave of Tea Party types and he talked about going to events that used to be supportive on the campaign trail in the Trump era, and the crowds going completely flat on the ultra-free-market stuff that used to excite them.

            https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/vox/the-ezra-klein-show/e/56942619

          • Randy M says:

            Mark Sanford might not be the best indicator for that.

      • philwelch says:

        That’s not quite right. The Tea Party was a radicalized form of traditional American conservatism that overthrew the apparently-not-truly-conservative-enough Republican “establishment” in Congressional primary elections during the Obama era. By 2016, the Tea Party was the new GOP establishment. Guys like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. (Jeb being the last of the old establishment). Trump is the next wave, though it’s hard to see if or how Trumpism will survive without the personality cult of Trump himself.

      • TDB says:

        Tea Party started out anti-establishment, but was co-opted and assimilated by the Republican establishment fairly quickly. Nothing generic about Ron Paul.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        George W. Bush turned his life around in 1987 by giving up drinking with the help of his Christian faith. That was a big part of his story. So people who liked the Republican president tended to like Christianity and people who hated the Republican president tended to hate Christianity.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Not sure it’s much easier to turn 2008 into a race and gender issue, I know there were the subprime loans to blacks in particular but it seems surprising to concentrate on that if you’re not already looking at it through a race/gender lens.

      • zima says:

        Well, there was a paper finding that the failure of immigration reform in Bush’s second term caused house price declines in the Sunbelt as housing investors expected lower future immigration and therefore lower future house prices, and Sunbelt house price declines were the proximate cause of the Recession. But that’s probably not what the race & gender folks had in mind…

      • AG says:

        As per your previous post, it’s about the effect on people on the margins, who then have cause to the squeaky wheels to get the grease. (One of SJ’s big buzzwords is “marginalized,” after all). A minority group doesn’t see that their majority demographic neighbors were also hit hard, they only need to see that they were hit hard, and some majority demographic people Over There were not, as the majority demographic is overrepresented among the elites.

      • andrewflicker says:

        I don’t think it needs to explain the crash/recession any better- sometimes you get power shifts because an exogenous force hurts a dominant ideology/faction, and in the resulting power vacuum, another ideology/faction arises- whether or not that second one would have addressed the original force is irrelevant- it’s merely taking advantage of the vacuum.

      • @andrewflicker

        The rise of the radical right wing across Europe in the wake of WWI provides a previous example of this; these movements were often pretty dismissive of concrete economics despite rising during economic chaos.

      • User_Riottt says:

        Well, yes and no. The great recession was the largest loss of black wealth in history. But the more pernicious aspect was that Obama blamed his complete failure to do anything to help the middle class as being afraid of the tea party backlash if he was seen to be giving money to poor black people ‘who didn’t deserve it.’ Because you know, the optics of handing $29 trillion and get out of jail free cards to the people who just blew up the economy and also happen to be your biggest campaign donors is infinitely more palatable. At least to the billionaire owned and operated press core.

        To your broader point I think a large part of the online atheist community got board with conversations that ended in ‘well that’s obviously right’ and moved on. The people that didn’t leave were the people who weren’t content to just win a basic argument. Their inner authoritarian demanded that they go prove to as many people as possible just how wrong that other guy on the internet was. Best I can tell it fractured rather evenly with the right leaning ones going on to youtube and gamer gate, and you covered the left ones.

      • Atlas says:

        Not sure it’s much easier to turn 2008 into a race and gender issue, I know there were the subprime loans to blacks in particular but it seems surprising to concentrate on that if you’re not already looking at it through a race/gender lens.

        Steve Sailer harps on this a lot. I personally don’t find it that convincing, because there were also asset-price bubbles in many other North Atlantic countries (Ireland, Spain, Britain, etc.) at the time where I don’t think that the issues Steve talks about applied. (And similar things had happened previously in e.g. Japan and Sweden in the 1980s.)

        • RalMirrorAd says:

          The Declines in home prices in key areas of the country (the sand states) set off a financial crisis that triggered mass unemployment, which in turn depressed home prices in places where they otherwise might have not been as heavily overvalued.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          One of Karl Rove’s strategies for George W. Bush was to promote mortgage lending to Hispanics to turn them into GOP-voting homeowners, following the model of the 1980s British Tories, who sold public housing to tenants and picked up some votes that way. This strategy probably worked pretty well in Texas, where land is cheap. Bush probably won about 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, higher than usual for Republicans, in part due to mortgage-driven prosperity among Hispanics.

          In California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, however, where land is more expensive than in Texas and its harder for Hispanics to make enough to afford houses, it first led to a huge housing bubble and then a big collapse in 2007, which then spilled over in 2008 into a generalized recession.

          My argument is not that George W. Bush’s 10/15/2002 White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership was the only cause of 2008, just that the chain of direct causality is pretty clear, rather like me saying that Pearl Harbor was the cause of American involvement in WWII. Both are simplistic (e.g., WWII had a lot to do with, say, Hitler), but it would also be silly to ignore either Pearl Harbor or the Bush Push for more lending.

          Bush himself has already apologized in his memoir for his Ownership Society.

          For economists’ studies of the interrelationship between diversity and the housing bubble/bust of the last decade, see:

          https://www.takimag.com/article/the-wisdom-of-dan-quayle/

      • herbert herberson says:

        Agreed, but
        a. the effect of discrediting New Atheism’s theodicy is still important even if it didn’t have a particular effect in promoting the replacement you identify
        b. you can take your pick on whether class warfare is an component of “SJWism” or a parallel minority-but-still-important trend, but in either case between Occupy, Bernie Sanders, and the “idpol” critical/de-emphasizing sections of the left, it’s absolutely part of the picture.

        You’re old enough to remember how scarce talk of socialism and class critique was, not very long ago at all!

    • Fluffy Buffalo says:

      Counterargument: SJ, which was the dividing force that killed NA, conspicuously doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the economy either. Look at the list of “Atheism+” concerns quoted by Scott. The first thing that struck me about it was, “how come transphobia is on that list, and poverty or lack of health care aren’t?” Mind you, that was before every confused teenager jumped on the trans bandwagon. I was lurking on the Atheism+ forums… no one – no one – talked about the econony. When Obamacare was passed, the reaction was dead silence.

      • Enkidum says:

        I think this is because, as old-school leftists like Adolph Reed Jr are fond of pointing out, identity politics tends to ignore class, which is to say it ignores economics, except insofar as it intersects with identity. Which marks it as a fundamental shift in left-wing thought, and an abandonment of many of the most important ways of moving towards a more just society.

        That being said, I think Reed and his allies are unfair to SJ as well, and fundamentally miss the point. But they’re right that a pure identity politics isn’t enough.

      • imoimo says:

        The SJ people I know certainly care about economics, like inequality, the affordability of healthcare and college, reimbursement for women’s birth control, etc, though always as relating to race or sex. This could be newish, coming out of the 2008 recession.

        But I want to ask, how do economic woes fit into the racism-sexism narrative?

        Taking the hamartiology angle, I think economic issues are seen among SJ as a symptom rather than a root cause of sin. The observable cause is “the system”. But what sin birthed the system? There’s loan discrimination against blacks and historical wealth inequality from slavery that get talked about, but these only address “why blacks are still poor”, not “why college is expensive” etc. The lack of a clear sin that caused all economic woes may be keeping discussions about e.g. college relatively peaceable. (Does that match people’s experience?)

        This could change though. I agree with scott that the next evolution could be a focus on class struggle, since it would “explain” many of the newer concerns among SJ.

  8. Erusian says:

    Personally, I see a lot of what’s going on right now as the first Great Awakening to follow the Fundamentalist-Modernist split. America tends to have these things we call ‘great awakenings’ roughly every century or two. There was one in the early 17th century (inherited from England), one in the mid 18th century, one in the mid 19th century. There wasn’t one in the 20th century but we’re just on the edge of the 21st, so that fits roughly the hundred year pattern. (Indeed, the gap from the 17th century one to the 18th century one was more like a hundred and fifty years.)

    What we did have in the 20th century was the Fundamentalist-Modernist split. This was a fierce religious debate but secularism and modern atheism are basically inheritors of the Modernists. (This was, at the time, something the Fundamentalists used as an insult. But if you look at Evangelical Christian church numbers vs the Episcopalians or Presbyterians, I think we can say they were correct that Modernism would lead to a decline in things like church attendance or professed belief in God.) Controversies like this are also is a pretty common pattern among American religion. And I do not think you can escape this social trend just by declaring yourself an atheist.

    So we have, for the twentieth century, a large population of Modernists descended ideals that have basically transmuted into a form of secularism. And then they have a Great Awakening: a great upswell in zeal and a desire to transform society to make it better (more godly in the old terms, socially just in the modern one). It’s perfectly unsurprising early shots were about religion: religion is precisely the origin of all this. By which I mean religion, your thoughts on religion, still speak powerfully to your fundamental first principles and your moral priorities. New Atheism was not necessarily ‘just another religion’ but it was a fairly coherent set of first moral principles. A century earlier, before the split, it would have manifested by new churches and congregations splitting and preaching about this or that. But because the Modernists have become secular, the fact of religion itself becomes in need of reform. And in pretty standard pattern, when the zealous reformers cannot push their ideology generally they retreat into enclaves or try to enact it writ small in individual communities or states.

    I suspect, when the grand history of this Great Awakening is written, New Atheism will be little remembered outside of specialists. It will be like the Seekers or the Johnists: beliefs that were important at the time but are lost in the general melange of socially transformative zeal. And not one that survived independently and so has some brand awareness like the Quakers. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s unimportant: the Quakers owe a lot to the Seekers, as any historian of Quakerism will tell you. But most people will remain not historians of Quakerism.

    In fact, a hundred years hence, I suspect it will have faded to the point where their points are either so obvious that everyone agrees with them (as everyone agrees slavery is bad) or so alien that students barely understand them. They’ll probably pick out one particularly popular speech and the students will lack the context to even understand it, a la Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

    And I’d push its origins back to roughly the second half Clinton presidency rather than the late 2000s. (And I don’t ‘blame’ the Clintons for this: it’s too wide a social force for that.) That’s when you began to be able to tell people’s political affiliations by their speech, when political correctness really became enforced, when we saw regular party line votes that basically became the norm during George Bush’s presidencies, when parties really became primarily ideological entities, when people began to diverge from previous consensuses, when political opponents became morally wrong, and a lot of other signs of cultural divergence. As one random sign of this: Reagan was the last time we had a wave election where a President won not just by red overtaking blue or blue overtaking red but wide enough support Reagan won almost every state. But I suppose that too is a matter for future historians.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      You could argue that Reagan was followed by a… Great Asleepening? at the political level. He was an Evangelical (he and Nancy once had an argument about Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus that they got Billy Graham on the phone to referee) and ran against a more outspoken Southern Evangelical, Carter, on completely orthogonal issues. The Greatest Generation (which those two Presidents were from) seemed to take a philosemitic, tolerant but not wishy-washy unto Episcopalian Christianity for granted. One of the sociological stereotypes about Boomers is that they found their parents’ religion unsatisfying, which is how you got a profusion of gurus and New Age beliefs in and after 1968.
      Many conservative Boomers were ex-hippies who wanted to be more straight-laced and structured for their kids.

    • keaswaran says:

      I think if you want to include the Gingrich revolution along with the Bush era and the Trump years as manifestations of the same thing, then that “same thing” absolutely has to include the Reagan revolution, as well as Nixon’s “southern strategy” and Goldwater’s candidacy. In American politics, this entire movement has been a single arc moving from the non-ideological parties of mid-century to the ideologically sorted parties of today. In all of these times it’s been basically the same set of forces on one side (religion, rural values, traditionalism, nationalism, the military, big business) and the same opposing forces on the other side (pluralism, urban values, modernity, globalism, anti-war sentiment, the poor). Whereas the midcentury political coalition mixed these things with the New Deal coalition that included southern racists and northern immigrants and blacks against the Harding/Eisenhower petty bourgeoisie everywhere.

      • Reasoner says:

        With regard to pro/anti war sentiment, I’d say the left is more bellicose nowadays.

        It seemed during the 2016 election that Hillary’s foreign policy was more aggressive than that of Trump, who was more of an isolationist.

        Post-election, there’s been a lot of pushback on Trump’s isolationism (e.g. abandoning the Kurds) from the left. (The same left which yesterday thought it was a terrible mistake to depose the great Kurd-killer Saddam Hussein.)

        Yesterday, it was the right that was willing to implicate Muslims in radical Islamist terrorist attacks (“Islamophobia”). But nowadays it’s the left that’s willing to implicate all incels in incel terrorist attacks (“incelphobia”?), and similar for white nationalist terrorist attacks (clearly Trump’s fault).

        Also, whereas the right was Russiaphobic during the Cold War, nowadays the left are the Russiaphobes, after Russian funny business in the 2016 election.

        “Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. You said Russia … the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama said.

        From here. Obviously, alignments have shifted some 2012. It’s too bad we didn’t elect ol’ Mitt — maybe he would have kept a better eye on those crafty KGB types in Moscow.

        I miss 2012.

    • njguy73 says:

      Long time reader, first time poster.

      Yes, there is a spiritual Awakening roughly every eighty years. Those are periods when established values are under attack. And between them are secular crises, periods when established institutions are torn down and rebuilt in line with new values. A guy named William McLoughlin wrote a book in 1978 about Awakenings in US history. That book influenced Neil Howe and William Strauss.

    • meh says:

      Is the embrace of an authoritarian republicanism a last gasp of the theocrats? Was Trump a reaction to secularism through the courts? Would the long term health of society be better off had secularism been allowed to organically come to dominate?

    • philwelch says:

      Not to put too fine a point on it, but the modern day social justice movement has literally been referred to as the “Great Awokening”.

  9. arbitraryvalue says:

    I think it’s worth considering what happened on the “other side” during this time. At least from my point of view as someone outside of it, the “Red tribe” during the GW Bush presidency had religion (primarily evangelical Christianity) as a core component of its identity. However, the Red tribe after Obama’s election (from the Tea Party to Trump supporters now) seems to talk a lot less about religion, morality, etc. If I wanted to argue with a Bush supporter in 2004, the topic of religion (usually in the context of abortion) would often come up naturally, whereas I think a Trump supporter now is quite possibly an atheist himself. Arguing about the validity of Biblical morality seems to have become irrelevant to modern American politics.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Religious freedom remains a very big subject from where I’m standing.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        Mine, as well.

        Florists, cake shops, and pizza places all come to mind.

        • Corey says:

          From the outside, these look like conservative reaction to cultural trends, with theology as a rationalization. Like when people busted out the Bible to prove blacks were inferior or races shouldn’t intermarry.

          Nobody’s using “religious freedom” grounds to say the government’s not doing enough for the poor, for example, though it would be trivial to theologically rationalize it.

          • philwelch says:

            Because it wouldn’t make sense to argue that. Conservatives in particular tend to emphasize negative freedoms and rights over positive freedoms and rights–the right to be left alone vs. the right to have something provided to you. There is a significant difference between the government formally recognizing same-sex marriages and the government compelling private individuals, businesses, and churches to participate in the weddings.

          • aristides says:

            That’s true of the modern conservative movement, but it wasn’t always clear cut. School prayer and teaching intelligent design used to be big issues. Modern Religion just wants to hold the ground it has, recognizing that there are existential threats being made. Religion doesn’t have the political capital to spend on using religion to persuade others on economic issues, like it did when Bush coined Compassionate Conservatism.

          • Jaskologist says:

            School prayer and teaching intelligent design

            This is somewhat orthogonal to negative and positive freedoms. The real core of the question is “who owns children: the state, or the parents?”

          • Nick says:

            This is somewhat orthogonal to negative and positive freedoms. The real core of the question is “who owns children: the state, or the parents?”

            Pius IX: “None of the above!”

          • AlesZiegler says:

            @Jaskologist

            I think that only reasonable answer to that question is that children are not property, so nobody owns them. A government intervention is sometimes needed to protect them from abusive parents, but what constitutes an abuse is a contentious issue.

  10. mtraven says:

    Another aspect: with the rise of Trump, it’s clear that religious belief is not actually that important to the enemies of social justice.

    Imagine an alternate universe where Mike Pence was the leader of the Republican party — in that case atheism would be relevant to the opposition. But a Trumpian right clearly doesn’t give a shit about god or traditional morality or any of the things that were supposed to have been the core issues of the religious right, so atheism is not a good vehicle for opposing them.

    Not sure how the timeline works for this to be a causal explanation, but I’m pretty happy with the story of the left evolving from opposing a figleaf of the enemy (religious fundamentalism) to opposing it more directly.

    • Jaskologist says:

      This is the story some on the left tells themselves, but it’s not accurate. Try again with more charity.

      • melolontha says:

        Obviously there’s a religious-utilitarian explanation, that for some sincere believers he’s a champion rather than an exemplar, possessing the specific set of ‘virtues’ needed to fight the enemy and advance the cause (through some combination of cultural change, i.e. smashing the Overton window, and concrete achievements like judicial appointments), and that this outweighs any personal flaws he might possess.

        But it would also be silly to deny that there’s been a gigantic amount of hypocrisy exposed. People and groups who claimed to care deeply about their political leaders’ integrity, personal morality and respect for American institutions now barely even seem conflicted, as they aggressively defend a leader who has said, done and exemplified about a hundred things that would individually have been held up by these same people as evidence of the incurable depravity of the left/the non-religious/other applicable outgroup.

        • meh says:

          It would seem the most consistently held position is a belief in god.

          • melolontha says:

            Maybe. But when that belief was the claimed justification for all sorts of moral commitments and political positions that have now been unceremoniously jettisoned, you don’t have to be particularly uncharitable to wonder how many of those people were/are being insincere about their faith as well as everything else.

      • mtraven says:

        If you have a more accurate or charitable story, feel free to articulate it.

        I suppose one charitable (utilitarian) story is that Trump advances certain political or cultural goals and for that they are willing to overlook the fact that he is a walking embodiment of aggressive sinfulness. So they aren’t hypocritical, just pragmatic. It’s all for the greater good! God’s ways are mysterious and maybe he chose to make use of a flawed instrument to enact his will.

        I don’t actually believe anybody believes that. Just not how things work. Values and goals and identity and personalities don’t separate out that cleanly.

        • Ragged Clown says:

          The folks in the comment section of The American Conservative absolutely believe that Trump advances certain cultural goals. The main storyline of The Benedict Option is that Christians have already lost the war (thanks, in no small part, to the dreaded New Atheists) and all that’s left for them is to form small communities of true believers to survive the enemy occupation.

          Voting for Trump (and therefore a religion-friendly SCOTUS) doesn’t change the outcome of the war but it gives them a little more runway to prepare to survive the aftermath.

          • aristides says:

            This describes my view pretty well. America is no longer a Christian Nation, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ll be content in my small eastern orthodox community as long as the government doesn’t come in and force all of my friends’ to to make art of two men kissing or force their minor children to have a sex change. I personally think gay marriage is a silly hill to die on, but I’ll defend my friends’ rights. Trump is an evil sinner, but so was Clinton, and for that matter everyone is a sinner. Might as well vote for the sinner that will appoint Supreme Court Justices that will protect us. I will actively vote against him in the primary, and might even vote a Democrat for President if they promise not to stack the court or lead a Kavenaugh impeachment.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Try it from your own perspective, then. Would it be accurate for me to say that, with their support of Hillary and her rapist husband, it’s clear that MeToo and rape is not actually that important to proponents of SJ?

          Once you’ve self-justified, some simple search and replace should be enough to tell you how the other side self-justifies as well.

          • mtraven says:

            ? Bill Clinton almost certainly could not be elected today because of those allegations (and it’s hard to see why they should tarnish his wife). If that’s the best parallel you can come up with…

          • illumina says:

            Would it be accurate for me to say that, with their support of Hillary and her rapist husband, it’s clear that MeToo and rape is not actually that important to proponents of SJ?

            You may be surprised to realize that Hillary Clinton also was unpopular because of her husband.

            The left has changed a great deal since those days and less is acceptable.

            The right has normalized such behavior.

          • Jaskologist says:

            I asked how you self-justify, and the answer is entirely “the guys are bad.”

            So there’s your answer for how the right self-justifies as well. You say the right normalized such behavior by voting for Trump a few years ago. They say the left normalized such behavior by voting for Hillary (who got more votes, don’t forget!) a few year ago.

          • Enkidum says:

            @Jaskologist

            I started out writing an angry response and then realized that I was making the same point as you (not the first time). Here’s the corrected response:

            Hillary was absolutely loathed by the left activist wing of the Democratic Party. The 2015/16 Democratic primaries involved thousands of people convinced (with somewhat good reason) that there was an active attempt to suppress their votes on behalf of the status quo. To the extent that the left voted for her in the actual election, it was very explicitly with the attitude that “she is terrible, but Trump is worse”, and there is good reason to think that left abstentions and switching votes to Stein may have cost her the election (in, e.g., Florida).

            So your claim is (correct me if I’m wrong) that the apparently hypocritical votes for Trump by evangelicals et al are of the same type. Which seems reasonable, given that several of them have said things to that effect in op-eds etc.

            I initially read your “Would it be accurate for me to say that…” as implying that the correct answer is “yes”, but I’m not sure how much of that is my uncharitable bias and how much is ambiguity in the text.

          • Jaskologist says:

            @Enkidum

            Yes, you have my meaning correct. Everybody has justifications why their vote is not hypocrisy, but a rational choice for the lesser evil. And the two candidates in the last election gave ample ammo for everyone to tell themselves about the how the other guys are the real hypocrites.

          • outis says:

            You can try Trudeau as well. Blackface is morally abhorrent, causes near-physical harm to black bodies, and is obviously disqualifying for any politician… but we’ll just close an eye this time so we can reelect Trudeau, and save the country from the comparatively milquetoast Canadian conservatives.

            There was also the case of Ralph Northam (D, wore blackface, still governor).

        • Aapje says:

          @mtraven

          I constantly see people ignore sins from those who are instrumentally useful to them or do the opposite, so I don’t see why it would be a bad explanation.

        • Two McMillion says:

          I don’t actually believe anybody believes that. Just not how things work. Values and goals and identity and personalities don’t separate out that cleanly.

          Here’s a quote from someone on my facebook wall.

          With Trump tweeting his support for LGBT Pride Month, can we all stop pretending he’s a Christian? Or a baby Christian? Or anything else?

          He’s not. He’s nothing of the sort. He doesn’t go to church. Just stop.

          Trump is a pagan with a considerable amount of civil righteousness. He’s the best President of my lifetime. But he isn’t a Christian, and he really isn’t even that close to the Kingdom.

          This post has 164 likes.

          • mtraven says:

            My point was not that people don’t profess beliefs like that, obviously they do. It’s that if you profess it, then neither personal nor religious morality is really very salient to you, compared to racism, tribalism, tax cuts, or whatever it is that leads people to support that man.

            I think I’ll shut up about this because it threatens to become one of those boring political war things that is frowned upon here. But before I do:

            The thing with Trump is not merely that he is a sinner. Unlike Bill Clinton, who enacts righteousness in public but commits sex crimes in private, Trump’s very branding is sin: lust, pride, greed, sloth, not to mention stupidity and vulgarity and selfishness and many more. He’s not a hypocrite, at least. But it means supporting him is a different kettle of fish than supporting a more typical political sleaze.

          • John Schilling says:

            It’s that if you profess it, then neither personal nor religious morality is really very salient to you, compared to racism, tribalism, tax cuts, or whatever it is that leads people to support that man.

            Did democracy, liberty, capitalism, and the like cease to become “salient” to the Brits and Americans in 1941, when they decided Joe Stalin was the right man for the biggest job of their time?

      • Ttar says:

        I’m not sure mtraven is wrong, at least in my case. I went from Bush-supporting evangelical Christian, to atheist during the Obama administration, but my views remained highly problematic and I view Trump as a better alternative to the options being run by the left. From a leftist perspective, it’s not really inaccurate to say I was always predisposed to rightism and the Christianity wasn’t really the root. If you consider rightism to equal bigotry, then you could say I’m a bigot who used religion as a fig leaf, but in policy terms I’m going to oppose resource redistribution and affirmative action and low-skill immigration regardless of whether my justifications are religious or (in my view) rational.

    • onyomi says:

      It’s fig leaves all the way down. At least until people start directly debating farmer vs. forager values, maybe. Probably related.

  11. moridinamael says:

    Which begs the question, what’s the next hamartiology, after the worldmind rejects social justice?

    • Forlorn Hopes says:

      Anti-capitalism is growing, if I had to guess I’d say it might take the crown. But honestly I think it will just merge rather than replace current social justice.

    • James Banks says:

      At some point X-risks (or similar like climate change) might shut everyone up. Both in the sense of causing more trouble in people’s lives, taking people off of the Internet, and also in the sense of making attempts at perfecting society such as anti-theism and social justice seem irrelevant. Hamartiologies are about how we in the present are better than those who have not caught up, in a way. There is a better kind of person.

      Of course, X-risks might each be approached multiple ways, and people will prefer one way over another… so the preference of ways to deal with X-risks could be the new hamartiology.

      It’s been noted that the organizers of the earlier labor movement were not the workers themselves, but rather middle-class people with some time on their hands. We like to be nasty to each other on the behalf of the unfortunate people (I suppose this could be the poor, the unborn (in the abortion sense), the unborn (in the “we’re taking care of America for future generations” sense), just to broaden things ideologically.) I think the Internet debates we have tend to be launched from a place of privilege on both sides, the Internet a place of crusaders. But we might not have the luxury of crusading so much in the future.

      • aristides says:

        Different approaches and different cause areas. My focus area is Biosecurity, and I in particular minimize climate change. Is this because I’m conservative and biosecurity is a classic purity issue, where the best solutions are conservative in nature( I.e. limiting contact with strangers, standardizing our health practices, monitoring borders)? Meanwhile Climate change is the perfect left cause, that harms something they care about, the environment, and can only be solved with their favored solutions, international cooperation. I have well reasoned arguments why biosecurity is more important than climate change, but I found those arguments after research that I did after I already had the gut instinct that biosecurity was more important.

        Disclaimer, I am aware that this bias gives me a blind spot, but since 80000 hours research suggests that personal fit is the single most Important factor in making a difference, I’d rather work to be a leader in the biosecurity work, then hesitantly fight climate change with a skill set that is not as applicable. I might have my priorities off, but I’m confident they are not so many orders of magnitude wrong that it’d be better to switch career paths.

        • Dissonant Cognizance says:

          I think this is the next big fight on the left, between environmentalism and socialism, to replace the woke SJ hamartiology. I expect environmentalism to win because it’s more complete and justifiable, doesn’t have the baggage of past communist projects, and more closely matches Puritan values. Also it has pissed-off children yelling at the UN on national television, which is important.

          There are already indicators that the fight against climate change is not about pragmatically finding the most economical solution to an existential threat, but about using that threat to force people to behave in a moral way. There are potential geoengineering solutions to global warming and ocean acidification that could buy enough time for solar and wind power to replace fossil fuels through sheer economic efficiency, but people argue against these solutions on the basis that it would remove the pressure for people to adopt lower-carbon lifestyles. Apparently the crisis is wasted if it’s solved without getting everyone to move downtown and ride the bus. Then there’s the opposition to nuclear energy and the obsession with small, pointless things like plastic straws and grocery bags, none of which have much of an impact on carbon emissions but are prime signalling opportunities.

          I think personally, it’s in my nature to be opposed to hamartiology, regardless of the ideology it comes wrapped in, because I’ve gone through this development from New Atheist to anti-SJW to being really nervous about the Green New Deal people, despite being a fan of transit and walkable urban communities.

          • Anonymous Bosch says:

            There are potential geoengineering solutions to global warming and ocean acidification that could buy enough time for solar and wind power to replace fossil fuels through sheer economic efficiency,

            There aren’t. Albedo modifications either don’t affect ocean acidification or make it worse. Nothing other than albedo modification scales to the level of our emissions. (There’s a hilarious paper where they simulated the entire Southern Ocean being fertilized into a constant algal bloom and it shaved off a whopping 0.15°C of increase.)

