Why I Abandoned New Atheism
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
Ok, first things first: New Atheism was an ideological movement that flourished in the early noughties, the proponents of which believed that superstition, religion and irrationality should not just be rejected, but should be actively countered and criticised. New Atheism was humanist, anti-theist, anti-religious and ostensibly pro-science and rationalism. It created a rise in the amount of explicitly anti-religious content that could be found on public platforms, in particular YouTube witnessed a surge in anti-theist content, the creators of which were widely known as the 'Sceptic Community.'
I got into it around 2011, when I was thirteen. I was a smart-arse. I had resented the mandatory religious education/indoctrination of my primary school and had parents who never really cared about religion. It is important to note that I never really 'went the full hog,' as it were: from the movements' main figureheads, the so-called Four Horsemen, only Christopher Hitchens appealed to me. The others seemed to me mostly boring, humourless and somewhat single-minded. Overall, I only watched a small slice of what the 'Sceptics' had to offer.
By 2011 the peak of online New Atheism had already passed; Hitchens was dying and would pass away that same year. NA was gradually going in a different direction. In 2014, the Gamergate controversy happened and many New Atheist YouTubers seemed to focus more on anti-feminist content, which just seemed uninteresting and repetitive to me. I moved away from New Atheism and became interested in other things, but I still clung to parts of it. It was during my second year at University when I realised New Atheism was not something I supported or believed in anymore. My move from New Atheism happened half a decade ago and the movement has become even more niche and diminished since then. Still, I think there might be merit in explaining what about NA ultimately drove me away, as the movement's influence is still felt today and many of its proponents are still part of larger, more insidious internet phenomena.
In this text I will outline three central problems with NA that made abandon the whole thing: A moral problem, mainly reactionary and neoconservative tendencies, an intellectual problem of theological illiteracy and historical simplification and finally, the emotional problem of spiritual absence. In the postscript I will give you some idea of where I am at personally where religion and spirituality are concerned.
1) The Moral Problem: Reactionary and Neocon Tendencies
My anti-religious tendencies had always come from an anarchist, anti-authoritarian point of view. I hated how religious belief had been forced upon me as a child by my elementary, primary and secondary schools. I hated how the Catholic Church had the gall to give out smug declarations on how people should live their lives, while they were responsible for the largest paedophilia cover-up in history, how they preach humility while sitting on a massive amount of untapped wealth and how they use charity to proselytise and white-wash their complicity in some of history's most brutal crimes against humanity.
Sadly, as I grew older it became clear to me that much of New Atheism came from a very different, more Western Chauvinist kind of place. While NA originally blasted all religions in equal measure, a particular disdain for Islam gradually became one of its central characteristics. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins's flirtations with Islamophobia are well-documented. Not only did they double down on bashing Islam for one thing and being more than generous toward Christianity for the same thing, they also began to repeat the well-known dog-whistle 'Judeo-Christian values/culture/legacy etc,' which is often used by conservatives and reactionaries to implicitly set Islam apart as somehow inherently non-European and also to whitewash Europe's atrocious history of antisemitism.
As mentioned before, when Gamergate happened in 2014 a lot changed. The online Sceptic Community moved very quickly towards frenzied anti-feminist content. Gradually, the undercurrent of Islamophobia and 'Judeo-Christian' favouritism became mainstream within the movement. Not long after that, most of the Sceptic Community became almost entirely integrated with the newly emerged Intellectual Dark Web (neoconservative and reactionary figureheads and commentators) and even the Alt-right. We can still see the NA roots in the right's constant performance of 'rationality' and obsession with debates and owning their opponents (by every means necessary, however fallacious). I, on the other hand, did not follow this trend. I became more drawn to leftism, socially and economically progressive content creators and intellectuals. In 2016, Trump won the election and in the celebrations much of the Alt-right showed its true colours. It became clear to me that the Alt-right, Trump and neocons were not just ridiculous and wrong, they were cruel, violent and were actively working to make the world worse. It wasn't just US Republicans either, the Alt-right phenomenon revealed the true priorities of the (far) right all across the world. That realisation made me examine the less flattering things I had seen floating around about Christopher Hitchens, the admiration for whom was the last tether that still connected me to New Atheism, when I had often just brushed them off as unimportant. What I found finally broke that tether. It made me completely uninterested in what NA had to offer.
