Overview:

Several globally-prominent atheists have established themselves as opponents of what they call "wokeness." But an attempt to compare them to atheists generally, and even the prominent atheists' most ardent fans, shows that the sentiment is not widespread.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Evolutionary biologist, science popularizer, and occasional social media provocateur Richard Dawkins tweeted the following in April 2021:

In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as.

Discuss.

An online storm immediately gathered, with Dawkins and his supporters suggesting he was merely posing questions for open debate. But for transgender people, tweets like this come with higher stakes. Transgender rights are under attack in many states in the USA, as well as internationally. By comparing transgender people’s gender identities to an activist’s fraudulent and self-serving claims of a fictional racial identity, Dawkins, intentionally or not, fed into a common right-wing attack that caricatures transgender people as merely “faking it”—often with nefarious intent.

This fake-trans narrative is what lies behind so-called “gender critical” concern over who uses which washrooms in public, red state laws banning trans people from competing in sports, and the like. 

Although framed as an opening to debate and discussion1, the Dawkins tweet nonetheless fit a well-established pattern by which transgender identities are dismissed as fake and thus undermined.

Dawkins is no stranger to Twitter controversy. Indeed, his tweets over the years have provoked reactions ranging from anger to confusion to mirthful bemusement. But this fateful tweet caused an online firestorm and eventually resulted in the American Humanist Association stripping Dawkins of his 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award. Per the AHA, Dawkins had “over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values.”

Far from being an isolated incident, the infamous tweet may instead fit a broader narrative about the world’s most prominent and vocal atheists increasingly staking conservative stances on culture war issues— stances that tend to align more closely with those held by Evangelical Christians and other groups with which one would not expect New Atheists to mix well. Dawkins alone has lent his support to the ‘Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights,’ and has also boosted voices popular among the Right on culture war issues, including Debra Soh, Abigail Shrier, James Lindsay, Jordan Peterson, and Douglas Murray. 

OnlySky writer and prolific podcaster Eiynah has recently documented the perhaps surprising ways that prominent atheists have supported rhetoric reminiscent of white nationalist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories, and the stealth conservatism of prominent atheist Bill Maher. Over at Salon, Émile P. Torres argued that many prominent New Atheist voices have been slowly merging with the far right, citing trends like Sam Harris’s years-long flirtations with Charles Murray’s work on racial differences in intelligence.

The rightward creep of prominent atheist voices doesn’t seem to be an across-the-board political trend. They are largely silent-to-left wing, for example, on issues of taxation or church-state separation or military spending. Instead, they are opposed to what has recently come to be derisively called “wokeness”—progressive positions on a loose constellation of social and culture war issues from racial and social justice to LGBTQ (heavy emphasis on T) rights.

Personally, I don’t much care about the specific social attitudes of celebrity atheists. But as a scientist who studies atheists, I am deeply curious about the beliefs of atheists more generally. And I was curious to know whether the public anti-wokeness of New Atheist leaders reflected a general trend towards anti-wokeness among atheists overall.

So using data from a survey my lab had recently run, I wanted an answer to a straightforward question: Are atheists in America generally as anti-woke as the most vocal atheists out there seem to be?

My lab had recently designed a survey to learn more about atheists’ attitudes and psychological inclinations. The survey included opinions on specific social, cultural, and political issues, and thus lent itself to answering whether there is a general cluster of anti-woke attitudes held by most atheists.

To foreshadow the results: I could find next to no evidence that atheists generally subscribe to the anti-woke beliefs frequently espoused by the most vocal New Atheists. Indeed, anti-woke attitudes proved quite unpopular even among atheists who consider themselves strongly aligned with New Atheism when it comes to religion.

Wokeness: a terminological aside

Before getting into the survey’s methodology and results, some linguistic caveats are in order. Although in this article I will refer to some beliefs as “woke” or “anti-woke,” it is important to recognize that the term “woke” has been appropriated and bastardized beyond all recognition over the years. The term “woke” originally emerged in African American Vernacular English as a call to alertness, especially to racial injustice and police brutality. Over time the meaning expanded (or diluted) to include a wide range of other progressive social justice issues.

