Phil Torres

Can we clean up the mess we've created? A philosopher warns the threat to civilization is here

There is a growing sense, among young people as well as older demographics, that humanity is in deep trouble, and that extracting ourselves from our current predicament is going to take a concerted effort unlike anything our species has attempted in recorded history — if it's possible at all. The IPCC recently issued a "code red for humanity" about climate change, as the UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, adding that "the alarm bells are deafening." Last year was the second warmest on record, and of the warmest 21 years, 20 have occurred since 2000. Right now, there are 416.96 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an increase of about 100 ppm since just 1960. As a point of reference, our Homo ancestors lived and evolved for some 2.5 million years with ambient concentrations averaging about 250 ppm.

Advocates of the so-called "New Optimism," such as Steven Pinker, like to quote Bill Clinton's exhortation to "follow the trend lines, not the headlines." Right now, the headlines are overflowing with almost unbearably bad news, such as the bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has created heartbreaking scenes of human beings desperately clinging to the outside of passenger boarding bridges, and terrifying videos of people falling from airplanes — including a 17-year-old soccer star named Zaki Anwari. Yet this is, as most historically literate people know, the most recent culmination of many decades of failed Western-imperialist interventions in the region, including our misguided involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war, during which the U.S. backed the anti-communist Mujahideen rebels, one of whom was a Salafi jihadist known as Osama bin Laden. In 1988, bin Laden founded al-Qaida (meaning "The Base"), an apocalyptic group that was of course responsible for the catastrophic terrorist attacks of 9/11, which provided the pretext for subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and, later, Iraq (which had nothing to do with 9/11, nor was it manufacturing weapons of mass destruction).

So, what do the trend lines show? The rapid takeover of Afghanistan from the Taliban is fueling worries that al-Qaida could make a comeback, which once again raises the prospect of terrorist attacks against the U.S. Although al-Qaida is weaker than before, it is worth recalling that the core membership of the group in 2002 was only around 170 people. But this time around the inventory of political grievances that drive Islamist terrorism has grown, thanks to the U.S.-led pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, the indefinite detention of "detainees" in Guantánamo Bay, the use of torture as "enhanced interrogation" and so on.

One heard the slogan "never forget" from Americans ad nauseam after 9/11, but the cultural memory of peoples in the Middle East is far more robust than ours. Consider "The Management of Savagery," an influential jihadist manual published in 2004, which foregrounds a number of past foreign policy missteps by the West, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the aftermath of World War I. As the now-deceased "caliph" of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared in 2014, "this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy." If events from the World War I era have prominently driven extremism over the years, imagine how long the atrocities committed by Western forces since 2001 will continue to motivate actions and recruitment in the future. To borrow an insight from Robert Pape at the University of Chicago, terrorism is a demand-driven rather than supply-limited phenomenon.

Add to this the fact that emerging technologies, most notably synthetic biology, cyber-technologies and artificial intelligence, will place unprecedented destructive power in the hands of non-state actors — e.g., terrorists — meaning that the next 9/11 could claim far more victims. In fact, ISIS — which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq and espoused an even more violently apocalyptic ideology — explicitly fantasized about weaponizing the bubonic plague. As an ISIS member who was educated in physics and chemistry wrote in a document obtained by the U.S., "the advantages of biological weapons is the low cost and high rate of casualties."

The growing power and accessibility of so-called "dual-use" technologies (those that can be used to benefit humanity or inflict terrible harms) is one of the main reasons global catastrophic risk scholars believe the threat of civilizational collapse and even human extinction is higher today than ever before. As Lord Martin Rees famously speculated in his 2003 book "Our Final Hour," civilization has no better than a 50/50 chance of surviving this century. Three years earlier, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy, compellingly argued in a much-discussed Wired article that, because of technology,

it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.

The intersection of these historical and technological trend lines — of religio-political terrorism and the democratization of science and technology — do not bode well for the future. Add to this the fact that climate change may have played an integral role in the creation of ISIS (by causing record-breaking droughts in Syria that fueled the Syrian civil war, which spawned the organization), and one wonders whether the mayhem since late 2001 might be a mere preview of what's to come.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the political backdrop of these developments is an unraveling of the fabric of democracy itself. A sizable portion of the Republican Party has backed the "Big Lie" that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, which led to the murderous Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden. As Ray Roseberry, a Trump supporter who recently parked his truck next to the Library of Congress claiming to have a bomb, said during a Facebook livestream: "You have two options here, Joe [Biden]: you shoot me, [and] there's two and a half blocks going with me. You're talking about a revolution, the revolution is on, it's here, it's today."