Christopher Hitchens had been a socialist, anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian activist for most of his life and was particularly good at framing Anti-theism as an inherently anti-authoritarian and egalitarian cause. His autobiography Hitch 22 was one of my favourite non-fiction books for a very long time, as there were many chapters in it that spoke to me as a socialist/anarchist. These reasons and his humour, charisma, immense knowledge of art, literature and history, his virulent anti-authoritarianism and his politically savvy activism were why I had always admired him more than anyone within the NA movement. However, during his final years, Hitchens had moved significantly to the right on many things. I had always noticed this, but had mostly underestimated or downplayed the extent of his political shift. In 2016, I finally came to terms with just how much of neocon Hitchens became in his final years.
Hitchens was an avid supporter of the Iraq War, ostensibly because of his hatred of Saddam Hussein, whose brutal quasi-fascist authoritarian regime kept the country in fear and destitution and who committed countless war crimes, primarily against the Kurdish people. Even though Hitchens may have had relatively kosher reasons for his support, the way he went about it seemed to negate most of his previously anti-imperialist intuitions, especially considering the substantial lies and atrocities committed by US military during that conflict. Hitchens' attacks on the anti-war movement and on critics of the Bush Administration were simply undignified in their viciousness. They also revealed many other unpleasant aspects of his character: his use of sexist and misogynist language to demean women he opposed for ideological reasons, his straw manning of opponents, his eager whitewashing of highly problematic figures whom he personally admired, such as Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Jefferson and of course, Tony Blair, his gradual descent into Islamophobia... All of this only really got through to me in 2016, five years after his death. It made it impossible to still see Hitchens as a figure worthy of unqualified admiration. I tried to come back to his book over the years, but it just felt tarnished.
2) The Intellectual Problem: Theological Illiteracy and Historical Simplification
While one could argue that New Atheism's lurch towards conservatism and the Alt-right was also an intellectual problem, for me it primarily manifested itself as a moral one, mainly the question of 'should I still be part of a movement that is becoming more and more reactionary and intolerant?' To which the answer was no.
After I broke with NA for moral reasons, there were two more factors that made me drift further away from NA and even develop an antipathy towards it. These factors presented themselves on an intellectual and emotional level. After 2016, I quickly discovered a flurry of intellectual problems with many of the New Atheist talking points. These were not part of that political shift. They had been there from the start. It was then that I realised that not only had NA changed for the worse, it had always been problematic and intellectually dishonest in more ways than one.
On the scriptural level, New Atheism seemed to be constantly tempted towards one particular fallacious strategy, which I will call literalist straw manning. It basically comes down to this: New Atheists were perpetually arguing against the literal truth of holy texts (by pointing out contradictions, historical inaccuracies, absurd, immoral or impossible moral laws or impossible events) as a way 'to prove' the texts were nothing more than archaic laws and fictitious myths and were without any moral or spiritual value. However, this strategy assumes that all or most religious believers and scholars are literalists and ignores millennia of theological and scriptural debates.
In other words, New Atheists assume that all the people who believe religious texts have moral and spiritual significance read the texts the same way religious fundamentalists do, as literal truth, literally dictated by God and by making this assumption New Atheists have to read these religious texts like fundamentalists. People versed in theology or religious history will know that the literalist/fundamentalist reading of religious texts is not dominant one. While it is a tendency that can be found in most religions, one often upheld by religious authorities, throughout history many more nuanced, more inquisitive views on religious scripture have been in circulation amongst theologians, religious scholars and authorities. Broadly speaking, the theological consensus today is that the holy texts were divinely inspired, but were written and collected by flawed men who worked their own biases into the texts they composed. The either/or ultimatum that NA proposes on the claim of holy texts being divinely inspired/divinely dictated (they also conveniently conflate the two more often than not) is simply a false one. Any intellectually honest person can easily work out the ways in which the divine could work through flawed human beings to spread its message, without being able or willing to mitigate their biases, prejudices and violent tendencies.
New Atheism seeks to conflate the perception of fundamentalists with the perception of all believers to diminish the theological legacies of scholars who devoted their lives to studying the symbolic, metaphorical and artistic potential of holy texts. Similarly, New Atheists might point to the anti-scientific views of religious fundamentalists today, reference Galileo and some other examples to imply that religion is inherently anti-science, once again ignoring centuries of religious contributions to science and philosophy. They claim the worst of religion is its truest self, while its best artistic, philosophical, scientific contributions are depicted as simply exceptions to the rule.