These days, however, the term “woke” is almost exclusively used as an insult by the Right: “wokeness” has become a hollow pejorative, meant to dismiss and deride leftward social causes. Teaching the realities of the Tulsa Massacre in public schools? That’s wokeness run amok. A same-sex kiss in a Pixar Movie? More wokeness. Workplace diversity training? That’s definitely wokeness.

When Ron DeSantis proclaims to much applause that “Florida is where woke goes to die…we’re not gonna let this state descend into some type of woke dumpster fire,” he isn’t articulating a coherent political philosophy but rallying his base around a now-shared insult for the other team, and the minorities (primarily racial, gender, and sexual) it is often composed of.

“Woke” is so far removed from its original meaning as to be effectively useless. That said, “woke” and “anti-woke” will be used in this article as handy terms for the left and right poles on the loose cluster of culture war issues that are currently dominating public discourse. This verbiage is unfortunate but convenient as a shorthand.

I also want to be clear that I’m not dismissive of these culture war issues, which are often discussed as fringe political topics that have less substance than ‘meat-and-potatoes’ political issues like taxation rates or infrastructure. Cynical right-wing politicians might strategically deploy anti-wokeness—by attacking trans rights or banning Critical Race Theory from classrooms where it has never been taught—as cheap tactics to rally votes among aggrieved white Evangelicals. But at the end of the day, actual people have their lives and rights on the line in these battles, and public discourse on wokeness often trivializes that fact.

In search of the anti-woke atheists

As a psychologist who studies the beliefs of both atheists and religious believers, I frequently field surveys asking people about various attitudes. Last year I ran one such survey that primarily tried to generate psychological profiles of people who see themselves as closely aligned with the New Atheists—particularly with the brash and anti-religious writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. I surveyed a roughly representative sample of 686 USAmericans, and oversampled definitional atheists (merely people who indicate “No” when I asked them whether they believe in God/gods), yielding a final sample of 446 atheists and 240 theists. Not a huge sample, so treat it with appropriate caution—there’s a lot of uncertainty here.

In addition to a battery of standard psychological and personality measures, I also asked the sample where they stood on a range of political issues. These issues ranged from vanilla political questions about economic policies to the far more controversial issues that currently dominate the culture war discourse—issues like trans rights, cancel culture, respect for police, opinions on “wokeness,” and the like.

Next, I asked participants how warmly they felt towards various groups of people. Do they like trans people? Police? Refugees?

Finally, I asked participants to indicate how much overlap they saw between their views and those of the New Atheists, highlighting specifically New Atheist writings on religion. The general idea here was to see how closely atheists in the USA align with the most prominent atheists out there. I could also use this variable in some statistical models to predict what a typical theist, a typical atheist, and a typical New Atheist-aligned atheist might look like on a whole range of issues.

Political views: atheists and theists

First, let’s look at some basic distributions of where theists and atheists tend to fall on various political issues. These visualizations help illustrate both the gaps between theists and atheists on issues and the variability of beliefs within each group.

When it comes to overall political attitudes, most atheists skew leftward of most theists on economic and social issues.

On economic politics, theists are spread pretty evenly along the left-right spectrum, but atheists cluster towards the leftward pole. This clustering is even more pronounced on social issues: theists are hugely overrepresented amongst people expressing strong right leanings on social politics, and atheists dominate the leftmost space.

This general pattern—atheists clustering to the left, theists showing more rightward spread—repeats itself on a variety of issues. For example, when asked about national security spending or guns, we see the same pattern.

There are also some issues where both theists and atheists seem to have largely the same preferences…but again the atheists tend to be more tightly clustered. Both theists and atheists generally want the government to do more on climate change, for example, but atheists really want the government to step up.

What about culture war issues? Where do theists and atheists tend to fall on the various issues that have unfortunately been lumped together under the umbrella term “wokeness”?

Wokeness: Mostly an atheist thing?

