Hitchens’s interventions in these debates appeared at first as a more strident version of Walzer’s position. A Trotskyist activist during his youth in Britain before becoming a prominent left critic of Clintonian liberalism, Hitchens appealed throughout his career to an anti-totalitarian strain of internationalism familiar to readers of Dissent. Writing in the Nation soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center, he called out Chomsky and Tariq Ali for abandoning the internationalist left’s commitment to fighting authoritarianism and fundamentalism in the Middle East. These former comrades, he said, were “rationalizing” terrorism and thereby showing insufficient outrage at the “fascist” doctrines motivating Al Qaeda jihadists.
But unlike Walzer, Hitchens’s post-9/11 confrontations ultimately led him to abandon left politics altogether. After a heated public exchange with Chomsky, he concluded that “no political coalition is possible” with those who were “soft on crime and soft on fascism.” After the fall of the World Trade Center, he wrote, “it no longer matters what they think.” The following year, Hitchens quit writing for the Nation over the magazine’s stance on the war in Iraq, which he supported. Richard Seymour’s polemical biography of Hitchens may go too far by claiming that he had come to see the left as a bunch of weaklings, preferring the boldness of men like Donald Rumsfeld. But it is clear is that Hitchens had lost confidence in the left’s ability to respond to the issue of jihadism, which after 9/11 he saw as fundamental. As he told the libertarian magazine Reason in November 2001, “there is no such thing as radical left anymore. Ça n’existe pas.”
Hitchens was nothing if not a man of letters. Since his arrival in the United States, he had developed a reputation as an intellectuel engagé with a signature British wit. He often drew, or perhaps sought out, comparisons with Oscar Wilde and George Orwell. In contrast, the other three of the “four horsemen of New Atheism”—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—presented themselves as humble scientists (or, in Dennett’s case, scientific philosophers). It was only after Hitchens broke with the left and joined these new allies that the New Atheist worldview emerged in earnest, making non-belief and scientific rationality a political cause in the post-9/11 context.
An aspiring neuroscientist with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, Sam Harris had founded the New Atheist genre in 2004 with his anti-religious manifesto The End of Faith. Harris’s critique of religion was simple, hinging on the idea that “beliefs are principles of action.” In other words, everything we hold to be true has the potential to inform what we do, and at bottom our behavior rests on a more or less coherent set of propositions. The major world religions are illegitimate not only because they make claims that science can show to be false—though for Harris this was obvious—but because a system of belief founded on “bad ideas” will tend to lead people to bad actions. Two years later, in The God Delusion, the Oxford biologist and “Professor for Public Understanding of Science” Richard Dawkins emphasized the other side of the equation. The most commercially successful of the New Atheist best sellers as well as the most evangelical, Dawkins’s book actively aimed to convert readers to scientific rationalism. Unbelief was not only a social good which prevented irrational acts of violence, Dawkins argued, it was also a good in itself for the individual.
Coming on the heels of these prior atheist best sellers, Hitchens’s most important contribution in God Is Not Great (2007) was to put the case for reason, science and unbelief in its polemical context. All of the New Atheists framed their arguments as critiques of religions in general, because, on their view, all religions construct their belief systems on the false propositions contained in sacred texts. But it was no secret that a central concern of the New Atheist authors was jihadism and Islam more broadly. Evoking Orwell and the authors of the classic ex-communist manifesto The God That Failed (a title he relished), Hitchens equated jihadism with totalitarianism, seeking to control every aspect of individuals’ lives across as much of the globe as possible. The resistance against Islamic jihad was therefore for Hitchens a responsibility no less incumbent on 21st-century intellectuals than the Popular Front fight against fascism or the cultural Cold War waged by anti-Soviet thought collectives in the Fifties.
As with many of the intellectual anti-totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, New Atheism devoted its attention not only to denouncing the danger, but also to admonishing those it deemed insufficiently wary of it. Hitchens’s earlier polemics against leftist writers served as a model for New Atheists who later took on mainstream liberalism. Though presenting himself as a loyal Democrat, Harris frequently accused his fellow liberals of failing to pay attention to the dangers of religious conviction. Because of their overwhelmingly secular frame of reference, Harris claimed, liberals either did not understand the power of jihadists’ religious conviction—something religious conservatives did not fail to notice—or were too concerned about offending sensibilities to register their concerns. Following the success of The End of Faith, he sometimes appeared in conservative media, presented as the rare liberal who “gets it” on matters of terrorism. As he explained to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News in 2004, liberals “are not talking” about the danger of Islam “due to political correctness—political correctness that could well get many of us killed.”