Republicans are painfully aware that their chances of winning the presidency are slim — the Democrats, for example, have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections — and consequently party leaders are taking flagrantly authoritarian steps to enable state legislatures to overturn the will of the people in 2024. Election law expert and University of California professor Richard Hasen recently described this as extremely alarming, stating on CNN's "New Day": "I never expected to say I'd be scared shitless on CNN, but that's how I feel."

What do these trend lines indicate? Internationally, the world has slid into a "democratic recession," with more than half of countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index of 2018 having seen their scores decline. According to Hoover Institution political scientist Larry Diamond, who coined the term, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the trend. Within the U.S., anti-democratic sentiment appears to be nearly unstoppable, as most of the Republican Party has hitched its political future to the former occupant of the Oval Office. Populism remains a defining feature of the political landscape, and the political right has wholeheartedly embraced what might best be described as a zeitgeist of radical anti-intellectualism. A case in point is the increasingly raucous outbursts, some caught on video, over basic public health measures like wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has been doused with fuel by right-wing pundits spouting conspiracy theories and anti-science rhetoric like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Phil Valentine, the last of whom recently died of the disease.

One also finds this zeitgeist behind the moral panic surrounding "woke" culture and, more specifically, critical race theory (CRT), which few people know the first thing about. The conservative commentator Mark Levin, for example, has repeatedly argued on camera and in his best-selling book "American Marxism" that this originated from the "Franklin School," (he means "Frankfurt School") based in Berlin (it was based in, well, Frankfurt). Does anyone care about such inaccuracies? No, because the political right has successfully established an epistemological regime, so to speak, in which experts, scientists, scholars and anyone else with genuine knowledge cannot be trusted. Our universities are infected by "postmodern neo-Marxism" (an oxymoron), Dr. Anthony Fauci is an "enemy to our nation," and members of the so-called "mainstream media" are, in Trump's words, "dopes," "scum" and "animals."

Reinforcing such dangerous delusions are social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that enable "fake news" and "alternative facts" to propagate like the common cold, infecting the minds of informationally illiterate consumers — mostly older people sympathetic with right-wing views. As the computer scientist Jaron Lanier opines in "The Social Dilemma," social media has become one of the most pressing existential threats to democracy today. "If we go down the status quo for, let's say, another 20 years," he says, "we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance."

Unfortunately, this situation is likely to get worse in the coming years due to AI-enabled phenomena like "deepfakes." Imagine the difficulty of discerning truth from lies when a society, already in disarray from a broken educational system, is bombarded with high-resolutions, hyper-realistic deepfake audio-visual recordings designed to sow further chaos, distrust and enmity between rival factions. Who will any of us trust when our senses themselves become unreliable sources of information? Already, Trump has convinced his followers not to trust their eyes and ears: "What you're seeing and what you're reading," he said in 2018, "is not what's happening." But what happens when this becomes reasonable advice for all of us?

I am reminded here of Carl Sagan's prescient warning during a 1996 interview about the importance of understanding the nature of science and our rapidly evolving technological milieu:

We've arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces.

This is precisely what's happening today. It is, I would argue, one of the most important trend lines to watch, as it binds together everything mentioned above: the future of terrorism (at home and abroad), rise of anti-intellectualism, decline of democracy, rejection of public health advice, spread of conspiracy theories, proliferation of fake news and denial of anthropogenic environmental crises that now threaten the very livability of Spaceship Earth. How can we possibly reverse these trends? How can we hope to navigate the obstacle course of unprecedented hazards before us while the vessel of civilization is heading in the wrong direction? What if we are clever enough as a species to make a sprawling planetary mess of things but not clever enough to tidy things up — which is, in broad strokes, what astrobiologists call the "Doomsday Hypothesis," which states that advanced civilizations like ours self-destruct before colonizing space or becoming intergalactically communicable?

