A string of deadly far-right attacks across the globe in the past decade or so had one thing in common: a white nationalist conspiracy theory known as The Great Replacement.
From Utoya, Norway in 2011 to the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, El Paso, Texas and Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, to the mass shooting in a Buffalo supermarket on May 14 of this year—all these vicious attacks were motivated by this hate-filled conspiracy theory.
This paranoid far-right fiction holds that white European populations are being systematically replaced by non-white people through the efforts of a shadowy cabal of Jews/elites/Democrats. The most common alleged means is mass immigration, though different variations feature the elites encouraging low birthrates, abortion, interracial marriage and homosexuality, all to end the domination of the white race and render them a minority in “their own lands.”
In recent years, this alarming and dangerous conspiracy theory has gone from far-right fringe circles to the very core of Republican politics and mainstream TV. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has referenced it more than 400 times on his show. And though it may be a slightly sanitized version in which blame is placed not on Jews per se but on ‘democratic elites,’ the underlying principles are the same: That the white population—or as Tucker Carlson phrases it, ‘legacy Americans’—is being deliberately “replaced.”
The growing popularity of great replacement theory on the Right is due in part to its moldability. It can be stretched to accommodate all types of hate. It can be used to promote whatever anxiety is convenient in the moment for the cause of white nationalism, white supremacy, and defending the status quo. It can be shaped to fuel anti-semitic hate as with the Pittsburgh shooting, anti-muslim hate, as with Christchurch and Utoya, anti-Latino sentiment with El Paso, and anti-black hate in Buffalo.
While xenophobia, antisemitism, and racial hatred are the most obvious and prominent factors informing this conspiracy theory, misogyny is also a strong theme that runs throughout. As the ADL puts it,
At the heart of the ‘great replacement’ and its obsession with demographics lies a hyper-fixation with controlling women’s bodies.
This obsession with demographics and birth rates also extends to hatred and hostility towards LGBTQ+ people. As stated in Slate,
Homosexuality is often condemned by white nationalists as a refusal to produce the children needed to restore a majority-white nation. More broadly, the far-right targets the increased representation of LGBTQ+ relationships in popular culture, often described as part of a ‘gender ideology’ pushed by cultural elites to indoctrinate younger generations and sabotage white reproduction.”
While not (yet) explicit in its ties to “The Great Replacement,” we have already seen the clock turned back on progress. As I write this, the Supreme Court has just overturned its nearly half-century old decision that guaranteed rights to abortion. Anti-LGBTQ+ laws have also been sweeping across the US. The Right is pushing to erase LGBTQ+ people from public life – with increasingly inflammatory, violent and hateful rhetoric like the abhorrent ‘groomer’ narrative and going after Disney for its representation of a same-sex couple. With increasingly dishonest attacks on drag performances and pride events, hatred is very clearly ramping up – as we saw with the arrest of 31 white supremacists who were heading to a Pride event in riot gear.
The mainstreaming of extremist rhetoric has occurred, to some extent, in much of the Western world, but most notably in American politics and cable news. As a result, it’s been receiving more coverage. However, as most of the coverage centers around Fox News and known right-wing figures, one element that often goes unnoticed is the legitimizing and sanitizing taking place among certain intellectuals who, under the guise of scientific discourse, polish and repackage extremist themes like ‘great replacement’.
This is where New Atheist figures come in.
Their continuous laundering and reframing of dangerous far-right conspiracy theories as difficult truths that only the most rational people are willing to engage with has spilled into secular and atheist spaces in particular. This has happened because of the not-so-fine line that exists between well-thought-out, nuanced critique of religion and the wholesale portrayal of its adherents (Islam in particular) as uncivilized barbarians that are incompatible with the West.
A few people have been sounding the alarm on this very prominent branch of movement atheism that has aligned so enthusiastically with the far-right on topics like Islam, immigration, feminism and trans rights.
