Well, let me clarify my title above. In the article below on his Substack site, deBoer claims that he started his career attacking New Atheism, and he still sees issues with it, but now thinks he went too far, especially in light of the Vice article he cites. That article notes a rise of Internet scams dealing with supernatural phenomenon like clairvoyance and tarot cards, and he sees that the doubt about faith promoted by New Atheism could be used now to quash these other issues that victimize the credulous. But the so-called demise of New Atheism has deprived people of those tools.
Unfortunately, deBoer, whose writing I admire (but seems to be writing too much these days), still feels he to get in a few licks at Dawkins and Co., and I think those licks are gratuitous and unfair. Still, his call for a revival of skepticism and demands for evidence is absolutely the mark. Faith is faith, whether it involves pastors or psychics.
Click the screenshot to see deBoer’s piece:
There are, I think, six main reasons for the “backlash” against New Atheism, which I see as the reinvigoration of faithlessness by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (Pinker was a player as well):
1.) People bridle at criticism of religion, especially when it is passionate and vigorous. Religion is sacrosanct, and seen by many as off limits to criticism.
2.) People accused the New Atheists of being strident and trying to wrest religion from believers.
3.) People were jealous of the success of New Atheist writings
4.) Because Muslims are considered “people of color,” opponents of New Atheism were especially critical of its perceived “Islamophobia.”
5.) The perception, often without evidence, that New Atheists were sexists or even sexual assaulters.
6.) The claim that New Atheists ignored social justice because they concentrated too much on addressing, analyzing, and attacking religion. These critics see “progressive social justice” as inextricable from New Atheism, and thus New Atheists were fighting a battle but ignoring a wider war.
In this article, deBoer seems to sign on to reasons 1,2, and 4, though he’s walked back his criticisms a bit: he says that by criticizing New Atheism’s concentration on the need for evidence, people have become susceptible to new forms of woo. That sounds good, though I don’t know if it’s true, and too much of his piece still engages in atheist-bashing.
(Regarding #4, New Atheists often concentrated on Islam because it was in their view (and mine) the most dangerous species of faith in today’s world, as Catholicism was in medieval Europe. I don’t see that as “Islamophobia”, if you conceive of that word as meaning “bigotry against Muslims”. But a “fear of Islam” could also mean “a worry about how that religion is sometimes used to oppress and kill people.)
First, deBoer cites the article below in Vice, which describes the “fake” psychics (they’re all fakes, of course, but there are some who pretend to be other people)—fakers who are now being attacked on social media. (All deBoer’s words are indented).
I’ll say no more about the Vice article as you can read it for yourself. I was more interested—and distressed—by deBoer’s criticisms of New Atheism, which wasn’t really a “movement” but a term invented to describe the rise of unbelief largely prompted by the authors named above. Granted, deBoer has backed off some, but not far enough for me. The bolding is mine:
The first thing I ever wrote that got more than a couple dozen views, the piece that made the rounds in the blogosphere and in so doing kickstarted my writing career, was a piece of the type “I’m an atheist who can’t stand New Atheism.” Pieces in that vein became quite common over the years, but in 2008 it was still novel enough to attract all of that attention. This was an era in which the New Atheists still enjoyed a degree of cultural cachet, before the pomposity and shrill tone of so many in the movement curdled its public reputation, to say nothing of the accusations of Islamophobia. It was a different time. The basic contours of the piece still seem correct to me – atheism is almost certain factually true, and I am an atheist, but I have no interest in browbeating believers. I have no interest in converting believers into atheists, and atheism is not a movement. But not only would I not write that piece today, it’s one of very few pieces that I sometimes genuinely wish I had never published at all. Because the ground changed underneath us to such an extent that, well, millions of functioning adults proudly endorse astrology and other hooey in public.
Note first the attacks on New Atheism, but also his assertion that he wish he wouldn’t have written the piece not because he misunderstood or unfairly attacked New Atheism, but because his attack on the movement may have enabled people’s increased belief in woo. Also note, as I claim below, that deBoer is engaging in a form of virtue signaling here: not addressing the arguments of New Atheists but simply calling them names in a way that would appeal to atheist liberals soft on faith (“faithiests”).
Yes, the last sentence is true, though I’m not sure how much criticism on New Atheism enabled the rise of “hooey”. But I also think that deBoer is unfair by attacking New Atheists, especially the prominent ones, for being “pompous and shrill.” In what way, for example, were Dawkins and Company “pompous and shrill”? Perhaps some of their followers were (actually, some surely were given their numbers). But both of those words could be replaced by “passionate.”