Another, similarly deceptive conflation is that of religious power/authority with religion itself and religious belief. New Atheists point to the horrific crimes committed in the name of religion and by religious believers or authorities and state that this proves that religion is inherently oppressive, irrational and evil. An anarchist would simply point out that people with financial, legal, religious and moral power committing atrocities and using religion to justify themselves has more to do with the inherent violence in power, hierarchical structures of governance, and rigid unaccountable forms of authority. A Marxist might point out that religion historically has potential to be both the tool of oppression and liberation, depending one whether it was used to defend the interests of the ruling class, quell the anger of the proletariat or emancipate them. Someone from the academic fields of Gender Studies or Critical Race Theory might point out that like law and culture, religion can be used to maintain and enforce white supremacy, cisheteronormativity, imperialism and patriarchy AND also to inspire progressive change, resistance, liberation and even revolution.
New Atheists depict religion as a monolith of dogma and oppression, but this is just a straw man of their own creation. While religion has been involved in much sectarianism, violence, bigotry and oppression, simplifying history to make religion the culprit of this violence rather than the tool, ignores most materialist and anthropological readings of history and conveniently turns a blind eye towards the other systems of oppression that have historically kept the powerful in power. Moreover, it is also an extremely Eurocentric point of view. It sees the last two millennia of European history, dominated by religious violence and persecution as it is, and generalises it for the whole of human history and culture, ignoring most if not all religious traditions that don't perfectly fit this image such as polytheism, pantheism, animism, paganism, Wicca, Shinto, Taoism and so forth.
Many New Atheists simplify the philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical implications of religion to be able to more easily argue against religious impulse or practice. Alan Watts, the philosopher and theologian criticised monotheist (in particular fundamentalist and dogmatic) interpretations of the divine that were rooted in politically fraught readings of religious texts. Basically, he describes how some religious believers envision the divine as a sort of despot, a patriarchal figure, single-minded, intolerant, who must be feared and adored lest you affront his authority. Watts mocks this incredibly unsophisticated point of view as theologically illiterate and points towards many examples of religious scripture and scholarship that indicate a far more complex understanding of the divine as the more prevalent tendency amongst serious religious thinkers.
New Atheists argue against the scriptural literalism of religious fundamentalists, as if it were the most dominant, most represented view of scripture amongst all believers and scholars; They do the same thing when they pretend that most religious people today (at least most monotheists) think of God or the divine in the manner Watts criticises. There are no doubt religious people who still cling to this point of view, but any cursory reading of religious thought on the nature of God should have revealed to the New Atheists that this a gross generalisation and simplification of religious belief and theory. For example, Christopher Hitchens' regularly depicts the traditionalist interpretation of heaven as some kind of divine North-Korea. The image is suitably absurd and striking. However, it fails to take into consideration that the simplistic view of God as divine despot is one that is mostly held by monotheistic religious fundamentalists and is mostly absent from advanced discussions or writings on God or the divine in general.
Similarly, New Atheists' designation of religious/magical practice, belief and rituals as 'superstition' and 'irrational' is based on a conflation and simplification of widely different practises and beliefs. For example, superstition might be associated with some religious tendencies, but it is not exclusive to it. Magical thinking is a timeless phenomenon and also occurs in specifically secular circumstances. Religious practice occurs for various reasons and with various goals, some are distinctly 'magical' others symbolic or communal.
The word 'magic' or 'magical' is often used by NA to malign ritualism and spiritual belief and paint it as childish and primitive. However, if one actually takes a look at contemporary magic(k) and the esoteric tradition, it reveals itself as far more complicated than NA talking points would make it seem to be.
As Alan Moore has pointed out, most contemporary practitioners of magic primarily view it as a manipulation and exploration of consciousness, or for a way to direct or amply the impact of consciousness upon the material world. Their point of view is that with certain rituals, certain drugs, certain practices one can alter one's own and other people's consciousness, as an end to itself or as a means to change one's relationship to the material world. Gods, spirits, demons and angels are identified by most practitioners as entities that exist mostly on non-material level (what some might identify as the realm of consciousness) and can be interacted with on that level. Some would even argue that these entities do not exist separate from the collective or individual consciousness but are in fact aspects of it. There are certain magical practices that do assert the existence of some kind of supernatural aspect, the non-religious explanation being that consciousness is an emergent property of the universe and has certain influences on material reality that go beyond strictly individual awareness, but this view is by no means universal.