A little more background is important to understand the broader context, to see just how easily and deeply it seeped into atheist and secular spaces online, to fully understand how New Atheist figureheads helped launder and disseminate it, giving it a veneer of reason and rationality.
The great replacement theory stems from the broader ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theory, a more blatant, extreme, and overtly anti-Semitic version of The Great Replacement that states,
“there is a deliberate plot, often blamed on Jews, to promote miscegenation, interracial marriage, mass non-white immigration, racial integration, low fertility rates, abortion…in order to cause the extinction of whites…”
While paranoid themes of white extinction and replacement have existed in pre-WW II Nazi Germany, ‘white genocide’ was popularized around 1995 by American white separatist and neo-Nazi David Lane. In 2011, a French white nationalist, novelist and far-right conspiracy theorist Renaud Camus, birthed the concept of ‘Le Grand Remplacement’ (Great Replacement), which appears to have been strategically toned down for broader appeal. The explicit reference to Jews is often replaced with reference to a globalist elite and the target is more specifically Muslims. Since Renaud’s books, in which this conspiracy theory was developed, were published against the backdrop of an increase in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric in a post-9/11 world. There was also an increase in Islamist terror attacks in Europe, as well as the migrant crisis in 2015—all these factors created the perfect conditions for a larger and larger audience to embrace Camus’s great replacement theory.
As an atheist and immigrant of Muslim background myself, I often came across these types of talking points years ago. I found them alarming but did not have the knowledge or context to understand just how extreme they were, which is what motivated me to write this piece. I wanted to lay it all out for others in secular spaces from a secular perspective as a cautionary tale about the darker side of online movement atheism. This is not just a matter of “a few bad apples” but an ongoing systemic issue, that isn’t usually acknowledged by a group that is all-too-eager to point the finger at other groups for failing to call out extremists and apologists in their own midst.
An ‘utterly superb’ call to race war
This link between New Atheism and the far-right is a dangerous and under-discussed one. This has never been demonstrated so starkly as when Richard Dawkins tweeted out a recommendation for a book by fellow atheist Douglas Murray.
The day after the mass shooting in Buffalo that was explicitly motivated by great replacement theory, by ideas like there being an outright “war on white people,” Dawkins chose to tweet praise for a book titled The War on the West. He called it “utterly superb” and urged his nearly three million followers to read it with an open mind and “forget about labels like right wing”…Because surely, among us secular friends, we can overlook an inconvenient term like that, even in the aftermath of a mass shooting underpinned by the same ideology.
I’ve been listening to the audio version of Murray’s book myself, and it is reminiscent of the incendiary rhetoric of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. In his promotional podcast tour for this book, Murray talks repeatedly of an “outright war on white people.” He is losing patience, he says, done being polite with people who don’t “respect [his] ancestors, history and culture” – while disparaging other cultures for supposedly not contributing to “mathematical, scientific or artistic discoveries”. The combination of ignorance and arrogance is staggering, as this is patently, overwhelmingly untrue.
This is no dog whistle, it is an air horn.
In a recent interview, Murray warns, “Don’t push us there”, and “these people have to be cleared out of the way.”
Things are becoming “very unfair” for white people, he says, that the kinds of statements made about them wouldn’t be tolerated against any other group, as he told Sam Harris in a podcast episode on May 2. In that conversation too, Murray says that white people are being told they are guilty from birth, that their ancestors were bad, and he laments the fact that they have no right to feeling any kind of “pride” in their past achievements.
In a recent conversation with Joe Rogan, Murray discusses the Transatlantic slave trade for the purpose of dismissing the very idea of reparations. He claims that what Africans did to other Africans was worse than what Europeans were doing to Africans because it was Africans “selling their brothers and kidnapping their neighbors.” It’s a talking point similar to one I’ve seen from white nationalist (and atheist author of Against the Gods?) Stefan Molyneux:
It’s a repugnant way to shift blame and to distance the West from such horrors.
The War on the West begins with talk of “assault on everything to do with the Western world – past, present and future.” In the very first chapter, Murray sets the stage with cherry-picked anecdotes about how white people are being demonized at every turn, and how that is now the only acceptable form of racism.
He expresses serious concern about the fact that, in a 2021 monologue, Jimmy Fallon (who is white himself) mentioned US Census results which showed white people declining in number to a “cheering studio audience” (Fallon joked about more parking spots and a decline in wedding DJs playing “Total Eclipse of the Heart”) on his (comedy) show.
Douglas interpreted this as follows: “For them, it was not just funny news, but good news. Not that the percentage of whites went down but that the actual number of white people alive went down.”
In his book, Murray points to a “marked radicalization” in recent years – That is, the ‘radicalization’ of people noticing and pointing out racism. He writes and speaks often of “anti-white rhetoric,” about how black people can say anything insulting as long as they say it about white people. He talks of diversity, inclusion and anti-racism initiatives at the workplace as “companies teaching anti-white racism to their employees.”
In his fictional world, the “anti-white rhetoric” that is “being pumped into the system” has led to a “surge in anti-white activities.” His cherry-picked examples are used to portray anti-racist activists as vengeful and rage-filled, with desires for violence against white people.
All of this demonization of anti-racism, diversity and inclusion initiatives, of immigration while fixating on a make-believe widespread anti-white racism is eerily similar to themes in white supremacist slogans like, “Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White.”
This is the sort of thing being welcomed, embraced and promoted by some of the most iconic and celebrated atheist figures like renowned biologist Richard Dawkins and neuroscientist Sam Harris.
Of course, Douglas himself is no outsider to the atheist scene. He too is a well-known and prominent atheist figure, one who happens to lament the loss of Europe’s Christian heritage and the supposed identity crisis caused by increased secularization. Despite this, he has been propped up in vocal anti-theist circles because, rather than consistency on the matter of critiquing religion, it is his views on Islam and immigration that are appealing to a certain crowd. Murray has a long history of cloaking extreme statements in a posh accent, his rhetoric has been described as gentrified xenophobia. Which is putting it mildly.
In February of 2006, Douglas Murray gave a speech to the Pim Fortuyn Memorial Conference on Europe and Islam, in which he described Muslims as a “demographic time-bomb”:
No European country’s Muslim population is currently higher than 10% – which ordinarily would be alright not ideal, but alright. What makes it a problem is not only that native European birth-rates are falling…
Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition. We in Europe owe after all no special dues to Islam. We owe them no religious holidays, special rights or privileges. From long before we were first attacked it should have been made plain that people who come into Europe are here under our rules and not theirs. There is not an inch of ground to give on this one. Where a mosque has become a centre of hate it should be closed and pulled down. If that means that some Muslims don’t have a mosque to go to, then they’ll just have to realise that they aren’t owed one.
In 2013, Murray wrote about UK Census results that greatly troubled him. And he wrote about them in a way that perhaps even Breitbart might consider too blatant:
To study the results of the latest census is to stare at one unalterable conclusion: mass immigration has altered our country completely. It has become a radically different place, and London has become a foreign country. In 23 of London’s 33 boroughs “white Britons” are now in a minority.
Even as many in the online atheist scene of the time insisted that their fears about Muslims and Muslim immigration had to do not with race but “culture” (strategically toning down language is a well-known far-right tactic to make these conversations more palatable to a wider audience, as seen with the rebranding of fascist British National Party under Nick Griffin), Douglas Murray did not shy away from mentioning that the problem was specifically that the number of ‘white’ Britons was not enough for his liking. He even floated the theory that
Tony Blair’s government wilfully aimed to “rub the Right’s nose in diversity” and create what it unwisely took to be a new client class.” – which sounds a lot like what Tucker Carlson has been saying about democratic elites importing new voters to ‘replace’ the white, conservative ones.
