New atheism and the emergence of the alt-right
On 16 February 2020, Richard Dawkins tweeted: "It's one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It's quite another to conclude that it wouldn't work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn't it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology."
The basic wrongness of this point was extensively discussed on 16 February, to the point where 'eugenics' became a trending topic on Twitter. Setting aside the moral issues of indulging this topic in a high-profile forum, the genetic vulnerabilities of selectively-bred species make the notion of eugenics 'working' farcical. (though Dawkins did clarify in follow-up tweets that he thought a "eugenic policy would be bad", this hardly resolved the issue).
More interesting, and more alarming, is the question of why Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous scientist in Britain, with a reputation for championing rationality and scepticism, was publicly claiming that eugenics would 'work'. To put it simply, how did we get here?
Richard Dawkins has been a public figure since the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976. Since the turn of the millennium, however, he has been most famous as part of the so-called 'New Atheist' movement. The term was coined by journalist Gary Wolf in a 2006 Wired article about Dawkins and his fellow "New Atheists," Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. These writers were joined the following year by Christopher Hitchens, and became known as the 'Four Horsemen' of New Atheism after they took part in a roundtable discussion at Hitchens' home on 30 September 2007. Through their books, articles, and documentaries, they articulated a worldview in which reason and scepticism were under attack from forces of religious dogma and irrationality; atheism was thus a more important political cause than ever before.
The label 'New Atheism' is not uncontroversial. Dawkins himself disclaimed it in 2016, writing that "it isn’t clear to me how we differ from old atheists." To find this out, we must turn to the source. The New Atheist movement arguably began with Sam Harris' 2004 book, The End of Faith. The book opens with an extended description of a suicide bombing by an anonymous young man, after which Harris states:
"These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else we can infer about him on the basis of his behaviour? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all... Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy – you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy – to guess the young man’s religion?"
To which one is tempted to answer, “because you have blatantly played on your readership's assumed Islamophobia“. This is how New Atheism differs from 'old atheism'. Writing in a post 9/11 context, against the backdrop of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of New Atheism was underpinned by a virulent Islamophobia, existing in and contributing to the 'Clash of Civilisations' paradigm that fuelled the War on Terror. This commingled with a more generalised racism towards foreign cultures. Anticipating objections to his point about the suicide bomber, Harris adds a footnote:
“Some readers may object that the bomber in question is most likely to be a member of the Liberations [sic] Tigers of Tamil Eelam — the Sri Lankan separatist organization that has perpetrated more acts of suicidal terrorism than any other group... While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death... Secular Westerners often underestimate the degree to which certain cultures, steeped as they are in otherworldliness, look upon death with less alarm than seems strictly rational."
As well as chronicling the Clash of Civilisations abroad, the New Atheists were often happy to engage in racist scaremongering at home. Dawkins' 2006 documentary series Root of All Evil? contrasts footage of a Lourdes procession with the ominous voiceover: "But isn't this the beginning of that slippery slope that leads to young men with rucksack bombs on the Tube?" This evokes contemporary paranoia in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, though the contrast of so-called Islamic terror with a Christian ceremony is somewhat baffling.
More straightforward is Christopher Hitchens' assertion that Muslims are 'Islamising' London. In a 2007 Vanity Fair article, Londonistan Calling, he asserted that the increased presence of "Algerians, Bangladeshis, and others" had made Finsbury Park into "another country". These immigrants, according to Hitchens, had "often been the losers in battles against Middle Eastern and Asian regimes which they regard as insufficiently Islamic... they bring these far-off quarrels along with them. And they also bring a religion which is not ashamed to speak of conquest and violence."
These ideas were not unique to New Atheism. Racism towards immigrants was and is commonplace, and 'Londonistan' was a widely-disseminated paranoia, notably in a 2006 book by the right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips. But the New Atheists combined this inflammatory rhetoric with an affect of detached empiricism. In his 2006 book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris declares "Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious." The notion that the New Atheists were disinterestedly recounting the facts lent a rhetorical force to their arguments. It also made them susceptible to the ideas of the far right.
Towards the end of Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris reflects on Europe, and the place of Muslims within it:
"Islam is now the fastest-growing religion in Europe. The birth-rate among European Muslims is three times that of their non-Muslim neighbors. If current trends continue, France will be a majority-Muslim country in twenty-five years — and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow."