          • Nornagest says:

            You know, I’m pretty much on board with modern political environmentalism as being primarily concerned with virtue signaling, but I’m not sure it works as a hamartiology.

            There’s just not enough explanatory content there. If you ask why hate and violence exists, New Atheism has an answer: God said so. And Social Justice has an answer: they’re expressions of, or reactions to, various types of ingroup prejudice. And socialism has an answer: they arise from the stresses generated by class inequality, and are further fostered (mostly unconsciously) by the dominant media/political order for a variety of more or less self-serving reasons.

            But environmentalism? I’m at a loss for how the type of things ordinary environmentalists are concerned about could explain, say, a mugging even in principle, at least before they turn into economic disasters that’d be obvious with or without ideological environmentalism. Anarcho-primitivism could do it, but I don’t see that ever making it big.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I’m at a loss for how the type of things environmentalists are concerned about could explain, say, a mugging even in principle, at least before they turn into an economic disasters that’d be obvious with or without ideological environmentalism.

            The most extreme strain of environmentalism I know of claims that in the beginning, there was nature, unspoiled, and then man came along and spoiled it. A mugging is about as interesting to that strain as one demon doing evil things to another demon.

            The more mainstream strain of environmentalism is a collection of beliefs that aren’t really hamartiology; they’re mostly just people saying we ought to be more careful about how we harness the earth’s resources. To the extent there’s a shared belief there about the origin of sin, it seems to be greed and apathy. (Or sloth, if you want to cast it in strictly deadly sins.)

            That strain cares about human welfare, which means it cares about muggings, but muggings are just low level greed. Greed is probably the ur-evil. But environmentalists admittedly don’t talk about muggers very much.

            My take-home from this is that environmentalism is a demi-hamartiology, a moral system focused on only one facet of existence. It’s only one part of a balanced religious diet. Ergo, virtually no one is motivated solely by environmentalism, any more than anyone is motivated by any other single issue. And that means it can’t win decisively against SJ, although it can carve a piece of territory from it temporarily (until the threat is no longer deemed existential).

          • Plumber says:

            @Dissonant Cognizance says:

            “I think this is the next big fight on the left, between environmentalism and socialism, to replace the woke SJ hamartiology…”

            Not full socialist (though labled that often enough) but historically socialist adjacent (Walter Reuther had been a Socialist party member in his youth for example) labor unions have already clashed with environmentalists, from the May 16, 2016 New York Times:

            *Two of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies, labor and environmentalists, are clashing over an effort to raise tens of millions of dollars for an ambitious voter turnout operation aimed at defeating Donald J. Trump in the November election.

            The rift developed after some in the labor movement, whose cash flow has dwindled and whose political clout has been increasingly imperiled, announced a partnership last week with a wealthy environmentalist, Tom Steyer, to help bankroll a new fund dedicated to electing Democrats.

            That joint initiative enraged members of the nation’s biggest construction unions, already on edge about the rising influence of climate-change activists. The building-trades unions view Mr. Steyer’s environmental agenda as a threat to the jobs that can be created through infrastructure projects like new gas pipelines…”

          • Dissonant Cognizance says:

            @Anonymous Bosch
            The geoengineering I had in mind was from a Hacker News discussion about SpaceX’s Starship making it relatively inexpensive to launch a solar shade, which received pushback for not solving ocean acidification. Someone brought up an idea of dumping crushed olivine in shallow equatorial seas to sequester carbon through weathering, and the pushback there was explicitly that it’s not acceptable to use a solution that doesn’t cause first worlders to reduce their consumption habits in the process. Admittedly the projects in question are highly speculative and Starship is definitely not a sure bet, but I’d think if the magnitude of the problem is as large as claimed then they’re worth exploring.

            @Nornagest and Paul
            I think you’re right that climate change activism doesn’t provide a full toolkit for looking at the world, but it does provide a handy justification for interfering in the daily lives of everyone. The rest can be borrowed from mainline SJ, as has been attempted to some extent with things like “feminist glaciology.” More seriously, the term “climate justice” is being thrown around a lot lately, and seems to invoke systemic racism as a core explanation for climate change. Something about Western imperialism exploiting undeveloped countries for resources so it’s our duty as citizens of First World countries to restrict our consumption before asking other places to stop building coal plants. This might, in retrospect, be SJ absorbing climate change environmentalism, but what comes out of it at the end might see another Atheism+ type split depending on what people’s priorities are.

          • Anonymous Bosch says:

            The geoengineering I had in mind was from a Hacker News discussion about SpaceX’s Starship making it relatively inexpensive to launch a solar shade, which received pushback for not solving ocean acidification. Someone brought up an idea of dumping crushed olivine in shallow equatorial seas to sequester carbon through weathering, and the pushback there was explicitly that it’s not acceptable to use a solution that doesn’t cause first worlders to reduce their consumption habits in the process.

            Does olivine even theoretically scale? That’s my primary knock against any non-SRM geoengineering. I don’t really care what some dipshit on Hacker News said.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I think you’re right that climate change activism doesn’t provide a full toolkit for looking at the world, but it does provide a handy justification for interfering in the daily lives of everyone.

            This reads to me as suggesting that maybe movement atheists went to atheism for the hamartiology; however, anyone in search of hamartiology really does need the rest of religion to go with it, and so they then ended up in climate change activism. Anyone interested in where sin comes from is going to still want to know how to avoid it, after all. An interesting thought.

    • Spot says:

      As others have said, the hard left/socialist left is really trying to make the next one class and wealth inequality, but I’m skeptical they will succeed. Maybe if Bernie Sanders won the Presidency and became an FDR-like figure? I don’t think that’s going to happen, though.

      The stakes in climate change are high, but it’s obvious (to me, anyway) that it simply doesn’t have the universal explanatory power of something like New Atheism or social justice.

      Honestly, I don’t know what sort of cause might follow in Scott’s framework. Maybe this is my presentist bias talking, but social justice seems to me a very powerful “harmartiology” because it’s so expansive and has such an immensely formidable intellectual infrastructure largely built up by academia in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s possible certain approaches and emphases will change, but I think (anti-)social justice as a central animating force may be with us for a long while.

      • liskantope says:

        Part of me has a hard time believing that any social movement based in online activism and university culture (as both New Atheism and Social Justice have been) will ever be able to put class issues first and foremost, due to the necessary skewing of those spaces towards higher class backgrounds. It feels strange typing this, though, given that Bernie Sanders fanaticism does seem to have its main stronghold in those spaces.

  12. back40 says:

    I think that this confuses atheism with evangelical atheism.

  13. renato says:

    > … New Atheism, for the first time, started to have celebrities. Richard Dawkins, of course, and the Four Horsemen, but also random bloggers like PZ Myers and Stephanie Zvan.

    The link for the section of “Four Horsemen” is wrong.
    The correct link is:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Atheism#%22Four_Horsemen%22
    It does not have the “the.”

    • Steve Sailer says:

      The Four Horsemen of New Atheism — Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — were of course all white males, which in the age intersectionality uber alles renders them immediately suspect. There actually have been proto-New Atheist black women, such as the delightful Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), but in general the New Intersectionalists find the New Atheists excessively rational.

      • Spot says:

        Ayaan Hirsi Ali was initially scheduled to attend the original Four Horseman meeting, but had to cancel at the last minute for some mundane reason.

        I wonder to what degree the trajectory of New Atheism was changed by her absence. Maybe not that much. Still, some of the standard SJ attacks against New Atheism might be a little less effective.

  14. Fluffy Buffalo says:

    You make the transition from Atheism to SJ seem much too painless. I would have put it in different terms: New Atheism died because a) it had pretty much converted everyone who was going to be converted, and rehashing the same old arguments was getting tired, and b) it was infiltrated and divided by Social Justice, because that’s what SJ does to all communities that it infects, and it did that to a lot of communities at that time, not just atheism. And a divided movement dies, sooner rather than later.
    I suppose there is some merit to the argument that New Atheism went too far in blaming each and every societal evil on religion. Probably we’ll have to put up with people occasionally being terrible even when we’ve removed every systematic incentive to be so…

    • CherryGarciaMillionaire says:

      Yes, this exactly.

    • theredsheep says:

      I don’t know if I’d go this far, but it should be noted that the Quillette/IDW phenomenon features more than a few strange alliances between hard, outspoken atheists and traditional religious people; they have a common enemy, after all.

      • philwelch says:

        Indeed, and this division cuts both ways.

        If you think back to the evolution-vs-creation debates, one of the fundamental disagreements wasn’t with creationism as an object-level thesis, but with science denial in general. There were later echoes of this with climate change denial. The New Atheist movement had a core of people who strongly opposed science denial and a periphery of hangers-on who just wanted to dunk on the Red Tribe.

        The SJ movement inverts this. Blank-slatism and social-constructionism entail plenty of science denial of their own and ultimately created a cleavage between the science-affirming atheists and the culture-war-partisan atheists–with the science-affirming atheists again attracting a periphery of culture-war partisans from the other side.

      • Spot says:

        New Atheism died because a) it had pretty much converted everyone who was going to be converted, and rehashing the same old arguments was getting tired, and b) it was infiltrated and divided by Social Justice, because that’s what SJ does to all communities that it infects, and it did that to a lot of communities at that time, not just atheism.

        Maybe, but (to use this article’s terminology) this just seems like the inevitable consequence of an emerging “hamartiology.” I’m not convinced that Social Justice is the only phenomenon that behaves in this way. New Atheism also tended to make its way into (or “infect”) unrelated communities and conversations back in its heyday.

    • Reasoner says:

      I would have put it in different terms: New Atheism died because a) it had pretty much converted everyone who was going to be converted, and rehashing the same old arguments was getting tired, and b) it was infiltrated and divided by Social Justice, because that’s what SJ does to all communities that it infects, and it did that to a lot of communities at that time, not just atheism.

      You’re making the mistake Scott describes in this post and seeing everything through an SJ lens because that’s the current popular lens. Beware availability cascades.

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        Uh, no. What I’m saying is that Scott is making the mistake of seeing things from a New Atheism lens because that was one of the then-popular lenses, and trying to explain why NA was replaced by SJ by some property of NA. However, arguing that gaming, skepticism, young adult writing, knitting etc. are all essentially harmatiologies would be a much harder task. NA may have had a more developed cadre of amateur activists who could be recruited, but apart from that, Scott is proving too much.

    • Alkatyn says:

      > it was infiltrated and divided by Social Justice, because that’s what SJ does to all communities that it infects,

      You might want to consider arguments that are less dependent on the social justice movement as a malevolent organised force. The same phenomenon can be described as social justice issues becoming more salient, so outweighing other dividing lines, without attributing it to a malicious actor

    • MereComments says:

      This is 100% correct. Atheism vs. Theism was only a subset of larger, political arguments that got cordoned off into subforums in a couple of places where I hung out regularly (for context: gaming forums) during the timeframes discussed (the Early Internet Era and… whatever it was that started happening around 2012). When the SJ conflagration arrived, it destroyed entire top-level forums. Some of the ones that survived retained their “politics and religion” subghettos, and who knows what goes on there nowadays. But this SSC account, while interesting and full of data, is like a description of the Borg assimilating an entire galaxy from the POV of a single planet.

  15. TheWackademic says:

    Here’s a more straightforward explanation: it the mid-2000’s, Christianity directly motivated several noxious American policies (banning gay marriage, teaching Intelligent Design in schools, and, to some extent, the “War on Terror”). These issues faded from prominence under Obama. Obviously we were still in the Middle East, but Obama wasn’t calling it a “crusade” like Bush did. Intelligent Design has been out of the news for years. So, the intensity of the atheist movement faded along with these issues.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      It’s sobering to think of that whole Dewey-Decimal-like intellectual archive being for nothing but Bush/NoBush.

    • Ttar says:

      I think Scott is just saying something like, “Atheism took over and divided all internet communities under Bush; SJ takes over and divides all internet communities these days; we switched from one being the big divider to the other because SJ is a more effective ideology at dividing people in the current political environment, while atheism was the better divider previously (or it was simply first, and then swiftly outcompeted).” Except Scott IS an atheist but is NOT into SJ so of course he valorized atheism and took plenty of snarky shots at SJ in the process. Which

  16. jasongreenlowe says:

    So what’s a saner way to approach the problems of the world? If atheism and intersectional feminism and socialism are all just warmed-over versions of liberal Protestant mythology, then how *should* you organize your thinking about national/global policy if you’re trying to do the most good and not just to feel spiritually comfortable?

    • Protagoras says:

      No doubt some kind of complicated pragmatism that would be an enormous amount of work. And unless you have appropriate and exceptional talents, you probably will still do negligible good even with all that work.

    • Sigivald says:

      I dunno, Hayekian libertarianism works for me.

      That and a huge dose of “the existence of a problem does not imply the existence of a solution” and “we’re why we can’t have nice things”.

      • Sigivald says:

        (And ref. Protagoras’ comment, he’s probably right.

        But almost nobody does more that negligible good at the global scale, and attempts to are very likely to do more harm than good, because global-scale good is hard to do and the ways you can try are prone to dramatic failure modes.

        But “doing the most good” for normal people – and most unusual people are still normal for this context – can be maximized at the local scale, and eventually that should add up to global-scale improvement.

        Subsidiarity is a useful thing for doing good and maintaining sanity in a world (esp. online) that seems dedicated to make Everything Your Problem.

        Remember that very few thing are your problem, and concentrate on those.

        Something Icky And Bad happened across the country, or across the world? Probably not your problem. Let the locals handle the injustice or justice of it, because your anger or petition or meme or whatever won’t help anything and wastes your time that could be spent handling a local problem you can affect.

        (This is all “generic-you”, natch.

        And not an argument against, say, donating to buy mosquito nets for African kids, but that kind of thing is almost uniquely well-handled by a little attention and money from random far-away people…))

        • jasongreenlowe says:

          @Sigivald @ Protagoras @zima

          These are thoughtful comments, and I don’t disagree with their content, but I don’t think they address the thrust of my question. Maybe I didn’t frame my question clearly enough. I’m not just looking for a rule of thumb or moral heuristic; I’m looking for advice about how to build a concise, coherent, non-mystical political worldview. Given that many otherwise thoughtful and perceptive people have totally failed to avoid mysticism when starting a political movement, what are some safeguards that might be useful to avoid repeating their mistakes? If you wanted to raise a new banner for the American left, how would you do so in a way that earnestly resisted the tendency to unconsciously rehash unhelpful tropes left over from Congregationalism and Presbytarianism?

          Note that these same kinds of questions can be asked at the local level, if that seems more appropriate to you. Like, suppose I want my hometown of Coral Springs, Florida (population 120,000) to create fewer deadweight losses and to cut back on the rate at which it dumps negative externalities on its least powerful residents. Let’s say that’s my life’s work. If that still seems immodest, let’s say I’m focusing just on improving Coral Springs’ educational system.

          I don’t think “be ruthlessly pragmatic and support whichever policies and leaders seem best in any given election cycle” is actually the optimal answer. I’d bet that it’s possible to get *some* net advantage out of organizing your ideas into a coherent and attractive belief system and being known for upholding those beliefs with passion and integrity. Many ideologies are traps, but it doesn’t follow that all ideologies are worse than naked pragmatism. I want help in distinguishing the handful of ideologies that are likely to be helpful from the majority of ideologies that are likely to be harmful. Anyone have advice about how to do that in particular?

          • AG says:

            Doesn’t that get into some evo-psychy places? Arguably, those unhelpful tropes are features, not bugs, as far as ideology recruitment is concerned, so it’s back to the old “craft vs. community” debate. Perhaps the mops just can’t get past a certain level of brain-wired tendencies.

            There may never be smoking gun ideology that never corrupts, because it’s about people. Ideology A may be the one running all of the charities in this region, Ideology B might be the ones doing it in another. That’s because Charismatic Goodhearted Manager happened to join A in one region, and B in another.

          • Protagoras says:

            Being passionate about truth usually only harms the advocate, which is comparatively a pretty good track record. But it’s very hard to live up to. It’s also very hard to win converts, limiting the effectiveness of the approach. But if you aren’t passionate about truth, you are almost certain to fall into the trap of allowing yourself to be deceived about the value of whatever you are passionate about. Admittedly, that’ll probably still happen if you’re passionate about truth, but at least in that case you’re actively fighting against that failure mode, and if you’re not more likely to succeed by trying than by not trying, then it is pointless in general to talk about strategy.

          • jasongreenlowe says:

            @AG

            Well, sure, the reason why we observe many ideologies with mystical features is because those features help the ideologies spread and/or persist, and no ideology will be 100% free of corruption.

            That doesn’t mean there’s nothing meaningful or interesting to say about how to design a better ideology. Like how could we get maximum ‘recruitment’ benefits for minimal ‘mystic woo’? How could we get maximum passion with minimum corruption? Has anyone investigated these kinds of questions before?

            @ Protagoras

            Your cynicism about the possibility of usefully coordinated human activism seems to run pretty deep. I don’t have compelling evidence that you’re incorrect, but at the moment I’m interesting in exploring what should be done, conditional on there being anything worth doing. I take your point that it’s possible that there’s nothing large-scale that’s worth doing, but I’m not currently interested in giving up, so I’m not sure you and I have anything else to learn from each other on this topic.

          • Protagoras says:

            I think you misunderstand me. Our standard democratic politics, for all its flaws, seems to work better than a lot of historical alternatives, and so I play that game; specifically, I vote for Democrats and give my (admittedly sometimes grudging) support for my side in many of the other usual ways. You seemed to be asking if there was a way to reliably do better than picking a side and playing politics as usual, and that is what I am mostly pessimistic about. But not entirely; I hang out in the rationalsphere because I think rationality is valuable, even if a rational assessment of the evidence indicates it is far less powerful than one might hope. I seem to have gone too far in downplaying the advantages I see for prioritizing truth.

          • jasongreenlowe says:

            @ Protagoras

            OK, thanks for clarifying!

        • Michael_druggan says:

          I don’t think mosquito nets are as unique as you say. I think they rise from the broader phenomenae that third world country are so poor that you can find huge groups of people there that are so badly off that even their easy to solve problems haven’t been solved. This just isn’t the case in the first world.

      • philwelch says:

        That and a huge dose of “the existence of a problem does not imply the existence of a solution” and “we’re why we can’t have nice things”.

        In other words, you can’t immanentize the eschaton.

    • zima says:

      “Do no harm” is a good rule where chains of causation are unknown and unpredictable. Generally oppose policies that have clear and direct victims, unless the evidence of greater benefits to indirect beneficiaries is overwhelming.

      • Alkatyn says:

        Logic doesn’t have normative force though. It’s a system for discerning facts, and logical consistency which tells you how things *are* not how they *should* be. In my experience people who proclaim to be following reason or logic are operating from a particular set of unexamined ethical premises.

    • Alkatyn says:

      You’re basically asking “what’s the best ethical/meta ethical system”, which is a question there isn’t likely to be any great consensus on

    • aristides says:

      I think you just described the mission statement of Effective Altruism. They recommend several different options, but all of them seem to get at what you are going for.

    • Sinclair says:

      Read up on Effective Altruism I guess?

  17. Whitedeath says:

    I said this on Scott’s first post on this topic in 2017. Quoting from my comment then:
    “I don’t think it was Islam that caused it. Although that’s relevant now I think New Atheism “failed” (I don’t think this is the correct term, but I see what Scott’s getting at) initially because of Elevatorgate, and then the whole split into Atheism+ and so on. Islam only became an issue later.”

    • CherryGarciaMillionaire says:

      +1 for mention of Rebecca Watson’s ElevatorGate.

      Little-known fact: Atheism+’s initial logo presciently spelled out “A+theism”.

    • zluria says:

      Totally. You are correct that Jen’s A+ played a role, but there was a larger issue that you didn’t mention. People forget, but the split happened when Richard Dawkins posted a divisive comment about Elevatorgate.

      To recap, Rebecca Watson echoed some of Jen’s complaints that some in the atheist community were sexist and/or lacking in social skills. The thing that irked were was that some guy hit on her in the elevator of the hotel she was staying at in an atheist convention. A debate ensued, and Dawkins chimed in with a fictional letter from Rebecca to an anonymous “Muslima”.

      Something like “Dear Muslima, I know you think you have it bad with the beatings and burkhas and degredation, but please shut up about that because the REAL oppression is getting hit on by guys in an elevator.”

      Chaos ensued, with people forced to choose sides between Dawkin’s rationalist camp and Watson’s social justice camp. The two sides are bitter enemies to this day.

      I guess after they split, both sides discovered to their surprise that they didn’t actually care about atheism at all.

      • To recap, Rebecca Watson echoed some of Jen’s complaints that some in the atheist community were sexist and/or lacking in social skills. The thing that irked was that some guy hit on her in the elevator of the hotel she was staying at in an atheist convention.

        I see so much “debate” on this issue that leaves out the most relevant detail, the “dark alley” factor. Reducing it to “Watson hates being propositioned” overlooks the worse part. Her pursuer acted like a terrifying predator when he followed her out of the bar and cornered her in an isolated elevator.

        At 4:00AM, an elevator is as frightening as the proverbial “dark alley”. He can cut off her escape, and if she screams no one might hear. If he overpowers her and hits the elevator’s “Stop” button, no one might notice an inactive elevator for hours. Any women knows how your blood races when you realize a strange man is trying to corner you in a deserted parking garage, “dark alley”, or some other forsaken spot where no one can see or hear you scream. If you’re lucky and he doesn’t mean harm, then it still takes time to calm peak adrenaline.

        A daytime elevator is a different animal, it is well traveled with plenty of witnesses nearby. During daytime, hotels will investigate screams or an elevator stopped for too long. Watson realized he just a doofus who didn’t realize cornering women in an isolated place would make him seem frightening and not attractive. Bad time and place for that kind of proposition. Why is the “predator scare moment” aspect overlooked?

        I think RationalWiki is correct that Elevatorgate would have added to nothing if such a visible leader of Atheism (Dawkins) hadn’t sounded so harsh afterwards. He sounded exactly like a leader who couldn’t be trusted to even see fairness let alone protect it (reminded me of the early leadership around the Steubenville incident tbh).

        It’s so strange to me to hear that the Blue Tribe is in denial about sex differences when they ask for awareness of them. Maybe men aren’t scared of being cornered in dark alley elevators but women are. Predators exist. Maybe sexism isn’t the word, but what do you call it when she asks for consideration for women members, and its refused with mockery? Claiming predator scares is just her being too sensitive?

        Anyway, thanks for this article, and the 2017 one. I’ve read through both. I wonder what is happening too. I’m new to the scene, and appreciate a chance to hear back history discussed. If I’ve hit a nerve I’ll take my leave. thx!

        • Enkidum says:

          I don’t want to be mansplaining, but I feel like it’s worth noting that (unless I’m missing something) she never claimed to be anything more than kind of annoyed about it. The thing that kicked off the entire argument was literally a 30-second description of what happened and why it annoyed her “Guys, don’t do that.” Apparently, this was going too far, and justified all the life-changing garbage that has been thrown at her ever since.

          Lots of women piped up at the time and tried to explain the fear thing, and why that particular setting can be terrifying, as you’ve done, but I just wanted to note that wasn’t her reaction. More just “dude, if you want to hit on women, don’t do it this way”.

        • viVI_IViv says:

          At 4:00AM, an elevator is as frightening as the proverbial “dark alley”. He can cut off her escape, and if she screams no one might hear. If he overpowers her and hits the elevator’s “Stop” button, no one might notice an inactive elevator for hours. Any women knows how your blood races when you realize a strange man is trying to corner you in a deserted parking garage, “dark alley”, or some other forsaken spot where no one can see or hear you scream. If you’re lucky and he doesn’t mean harm, then it still takes time to calm peak adrenaline.

          I don’t get it. Clearly if he wanted to rape her he didn’t have to invite her for a coffee first, so how was inviting her for a coffee somehow a signal of potential danger? Was the ethical violation just stepping in the same elevator with her, rather than inviting her? In this case, is there a social norm that men should avoid being alone with stranger women? (Pence rule?) Should black people avoid being alone with white people to avoid terrifying them by appearing as potential muggers? Should Muslims avoid being around non-Muslims because these people could think that at any moment they could shout Allahu Akbar and blow up themselves?

          In any case, Rebecca Watson never claimed, as far as I can tell, to have ever felt threatened by that man. The complaint was that being propositioned by that man was inappropriate because she felt “sexualized”. She didn’t really explain what she meant by that, or which way of propositioning to her, if any, would have been appropriate. To her credit, she initially mentioned the incident in an offhand remark in a vlog, and it would have blown over if people from both sides didn’t weigh in with increasingly hostile takes, culminating with Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” letter.

          I think Elevatorgate was a flashpoint for tensions that had been accumulating for a long time.

          • I don’t get it. Clearly if he wanted to rape her he didn’t have to invite her for a coffee first, so how was inviting her for a coffee somehow a signal of potential danger?

            I’m not saying he wanted to rape her. Unlike Dawkins and online peeps, he might have even been aware enough to realize, “Oh, so sorry I scared the living daylights out of you.” Hours later it is merely annoying. But people who don’t get why it is scary are scary in themselves. Women aren’t just imagining dangers. I’m glad others explained the fear. It is not that he asked her out, it is that he did it in a scary way without a thought on her perspective. Then there is an echo chamber saying she was wrong to ask people to be careful. I’m glad others pointed out the fear. I don’t need to belabor it. Thx

          • The Nybbler says:

            I don’t see the relevance of that article. It actually occurred outside an elevator and doesn’t involve a proposition. If we’re just talking about murder, men get murdered more often than women do.

        • Aapje says:

          @EmilaSkytracker

          Her pursuer acted like a terrifying predator when he followed her out of the bar and cornered her in an isolated elevator.

          This kind of uncharitable hyperbole is exactly what makes a lot of people upset, IMO.

          Also, you are just applying gendered stereotypes, which also makes it very hypocritical. If it is not fair to see black people as terrifying predators when they behave in ways that are not seen as terrifying when white people do it, why isn’t the same logic applied to men?

          • Enkidum says:

            “Fair” doesn’t enter into it.

            Cf. a black man’s explanation of the kinds of accommodations he has to go through to successfully navigate the white world he lives in. (This was originally written as a direct response to the anti-Watson side of elevatorgate.)

            Yes, when you switch things around so that the same logic is applied to men as women (or white people as black people, or apparently men as black people, or whatever), things don’t work out. That’s because the situation is inherently non-symmetrical. Yes, this isn’t fair. The world isn’t fair.

          • Zorgon says:

            It’s true that the situation can’t be symmetrical if you refuse to acknowledge or admit that one side of the argument exists at all.

          • Enkidum says:

            The linked article is a very explicit acknowledgement of the other side of the argument, with an attempt to provide a detailed refutation.

          • Aapje says:

            @Enkidum

            Cf. a black man’s explanation of the kinds of accommodations he has to go through to successfully navigate the white world he lives in. (This was originally written as a direct response to the anti-Watson side of elevatorgate.)

            I regularly see SJ advocates argue that black people, women, etc are restricted in their behavior due to oppression, where the explicit or implicit demand is that these accommodations are made obsolete, by having the other change.

            In other words, the real solution to sexually aggressive men is not women dressing modestly, not drinking, etc; but for men to behave better. Women having to changing their behavior to be safe may be necessary right now, but is unfortunate and should be made obsolete ASAP. The real solution to police violence and such against black people is reforming the police, not for black people to restrict their behavior more than white people. Black people having to changing their behavior to be safe may be necessary right now, but is unfortunate and should be made obsolete ASAP. Etc.

            Telling men that they have to behave differently than woman are allowed to, without calling that sexism and/or demanding that women behave differently, is not the same. Considering men oppressors of women when they get discriminated against by women, while considering black people to be oppressed by white people because they face similar discrimination at the hands of white people, is hypocrisy.

            BTW. Presenting the GoodMenProject as being representative of SJ is problematic in a variety of ways.

            when you switch things around so that the same logic is applied to men as women (or white people as black people, or apparently men as black people, or whatever), things don’t work out.