After much of the same fearmongering about immigration destroying Britain’s culture, and asking whether other countries would be “expected to take this lying down” too—Murray closes his piece with some of the most alarming “white genocide”-sounding phrases I’ve ever seen in a mainstream publication:
Perhaps one could put the pertinent question like this: is the fact that “white Britons” are now a minority in their capital city a demonstration of “diversity” as the man from the ONS said? If so, when does it cease to be so? There are London boroughs already lacking in “diversity” because there aren’t enough white people around to make them diverse.
We long ago reached the point where the only thing white Britons can do is to remain silent about the change in their country. Ignored for a generation, they are expected to get on, silently but happily, with abolishing themselves, accepting the knocks and respecting the loss of their country. “Get over it. It’s nothing new. You’re terrible. You’re nothing.”
But what levels, after all’s said and done, do the celebrants of diversity want to get to? What is their ideal target figure? Is a ceiling of 25 per cent white Britons in London — or the country at large — optimal? Or would it be 10 per cent? Or none at all? A final, and perhaps harder, question: how — given the concatenation of claims against them — might “white Britons” ever acceptably argue, let alone complain, about such unspecified or unspecifiable odds?”
Note how he slips in the fact that white Britons cannot even complain about this “diversity” which is not only being forced upon them by elite politicians but also ‘abolishing’ them. He sows a feeling of doom and helplessness throughout this piece, and through much of his work generally. In 2014, Murray wrote an article titled, “Is the startling rise in Muslim infants as positive as the Times suggests?”
One of his books, The Strange Death of Europe (guess what is causing this ‘death’: Muslim mass migration and low birth rates) Received praise from neo-Nazi group Generation Identity, it was also recommended on white nationalist hate-site Stormfront and has made an appearance on other racist and white nationalist reading lists. If that wasn’t enough, it was also promoted on Facebook by far-right Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, and also received high praise from Sam Harris (“wonderful,” “very witty,” “fantastic book,” “beautiful read”).
Harris is not only a long-time defender and promoter of Douglas Murray but has contributed to the normalizing of great replacement themes through his own content as well. I was once a fan of Harris’s and have spent the past few years feeling terrible about that, a fact I explore in a miniseries in more detail. But to sum it up, once I started feeling uneasy with some of his content and associations, I hoped that much of it could be chalked up to ignorance or his not having the time to delve into some of the characters he was promoting.
I could not have been more wrong.
In 2016, I discussed my thoughts about Douglas Murray’s alarming views in quite some detail with Harris, concerns he chose to brush off and make excuses for. None of the specifically racialized language I highlighted from Murray’s articles bothered him in the least. Harris has continued praising and promoting Murray to this day. In fact, he told me in our conversation,“I think it’s reasonable to worry whether we are witnessing the destruction of Europe right now, and for demographic reasons.”
He continued, saying that it certainly seemed possible that 75 years from now, Europe would have much more of the character of the Middle East today than the Europe we know and love:
If you said to me 20 years from now there will be a civil war in France and a million people will die – that does not seem like a completely paranoid concern, if you told me the odds of that were 50-50 I wouldn’t find a good reason to tell you they weren’t. Now if you told me that about the United States, I would be much more surprised.
This could very well have been lifted directly from Renaud Camus’s Le Grand Remplacement, which associates the presence of Muslims (specifically) in France with the danger and destruction of French Culture and “civilization.”
Harris often claims that ‘woke identity politics’ is destroying the path to a harmonious “colorblind” world. But his actions and endorsements do not paint a picture of someone who truly prioritizes colorblindness, as seen by his repeated promotion of race and IQ, or his endless propping up of Douglas Murray.
The War on the West is overflowing with racialized language. The first chapter is even called “Race.” It wouldn’t be unbelievable as a parody of a far-right book featured in The Onion. But colorblind Harris has been filled with praise, referring to it as a “fantastic read and a doubly fantastic listen.”