Notice that when New Atheists are accused of stuff like this, no examples are ever given. What is called “shrillness” as a pejorative term strikes me as a nasty word for “writing passionately and strongly,” which doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Were Hitchens or Harris—or any of the five people named above—”shrill”? I don’t think so.
Moreover, I doubt that deBoer would call anyone writing about politics with that same passion as “shrill”. “Shrill and strident” are usually reserved for those who criticize religion, not politics. And these are ad hominem terms, for what was really important about “New Atheism” was its arguments, not the tone of its adherents.
At least, though, deBoer recognizes that what New Atheism—as “antitheism”—was mainly about: demands for empirical evidence for what one believes. It was largely an attack on faith, and on faith that is of the most damaging kind. But deBoer can’t resist saying that some atheists are “annoying,” and again I don’t think he’d say that about politicians with whom he agreed.
He continues and begins to walk back his earlier opinions:
At some point in the 2010s, the backlash to New Atheism became so commonplace, particularly on the political left, that it seemed clear to me that we had communally missed the forest for the trees. That is to say, no matter how annoying some atheists must be, the most important question when it comes to atheism remains (and must remain) whether or not God is real. If God is real, that is the single most important fact in the universe. Issues of comity and messaging take a backseat to the existence of a divine creator, and there’s something strange about being more concerned with how we express our skepticism about such a divine creator than about its actual existence. And while many people who disdain New Atheists will admit to a casual atheism themselves, they’re far less animated and passionate about that atheism than about their hatred of the New Atheists. On a really basic level this seems to be a failure of priority.
He’s correct in the last sentence, but he’s hasn’t retracted his claims about “Islamophobia” or New atheist “browbeating believers” or “converting believers into atheists.” But, after all, if you are arguing logically and rationally against the existence of God, and are arguing with the faithful, what else are you doing but “browbeating believers” (I’d use the term “arguing with believers”; for “browbeating” is a pejorative word). And if you are making empirical arguments against a divine creator, then of course you are also, even if unintentionally, “converting believers into atheists.” Every argument for a moral, political, or ideological stance is an attempt at conversion—to change people’s minds. deBoer spends his time “browbeating Republicans” in a “shrill way”, and trying to convert those with whom he disagrees. How does he differ from New Atheists in these respects.
There are other zingers against New Atheism, too. deBoer, while saying (admirably) that he probably went too far, still goes too far, saying that the demise of New Atheism was “self inflicted”. His inability to stop dissing New Atheism, although he recognizes its central merit—demand for evidence—is seen in his last paragraph (my bolding).
Ultimately, I think we should work to restore attention to the supernatural claims themselves rather than to the social ephemera that surround them. Of course we should want atheists to be circumspect and friendly and to avoid empty provocation. The question is when this concern about manners overwhelms our fixation on the central questions at hand; the fact that Reddit atheists are annoying can’t make God real. And for the record I think there’s a way to live life that avoids a cloying scientism and witless literalism while still not permitting any lazy mysticism to find its way into your day-to-day practices. There’s also a lot of low-hanging fruit when it comes to people believing things for no reason. I’m perfectly happy to say that I think we should restore a little stigma towards entertaining the idea that the date that you’re born (based on a largely arbitrary and human-made calendar system) dictates your mood, your love life, and your professional success. Maybe sometimes a little stigma is the healthiest option available to us.
So yes, here he admits that there’s too much woo, and the analysis of religion by New Atheists can also be extended to psychic phenomena, taro cards, and so on. But what is this “empty provocation” that deBoer speaks of? And the comment about “cloying scientism and witless literalism”—who, exactly, does that refer to? As most of us know, “scientism” is only used pejoratively, to criticize those who you think rely too much on science and evidence. It would have been nice if deBoer gave us some examples of “cloying scientism” from some of the well known New Atheists.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the point of deBoer article is a good one: faith applies not just to religion, but to wooish hooey—to all “supernatural” psychic phenomena. But he devalues this point by his inability to resist getting in some unwarranted licks at New Atheism.
In the end, deBoer is doing with New Atheism precisely what he criticizes with ideology: he is trying to tarnish ideas he agrees with by using pejorative words and ad hominem arguments—all because he doesn’t like the way those arguments are expressed. That is what the Woke do! And he’s appealing to popular ideology by bringing up “Islamophobia”, “scientism”, and “shrillness” in attacks on religion. In other words, I think he’s engaged in signaling his virtue.
deBoer should be remorseful for his own athiest-dissing not just because it enabled the Rise of Hooey (actually, I doubt that it did), but also because it was unfair and misguided.