            Things don’t work out in SJ ideology, because the experiences that are pointed to claim that black people/men are oppressed, also happen to men.

            The typical response I see is that SJ advocates suddenly start to reason in ways that they consider racist when applied to black people, arguing that men should face an extra burden because men misbehave more often.

          • Enkidum says:

            I really feel that you haven’t actually read the article, and if you have, you haven’t considered it remotely carefully.

            For what it’s worth, it was originally published on FreethoughtBlogs at the height of elevatorgate, as a direct response to people making the exact arguments that you are making here.

          • viVI_IViv says:

            Cf. a black man’s explanation of the kinds of accommodations he has to go through to successfully navigate the white world he lives in. (This was originally written as a direct response to the anti-Watson side of elevatorgate.)

            From the article:
            “I was trucking along at a fairly decent pace when I noticed an older woman ahead of me on the street. At first I didn’t pay any attention to her, as my intent was on making my appointment. However, as I drew closer, she became more visibly agitated, constantly looking over her shoulder and speeding up. There was no way she was going to walk faster than me, though – I was way taller than she. When I was about 50m away, she suddenly broke to the right and crossed the road – over 6 lanes of high-speed traffic. I thought it was an unusual move, considering we were nowhere near a crosswalk.”

            Now suppose that the lady then tweeted: “Today a hooded big black man ran towards me on the street, forcing me to walk into the traffic to avoid him. I don’t know if he actually wanted to do rob me, but he could have easily overpowered me and taken all my stuff. Black men need to understand how terrifying they can be to white ladies, and take care not to frighten them.”

            Would you support that tweet? For extra points replace the white lady with a white guy in a MAGA hat.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Enkidum

            Once you’ve thrown “The world isn’t fair” into it, you’ve undermined everything; it justifies too much. So women sometimes feel uncomfortable in situations where a man wouldn’t… the world isn’t fair. So cops beat on black people more than white people… the world isn’t fair. If you only invoke it when certain groups want reasonable treatment, you don’t have an argument, just a side.

          • Aapje says:

            @Endikum

            Have you considered the article? You reject that “fair” is relevant, but the article argues that some discrimination is fair, while other discrimination is not. To quote the article:

            “It is not “sexist” for women to view all men as potential rapists, because (other than in prison) men possess the privilege of being subject to a vanishingly small likelihood of being raped by either men or women, while women are subject to a substantial likelihood of being raped by men. In contrast, it is “racist” for white people to view all black people as potential criminals, because (as far as I can discern from available crime statistics) white people are the ones who possess the privilege of being less likely to be crime victims than black people, and they are more likely to be victims of crimes committed by white people than by black people.”

            This is based on poor logic, incorrect facts & cherry picking. For example, it is claimed that white people shouldn’t consider black people to be potential criminals because black people are more often victims. This is an illogical statistic to look at, because the obvious statistic you would look at to decide whether to prejudge people as perpetrators based on a trait, is how often people with that trait perpetrate. Even if we would grant that the victimization rate is relevant, this would then mean that men are disprivileged, because they are more often victims than women. Of course, this statistic is not mentioned, nor that conclusion drawn.

            The statistic that white people are more often victims of white perpetrators is true, but ignores the fact that white people are far more common and that people more commonly meet people of their own race. Imagine this example (where the numbers are made up to make a point):
            – Members of group A victimize members of group B in 100% of their encounters
            – Members of group B victimize other members of group B in 2% of their encounters
            – Of the encounters by people of group B, 1% is with members of group A and 99% with members of group B
            # Then in absolute numbers, victims of group B are twice as likely to be victimized by members of group B, but per encounter, members of group B are 50 times as likely to be victimized if the other person is of group A than if (s)he is of group B. In fact, members of group B are guaranteed to be victimized if they encounter someone from group A.

            Isn’t it then logical for members of group B to be 50 times as wary of group A members than group B members*? Of course, using this logic would lead to very different conclusions than that greater prejudice against black people is illogical, based on crime rates.

            * What that means in practice is another discussion.

            Men only have a “vanishingly” small likelihood of being raped by either men or women (outside of prison), because the common definition of rape is sexist and excludes nearly all coerced sex with a female perpetrator. So this statistic is biased (and the scientific definition was chosen by a feminist who explicitly chose to exclude men who are victimized by women, because she thought that they weren’t traumatized as much by rape as women).

            So this paragraph has an immense amount of bias. Note that SJ advocates seem to typically call this kind of bias an ‘-ism,’ regardless of malicious intent.

            You say that:

            That’s because the situation is inherently non-symmetrical. Yes, this isn’t fair. The world isn’t fair.

            But my conclusion is that SJ advocates typically don’t apply their logic symmetrically (as I showed for your article) or fairly in other ways. Then it’s not just the world that isn’t fair, but SJ advocates as well.

        • Zorgon says:

          Holy hell is that a lot of counterfactuals. But thank you for demonstrating the central conflict that the Elevatorgate thing dragged kicking and screaming into the light: Feels vs Reals.

          On an object level, the only things that happened are the following:
          – Rebecca Watson and Person A shared a lift
          – Person A asked Watson out for coffee
          – She refused
          – They left
          – She mentioned it in a vlog about “con creep” behaviour sometime later
          – She was asked to talk about it on a panel and did so
          – Person A was excoriated as a creep, a potential rapist, all manner of nasties.
          – Rebecca Watson received a simultaneous wave of fervent support and vicious opprobrium from the community.
          Everything else is intepretation, inference, implication; these are the only things that actually happened.

          The question I didn’t ask at the time, which nobody asked at the time, and which inexplicably nobody asked at all since, is this:

          Let’s say Rebecca Watson felt as uncomfortable in the situation as she describes. So fucking what? Why is her comfort so impossibly important?

          I’m about 90% sure I know the answer, but I’m also 100% sure I have no charity on this subject, having been around for the explosion, so this is where I leave it.

          • Enkidum says:

            What’s impossible about trying to make the people you’re hitting on comfortable?

          • Zorgon says:

            … that’s not what I’m describing as impossible. But if it helps, replace it with “very”.

          • Enkidum says:

            Why is her comfort so very important? Because when you hit on people, you should probably try to make them comfortable?

          • Zorgon says:

            Oh, I get you. That only applies to Person A, or other would-be Person As.
            Why is her comfort so important to everyone else?

            (I would agree that to a large degree Watson was – at least initially – trying to give advice to would-be Person As. This did not remain the case, but it’s a laudable enough initial goal. I am deeply skeptical that this was the goal of anyone else in Atheism Plus, or Watson herself after the initial vlog.)

          • Enkidum says:

            When the discussion is started by someone saying “this made me uncomfortable, you should stop doing it”… then it’s a discussion about comfort. It may be about other things as well, but comfort is one of the central foci of the discussion.

            I’m not sure what you’re trying to claim against that.

          • John Schilling says:

            Why is her comfort so very important? Because when you hit on people, you should probably try to make them comfortable?

            And when you try to engineer a behavioral change in a large group of people, you should also probably try to make them comfortable.

            Humans being human, we’re occasionally going to fail at this. Probably it would be best if we all shrugged off those failures and moved on, but being human we aren’t always going to do that either.

            If you think that, instead of shrugging it off and moving on, a vlog and a panel talk is the appropriate response to some guy’s failed pass making a woman uncomfortable, fine. There’s a proportional response to making a large group of people uncomfortable during an attempt at social engineering across a subculture, and what you are experiencing right now is a small fraction of that. Maybe put some thought into how to conduct future rounds of social engineering without gratuitously discomfiting the targets?

          • Enkidum says:

            @John you’re asking a hell of a lot. What you call “social engineering” appears to amount to any public discussion of the issue at all. Is there any way that someone could publicly say “guys, don’t do that” which would be acceptable?

          • John Schilling says:

            Is there any way that someone could publicly say “guys, don’t do that” which would be acceptable?

            Yes, and I really don’t think it’s that hard to figure out. But you’ve annoyed me to the point where I don’t feel any desire to be your guide. And you’re giving yourself excuses for not even trying.

          • lvlln says:

            Is there any way that someone could publicly say “guys, don’t do that” which would be acceptable?

            It’s been a while since I’ve thought about this specific incident, but you know, when I bring my thoughts back to it, it occurs to me that, perhaps, no there isn’t. When you using wording that basically amounts to an authoritative directive, the only people who are going to be comfortable or accepting of it are those who already accept your authority as someone who can give them orders, and/or people who already accept your orders as being virtuous or desirable or whatever. Perhaps if it was more along the lines of “guys, I understand where you’re coming from and sympathize with your plight, but I would prefer you not do that,” it’d be more acceptable.

            Now, to be fair, Watson didn’t just say “guys, don’t do that.” According to RationaWiki, she followed it up with:

            I don’t really know how else to explain that this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at four a.m., in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and I, don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I’ve finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualise me in that manner.

            Which is a pretty good and reasonable explanation for her position. I think a bigger thing she could have done differently than changing the wording would be: when she started receiving pushback from parts of the wider community, instead of doubling down and pushing back just as hard, she could have made a good-faith effort to understand the people who were pushing back, acknowledging that their views had merit and didn’t make them bad people or bigots or insensitive to women’s suffering or whatever. She could have still come down on the same side as she did and made the exact same requests to change in behavior she did with no less vehemence, but that good-faith effort to sympathize could have made a huge difference in the comfort level of the parts of the wider community that were pushing back against her so strongly.

            Hard to say, though.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            men need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the women they are courting. it wont just help avoid situations like this, it will help them court women successfully.

            women need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the men that are courting them. that’s hard when you sense a potential threat, but it’s also hard for an awkwardly social guy to come up with the courage to talk to a woman he’s interested in also.

            based on my limited understanding of this incident, I only have contempt for the white knights who piled on the guy.

          • viVI_IViv says:

            Which is a pretty good and reasonable explanation for her position. I think a bigger thing she could have done differently than changing the wording would be: when she started receiving pushback from parts of the wider community, instead of doubling down and pushing back just as hard, she could have made a good-faith effort to understand the people who were pushing back, acknowledging that their views had merit and didn’t make them bad people or bigots or insensitive to women’s suffering or whatever. She could have still come down on the same side as she did and made the exact same requests to change in behavior she did with no less vehemence, but that good-faith effort to sympathize could have made a huge difference in the comfort level of the parts of the wider community that were pushing back against her so strongly.

            Indeed, it’s quite difficult to try to get people change their behavior to avoid making feel you uncomfortable when you go out of your way to antagonize them.

            This seems like a general issue of SJ activism: ostensibly they seek to establish a society based on empathy and niceness, in practice they tend to treat people who aren’t already 110% on board with their cause with extreme callousness and lack of charity.

          • Enkidum says:

            It should be noted that as soon as this became a public issue, the death and rape threats started streaming towards Watson, with many more charitable objectors simply calling her a stupid cunt or the equivalent. The people who do this ARE bigots and insensitive to women’s suffering. And the evidence is very clear that there are a hell of a lot of these assholes out there.

            I don’t want to claim that this is unusual, because it’s not (from the other side of the aisle, Dana Loesch is fond of pointing out when this kind of thing happens to her). But I’m not aware of a lot of good responses to Watson. (For what it’s worth, I haven’t seen any in this thread.)

          • viVI_IViv says:

            Any semi-celebrity on the Internet who writes anything remotely controversial receives tons of hatemail full of death and rape threats. Scott once posted a collection of his.

            Using this material to claim that anybody who disagrees with you is an idiot caveman is as bad as strawmanning gets.

          • lvlln says:

            It should be noted that as soon as this became a public issue, the death and rape threats started streaming towards Watson, with many more charitable objectors simply calling her a stupid cunt or the equivalent. The people who do this ARE bigots and insensitive to women’s suffering. And the evidence is very clear that there are a hell of a lot of these assholes out there.

            I’m not clear on why this should be noted. Those aren’t the people we’re talking about.

            But I’m not aware of a lot of good responses to Watson.

            Presuming for the sake of argument that there was not a single good response to Watson (where “good/bad” refers to the quality of argument, rather than the aforementioned online threats & insults), that seems like a great reason for Watson to stand her ground and continue to make the exact same requests to change behavior she did with no less vehemence, which, again doesn’t preclude making a good-faith effort to sympathize with those people who made bad responses to her. When making suggestions to changes in norm among some group of people, it seems to me that it’s good to at least make a good-faith effort to sympathize with members of that group, even when they make what one perceives to be bad arguments, because they’re the ones in direct contact with those changes.

          • The Nybbler says:

            What’s impossible about trying to make the people you’re hitting on comfortable?

            For one thing, because there’s some inherent degree of discomfort (to both parties, usually) involved in hitting on someone. For another, because the modern title for a man who only hits on someone in the absolute ideal situation is “incel”.

          • Zorgon says:

            It should be noted that as soon as this became a public issue, the death and rape threats started streaming towards Watson, with many more charitable objectors simply calling her a stupid cunt or the equivalent. The people who do this ARE bigots and insensitive to women’s suffering. And the evidence is very clear that there are a hell of a lot of these assholes out there.

            I’m not sure how many more times we need to re-iterate the whole “literally everyone even slightly notable gets relentless violent threats of all kinds on the Internet” thing. Maybe we should get it projected onto major public buildings?

            This is not a “women’s suffering” issue. This is a “human suffering” issue (which should not be surprising, given women are. y’know, people). The question therefore becomes, why do you only care when it happens to women?

          • AlesZiegler says:

            @Zorgon

            My anecdotal take, derived from acquaintances who are going through this sort of thing, is that it happens to women more and that women are more bothered by it than men. Social norm that men should be tough and able shrug off blows that life throws at them serves us well in the wild west world of social media.

            Note: I have no opinion on Elevatorgate, in fact I just discovered that thing in this thread.

          • Enkidum says:

            I only have contempt for the white knights who piled on the guy.

            Note that the man in question has never been named or otherwise identified, and has suffered nothing public at all. “Piling on the guy” appears to amount to publicly saying that hitting on a woman at 4 am in an elevator after she has been discussing how tired she is of being hit on at conferences is bad.

            Yes, men get sent death and rape threats as well. No, it isn’t equal, either in frequency or impact.

            Frankly, I’m finding it really, really hard to be charitable to any of the responses here. I realize that’s entirely mutual, so I’m going to remove myself.

          • On an object level, the only things that happened are the following:
            – Rebecca Watson and Person A shared a lift
            – Person A asked Watson out for coffee
            – She refused
            – They left
            – She mentioned it in a vlog about “con creep” behavior sometime later
            – She was asked to talk about it on a panel and did so
            – Person A was excoriated as a creep, a potential rapist, all manner of nasties.
            – Rebecca Watson received a simultaneous wave of fervent support and vicious opprobrium from the community.
            Everything else is interpretation, inference, implication; these are the only things that actually happened.

            I respectfully disagree. You edited out the parts which stick out like sore thumbs to outsiders.
            – Deserted midnight hour (4:00AM) elevator is a different animal from well populated public elevator. You say you’re removing bias/hyperbole by throwing out this FACT. But this is the very piece of evidence which makes Watson look reasonable and not like she overreacted.
            – I never heard Person A’s name mentioned. I’m not sure you are reporting the name calling aspect accurately. But one definition of creepy behavior is to keep doing the thing someone asked you not to do, with anger and bullying.
            – You left out Dawkins response, which is the part of most relevance to this topic of declining interest in atheism.
            I was impressed with skeptic skill at analyzing arguments, seeing through BS, and knowledge of science. But it is scary not admirable when used to justify rage towards Watson. It doesn’t make sense either.
            I’m mystified. What did Watson ever do to you? It sounds like illogical hate, an illogical response to “Don’t bring up sex in scary situations”.
            I’ll just back off, not understanding. There is a scary amount of rage & hate around this issue. You’ve got a blindspot. I’m not surprised this Blue Tribe is scared of the rage and blindness.

          • viVI_IViv says:

            Yes, men get sent death and rape threats as well. No, it isn’t equal, either in frequency or impact.

            Men actually receive more online harassment:

            “Overall, men are slightly more likely to experience any form of online harassment (44% vs. 37% of women).”

            You seem to believe that men experience less online harassment and, when they do experience it, it matters less. This is in line with those who run programs against violence on women when men actually experience more violence, or Hillary Clinton’s “Women are the primary victims of war” remark.

            In terms of biological essentialism/RedPill theory, this is known as the “disposable gender” or “empathy gap” phenomenon: men are expected to stoically withstand adversities, to conquer, protect and provide. Those who break under adversities are reviled as losers, cowards, white feathers, incels, basement dwellers, etc. Women, on the other hand, are valued just for their ability to give birth. To “man up”, “become a man”, “grow a pair” mean to become more dominant, agent-like and successful, to “become a woman” just means to have the first menstruation.

            Feminists ostensibly advocate for social equality between genders, but in practice they are at the forefront of dismissing male hardships and reviling unsuccessful men. “Male tears”, “what abouth teh menz?”, “fragile masculinity” are all feminist memes. This makes them come across as hypocritical and off putting.

        • Evelyn Q. Greene says:

          At 4:00AM, an elevator is as frightening as the proverbial “dark alley”. He can cut off her escape, and if she screams no one might hear. If he overpowers her and hits the elevator’s “Stop” button, no one might notice an inactive elevator for hours. Any women knows how your blood races when you realize a strange man is trying to corner you in a deserted parking garage, “dark alley”, or some other forsaken spot where no one can see or hear you scream. If you’re lucky and he doesn’t mean harm, then it still takes time to calm peak adrenaline.

          When did this “Proper young ladies™ shouldn’t wander around unaccompanied at night” crap go from sexist nonsense from your grandmother to established feminist talking points? In my experience most women do not have an irrational fear of men. I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid of being murdered/raped while alone with a man, in elevators or parking garages or anywhere else, that’s ludicrously paranoid. After being told by feminist that this is a universal female experience that I have some how avoided, I asked my girlfriend and she also reports no fear of men or the dark. Unless you have any surveys that prove these fears re common, I’m going to assume that this is just feminists projected their opinions on half the population to claim more legitimacy, as usual.

          In any case such fears are ridiculous. The vast majority of rapes are done by perpetrators who know their victims not strangers in back alleys, and the Majority of murders and violent street crime happens to men.

          Her pursuer acted like a terrifying predator when he followed her out of the bar and cornered her in an isolated elevator.

          This is bullshit. He was not acting like “terrifying predator” and I even think Watson would endorse such language. He was, according to her unflattering account, awkward, but there is nothing wrong with flirting with women in elevators, and nothing he did that justified Watson’s semi-public shamming.

          Yes, men get sent death and rape threats as well. No, it isn’t equal, either in frequency or impact.

          Yes. men get more death and rape threats online.

      • zluria says:

        So I think that elevatorgate is a beautiful example of a scissor statement.
        It’s a simple story, that seems totally uncontroversial – there’s one side that’s obviously in the wrong. Except that there is a 50/50 split among who is right and who is wrong, and each side finds the other position inconceivable. A bloody war is the result – and people still seem super upset, 8 years later. The result was the obliteration of the entire movement.

        This thread demonstrates that fact. Also: Reading this thread, I feel like an evolutionary biologist discovering teeth on a chicken fetus. Could it be that the rationalist movement was built out of the shattered remains of the new atheist movement?

    • Alkatyn says:

      Elevator gate was a big deal for people who were super involved with the online atheism activism but not the wider movement.

      (As a random data point, I spent much of my teenage years in atheism websites of the sort discussed, but didn’t hear about I didn’t hear about it until years later (in the context of sjw ruined atheism discussions).

      It’s analogous to the weekly twitter spats these days that make a lot of noise but have no long term tangible impact. (eg someone working for Biden said something mean about someone working for Sanders. Democrat twitter catches fire for a few days but it doesn’t affect the polls)

      • Enkidum says:

        I think it was a huge deal for virtually every major figure in the movement, in that at the very least it crystallized their opinions of the “other side”, and in many cases they were directly involved.

  18. Quixote says:

    People stopped arguing because the atheists had won. By 2010 all the smart people were atheists. Not to say that they would publicly call themselves atheists, or even that they would privately think of themselves as atheists inside their own heads, but that they would always in all their experiences expect to encounter exactly what they would see if the atheists were right about everything.

    Once you’ve convinced all the smart people you can stop arguing. Because who wants to argue with stupid people.

    • Enkidum says:

      Speaking as a smart atheist, this is a terrible take.

      • CherryGarciaMillionaire says:

        Agree completely.

      • Quixote says:

        Winky face

        But seriously later in the day I’ll try to come back and post some stats and trends supporting this point to some extent.

      • aristides says:

        Speaking as a smart Christian, I don’t agree with Quixote’s take. Of course you might disagree with my self assessment of smart. I think the Athiest victory was not changing people’s belief, but changing how we argue. When I want to persuade a smart person something is right or wrong, I don’t cite the Bible, even if we are both Christians. Why I believe abortion is wrong is likely based on Biblical teachings, but I never mention the Bible while talking to smart liberal Christians. You still haven’t changed my beliefs, the Overton Window just shifted that making religious arguments to smart people is slightly beyond the edge.

    • keaswaran says:

      I don’t think that there is any sense in which it is true that by 2019 “all the smart people are atheists” in which it wasn’t already true that by 1979 “all the smart people are atheists”. Atheism is certainly more common in the general public now than 40 years ago, but you don’t seem to be including most of the general public in “all the smart people”. And if you draw the lines based on academic affiliation or anything like that, it was already equally established by 1979.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        And if you draw the lines based on academic affiliation or anything like that, it was already equally established by 1979.

        Certainly.
        It doesn’t seem like “Many people go to church, and churches teach weird things!” was an issue for 1979-people. Church attendance or non-attendance wasn’t politicized unless you literally lived under a Communist Party.
        Think of the stereotype of well-educated, successful Americans at the dawn of the ’80s:
        “It’s the EIIIIGHTIES! Do a lot of coke and vote for Ronald Reeeeeagan!”
        This class voted the same as churchgoers but had very little in common socially.

    • John Schilling says:

      “All the smart people agree with me, even the ones who are unwilling to say so in public”, is mostly just a special case of Dunning-Kruger.

    • meh says:

      By 2010 all the smart people were atheists.

      There are smart people who are theists. But the less smart theists were most vocal and combative against the New A’s, and the New A’s were prone to engaging with them for whatever reason.

    • SamChevre says:

      People stopped arguing because the atheists had won.

      I agree. It’s a major problem. Prop 187 and Prop 8 made it made it super-clear that the Left/atheists had won–that any appeal to process, law, or democracy was a sucker’s bet, because the Left had the courts and the bureaucracy and everything else was irrelevant.

      That’s how you get people like me, who’d prefer a regime of free association and subsidiarity, stable laws, and democratic control where a single decision has to be made for everyone, to vote for an amoral clown just because he isn’t aligned with the Left.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      These days most smart people are secular; they live life utterly devoid of meaningful religious experience or thinking. But very many of them would disavow the term atheist and the social culture of atheism, because cultural identification is tribal.

    • nicktachy says:

      I think it would be more accurate to say that “all the people who valued appearing intelligent to their friends above all else were atheists.”

  19. hnau says:

    We were “the reality-based community”.

    This is, and always will be, a lie. (For any community with an outgroup, not just the ones discussed here.)

    Politics is war by other means.
    Politics in a modern democracy is total war by other means.
    Arguments are weapons, little more.
    Communities act out of self-interest. That their outgroup labels this self-interest “irrational” is unsurprising.
    To a first approximation this has always been true, but for various reasons it is especially true today.

    Part of me wishes there was a viable alternative to this fatalism. But in today’s discourse I don’t see one. Do you?

  20. Sigivald says:

    Where did this come from? And where did it go?

    Where did this come from, Cotton-Eye Joe?

    There, someone had to do the punchline.

  21. Enkidum says:

    Great article. I spent a lot of time on Freethoughtblogs from about 2008-2015, and am still on it periodically. I was well-aware of all the details of the various schisms, and this strikes me as more or less accurate and fair. There are still occasional atheism-related articles on the server, but they’re in the minority. PZ Myers wrote his own obituary of New Atheism at the start of this year, inspired by another overview of the movement, both I think fairly good articles.

    I think that once you accept the basic, uh, hamartological point that irrational beliefs are responsible for the evils in the world, and that religion is the original irrational belief, then the social justice schism becomes inevitable. Because, roughly speaking, you have people who are strongly concerned with social justice (e.g. Myers) and people who aren’t (e.g. Dawkins), both of whom are convinced of the same basic harmatological point. And then the social justice side will become convinced that atheism has to be united with the social justice movement because social injustice is evil, and the source of evil is irrationality/religion. Equally strongly, however, you will have the Dawkins and Pinkers of the world, who are perfectly aware that social justice issues are a fraud, and therefore any attempt to unite them with atheism must be resisted at all costs. (And really, while both sides in this schism were not exactly performing at their best, I think there’s no question that the anti-SJW forces were particularly awful. I was there, saw it happen in realtime, it was not remotely a symmetrical relationship of douchebaggery – there is simply no SJ-atheist equivalent to someone like The Amazing Atheist or Thunderf00t in terms of their willingness to prostitute themselves for money.)

    Then eventually, as Myers is pretty clear about, it became clear that the connections between atheism and social justice are tenuous at best. So, as Scott says, they moved increasingly away from atheism and towards… where they are today. Which I think is a pretty good thing, because it’s what they actually care about.

    That being said, I would like an atheist movement that actually reflected what I think about the world as a whole, and for a while it looked like there might be one. Such is life.

    • CherryGarciaMillionaire says:

      > there is simply no SJ-atheist equivalent to someone like The Amazing Atheist or Thunderf00t in terms of their willingness to prostitute themselves for money

      Ha! Rebecca Watson comes to mind.

      (I was there too.)

      • lvlln says:

        Agreed, as someone who was there too. In terms of sheer douchebaggery, you’d have to multiply Thunderf00t by The Amazing Atheist before you could get even within striking distance of an order of magnitude of Rebecca Watson. And PZ Myers easily eclipsed her on that, though I’d say they were at least within the same order of magnitude.

    • Enkidum says:

      Apologies, I should have known better than to include the parenthesis.

    • quanta413 says:

      I’m hoping Scott will let this one past, because I’m not talking about how much of a jerk someone is or is not, but their underlying beliefs.

      Equally strongly, however, you will have the Dawkins and Pinkers of the world, who are perfectly aware that social justice issues are a fraud, and therefore any attempt to unite them with atheism must be resisted at all costs.

      Are you talking about Steven Pinker or is there some other famous Pinker I’m unaware of? Because this is an inaccurate description of Pinker’s beliefs. Steven Pinker may disagree with social justice theology (for a lack of a better word), but on most issues his object level goals are closer to social justice than its opposite. His whole schtick is basically cheering on progress.

      Is leftist utilitarianism now grouped with something completely different?

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        Pinker did spend an entire book on debunking the “blank slate” fallacy that underlies much of SJ dogmatic horseshit. You could argue that he’s the (only) one who’s doing progressivism right.

      • Enkidum says:

        I read Scott as simply banning the pissing contest that I started about who is more of an asshole. (Scott: if you meant to refer to the whole thing, then even more apologies.)

        I did mean Steven Pinker, but I wrote that poorly. A better way of putting it would be that he’s extremely resistant to the combination of issues and methods that the current loud wing of the social justice movement advocates. Which may be what you call theology. But as you say, he’s clearly on the side of much of what has traditionally been identified as social justice / progressive issues, and his main beef with the modern movement is to do with freedom of speech and so on.

        • quanta413 says:

          We agree then he’s been against some of the most controversial methods of many social justice types, but he’s not really against them on many larger issues.

          I felt like if someone didn’t already know about Pinker’s stances, they would’ve gotten a very wrong impression from your original statement. Some of his most recent opinion pieces were on the importance of building nuclear power to prevent global warming and how Trump was engaging in quid pro quo without stating it outright. Over the past couple years he’s definitely written a lot of pro free speech stuff (and it may be a majority of his output, or of what’s read), but it’s far from his sole output.

