Photo by Chloe Orefice, graphic work by Sam Taylor
Atheism never meant much to me growing up. The first time I ever used the word was while filling out some school form, wondering whether I should put “Church of England” when I didn’t actually believe in God. My mom, without trying to push me in any particular direction, explained that "atheist" was the option that meant not believing in a god, and so at the flick of a biro I became one of those, and didn't think much more of it for at least another decade or so.
Then 9/11 happened, at the start of my second year in college. The horror triggered a wave of condemnation of religion, leading to the rise of "New Atheism." As much publishing phenomenon as political movement, the next few years would see high-profile bestsellers by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett among others (though it was these four men who became popularly known as the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse). With the long-term demographic shift away from religion, and public revulsion over the sort of faith-based extremism that led to terrorism, it felt like we’d reached a turning point in the never-ending battle for sanity.
Inevitably, though, things began to fray at the seams. Harris blundered into controversy over his apparent support for racial profiling; Hitchens passed away; and Dawkins joined Twitter, beginning an infuriating, endless cycle of controversy and bewilderment. Hordes of New Atheist fans began popping up on the internet and it turned out that a lot of them were angry pricks. Different fronts and factions emerged, each with their own ideas about what capital-A Atheism should mean and stand for. New Atheism has matured, and for some that means learning to hate each other in imaginative new ways.
At the start of 2014 there are four broad—and overlapping—schisms in atheism, which can be summed up as: Dicks vs. Cowards, Islamophobes vs. More Cowards, Misogynists vs. Feminists, and Americans vs. Europeans. We could also count Richard Dawkins’ Twitter Account vs. the Collective Sanity of the Internet, but that sort of falls under "all of the above."
The War on Dicks goes back a few years, but things hardened considerably in the wake of talks by Rebecca Watson and Phil Plait in 2010 and 2011, both titled “Don’t be a Dick” and making the controversial point that people generally shouldn’t be dicks. As Plait put it, how many of us changed our beliefs “because somebody screaming in your face called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?”
This caused outrage in the dick community, many of whom identify with skepticism or atheism precisely because it allows them to act like complete pricks to people; based on the popular logic that it’s acceptable to be nasty as long as you’re right. Prominent dicks retaliated by declaring non-dicks to be "pussies" or cowards, who clearly lacked the steel-spined bravery it takes to join a few dozen people leaving angry comments on an obscure Creationist blog post that a famous author just linked everyone to.
Famous dicks were swiftly dragged into the fray, with Dawkins the focus of the attention. “I get daily messages, apparently from different people but all using identically illiterate spelling: 'Your a dick.' Coordinated campaign?” he asked in February, starting his 47th Twitter explosion of the year. As we enter 2014, Dawkins is still railing against the idea that he’s a grouch, proving Suzanne Moore’s comments about "dour grumpiness" among atheists wrong by snarking about her writing ability on Twitter.
There are more subtle arguments and disagreements about tone, though. One issue is the fundamental differences between atheism in Britain and the United States, the latter of which has a habit of poaching atheists from the former with the lure of bright lights, bigger arguments, and the faint possibility of actually earning money from a writing career.
In Britain, religious institutions simply don’t matter that much. Sure, there are irritations—Bishops in the House of Lords, prayers in school, that dude with the hook for a hand—but they have limited and diminishing influence. Hymns and sinister pirates convert very few people. The Church of England, much like the monarchy it clings to, survives by being so meek and inoffensive that nobody could ever really get pissed off at it. Calls to abolish it are met by a sort of bewildered sympathy. “Those old guys? With the gay priests? Aww, really? Let's just leave them alone, they're going to evaporate soon enough."
A more militant form of atheism makes sense in many parts of the US, where fundamentalists have been able to exert influence on legislature and—depending which state you live in—"outing" yourself as an Atheist is a relatively brave move. In the UK, faced with tea-swilling vicars who don’t always “do the God thing,” the pseudo-Christian morality of social conservatives is a far greater threat to enlightenment values, and rationalists tend to be more focused on the media and political classes as a result.
Of course, that attitude can lead to complacency, a charge levelled at many left-leaning atheists by Nick Cohen, Richard Dawkins, and others, especially when talking about Islam.