I asked my participants to weigh in on a range of culture war and “woke” issues, including affirmative action, same-sex marriage, viewing diversity as strength, abortion, critical race theory, police, “wokeness” itself, cancel culture, and trans people. In many cases, I was interested in assessing quite strident beliefs on these issues, so I used fairly inflammatory question prompts. The full question wording will appear with data visualizations, so be warned that some of the questions were worded in ways that could easily offend.

My sincere apologies in advance: To gauge agreement with extreme positions, one must often use extremely-worded questions.

Atheists are largely united in disagreeing that affirmative action is discrimination against white men, and largely view diversity as a strength. Theists trend in the same overall direction, but are a lot more mixed in their attitudes.

On abortion and same-sex marriage, both theists and atheists tended to prefer progressive stances; atheists did so with much more uniformity. Readers who typically associate conservative stances on these issues with religion may be interested to see that believers actually tend to hold pretty wide-ranging views here, with extreme conservative stances being unpopular even among most theists. Put differently: although it is true that people holding extremely conservative views on these issues are overwhelmingly religious, it is not true that most religious people hold extremely conservative views on these topics. Keep this pattern in mind before dismissing some views as being religious in nature or origins: at the end of the day, theists hold hugely variable views on a wide range of issues, and thus can’t be pigeonholed as reactionary conservatives.

On three especially provocative current issues – the teaching of critical race theory, the legitimacy of trans identities, and respect for police—there is considerable spread among theists but again atheists trend harder left. The atheist spread on critical race theory is interesting, as some of the key players stoking a moral panic about critical race theory have their own New Atheist roots.

There’s a fair amount of spread when it comes to views on “wokeness” and cancel culture.

Finally, we can look at theists’ and atheists’ views towards some groups of people. Overall, atheists (relative to theists) look more favorably on trans people and refugees, but feel more coldly towards Muslims and (especially) police.

Across these issues, atheists generally skew leftward of theists. That said, there’s a fair amount of variability within both groups (especially the theists).

These visualizations help show where atheists land on a bunch of issues, but don’t directly address the central question about whether atheists generally align themselves with the anti-woke stances that seem increasingly popular among vocal New Atheists. Are atheists in general anti-woke? What about atheists who align themselves with the New Atheists? To answer these questions, I did some statistical sleuthing.

Attitude profiles: theists, atheists, and New Atheist fans

It seemed reasonable to assume that if there are lots of atheists who fit the anti-woke mold demonstrated by some prominent New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, they would be easiest to find amongst people who are generally aligned with those same New Atheists. In the survey, I asked the atheists how much overlap they saw between themselves and the New Atheists. It turns out that the atheists in this sample were all over the map, but generally seemed moderately-to-strongly aligned with New Atheism. The popular impact of the New Atheists may have waned since the mid-2000s, but American atheists still seem to affiliate with the ideas that spawned the brief movement.

I could use this New Atheist Affiliation item to predict where three different groups of people would be expected to fall on the various culture war issues: theists, atheists in general, and atheists who strongly identify with the New Atheists. The theist profile shows predicted attitudes for people who indicate they believe in God. The atheist profile shows predicted attitudes who indicate no belief in God, and a sample-average score on the New Atheist Affiliation measure. The New Atheist fans profile shows predicted attitudes for people who don’t believe in God and who max out on New Atheist Affiliation. Are New Atheist fans as anti-woke as vocal New Atheist leaders often appear?

To the contrary:

This plot shows predicted responses on the scale from disagreement to agreement. On all issues except for viewing diversity as a strength, the “disagree” pole corresponds to more progressive or woke views and the “agree” pole corresponds to more conservative or anti-woke views. 

But it’s worth noting that rates of agreement and disagreement vary considerably from question to question. There’s nothing mysterious or puzzling about this: Some items were worded much more extremely than others. For example, the trans question was worded quite strongly—people endorsing it were endorsing an attack on the fundamental legitimacy of trans identities and deeply offensive caricatures of trans people. In contrast, other items were worded much more neutrally. The average right-left positioning within each question says more about the extremity of the question, perhaps, than it does about people’s overall attitudes on the issues themselves. Many respondents may harbor anti-trans attitudes without being willing to stoop to the crude and offensive caricature implied by the question. 