  22. keaswaran says:

    I remember somewhere during the heyday of the New Atheists, as I was learning about the Rationalist community, I was realizing there are definitely some important differences between these two movements and the older Skeptic movement (James Randi, Carl Sagan, etc.). I don’t know that I can put these differences into words, but I sort of think of Skeptics, New Atheists, and Rationalists as being three different movements on the same idea, dating to the 1970s, the 2000s, and the 2010s, picking up important cultural changes and new sophistication along the way.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      I remember philosophers in the ~2008 period having discussions about the difference between poorly argued New Atheism and respectable atheists like Bertrand Russel, Carl Sagan, Karl Popper(?), Nietzsche, and all the Marxists. The difference between these older forms of atheism and New Atheism is just what Scott said: that Atheism was trying to explain why there is evil in the world. But the older atheists who were communists or logical positivists or zealous agnostics, didn’t think that mankind’s ills were cause by religion.

  23. gbear605 says:

    Here’s a relevant data point: I live in a decent-sized New England town. 20 years ago, there were three surviving churches (Catholic, Congregational, Episcopal) with dwindling populations. Today, there are now six churches (same as before plus two Baptist churches and a Methodist church), all of which have larger populations. There is significantly less hostility toward the churches by people in the town; it’s more viewed as something quaint rather than something evil.

    • SamChevre says:

      Interesting data point: as someone who also lives in a decent-sized New England town, has the population grown, or the demographics changed–or is it basically the same town it was 20 years ago? (Here, the churches that are new, or growing, are associated with immigrant communities, and average religiosity is sharply down over the last 20 years.)

  24. Scumbarge says:

    I have nothing of my own to add, except to say that another blog I like did a piece on this very topic back in april:

    Anyone Else Remember Atheism Plus?

    (he references SSC, TheLastPsychiatrist, and Sam[]zdat, if that’s your bag)

    rough tl;dr:

    atheism was a useful shibboleth until the horsemen et all won control of The Cathedral, diluting the signaling value, and the dawn of atheism+ split them up because a shared enthusiasm for godlessness had been the only thing uniting an otherwise loose coalition

    • Hanfeizi says:

      I don’t think there ever really was much of a coalition, just an in-group and an out-group.

      Nietzscheans, and others in the “atheist outgroup”, who continually pointed out that the humanist morality that the “New Atheists” clung to was merely Christianity with the supernatural, ritual, and a few rules of sexual morality filed off, and that their “New Atheism” was at least as old as the decades-dead Bertrand Russell, were never particularly welcome there. While they loved arguing about religion, re-evaluating the foundations of their humanist worldview was just about the last thing they wanted to do. A re-evaluation of all values? Tossing out liberalism, socialism, and the rest of the lumber of the ages and embracing the radical freedom of a world in which we can truly define good and evil in our own image, or transcend them completely?

      Those notions utterly terrified the “New Atheists”.

      Thus, we’re naturally seeing a shift. In coming decades, we’re going to see the “left” “get religion”, as they find the best basis for communalism and the fight for social justice is that of congregations of shared values. Already, there’s a new generation of evangelicals who are far less openly political and care much more about economic justice than the social issues of their parents or grandparents. Black Christianity has long been allied with the American Left; Islam will grow as a force, and liberal Christianity may even see a resurgence as left-activists embrace Marianne Williamson-style Christian mysticism and look for inspiration in religious activists like MLK, Dorothy Day and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

      Meanwhile, as the old Christian right dies off and the various Ben Sasse and Kevin Williamson-style “serious Christian conservatives” jump ship on a more and more Trumpian GOP, expect the rise of an atheist right – more blatantly libertarian, aristocratic and nihilistic at it’s core, yet often using populist nostalgia as a tool.

  25. moridinamael says:

    I wonder if anybody else had the same experience as me: Finding Less Wrong, a place where it was just taken as an obvious baseline assumption that religion wasn’t even interesting enough to talk about, except as an occasional example of sloppy thinking, breathing a huge sigh of relief, and just not going back to the old forums.

  26. Lambert says:

    What other movements morphed into other movements as priorities changed?

    Environmentalism is a pretty clear descendant of ban-the-bomb.

    • Nornagest says:

      It’s pretty rare for a movement to just come out of nowhere. Someone with more time than me could probably draw a whole phylogenetic tree. But, to choose one that we’re probably all familiar with, Rationalism grew out of New Atheism remixed with Extropianism, or maybe the other way around.

      • Nick says:

        Oh, I remember Extropianism. I can certainly see some overlap, and I think Yudkowsky might have even been an Extropian, in the early 2000s or something?

        One of the interesting consequences of changes in the rationalistsphere is that I don’t even really see transhumanism anymore. It seemed like it was going to be a thing, back in the mid to late 2000s. It seems to have almost disappeared. I wonder whether it was another casualty of the shift to social justice, or the shift someone suggests below in the rationalistsphere to effective altruism.

    • zzzzort says:

      Though they coexisted at times, the links between abolitionism, temperance, and women’s suffrage were much larger than the issues at play would predict.

  27. Hochreiter says:

    I’m skeptical. For one, New Atheism did seem to be a demographically white male movement, reflecting the people who were raised evangelical and enter internet forum debates. The redirection of New Atheist energies to progressivism/successor ideology/blue tribe/whathaveyou would be seen primarily in the minority of true believers who are white men. Is this a thing? The young atheist who became a DSA organizer is not an archetype I think I’ve seen the culture produce. I *have* seen the archetype of the young atheist who became a petersonian or a critic of SJWs as a “new religion”. (This mirrors most of the horsemen – Harris is critical of the Woke, Hitchens died with “evopsych says women aren’t funny” on his lips” and Dawkins was accused of xenophobic rants in the prelapsarian says of 2012). Or are we hypothesizing that activist populations were consistently distinct, but social energies transferred from New Atheism to the Great Awokening around 2015?

    • Akhorahil says:

      Yeah, I agree. There may have been a flock that just turned to the Next Big Thing when it became popular, but people like the Four Horsemen are utterly unacceptable to SJWs, and SJWs have nothing but scorn for activist atheists (because that means you’re against Islam as well, and that’s racism in the new language they invented).

      Rather, I would say that New Atheism exhausted itself by winning – most of the things it wanted, it got. Creationist teaching in school was crushed by the courts. Irreligiosity steadily rises. Acceptance of non-belief is stronger than ever. When you keep winning, there are two options open to you – radicalize or fade into the mainstream. And atheists, being dominantly liberal and scientifically minded, didn’t want to radicalize.

      You probably shouldn’t discount Trump, either – it used to be that if you wanted to fight nonsense in politics, it was predominantly religious. With Trump, it no longer is – while evangelicals overwhelmingly support him, even they probably don’t think he’s much of a believer.

      • ManyCookies says:

        And atheists, being dominantly liberal and scientifically minded, didn’t want to radicalize.

        I say this as someone in that category, those are not traits that prevent radicalization. I think the simpler explanation is that people in general just aren’t that radical, and if the immediate glaring issue start to fade away then they’re not gonna press it.

        SJWs have nothing but scorn for activist atheists (because that means you’re against Islam as well, and that’s racism in the new language they invented).

        Not a remotely charitable take of the situation. But for starters the reluctance extends across the Democrats, SJW-y or very much otherwise.

        And actually that reluctance was very much around by the mid 2000s. I wasn’t closely following that Atheist movement (being like 11 at the time) but I would be shocked if it wasn’t reflected there, or didn’t come with “This isn’t cover for hating brown people” disclaimers.

        • Zorgon says:

          Not a remotely charitable take of the situation. But for starters the reluctance extends across the Democrats, SJW-y or very much otherwise.

          Charitable or not, I’m a member of the UK National Secular Society, and a truly astonishing amount of AGM time gets spent on “how do we push back against the clearly growing issue of Islamic asecularity without being pounced on by You Know Who?” And the NSS isn’t even really atheist at its core.

          • Enkidum says:

            I’ve been throwing stuff all over this comment page coming from a fairly SJ perspective, so just let me add that I see why this particular issue is so frustrating and so hard to navigate, and why the possibility of shit blowing up in your face is real.

            That being said, I really hope your strategies are being devised by actual ex-Muslims (or if not by them, at least in concert with them), otherwise you’re wasting your time, because you need to be directly addressing their communities.

          • Zorgon says:

            That being said, I really hope your strategies are being devised by actual ex-Muslims (or if not by them, at least in concert with them), otherwise you’re wasting your time, because you need to be directly addressing their communities.

            It’s something of a mix. The NSS’s is an agnostic organisation, which is not to say atheistic – it has religious and non-religious members, and some of the non-religious members are ex-Muslims. (Not by choice, but openly secular Muslims are hard to come by these days.)

            But the organisation’s explicit goal is to reduce the influence of religion on public life; that does not truly require the input of particular religious or ethnic groups and most members, ex-Muslims included, would prefer it did not.

          • Enkidum says:

            But the organisation’s explicit goal is to reduce the influence of religion on public life; that does not truly require the input of particular religious or ethnic groups

            It does if you’re interested in success. Different religious/cultural groups operate in very different ways. To combat their overreaches, you’re going to have to address how and why they operate the way they do.

          • Zorgon says:

            I don’t disagree in principle; but in reality you don’t need the input of Muslim communities to make honour killings and FGM a greater policing priority (to pick two salient examples). The police need the input of those communities, not the NSS.

            The NSS are, at their heart, a legislative and legalistic body, focused on pushing important court cases and lobbying for specific legal changes. One primary reason the organisation fears the All Seeing Eye is because the furore raised in response to supposed “Islamophobia” severely disrupts these efforts.

          • Enkidum says:

            Fair points. I think you can predict my objections, so I’ll refrain from going further down this rabbit hole. I agree with your concerns about the overreach of the All Seeing Eye in this case.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I don’t disagree in principle; but in reality you don’t need the input of Muslim communities to make honour killings and FGM a greater policing priority (to pick two salient examples). The police need the input of those communities, not the NSS.

            If your goal is to change the policy of the police, and you acknowledge that for the policy to be effective the police need the support of the community, then you are implicitly acknowledging that the policy needs to take into account the properties of that community. To the extent that you push for any particular policies, you would want to have that knowledge as well.

          • Zorgon says:

            If your goal is to change the policy of the police, and you acknowledge that for the policy to be effective the police need the support of the community, then you are implicitly acknowledging that the policy needs to take into account the properties of that community. To the extent that you push for any particular policies, you would want to have that knowledge as well.

            You’re rewording a little. It is already the policy of the police to pursue FGM and honour killings, since they are against the law; the goal of the NSS in those areas is therefore to change the administrative and political situation so as to re-emphasise said policy and heighten its (currently disturbingly low) prioritisation.

            This requires a significant understanding of the law and of the police, not Muslim communities. The NSS are not the police and do not create policy for the police, and therefore in this context are not the group of people who would need that input.

            I should note again that the NSS does have a significant ex-Muslim contingent, which is of special use when learning what asecular issues are arising from that community. But largely the things the NSS wants to achieve do not involve directly changing elements of that community; and besides, ex-Muslims would be worse than useless in doing so, since that community actively hates and hunts apostates.

          • Enkidum says:

            I appreciate your responses, it’s making the situation a lot clearer. And I’m glad there are people like you fighting this particular fight.

            That being said…

            largely the things the NSS wants to achieve do not involve directly changing elements of that community; and besides, ex-Muslims would be worse than useless in doing so, since that community actively hates and hunts apostates.

            I agree that you wouldn’t want Ayaan Hirsi Ali to be your spokesperson for engaging with the Pakistani community in England (or whatever). But what I was referring to (and I think @HeelBearCub was as well) is that if you’re interested in success at changing behaviours, you would be well-served to actually understand the social and cognitive forces that lead to these behaviours, and to do this you 100% need to be intimately involved with the people who understand those best.

            That being said, if you’re not doing that, then perhaps it’s less urgent. I dunno.

            ETA: Just in case it’s not clear, I wasn’t trying to say that Ali is Pakistani, simply that she’s a prominent ex-Muslim and Pakistanis in Britain constitute one of the biggest Muslim communities there.

          • Zorgon says:

            But what I was referring to (and I think @HeelBearCub was as well) is that if you’re interested in success at changing behaviours, you would be well-served to actually understand the social and cognitive forces that lead to these behaviours, and to do this you 100% need to be intimately involved with the people who understand those best.

            I disagree fundamentally that conches necessarily understand conch shells better than a student of conch shells – even if that student is an octopus (or something, this analogy is falling apart a bit). Standpoint theory is not really a practical way to approach the real world.

      • Prussian says:

        Bingo, Akhorahil. That is what killed the movement – you had the absurd situation where people claimed to stand up to religious bullying, but not if meant standing up to murder for blasphemy..

  28. kalimac says:

    This is very interesting. Point regarding the timeline development: according to the same Wikipedia article you use as your link for “Four Horsemen,” the very term “New Atheism” wasn’t coined until 2006. That tends to reinforce the idea that it was primarily a later-date phenomenon than suggested by those who think, for instance, that post-9/11 trauma is what broke it up.

    Your explanation (failed hamartiology) isn’t sort of a new idea to me. I spent the heyday of New Atheism wondering why these people were so intensely passionate about what seemed to me a rather rarified and theoretical question (existence of God). I generally agreed with the thrust of their philosophy, but the whole matter didn’t really attract much of my attention. My theory to explain this difference was that the passionate atheists were reacting against oppressive religiosity in their upbringing, and some of them, who ranted about specifically that, definitely were. I had a religious upbringing, but it was neither oppressive nor socially ultra-conservative, so I had no reason to be furiously angry with it. But probably my explanation was more applicable to earlier generations of atheists. George Carlin, for instance, was furiously angry with religion, but I don’t think he’d be classified as a New Atheist.

    The only person I know still obsessed with logically proving atheism is my obnoxious and pedantic little brother. He has pretty much zero interest in social issues, but I have no doubt that he’d be on the anti-social justice side if anything, so that also agrees with your theory.

  29. Alethios says:

    An interesting postmortem with a very different perspective to my own.

    Here in New Zealand, Red/Blue Tribe dynamics shape (or at least, have shaped) the national discourse to a far lesser extent than the US. However, it seems to me that we went through a huge societal transformation during the New Atheism era: A baseline assumption of Christianity, to a baseline assumption that you held secular values, and that your religion or otherwise was an entirely private matter. Outside of minority cultural expressions and really rather quaint evangelical sideshows I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard religion being mentioned or discussed in any public context. Recent issues like gay marriage, abortion, end-of-life euthanasia are all discussed in an implicit secular context. Explicitly religious political parties have been relegated to the fringe, and find it more and more difficult to reach the 5% of the vote threshold required to take a seat in parliament (e.g. United Future disappearing, Conservatives at a permanent low ebb). Religious education and iconography is all but gone from state schools. References to Christ are being removed from parliamentary proceedings with little more than a few fundy protestors that receive little broad-base support from a still majority Christian nation.

    So from my rather parochial perspective, the tide of New Atheism went out because it basically achieved everything worth achieving. Previously being an atheist was frequently uncomfortable in many public settings. Now, if religion has minimal/no influence on public policy, and years can go by with everybody you interact with assuming secularity, what is there left to fight for? So the movement just ebbed away, or the atheist cause was swapped out for the social justice one, as you argue.

    • sharps030 says:

      Seconding this. As far as I can tell, that era went from the quiet background assumption of Christianity to the quiet background assumption of secularity. Being non-religious in public has gotten a lot easier — fewer microagressions, to use a SJW term. And, tbh, this was an explicit goal of, and a big win for, the internet atheists. Having achieved it, they’re less prominent, in the same way that gay rights groups have diminished political activism since getting marriage and adoption rights.

      Or maybe that’s just the view from NZ.

    • Harry Maurice Johnston says:

      Your timeline seems a bit off from my experience, which was that the assumption of secularism goes back at least as far as 1987. I hung around with religious folks in my undergraduate years, and I recall discussion of “closet Christians” – when I discovered the internet a few years later I was somewhat surprised/amused to find Americans talking about “closet atheists” instead.

      This may have varied from place to place within New Zealand, I suppose.

  30. Jaskologist says:

    Proposed: all of this has happened before, in pre-Soviet Russia.

    Dostoevsky wrote in Bros K:

    In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist.

    For socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on earth.

    Which is just them saying “Instead of rehearsing the same old tired arguments for or against the existence of God, it’s time to become part of the struggle for progress and equality.” some 150 years ago.

    • Quixote says:

      That’s a very interesting historical note.

    • Fluffy Buffalo says:

      Very interesting. I had been wondering if there were precedents for a movement that successfully infiltrated and partly “turned” unrelated social movements, and whether maybe communism was a good candidate.

    • mike150160 says:

      The Dostoevsky references always intrigue me. These are fiction but seem to be treated as at least biography if not history.

      You’re not the only one of course, JP references C&P as if it represents the typical thought processes of an atheist.

      • Two McMillion says:

        If you’re a religious person, it’s very difficult to get into the mind of an atheist any way except in literature. And Dostoevsky’s work is engrossing and compelling if nothing else.

        • Enkidum says:

          I found Dostoevsky very difficult to follow mostly because the thought processes he describes are so fundamentally alien to me. Growing up as an (at least) third-generation atheist, never having been to church or Sunday school, there’s nothing I ever felt I was reacting or rebelling against, except very rare and very specific cases where someone said/did something to me because of my atheism. And I’ve never felt very depressed or upset about it.

          I can’t imagine gaining any useful insight into the minds of myself or people like me, who I think probably constitute the majority of modern atheists, from his novels. But I haven’t read them all, and could definitely be blind to something in what I have read.

          ETA: “I can’t imagine gaining any useful insight into the minds of myself or people like me,” is an overstatement – better is I can’t imagine gaining any useful insight into the aspects of my mind that are central to my atheism.

          • acymetric says:

            I can’t imagine gaining any useful insight into the minds of myself or people like me, who I think probably constitute the majority of modern atheists

            I’m less certain of this than you are. If true, it is not a significant majority.

          • Enkidum says:

            I didn’t mean to refer to people who come from multi-generational families of atheists (this is trivially false, since the majority of people have always been religious), simply people whose atheism is not really founded in much of a hostile attitude to anything, who are not really rebelling against anyone.

            This is definitely not representative of most atheists in places where religion still dominates politics and culture, however, where you have to be willing to take an explicit stance against your own society.

        • AlesZiegler says:

          I am afraid that if you are trying to get into the mind of an atheist through reading Dostoevsky, great antiatheist, you are doing it wrong.

          • Viliam says:

            Well, at least you get familiar with the usual strawmen. Don’t all atheists grow through the phase when they murder their neighbors because without God there is no reason not to?

          • Zorgon says:

            “22, M, GSOH, Atheist. I have killed 12.”

      • Protagoras says:

        Dostoevsky writes great characters, his atheist characters included. But none of them are particularly typical; they nearly all make terrible choices pretty consistently. So while they no doubt remind us of ourselves in our worst moments (though for most of us even in our worst moments our bad choices aren’t quite that bad), they definitely aren’t useful as examples of typical anything.

        • Jaskologist says:

          I find him relevant in this case because, though he is writing fiction, the setting is then-present-day Russia. I think we can presume that he is describing the social climate there with a fair degree of accuracy, even if his characters themselves are exaggerated. Certainly the ideas he is engaging with then were ideas that were in the water, and provide us some data points about how those philosophies developed in Russia.

          • Jaskologist says:

            For comparison, there’s a thread in the current OT where people are using Jane Austin’s novels to learn what the Anglican rules on married clergy were.

            Austin also wrote contemporary fiction. We don’t expect information about the Darcy family to be true, but if she portrays clergymen seeking wives as a normal thing in society, that’s really strong evidence that it was indeed a normal thing that the church allowed.

      • Protagoras says:

        Obviously Raskolnikov is (and is meant to be) an outlier in lots of ways other than his atheism. In fairness to Dostoevsky, we should also remember Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, a much more reasonable atheist (well, by the standards set by the usual unreasonability of Dostoevsky characters in general). For that matter, the underground man, pathetic though he is, would surely never murder anyone.

    • SaudaraX says:

      I was also struck by the parallels with the 19th century. Marx and Engels began their engagement with philosophy through the Young Hegelian critique of religion, before turning to socialist politics. In Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843-4), he writes

      For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.’

      He goes on to state that

      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.

    • zzzzort says:

      At the very least, the Russian example shows humanity’s ability to build a perfectly shitty society without the help of organized belief in God. Which is to say, whatever the reason for New Atheism’s decline, the implied thesis of religion -> everything wrong with the world was always pretty clearly wrong.

  31. Clutzy says:

    If you want to turn this into a series, or make an addendum, perhaps also investigate people converting to climate change from atheism in this same vein.

    As a non-atheist I don’t really feel qualified onto why people choose these “hamartiologies”, I simply from afar have observed them as always being similar to an evangelist religion. And since you think people are always converting between these secular religions, it makes sense to me that they evangelize so much. I don’t doubt the common sense wisdom of, “the zeal of the convert”; Sohrab Ahmari being the example of our times.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      Interesting point about people converting among secular religions.
      This research from Pew shows that Americans who change religion or affiliation once, frequently do it multiple times. Assuming that religious and non-religious people are not hugely dispositionally different, then irreligious people would change their shtick similarly frequently. The thing that caught my eye in the chart was how many Protestants became unaffiliated changed affiliation multiple times.

      I need help understanding the chart on religious changing though. Is it claiming that of those who change religion, between 1/5th and 1/3rd change religions multiple times before landing on unaffiliated?

  32. meh says:

    If I were to describe the power of New Atheism over online discourse to a teenager, they would never believe me. Why should they?

    Their age group is also probably ~40% non-religious

    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/

  33. Atlas says:

    A lot of this is very good and I’ll explicate/expand on how I agree with it in later comments. But for now I just want to say that I’m still a little skeptical of the thesis that New Atheism was replaced/subsumed by Social Justice. I think the Intellectual Dark Web (e.g. Quillette) might be a closer current analogue. My metric is famous leaders of the movement, because it seems easier but probably still informative to track their personal ideological positions than to longitudinally study internet browsing habits of the masses.

    I agree with Scott that PZ Myers seems like a New Atheist who was attracted to Social Justice for similar reasons. But he seems more like an exception than a modal or very informative case to me. The most famous New Atheists were the so-called “Four Horsemen:” Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is dead, but I don’t think he was really a Social Justice type—he wrote a well-known article about how women aren’t funny and moved pretty far to the neoconservative right post-9/11. Dawkins emphatically criticizes Islam, and he was apparently involved in a 2011 Social Justice scandal (that Scott upthread seemingly doesn’t want people to talk about but I hope I can at least euphemistically allude to) on the anti-SJ side. I’m not very familiar with Dennett’s work, but from what little I know I’d be shocked if he’s really into Social Justice.

    I think these are all pretty good pieces of evidence for my argument, but I’ve saved the best for last: Sam Harris. Harris is not only not a Social Justice partisan, the way e.g. Dennett might be. He isn’t only someone who occasionally feuds with Social Justice mobs, like Dawkins. He’s someone whose brand and intellectual output has become substantially about being anti-Social Justice. He invites people like Charles Murray, Jonathan Haidt, the Weinstein brothers, Douglas Murray, Nicholas Christakis, J[0]rdan B. P***rson and Geoff Miller on his podcast. His invitation of Charles Murray in particular was very controversial, and he later debated Ezra Klein on the issues that it raises.

    I don’t know, I won’t claim to follow all the complexities, or even the major facts, of the issue, but I kind of wonder how many people were big fans of Sam Harris back when he was best known for being a New Atheist but now hate him for being anti-Social Justice? I would suspect that a lot more people liked him back when he was mostly attacking religion, and still like him now because they like that he’s attacking Social Justice.

    Also, I kind of get what Scott is saying about how New Atheists were/are similar in affect to Social Justice proponents, but I feel like you could make an equally valid or superior comparison with IDW types. They make a lot of basically valid arguments, but they (or at least the unwashed masses following them) can also be uncharitable and obnoxious towards their enemies. They both really worry about a problem that seems trivial to critics, but which they see as a reality-distortion-field that causes a lot of other problems. They both really, really enjoy aggressive confrontation with people who believe in the idea that they oppose. (Another example would be Sargon of Akkad, who has said that he was really inspired by the Four Horsemen.)

    • Enkidum says:

      I don’t think the claim is that New Atheism merged into the social justice movement, I think the claim is that the branch of New Atheism that Freethought Blogs exemplified did. Which is clearly true.

      And I think there’s a very simple schism in two directions, with a few people like Dennett essentially withdrawing themselves from the fray. Myers, Watson, and others were hugely influential at the time, albeit less so than the Four Horsemen, and their side went SJ, while the people you’ve mentioned went in the other direction.

      • Atlas says:

        I think that would certainly be a more defensible claim, but I’m not sure Scott was making it in OP as precisely/carefully as are you. He wrote:

        New Atheism was also more centralized. EIAC was every man for himself; you would march forth alone into your chosen bulletin board and engage, neither seeking or receiving any help beyond precooked arguments from your local armory-site. New Atheism, for the first time, started to have celebrities. Richard Dawkins, of course, and the Four Horsemen, but also random bloggers like PZ Myers and Stephanie Zvan. These were the days when bloggers filled auditoria and travelled in high-altitude balloons. Every day they would tell you the latest reason to be outraged about religion, and every day you would discuss it on social media and comment sections and get appropriately angry.

        This corresponds to the peak of Freethought Blogs on the traffic graph above, and ended around 2016. What happened to it?

        I think it seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement. [Based on the preceding paragraph, I take “it” here to mean New Atheism generally, not specifically the Freethought Blogs subset, perhaps I’m misunderstanding. In any case, I don’t think the distinction is emphasized enough.]

        This probably comes as a surprise, seeing as how everyone else talks about how atheists are heavily affiliated with the modern anti-social justice movement. I think that’s the wrong takeaway. Sure, a lot of people who identify as atheists now are pretty critical of social justice. That’s because the only people remaining in the atheist movement are the people who didn’t participate in the mass transformation into social justice. It is no contradiction to say both “Most of the pagans you see around these days are really opposed to Christianity” and “What ever happened to all the pagans there used to be? They all became Christian.”

        I guess it’s not obvious to me (I’ll reread the relevant section of OP) why we should believe that the New Atheist—>Social Justice transformation was larger than the New Atheist—>Anti-Social Justice transformation. (And I think a comparison of the two is highly pertinent to OP’s argument.) I could be convinced of that, but based the evidence I mentioned in my original comment I’m currently still fairly skeptical of it.

        • Enkidum says:

          I think I misread the reference of “it” in the second and third paragraphs. In which case I stand by my earlier claim that it bifurcated.

        • Tarpitz says:

          I guess it’s not obvious to me (I’ll reread the relevant section of OP) why we should believe that the New Atheist—>Social Justice transformation was larger than the New Atheist—>Anti-Social Justice transformation.

          I think the assumption – right or wrong – is that New Atheism and Social Justice are both vastly larger (in terms of membership/ground level online presence) than Anti-Social Justice, so Anti-Social Justice can’t be where very much of the New Atheist membership went, even if it is where much of the leadership has ended up.

          • Enkidum says:

            I think that assumption has to be wrong. Harris, Dawkins, etc (not to mention the various youtubers) continue to have massive audiences, and continue to be important influences on all sorts of online shenanigans. I’d assume the two “sides” are fairly equally-matched.

          • Spot says:

            I think the assumption – right or wrong – is that New Atheism and Social Justice are both vastly larger (in terms of membership/ground level online presence) than Anti-Social Justice

            I think this is assumption is wrong, and while it doesn’t invalidate the article, it’s a point that Scott maybe could have made more carefully. I think Anti-Social Justice (plus their sympathizers and on-off associates) is quite large – maybe not as large as Social Justice or New Atheism, but not “vastly” smaller – and I think it did absorb a significant number of New Atheists after the movement’s collapse.

            I’d argue that people tend to underestimate the size of ASJ because SJ has huge – albeit sometimes tepid – support in left-leaning legacy media (which is to say, most legacy media) and ASJ doesn’t.

