Did New Atheism Enable Wokeness?

Belief Abhors a Vacuum

“New Atheism” refers to a Western intellectual movement from the mid-2000’s that was outspokenly opposed to religion and theism and sought to criticize and even ridicule faith and dogma with unapologetic vigor. The term “New Atheism” has never been widely used among those it describes (who, true to form, never really agreed on shared labels), but rather by critics or third parties, rendering it a de facto term of disparagement, though it remains the most well-known label for the movement. The movement was kicked off by a series a provocative best-sellers, beginning with Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith” (2004), including other notable books such as Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” (2006), Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” (2006), and Christopher Hitchens’s “God is Not Great” (2007). In the years that followed, a host of literature was published on the subject. Scores of formal public debates were held at universities and television studios around the world and uploaded across the internet. The atheism-religion debate lit up the blogosphere and then-fledgling social media, raging across early podcasts, radio programs, interview shows, YouTube, online forums, comment sections, and eventually popular culture.

And atheism won. Religion emerged battered and limping from nearly every clash. The most carefully constructed arguments by gray-haired PhD theologians could be effortlessly debunked by any college freshman armed with little more than Occam's Razor and a basic understanding of logical fallacies. It really was that easy (and remains so). There was a noticeable shift in online discourse, with believers distancing themselves from the personal, intervening, judging patriarch in the sky in favor of a more opaque, nebulous, pantheistic, Einsteinian sort of god — something akin to “love”, or “the universe”, or “mystery.” The absurdly specific claims that our religions make about the natural world became harder to defend in open debate without embarrassment. The fact that most believers had never read their own holy books or canonical literature was made amusingly obvious, and rather than going to the mat over doctrines or stories they’d barely even been aware of, they underwent a period of religious reevaluation. People moderated their views, liberalized their interpretations, and retreated to positions that cherrypicked the good vibes from their religions while jettisoning most of the concrete assertions that would back them into logical corners or force them into mental gymnastics. After a point, some hills just weren’t worth dying on anymore.

Belief in a biblically young earth, in creationism, or its dolled-up cousin “intelligent design”, and in biblical literalism all declined during these years. There was a rise in atheism and agnosticism, and an even bigger rise in “none’s” — those whose professed religious affiliation is “none.” Traditional religion was obviously not vanquished altogether, far from it, but on the internet — the domain of the Millennial generation (and later Gen Z as well), God was dead.

New Atheism was an intellectual movement, not a political one, but by virtue of the political landscape of the time, it could not help but intersect with politics. In the mid to late 2000’s, in George W. Bush’s America, believing in evolution, the separation of church and state, science, gay rights — this almost automatically made you left-liberal. But the New Atheist stance on Islam, which they blisteringly excoriated alongside Christianity, drew the ire of some academics, progressive activists, professional-class cultural elites, and Muslims themselves, as being offensive or even bigoted. This clash between New Atheists and the coddlers of Islam created a point of friction every bit as abrasive with parts of the political Left as there was with the Evangelical Right over stem cell research, creationism taught in schools, or “gay conversion therapy.” It’s worth reiterating that New Atheism was never a political movement “in spirit”, but ended up becoming one, because one man’s religion is another man’s politics, and, as well shall we, vice versa.

Sometime around 2012 or 2013, New Atheism began to peter out. Religious people had become a laughingstock in what seemed like every educated, affluent, progressive, or under-40 circle. After a while, we almost started to feel bad for them. It was like dunking on children. Atheistic content waned in popularity and controversy. Fewer and fewer theists showed up to dispute it. The flow of books, articles, debates, videos, and online posts slowed down. Authors, bloggers, pundits, and everyday people moved on to other subjects. Some older New Atheists, mostly Gen Xers, clung to the religion beat, and slid into niche irrelevance as they rehashed the same material over and over to dwindling audiences. The war of ideas was over, and we had won. At least online, and among the younger generations.

And just as New Atheism was fading away, in 2013, we saw the beginnings of what we now recognize as Social Justice or Wokeness. And as linguist John McWhorter and others have observed, Wokeness has nearly every hallmark of a religion, absent a supernatural god. Indeed, Wokeness is a political religion. It should no longer be controversial at this point to call it one. It performs the same functions for its adherents as other religions do for theirs. It offers community, moral certitude, confession, being a part of something larger, ecstatic revivalism, the eternal struggle of good versus evil — and most importantly, meaning and purpose.