Harris’s sentiments were nonetheless not so far from respectable liberal opinion at the time. The Democratic Party of 2004 was hardly an antiwar party. Although firmly opposed to the president that started the War on Terror, many Democrats remained wary of being characterized as “soft” toward America’s enemies—a tension that helped earn John Kerry the “flip-flopper” label during his presidential campaign. The party’s anti-Bush consensus effectively bracketed the question of whether or not America’s Middle East campaigns were just in the first place, allowing the antiwar movement—probably the most important social movement on the left at the time—to coexist with a party whose leaders had overwhelmingly voted to invade Iraq.
New Atheism played a role in facilitating this relationship, navigating between liberalism’s pro- and antiwar sentiments. Most liberals did not go as far as Hitchens, who declared that “the 82nd Airborne” were “the real fighters for secularism.” But Hitchens was an outlier even among the New Atheists—Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, for example, did not support the invasion of Iraq. Though in The End of Faith Harris defended the idea that the War on Terror was a “war with Islam,” he presented this civilizational conflict as a “war of ideas”: to engage was to join a global struggle between reason and its enemies, not to take a conclusive stance on Bush’s wars. Harris took care to suggest that among the enemies of reason was Bush himself, the leader of a Christian right that exemplified the “unreason … ascendant in the United States.” For many readers of the New Atheist best sellers, the fight against what Dawkins called the “American Taliban” no doubt felt closer to home than the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan.
In this regard, the New Atheist critique of religion reflected liberal America’s defining worry about George W. Bush and his Christian voter base’s hostility to science and technical expertise. Under the Democratic consensus of the time, it was unnecessary to agree on whether the wars were just so long as everyone under the liberal tent could agree that the people in charge of these wars were irrational and incompetent—or simply stupid. American liberalism has a technocratic streak that long predates the 21st century, but both at home and abroad, the tenure of George W. Bush provided it with a counterpart that appeared uniquely ignorant of “facts, logic and reason.” Many liberals wanted no part in Bush’s personal crusade against the enemies of Christendom; others believed that they were more competent to win America’s wars than their boneheaded conservative opponents. New Atheism affirmed both of these impulses simultaneously.
The New Atheists were initially delighted by Barack Obama. Not only did Obama present himself as simultaneously pro- and antiwar, he was also the embodiment of liberal technocracy, the anti-Bush. A Harvard-trained legal scholar, Obama surrounded himself with experts. He credibly promised “solutions” in an election held only two months after the financial crash, which many blamed on Republican foolishness. Dawkins gushed at the future president’s erudition, while Maher speculated that a man that smart had to be an atheist, only pretending to be a “super-duper Christian” for the cameras. Despite Obama’s promises to withdraw American troops from Iraq, even Hitchens expressed his admiration, switching his vote back to the Democrats after having declared his support for Bush in 2004.
The romance proved to be short-lived. By Obama’s second term, the president who had seemed a rebuke to Republican irrationalism began to be connected with a different kind of flight from reason. With Christian conservatism out of the White House, Harris and others gave increasing voice to what had previously been a secondary concern: liberal political correctness. Gradually, Obama was transformed from the professor come to restore sanity to American politics into the identity- and sensitivity-obsessed cultural liberal afraid to utter the phrase “radical Islamic terror.” As the Trump era dawned, many of the figures that had risen to prominence waging war against religion and fundamentalism took up the new challenge of reclaiming American liberalism from a left too consumed by “political correctness” to remember what it truly meant to be a liberal.
Part of the explanation for this shift has to do with internal divisions within the atheist community itself. In the early 2010s, New Atheism was less in the headlines than it had been during its heyday. But at the conferences where the surviving New Atheists spoke and on the online forums where their books were debated, shouting matches regularly broke out over accusations that they were Islamophobic apologists for American empire. In addition, the 2010s also saw an increasing number of polemics concerning sexism within the atheist community, starting with a 2011 episode known as “Elevatorgate,” in which the feminist vlogger Rebecca Watson complained of being propositioned in an elevator late at night during an atheist convention, only to be scolded online by Dawkins that women have it far worse under Sharia law.