Interestingly, Harris’s attitude changes completely when it comes to anti-racists like Ta-Nehisi Coates whom he refers to on several occasions as a “pornographer of race”—not Douglas Murray who talks obsessively of race, or even Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a book funded by the white supremacist organization Pioneer Fund. In fact, Harris is also a dedicated defender and promoter of Charles Murray, referring to him as a “deeply rational and ethical thinker” and “the intellectual who was treated most unfairly in my lifetime.”
One far-right-laundering Murray is enough for this article, and Charles is not a New Atheist figure, so we’ll stick to Douglas. But since we’ve already discussed his long history in sanitizing this kind of extremist rhetoric, let’s look further into Harris’s.
The grand proclamations of Sam Harris
There’s a reason Harris praises Douglas Murray so highly and refers to him as “impeccable.” On October 27, 2016 Harris tweeted, “It’s time to clone Douglas. We need 10,000 of him.”
Harris is known among critics for this kind of grand comical proclamation that ages terribly. For example, he’s said in the past that “Maajid (Nawaz) is a superstar that needs more exposure. He should be running half of civilization.” Now Maajid is an Alex Jonesian anti-vaxxer spreading far-right conspiracy theories. Sam also once told me that my concerns about Dave Rubin’s laundering of the far Right were unfounded because he perhaps just had an “extremely journalistic agenda” and therefore interviewed all sorts. Anyone familiar with Dave Rubin and his trajectory will know how profoundly ridiculous that statement is.
What I didn’t fully realize at the time about Harris was this: It’s not that he didn’t know enough about the views of people like these; It’s that he shared them.
For years and years, until September 2019 at the very least, Harris’ website’s recommended books section featured a far-right conspiracy theory book called Eurabia: The Euro Arab Axis, which has been cited as a probable inspiration for Renaud’s Grand Remplacement. Eurabia is another similar conspiracy theory featuring French and Arab powers conspiring to Islamize Europe through higher birth rates and immigration. The Eurabia thesis and Great Replacement tropes were referenced both in the Christchurch shooters manifesto and by Norway shooter Anders Breivik. The Eurabia genre is described as
a conspiratorial genre in which a central rhetorical trope is that Europe is on the verge of being taken over by Muslims. It alleges that European Muslims want to establish continent-wide Islamic domination in the form of an Islamic state or a caliphate, using higher fertility rates and immigration as their main means of achieving this.
Looking back at the voices around me
The more I’ve learned about all these far-right conspiracy theories, themes and tropes in recent years, the more I feel the need to look back on my previous years in the New Atheist scene to try and understand who was spouting such things around me. In hindsight, sadly, it’s a lot more people than I can even fit into one article.
As an immigrant, especially of Muslim background, I always felt deeply uncomfortable with these talking points that were ubiquitous in the world of online atheism, but I certainly didn’t realize they were lifted from literal white supremacist propaganda.
After the Christchurch and El Paso shootings, Sam Harris released an episode minimizing far-right, anti-Muslim extremism to an unbelievably shocking degree. He claimed white supremacy was “fringe of the fringe,” and continues to repeat that talking point frequently today. Two such far-right massacres had recently taken place at the time, and he found it appropriate to release an entire episode dedicated to minimizing the threat of far-right extremism.
He claimed such manifestos were either “entirely bogus or semi-bogus… merely designed to confuse the media.” Despite the fact that the Christchurch shooter authored an explicitly anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, 74-page manifesto titled “The Great Replacement” with explicit white supremacist rhetoric and neo-nazi symbols. The manifesto called for all non-European immigrants in Europe who he claimed were ‘invading his land’ to be removed.
Despite all this, Harris stated in his episode titled” “A Few Thoughts on White Supremacy” that shooters like the one at the Christchurch mosque are not moved by sincere ideology, “they’re just ‘shitposting’.” Since the shooter live-streamed his massacre, it couldn’t possibly be motivated by anything other than internet trolling culture.