Some have in fact argued, plausibly, that "social media is making us dumber." Worse, studies suggest that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the ambient air will literally impair cognitive functioning, meaning that, as Daniel Grossman writes in a Yale Climate Connections article, "the fuel we burn might not only warm the planet but could also make us a bit dumber." And this is on top of an estimated 41 million IQ points that "Americans have collectively forfeited … as a result of exposure to lead, mercury, and organophosphate pesticides," according to calculations from the Harvard neurologist David Bellinger. (I am highly skeptical of IQ as a meaningful measure of intelligence, but the point stands: Neurotoxins like lead cause permanent brain damage.)

All of this is to say that at precisely the moment when humanity must confront problems of unprecedented complexity — at precisely the moment when the stakes, our survival, have never been higher — we find ourselves less capable than ever. To paraphrase Christopher Williams in his book "Terminus Brain," the human brain is the only organ in our bodies that is actively trying to destroy itself. This is unsettling on its own terms, but the fact is that, as already alluded to, "we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity," as the late Stephen Hawking wrote in 2016. According to a 2012 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, "humanity must now produce more food in the next four decades than we have in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined," while already upwards of 811 million people are undernourished, resulting in "the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN," to quote UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien. "We stand at a critical point in history."

Yet not only is the global population expected to grow to 11.2 billion by the century's end (as a point of reference, the population was about 2 billion in 1930), but climate change, soil degradation, ocean acidification, overfishing, habitat destruction, ecosystem fragmentation, pollution and other anthropogenic perturbations threaten to destroy large portions of the biosphere upon which we depend for our survival. Consider, for example, a 2006 study that estimated there would be no more wild-caught seafood by 2048, which could have devastating effects given that "fish now accounts for almost 17 percent of the global population's intake of protein." Meanwhile, a recent count from the marine biologist Robert Diaz and colleagues found more than 500 "dead zones" around the world, meaning hypoxic regions in which nearly all aquatic life is impossible.

Making matters worse, about 26 percent of the CO2 released into the atmosphere ends up being absorbed by the oceans, which then produces carbonic acid. Today, this process is occurring at an incredibly rapid rate — about four times as fast as the oceans acidified during the worst mass extinction event in life's 3.8-billion-year history, called the "Great Dying" or "End-Permian Extinction," during which roughly 81 percent of marine species perished. The situation is so dire that the shells of "tiny marine snails that live along North America's western coast" are actually dissolving, resulting in "pitted textures" that give the shells a "cauliflower" or "sandpaper" appearance.

On land, the 2020 Living Planet Report, published by the WWF, finds that the global population of wild vertebrates has fallen by a mind-boggling 68 percent since 1970. Other studies have affirmed that, as a result of global biodiversity loss, we are entering the sixth major mass extinction in biological history, and that continued degradation risks initiating a catastrophic, irreversible collapse of the global ecosystem.

"Comparison of the present extent of planetary change," the authors write, "with that characterizing past global-scale state shifts, and the enormous global forcings we continue to exert, suggests that another global-scale state shift is highly plausible within decades to centuries, if it has not already been initiated." A more recent paper co-authored by some of the most prominent scientists in the world warns that "self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a 'Hothouse Earth' pathway even as human emissions are reduced." A "Hothouse Earth" scenario would, they add, likely "be uncontrollable and dangerous to many … and it poses severe risks for health, economies, political stability (especially for the most climate vulnerable), and ultimately, the habitability of the planet for humans."

Averting the worst-case outcomes will require a concerted global effort, a degree of geopolitical coordination and adoption of science-based policies never before seen in human history. Yet, as mentioned, many of the most important trend lines are pointing in exactly the wrong direction. Many people on the political right, for example, are no less worried than Greta Thunberg and her activist peers about societal collapse, although the spotlight of their attention is focused entirely on the illusory threats of "postmodern neo-Marxism," "wokeness" and CRT rather than the genuine risks associated with climate change, biodiversity loss, emerging technologies, future infectious disease outbreaks and so on. So far, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has not been encouraging: Even 1.5 years into this global disaster, "a whopping 29 percent of Republicans" refuse to get vaccinated. I have little doubt that even once the deleterious effects of climate change are ubiquitous in the U.S. — and we're quickly getting there — many will persist in denialism, as a strategy for alleviating their cognitive dissonance.