These kinds of incidents produced a schism among prominent atheists. On one side were proponents of an atheism explicitly tied to progressive values, such as the biologist PZ Myers, the “atheism plus” movement, and media figures like The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur and Kyle Kulinski. On the other were most of the prominent New Atheist celebrities—including Harris, Dawkins, Michael Shermer and Dave Rubin, a former employee of The Young Turks—who felt that the emphasis on feminism, diversity and anti-imperialism distracted from the fight against religious extremism.
During this same time, some fans of New Atheism began to flirt with aspects of the growing online far right, posting in forums such as r/atheism on Reddit. Though the alt-right includes a spectrum of views—from white nationalists and neo-Nazis to extreme anti-feminists and right-wing internet trolls—the rejection of liberal sensitivity and “political correctness” is a thread that runs through most of them. Many New Atheists would deny sympathy with the most extreme versions of those views, but there has nonetheless been voluminous commentary on the overlap between the fans of Harris and Dawkins and those of the “alt-light,” made up of self-proclaimed “provocateurs” who delight in riling up their liberal adversaries. In 2017, the repentant liberal atheist Phil Torres went so far as to conclude that New Atheism had undergone a “merger” with the alt-right.
Yet if such a merger had taken place, it remained below the surface. New Atheist leaders continued to insist they were good liberals, and during the 2016 election most of them delighted in pointing out the absurdity of what Trump was doing to the Republican Party. At the same time, increased media attention to campus controversies—from disinvited speakers at Berkeley to a “cultural appropriation” scandal in the Oberlin dining hall to the confrontation at Yale over Halloween costumes—were a sign for many New Atheists that liberalism too was deteriorating. As Harris frequently argued in the run-up to the 2016 vote, the “irrational” attitudes expressed by college activists were a bad omen for the Democrats’ political prospects. True to form, Harris also decried the reluctance of liberal politicians to speak honestly about jihad, urging Hillary Clinton to make a speech acknowledging the link between Islam and terrorism. Such a speech was necessary, he claimed, “to prevent a swing toward Trump by voters who find Clinton’s political correctness on the topic of Islam and jihadism a cause for concern.”
Since Trump’s victory, which Harris and his confrères have interpreted as a confirmation of this prediction, the issue of political correctness has only become more pressing for many prominent New Atheists. Increasingly central to their arguments today is the idea that American liberalism has in fact become illiberal, obsessed with the primacy of group identities over the individual and intolerant of speech that contradicts the latest “woke” orthodoxy on race and gender. As many of those associated with New Atheism have taken up the fight against political correctness—including Harris, Maher, Shermer, Rubin, Peter Boghossian and Steven Pinker—they have gravitated towards a larger group that includes not only self-described liberals, but also conservatives like the former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro and the celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson. Many in this group, sometimes called the “intellectual dark web,” follow Pinker in his rhetorical association of liberalism with the Enlightenment, suggesting its connection to scientific thinking as well as to the achievements of Western civilization. Others prefer to call themselves “classical liberals,” a label that allows for overlap between a Hayekian embrace of the free market and support for more progressive libertarian causes like gay marriage or legalizing marijuana. What unites these apparently dissimilar figures is the belief that the contemporary left has abandoned both rational thinking and liberal values, and that this left must be defeated by appealing to a more authentic liberalism.
It might seem that this new pop-intellectual movement would only intensify the alienation of the former stars of New Atheism from the mainstream of American liberalism. But no less than during the heyday of books like The End of Faith, the New Atheists and their allies on the intellectual dark web have much in common with those who set the trends of liberal opinion. The notion that campus political correctness had “returned” as a threat to American life was hardly an original insight of Harris, Maher or Rubin: it was columnists like Jonathan Chait, Andrew Sullivan, and Conor Friedersdorf, writing for decidedly liberal audiences in New York and the Atlantic, who helped popularize this impression starting in the late Obama years.