New Atheism’s thought leaders and influencers were generationally varied, but its audience was almost entirely left of center Millennials. Younger Millennials and Gen Z, especially those affluent and left-leaning, came of age in a landscape freshly conquered by New Atheism, but without having fought in those battles themselves. And those many, many battles, whatever else can be said of them, functioned as a workout for one’s critical thinking skills. I believe this helped to inoculate New Atheists in large part from falling victim to the thing they unwittingly paved the way for. Subsequent crops of young adults were not so lucky. Left-leaning young people (in other words, most young people) who became adults in the early 2010’s emerged into subcultures where traditional religion was an embarrassment, but they nevertheless possessed of a great deal of the ambient religious enthusiasm that permeates wider American society. 

It should come as no surprise that this all went down in the US more so than any other Western country. America is a uniquely religious culture compared to its first world peers. New Atheism was a response to a level of suffocating, borderline theocratic religiosity that did not broadly exist elsewhere in the West by that point. Whereas Europe and its offshoots gradually lost their piety over time, the US, while still comparatively quite religious overall, saw a sharp drop among affluent, left-leaning under 40’s within a decade. This left a spiritual vacuum. There was an abundance of religious energy, and nowhere to put it.

People have traditionally derived meaning and purpose from religion. In the 20th century, much of this meaning was transferred to one’s career. But automation, globalization, and the rise of the gig economy have regressed the job market to a shell of its former self. Wages stagnate as the cost of living keeps rising, and fewer jobs have benefits, social prestige, or paths for advancement. Young people, for the first time in generations, are on track to be less well off than their parents. With the collapse of meaningful work, and the intellectual disrepute of Abrahamic religion, many young people have taken to filling this void with politics. And while Wokeness is the clearest example, it’s not the only one. People in general are leaning more on politics these days to fulfill needs best satisfied elsewhere.

Politics is a poor receptacle for the energy of meaning. It gets jumbled up with identity, imbued with far too much emotion, and leads to unhealthy levels of personal investment. It makes politics and discourse more hysterical, hyperbolic, and catastrophized. Politics can be many things. A tool. A means to an end. An interest or hobby. For some, a career. But it cannot be a replacement for spirituality or a sense of meaning. In doing so, you come to care too much. It becomes too personal. You grow too attached. This doesn’t just make politics toxic, it makes you worse at politics, too. Defeats are reframed as existential crises instead of setbacks. Victories are soon downplayed. When progress occurs, its existence is denied; new goals with equal and dire urgency are swiftly set up. The sky must always be falling — the struggle must always be eternal. For a person using politics as religion to achieve all their political goals is for them to commit spiritual suicide. They need the conflict. They need their adversaries. Politics becomes this twisted spectacle of performance art.

There are real problems in society, real issues that need addressing. There’s a world to run, and work to be done. Turning that vital project into a massively multiplayer online role-playing game because your needs aren’t being met just kind of ruins it for everyone.

We wanted to slay religion with the sword of reason, but like the Bush-era neocons most of us opposed, we too toppled our Saddam only to later see ISIS rise from the power vacuum. It somehow did not occur to us that it was insufficient to simply cast down a structure without building something new in its place. We told ourselves the lie nothing else was needed. We told ourselves that spirituality was not a genuine human need, but rather a false dependency drummed into people by religion like a conman who deliberately creates a problem only to sell you the cure. And to be sure, religion does do that in spades. But we were wrong to presume that there was no deeper itch being scratched. Of all the prominent New Atheists, only Sam Harris sought to robustly address this. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough to render religion a laughingstock without offering non-faith-based alternatives. I would like to do so here. Too little and too late though it may be.

For the atheist or non-religious person seeking spirituality, meaning, and purpose, I can recommend a number of options: meditation, Eastern philosophy, charity, philanthropy, volunteer work, effective altruism, Stoicism, nature, creative endeavors, personal goals, and of course, family and friends. For you, it may be something else. In the end, spirituality is more about the journey than the destination. It’s about being truly present in this moment, enjoying the everyday wonders of life, appreciating what you have, and not taking your good luck for granted. It’s about fostering a connectedness with the world and those around you. It’s about exploring the mind from the first person and recognizing the way everything always already is. It’s about living an examined life of curiosity, creativity, honesty, kindness, generosity, and growth. This is a project too grand to fit into the narrow confines of politics. You owe yourself better.


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