Monday, 29 May 2017

The New Atheism: When Bertrand Russell Met Lenin Once Again

The "new" atheism - a misnomer, really - emerged into the mainstream in the early 2000s with the publication of such works as The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.  It was not really new in the sense that they were not saying anything that Bertrand Russell hadn't said back in the 1920s, and other philosophers before even him.

What was new was how this early 21st century wave of atheism used the internet to take the American cultural scene by storm.  The net was dominated by a younger, more libertarian cohort, and they were getting ever angrier and more frustrated with the Christian conservative Bush white house.  It wasn't just Bush's policies that drove their bitterness, but rather his facade of down-home folksiness, exemplified by his intentional mispronunciations of words.  These new atheist authors found a receptive audience in these social media pioneers, for whom the problems America, and indeed the world, were facing were reducible to too much church attendance among red state Americans.

The Meme of Legends
These new atheists did indeed make a convincing deconstruction of evangelical Christian doctrines, and their propensity to mop the floor with Christians in online flame wars became the subject of memes.  The case they make against the inerrancy of scripture is convincing.  Personally, I was never really convinced by them, however.  Not fully.  While this argument drove online atheists crazy, I was among those who thought of them as their own sort of evangelists.  I didn't trust the degree of importance they attached to the nonbelief in God, as if that was what made or broke a person morally or intellectually.  Funny how alike their mirror image fundamentalist rivals they were in that respect.

I didn't trust how eager so many of them were to pronounce as fact something they could not prove - the nonexistence of God, despite their constant insistence on smoking gun evidence for God's existence from their religious opponents.  The implication that all the world's problems could be laid at the feet of belief in Christian dogmas struck me as absurdly reductionist. Bertrand Russell became aware of the fact that God-belief wasn't the real root of the problem after meeting Lenin in 1920, and becoming extremely put off by Lenin's fanatical devotion to a decidedly non religious ideology.  My direct experience with Bush era internet atheists was that they were staunchly unwilling to learn from Russell's experience.  Talk to them of the terrors of the Soviet anti-religious campaigns or the Red Chinese invasion of Tibet and cultural revolution, and I was universally admonished - especially by female liberal atheists - to stop sounding like such a McCarthyite Republican.

Their experience with religion seemed limited to the conservative, evangelical Bush presidency and was defined entirely by being opposed to abortion and gay marriage.  I was no friend to religious conservatism either, and had not been since the Satanic Panic of the 1980s wherein I was accused of devil worship on account of listening to heavy metal music and playing Dungeons and Dragons.  But after having read Bertrand Russell, Eric Hoffer and others who'd done deeper research into the nature of belief and fanaticism, it seemed to me as though the new atheists were hamstrung by a decidedly one dimensional take on spiritual concerns.  Although some of them had even read works by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, many atheists I knew online and in real life seemed to not grasp that side of human nature that was drawn towards the mythical, the poetic and the spiritual.

Increasingly, online atheism came to be about smugness, wittiness, signalling, sarcasm, posturing, decidedly anti-holy holier than thou-ness, and just how much smarter they all were than those stupid religious rubes, inbreeding in the Ozarks, or the like.  Being considered a good person was measurable by the correctness of one's beliefs and one's politics.  The smug scenester mindset that I'd seen among my counter-culture acquaintances in high school was there all over again, except it was religious incorrectness rather than listening to the wrong kind of music that would get you snubbed by the very same people who claimed to despise preppy snobbery.  There was no room at the table for people who believed in sky daddies, invisible pink unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters.  He who fought with monsters was not taking care, and gazing altogether too long into the abyss.

I disliked religious intolerance, of course, but much more the intolerance than the religious.  Especially when said intolerance was becoming increasingly agenda-driven and ideologically ego-stroking and self serving.  Most anti-religious liberals were decidedly unwilling to take on Islam, for instance, long before Maajid Nawaz called out regressive leftism.  Associations of anti-Islamism with racism were not invented by Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. It was old hat even then.  Censorship and sexual prudishness were only wrong when the Catholic Church and southern evangelicals were doing it.  When radical feminists and college campuses were doing it, you were obviously an anti-gay, anti-abortion Bush loving republican for even daring to say such a thing.  Clerical celibacy was just oh, so unnatural, but separatist radical feminism was heroic resistance against the patriarchy.

This was my experience from 2006 onwards.  What would come to be called the SJWs and the Regressive Left were, as popular concepts, years away still.  But the foundations had already long been laid and set.  The hypocrisy on the left that drove me to abandon progressivism in the late 1990s after reading Warren Farrell's Myth of Male Power only seemed to be intensifying.

Thus, when donglegate happened, and Elevatorgate happened, and Atheism+ happened, the new atheists were a lot more surprised than I was.  Descriptions of the debacle that was atheism+ in this 2013 article in Atheist Revolution now seem quaintly humorous in their familiarity.  Postmodern intersectional 3rd wave feminism: Like Seinfeld, classic Star Trek or the music of the Beatles, it's easy to forget that a much younger and less worldly you actually experienced it for the first time:
"On August 19, 2012, blogger Jen McCreight unleashed "Atheism+" upon unsuspecting atheists around the world, and some would say our community has been divided ever since."
"Still others were turned off by the manner in which Atheism+ quickly became an "us vs. them" endeavor that seemed to be more about branding, self-promotion, and purging the atheist community of those who were not liked by those who decided to promote Atheism+ than it did about social justice."
"I was wrong about most atheists valuing skepticism and critical thinking. I would soon realize that many atheists were not skeptics or critical thinkers, at least not when it came to some aspects of their ideology. Unfortunately, I discovered I was wrong by observing the behavior of many of the most vocal supporters of Atheism+. They demonstrated little willingness to think critically or skeptically about the particular form of feminism that seemed to be at the center of their worldview."
"Because Atheism+ was righteous, those who offered criticism were not just people who disagreed; they were bad people. In order to be a valued member of the community, one needed to be the right kind of feminist."
And this, the canary in the coal mine gone silent even in 2013:
"Social justice tends to emphasize human rights, making it more inclusive than the particular issues Jen listed after it. For example, social justice efforts have long focused on the plight of the poor. This was nowhere to be found on Jen's list."
You don't say!

The moment I had been hoping for since 1992, when I read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale - when a substantial portion of liberals would catch on to the fact that the postmodern progressivism of which the new atheism was a part, and Christian conservatism were much more alike than different beneath their cultural veneers - finally seemed to happen in the later part of 2014.  The tone of the discussion had finally shifted.  Bill Maher and Sam Harris were squaring off against Ben Affleck on Real Time, and a YouTuber calling himself the Amazing Atheist had finally found a punching bag he preferred to the Christian God in another YouTuber by the name of Anita Sarkeesian.

Once again, it seemed, Bertrand Russell had met Lenin, and was again unimpressed by what he saw.

About damn time.


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