Moreover, since Trump’s rise began, liberal Americans have often defaulted to rhetoric out of the New Atheist playbook to describe what they find most disturbing about current politics. A March 2016 op-ed by Nicholas Kristof lamented that the future president might have been thwarted if only the media had “aggressively provided context in the form of fact checks and robust examination of policy proposals.” Sean Spicer’s exaggeration of the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration and Kellyanne Conway’s defense of “alternative facts” in early 2017 later helped inspire a liberal narrative in which the chief danger the new administration posed to the nation was its denial of objective reality. As the Yale historian of twentieth-century authoritarianism Timothy Snyder wrote that same year, not only do “the president and his aides actively seek to destroy Americans’ sense of reality,” but “post-factuality is pre-fascism.” Faced with the prospect of the death of facts and truth, some parts of the Democratic “resistance” chose as one of their first major acts that spring to hold a “March for Science.”
Much of the recent commentary on the New Atheists and their friends has focused on their flirtation with the worst ideas of the far right, but it might be more instructive to look at what they call for openly: the redemption of rationalist or “classical” liberalism. In this regard, they have at least as much in common with the mainstream centrism reeling from Hillary Clinton’s defeat as they do with Donald Trump’s “deplorables.” On both the left and the right, they claim, politics has once again been flooded with irrational passions, and the only hope for liberalism is to return to the solid ground of science.
But has science ever been liberalism’s solid ground? Ironically, the New Atheists’ insistence that an authentic liberalism be scientific can lead to illiberalisms no less glaring than those they allege on the progressive left. An obvious and egregious example is Harris’s call for profiling of Muslims in airports, on the grounds that since we have evidence of who is likely to be a terrorist, treating a man with brown skin and a thick beard the same as an elderly white woman represents a “tyranny of fairness.” No matter how many sociologists of terrorism or experts on airport security were to endorse his argument (and the only expert Harris could find, Bruce Schneier, rejected it outright), no one could call this a liberal proposal. Still more revealing is the recent attempt on the intellectual dark web to promote the work of Charles Murray on “racial” differences in human intelligence. Of course, Harris—once again leading the charge—claimed he did not endorse Murray’s suggestion in The Bell Curve that black people are on average less intelligent than white people. The recurring claim in his polemics was rather that the left had unfairly dismissed Murray because of an ideological aversion to “facts” about human biology, an assertion frequently mirrored in the intellectual dark web’s clashes with feminism. But even if these ideas of race and gender had a solid basis in empirical science, surely “true” liberals ought to reject the idea that their implications had any political relevance.
The New Atheists and their allies criticize campus “social justice warriors” for being like religious fanatics, proceeding from what they view to be empirically false beliefs (e.g. the idea we can all determine our own identities) to illiberal action (e.g. protesting a campus speaker who rejects transgender pronouns, in violation of the liberal principle of freedom of speech). But the impulse to ground political action in a “scientific” view of human nature is similarly at odds with notions of autonomy and self-determination that run throughout the history of liberalism. In fact, as the philosopher John Gray has noted, many of today’s college activists are not so much illiberal as “hyper-liberal,” acting on an ideology “that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world” besides one “based on individual choice.” On this view, the conflict between the New Atheists and the campus left is really a debate, though in parody form, between two strands of liberal philosophy: one that boasts of its basis in scientific rationality, and the other that emphasizes its egalitarian idealism.
Campus activists hardly set the agenda for the broader left, but their increasing willingness today to engage in confrontational tactics is indicative of a larger trend. Whereas liberals ten years ago may have shied away from open avowals of moral conviction—a close cousin of religious zealotry—many of today’s liberals, progressives and democratic socialists are becoming more comfortable admitting the role of passion and emotion in their politics. As garden-variety Democrats have rediscovered mass protest—against climate change, migrant family separations or the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court—activists to their left now feel emboldened to confront politicians at their homes and occupy public highways. Looking back with scorn on the record of liberal technocracy in America and Western Europe, theorists of democracy like Chantal Mouffe and Wendy Brown have argued for a liberal-left politics that emphasizes conflict over compromise. There are some good reasons to think that today’s liberals may follow their lead.
New Atheists and their allies look around them and don’t recognize the rationalist liberalism they used to know. But many of today’s liberals can hardly avoid drawing grim conclusions, based on the best evidence available, about where the reliance on reason and science has led them. With Donald Trump in the White House, a return to the strategies of Bush-era liberalism would seem to be irrational at best.
Art credit: Dylan Martinez