Alternatively, given the prevalence of evangelical dispensationalism in the U.S. — a view that, as the philosopher Jerry Wells observes, "inclines its adherents not only to despair of changing the world for good, but even to take a certain grim satisfaction in the face of wars and natural disasters" — ecological catastrophes could actually reinforce the expectation of an imminent apocalypse, thereby encouraging further inaction on curbing the environmental crisis. In other words, the environmental crisis could strengthen religious belief, which could in turn exacerbate the problem. Although Christianity is waning in the U.S., it is growing globally, with PEW projecting another 750 million Christians in total by 2050. (Meanwhile, the percentage of religiously "unaffiliated" people will shrink from 16.4 to 13.2 percent over the same time period.)

So, the trend lines are, in the most crucial respects, no less dismal than the headlines, contra New Optimists like Pinker — whose scholarship on "existential threats" is, as I have shown, seriously flawed. There is every reason to be pessimistic, not for mindless ideological reasons but because the balance of evidence suggests that humanity has dug itself into a hole from which escape looks increasingly impossible. In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, slightly more than a year before the Cuban missile crisis — later described by Arthur Schlesinger as "the most dangerous moment in human history" — President John F. Kennedy gave an address before the UN General Assembly in which he declared that

today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.

We still live under this nuclear sword, which is one reason the iconic Doomsday Clock lingers ominously at a mere 100 seconds before midnight, or doom. But the nuclear sword has been joined by the swords of climate change, biodiversity loss and dangerous new technologies, while deepfakes, social media, environmentally mediated cognitive decline, anti-intellectualism, the democratic recession and foreign policy blunders threaten humanity with "death by a million cuts," as it were. I have no idea how this ends — perhaps the Doomsday Hypothesis really does explain the eerie silence of our galactic neighborhood — but now is the time to do everything we can, together and as individuals, to steer the ship of humanity in the direction of safety. Time is of the essence, and the stakes are no less than our survival as a species.

Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right

It was inspiring — really inspiring. I remember watching clip after clip of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens debating Christians, Muslims and "purveyors of woo," exposing the fatuity of their faith-based beliefs in superstitious nonsense unsupported by empirical evidence, often delivered to self-proclaimed prophets by supernatural beings via the epistemically suspicious channel of private revelation. Not that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens were saying anything particularly novel — the inconsistencies and contradictions of religious dogma are apparent even to small children. Why did God have to sacrifice his son for our sins? Does Satan have free will? And how can the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be completely separate entities but also one and the same?

The "New Atheist" movement, which emerged from the bestselling books of the aforementioned authors, was the intellectual community that many of us 15 or so years ago were desperately looking for — especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which seemed to confirm Samuel P. Huntington's infamous "clash of civilizations" thesis. As Harris once put it, with many of us naively agreeing, "We are at war with Islam." (Note: This was a dangerous and xenophobic lie that helped get Donald Trump elected. As Harris said in 2006, anticipating how his brand of Islamophobia would enable Trump's rise, "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.")

New Atheism appeared to offer moral clarity, it emphasized intellectual honesty and it embraced scientific truths about the nature and workings of reality. It gave me immense hope to know that in a world overflowing with irrationality, there were clear-thinking individuals with sizable public platforms willing to stand up for what's right and true — to stand up for sanity in the face of stupidity.

Fast-forward to the present: What a grift that was! Many of the most prominent New Atheists turned out to be nothing more than self-aggrandizing, dogmatic, irascible, censorious, morally compromised people who, at every opportunity, have propped up the powerful over the powerless, the privileged over the marginalized. This may sound hyperbolic, but it's not when, well, you look at the evidence. So I thought it might be illuminating to take a look at where some of the heavy hitters in the atheist and "skeptic" communities are today. What do their legacies look like? In what direction have they taken their cultural quest to secularize the world?

Let's see if you can spot a pattern:

Sam Harris: Arguably the progenitor of New Atheism, Harris was for me one of the more entertaining atheists. More recently, though, he has expended a prodigious amount of time and energy vigorously defending the scientific racism of Charles Murray. He believes that IQ is a good measure of intelligence. He argued to Josh Zepps during a podcast interview not only that black people are less intelligent than white people, but that this is because of genetic evolution. He has consistently given white nationalists a pass while arguing that Black Lives Matter is overly contentious, and has stubbornly advocated profiling "Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim," at airports. (When Harris believes he's right about something, it becomes virtually impossible to talk him out of it, no matter how many good arguments, expert opinions or hard data are presented to him. Like Donald Trump, he's pretty much unteachable.) Harris has also partly blamed the election loss of Hilary Clinton on "safe spaces, trigger warnings, [and] new gender pronouns," released a private email exchange with Ezra Klein without Klein's permission, and once suggested that New Atheism is male-dominated because it lacks an "extra estrogen vibe."