The next figure tries to illustrate the relative gaps between groups of people on each question, somewhat correcting for the absolute question-to-question positioning. It essentially shows the magnitude of gaps between the profiles, after balancing out the overall levels of agreement or disagreement.

On issue after issue, a consistent trend emerged: Theists hold positions that are more anti-woke than those held by atheists, and fans of the New Atheists run even further towards the woke end. 

A consistent trend emerged: Theists hold positions that are more anti-woke than those held by atheists, and fans of the New Atheists run even further towards the woke end. 

So are the New Atheists’ anti-woke stances and questions representative among atheists in general or among those who consider themselves closely aligned with the New Atheists?

Not so much.

Caveats and clarification

This survey was highly exploratory and should be treated with some caution. The sample was quite small. The survey was designed for a purpose distinct from what I’m using it for here. Nonetheless, the results that emerged are quite different from what one would expect if the public anti-wokism of the New Atheist leaders represented a mainstream position among atheists.

Certainly, there are anti-woke atheists. I highly doubt that Dawkins is alone among atheists in wondering what the difference is between trans women and people who falsely claim minority ethnicities to gain access and publicity. Similarly, Harris is far from the only atheist out there voicing curiosity about Charles Murray’s work on racial differences in IQ. It doesn’t take an especially deep dive into the atheist web to find the full spectrum of opinion on culture war issues.

Why didn’t these anti-woke views—on ample display online—show up in the survey? I suspect that the answer is simple and hinges on issues of selection bias. This survey didn’t select a sample of people showing strong anti-woke views and see how many of them were atheists. Instead, it selected on atheism and explored where people’s views fell. There may be tons of atheists loudly proclaiming their anti-woke views all over the internet. But most atheists, it seems, neither hold these views nor are much engaged in public discourse about them. Anti-woke atheists may be incredibly visible, but that does not at all imply that they are especially numerous.

Coda: Poorly representing even their fans?

Do the public faces of atheism well represent atheists in general when it comes to their recent culture war proclamations? Hardly. At least in this survey, it looks like the public-facing anti-wokery of the New Atheists represents a strong outlier position among atheists. And these views—from “just asking questions” about the legitimacy of trans identities, to endorsing Great Replacement-adjacent books, the list goes on—fall much closer to positions expected among theists than among atheists in general. And even people who describe themselves as closely affiliated with the New Atheists on religion at least consistently show views that run even more progressive and “woke” than do run-of-the-mill atheists.

The public culture war positions of prominent atheists poorly represent the views of atheists in general. Perhaps surprisingly, they also poorly represent even fans of the New Atheists. The typical atheist is strongly progressive across the board on culture war issues, and New Atheist fans are even more extreme in their progressivism. As prominent atheists like Dawkins continue to take strong anti-woke stances, they position themselves further and further from the rest of their freethinking peers. Dawkins and company may be the public faces of atheism, but on many issues, they appear to poorly represent even their own fans.2

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1 As with the Dawkins tweet, the New Atheists and their supporters argue that they’re just radical supporters of free inquiry, and that it is their duty to ask even the most sensitive questions about the most taboo of topics. Perhaps they aren’t supporting these controversial arguments so much as trying to leave more space for open debate about them. I’d definitely like to leave open this possibility, and not impute motives to the public statements made by the New Atheists. On the initial tweet and on these separate issues, however, there are people with skin in the game on these debates, and for them these just-asked questions can have tangible consequences for the people they’re asked about. Even well-intentioned free inquiry can bring its own costs.

2I’m grateful to critical feedback from Linda Skitka, Crystal N. Steltenpohl Young, Matthew Facciani, Émile P. Torres, and Jason Lemieux. The piece is stronger for their contributions, and any remaining clumsiness is mine alone.

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Dr. Will M. Gervais is a global leader in the scientific study of atheism and a Senior Lecturer of psychology at the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London. Dr. Gervais’s research...