    • eyeballfrog says:

      As an aside, is Jordan Peterson really censored?

    • Akrasian says:

      Another current SJ figure, Contrapoints, was apparently involved in the youtube skeptic community. She is of course a minor figure compared to your examples, but I don’t think SJ has major figures in the same way a New Atheism or the IDW does. The reasons for this would be another interesting question.

      • ManyCookies says:

        Well they don’t have major Youtube figures like Ben Shapiro or whatever, or at least are way less popular. That’s kinda our online bubble. But now that I think about it, is there a definitive progressive/SJ personality in the “mainstream” or whatever? AOC arguably, sorta…?

        • I wouldn’t call AOC a SJ personality. She’s more of an old-school socialist. She recently endorsed Bernie Sanders—if we identify the SJ camp with the people who think “Berniebros” are a thing, she can’t be put in that camp. She is definitely not a SJW.

          In general, “SJ personality” is more of an externally-applied epithet than something people identify as themselves. Kind of like “neoliberal”. SJ is part of a broader package of liberal/socialist politics, not a cleanly separable thing.

          • Enkidum says:

            I would disagree. She’s very much an old-school socialist with a very strong commitment to identity/SJ framing as well.

            Frankly, she gives me some hope for the future.

        • Spot says:

          Maybe people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and DeRay Mckesson for antiracism? Contemporary/fourth wave feminism is tougher: there are a LOT of minor public figures known for their feminist work, but very few that could be called anything close to famous. All I can really think of are people like Jessica Valenti, Lindy West, Rebecca Traister, etc. – and of course they don’t have anything remotely like the star power of the Four Horsemen at their peak.

          How can this be so given the movement’s enormous cultural power? I’ve noticed that the public imagination, SJ seems to be represented less by individuals than by grassroots movements, eg Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Occupy to a lesser extent, etc. Why is this the case? I’m not exactly sure.

          • Aapje says:

            Isn’t it because it is mandatory among the ‘elite?’ You don’t need Stalin to purge the unbelievers when there are a million little Stalins in positions of power.

            Ultimately, mainstream SJ isn’t at all intellectual, but really just ‘benevolent’ racism/sexism/etc. You don’t need advanced coordination if all that is needed is strong bias.

          • Spot says:

            Isn’t it because it is mandatory among the ‘elite?’ You don’t need Stalin to purge the unbelievers when there are a million little Stalins in positions of power.

            Maybe, but this framing presents some problems in the context of the “hamartiology” hypothesis. I think Scott is right that there was a period in which New Atheism was basically fashionable in urban Blue (“elite”) circles in a way that is at least somewhat analogous to social justice today. So why did New Atheism give rise to big-name celebrities and not SJ? It’s especially striking because I would say SJ is a) an even more politically important phenomenon and b) is more entwined with Blue identity than New Atheism ever was.

          • Aapje says:

            I think that the main reasons why it seems that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a smaller celebrity is because SJ is a much bigger tent, with much more internal disagreement. Ta-Nehisi Coates has sold 1.5 million copies of his second book, while the most popular atheist book, The God Delusion, sold 3 million copies over a much longer period. I predict that Ta-Nehisi Coates will reach that.

            In any case, they seem very similar in how big they are, relative to society as a whole, although Coates is far less read by those who identify as SJ than Dawkins was read by those who identify as atheist.

            I think that this is caused in part by there being extremely broad support for the abstract/claimed goals of SJ (including by anti-SJ people) and lots of people being recruited into sympathy for SJ by way of fairly hollow memes. I saw a very large number of claims like this: “feminism = the radical notion that women are people too.” There seems to be a constant supply of bland SJ memes that SJ advocates interpret very differently (equal pay, black lives matter, believe women, etc).

            So this kind of rhetoric caused widespread agreement that feminism/anti-racism/SJ/etc is necessary and great, while those sympathizers often have radically different interpretations of what feminism/anti-racism/SJ/etc actually is. In fact, it seems like the joke about Jews/philosophers/etc: if you ask 10 X’s for their opinion, you get 11 answers.

            More specifically, I think that there are a huge number of people who support SJ in a very, very, very moderate way. These people are turned off immensely when Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about reparations or anything else more radical than what moderate politicians and pundits are already saying (note that fairly core aspects of SJ ideology like political correctness are extremely disfavored).

            So essentially, there is no space for radical SJ advocates that find favor with all those who consider themselves to be a SJ advocate of some kind. The moderates don’t like Ta-Nehisi Coates, but prefer Michelle Obama’s books and such, who is herself a casual SJ advocate.

            In contrast, atheism was never mandatory in the blue tribe. Despite this meme, the blue tribe never widely accepted that religious people were necessarily anti-science. The result was that the atheist community agreed more on the substance.

            Tl;DR: The more mandatory an identity is to be accepted by your peers, the less agreement there is on what the ideology behind the identity actually is.

  34. skybrian says:

    re: “conservativism began with the cotton plant in Jamestown”

    Uh, did you mean tobacco? I don’t know how cotton-growing got started, but the Jamestown colonists were so busy growing tobacco that they didn’t grow enough corn to feed themselves and had to trade for it with the Indians. They also attacked the people they depended on for food. Rather than being particularly conservative, the enterprise seems more like a spectacularly ignorant, desperate, floundering get-rich scheme.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      Strict historical accuracy isn’t the point – it’s not like the Bible got started in Jerusalem, that Islam and Christianity are “Bronze Age” religions, or that their origin stories are “3,000 years old” either. It’s more about the spirit of the atheists/SJW’s beliefs.

  35. Reasoner says:

    I blame this comic for the internet’s decreased intellectualism when it comes to arguments:

    https://www.xkcd.com/438/

    People no longer endorse arguing online the way they used to.

    • Reasoner says:

      Oh sorry I meant this comic: https://www.xkcd.com/386/

      Anyway, Scott writes: “Maybe it took about ten years from the founding of the Internet for people to really internalize that online arguments didn’t change minds.” I actually disagree. I think online arguments do change minds, to a scary large degree. For example, look at the newfound popularity of socialism, the newfound acceptance of and advocacy for transfolk, the success of Donald Trump. In all cases these ideas were initially fringe and benefited hugely from internet followings.

      You might say “the stupidity of Trump support proves arguments don’t change minds” or similar. But how much anti-Trump efforts are actually doing their level best to meet Trump supporters from where they’re coming from and actually be persuasive, vs just rallying anti-Trump people together? There’s so much preaching to the choir nowadays that actually engaging with opponents can have a disproportionate memetic impact. Even in subreddits explicitly devoted to mocking one or another group of people, I’ve been upvoted for stating counterarguments in a calm, fact-based, non-antagonistic way. Sure, the person you’re arguing with is never going to come out and say “you changed my mind”. But that doesn’t matter, because there are 100 people reading for each person actually contributing to the discussion.

      The issue, from my perspective, is that the people who have the most time to argue online are often those with the least worthwhile to say.

      • eyeballfrog says:

        Even in subreddits explicitly devoted to mocking one or another group of people, I’ve been upvoted for stating counterarguments in a calm, fact-based, non-antagonistic way.

        Are those the SRS-type subreddits or the TumblrInAction-type subreddits?

      • Two McMillion says:

        I actually disagree. I think online arguments do change minds, to a scary large degree. For example, look at the newfound popularity of socialism, the newfound acceptance of and advocacy for transfolk, the success of Donald Trump. In all cases these ideas were initially fringe and benefited hugely from internet followings.

        Did these become more popular because of arguments, or because people adopted these beliefs as fashions?

  36. smilerz says:

    I think hamartiology is a pretty good explanation, John McWhorter’s theory that SJW is really just religion gets to a similar conclusion, though from a different direction. I was always a little turned off by that exact framing though, as it’s too easy to throw out as an accusation of”that’s just a religion (blind faith, etc) to simply dismiss a set of beliefs and close down conversation.

    But humans love heuristics that explain the universe, and having a simple heuristic that can explain why things are screwed up seems like an almost universal need. And with the overall fall of religiosity it seems like something had to replace it, right? So why not SJW?

    And, FWIW, this feels pretty close to John McWhorter’s theory that SJW is really just religion – though approaching that conclusion from a slightly different direction.

  37. Freddie deBoer says:

    The very first thing that I ever wrote that got any attention was a piece about how I was an atheist who rejected the New Atheists for their demeanor. I wouldn’t write it today; pendulum swung too far.

  38. Tyrrell McAllister says:

    A point of contention needs to excite both sides of the dispute to become the kind of protracted discourse-dominating argument that New Atheism was in its day and that Social Justice is now.

    So it seems important that New Atheism and Social Justice both provide two-sided hamartiologies. They don’t just give their followers a simple explanation for why the rest of the world is evil. They also give the rest of the world a simple explanation for why the followers are evil.

    On the one hand, as Scott says, followers get one simple point on which to hammer the rest of the world (god-belief or racism). But on the other hand, the rest of the world gets one simple point on which to hammer followers (god-denial or race-baiting).

    “Of course atheists do terrible things. Their defining quality is their rejection God, who is the fount of all goodness. Without God, all is permitted.”

    or

    “Of course SJWs do terrible things. They think that they’re the victims of terrible oppression, so they’ll do anything to unite their fellows, and they’ll feel no mercy for their perceived oppressors.”

    Each side feels like they’ve exactly nailed what’s wrong with the other side. Each side feels confident that a position grounded in such a simple truth cannot lose in debate. Each side has a simple explanation for why the other must be stopped. So each side fights tirelessly for years, until the next yet-more-irresistible crux comes along.

  39. DP_Roberts says:

    Early in my career, I was on a consulting project for a multi-billion dollar home security company with atrocious customer retention numbers that were quickly moving in the wrong direction. As we dug into the reasons for attrition, the cause became extremely clear: Their door-to-door salesmen were signing up customers who they knew had no promise of enduring as customers for more than a few months. They were selling to people with terrible credit and low incomes, and in many cases committing outright fraud and signing up people who had no idea they were agreeing to a home security contract.

    The cause of this bad behavior was also extremely clear: The company created enormous incentive jumps. Below 100 accounts, you might make $250 per account; but above 100 you make $500 per account RETROACTIVELY APPLIED. This means that your 100th sale would literally make you $25,000 and be the difference between a successful summer and a complete waste of time. As the summer neared its end, panicked salesmen would do whatever it took to get to number 100.

    We recommended that they adopt a more gradual pay scale with smaller bumps, and the executive overseeing our project told us “We can’t do that.” We asked why, and he said “because panic is an exponentially more effective motivator than desire.” They had tried implementing the gradual pay scale and sales, both legitimate and otherwise, had plummeted.

    I think about that a lot in the context of politics. Panic is strongly incentivized. “These people want to destroy you, your people, and your way of life” is exponentially more powerful than “these people have a bad governing philosophy that will lead to disastrous outcomes.” This incentive is so strong, that the political powers at be will naturally align themselves around whatever scissor statement will create the most mutual panic.

    Sure, New Atheism/Social Justice is essentially an evolving leftist attempt at hamartiology, but it’s an economically incentivized one. Why the shift? I think it has to do with “the rise of the nones.” Religious scissor statements were no longer as panic-inducing when fewer people take religion seriously.

    Additionally, it does seem like there is a hierarchy: Race/origin is the default division and is most powerful, religion comes next, and class divisions come third, usually when a population is so homogenous that racial and religious divisions become difficult to make. Many people have wondered why the US is so much less socialist and so much less class-warfare-inclined than other nations. Maybe it’s as simple as class divisions being crowded out of the market in the context of unparalleled religious and racial diversity.

    Where do we go next? I think the current SJ dividing line (race/sex/orientation) is here to stay for the next 50 or so years. But eventually, in a society that is ethnically mixed beyond any ability to draw clear lines and homogenous in its irreligiosity, we shall finally stabilize around being panicked by class-based divisions, like a nice, normal country is supposed to.

  40. Glossy says:

    Atheism has increased in America. Atheism is correlated with IQ, which is unfortunate, because it’s also correlated with childlessness. So I’m not happy about this increase, even though I’m an atheist.

    Anyway, maybe arguments about atheism decreased because atheism has taken up a larger share of the smart section of the population. The point on the IQ distribution where the forces of atheism and religion are anywhere close to a match has moved down. Most of the arguments probably happen around that point. If it’s sufficiently low, you wouldn’t even notice those arguments. It wouldn’t be reflected in searches of the NYT, it would happen in parts of Twitter you don’t look at, in a style you’d find boring.

    People dunk on each other on Twitter, occasionally even have back-and-forth exchanges, but the average person doesn’t post long screeds and get equally long responses fisking each of their points.”

    People interested in political discussions moved from blogs to Twitter. I don’t know why. These two platforms are so different. Blogs seem much more suitable for debate. And it didn’t look like a case of one generation having a shorter attention span than its predecessors. The whole scene, the same group of people, moved to Twitter in the span of a year or two. Of course discussions are going to be shorter and shallower on Twitter – it’s the nature of the medium.

    I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe it took about ten years from the founding of the Internet for people to really internalize that online arguments didn’t change minds.

    You’re not going to change the mind of the person you’re arguing WITH. Defensiveness sets in. You’re really under attack when others argue with you. But onlookers? Of course their minds can be changed by arguments that they witness, especially if they’re under 30. Happens all the time, happened to me. The protagonists learned about that through comments, which gave them additional motivation to continue.

    And anyway, it’s like war for wusses. Even if you’re not convincing anyone, stopping feels like defeat. So people still argue a lot, but for some reason on Twitter and not on blogs, and therefore in a less detailed, more immediate, less intellectual way. That change I can’t really explain. But no, this demographic hasn’t learned that arguing is useless. Only the style and the medium changed.

    Or maybe it was something else. Maybe it was that getting online was actually pretty hard in those days, you needed to be technically inclined or attending a college or both, and so netizens were just more educated.

    On Twitter smart people are only really talking to smart people. Worlds and social classes don’t collide there any more than they did in the blogging or IRC periods.

    When the Internet was small and confined to an optimistic group of technophile intellectuals, this spawned Early Internet Argument Culture, where we tried to iron out our differences through Reason. We hoped that the new world the Web revealed to us could be managed in the same friendly way we managed differences with our crazy uncle or the next-door neighbor.

    You’re severely underestimating how fractious, conflict-prone and dogmatic computer nerds are, and smart guys in general. The least conflict-prone people are in the upper middle of the IQ distribution. The low and high ends are trouble.

    As friendly debate started feeling more and more inadequate, and as newer and less nerdy people started taking over the Internet, this dream receded. In its place, we were left with an intolerable truth: a lot of people seem really horrible, and refuse to stop being horrible even when we ask them nicely.

    Richard Stallman was in the news recently. Close to peak early nerd. Is he friendly in debates?

    The Blue Tribe kept posing its same identity question: “Who am I? What defines me?”

    They’re people who want to feel more upscale, more sophisticated than others. People who’re actually sophisticated don’t even notice it, it’s a “do fish know they’re in water?” thing for them, so there’s a lot of wishful striving and pretentiousness in the Blue Tribe. Actually-upscale people are mostly liberal, but matter-of-factly, without that passion for mocking “the rubes”.

    Most movement atheists weren’t in it for the religion. They were in it for the hamartiology. Once they got the message that the culture-at-large had settled on a different, better hamartiology, there was no psychological impediment to switching over.

    You’ve got a point there, yes.

    • Anthony says:

      People interested in political discussions moved from blogs to Twitter. I don’t know why.

      This ties in to my hypothesis. In November 2017, Twitter went from 140 characters to 280 characters, which makes it much easier to send a debating point in one tweet, and easier to have twitter threads that don’t break between sentences.

  41. Anatoly says:

    >We woke up one morning and the atheist bloggers LessWrong-style rationalists had all quietly became social justice bloggers effective altruists. Nothing else had changed because nothing else had to; the underlying itch being scratched was the same. They just had to CTRL+F and replace a couple of keywords.

    • James Banks says:

      So that’s a case of anti-theism giving way to a different positive humanistic program.

      Is EA based in hamartiology? I think it’s a lot different than social justice atheism. EA being constructive, social justice being conflict-based, in general. Maybe “the next hamartiology” (someday) after conflict-based altruism will be toward constructive altruism (the sin will be to turn on people aggressively). I guess the “should we attack the evil elite / evil culture or build a better society / change through healing?” debate exists already off in the corner (a tension between left on one hand and liberals and Christians on the other). But that might not make a good Internet debate because one side wouldn’t be interested in participating.

      • Randy M says:

        Was less wrong anti-theistic? I always saw them as predominantly atheist but mostly just bored of the question and more interested in how and why people come to conclusions .

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Less Wrong was totally anti-theistic. It just didn’t come up much because religion was seen as not even worth debating.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The Sequences contain a number of New-Atheist-style digs at religion, often ones that are wrong at a basic factual level.

          • Randy M says:

            Yes, true, but that wasn’t the thrust of their discussions in my experience. Perhaps that was my selecting particular posts or arriving late.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            Yeah, that actually made them less irritating to me, because I could happily ignore them while grappling with whatever larger point the article was making.

        • Gilbert says:

          I think the “Rationalist” community became less anti-theist over time as it grew into an own identity, much like it happened with social justice atheists.

          In the beginning it was basically an outgrowth of the Internet atheist movement Scott described here. That movement was very much about religion being dumb rather than just false and that’s were a detailed theory of why otherwise smart people think dumb things came in. A lack in rationality-as-opposed-to-intelligence was a popular answer and Overcoming Bias went one step meta in asking what other irrational beliefs might spring from the same root causes and selling the worried atheist nerd a complete solution. Religion always being the standard example of dumbness was a symptom. But more generally about all of the early “Rationalist” community was recruited from Internet atheism and saw “rationality” as the technology to solve religion-like things. In those times there was much optimism that learning about cognitive biases would actually protect against them and early “Rationalists” were sure that even odd-ball religious people reading the Sequences would either refuse to engage them or, if they allowed enough contact to understand them, necessarily become atheists soon after.

          Note, how this is very similar to the early years of Marxism or Psychoanalysis.

          During the Less Wrong and Diaspora epoch the atheism gradually got deemphasized. Part of this was probably no longer needing the graft it grew on and also that graft dying of as described in this post. Another part was general deemphasizing of the founder. And I think there also was a gradual realization that reading about cognitive biases isn’t that much help in overcoming them, and a corresponding decline of the expectation that “Rationalists” should basically come to agree on all the rational beliefs.

          Nowadays I think atheism is still part of the assumed cultural background of “Rationalism”, sort of like some religions are for some ethnicities. But I think much like atheism for social justice bloggers it’s no longer something they deeply care about.

          • Nick says:

            I think it also helped that, at least for SSC in the early days of the diaspora, Scott was always willing to engage with religious folks. He was happy to review Feser’s The Last Superstition or engage with BadCatholic about abortion statistics or talk MacIntyre and virtue ethics. Yudkowsky by contrast is nearly Bulverist: “It’s obvious to all present that you’re wrong, so let me tell you how you got that way….”

            Also, long time no see.

        • Corey says:

          EY himself said that atheism was a basic baseline in the process of raising the sanity waterline. It’s one of those things that was in the water there, like cryonics.

          It stuck out to me, having gone from late-2000s Less Wrong to no engagement with the community to late-2010s SSC, where the modal commenter is a devout Christian up in arms about gay wedding cakes.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Hooray, I’m a modal commentator!

            Wait, I thought you said model. 🙂

          • Nick says:

            I mean, I’m often the one up in arms about gay wedding cakes, but I’ve been reading Scott since the Livejournal days and read the Sequences even earlier.

          • profgerm says:

            Is that really reflected in Scott’s surveys? Or is that just an intuition based on the same phenomenon he’s describing in this article?

            The activist atheists moved on to be other kinds of activists, the less-activist atheists stuck to Scott for sake of continuing to be mostly (if weakly) anti-authoritarian, and he accumulated a handful or two of religious followers that had common cause with the less-activist atheists (and, as Nick pointed out, he’s considerably less anti-theist than many rationalist writers).

          • Nick says:

            @profgerm You’re missing that comment frequency varies. Religious commenters tend to be so in both senses of the word.

          • Randy M says:

            Religious commenters tend to be so in both senses of the word.

            My productivity would improve if I only came here a couple hours a week. :/

          • Nick says:

            My productivity would improve if I only came here a couple hours a week. :/

            I keep hoping for Deiseach to come back from one of her bans having written a novel or something.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            where the modal commenter is a devout Christian up in arms about gay wedding cakes.

            up in arms about Christians being forced to contribute to a gay wedding ceremony.

  42. Yosarian2 says:

    Really interesting argument.

    One thing that went unmentioned is that it feels like at some point in this time period (I guess between 2008 and 2016) the Republican party seemed to go through a similar change but in the opposite direction, and also went form talking less about religion and more about other culture war issues (to a point where an argument can be made that “white identity politics” helped Trump win the Republican primary in 2016, despite him fairly obviously not being a religious person in any real sense.)

    I’m wondering which one happened first; did Republicans become more less focused on religion and more focused on racialized issues because Democrats now were, or did it go the other way around? Or maybe both were caused by the fact the Democrats had elected a black president?

    • Nornagest says:

      I’m pretty sure the rise of idpol issues in the establishment left — which I’d date to about midway through Obama’s second term — is tightly linked to the earlier movement in that direction among the online left, and the latter can be traced back at least as far as RaceFail (2009). There aren’t any comparable online antecedents to Trumpism, and the timing doesn’t work out for it to be a reaction to Obama’s election; the rightist blog scene hated him, of course, and the likes of He-who-must-not-be-named — less Voldy himself than some of his fellow travelers — arguably contributed some intellectual DNA, but it took Trump himself to crystallize vague feelings of restlessness and betrayal into the religiously ambivalent populist nativism that we’re all familiar with. The Tea Party for example — which was largely a reaction to Obama, though less, I think, to his race and more to his handling of the recession — was quite a different animal.

      • matthewravery says:

        Wasn’t Birtherism the direct antecedent to Trumpism? Isn’t a lot of that, like, straight out of the internet during Obama’s first term?

        • Nornagest says:

          Too narrow. An observer — especially one who’s predisposed to view everything the right does through the lens of racism and willful ignorance — could certainly look back at the birth certificate business and see a premonition of Trump, but it’d take a lot of creativity to get the actual ideological shifts we’ve since seen right of the aisle from it.

          • matthewravery says:

            Trump’s political brand was “the birth certificate business”.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            Trump’s political brand was “the birth certificate business”.

            That’s a particular expression of Trumpism, not a core component. Trump’s schtick is he tells it like it is and not being afraid of the other side calling him racist, not caring about respectable opinion because he Speaks The Truth, etc.

            So being willing to embrace Birtherism is what makes Trump Trump, without Birthism itself being necessarily Trumpist. Does that make sense?

          • mtraven says:

            Trump’s schtick is he tells it like it is.

            Oh sure, Trump is definitely associated with a strong commitment to truth-telling.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            That’s his brand to his supporters, not a reflection of objective truth, clearly.

      • philwelch says:

        The main precursors to Trump were paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan, whose stances on immigration, protectionism, and to some extent military intervention were unique on the American right before Trump. Buchanan first gained national prominence in 1992, when he tried to primary George HW Bush, lost, and proceeded to endorse Bush in a famous RNC speech where he declared that America was in the midst of a “culture war” over abortion, gay rights, and women in the military.

        The only online aspect of this might be the paleolibertarians. Paleolibertarianism was born when Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell chose to align with paleoconservatives, even explicitly endorsing Buchanan himself. Paleolibertarians went online just as all the other libertarians did, and some paleoconservatives, including Buchanan himself, still contribute to their blogs to this day (antiwar.com for one).

        The most internet-prominent paleolibertarian was ultimately Ron Paul. In fact, one of his former advisors, and the likely ghostwriter of his controversial newsletters, was none other than Lew Rockwell himself. Ron Paul’s fiscal conservatism inspired the Tea Party, but his isolationism was a much clearer break from mainstream Republican doctrine. To be clear, I don’t see Ron Paul as a clear precursor to Trump, but I think he did open the door to fundamentally redefining what it meant to be a Republican. He was also the first candidate to inspire the kind of disproportionately fanatical online enthusiasm later seen with Sanders and Yang.

    • If you look up “Great Awokening”, you can see that it was white liberals who changed most dramatically.

  43. Big Jay says:

    I was never into either the new atheism nor the social justice movement, and that’s probably because I follow a different hamartiology. I generally think that sin* exists because sin evolved – in game theory terms, because “always cooperate” is an easily dominated strategy and those who followed it didn’t leave many descendants. This strain of thought seems to be associated with the “intellectual dark web”, where “dark” is a reference to the lack of a corresponding soteriology**.

    * Used here to mean predatory behavior, willful deception, selfishness, etc.
    **Theory of salvation

  44. I wanted to comment to say: This is a great post and I hope your curiosity leads you down the History Of The Internet From A Social Perspective^TM rabbit hole a few more times in future! Turns out while I’m usually not that interested in regular history, apparently this brand of history fascinates me!

    Also, this actually made SJW much more understandable/accessible to me; I wasn’t in the New Atheism movement, although I did try to get into it for a while (being an atheist), but the methods just seemed so foreign to me. And they still do seem foreign to me now, but now I know I sort of tried something similar (albeit near-infinitely milder) in the early internet. So there’s now a semantic bridge between that and SJW. It’s still not my thing, in the sense that I would like the style of discourse associated with it to go away, but it no longer feels like it came completely out of nowhere.

    But anyway. Please dig up more about the history of the internet, if your muse allows! 🙂

    • John Schilling says:

      Yes, independent of the Atheist-specific aspects, I did enjoy being reminded of the Early Internet Argument Culture and the rest. Somehow, I don’t think I’ve seen that bit of social history laid out very well anywhere else, and it deserves more than being a sideshow here.

    • Nick says:

      I too really like history like this. Like I said elsewhere, Scott should an archaeology tag for things like this. 😀

  45. I’m not really buying the framing here. Those are two separate trends that happened for different reasons. New Atheism died because atheism has basically won. People are becoming less religious over time and it doesn’t look like the trend is going to change any time soon. When you win, you spend less time talking about it. The rise in social justice issues happened because of stuff like Ferguson and Michael Brown. Sure, maybe some of the New Atheists put more of their time in to it, but I don’t think they caused anything.

    • Enkidum says:

      Because a lot of the specific people who were thought of as important members of New Atheism (although, really, this amounts to Freethought Blogs, Skepchicks, and people in their orbit) ended up converting to writing almost exclusively about social justice.

      As noted above in discussion with Atlas, I think it’s more accurate to say that things bifurcated, with most of the actual biggest names becoming exceptionally hostile to the modern social justice movement, and vice versa.

      • They probably started writing more about social justice because atheism was becoming boring(having won) and Social Justice became the hot new trend. New Atheists were already Democrats so it’s a natural segue. I’m sure they also spent more time talking about Game of Thrones but it would absurd to suggest that the show “killed” the New Atheist movement.

    • “New Atheism died because atheism has basically won. People are becoming less religious over time and it doesn’t look like the trend is going to change any time soon.”

      What’s really different between then and now? The large majority of people still identify as religious, and you could have identified that same long term secularization trend in 2005 as well.

      • 2005 was still early. Remember that the rise in people identifying with no religion really only started in the 90’s. I’m guessing people still thought they could fight back the trend. But it’s more entrenched now with no sign of stopping.

        I’ve also seen data that suggests that declines in religiosity aren’t just a young people thing but it’s happening across nearly every demographic. That’s more concerning.

      • matthewravery says:

        “Winning” in this case doesn’t mean that everyone’s now an atheist. It means that now no one really cares if you’re an atheist. There are fewer overt signals from society that you don’t belong if you’re an atheist. There are fewer public events/ceremonies with overtly religious text or subtext that you’re expected to participate in as a matter of course.

        sharps30 put it well above:

        Being non-religious in public has gotten a lot easier — fewer microagressions, to use a SJW term.

        This may not have been what leaders of the movement(s?) Scott discussed above envisioned as success, but it seems like that’s what most of the followers actually cared about.