Those familiar with the contemporary far right will recognise this as the animating delusion of the so-called 'Great Replacement' conspiracy theory, in which Muslims and/or non-white immigrants are supposedly set to outbreed white people in Europe and North America, and thus dominate society. This conspiracy theory was a noted inspiration for the terrorist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, responsible for the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, who titled his manifesto The Great Replacement.
The New Atheists are not personally responsible for the despicable acts of Tarrant or the growing number of mass shooters animated by white supremacy. But the ideas of the contemporary alt-right were immanent in much of their work. The implications of this would only become more apparent as the years wore on; as Harris puts it in Letter to a Christian Nation:
"With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European society seem to be fascists. This does not bode well for the future of civilization."
Having peaked in 2006/07, New Atheism began winding down as a popular movement. The 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent fallout pushed its concerns down the agenda, and fears of Christianity infecting state institutions waned with the end of the evangelical-influenced Bush administration. The increasingly-evident disaster of the Iraq war also contributed to the movement's falling-off. Christopher Hitchens was one of the war's fiercest advocates; his reputation took a severe blow, and with his death in 2011 the movement lost one of its most popular figureheads. The subculture that had informed and responded to New Atheism persisted; secularisation campaigns continued, as did the atheist blogosphere that had sprung up in the late 2000s. But New Atheism's cultural moment had passed.
The most popular of the surviving 'horsemen' was Sam Harris. In 2013 he started a podcast, Waking Up (renamed Making Sense in 2018), which boasts around one million listeners per episode. Harris has frequently been criticised for inviting controversial figures onto his large platform. Most infamously, in 2017 he interviewed Charles Murray, co-author of the notorious 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argues that black people are genetically predetermined to be less intelligent than white people to justify reducing social spending.
Harris was bizarrely uncritical of Murray throughout their over-two-hour conversation, presenting his view of the science as uncontroversial, and Murray himself as the victim of a "moral panic". This led to a high-profile dust-up the following year between Harris and Vox editor Ezra Klein over the site's critical coverage, culminating in a podcast debate between the two. When Klein argued that the history of racism in America meant that black people scoring lower on average on IQ tests was more likely to be a result of environmental than genetic factors, Harris retorted that this was "irrelevant". Precisely how a centuries-long project of enslavement and discrimination could be irrelevant when assessing a group's performance on intelligence tests, let alone an intellectual project designed to strip government benefits from disadvantaged people, is left as an exercise for the reader.
As New Atheism increasingly faded into cultural memory, its proponents drifted further right. The atheist subculture became increasingly toxic, with allegations of bullying and sexual assault against minor figures compounded by the controversial stances of its major proponents. This prompted a small wave of former New Atheists publicly disavowing the movement. In 2017, Phil Torres wrote in a piece for Salon that the movement had "slid into the alt-right,, that its proponents "apparently don’t give a damn about alienating women and people of color“, and that
"Words that now come to mind when I think of new atheism are 'un-nuanced,' 'heavy-handed,' 'unjustifiably confident' and 'resistant to evidence' — not to mention, on the whole, 'misogynist' and 'racist.'"
Popular blogger PZ Myers also denounced the movement in 2019, writing that New Atheism had become "a shambles of alt-right memes and dishonest hucksters mangling science to promote racism, sexism, and bloody regressive politics".
Later in 2019, Richard Dawkins published a new book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner's Guide. Explicitly aimed at younger readers, it aimed to challenge the assumptions of religion and explain the basics of evolutionary science. While discussing the Jewish idea of the Promised Land, Dawkins quotes Numbers: "Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess." He then responds:
"What? Is that a good motive for going to war? Adolf Hitler in the Second World War justified his invasion of Poland, Russia and other lands to the east by saying that the superior German master race needed Lebensraum, or 'living space'. And that is exactly what God was urging his own 'chosen people' to claim by war."
To compare the Jewish people to the Nazis in a book published in 2019, let alone one aimed at children, is shocking. It is a comparison unmistakably advantageous to the far right.
