The Changing Left-Right Nature of Atheism


I remember when atheism was clearly aligned with the left. It was a mere decade ago or so that stem cell research and sundry other hot-button issues characterized the distinction between the atheist liberal community and the Bush-loving, religious conservative community.

Remember Leon Kass and the Council on Bioethics?

But in 2015, with identity politics not only ascendant but nearly firmly in place, atheism is switching sides. Or that’s the impression one gets from this summary of a Dawkins/Dennett talk in Boston by Geoffrey Lee Hodge of the secular progressive in a piece called “Advancing the Atheist Movement: Dawkins, Dennett, and the Second Wave.” Hodge takes issue with DD’s reluctance to break bread with liberal Christians:

It should come as no surprise that insulting someone’s beliefs is not an effective way to change their viewpoint. What is surprising is that even facts are often ineffective and sometimes even detrimental to changing someone’s mind. To succeed, the atheist movement needs to win not just the minds of moderate believers, but their hearts as well. The overwhelming success of the gay marriage campaign in the US has not been due to a sudden increase in the number of people identifying as gay; the movement has succeeded because more and more moderate heterosexuals are convinced that it’s unfair to limit access to marriage based on ancient discriminatory beliefs held by some religions. Nor has other social change occurred due to a sudden increase in the numbers of women or African Americans

Liberal churches address a need for spirituality and community without the harmful fundamentalist insistence that the rest of the world must conform to their ideas.

Hodge is correct that the political landscape isn’t changing due to sudden bursts in the gay or black population. It’s changing because a largely white and progressive media/professional class has changing interests. And you see it on display here. Instead of encouraging DD and their fans to reach out, say, to more black and brown atheists, Hodge encourages atheists to be less fond of atheism, to, one supposes, encourage more black and brown (and female) interest.

(Of course, appealing to the interests of a minority within a minority might seem an uber-progressive endeavor. But we all know that if you go too far down that road, you may very well end up in Ayn Rand “the ultimate minority is the individual” territory, where NO progressive wants to be.)

Hodge is right to point out that people are hardwired to be religious, and any overly zealous atheist movement is likely to find itself irrelevant, politically. In a democracy, anyway. But it’s remarkable to see that even among the atheist left, the atheism comes second. Maybe even a distant second. There’s been a distinct shift away from touting the benefits of a zero-tolerance policy with regard to anti-scientific thinking, and toward an obsession with the sex and race of the people doing the touting. What’s being talked about is less important than who’s doing the talking.

Less substance, more style.

No wonder godlessness is becoming associated with the right, who are increasingly difficult to distinguish from “problematic” liberals. Like Dawkins.

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6 Responses to The Changing Left-Right Nature of Atheism

  1. CJColucci says:

    This raises a question of what the purpose of an “atheist movement” is supposed to be. If it is to make a great many more people atheists, it is probably a waste of time. If it is to create an atmosphere in which being a known atheist is no more socially and politically disadvantageous than being a known Methodist or a known Buddhist, then certain strategies will recommend themselves. If it is to break the outsized power of Religion In General over certain areas of life, then different ways of going about it suggest themselves.

  2. Narr says:

    Well put, CJC. For my part (and I’m a Grouchoist when it comes to membership and movements) I’d go for 2 and 3–you’re absolutely right about Door #1.

    What suggests itself to you, as regards #2 and #3? Do you think that strategies for them would differ?


  3. EvergreenMark says:

    Given that religion is likely hardwired into the vast majority of human brings, the idea of getting rid of religion in public life is not only counter-productive, it is silly. The only thing that is going to happen is that one religious mentality is going to be replaced by … another religious mentality. Which is pretty much what has happened, as the dreaded Religious Right (TM) and its restrictive moral strictures and limits on scientific inquiry has been replaced by The Vaguely Spiritual Group (TM) and … its restrictive moral strictures and limits on scientific inquiry.

    Most realistic outcome for atheists: a detoxified environment where being an atheist isn’t seen as being the rough equivalent of being a child molester. For that to work though, the people who step forward to wave the atheist banner need to be likable. And part of that is they need to stop insulting people who aren’t atheists. Don’t give up on the atheism — that would be self-defeating — but don’t be jerky about it. Don’t state or imply that people who disagree with you are stupid or engaged in a fantasy life. Even if they are. Your mission isn’t to change hearts and minds (assuming that’s even possible if a religious mentality is hardwired into the human brain), your mission to convince people you aren’t a jerk. Once they think you aren’t a jerk, they will be more open to listening to what you have to say on The Big Issues (TM).

  4. CJColucci says:

    When I think about that, I am reminded of the antislavery movement and its two main wings. One took the principles behind its antislavery commitments seriously and advocated such astonishing ideas as racial equality and female suffrage. It thought the other wing unprincipled, inconsistent, and unenergetic. The other wanted to show that one could be orthodox in all things and still oppose slavery. It thought association of antislavery with other radical ideas would alienate potential supporters who were, like themselves, orthodox in all other things. I think you needed both, one to push the boundaries of what was thinkable and the other to close the deal.
    For option 2, I think the “orthodox in all things” strategy works best. Let people realize that they know a bunch of atheists and that they are not much different from them (as happened with gays) and it will, eventually, work out. The problem is that it may take a long time for people to realize that people they know and like are atheists because it doesn’t come up. Example: my wife never realized for years that I was an atheist. It had just never come up. She literally thought she didn’t know any until I pointed out several. Neither of us went to church, I because I didn’t believe in anything and she for the reasons most people don’t go. We got married in the church attached to her high school, which was fine with me because I have always thought weddings were for brides and the less I had to do besides show up in front of someone legally empowered to officiate on time, clean, and sober the better I liked it.
    As for option 3, a more “in your face” strategy is necessary because there are immediate roadblocks that have to be dealt with: somebody is pushing religion in a science class or turning a class nominally “about” religion into one that proselytizes for the locally dominant religion.

  5. Cephus says:

    Yet a great many people are becoming atheists, or at the very least leaving organized religion, at a rate that no one ever thought possible. The idea of atheism, if there is an idea, is to expose the fallacy of religion, show where it fails, where it is dishonest, where it is unnecessary, and let the people take it from there. Religion may not go away entirely, but the number of people who do not identify with any religion has ticked upward more in the past 10 years than in the past 100 combined.

  6. joni says:

    I think we all like it if our team is winning. However, atheism has generally been more prevalent among the bright. Given that half of people are below average thinkers, and maybe 20% are way below average and not necessarily docile, I am a little apprehensive about untethering them from believing in something.

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