  46. AllAmericanBreakfast says:

    If you’re into social justice and call someone a racist or a sexist, they typically don’t want to identify that way. They don’t want to ironically claim the label, either.

    Atheists participate in Satanism, and will happily refer to themselves as evil, as going to hell. They have fully embraced the ostracizing labels that religious people tar them with, and made them cool. The things that religious people think atheists want, like wild sex, drugs, and rock and roll, are mostly legal and cool and available. It just wasn’t that hard for atheists to just be themselves.

    Likewise, religious people mostly don’t mind the atheist assault on religion. Not really. Human intelligence is not especially prized among world religions, so calling a believer “stupid” is not attacking their core identity. And if you call religion evil, it’s very easy to think “yes, almost all religion is evil – except mind.”

    There was a failed attempt, briefly, to code racism and sexism as cool. I vaguely remember some Milo Yiannapowhatever quote where he compared the alt-right to rock stars. In the end, though, conservatives have gotten outraged that they’re being labeled as racist or sexist. They complain they’re being treated unfairly. The alt-right, then, hasn’t really made progress. They haven’t mainstreamed sexism and racism, they’ve just megaphoned it. Even Trump doesn’t get up at his rallies and ask his followers to identify explicitly as sexist or racist.

    So I think the current outrage culture is operating because both sides have found a core identity of the other side to attack. Liberals can attack racism and sexism. Conservatives can accuse liberals of entitlement (ie privilege) and intolerance. Nobody wants to accept either of those labels (though there’a a little motion toward reframing “entitlement” as being oppressed by baby boomers).

    • Nornagest says:

      Atheists participate in Satanism, and will happily refer to themselves as evil, as going to hell.

      It’s true that LaVeyan Satanists — the largest branch, though that’s kinda like saying the largest anthill — identify as atheist, but Satanism per se was extremely fringe even among the edgiest New Atheists at the edgiest stages of the movement. It might have picked up a few, especially teens looking for the most effective ways to shock their parents, but it’s not really a part of this story. It’d be more accurate to ID atheists with joke religions like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which were genuinely well-known at the time, but I doubt participation in them went beyond buying a bumper sticker in the vast majority of cases.

      Even IDing as “evil” was uncommon as best I recall — the New Atheists did have a concept of evil (their critique of religion wouldn’t have many teeth if they didn’t) and weren’t eager to associate themselves with it. Jokingly talking about “going to hell” did happen, though.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Even IDing as “evil” was uncommon as best I recall

        It’s an old saw that, outside of Saturday morning cartoons, everyone sees themselves as Good Guys.
        This was actually funny for the New Atheists, because they didn’t have a philosophically grounded definition of Good: the Platonic one was right out for obvious reasons, and they weren’t uniformly utilitarian (“pleasure is the good, pain is evil”) like the internet-rationalist movement.

        • Nornagest says:

          Philosophical grounding is all well and good for Jesuits and Pinkerites and Objectivists, but most people get along fine without it. These days I’m actually more suspicious of people who do subscribe to a deeply held philosophical superstructure for their ethics, because most of those allow enough latitude for a clever person to spin up a bulletproof justification whatever they feel like doing; paradoxically, it seems somewhat harder to get that out of a wishy-washy goulash of deontology and hedonism and legacy Platonism that mostly boils down to “don’t act like a jerk in the eyes of those around you”.

    • zzzzort says:

      I would say the charge leveled at atheists that stung the most was that they were immoral. Atheists were always strident in saying that although they didn’t believe in a god, they ended up reaching most of the same conclusions on what constituted good and bad (e.g. murder, theft, violence, dishonesty are all bad). Likewise, people on the right, or alt-right, can say that their moral code means treating people of different races equally, but that they disclaim the intellectual framework and specific shibboleths requested by the left. So you can end up with people not wanting the label of ‘racist’ but very much owning the label of ‘politically incorrect.’

  47. I’ve been thinking lately about two related mysteries: why many Trump opponents hate him so much, and why many Trump supporters continue to praise him despite all his failures. For some Trump opponents they’d think any Republican was Hitler, but the anger at Trump seems far disproportionate to his stated views, let alone what he’s actually doing in office. I’d think if you asked Democratic pundits who is worse, Donald Trump or David Duke, almost all would say Duke, but many would have an emotional revulsion to Trump they lack for Duke. I think it goes to the idea of respect. Trump is hated by these pundits and talking heads and professors and computer programmers because he lacks respect for their positions in society. If put in a room with them, he’d say “oh, you’re an economist, that’s an interesting job, blah blah blah” while frantically looking for the exit. The people he really respects, who he’d really like to be a room with, are celebrities, athletes, rappers, porn stars, ect. Duke, in contrast, would see the liberal pundit, professor, talking head, or scientist as an enemy, but would respect(and desire to usurp) the role they hold. Duke views them with envy, Trump views them only with contempt. In a similar vein, many Trump supporting proles like him specifically because he disrespects the intelligentsia, the people who disrespect them.

    There was a similar dynamic in the 2000’s with Bush. It was less serious as at least the smart people were aware that Bush’s attitude was an act, a sop to average people, whereas Trump’s attitude is real. In American Protestant Christianity, the intelligentsia found something that did not respect them, it’s much worse in this regard than Catholicism or Judaism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Bush was its devil, a man who might not personally believe it in his heart, but who was leader to millions of fanatics who did. But after Bush left and the Tea Party became the face of the GOP, this bogeyman became less powerful. Blue Tribers knew that an abstract threat existed across those hills, but they weren’t personally interacting with it and didn’t see many representatives of it on T.V. In contrast, all Blue Tribers interacted with the White male bogeyman, even if they were other Blue Tribers, so it was a more convenient target. And then the target would actually respond(either with defiance or “you are right, but I’m one of the good ones”) and you’d have controversy, clicks, attention!

    There is an essential difference, however, between these two movements: the New Atheists couldn’t really do anything about religion, at least within the confines of the ideology they supported. No one wanted to have the government ban religion or have firms fire people for being religious. The demands were reasonable even if the rhetoric wasn’t. In contrast, the wokeness people are making substantial policy demands. We hear the demands for open borders in all but name. Many would support policies along the lines of Black Economic Empowerment. Although few will say “firms should fire people for conservative speech,” many will eagerly agree with “conservative ideology is inherently sexist” and “firms should fire people for sexist speech.” So I doubt we’ll ever look back on it as a quaint, weird, and ultimately harmless movement.

  48. John Lynch says:

    Great article.
    I have to say I miss the old free-thinking atheist crowd because one of their core beliefs was freedom of conscience. Leave us alone, religious people. I sympathized with that. I still thought a lot of people were awfully angry at a God who doesn’t exist, but whatever, it’s a free country.

    The SJ crowd doesn’t want to be left alone. They won’t leave me alone.
    To them, freedom of conscience is an obstacle. Thinking the wrong thing, as opposed to doing the wrong thing, is the sin. They don’t want a free country, in the sense people can think and say what they believe.

    There’s a big difference between the two ideologies. One was fundamentally pro-freedom, and the other is anti-freedom. I’m a religious person, but I’d much rather have the left dominated by Christopher Hitchens-style atheists than the modern SJWs.

    • yildo says:

      Are you arguing that religion wasn’t wrongthink to New Atheists?

      In the New Atheist worldview, people thinking that God exists caused 9/11, the Iraq War, and a ban on teaching basic biology in American schools. If creationists weren’t banned in online flamewars, it was because of an optimistic appraisal of the chances of (de)converting them from their religion.

      I think the difference is in the lapse of faith in the power of online argument to change minds. If you no longer believe that you can convert your opponent to your point of view through a sufficiently eloquent argument, then de-platforming becomes appealing.

      • lvlln says:

        Are you arguing that religion wasn’t wrongthink to New Atheists?

        I would argue that, as someone who used to be a New Atheist until fairly recently.

        In the New Atheist worldview, people thinking that God exists caused 9/11, the Iraq War, and a ban on teaching basic biology in American schools. If creationists weren’t banned in online flamewars, it was because of an optimistic appraisal of the chances of (de)converting them from their religion.

        Yes to the first sentence. But the 2nd sentence is false, completely false. Even if people thinking that God exists was the cause of all those terrible things, it never once occurred to me that it would follow that we ought to place any restrictions at all on people’s freedom to believe those things or to express their beliefs in those things publicly without any impedance (not any more than any other belief or expression of belief, anyway). The harm caused by people believing bad things, as far as I – as a New Atheist – was concerned was completely orthogonal and unrelated to people’s freedom to believe and express those things.

        Wrongthink isn’t a term used to refer to just beliefs that are wrong – it refers to beliefs that one believes ought to be suppressed through force. Again, as a New Atheist, it never once occurred to me that belief in creationism or Islam or whatever ought to be forcibly suppressed. The thought of “de-converting” people away from theism through anything other than convincing them that theism was wrong would have been far more horrifying than even theism itself to me.

      • Corey says:

        There’s also plain old tiredness.

        I remember a NA blogger venting about this, from her point of view there was just an endless stream of “the banana is evidence for intelligent design” and “what use is half an eye” and people reinventing Pascal’s Wager.

        In some cases de-platforming is a useful tool like moderation. If you were going to discuss paleontology for example, there’s little upside and much downside in allowing that endless stream of argument in.

      • Purplehermann says:

        Maybe a difference here is between an offensive vs defensive ideology? Blue Tribe defensive ideology was atheism, “I’m free to do what I want”. Once Blue Tribe won the “don’t judge us” war they transferred to the offensive “you should change yourselves and you are bad” war. Shaming religious folk by claiming that they are following their beliefs is a losing strategy, claiming religious folk they aren’t following their own rules and are therfore bad would just be inviting the a reopening of the earlier defensive war.

        What they had left was claiming the Red Tribe is evil for failing to pass the modern morality test, irrelevant of religion.

    • Rob K says:

      This is an amusing read to anyone who actually remembers the line and tone Christopher Hitchens took with Iraq war opponents.

      I didn’t always disagree with Hitchens, but he was always an insulting prick and a bully.

    • nicktachy says:

      I’m a religious person, but I’d much rather have the left dominated by Christopher Hitchens-style atheists than the modern SJWs.

      Yes, very much. As a Christian myself, I think Hitchens, in particular, actually made many good points. The “God” he said was “not great” is not the God I know and have faith in. I think the New Atheists were quite rightly accused of defeating a strawman, but the fact is that many Christians actually believed in that strawman themselves. I think they may in fact have served a role in the renewal of Western Christianity, by clearing out some of the chaff. The result is that Millennial Christians are generally not the lukewarm kind.

      The SJ activists, on the other hand, are not trying to make arguments. They’ve made up their minds and are seeking power to force morally conservative Christians from the public square. I think that can play a role in the renewal of Western Christianity as well, but it will be through martyria rather than kerygma.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        Thirding this. Hitchens always won a lot of respect from me. For some reason more than, say, Dawkins, who was mostly arguing against stuff I didn’t believe anyway.

  49. Gilbert says:

    Some disconnected points:

    1. Atheism was the biggest comprehensive Internet world-view that exploded at that time and then mostly faded, but not the only one. Other examples:
    For a while it looked like Libertarianism would be a really big thing. At the time it also had an hamartiological wing for whom the state was the root of all evil. I don’t know how it happened, but by now Libertarianism has mostly faded back into the fringe.
    Free/Open Source Software used to have much more ideological valence. Originally Free Software types used to consider proprietary Software as simply evil and proprietary Software (i.e., at the time, Microsoft) had similar hate for “viral” licenses. Then part of the movement rebranded as Open Source which originally basically meant “Our prefferred licenses lead to better software, so proprietary software is dumb (and also, mumble, mumble, still immoral) ” And then arguing over software licensing just went away almost entirely.
    Also, Catholic Answers used to be a discursively much bigger thing, leading to a much more homogeneous Catholic Internet party line then there is today.

    2. Part of this might be my Catholic resentment and schadenfreude speaking, but I think the division that became explicit in the Atheism+ war was actually a fundamentalism/liberalism split on a mostly insincere side doctrine. New atheist canon had a “hate the sin, love the sinner” distinction between beliefs and their adherents. The party line was that there was nothing mean about mocking and contempt for ideas as opposed to people and that was totally severable and what everyone does about every non-religious idea. Only with religious ideas people were feeling offended, because those had previously been treated better than all other ideas. Some parts of the movement took this so serious they thought they could apply it to in-group doctrines. Atheism+ basically tried to impose an explicit taboo on the part of the movement that didn’t have the social skills to apply the doctrine selectively. Only it turned out they actually believed it and some of them were there for that belief.

    3. Some small part of the Internet atheist movement also transitioned equally seamlessly into Yudkowskian “Rationalism” where atheism also got demoted to the sideline. The Sequences were clearly an up-sell on atheism and in the early days the community had an expectation that religious people couldn’t understand them without becoming atheists. There was also a strong anti-theist vibe, “Rationalists” clearly disliked religion more than other beliefs they thought irrational. Then “Rationalism” became its own thing and atheism didn’t go away but faded so far into the background that nowadays there are even some religious “Rationalists”.

  50. Spot says:

    First of all, this is a fascinating article. I don’t think it entirely explains the phenomenon of New Atheism’s decline (which is very complex and probably deserves some kind of book-length treatment), but it’s an important angle.

    As far as I can tell, it eventually ended with the anti-social-justice atheists stomping off to YouTube or somewhere horrible like that, while most of the important celebrity members of the public-facing movement very gradually turned into social justice bloggers.

    I think this is mostly correct, but there is also the fact that many of the really big-name New Atheists (including two of the three surviving Horsemen) resisted this “transition,” and Harris in particular is now probably more famous for his criticisms of identity politics than his atheism. And since these select individuals were essentially synonymous with “New Atheist” in the mainstream press, New Atheism itself quickly took on negative connotations, even as many or most of the lesser lights became aggressive social justice evangelists. Then, in turn, many of the right-wing/alt-lite/contrarian Youtubers began emphasizing their atheist bona fides precisely because New Atheism had become unpopular in the liberal/mainstream press, and a vicious circle was born.

    I think that if Dawkins and Harris – just those two men – had happened to be as social-justice-friendly as (say) PZ Myers, the Blue Tribe’s current view of New Atheism as a movement would be quite different. It might still be somewhat unfashionable, but it wouldn’t be identified as an active antagonist.

    • I think that if Dawkins and Harris – just those two men – had happened to be as social-justice-friendly as (say) PZ Myers, the Blue Tribe’s current view of New Atheism as a movement would be quite different. It might still be somewhat unfashionable, but it wouldn’t be identified as an active antagonist.

      Good point. Why should women, blacks, or others support anyone who mocks their sense of unsafety? (which is what attacking SJ sounds like) Atheism seems less important than safety.
      Another point… The SJ split between atheism reminds me of another split between evolutionists. going back to the 1990’s between Stephen J Gould’s position and the Bell Curve (Murray).

      • Spot says:

        Well, I do think there are ways to criticize social justice that avoid trivializing what some see as their concerns and lived experiences. But Dawkins (surprisingly) has turned out to be incredibly crude and tone-deaf in his Tweets and comments on feminism, identity politics, social justice, and so on. It’s kind of weird because I’m not sure that he’s actually all that ideologically opposed to social justice, but he frankly comes across as uninformed and out of his depth on the subject. Or maybe social media is just not a good medium for him.

        Sam Harris is much better at articulating his objections, but unlike Dawkins he really does seem to be fully committed to a politics that is suspicious of identity in the social justice sense. In that sense Harris is sort of the Murray-equivalent here (note that I don’t hate either Harris or Murray), and the Gould-equivalent would be – well, an aggregate of minor bloggers and writers mostly concentrated online, PZ Myers foremost among them.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          But Dawkins (surprisingly) has turned out to be incredibly crude and tone-deaf in his Tweets and comments on feminism, identity politics, social justice, and so on. It’s kind of weird because I’m not sure that he’s actually all that ideologically opposed to social justice, but he frankly comes across as uninformed and out of his depth on the subject. Or maybe social media is just not a good medium for him.

          Dawkins always came across as crude and a bit out of his depth on religious stuff, too, so I don’t think it’s social media.

          (To justify this impression a bit: Dawkins always came across as arguing against a straw Beard In the Sky that I and many of my co-religionists never believed in. Maybe he was a strong mouthpiece of atheism for people who had never seen atheist arguments before, but a lot of stuff in the God Delusion was a bit old hat. I’d be curious to see Dawkins debate, say, Feser, who comes to mind as the most prominent theologian still wading into the Does God Even Exist? debate).

        • Well, I do think there are ways to criticize social justice that avoid trivializing what some see as their concerns and lived experiences.

          Agreed. That’s why it’s a pity when critics discredit their position by seeming too dismissive of the other side, or angry or tone death.

  51. bessiambre says:

    What maybe made me give up on the debate was encountering De Rerum Natura. Periods of enlightenment have been ephemeral since before Christianity even existed. It seems difficult to beat the memetic and genetic forces of religion. Especially in political systems where it can be wielded as a strong “culture hacking” tool to gain influence and political power. Maybe my outlook is too fatalistic.

  52. disluckyperson says:

    I disagree with both Scott’s explanation and the other common explanation, that the atheists won. To me, the explanation is obvious, and I am surprised nobody is saying this: After a few years, the atheism debates just got boring, and people went on to other things. Which implies something else, similar to Scott’s point, but different: That the point of these debates was never really to engage in serious discourse and convince the other side. The main point was for entertainment, plain and simple. And just like all entertainment, the fads come and go. In fact, I see most politics this way. I think the current obsession with social justice is a form of entertainment, albeit of the serious and highbrow type. And it too will eventually fall to the wayside when the next new and shiny thing comes up. Similarly, I believe that Donald Trump’s success can be attributed not to his policies, but to his skill as an entertainer, which none of the 2016 candidates could even approach.

    • onyomi says:

      There is a kind of Occam’s Razor-y beauty to this explanation.

    • meh says:

      the point of these debates was never really to engage in serious discourse and convince the other side

      True of most any public debate.
      I think the point of them for the new atheists was to take away some of the unspoken default respect religion was afforded; though they were probably less successful at this.

    • Spot says:

      I’m also very suspicious of the claim that New Atheism “succeeded.” Sure, secularism is on the rise in the US. But something like 75% of Americans still actively identify as Christian, about 40% are some form of creationist, and according to Gallup, as of 2015 about 50% of the country would not vote for an open atheist. One would think there is still a great deal of work be done. We certainly don’t see feminists asserting that #MeToo means an end to gender inequality.

      However, there might be a different way to look at it. Someone (I think it was – sorry – The Amazing Atheist), once said that New Atheism was best thought of not as a movement per se, but rather as a kind of hammer that was made to shatter a certain cultural taboo against full-throated criticism of religion. And by that standard, I would agree that one could argue the “movement” succeeded. But if we do accept that premise, it also means that basically everyone and everything aside from the celebrity Horsemen and a select few others were essentially superfluous.

    • sharper13 says:

      I tend to agree with this viewpoint for the large numbers of people (on all sides) who aren’t exactly intellectually rigorous in their debates. For them, culture war topics are almost completely tribal. Thus, the exact topics in play resemble fads, because that’s what they are, in some ways explicitly driven by media leading/following those fads and pounding them into attention.

      This is rational for them, in the myth of the rational voter sense, where their individual opinion is unlikely to make any difference in the topic being debated, anyway, and it doesn’t change their life much to believe either way.

      Most people read/watch the news as entertainment, not as something which will seriously impact their lives. This type of news can frustrate other people who actually want the details, the why, the truth, but they’re typically not the ones paying the bills.

      The others are those for whom the debates are more intellectual and they seek more of the truth, rather than just tribal signaling points. Many of those post here (and less we pat ourselves on the back, the tribal motivations are still there, just subsumed to a greater or lessor extent, just like the truth seeking motives still exist in at least part for the more tribal amongst us). They’re (we’re?) also entertained by the debates, but by a different portion of the debates, the actual search for truth part, especially the intellectual give and take and discovery.

      The two different groups vary in size and will also tend to move between different sets of debate topics differently, but when the masses follow a new fashion, the non-masses will inevitably find themselves drawn in, because that’s what everyone is talking/writing online about.

    • Ragged Clown says:

      That the point of these debates was never really to engage in serious discourse and convince the other side.

      I never thought of this as **the point** of New Atheism.

      I think the point of the Dawkins book in particular was to convince *existing atheists, agnostics and skeptics that their worldview was respectable and “correct” in a way that it wasn’t before. This create a critical mass of nones and broke the dominance of the theist worldview so that the next generation had an easier path to a materialist worldview.

      * This applies to the USA in the 2000s. England, for example, had got there 50 years earlier.

    • Anthony says:

      the point of these debates was never really to engage in serious discourse and convince the other side

      This is understood by many people debating, and has been for a long time. The point is to convince the undecided bystander. Except that for many, it really is just entertainment. (Especially people like me, at the 9th percentile of Agreeableness.)

  53. Bugmaster says:

    I think this analysis is more or less correct. When the Atheism movement was subsumed into the Social Justice movement, it lost its own identity, and just naturally disappeared into the general background of Social Justice. The usual internal purges followed swiftly, helping to further dissipate what remained of the original movement. Nowadays, “Atheism” just means “Social Justice”, so not many people focus on the atheist aspect of it, specifically.

  54. chridd says:

    If all you have is a hamartiology, everything looks like a nail. (I might be pronouncing that wrong…)

    Some thoughts:

    • I’ve seen people claim before that New Atheists were anti-SJ, which seemed weird to me, since it seemed like most of the loud internet atheists and loud pro-SJ people were mostly the same. If it’s true that pro-SJ atheists stopped talking about atheism so much and split off then maybe that would explain that (and I just wasn’t around any of the atheists that ended up on the anti-SJ side). (Also, both groups were similar to me in that I sort of agree with them, in that I am an atheist and am against most of the things SJ is against, but seem to not quite agree with them on some things and don’t like their argument style.)

    • …and perhaps the reason I don’t quite agree with SJ could (at least partly) be thought of as agreeing with their goals but not their hamartiology? Like… my own answer to why bad things happen, or at least the bad things SJ people care about, I think involves conformism, and probably typical mind fallacy; and maybe also problems that can arise from large-scale interactions even when the individuals involved aren’t necessarily bad (impersonal forces in the same way the invisible hand of the market is impersonal… things like the toxoplasma idea, or the fact that even good people can get stuck in situations where they have to defect because the other side is always defecting). And a lot of SJ stuff seems to make a lot of assumptions about other minds, and to be a part of some of those large-scale problems…?

    (…I don’t know if this comment is as well–thought-out as I’d like…)

    [Edit to add:] • Also I wonder if age has anything to do with it? As in, maybe the group of people who used to be New Atheists and are now more socialist are mostly the same generation, and when New Atheism was popular more of them were living with or had recently moved away from their religious parents and now that they’re supporting themselves economics is a bigger issue.

    • eyeballfrog says:

      If all you have is a hamartiology, everything looks like a nail.

      Scott is now kicking himself for not titling the article this.

    • Nornagest says:

      Conformity was a late-90s boogeyman for sure, but I’m not sure it rose to the level of hamartiology outside the punk scene and Adbusters‘ editorial staff. It probably would have, if Internet access had been mainstreamed ten years early — certainly there were plenty of sites like UnAmerican.com in that era peddling generically antiauthoritarian merch — but America in the the late ’90s was still a genuine mass media culture, notwithstanding Usenet and Geocities, and the mass media wasn’t on board with crystallizing those anxieties into a cohesive worldview. Selling movies that catered to them, sure, but not systematizing them in any meaningful way.

  55. Rob K says:

    I feel like there’s some broader thing here about how everyone knows what it is “we’re” all arguing about.

    In the early 2000s I was a high schooler in the Midwest and didn’t have the internet. And yet somehow I knew that creationism was a thing we were arguing about; I had three or four relatively close friends who were young earth creationists, we argued about it, I owned a much-too-advanced-for-me book refuting creationist arguments.

    I do think, in the millenial generation, that there’s an extent to which the argument got settled; I’m not entirely sure, but I think that none of those people is a creationist any more and only one is still actively religious.

    I don’t know quite what my takeaway is here. What made us all argue about it back then? Do the kids these days not? Seriously, we argued about that more than say, Iraq or gay rights or anything else that would have divided that group at that time. Weird stuff.

  56. Brandon Berg says:

    “They just had to CTRL+F and replace a couple of keywords.”

    Come on, this is just silly.

    CTRL+H is the standard keyboard shortcut for the find and replace function.

  57. blacktrance says:

    I used to be really active in religion-atheism debates in the late 00s, so I’ll give my perspective.

    First, only something like 3% of Americans identify as atheists, so internet atheism was only a small (but vocal) part of the anti-fundamentalist coalition. Growing up, I didn’t know any atheists outside my family and the internet, but I did know a good number of secularists, most of whom were active Christians. It might be true that the Blue-Tribe impulses that motivated secularism now motivate SJ, but atheism was always a bit anti-Blue as well (pro-nuclear, pro-GMO, anti-New-Age, etc).

    Second, secularism won. It wasn’t a total victory and atheism would’ve liked to go further, but these days it’s rare to see the kind of load-bearing appeals to the authority of Christianity that were common in the 00s. There are Christian “woke conservatives”, but their appeals are secular and borrow much from progressivism. Same-sex marriage was recognized and conservatives aren’t up in arms about it. Before, no matter where you started, you’d always end up arguing about religion, but now it genuinely feels like it’s more possible to talk to internet conservatives about politics without disagreements always coming down to the same thing every time. This predated the rise of SJ by a few years. So maybe we should be asking what happened to Christian conservatism.

    I think the move from forums to social media was important. On forums, you had to argue against people on the other side, and if you went too far, they’d make you look dumb, so you learned which arguments were good and got a feel for your opponents’ beliefs. But now you can surround yourself with like-minded people on Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook, which narrows everyone’s Overton Windows.

    And the rationalism of the Sequences is an “orthodox” descendant of New Atheism.

    • illumina says:

      Second, secularism won. It wasn’t a total victory and atheism would’ve liked to go further, but these days it’s rare to see the kind of load-bearing appeals to the authority of Christianity that were common in the 00s.

      This!

      It’s most evident by Trump’s popularity. He’s an Atheist, he appeals to right wing Cultural Christians. They know the lie, they see his winks and love it. Self-ascription has always been more important than faith.

    • Anthony says:

      Before, no matter where you started, you’d always end up arguing about religion, but now it genuinely feels like it’s more possible to talk to internet conservatives about politics without disagreements always coming down to the same thing every time. This predated the rise of SJ by a few years. So maybe we should be asking what happened to Christian conservatism.

      Part of this is that the more intelligent conservatives realized that appeals to religious authority won’t carry weight with the non-religious, so they started working on developing secular arguments for their positions. The results of social permissiveness and evolutionary biology provide lots of ammunition for people arguing for socially conservative policy. (This reliance on evolutionary arguments is probably part of why creationism is basically dead. That, and Young Earth Creationism doesn’t help you find oil.)

  58. Sniffnoy says:

    Great post. A remark on this part:

    This probably comes as a surprise, seeing as how everyone else talks about how atheists are heavily affiliated with the modern anti-social justice movement.

    It’s interesting to see how the stereotype of the “nerd” has changed here too — or perhaps not actually changed but rather just been different in different places. These days you see a lot of this idea of the nerd as the creep and as the opponent of feminism. And this really contrasts with, y’know, well, I remember ScienceBlogs, and PZ Myers, before there was Freethought Blogs, you know?

    Or to put it another way — I feel like the way I thought about such things growing up was the way Eliezer Yudkowsky described it, where, y’know, feminism was just the natural conclusion you came to taking all those ideals from those science fiction books seriously! Of course, that leads you to a very different sort of feminism than the kind that’s currently popular…

    This does bring up a question though — there are some glaring incompatibilities between the old internet-atheist general thought and new SJ general thought. Such as, say, what they have to say about free speech. How that particular change occurred (as part of the broader change of course) might be intersting — if horrifying — to see the details of…

  59. AllAmericanBreakfast says:

    One of the odd things Scott leaves out of his account is that America has a centuries-old and vivid history of bloody struggle between supporters and opponents of racism and sexism. Genocide of the first nations, slavery, voting restrictions, Jim Crow, the war on drugs. We don’t have anything on that scale between atheists and religious people. This country has always had fairly strong laws to protect freedom of religion, even though they stemmed from times when almost the entire white population in power was Christian. Were the Stalinist and Maoists communists considered evil because they were atheist, or because they were (and are) slaughtering religious people and repressing religious practice?