In 2019, the non-profit Center for Inquiry put out a book version of the 2007 'Four Horsemen' roundtable. Subtitled The Discussion That Sparked An Atheist Revolution, in contained a transcript of the original conversation with new introductions by the surviving 'horsemen' and Stephen Fry. Listed in the book's acknowledgements is "CFI intern Andy Ngo".
Ngo is a right-wing provocateur who rose to prominence peddling Islamophobia (including a widely-criticised Wall Street Journal article, A Visit to Islamic England, which trafficked in similar stereotypes to Londonistan Calling). He is best-known for confrontations with anti-fascist activists in his native Portland, and has been criticised for shoddy and reckless reporting on their activities. Arun Gupta of Jacobin states that "whoever he turns his camera, social media, or pen on is at significant risk of being inundated with violent threats from the far right". At the very least, he is an unsavoury character for the most prominent New Atheists to associate with.
Similarly dubious is the so-called "Intellectual Dark Web," of which Sam Harris is a proud member. The term was coined by mathematician and financier Eric Weinstein to describe a loosely-aligned set of media reactionaries, including Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, and Christina Hoff Sommers. Though its most prominent figures had already amassed large audiences through YouTube videos and podcasts, as well as publications like Quillette, this quasi-movement gained mainstream attention after a 2018 New York Times profile by Bari Weiss. The piece opens:
"Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered 'dark.'"
To see the most tired and mainstream small-c conservative orthodoxies presented as radical truths is frankly laughable, but the pose of being under attack by a politically correct orthodoxy is essential to the Intellectual Dark Web. As well as profiling its more respectable figures, however, Weiss also points out the movement's less savoury connections:
"Go a click in one direction and the group is enhanced by intellectuals with tony affiliations like Steven Pinker at Harvard. But go a click in another and you'll find alt-right figures like Stefan Molyneux and Milo Yiannopoulos and conspiracy theorists like Mike Cernovich (the #PizzaGate huckster) and Alex Jones (the Sandy Hook shooting denier)."
The movement's nominally anti-establishment positioning makes its members more liable to view these figures as fellow politically incorrect outlaws. But as Weiss puts it, "if you are willing to sit across from an Alex Jones or Mike Cernovich and take him seriously, there's a high probability that you're either cynical or stupid." It is reasonable to characterise the Intellectual Dark Web as overlapping with the 'alt-light,' the less overtly racist media figures who offer more mainstream versions of the alt-right's ideas. The most prominent New Atheists certainly have tangible links to some of the most extreme figures in mainstream media, and continue to build careers off right-wing culture wars.
But as well as these direct connections, the New Atheists also serve as indirect links to far right ideology. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American non-profit which tracks extremist activity, stated that some alt-righters found Sam Harris' work "blended easily into that of more overtly racist writers". The report argues that "Under the guise of scientific objectivity, Harris has presented deeply flawed data to perpetuate fear of Muslims and to argue that black people are genetically inferior to whites." It notes some of Harris' less responsible uses of his podcast, including the Charles Murray incident, and quotes one alt-righter who moved from Harris' content to that of the overtly racist blogger Paul Kersey.
The report also notes the importance of the YouTube algorithm in "coaxing viewers into the deeper depths of the alt-right". It cites a Wall Street Journal investigation which found that YouTube promotes content which keeps users on the site for longer periods of time, "and those videos often happen to be among the more extreme content on the site." Social media algorithms have a tendency to recommend more extreme versions of the material users are already engaged with. Videos featuring Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins can be only a few recommendations away from overt white supremacists, and YouTube will automatically direct users to them.
The remnants of New Atheism have survived into an even more polarised political climate, in which readers, listeners, and viewers are more easily radicalised than ever before, simply through media infrastructure. This environment, coupled with the New Atheists' own gradually more extreme statements and their connections to even more dubious personalities, has made them one of the more acceptable mainstream pathways to the Alt-right.
This is how we got to Richard Dawkins tweeting about eugenics. But more concerning than the confused, reactionary, and tone-deaf comments of the New Atheists is the wider movement to which they provide both fuel and legitimacy.
William Shaw's writing has appeared in The Oxford Culture Review and Doctor Who Magazine. His first book, The Black Archive #42: The Rings of Akhaten, about Doctor Who and the legacy of New Atheism, is available now from Obverse Books. You can find him online here, or on Twitter @Will_S_7.