Furthermore, anthropologists and historians would argue that the rationalist/materialist point of view of metaphysics is one that has only really dominated since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Similarly to religion, it has been used as a tool to justify imperialism, colonisation, slavery, genocide and many of the most brutal acts of violence of the last millennium. Consequently, New Atheists, by insisting that this worldview is the only valid one, take part in a long and insidious tradition of asserting cultural superiority. While anti-science & anti-intellectualism are certainly dangerous and should be countered as much as possible, painting all spiritual, non-materialist practises and beliefs as 'superstition,' is an act of cultural imperialism and further diminishes the myriad of magnificent traditions, cultures and philosophies that are already under threat due to the violence of establishing and maintaining Western capitalist hegemony and industrial environmental exploitation.
3) Emotional Problem: Spiritual Absence
While Atheism can definitely be spiritual, New Atheism's constant proselytising about the superiority of rationality ultimately works to undermine what one would could call spiritual consciousness. While this was not true for some of the movement's figureheads, most of NA's legacy can be found in the general online condescension towards those who feel the need to make further connections with the universe through ritual or belief. This ignores the fact that everyone's spiritual needs are different and that no one can continuously be what passes for 'rational' on online platforms without becoming depressed, nihilistic or an incredible dickhead, or all of the above.
I myself still default to assuming that there is no god and no afterlife (at least not in the traditional sense, see postscript) not because I am mister rational big brains, but because it seems the most plausible explanation of the Universe's chaotic outlook. It also makes you focus more on what there is rather than what there could be. Such a worldview works for the purposes of achieving justice, equality and perhaps even revolution. It forces you to want to make life better for people now, rather than postpone the possibility of justice to some hypothetical second act that may not exist. It makes sense to me. It feels right on some level even though it is somewhat scary to consider and sometimes leads to an existential struggle. In my view, Optimistic Nihilism is the most potentially empowering way of making this worldview of a universe without a god and without inherent meaning be inspiring and make life liveable, if you are without religious or spiritual impulse.
However, in 2015-2016 I discovered that I did have such an impulse. I had always had an interest in magic and occultism, but because of my NA ideology I only dabbled in the theoretical side of it and mostly as a guilty pleasure (ironically, NA is almost catholic in the way it shames you for doing or believing things it considers 'sinful' against its doctrine of rationality). When the moral and logical flaws in NA became clear, I started to more openly embrace the idea of trying out magical practices. While my induction into NA in 2011 coincided with many things, in hindsight I consider it to be one of the contributing factors to my experience with depression, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts, which escalated in early 2016.
New Atheism, just like the reactionary and neoconservative mindsets it grew towards, leaves very little room for compassion, nuance, individual growth and attention to spiritual desires. Secular spirituality is not made impossible, but it mostly ignored by NA figureheads and commentators. The focus is always on the perceived enemy and original sin of irrationality and defeating it in debate, democratic, legal or even military struggles. New Atheism might give you something to do, something to fashion into a pseudo-personality, but it lacks nourishment and like most religious fundamentalism is simply at odds with a lot of human desires and impulses that are natural and innocent.
Watching interviews with Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (two people who have many personal, ideological and artistic differences) and reading their works made me understand how the use of magic could significantly expand one's perception of reality, consciousness and art and drive one away from the cynical nihilistic point of view that is so often propagated online as being the pinnacle of intelligence. Listening to Alan Watts, Terence Mckenna, Robert Anton Wilson has opened my mind up to conceptions of the divine, which I had never even considered, that fill one with hope and optimism, but do not dissuade from fighting for justice and equality in this life. As I drove away my self-loathing and depression with anti-depressants and a focus on positive habits, so too did I manage to exorcise the worst of my NA tendencies with a focus on leftist compassionate politics and non-judgemental research into the religious and spiritual traditions of the world.
