In a turn every bit as nostalgic as the rebirth of blue hair and Doc Martens as Gen Z aesthetic, the other day Salon posted a “New Atheists Are Terrible” article. Back in the mid aughts, one could always depend on Salon for these. As your browser was loaded down with pop-up ads that would make a Yahoo celebrity gossip columnist blush, you were regaled with a repetitive argument: because Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are public-facing atheists who clearly have deep issues of prejudice they’ve yet to remedy, most public-facing atheists are masking their own racism and veiled hatreds. These dogmatic worshippers of reason, the argument always went, are no better than the fanatics they claim to be fighting. These articles usually went viral.
I have shifted my political focus in recent years to the problems with doing politics via technologies and platforms designed to maximize virality. But I arrived there as someone who had realized that it had become useless and indeed a form of mild self-harm, to continue making arguments for the political value of nonbelief. Ideas and assumptions do not go viral because of how true they are but because of how popular they are. It is a surefire strategy for virality to tell a group of people things they’ve heard before that give them a sense of ingroup belonging and superiority. I realized from having once traveled in atheistic online circles that once a sentiment gains traction it gets repeated. Once it gets repeated it takes on the glow of certitude. This is a self-reinforcing process that is nearly impossible to reverse. And one of the reasons I despise it is because it works just as well for “Black Lives Matter” as for “Donald Trump Won the 2020 election.” This is undesirable and unsustainable.
It was always true that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins had issues of prejudice they’d yet to adequately address. But that made it no less true that Salon had discovered a virality engine in telling liberals and leftists that New Atheism was a far right-adjacent exercise in thinly disguised hate and arrogance. By making these articles go viral, those liberals and leftists could signal to one another that they were The Good Ones. Religion doesn’t make people act badly, because clearly people could act badly without religion — just look at the latest tweet from Dawkins’ account.
When questionable ideas develop a calcified sheen of viral popularity, one of my favorite thought experiments is the simple question, “What would have to occur in order to intrude upon the popularity of this idea?” Very often with Trumpist neofascism, you get consistent the answer “Absolutely nothing.” But this doesn’t mean only Trumpist neofacsists are incapable of allowing events to alter their cherished beliefs. Years ago I might have thought, “Perhaps a full-blown American Christofascism would shake people; one armed to the teeth and openly telling us its racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are how they understand their religious obligations.” But these events having come to pass, have not chastened the Good Liberals and Leftists.
“Richard Dawkins can’t understand Kafka, therefore anyone who shares Richard Dawkins’ militant nonbelief must also be a literal-minded dullard who can’t grasp metaphor [and is probably also a bit racist]. I understand Kafka, and therefore probably grasp the literary value in religious traditions, [and therefore am clearly not racist].” This simplistic formula for self-flattery is apparently still highly effective at generating Twitter buzz in 2021.
But consider this: it has now become acceptable and commonplace to make many of the same arguments that New Atheists made — especially Christopher Hitchens who was more laser-focused on the relationship between totalitarianism and religion than any of the others — as long as you don’t use the “a” word. Jared Yates Sexton and Matthew Sheffield, both former evangelicals who write consistently powerful explainer threads about the American far right, would do Hitchens proud. Some of this you can chalk up to branding. Dawkins and Harris made the atheism brand toxic, so it’s an almost necessary move to re-brand and avoid the associations. But I’m left to wonder again — can we adequately face down a militant religious nationalism, a righteously hateful movement of armed totalitarian-minded people, without addressing one of the primary animating features of their belief system?
To this the Good Liberals and Leftists will answer in near-unison: “They are racists first who justify their racism with religion! They are followers in a cult of personality which they have imbued with Christian iconography! That is not the *true* Christianity which Martin Luther King used to justify the liberation of black people!” And yet, the Good Liberals and Leftists, in saying this, are telling us that they know the minds of the fascists. They somehow know that in any given army of Trumpist goons, the cognitive processes are identical: they first hold hateful beliefs, they second apply a religious framework to those beliefs in order to justify their hate.” I have never heard Jared Yates Sexton or Matthew Sheffield assent to this popular view. Probably because, like me, they have at one time in their life, personally experienced the Christian radical’s mindset. No such neat and sequential process from hate to justification for hate takes place.
But most importantly, and most frustratingly for the Good Liberals and Leftists, at least some of the politics are derived from the beliefs. This is supposedly a dumb thing to say, whereas a smart thing to say is that “Nowhere in the Bible does it say that you’re not allowed to bake a cake for gay people.” This is a tell. The Good Liberals and Leftists are outing themselves as having enjoyed a life so free of religious indoctrination (not to mention free from the poison of religious reasoning) that they’ve no clue how a Christian arrives at their view of wedding cakes for gay marriage. The Christians must be lying to cover up their prejudices. The Good Liberals and Leftists can only understand thought processes that look and sound like theirs. Because this is the only way they could ever arrive at such a conclusion.
Virality and the psychology of ‘reading’ online is frankly not that hard to figure out. I called this piece “Richard Dawkins is Awful” because it will attract more views from people whose politics and values I share and they will arrive to it with a more charitable mindset than if I called it “New Atheism Is Good, Actually.” Of course, neither is the genuine theme of this post. But the headline needn’t truly reflect the theme of the writing. Once you know all of these things you absolutely must read the internet differently. You must know that other people know them, too and deploy them for political gain and profit. But most of all you must be suspicious of viral truth telling, because the emotions and allegiances it creates are not tethered to the truth in any meaningful way. It is only a valuable system if “Black Lives Matter” thrives in a way that “Trump won the 2020 election” does not.
Meanwhile some of us unbelievers read more Kafka than Dawkins and yet can still think that more attention to religion’s comfortable relationship with fascism is warranted. Some of us even agree with the woke mobs most of the time. But you’d never know to open up Twitter on a Salon “New Atheism is Terrible” day.
“Meet The Woke New Atheists” could be a new viral hit-maker for Salon or Slate, but we’d be no better off for it. Nor would it paint any more accurate a picture of militant nonbelief than the one that still currently rests in the popular imagination.