Cropped image by Surian Soosay via Creative Commons
Islamists played a big part in the emergence of New Atheism to begin with. Post 9/11, Muslims became the new folk demon, and a rise in racist and xenophobic hatred was directed toward them. Far-right groups and conservative newspapers leapt on this trend, and sometimes the two even seemed to overlap.
And so, inevitably, came the backlash against the backlash, as the left became increasingly uneasy about the treatment of Britain’s Muslim minority. The term "Islamophobia," coined in the 90s, became increasingly used to describe the sort of semi-racist innuendo and baiting directed by media outlets who seemed determined to paint all Muslims as psychotic, death-dealing extremists, ready to detonate themselves at the slightest glimpse of an offensive cartoon. At the same time, left-leaning atheists became uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric coming from leading atheists—from Dawkins' apparent support for far-right figures like Geert Wilders and Pat Condell, to Sam Harris’ clumsy and misguided comments about racial profiling.
The risk here, though, as Cohen has argued, is that that the backlash to the backlash ignores the original "lash." That vulnerable people suffering at the hands of a bigoted, homophobic, and sexist religion (or just "religion," since they pretty much all fulfil those criteria at the institutional level) risk having their voices ignored in the race to be politically correct: “One day," says Cohen, "thousands who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats, and forced marriages will turn to the intellectual and political establishments of our day and ask why they did not protect them. The pathetic and discreditable reply can only be: ‘We were too busy fighting Richard Dawkins to offer you any support at all.’”
So how do we move these issues along in 2014? Cohen is right that there’s queasiness about questioning Islam, even though he’s mistaken about the cause. It isn’t cowardice or fear that holds people back, but sympathy. The religion simply isn’t big enough in the UK to rally much interest outside of the paranoia of the far right. As a result, it's always getting assaulted by the right. And, as a consequence, maybe people don’t pay enough attention to travesties like forced marriage or female genital mutilation. That’s a problem, and it’s something we need to change, but dumb, lazy rhetoric from Dawkins, Harris, and other hardline anti-theists has impeded that progress as much as anyone else.
2014 is a year in which misogynists will continue to whine about their miserable, sexless lives, dicks will continue to behave like angry toddlers, the conversation about the correct response to Islam will continue to fester, and Dawkins will keep saying dumb things on Twitter. But for all the noise and fury around these debates and divisions, the people involved represent only a tiny proportion of atheists around the world.
The real progress is happening more quietly. The Church of England, already little more than a quaint anachronism in the minds of many voters, continues to wane. In the US, progress is slow but reasonably steady. In the West, the number of people who believe in a god continues to decline. Even activism seems to have entered a new, more mature phase—in recognition, perhaps, that poster campaigns and old trolls don’t really achieve much. The Women in Secularism conference has helped build closer ties between feminism and atheism—to the obvious terror of many woman-fearing dicks. The Rationalist Association has re-launched the 128-year-old New Humanist with an evolved editorial line and a superb lineup of writers, while their Apostasy Project—far from the madding crowds of Twitter—is quietly building links in Islamic communities and providing practical support for those leaving religion.
More than that, atheist identities seem to be evolving, subsumed by other, more positive labels. Atheism as an identity never seemed particularly comfortable to me, because it’s ultimately a name for something that I’m not. It isn’t a "thing," but the absence of a thing. I’m not an atheist any more than I’m an avegetarian, and it feels odd to be defined against a culture standard that I reject. On the other hand, I can positively identify as a humanist, or a secularist, or a liberal. I’ll always be an atheist, but the labels I chose mean more to me than those I was given.
As we move toward the end of the New Atheism era, "atheism" is becoming less of an end than a means. A new generation of atheists—people like Alom Shaha, Dan Trilling, Melody Hensley, Tom Chivers, and Rebecca Watson—are defined as much by their positive humanism, secularism, or feminism as they are by their negative godlessness. Their focus is on building new systems and advancing new philosophies rather than tearing down old ones, and they lead through example rather than evangelism or head-bashing.
There will always be room for multiple approaches—I don’t think I’d be capable of writing without being at least a *little* bit of a dick—but for those engaging in godless activism in 2014, there are far better role models than a bunch of angry men ranting about their honey on Twitter.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins