After 9/11, New Atheism seemed urgent and vital. Now it's spent and faded. How a promising secular movement lost its way.
It all seemed so clear on 9/11.
As the debris of the Twin Towers rained down, it appeared a new era of history had begun. The post-Cold War peace was over, as abruptly as the drawing of a curtain. In its place, there was a clash of civilizations: Islam, or at least a fanatical, violent, theocratic strain of Wahhabi Islam, versus the free, enlightened, democratic West.
And subsequent events bore out that thesis. There were suicide bombings in London and Madrid; spasms of rage against a Danish newspaper that ran a Mohammed cartoon contest, including an embassy bombing and murder plots against several of the cartoonists; a horrific attack on a satirical French magazine; a Dutch politician who made a polemical anti-Islam film, after which Islamic nations demanded he stand trial under their blasphemy laws; and more. In Afghanistan, the Taliban ruled with brutality, oppressing women and dynamiting cultural symbols.
The birth of New Atheism
All these incidents painted a picture of a Dark Age mindset that wanted to conquer the world, or failing that, to intimidate other societies into submission with violent terror attacks. The clash of freedom versus theocracy, Enlightenment versus savagery, reason versus religion, was the new civilizational fault line.
The movement dubbed New Atheism arose from this moment. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other public intellectuals seized on the events of September 11 as proof that religion was at the root of the world’s problems. And with that horror fresh in their minds, the public was a more receptive audience than they might have been before.
As someone active in the movement back then, I can testify that it was a heady time. Atheism felt vital, even thrilling. It was like a dam crumbling, a long-stubborn resistance giving way. The world seemed to be on the brink of a new age of reason. I was proud to call myself a New Atheist.
But that was then, and this is now.
In the twenty years since 9/11, that sense of glorious purpose has grown faded and tarnished. New Atheism feels spent and exhausted, and the term has acquired a bad reputation, even among those who you’d expect to be sympathetic. I myself no longer use the label. How did things come to this pass?
Cheerleaders for imperialism
The tide started to turn early, with the backlash against the Iraq war. It was sold as a crusade to spread democracy and stop the spread of WMDs. But the neoconservative promises yielded to the bloody reality of occupation: an endless insurgency, a steady drumbeat of death and misery, revelations of torture and black-site prisons, staggering sums of money squandered for no tangible benefit.
The New Atheist movement, which associated itself from the beginning with opposition to Islam, was inevitably tarnished by association. It came to be seen as an apology for anti-Muslim prejudice and imperialism. And while this is arguably a little unfair (non-religious Americans were among the most likely to oppose the war), it’s true that some prominent atheists, like Hitchens and Sam Harris, were cheerleading for war or calling for repressive measures against Muslims at home.
At the time, I felt a bit queasy about this. I argued that atheism, properly construed, didn’t have to be Islamophobic or pro-preemptive-war, and those who felt otherwise were only voicing their personal political beliefs. Still, I disliked having it assumed that they spoke for me.
The New Atheists versus social justice
The second blow to New Atheism came with the social-justice movements of the 2000s and 2010s: feminism and #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, transgender rights. The atheist “leadership” was always disproportionately older, white, and male, which left them ill-suited to address these newly prominent issues. Atheists acquitted themselves well when it came to gay rights, but we couldn’t repeat that success.
The self-appointed thought leaders of atheism had one foot-in-mouth moment after another, or worse, lashed out with overt hostility. They poured scorn on the idea that feminism was still needed in the West. They sneered at calls for atheism to diversify. They belittled women and people of color who felt unwelcome or excluded. And, emboldened by their example, internet mobs deluged progressive atheists with harassment and threats. Countless people abandoned the movement in disgust – especially young people who should have been the next generation of activists and leaders. Some of them were my friends.
This was when I started to become disillusioned. It seemed obvious to me (and still does) that the way you triumph in the political arena is by building the biggest tent possible. I was confident that women and people of color were making reasonable requests, and that atheism was more than big enough to accommodate them. I was sure it was both the right thing and the tactically smart thing to do. It was a shock to discover that so many atheists – and not just anonymous basement-dwellers, but prominent public figures whom I formerly had a high opinion of – were dead-set against it.
What can New Atheism say about Trumpism?
But the third and biggest upset for New Atheism was the presidency of Donald Trump.
The 2016 and 2020 elections made it obvious that our dilemma is more complex than “The West” (freedom) versus “Islam” (fundamentalism). The threat of violent Islamism isn’t fictitious, and the need for human rights in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran is as urgent as ever. However, the Trump years demonstrated with stark clarity that Western countries, particularly the U.S., harbor violent, anti-democratic extremists of their own.
If 9/11 is one bookend of this story, then the January 6 Capitol riot is the other. That shocking act of insurrection, just like the September 11 attacks, illuminated a new cultural fault line and ushered in yet another era where old assumptions no longer apply.
We’re facing a homegrown fascist movement, fed a steady diet of resentment, inflamed by Fox propaganda, worshipping Donald Trump with cultish fervor. They’re committed to the idea that if they can’t rule the country, no one will. And when they breached the Capitol, they got within moments of, potentially, lynching the vice president and Congress. They came closer to overthrowing the U.S. than any Islamic terrorist ever managed.
We have to question what, if anything, the atheist movement has to say about this. How much good does it do, really, to lobby against school prayer or Ten Commandments monuments, when the courts are packed with right-wing extremists, neo-Nazi mobs are marching in the streets, and conservatives are openly plotting to steal the next election?
And if we’re being brutally honest, we have to admit that prominent New Atheists weren’t all passive bystanders. In their xenophobic screeds against Muslims, in their angry denunciations of “SJWs” and “woke liberals”, they foreshadowed—if not actively encouraged—the currents of white grievance that Trump tapped into. It’s tempting to say that they were never progressive, except on one or two issues where we happened to agree.
So, whither atheism? Do atheists still have a role in building a better world – or are we part of the problem? In an upcoming post, I’ll propose an answer to that.