He said that, “This was a kind of derangement introduced by social media, and that some people were willing to commit mass murder simply to enjoy the spectacle it creates online.” Not only that, but he continued on to insist that the percentage of Muslims that take the jihadist ideology seriously was far greater than the percentage of white people that “have a soft spot for white supremacy,” while making sure to distinguish that from what percentage of white people are “a little racist”.
He had no data to back this up of course and acknowledged he didn’t have a precise number for the percentage of Muslims that have a soft spot for Jihadism, but he made sure to warn his audience that
it’s not one percent, it’s not two percent, it’s a far more disconcerting number than that, and if it were only 10 percent of the world’s Muslims that had a soft spot for Jihadism, that would be an enormous problem worth thinking about. That’s a civilizational problem. That’s a problem that probably exists in half the world’s countries if not more.
Again: This was an episode released just weeks after the El Paso Texas shooting, and a few months after the Christchurch shooting, both of which were far-right anti-immigrant attacks. This is what he chose to focus on and release in response to those tragedies. Most ridiculous of all was the fact that he chose to use the Christchurch shooting, of all things, to illustrate his case that white supremacy wasn’t much of a concern because it wasn’t an ideology that too many people were taken in by.
Referring to the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto as ‘entirely bogus or semi-bogus’ was in such stark contrast to how he has previously talked about Jihadist propaganda from the ISIS magazine Dabiq, on another episode, insisting that, “Jihadists are telling you ad nauseum who they are, even if their stuff is propaganda, doesn’t mean it’s not true…”
Long before this all of this, in 2006 he wrote,
Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow. Throughout Western Europe, Muslim immigrants show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost — demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques.
That was 16 years ago. According to this, in just nine years, France could be a majority Muslim country, without even considering that France’s Muslim immigration did not, in fact, stop in 2006. Today, the Muslim population of France sits at just about five percent.
After the Christchurch shooting, several people pointed to the fact that Sam Harris had been known to spread such dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories, similar to what the shooter cited in his manifesto. Instead of acknowledging the problem with publishing such wildly inaccurate numbers from unreliable sources, Harris tried to wash his hands of it by claiming he had simply gotten them from Bat Ye’or’s book, Eurabia, but didn’t know how well it held up since.
Considering the value he says he places on not wanting to be wrong for a second longer than he has to, on always updating his views when presented with new information and admitting fault when he’s wrong, he displayed none of those qualities in this instance, nor any remorse for publishing such wild and dangerous claims, from a known far-right conspiracy theory book no less.
Add to this Sam’s views on race and IQ, his very public falling out with former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini over the fact that he (correctly) pointed out that (now open white nationalist) Stefan Molyneux’s rhetoric gets very close to the line of holocaust denial, as well as Sam’s own views that “Jews are in part responsible for the Holocaust”—a very disturbing pattern begins to emerge.
There’s much, much more to add to this, but we’ve spent enough time on Harris.
When I began writing this piece, I knew there was a lot of information to compile on this topic. But I didn’t realize what an endless, overwhelming amount there was. I chose to focus on the characters I find most insidious.
But to ensure a clear picture of how widespread this issue is, let me briefly touch upon a few others. There’s Bill Maher and his concerns about too many babies called Mohammed being born in Europe, mentioned in my recent piece about Maher. There’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, cited in the Utoya shooter’s 1500-page manifesto. She denounced his views as abhorrent but claimed that he was driven to violence by the ‘advocates of silence’ who apparently repressed anti-Islam views like his. Her latest book, Prey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights, is based entirely on a white supremacist trope in which Black and brown migrant men are arriving in Europe in large numbers and raping white women. Then there’s Michael Shermer, who runs Skeptic magazine but claims he did not have the foresight to look into (white nationalist) Stefan Molyneux before he not only appeared on his show but also endorsed him on Twitter as, “One of the most articulate podcasters for reason.”
There are many more stories and characters.
Radicalization isn’t something that happens only in religious communities, or something that atheists are immune to. It’s time we started recognizing extremism in our own circles.