Postscript: Where I am at
Alan Moore formulated his problem with 'religion' by pointing towards its etymology. The word's Latin origin 'religare' means 'to bind.' As an anarchist, Moore's sees organised religion in the same way he sees hierarchical government, a coercive strategy of using laws and customs to bind people together in one belief, which he describes as 'creepy' and 'unnatural.' Being somewhat of an anarchist myself and having been educated in Catholic elementary, primary and secondary schools where worship was mandatory, I absolutely concur with this view of organised religion and instead prefer a more personalised view of worship and belief. However, I also understand people's need for community and have no issue whatsoever with people who find peace and comfort in traditional religious communities.
Although, being an anarchist, I am still opposed to institutions that declare they are the sole arbitrators of morality and spirituality and seem more invested in maintaining supremacy than advancing the well-being of their congregations or humanity in general. The Catholic Church, for example, still uses its substantial influence and power to peddle the same old regressive, homophobic nonsense, while it could be using its influence to pressure for progressive change and use its wealth to alleviate the suffering of the world's poor. To me, it and any other religious institution that is that wealthy, that judgemental, that morally inflexible and that complicit in heinous crimes against humanity is the same as any monarchy or corporate dynasty: archaic, tyrannical, morally bankrupt and an overall blight on the well-being of humanity.
As for religious/spiritual practice and belief, things are more difficult to explain. In my poetry I have used the motif of the Goddess as far back as I can remember. It started out as your typical 'Oh, Muse' evocation, but ultimately became something more. She grew into a personification of creativity, sensitivity and freedom. In my mind, the opposite of what I subconsciously associated with God the Father, i.e. the divine as a patriarchal despot, a single-minded monarch who judges and commands. The view of the divine as male also felt dissonant with my personal revulsion towards the cult of traditional masculinity, male authority and patriarchy. Researching (neo-)paganism and Wicca drew me further into the idea of the godhead as female. I disliked the idea of specifying Her with any one name or epithet, but became increasingly more attracted towards the idea of the Goddess as it is used in esoteric circles, the names of specific Goddesses representing various aspects and identities of the Triple Goddess; Maiden, Mother, Crone referring to the triplet nature of Womanhood and the archetype of female divinity that seems to be present in many religious cultures.
The Goddess to me represents the numinous, the divine, whatever you may call it as distinctly female. She represents a deliberate choice to resist coding power or divinity as patriarchal. To me She is the spiritual representation of the universe, consciousness, art, creativity, power, mystery and so forth. I also worship Her as a form of political praxis, as a way of embracing internal femininity, traits coded by society as feminine and working against internalised toxic masculinity and misogyny. How I worship varies. People like Moore and Morrison consider art and writing to be magical tools. Tools to transform consciousness. I also consider them to be primary acts of worship. In my poetry, I try convey to the impulses, images, sounds and stories that come to me from places of curiosity, inspiration and mystery, and try to honour what I consider to be the inner manifestations of the Goddess. Whether or not I believe in a Goddess who has influence on the material world, outside of how that world is changed through art, poetry, music, ideology and everything immaterial, I am not sure. I have dabbled in Chaos Magick and have found it fulfilling and effective, but to what degree this the placebo-effect or self-fulfilling prophesies, I am uncertain.
So, to sum up: If we're only considering the traditional theistic sense of God as monarch, most commonly depicted as a white bearded dude, then I guess I am still an atheist. However, if we're looking at it in a wider sense, then I admit that I draw significant fulfilment and comfort from the conceptions of God as unified consciousness or conscious universe and similar non-dualist notions. In a more personal pragmatic sense, the divine as Goddess holds the most appeal and makes me feel most connected to my environment, my subconscious and to my creative impulses. Thinking of the divine as the Goddess fulfils my desire for personalised worship through creativity, political praxis and the occasional piece of magic or ritual. It makes me feel connected to something greater without the need for dogmatic doctrines or conformism.
If you are interested in finding out more about these conceptions of the divine. Look up Alan Watts, Terence Mckenna, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore on YouTube. All of these are great charismatic speakers who are exceedingly skilled at conveying the various often ignored ways of perceiving personalised worship, religion, spirituality and so forth.
I have also written various poems that engage with the topic of spirituality. Check out my 'Work' page to find those poems (in particular, my poems "Magna Dea", "Stargazer", "Haruspex" and "Budding" are relevant here). Goddess bless you if you made it to the end of this piece. Blessed Be, indeed.