His primary focus these days is boosting the moral panic over "social justice warriors" (SJWs), "political correctness" and "wokeism," which he apparently believes pose a dire threat to "Western civilization" (a word that has a lot of meaning for white nationalists). Consequently, Harris has become popular among right-wingers, and the sentiment of solidarity appears to be mutual. For example, he's described Ben Shapiro as being "committed to the … rules of intellectual honesty and to the same principles of charity with regard to other people's positions," which is odd given that Shapiro is a pathological liar who routinely misconstrues his opponents in service of a racist, misogynistic, climate-denying agenda.

Michael Shermer: The founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, which once published a favorable review of Milo Yiannopoulos' book "Dangerous" and a defense of child-rapist Jerry Sandusky, Shermer made a name for himself as a "skeptic." However, his legacy has been overshadowed by, among other things, a protracted history of sexual harassment and assault allegations, with James Randi once calling him "a bad boy" whom numerous people at atheism conferences had complained about. In 2014, he was accused of rape, which he later flippantly joked about on Twitter. Since then, he has dedicated an impressive amount of time belittling "SJWs" and "the woke," often hurling ad hominem attacks and middle-school insults towards those with whom he disagrees. For example, Shermer has referred to "SJWs" as "mealy-mouthed, whiney, sniveling, and obsequious," and "a bunch of weak-kneed namby-pamby bedwetters." He once tweeted, in Trumpian fashion: "Know this Regressive Lefters/SJWs — you will lose. Those of us who believe in truth & justice will prevail. Yours is a failed ideology. Losers." After I wrote a critique of Steven Pinker's recent book "Enlightenment Now!", which contains many serious errors, Shermer took to Twitter to call me a "cockroach." None of this should be that surprising, since he describes himself as an anti-woke, anti-reparations libertarian who thinks Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is "a remarkable book."

But be careful: Shermer has also acknowledged, in writing, that he's fantasized about murdering people. "Or, if not actually killing the particular bastard," he reports, "at the very least I imagine dislocating his jaw with a crushing roundhouse knuckle sandwich that sent him reeling to the pavement." This comes from his book "The Moral Arc," which received an extended, glowing blurb from Steven Pinker.

Lawrence Krauss: A world-renowned cosmologist who authored "A Universe From Nothing" and ran the Origins Project formerly at Arizona State University, Krauss was among the most academically accomplished of the New Atheists. In 2018, though, he was dismissed from his job as director of the Origins Project after an investigation found that he had violated the sexual harassment policy of the university "by groping a woman's breast while on an ASU-funded trip in late 2016." He has also repeatedly and vigorously defended his onetime friend Jeffrey Epstein, the child sex trafficker, who "donated $250,000 to the Origins Project over a seven-year span." According to a 2011 Daily Beast article, Krauss claimed, "I don't feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it," adding that he didn't believe the "beautiful women and young women" surrounding Epstein were underage. (Plenty of other people have said it was impossible not to realize that, and Krauss himself has acknowledged that Epstein favored "women ages 19 to 23," which surely should have been a red flag.) After a 2018 BuzzFeed article detailing some of the sexual harassment allegations against Krauss was published, a flood of further accusations emerged online, some of which I catalogued here.

Richard Dawkins: Once a heavyweight within the world of evolutionary biology, Dawkins energized atheists the world over with his book "The God Delusion." Over time, though, it became increasingly clear that he's neither an adult-in-the-room nor a particularly nice guy. For some bizarre reason, he obsessively targeted a Muslim teenager in Texas, who was arrested after a homemade clock he brought to school was wrongly thought to be a bomb. He also flipped out over what came to be called "Elevatorgate," which began with Rebecca Watson calmly asking men to be thoughtful and considerate about how they make women feel at conferences — for example, in the enclosed space of an elevator. This resulted in a flood of rape and death threats directed toward Watson, while Dawkins mocked the situation by writing a shocking letter addressed "Dear Muslima," in which the first line was "Stop whining, will you." More recently, he's made it clear that he isn't bothered by the allegations against Krauss, and posted seemingly anti-trans comments on Twitter. When asked why Twitter has caused him so much trouble, he claimed: "I love truth too much." (For Dawkins' troubling views on aborting fetuses with Down Syndrome, see this.)