    Maybe what happened is that atheists realized that we’ve got it pretty good on balance, and that racism and sexism really are much worse. Maybe they also realized that religious people are mostly harming each other, and that the religious aspect of conflicts may be more a propagandist’s tool than something inherent to the belief structure, especially in the modern era. Maybe atheists won the battles they needed to fight, mostly keeping religion out of the biology classroom, and realized that the internet had put the kibosh on the ability of censorship to do more than slow the flow of ideas and that the culture was trending in their favor. Maybe the New Atheists were just wrong, and they eventually realized it through rational discussion and returned to the ancient war against sexism and racism that has been the legacy of this country since Columbus hit like a meteor on the shores of Guanahani.

    That would be right in line with their stated preference for acting on rational beliefs about the state of the world.

    • onyomi says:

      I think your view of what American history is all about may be colored by current trends Scott is trying to take a step back from. Sure, race and gender have been divisive issues to some extent all through American history, as they must be throughout the history of any place inhabited by more than one race and sex, but to claim that they have been the central issues animating most of the struggles on this continent since 1492 is a much stronger, and, I think, hard to defend claim–one a lot fewer people would have made ten (or thirty or fifty or one hundred) years ago and, perhaps also ten or twenty years hence.

      • AllAmericanBreakfast says:

        Even if you’re right that fewer people in the past would have viewed American history through a racial conflict lens, they might simply have been misguided. Or the discipline of anthropology or historiography might have needed more time to mature. It may be that people will adopt an equal or even stronger version of a racial lens in the future. Who knows?

      • zzzzort says:

        I’m pretty sure that the civil war was understood to be about slavery from the get go, and that race relations was a major political question both before and after. The biggest incidences of violence in the US, the civil war, settler-native conflicts, and Jim Crow were all clearly racially motivated. A quick perusal of Wikipedia’s list of civil unrest shows that well more than half were racially motivated. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and women’s liberation were all mass movements. There were other mass movements, and maybe you could view history as a struggle vs. intoxicants, but you can’t say that a concern with racism and sexism came out of nowhere.

    • sharper13 says:

      Curious based on one possible interpretation of your comment:
      Do you believe racism and sexism was a dominant/prevalent belief system/problem in North America before Columbus arrived or that it wasn’t?

      • AllAmericanBreakfast says:

        I’m sure it’s a nuanced issue with rather limited evidence. Certainly there was tribal conflict with gender roles informing culture.

        I have to acknowledge that I don’t feel historically, anthropological, or philosophically prepared to analyze pre-Columbus tribal cultures and tie them into some sort of moral analysis. That’s beyond my pay grade.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is a hard topic to talk about, because I neither want to go 100% cultural-relativism “there is no truth of the matter, only different narratives”, nor go 100% Whig “the truth is exactly what we believe right now and everyone else was just stupid”. I think my actual position is more Kuhnian, so try to take it from that perspective.

      I think a pure New Atheist (so pure that maybe the type doesn’t exist anymore) would have a narrative available fitting all history into science vs. religion. It would start with Galileo and have a lot more in that vein. History would be seen as the struggle of Progress to emerge from the swampy waters of Superstition, and like everything else, it would work as long as you were willing to massage things a little.

      And when it seems obvious to you that US history since Columbus has been about racism, I think that’s seen through just such a narrative. Someone a few steps back might be able to see the English declaring the Native Americans “savages” and conquering/colonizing their lands to be as non-racially-charged as the Romans declaring the Celts “barbarians” and conquering/colonizing their lands. They might see it in the context of the English doing the same thing at the same time to the Irish (I know modern race theorists would say the Irish weren’t “constructed as white”, but I wonder what the same people who pointed out holes in the Galileo narrative would do if they were incentivized to work on that one). They might even see it in the context of the English showing contempt for, evicting/killing, and colonizing the territory of the Borderers, who were ethnically basically English themselves. To such a person, the obviousness with which moderns know that conflicts are 100% about race and not about any of the other things they might be about would seem a weird narrative blindness, the same as a New Atheist who relates everything to the Science vs. Religion conflict.

      I think if you haven’t spent a lot of time trying to deconstruct the modern paradigm and see how many weird ways you can build it up again (eg without including a term for racism at all), you’re likely to get led really astray here.

      • AllAmericanBreakfast says:

        I think a pure New Atheist (so pure that maybe the type doesn’t exist anymore) would have a narrative available fitting all history into science vs. religion. It would start with Galileo and have a lot more in that vein.

        And I’m sure they could go further into the past, with everything prior to the rudiments of the scientific method as an almost hopeless fumbling in the religious dark.

        The point I’m trying to make is that although we’d be wrong to make any single one of these Manichean historical lenses – Science vs. Religion, Racism vs. Equality, Protectionism vs. Markets, the list goes on – our explanation for how things came to be as they are, some of them do make much more sense, at least intuitively, for a particular place and time. Especially as a historical explanation with moral weight.

        Even though we can find plenty of examples of religion holding back progress, it’s very difficult to make a compelling case that religion is a purely evil force in the world. We can find plenty of scientists, mathematicians, and progressive philosophers who were and are religious people. We can find religious activism and ideals that we can respect. Many atheists have had positive encounters with religious folks. Some of us even have this strange urge to find the good and leave the rest in religion.

        By contrast, it is much easier to cast racism and sexism as the original sins, at least in America. And of course people didn’t used to do that as much – it was a much more racist and sexist time! There is nothing we like about either racism or sexism. There is no countervailing good. We’d happily wish it expunged from the planet. Christopher Hitchens might have felt that way about religion, but would he have advocated punching priests? Would any of the New Atheists, or any of their followers? Could the ethics and efficacy of priest punching as anti-religious activism ever have been debated as widely and seriously as Nazi punching?

        An Oregon woman was written up in the Guardian recently, because she’s chosen to spend her time cosplaying a 50s housewife. She’s got the whole house decorated in the style, she thinks that husbands need to be spoiled. The reaction from the feminist op-ed writer was predictable: “good on her for using her feminist empowerment to live her dream, but let’s all remember that those times were horrible for women.”

        If someone decided to cosplay a Nazi wife, KKK member, slave plantation owner, or a rapist, would we find the same grudging tolerance among op-ed writers? Probably not, because all those costumes can’t be interpreted in any way except a signal of truly reprehensible beliefs. I do find it distasteful that the imagery of Maoist China and Stalinist Russia is acceptable cosplay wear, but I look at it and I think: “these people are idiots,” not “these people are trying to signal their genuine support for a purge of the middle-class.” So it’s not my hill to die on. And as long as Stalinist communist costumes and imagery continue to signal marginal discontent with our imperfect economic system, I’ll continue to hold that position.

        So overall, I think that it makes sense for New Atheists to have shifted toward social justice themes because
        1) They were already invested in projecting outrage against an unqualified evil
        2) It became increasingly obvious that religion was not a convincing unqualified evil; neither is capitalism unless it’s defined tautologically as “whatever’s wrong with the system.”
        3) Racism and sexism are convincing unqualified evils, a few among many such as cancer, ransomware attacks on hospitals, or the genocide of the Rohingya.
        4) They were chosen out of other candidates because they are human-caused, historically salient and have been for decades or centuries, and local issues, and are thus a more compelling target for preaching about the outrageous state of our society.

        While I do think that racism and sexism are meaningful issues, it probably comes across in my post that I don’t think they’re the end-all be-all. But I do think that if someone’s going to preach against a social ill, they make much more sensible targets than religion. That is what I was trying to get across in my post above.

        • Aapje says:

          While I do think that racism and sexism are meaningful issues, it probably comes across in my post that I don’t think they’re the end-all be-all.

          I want to point out that there are different definitions of racism and sexism (just like ‘science, ‘markets,’ etc). You can fight against your definition of sexism, while I can believe that you are fighting for sexism.

          When a concept is anathema or holy, but many people actually don’t truly want it, a common approach is to subvert the definition.

        • Viliam says:

          it’s very difficult to make a compelling case that religion is a purely evil force in the world. We can find plenty of scientists, mathematicians, and progressive philosophers who were and are religious people.

          We can also find plenty of scientists, mathematicians, and progressive philosophers who had cancer. Does it make difficult to conclude that cancer is bad?

          If someone was religious simply because he lived at the place and time when not being religious got you killed, and then the person did something great, I would not count that as a positive aspect of religion. (Okay, a slightly positive aspect of that specific religion, because one could imagine even worse religion, which would outright kill all the scientists and ban all the science.)

          Now if people who previously didn’t give a fuck about science would suddenly become good scientists after religious conversion, that I would count as a positive thing. A thing done because of religion, not just regardless of religion, or even despite religion.

          • EchoChaos says:

            But there were absolutely scientists for whom religion was their primary and aggressive driver.

            Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, even Isaac Newton were not just “living in a place and time when not being religious got you killed”. Their view of the world was fundamentally Christian and they did their things because of Christianity.

            Yes, Christianity does get to take credit for them.

          • Enkidum says:

            In precisely the same way that the Ancient Greek pantheon gets to take credit for the origins of western philosophy, I guess?

            Which is to say, it does. Just there’s a lot more at play.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Enkidum

            I don’t know that any of the originators of Greek Philosophy were actual pagan priests.

          • AllAmericanBreakfast says:

            Religions can cause wars, wars motivate scientific and technological progress. Therefore religion promotes science.

            Religion can motivate a culture of scholarship, scholarship develops the logical, mathematical, and observational tools that contribute to science. Therefore religion promotes science.

            Religion promotes an attitude of compassion for suffering. That attitude of compassion leads to a search for effective ways to solve problems. This search requires science. Therefore religion promotes science.

            Religion ascribes mystical significance to worldly phenomena in a way that’s not related to survival and reproduction, such as the shapes of plants or the movements of the stars. That mystical significance leads to extraordinary efforts to observe the world more closely. Close observation of the world is fundamental to science. Therefore religion promotes science.

            Religion is the systematic, mass organization of belief in which some beliefs are designated wrong and others as right. Organizing our beliefs in a systematic way is fundamental to science. Religious dogma sets the intellectual stage for the concept of truth. Religion is a necessary precondition for science.

            What unites these arguments is that they hypothesize that religion was the midwife of civilization as it gave slow, painful birth to science. This might be wrong, but it at least leaves room for the possibility.

            The question remains whether it’s necessary or useful anymore. Clearly religion in the modern era does sometimes stand in conflict with science and civilization. But we can also find many examples in which religion is making itself compatible with modern sensibilities and providing resources that we know are good for people, such as community, structure, networking opportunities, and pro-social values.

            As an atheist, I prefer a future in which healthy, open-minded religion remains to one in which it vanishes. Though it is mostly only a little bit sad when a culture disappears through voluntary abandonment. Obviously it is a tragedy when it’s stamped out through factors like conquest or disease.

            I’m not sure that the definition of religion is coherent even within western cultures. Overall, I think it’s a good liberal practice to advocate for cultures that are not our own. I consistently find in my personal relationships that when people feel they are under attack, they retreat to their corners and close their minds. By contrast, when they are greeted with consistent valuing of who they are, they in turn open their own minds and remember what they appreciate about others.

            For a great example of this, next time you see street preachers with hellfire and brimstome signs, try asking them if you can read them your favorite part of the bible. They’ll typically say “yes.” Then read them the Song of Solomon.

            Quotes from times I’ve done this:

            Me: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you. Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers.”
            Street preacher 1: “That’s disgusting! Faggot!”
            Street preacher 2: “Dude, dude, that’s the bible.”

            Me: “As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women.”
            Street preacher: “Where’s the part where he says ‘I am like an army with swords drawn?’ I know that’s in there somewhere…”

            Always a delight.

  60. luispedro says:

    ‘New Atheism’ lost at least some points for being wrong.

    I used to call myself an atheist before New Atheism and I am on board with all of the basic premises (creationism/homeopathy/astrology are all false, evolution is true &c &c), but the movement went well beyond that.

    ‘The God Delusion’ is embarrassingly bad in its historical analyses (I forget details, but it tries to pin everything on religion to a laughable degree; I just don’t see Dawkins as a serious thinker). Sam Harris’ ethical reasoning is stronger and defensible, but does not readily derive from science as much as he claims it does (it’s a philosophically valid P.O.V., but not “correct” in the same way that Darwinism is correct). Hitchens is dead and I just had to google for who The fourth Horseman was again, so I don’t really know enough to comment on his work.

    • illumina says:

      This as well.

      What happened to NAM? We bought their books and felt like we knew them.

      Until we had the opportunity through the internet to *listen* to them, to see their blogs and vlogs and tweets and screeds.

      I visited the JREF and enjoyed meeting Randi, but many “Skeptics” I admired turned out to hold out disdain not just for woo, but held archaic and terrible views, and in the end provided us the IDW, the non-religious “Alt-right”, TERFs which bond with Christian groups, and Dawkins has been hawking Christian endeavors that would enforce his values on society.
      https://skepchick.org/2019/09/richard-dawkins-loves-evangelicals-if-they-hate-social-justice/

      Without God, how do you define morality? Do you appeal to humanism, or do you become some Randroid “master of your own destiny”?

      It is also not surprising that the Cato, Libertarian atheists and later the IDW move to this position, and the people who thought we were all “in it” together observe that the atheists who seek power and religious zealots started working hand in hand. Started sounding alike. Resonated in a voice that we’d ignored under the illusion of solidarity.

      So, both “sides” see value in collaborating with religious persons who can help them get their ideal world.

      The old NAM deities have began working their version of the grifter circuit, gladhanding evangelicals and inviting in the Jordan Peterson “evo-psych” woo.

      Pharyngula still posts about old skeptic-y topics, but I think the Atheism+ crowd is absolutely willing to work with churches not to support God, but to support the individuals that go there.

      I’ve volunteered for some local politics to help reduce local police shootings, stood by the Nation of Islam, Hubbard-followers these days! But if their members are being targeted explicitly because of race, I’m protecting their humanity and most importantly not dehumanizing or ceding anything. This is not seizing power in some zero sum game, this is a necessary ceding decades and hundreds and in many cases thousands of years in the making.

    • John Lynch says:

      I’m a protestant Christian, and I’m on board with the basic premises ((creationism/homeopathy/astrology are all false, evolution is true &c &c). Just as Atheists are diverse in their ideas, so are Christians.

      I take the view that everyone has a religion, and I like my religion to be honest about what it is. I think some very, very rationally minded people can escape having a set of beliefs that function as a religion, but I don’t see it very often. Usually, they end up being nihilists, which I think is the only honest place you can end up if you totally reject religion. The New Atheist’s God was human progress. If you are honest, you realize that given the scale of the universe, we don’t matter and human progress is an illusion. History doesn’t run in one direction, there is no morality other than what we construct, etc.

      Communism was a religion while claiming to be atheistic, their God being History. I’d argue the current SJ movement is a religion. It’s not based on science. Believers did not arrive at their conclusions by ruling out all other possible causes for racial and gender disparities. It came out of literary criticism, not social science, and what social-science support there seems to be from sociology and psychology, not the most rigorous fields.

  61. illumina says:

    I don’t want to dwell on this too much. I don’t have a great sense of how this era went, since it was around the time I unfollowed every atheist blog and forum for the sake of my own sanity, but my impression is that some of the Atheism Plussers later admitted they came on a little too strong and dropped that particular branding.

    Legitimately suprised that you missed the defining event that split the anti-Islam, antifeminist Dawkins-ites in the NAM from the skeptics that became social justice bloggers.

    Turns out, people had over-invested in this central banner and the fiction that Atheists were “more rational” just because they rejected a small number of very specific narratives about the world.

    Since the Discovery Institute has literally moved onto blockchain cash-grabs (I got served up an ad for them) the world has moved onto Qanon, Flat earthers, Antivaxxers, Wi-fi allergies, and as humanists the need to protect others from harm remains.

  62. Simon_Jester says:

    The thing is, a lot of the social justice bloggers who emerged out of Internet atheism are still atheists. They’ve just decided that specifically fighting religion isn’t going to help with whatever object-level problems they perceive with society., or that the problem is caused by a mix of factors. They’re about as hostile to, say, fundamentalist evangelicals as they ever were. They just don’t focus [i]only[/i] on fighting fundies.

  63. Atlas says:

    If I were to describe the power of New Atheism over online discourse to a teenager, they would never believe me. Why should they? Other intellectual movements have left indelible marks in the culture; the heyday of hippiedom may be long gone, but time travelers visiting 1969 would not be surprised by the extent of Woodstock. But I imagine the same travelers visiting 2005, logging on to the Internet, and holy @#$! that’s a lot of atheism-related discourse what is going on here?

    This definitely fits with my experience of the internet as a Zoomer. (And provides a good excuse for a rant I wanted to make anyway that I hope isn’t too inflammatory. If it is, I will be happy to take it down and hang my head in appropriate shame and embarrassment. I apologize in advance for the no doubt many errors, instances of lack of charity, etc. Civilly inform me of my sins and I will try my best to repent. I know a lot of this is conflict theory, and I think that mistake theory is the enlightened path, and will try to transmute or abandon my beliefs accordingly when I’m feeling more sober-minded.)

    I grew up in a casually secular household. I vaguely understood as a kid that “atheism” was a movement, but never had any particular interest in it—I figured that it was correct but boring/obvious. I started reading about politics on the internet in the early-mid 2010s, and atheism seemed largely orthogonal to the debates that were going on. The closest I ever got to it was sometimes reading hilarious take-downs of Christopher Hitchens’ and Sam Harris’ views on foreign policy, but this was usually from people on the left who were probably themselves atheists. Everything was pretty good.

    (I really like citing evidence and being specific about claims in general, but I’m afraid that if I mention the actual object-level things I’m thinking about the thread will explode and I might catch a ban. I also really try to avoid “those who” assertions without providing evidence. So I’m going to be more euphemistic than I’d like, which I realize makes it seem more possible that I’m just making this up without solid factual grounds.)

    But something really changed in (especially my perception of) the culture circa 2015. I’ve written before that it felt like a rupture in the timeline to me. Gradually, extreme reactionaries, conspiracy theorists, comments sections, YouTube video guys and people with ideologies that I’d always been instructed were completely baseless and pure evil and so on started winning the Internet. I hated to admit it, but it seemed like they were generally pretty smart, winning lots of arguments and getting proven right about stuff a lot. And the weird thing was, and indeed is: it seemed like no one else who didn’t agree with them realized that this was going on. They just asserted without adducing evidence or arguments that they were wrong, called them names heavily loaded with negative affect, tried to censor them and just ignored them outright. Most of all, they focused to a remarkable degree on attacking from the left the mainstream conservatives that these guys were already so devastatingly attacking from the right. There’s this weird phenomenon where people on the left think that you can win the argument by proving that someone believes something, without ever having to explain why believing that thing is wrong. When this strategy failed to work, people, like Andrew Marantz in his recent book, were amazed: Are you really going to tell me that responding to people’s arguments with name calling, assertion from authority and censorship doesn’t convince them that those arguments are wrong?

    So I’ve read a lot more far-right material over the past few years than I would have previously expected. And I’ve noticed a change happening on the Internet more generally, but on the right-wing parts of it in particular:

    First, everyone agreed that, if you considered things logically, the New Atheists were probably right, but were really rude and obnoxious. (The sort of thing Scott talked about in his previous post on this subject.)

    Then, people started saying that, while the New Atheists’ arguments about philosophy, biology, etc. were correct, they were wrong to argue that religion was a major source of social/political ills. (E.g. The Irrational Atheist. Which I know technically merely elided the former arguments, but to me that’s as good as conceding them.)

    Next, they started saying that religion historically, and Christianity in particular, had been unfairly maligned. Edward Gibbon’s main anti-Christian thesis has been completely debunked by modern scholars, the Inquisition didn’t actually kill all that many heretics, the atheistic French revolutionary and 20th century communistic governments committed far worse crimes than any religious extremists, there’s little reason to believe that there’s a conflict in practice between science and religion, etc. (E.g. the author of What Hath God Wrought?, a very good book IMHO, often incidentally expressed this perspective, though it wasn’t a huge part of that book’s thesis.)

    After that, they started saying that, even though their religious beliefs were, technically speaking, probably incorrect, you just had to admit that G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Aquinas, etc. were men of amazing wit, learning, honesty, generosity, nobility and every other virtue that they could think of. Unlike those wretched New Atheist spokespeople, who you just have to admit are not very virtuous.

    A little while later, they started saying that, even though they personally aren’t religious, society is going to Hell in a hand-basket because people aren’t following the time-tested wisdom of religion, which provided an objective basis for morality. Religion provided community, tradition, guidance, etc. The atheists destroyed religion, but they didn’t leave anything better to guide society in its place. (A view e.g. propounded in strong form by Stefan Molyneux and Andrew Anglin, in a much less emphatic form by J. BP. )

    The next step was to say that religion is adaptive/genetically ingrained, and it’s advantageous to believe in it, whether or not it’s true. It lets you have a community, meet a qt chaste woman who wants to have lots of kids, be part of a glorious tradition, etc. (The former thing Nicholas Wade wrote about in The Faith Instinct, Eric Kaufmann wrote about in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, and Razib Khan talks about occasionally on his blog. The latter thing is sort of what Houellebecq was saying in Submission.)

    When you’d digested that, the epic YouTube guys squad started “If x, how come y? Checkmate atheists”-ing. You just had to admit that Aquinas, Leibniz, Descartes, Augustine, Plantinga, Belloc, some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox clergymen you’ve never heard of, etc. were all extremely smart, right? So they must have had some good reasons for believing. I mean, didn’t you just admit a few steps ago that GK Chesterton and CS Lewis are extremely epic? If you think they’re so epic, why do think that they were wrong about the most important thing that they believed? And besides, what about all these gaping holes in Darwinism that new evidence has exposed, and the great documentary evidence we have for the Gospels, and… [etc. etc.]? (Thinking here of guys like Owen Benjamin, E. Michael Jones, Jay Dyer, Vox Day, etc.)

    And when you’ve broken down and reached the final step, Dr. Jones is happy to tell you who the real enemies of the Church are, you know, just who today carries on the legacy of the Pharisees who killed Christ and rejected his Logos. I mean, it says it right there in the scripture that they are enemies of all mankind, and of their father, the devil! What, are you some edgy Internet atheist with unfashionable taste in headgear who’s questioning the veracity of scripture and rudely attacking people’s religious beliefs?

    When Jones—described by the Myth of the 20th Century podcast as the “modern-day GK Chesterton”— said that in a YouTube video that was popular on what I call the Leading-Indicator Right, something inside me snapped. Scott’s talked about this experience before of unwittingly watching an epistemic superweapon being built before your eyes and not realizing what was going on until it was finished and pointed at you.

    At each stage of this superweapon’s construction, I didn’t see anything threatening, and I didn’t see anyone arguing intelligently against it. (I think Bill Maher and Sam Harris were busy patting themselves on the back for cleverly pointing out for the 1000th time that feminists are hypocrites for not criticizing Islam and that the WBC sucks.) I was complacently nodding along that, yeah, GK Chesterton is extremely awesome, and Edward Gibbon was an ignoramus who didn’t know anything about Roman history, and, when you think about it, Galileo was actually treated pretty well for a guy who had the utter temerity to criticize the pope, and the sense of community and tradition that religion provides sure is the bee’s knees, and [Zizek voice, snort] so on and so forth.

    But now, I am totally ready to start studying all those atheist arguments that were allegedly so trite and faux-edgy and gauche that it feels like no one intelligent has bothered to seriously make them since 2013 or so when I started reading the Internet. I really, really don’t want to yield a single inch of ground on this beyond what is tactically necessary, because it seems like so much has been slowly, subtly, but surely, given up already. If we could push things back in a full intellectual reconquista to step one, that would be great, but if we can only get people to have to admit (as per e.g. Enlightenment Now) that society has not in fact demonstrably gotten worse as religion has declined, I’d take it.

    It was extremely refreshing to read some stuff from Luke Muelhauser’s old blog, linked on the sidebar of SSC, because it felt like the first time I’d ever seen someone smart make reasonably analytical, knowledgeable and fair-minded arguments against religion. (As opposed to e.g. low-IQ and not even funny juvenile taunts about pasta monsters.) I’m hoping that there’s more good stuff like that in Early Atheist Internet Culture, especially with regards to history.

    • Psycicle says:

      The parent blog has gone downhill, as all atheist blogs have, but there was an old site called Ebon Musings with a bunch of essays from the before time. Said essays are reprinted here. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/essays/ . Specifically, “A Ghost in the Machine” was what deconverted me, although looking back at it I can’t see why it felt like such a big deal. A lot of it is worth reading, and it’s also a fabulous time capsule to the age when the “fundies” were the main thing argued against. At the time I had backslid to a vague mix of omniloving christianity and woo so a lot of atheist arguments did nothing due to being targeted at that particular strain of believer. I just went “yup, creationism is dumb, bible isn’t infallible, what’s the big deal”, and “A Ghost in the Machine” was notable for directly hitting one of the few weak points left in the belief structure, the existence of the soul.

    • James Banks says:

      The account of a progression is interesting. To me, it sounds almost like a non-sequitur to get to the anti-Semitic step from all the others. Why is it that so many Christians aren’t anti-Semitic, and why did these atheists attracted to Christianity step into anti-Semitism instead of a different kind of Christianity? I think there’s both a “genetic” and “epigenetic” parallel in religion (“scriptural” and “episcriptural”), which might explain. Texts are read by individuals, but most are members of some kind of community which conditions their reading, and most are reading them for a purpose. So much so that in a practical sense, the Bible that the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible pillories is not the same as that of a mature Christian using it for the purposes of “loving God and people”, which are supposedly its guiding principles — even if they are the same translation. Similarly it’s a different text, in effect, than an alt-right person reading it for anti-liberal or racist purposes.

      I’ve thought (as a non-atheist), that atheist humanists might be more pragmatic about their use of energy and not worry so much about religion per se, but more about the specific versions of religions that exist. No need to be anti-Christian or anti-theist, just make sure that theists live up to the humanistic principles in their own books, and “switch off the gene expression” for whatever is not humanistic. Perhaps even going so far as to become apologists for belief in God and Christ and the Bible in the right episcriptural context.

      • Atlas says:

        I’ve thought (as a non-atheist), that atheist humanists might be more pragmatic about their use of energy and not worry so much about religion per se, but more about the specific versions of religions that exist. No need to be anti-Christian or anti-theist, just make sure that theists live up to the humanistic principles in their own books, and “switch off the gene expression” for whatever is not humanistic. Perhaps even going so far as to become apologists for belief in God and Christ and the Bible in the right episcriptural context.

        Indeed, I think there’s wisdom in this. Given what we know (Haidt/Tetlock/Kahneman/Taleb etc.) about how hard and painful it is to change our minds, I think it’s probably wise to offer people you disagree with a face-saving middle-ground that they can withdraw to with their dignity still mostly intact.

    • Randy M says:

      Interesting post Atlas. I guess the trouble with movements is, they keep moving.

    • Nick says:

      This is really interesting.

      It’s funny that you entered the Internet in the 2010s; I entered in the late Bush era, 2006-2008, and everything was pervasively religion vs. atheism just as Scott describes. At the places I was frequenting (won’t mention them by name), the pro-Chesterton, anti-Gibbon, anti-Galileo, etc. stuff was not around yet, and it was pretty lonely to be the guy defending Catholicism; I had at the time the sense that the “enemy” always had pages and pages of arguments they could link to, and I didn’t, and if only I could build something up I could stop wasting my time rehearsing the same arguments over and over. (Apparently, per Scott, this stuff existed for the Young Earth Creationist folks, but I was not one of them!)

