Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris Are Old News: A Totally Different Atheism Is on the Rise
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It's surprising just how much media analysis, both mainstream and progressive, continues to take as given the notion that atheism can be defined and discussed solely by looking at the so-called "New Atheists" who emerged roughly between 2004 and 2007. It's easy to understand the appeal: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens became prominent representatives of atheism because they were all erudite, entertaining and unafraid to say what they thought. A lot of people, myself included, were drawn to their works because they were forthright and articulated things we had kept locked away, or simply hadn't found the words for.
But in 2014, Hitchens is dead, and using Dawkins or Harris to make a case for or against atheism is about as relevant as writing about how Nirvana and Public Enemy are going to change pop music forever.
More and more, the strongest atheist voices are talking about nonbelief less as an end in itself, but as part of a larger conversation about social justice. It could hardly be any other way: atheism is growing not only in numbers, but in diversity. When Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens were at their most prominent, a frequent (and credible) criticism was that the faces of atheism were all white, male and affluent. To make the same claim now is to deliberately ignore some of the most vital atheist and skeptic voices that have emerged in the last 10 years.
Greta Christina, the author of Coming Out Atheist describes the changes in organized atheism: "[T]he movement has become much more diverse -- not just in the obvious ways of gender, race, and so on, but simply in terms of how many viewpoints are coming to the table. The sheer number of people who are seen in some way as leaders... has gone up significantly.... And the increasing diversity in gender, race, class, and so on are important. We have a long way to go in this regard, but we're doing much, much better than we were. And that's showing up in our leadership. It's absurd to see Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris as representing all organized atheism -- it always was a little absurd, but it's seriously absurd now."
Just as in any other group, there are scores of people in atheist and skeptic communities who don't want to have discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other bigotries, or say they're irrelevant to the agenda at hand. The increase in diversity isn't happening quietly or easily, and it's often brought out the ugliest sides of people who base their entire identities on being rational and humane. Direct challenges to racism and sexism haven't traditionally been the domain of the large organizations like American Atheists or the Secular Coalition for America. It's been far more typical to fight incursions against separation of church and state or educate against pseudoscience like homeopathy.
It's not that these aren't important issues: separation of church and state is one of the linchpins of American democracy. As the Supreme Court's recent decision in Town of Greece vs. Galloway shows, it's also extremely fragile, and there is a very loud and insistent portion of America who would like to see it disappear entirely.
But such a narrow focus also means that atheist and skeptic groups have a history of looking at these issues in isolation, without considering how race, gender, or class play into them. That isolation has been one of the great limiting factors in the growth of movement atheism. Too many activists and groups trapped themselves in rhetorical Möbius strips, where their conferences and literature were dominated either by debunking the same pseudoscience over and over again, or fighting cases of church-state intrusion that were more relevant as abstract principles.