James Lindsay: Once a promising young atheist, Lindsay published "Everybody Is Wrong About God" in 2015 and, three years later, "How to Have Impossible Conversations," co-authored with Peter Boghossian (below). Referring to himself as "apolitical" but boasting a profile page on the right-wing, anti-free-speech organization Turning Point USA, he is now one of the most unhinged crusaders against "critical race theory" (CRT), an idea about which he seems to have very little actual knowledge. (This is unsurprising, given that Lindsay has literally argued that he doesn't need to understand "gender studies" to call for the entire field to be canceled. See #10 here.) Over the past few years, he has teamed up with Christian nationalist and COVID conspiracist Michael O'Fallon, and now rakes in plenty of cash via Patreon — proof that grifting about "free speech" and "CRT" pays. Known for his social media presence, Lindsay has called women he disagrees with "bitches," while — seriously — hurling "your mom" insults at intellectual opponents who point out his mendacities. He recently argued that antisemitism is caused by woke Jews (i.e., they're doing it to themselves), spread COVID conspiracy theories, and claimed in 2020 that people should vote for Donald Trump (as he did) because Joe Biden is a neo-Marxist, or will succumb to the influence of scary neo-Marxists like Black Lives Matter.

Last year, Lindsay co-authored the commercially successful book "Cynical Theories," which received a glowing endorsement from Steven Pinker but repeatedly misrepresents the ideas of those it hysterically, and incorrectly, claims are tearing down "Western civilization." And let's not get into his wildly delusional conspiracy theories about the "Great Reset," which apparently, as someone Lindsay retweeted put it, "aims to introduce a new global planetary diet"! If you want to understand Lindsay's worldview, I suggest reading Jason Stanley's excellent book "How Fascism Works," which captures the anti-intellectual, anti-academic, anti-social justice spirit of Lindsay's activism perfectly.

Peter Boghossian: A "philosopher" at Portland State University and "longtime collaborator of Stefan Molyneux" (a white supremacist demagogue who once declared, "I don't view humanity as a single species …"), Boghossian wrote "A Manual for Creating Atheists" in 2013. A year later, he tweeted: "I've never understood how someone could be proud of being gay. How can one be proud of something one didn't work for?" This was followed by a defense of Nazis (no one outside Hitler's Germany should ever be called a "Nazi"), and a stern rejection of the historically accurate claim that "slavery … was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people. It was an … American institution, created by and for the benefit of the elites."

In 2017, Boghossian and Lindsay attempted to "hoax" gender studies by publishing a fake article in a peer-reviewed gender studies journal (note: the journal had nothing to do with gender studies). But it turned out this was based on a demonstrable lie, which they of course never admitted. Their paper ultimately ended up in a pay-to-publish journal. That was followed by an even more elaborate and even more bad-faith "hoax," which resulted in a response from Portland State University professors alleging that "basic spite and a perverse interest in public humiliation seem to have overridden any actual scholarly goals." Indeed, Boghossian and his crew failed to get institutional review board approval for this experiment, resulting in serious accusations of unethical actions. "I believe the results of this office's view of your research behavior," wrote the vice president for "research and graduate studies" at Boghossian's university, "raises concerns regarding a lack of academic integrity, questionable ethical behavior, and employee breach of rules." On May 6 of this year, Boghossian — a vocal critic of "cancel culture" — called for "the defunding of Portland State University," which he incorrectly described as promoting "illiberal ideologies." (See here for more.)

David Silverman: Silverman made a name for himself as a "firebrand" atheist, even appearing on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show several times to take on "Papa Bear" himself. But "explosive … allegations of sexual assault and undisclosed conflicts of interest" got Silverman fired from American Atheists, where he was president. In the years since, he has given voice to a stream of grievances about feminism, social justice and the like, referring to social justice as "a cancerous social movement" that "has to be undone," adding: "I have a lot of regrets for being in your whiney culty immitation [sic] of feminism." The same day, he spoke with Sargon of Akkad (aka Carl Benjamin, a member of Britain's far-right party UKIP) about "Feminist Tyranny." (More here, here and here.)

Steven Pinker: To many of us early on, Pinker seemed to genuinely care about maintaining his intellectual integrity. But, once again, high expectations only meant a harder crash. Consider that Pinker has claimed that rape is often "over-reported." To support this, he cites right-wingers like Christina Hoff Sommers and Heather MacDonald as primary sources. Over the past few years, he has become unhealthily fixated on "political correctness," social justice and "wokeness," and participated in the 2017 "Unsafe Space Tour" of college campuses, organized by the right-libertarian magazine Spiked. It also came out, much to Pinker's chagrin, that he'd assisted the legal defense of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, even appearing in photographs with Epstein taken after the latter was convicted of sex crimes in 2008. Here's a picture of Pinker with Dawkins (and fellow New Atheist Daniel Dennett) flying to a TED Conference with Epstein. Pinker's response? It's hard to make this up: despite being a vociferous "opponent" of censorship — bad ideas must be exposed to the light! Free speech must never be hindered! — Pinker blocked half of Twitter to stop people from mentioning his past links to this rapist and pedophile. Of course this backfired, drawing even more attention to the issue, a phenomenon that I call the "Pinker-Epstein Effect" (which is nearly identical to the Streisand Effect but specific to, well, Pinker and Epstein). Although Pinker was never as prominently connected to "New Atheism" as the others, his influence within the movement, partly because of his advocacy for secularism, is undeniable. (See here for more.)

This is hardly an exhaustive list. But it's enough to make clear the epistemic and moral turpitude of this crowd. There is nothing ad hominem in saying this, by the way: The point is simply that the company one keeps matters. What's sad is that the New Atheist movement could have made a difference — a positive difference — in the world. Instead, it gradually merged with factions of the alt-right to become what former New York Times contributing editor Bari Weiss calls the "Intellectual Dark Web" (IDW), a motley crew of pseudo-intellectuals whose luminaries include Jordan Peterson, Eric and Bret Weinstein, Douglas Murray, Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro, in addition to those mentioned above.

At the heart of this merger was the creation of a new religious movement of sorts centered around the felt loss of power among white men due to the empowerment of other people. When it was once acceptable, according to cultural norms, for men to sexually harass women with impunity, or make harmful racist and sexist comments without worrying about losing a speaking opportunity, being held accountable can feel like an injustice, even though the exact opposite is the case. Pinker, Shermer and some of the others like to preach about "moral progress," but in fighting social justice under the misleading banner of "free speech," they not only embolden fascists but impede further moral progress for the marginalized.

Another way to understand the situation goes like this: Some of these people acted badly in the past. Others don't want to worry about accusations of acting badly in the future. Still others are able to behave themselves but worry that their friends could get in trouble for past or future bad behavior. Consequently, the most immediate, pressing threat to their "well-being" has shifted from scary Muslim immigrants, evangelical Christians and violent terrorists to 19-year-old kids on college campuses and BLM activists motivated by "wokeness." This is why Lindsay has teamed up with a Christian nationalist and why Boghossian talks about the "Great Realignment" in which anti-woke alarmists, like him, end up joining hands with "conservative Christians" in "Culture War 2.0."

What ties these people together is an aggrieved sense of perpetual victimhood. Christians, of course, believe that they are relentlessly persecuted (note: they aren't). The IDWs similarly believe that they are the poor helpless victims of "CRT," "standpoint theory" and other bogeymen of woke academia. But really, if "Grievance Studies" studies anything, it should be how this group of extremely privileged white men came to believe that they are the real casualties of systemic oppression.

An excellent example of this delusion comes from an inadvertently hilarious interview with Boghossian for the Epoch Times, a media company associated with the Falun Gong movement that is "fueling the far-right in Europe" and has spread COVID conspiracy theories. In it, Boghossian warns that "woke ideology" has produced "a recipe for cultural suicide." This has led him — the co-author of "How to Have Impossible Conversations" — to spout extremist rhetoric like this:

I'm done playing. … I am waging full-scale ideological warfare against the enemies of Western Civilization. … We must broker absolutely zero tolerance with this ideology, and the only way forward at this point is full-scale ideological war, and I will take no prisoners, … . I seek the complete eradication and extirpation of the ideology from every facet of life.

That's scary, intolerant and even fascistic. And it's exactly where the New Atheism movement has ended up, to the exasperation of those who still care about secularism.

To conclude, let me bring things full circle: At least some studies have shown that, to quote Phil Zuckerman, secular people are "markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian" than religious people. It's a real shame that New Atheism, now swallowed up by the IDW and the far right, turned out to be just as prejudiced, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, closed-minded and authoritarian as many of the religious groups they initially deplored.

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