      It was only around my junior year of high school, 2011-2012 or so, that that began to develop, or at least that I began to find it. I learned about the Catholic blogosphere, I started finding a lot of smart and eloquent people making my arguments a lot better than I was, and I was learning a lot. And that stuff wasn’t coming out of Enn Arr Ex or all-trite folks—they didn’t exist yet! Some of these folks might have ended up in those movements later (I can think of a handful of examples), but the intellectual groundwork really predated that. Long predated people like Jones or even Peterson.

      And for what it’s worth, @Atlas, I am still happy to keep having those debates, without anti-Semitism or whatever other gifts Jones brings to the table. As you can see last thread, where I was discussing the Unmoved Mover. (Not with great alacrity, I’m afraid; I feel like I kind of let @thevoiceofthevoid down there by not responding in full. But it illustrates my point all the same.) Because I am frankly sick to death of the post-God elements of the new right and would like to keep having a better form of the arguments I was having back in 2006, with smarter, more charitable opponents, who have already absorbed some of the points I’m prepared to make.

      • matthewravery says:

        I entered in the late Bush era, 2006-2008, and everything was pervasively religion vs. atheism just as Scott describes

        I’m sure you didn’t literally mean everything, but it’s still better to avoid such sweeping statements. I feel like I was a pretty heavily-engaged internet user since well before 2006, and I find that I missed this whole discussion. Or at least, I found it to be something that some people cared about a lot but I didn’t really, and so at most it was background noise. Like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or something like that. I think I heard/saw people discuss this more IRL/on TV/in print than on the internet, TBH.

        So what I’m saying is, even back in 2006, the internet was a big place, and it was certainly big enough for an issue like NA to be central to one person’s experience and entirely absent from another’s.

      • Atlas says:

        It’s funny that you entered the Internet in the 2010s; I entered in the late Bush era, 2006-2008, and everything was pervasively religion vs. atheism just as Scott describes. At the places I was frequenting (won’t mention them by name), the pro-Chesterton, anti-Gibbon, anti-Galileo, etc. stuff was not around yet, and it was pretty lonely to be the guy defending Catholicism; I had at the time the sense that the “enemy” always had pages and pages of arguments they could link to, and I didn’t, and if only I could build something up I could stop wasting my time rehearsing the same arguments over and over. (Apparently, per Scott, this stuff existed for the Young Earth Creationist folks, but I was not one of them!)

        It was only around my junior year of high school, 2011-2012 or so, that that began to develop, or at least that I began to find it. I learned about the Catholic blogosphere, I started finding a lot of smart and eloquent people making my arguments a lot better than I was, and I was learning a lot. And that stuff wasn’t coming out of Enn Arr Ex or all-trite folks—they didn’t exist yet! Some of these folks might have ended up in those movements later (I can think of a handful of examples), but the intellectual groundwork really predated that. Long predated people like Jones or even Peterson.

        I definitely empathize with the experience you describe of finding it demoralizing to be a lone voice staking out a position on “enemy” territory with no clear home ground to retreat to. And what you said about finding arguments that you hadn’t known before existed is, I think, very important: as Nassim Taleb writes in The Black Swan, we don’t know what we don’t know. As Scott has written about before, it seemed like communism had the best arguments on its side for a while…until it was put into practice and crashed and burned and became largely discredited.

        It seems like there’s been a pretty big shift in Internet culture (at least in the perception of readers of this blog) over the past 10-12 years. This reminds me of a thought I’ve had about the left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House, which I generally quite like. They market themselves as hip, Internet-savvy youngsters, but it seems to me that their formative experience of the Internet (and politics more broadly) was mid Bush-late Obama era. Their perception of the right is based on neoconservatism, Protestant evangelical Christianity, Boomers, emphatic support for capitalism, pro-Zionism, reverence for the Constitution, centrist prestige press opinion columnists, message board posters, the Tea Party, supporting the Republicans vs. the Democrats, and using awkward euphemistic language around race.

        By contrast, my perception of the right is based on paleoconservatism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Zoomers, relative indifference to capitalism vs. socialism, anti-Zionism, indifference or contempt for the Constitution, YouTube channels, 4chan’s politics board, hating politicians generally and using extremely clear and emphatic language about their feelings about other races and religions.

        So I really have to roll my eyes whenever Chapo pats itself on the back for destroying David French or Jerry Falwell, jr. or Bill Kristol or whoever its typical target of the week is. Maybe that’s where the center of conservatism was when they were first introduced to Internet political culture, but it’s changed drastically since then, as e.g. the recent spate of Charlie Kirk campus Q & As suggests.

        And for what it’s worth, @Atlas, I am still happy to keep having those debates, without anti-Semitism or whatever other gifts Jones brings to the table. As you can see last thread, where I was discussing the Unmoved Mover. (Not with great alacrity, I’m afraid; I feel like I kind of let @thevoiceofthevoid down there by not responding in full. But it illustrates my point all the same.) Because I am frankly sick to death of the post-God elements of the new right and would like to keep having a better form of the arguments I was having back in 2006, with smarter, more charitable opponents, who have already absorbed some of the points I’m prepared to make.

        Cool, and I greatly appreciate the civil and informative debates/discussions about subjects like religion that go on here. (And actually I recently had a thought about sin and alleged free will that I was eager to write up for an OT.) I’ve certainly learned something from the insightful contributions of many Christian SSC commenters like yourself.

        • Nick says:

          This reminds me of a thought I’ve had about the left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House, which I generally quite like. They market themselves as hip, Internet-savvy youngsters, but it seems to me that their formative experience of the Internet (and politics more broadly) was mid Bush-late Obama era. Their perception of the right is based on neoconservatism, Protestant evangelical Christianity, Boomers, emphatic support for capitalism, pro-Zionism, reverence for the Constitution, centrist prestige press opinion columnists, message board posters, the Tea Party, supporting the Republicans vs. the Democrats, and using awkward euphemistic language around race.

          Okay, I feel like I have to ask this now, since the question has been on my mind since the last time you mentioned Chapo. So my impression from others’ general descriptions was basically what you describe, and I’ve only watched exactly one of their episodes (it was the interview with Matthew Walther, if you’re curious). This general description is that they’re trying to be the new dirtbag left, heaping scorn on the neocons and Clintonite wing of the Democrats alike. That sort of pose I can certainly understand, and everyone seems to consistently describe Chapo this way.

          But then when I encounter discussion of particular content from them, they’re not doing this. Instead they’re making fun of Rod Dreher, or Ross Douthat, who are both apparently common targets. And, like, do Chapo realize how out of the mainstream a Reformocon conservative Catholic pundit like Ross is? Or paleo Crunchy Con turned BenOp Orthodox Rod? Like, these are some of the worst people to be regularly trashing if your beef is with neocons. Rod was one of the five journalists on the planet actually opposed to the war in Iraq when it was being proposed, so where the hell does he fit in their evil neocon shit list? I am for real here, courtesy of tvtropes, which never lies to me:

          The recurring segment “Chapo Reading Series” has one host (usually Will) reading aloud a particularly odious piece of writing by some kind of political pundit (most often Ross Douthat or Rod Dreher) while everyone relentlessly riffs on it.

          What the hell is going on here? Pace what you say, it sounds like they should be trashing David French and aren’t? At least he’s actually in favor of forever war and bloodless liberalism*. Are Chapo smarter than they realize? Have they been picking better targets and nobody noticed? I would think you’d have cottoned on if they had. But you have surely got way more context for these conflicting stories than I do, so please help me out.

          *Not seriously meant, if it isn’t clear

          • Atlas says:

            But then when I encounter discussion of particular content from them, they’re not doing this. Instead they’re making fun of Rod Dreher, or Ross Douthat, who are both apparently common targets. And, like, do Chapo realize how out of the mainstream a Reformocon conservative Catholic pundit like Ross is? Or paleo Crunchy Con turned BenOp Orthodox Rod? Like, these are some of the worst people to be regularly trashing if your beef is with neocons. Rod was one of the five journalists on the planet actually opposed to the war in Iraq when it was being proposed, so where the hell does he fit in their evil neocon shit list? I am for real here, courtesy of tvtropes, which never lies to me:

            I would conjecture that you might tend to read fora where Chapo episodes that mock Douthat or Dreher get more attention than ones that mock e.g. David Brooks or Jerry Falwell, jr.

            To answer your questions, I think their views are fundamentally distorted on Douthat and Dreher, as well as many other issues, by being conflict theorists. It doesn’t matter to them that Dreher was right about the Iraq War, because they think he’s wrong about social issues. Conversely, it doesn’t matter to them that Max Boot/Bret Stephens/David Frum agree with them on gay marriage, because they disagree on foreign policy.

            The TvTropes entry is right about the general character of the reading series, but I think it’s either outdated or was never accurate in describing Douthat and Dreher as the most common targets.

            What the hell is going on here? Pace what you say, it sounds like they should be trashing David French and aren’t? At least he’s actually in favor of forever war and bloodless liberalism*.

            Yeah, they love going after David French, as a search in this helpful archive demonstrates. I particularly liked the episode where they read and dunk on his article about being harassed by anime Nazis, because it somehow never occurs to them that maybe the literal avowed Nazis are a little bit more worrisome than National Review conservatism?

            More broadly, they definitely are emphatic in criticizing US foreign policy and its promoters (Henry Kissinger, John McCain, Elliot Abrams, etc.). Long-time readers of my posts are no doubt aware that I largely agree with their critiques, but I find it frustrating that they don’t seem to realize that an increasingly powerful brand of conservatism among young people owes a lot more to Pat Buchanan than George W. Bush in this regard.

            An almost parabolic example of this was when they showed up at CPAC to epically own Jacob Wohl and instead got owned by Nick Fuentes and his posse. Hmm, I wonder who’s a better representation of the future of conservatism 10-15 years hence, Jacob Wohl, or Nick Fuentes?

            Have they been picking better targets and nobody noticed? I would think you’d have cottoned on if they had. But you have surely got way more context for these conflicting stories than I do, so please help me out.

            I wish they had been, man. If they’d been paying closer attention, they’d have realized that E. Michael Jones and Owen Benjamin are more powerful forces of reaction than Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher. But, to them, Douthat might as well be a Falangist.

          • Nick says:

            @Atlas
            Thanks, I didn’t know there was an archive with full transcripts and everything, and it looks like French is indeed a lot better represented. Also a lot of Jonah Goldberg and some Stephens and Boot.

            Maybe the tvtropes folks just love the Dreher and Douthat readalongs?

    • Dan L says:

      So I’ve read a lot more far-right material over the past few years than I would have previously expected. And I’ve noticed a change happening on the Internet more generally, but on the right-wing parts of it in particular:

      As an aside, I bet sensitivity to this pattern is a good chunk of the reason SSC gets accused of being crypto-Right. I think Scott is correct to dispute it, but it’s not for nothing he occasionally gets included in descriptions of the IDW.

    • EchoChaos says:

      One thing to be aware of is that the fact that there are bad people on one side does not mean that everything that side says is wrong.

      One of the great things that Steve Pinker said was that a risk of mainstreaming denying obvious facts (he was talking about race, but it fits here) is that the first time someone hears these obvious facts they are hearing it from a crazy far-right/left person who also smuggles in a pile of crazy.

      If internet atheists are denying that Chesterton and Aquinas are brilliant and erudite men, then the first time someone who hasn’t read them cracks open Orthodoxy, he’s going to realize the internet atheists are full of shit.

      What you need is to build a sustainable ideology that can combine “yes, Chesterton and Aquinas are brilliant, and that doesn’t mean that we have to kill Jews”. Note that mainstream Christianity already has this ideology, so you don’t exactly have to reinvent the wheel.

      And that requires not lying about history, because if you require people to believe that Christianity caused the fall of the Roman Empire to buy your ideology, your ideology is not going to win.

      • Atlas says:

        One thing to be aware of is that the fact that there are bad people on one side does not mean that everything that side says is wrong.

        Indeed—I think that’s a/the fundamental difference between mistake and conflict theory. I think the ability of mistake theory to integrate good arguments from the “other side” is a great strength that makes it more adaptable and less fragile than conflict theory.

        And that requires not lying about history, because if you require people to believe that Christianity caused the fall of the Roman Empire to buy your ideology, your ideology is not going to win.

        True enough. However, my perspective on this has changed somewhat since seeing the superweapon. I now perceive, rightly or wrong, a difference between a historical thesis about the Roman Empire and Christianity and, say, the Qin dynasty and Legalism. The latter is something that I view as relatively domain-limited and disinterested, but I have become very sensitive to how the former can be used to help create a partisan cross-domain thesis of “Christianity is great, society should be structured around it and people who don’t accept it are bad.”

        So I’d definitely want to avoid making false or over-bold claims in response. But I’d be very interested in constructing counter-arguments like: “The apex of Christianity, and particularly Roman Catholicism’s, influence in the West circa 400-1400 AD was not an era of unique or exceptional peace, justice, scientific discovery, artistic achievement, commerce or martial prowess compared to rival contemporary civilizations or the pagan eras before it and the Protestant and secular eras after it. It may still have made a positive, commendable and necessary contribution to the maintenance and rebirth of civilization, but it cannot be fairly maintained that the historical record suggests either that societies must organized around Christianity/Roman Catholicism in order to flourish or that such organization is sufficient to ensure such flourishing.”

        Such an argument—which I concocted rather hastily and am by no means wedded to—has, to my eyes, the virtue of sabotaging part of the superweapon while placing the onus for seeming to “go out on a limb” argumentatively on its opponents.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          But I’d be very interested in constructing counter-arguments like: “The apex of Christianity, and particularly Roman Catholicism’s, influence in the West circa 400-1400 AD was not an era of unique or exceptional peace, justice, scientific discovery, artistic achievement, commerce or martial prowess compared to rival contemporary civilizations or the pagan eras before it and the Protestant and secular eras after it. It may still have made a positive, commendable and necessary contribution to the maintenance and rebirth of civilization, but it cannot be fairly maintained that the historical record suggests either that societies must organized around Christianity/Roman Catholicism in order to flourish or that such organization is sufficient to ensure such flourishing.”

          That would be a fun argument to have! I love historical arguments.

          I think the general line of counterattack (or is it counter-counterattack at this point?) would be linking the relative deprivation and “darkness” of the, er, Dark Ages with the constant barbarian* assaults on the periphery of Europe (Huns, Saracens, Berbers, Vikings, Magyars over a couple of centuries) coupled with the ongoing conversion of Europeans (in 476 Christianity was mostly confined to the Roman Empire, and not all that well-established in the West). Then, you can start arguing Christendom at the time of Charlemagne, and compare the societies of the Middle and High Middle Ages with their contemporaries.

          The hardest obstacle is explaining away Song China, but I think it could be done.

          *here meaning non-Christian non-European

          • Jaskologist says:

            This is the argument SSC should be having.

          • Atlas says:

            I think the general line of counterattack (or is it counter-counterattack at this point?) would be linking the relative deprivation and “darkness” of the, er, Dark Ages with the constant barbarian* assaults on the periphery of Europe (Huns, Saracens, Berbers, Vikings, Magyars over a couple of centuries) coupled with the ongoing conversion of Europeans (in 476 Christianity was mostly confined to the Roman Empire, and not all that well-established in the West).

            True enough, but to me the consequent question is why the rise of Christianity, and more specifically the Roman Catholic Church, didn’t manage to reverse the decline of the pagan Roman Empire and do a better job of creating a unified temporal Leviathan that no kingdom of unbelievers could stand against?

            To be clear, I don’t necessarily think that Christianity/the Catholic Church necessarily did a bad job in this regard, given the external material circumstances, I just don’t see that it did the kind of spectacular job that I would expect it to have done if it had access to very important knowledge about how the world works that Mohammedans and Chinamen didn’t.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            why the rise of Christianity, and more specifically the Roman Catholic Church, didn’t manage to reverse the decline of the pagan Roman Empire and do a better job of creating a unified temporal Leviathan that no kingdom of unbelievers could stand against?

            Ah, but did it not? The far more Christian East survived the storms that brought down the more pagan-ish West in the 5th century. For a few centuries, the Roman Empire continued to be Leviathan that no kingdom of believer could stand against – Justinian thrashed the Persians with only half an Empire, utterly destroyed the Vandal and Gothic Kingdoms, and was making inroads into Spain and Gaul. Plague and court politic stopped Leviathan then. A century later, Heraclius drove the Persians back from the gates of Constantinople itself.

            It was Islam that finally brought down the Empire, in successive battering waves of first Arabs (whom the Empire outlasted), then Seljuk Turks (whom the Empire outlasted), and finally Ottomans (after the Empire was stabbed in the back by their Catholic “brothers”), in the meantime enduring invasions of Avars, Maygars, Slavs, Bulgars, Huns, etc.

            That’s one argument. If you point out that Islam seems to have done a better job, well, obviously Islam was created by the Devil to bring down God-fearing civilization. u_u*

            The other half of the argument is that once the West finally became Christian under the Carolingans they created their own superstate in the West, beating up the pagans so hard that finally even the Norse decided to give up and just convert because clearly the Christian God was better. Rinse and repeat for the Americas, Africa, etc.

            Still leaves the nagging problem of why Christianity failed to conquer China and Japan, of course.

            *I do not actually believe this please don’t crucify me on Twitter in 15 years

          • The original Mr. X says:

            True enough, but to me the consequent question is why the rise of Christianity, and more specifically the Roman Catholic Church, didn’t manage to reverse the decline of the pagan Roman Empire and do a better job of creating a unified temporal Leviathan that no kingdom of unbelievers could stand against?

            Because otherwise people would have come to see “Christendom” and “The Roman Empire” as interchangeable, hampering efforts to spread the Faith to non-Roman parts of the world.

          • Jaskologist says:

            why the rise of Christianity, and more specifically the Roman Catholic Church, didn’t manage to reverse the decline of the pagan Roman Empire and do a better job of creating a unified temporal Leviathan that no kingdom of unbelievers could stand against?

            Christianity promises eternal life, but via resurrection rather than never-dying immortality. Western Civ lived out in large what believers experience in small; it died but was resurrected.

      • Ant says:

        Aquinas’s arguments against atheism are really poor by today’s standard and easy to refute for an atheist(try google and you will see my point). The few I saw of Chesterton didn’t impress me(Chesterton’s fence is a variation of the precaution principle, and I consider it a sophism only employed when you don’t have any good argument: if the benefice/cost is in favor of action, you don’t need to consider the past). That doesn’t mean that Aquinas and Chesterton weren’t intelligent, just that smart people can write bad arguments.

        • EchoChaos says:

          I’ll politely disagree with both points, but that’s not the main gist of what we’re discussing.

          The main point of @Atlas’s post was that the initial wave of New Atheists initially denigrated Christian thinkers entirely, which is easy to refute because they were clearly great and smart men (even if they were wrong). If your movement relies at a base level on an easy to refute assertion, it’s going to be hard to persuade people who look deeply.

          • Nick says:

            For example: I distinctly remember an Amazing Atheist video where he claims not only that Aquinas’s proofs are wrong, but that Aquinas himself is an imbecile for ever writing such stupid things in the first place. (Not going to try to find it while I’m at work.)

        • quanta413 says:

          Chesterton’s fence is superficially kind of like the precautionary principle, but I think not actually much like it. Because it’s often very hard to gather the sort of information you need to override the precautionary principle because it’s typically about dealing with things that have not occurred before. Whereas overriding Chesterton’s fence will often mean reading what people in the past wrote down or what they did and thinking about whether why they put up X fence still applies.

          The way to look at it is that just because you run a cost/benefit analysis doesn’t mean that will be the actual costs and benefits. Existing institutions typically evolved for some reason and are better than nothing in some dimension. So to actually do a correct cost/benefit analysis you need to know why they exist in the first place. If you know why, then you probably understand the tradeoffs at hand and can choose to tear down the fence.

          • Aapje says:

            Yes, I would argue that the correct lesson is that people should consider the potential costs of change more and that they shouldn’t take the benefits of the current situation for granted.

            I think that people who advocate for change often only consider the improvements compared to the status quo, not the ways in which is considers some things to be worse.

        • maxmaria says:

          “Aquinas’s arguments against atheism are really poor by today’s standard and easy to refute for an atheist(try google and you will see my point).” — A laughable assertion. The very fact that anyone thinks that they can just Google refutations shows just how intellectually lazy and stupid the average Internet Atheist really is.

          No, it turns out that NONE of Aquinas’s arguments have been rationally or even honestly refuted AT ALL. All one needs to do is examine them carefully and look at modern philosophers like Ed Feser who have shown the errors of the Moderns–in fact those arguments are NOT refuted, unless you go by intellectual lightweights who dominate Atheist forums–who are supported by Google and the other search providers, BTW, while they intentionally obscure rebuttals.

          In reality entirely intelligent, rational, logical people who understand science as well or better than you DO NOT agree with the ludicrous “there is no evidence” claim forwarded by Atheism Cultists, and no, none of the argumetns have been convincingly refuted.

          We have ample evidence in contemporary science that irrefutably supports the ancient proofs, too.

          Simply put, ATheism is stupid. It’s irrational. It’s a religious belief. And it’s not defensible. It is also not “Lack of Belief.” It is an identitarian religious cult that cannot defend its own belifes, and which can only defeat religious argumetns by strawmanning and lying.

          It also, again, makes the average Internet Atheist not just stupid, but obnoxious, shallow, condescending, and hateful to be around.

          Thank the God that irrefutably has been proven to exist to rational minds has been proven to any rational standard. The only thing left is to see what we can do to undo the Indoctrination brought out by the ideological Atheism cult that took over the Internet and the universities.

          There’s really no reason, until Atheist stop lying and pretending that we the religious are stupid, irrational, dangerous, etc., for religious people to even be polite to Atheists. When you say we have no evidence you lie; when you claim all our proofs have been debunked, you lie. When you sneer at us, you deserve to be shunned.

          We have evidence that convinces us. It’s VERY good evidence never debunked, so even if YOU find it unconvincing, that is entirely your own arbitrary personal choice; you really have no science or anything else to back up your atheism.

          BTW, the studies claiming atheists are smarter than the majority of the human race are easily debunked too.

          Sorry, you just bought a bunch of religious dogma you thought was rational. Atheism is stupid, especially Internet Atheism and New Atheism–and anyone using Google results to prove their points should be mocked as a charlatan and a lightweight.

  64. BBA says:

    Stopping back in for just a minute, doods.

    Out in the “real” world I did notice a remarkable drop in the political salience of religion during Obama’s first term. Maybe it was because Bush was so overtly religious and he left office so thoroughly discredited. Even as a coastal elite atheist Jew, I’d long had the sense that evangelical Christianity was this massive hegemonic force that ruled all of America outside my little bubble, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t anymore.

    I could never get 100% behind New Atheism, despite agreeing with its principles, because it was too rigid and combative, and besides I knew it could never win. And now I can’t get 100% behind Social Justice, despite agreeing with its principles, because it is too rigid and combative, and besides I know it will inevitably win.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Not picking on you in particular, but it’s fascinating that on this predominantly young male nerdy extremely-online rationalist liberaltarian science-and-politics blog with thousands of commenters, nobody was a full-on hook-line-and-sinker New Atheist back in the 00’s. Did I just somehow end up with none of these people, or is there some recall bias going on here?

      • Psycicle says:

        I got deconverted by one of the detailed arguments, went “welp, now what”, became an avid reader of the blogs back in the glory days, binge-read talk.origins, and it just sorta fizzled out because it went from new and shiny to extremely obviously true and I realized there were bigger fish to fry in the world.

        • a definitive maybe says:

          Same here. I was strongly into the movement as a teenager in the aughts. I had deconverted from being a strong believer and still had to interact with religion a lot irl, so I found a lot of support in the community and in the massive number of arguments I could read through. Eventually I got away from the religious people in my life and atheism went from being an Important Belief to just an obvious fact, and I just drifted away from the community. I’m not sure when exactly that was, but it was before 2010.

      • Spot says:

        I’m just guessing here, but this community self-selects for people who value nuance and are are generally highly sensitive to ideological dogmatism. Possibly many of the commenters were just applying those principles to New Atheism back when it was a significant component of the Blue platform.

        Also (to throw out a less-complimentary hypothesis), back in the mid-late aughties I think there was at least a small element of contrarian self-aggrandizement to some anti-atheist rhetoric. I was pretty young during the movement’s early years, but I sort of recall a period back in something like the mid-late aughts (shortly after Dawkins’ book came out) when bashing New Atheism – in certain limited contexts – was a way for young educated liberals to set themselves apart and/or establish their intellectual and freethinking bona fides.

        It’s weird to say – because back then the religious right still had very significant power in a broader sense – but in certain Blue spaces, attacking New Atheism felt kind of contrarian in much the same way that anti-social justice rhetoric feels contrarian today.

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        I was one of the guys arguing against the New Atheists back then. Hell, given the Wayback Machine, I could probably link to some of those old discussions in the back pages of places like Advance Wars Bunker and the Nationstates forums.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I’m not really clear exactly what constitutes a “New Atheist”, but I was reading Pharyngula and Dispatches from the Culture Wars routinely on ScienceBlogs back in the day…

        • Enkidum says:

          Same, and kept up with both of them and the rest of FreethoughtBlogs for quite a few years.

          • Spot says:

            Hell, I still read Pharyngula occasionally, and I kind of like PZ Myers despite myself. He just strikes me as a sincere guy, and that’s an unfortunately rare quantity, especially in the age of social media. I’ll overlook a lot from someone who (I feel) is genuinely writing from the heart.

            I understand why he rubs a lot of people the wrong way, though, and I do think the quality of his output has deteriorated over the past five-odd years.

      • oldman says:

        I guess I might’ve been a New Atheist in the 00s? I certainly remember thinking that the topic was a lot more important than I do know. I bought and read the God Delusion. I wasn’t an New Atheist online, simply as I didn’t post much of anything online.

        I am British, I think Christianity didn’t feel like a high level political force (politicians rarely did and rarely do invoke the bible) But did feel like it had a lot of local power (it was and is very common for all the good schools in an area to be Christian) I don’t know what share of commenters are American, and maybe that’s why there are fewer New Atheists than you expected

      • Ketil says:

        I’m just guessing here, but this community self-selects for people who value nuance and are are generally highly sensitive to ideological dogmatism.

        What is interesting to me here, is the exchange of viewpoints and arguments between people with very different backgrounds. This is the only place I know where Trump supporters, Catholics, Marxists, and so on engage in (mostly) civil discussion.

        I used to get in arguments with Christians when I was a teenager, but when New Atheism came around, it was never all that interesting to me beyond entertainment value and perhaps as an exercise in free speech. Religion just didn’t have enough power over or around me for attacking it to be worthwhile, and NA figureheads listing up historical evil deeds done in the name of religion or scientific misconceptions was bashing in open doors as far as I was concerned.

      • cactus head says:

        I was one. I used to watch Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! religiously (lol) and would get into arguments with my sister about reiki healing. I also knew a kid in high school, in the early 10s who was 10x the New Atheist I ever was.

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        I wasn’t an activist type back then (and still am not), but I did read the usual books by Dennet, Harris etc with approval, read a couple of atheist blogs, and had a general guideline of “when you’re in serious disagreement with Dawkins, you’re most likely wrong”. (Which has held up fairly well.)
        And I did follow the A+ fallout, and it caused me an irrational amount of pain and cognitive dissonance (“how can people who seemed so rational and obviously right on one topic be so irrational, obviously wrong, and complete douchebags about it?”). I’d like to believe I learned some lessons from it, though.

      • John Lynch says:

        Read Hitchens a lot, but I was a Catholic. Really liked his book about Orwell.

        I think a lot of your conservative readership is attracted to your support of freedom of speech, just as they were attracted to Hitchens’ advocacy of freedom of conscience. It is possible to appreciate a writer even if you don’t agree with them 100% about everything, even if it’s important to the writer.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Perhaps the hook-line-and-sinker New Atheists were the most likely to move on to full Social Justice, which explains why they aren’t here.

      • Corey says:

        I was. Commentariat vs. readership issue, probably.

      • John Schilling says: