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The Strange Online Legacy of New Atheism

The Strange Online Legacy of New Atheism

Pete Whitehead looks at the impact that some strands of New Atheism had on the internet, and how they shaped our discourse today. 16/09/21.

 Like it or not, our online lives are increasingly inseparable from our physical ones. (A quick aside to prove my point: name three people you’ve spent more time with in person over the past month than you have staring at social media.) Think about how we talk about the internet; the colloquialisms that have sprung up around it, and it’s a deeply physical language. The internet morphs us – it ‘rots our minds’, it ‘breaks your brain‘, it gives you ‘brain worms’. [1]  ‘Getting mad online’  probably does more to raise modern heart rates than gyms do.  

 Tech writer and essayist Roisin Kiberd, in The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through The Internet, likens the effect of the internet to horror director David Croenberg’s Videodrome, where ‘people are altered by the media they consume…the screen is so addictive, so hypnotic, that they return to it again and again, until it distorts their thoughts and threatens their humanity’. [2] We are, she argues, like Cronenberg’s creatures; the ‘new flesh’ of screen addicts, shaped by the content we consume. As the internet becomes a place of low context, high anger, and constant stimulation, giving us – as comedian Bo Burnham puts it – ‘a little bit of everything, all of the time’ – explaining how we got here seems almost impossible to chronicle.  

Internet trends have come and gone like waves on a beach; each one leaving its mark, changing the landscape just a little bit. However, some waves are bigger than others, and some internet trends changed the landscape indelibly. One of these is New Atheism, which reached its zenith around the same time as the advent of the first social media platforms.  

Of course, atheism is not exactly a new tradition. But ‘New Atheism’, a term coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf, came around at the same time as profound changes in our online infrastructure. It shaped the internet, was shaped by the internet, and went on to shape some of our modern world. [3] Online atheism is an interesting phenomenon in this regard; it spans a particularly turbulent time in the evolution of the internet, as it morphed from the internet of the late 90s/noughties: blogs, forums, chatrooms – and hundreds of them – to the more closed, regulated space we are in now. Knowing this, it’s possible to identify ways in which New Atheism served as the canary in the coalmine for the elements of internet (and contemporary) culture we are now grappling so profoundly with: the way platforms shape discourse, oppositional politics, and political identification.  

 

 I: Letter to an Atheist Nation  

 First, it’s worth an overview of the terrain. In the noughties, it’s fair to say that atheism was at a high point as a movement. Regardless of what you think about the impact of New Atheism on our culture for better or worse since, the noughties saw the rise of New Atheist figures, public support for atheism, and the publication of The End of Faith, The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation, and god is Not Great, or Why Religion Poisons Everything (The lower case on ‘God’ on certain editions is deliberate, and presumably felt achingly daring.) 

I know, because I read all of them, and spent the majority of my high school debating career more or less doing a schoolboy’s impression of Christopher Hitchens. I was an onlooker to the tail–end of the ‘atheist internet’ – YouTube channels, Reddit’s atheism board r/atheism (which at one point was more popular than topics such as ‘news’ or ‘sex’), and so on. In the present day, many involved with atheism at that time are now renouncing it as having connections to the alt–right. Sam Harris is interviewing Charles Murray, of beloved text for racists The Bell Curve fame, and furious that Vox editor Ezra Klein would challenge him on this decision. Formerly atheist YouTube channels are being identified as alt–right gateways by think–tanks, and I look back on them to see that they’ve taken quite a turn since I was 14 or so.  

 So, how did a movement that once was one of the most popular on the internet morph into something else entirely?  

One of the key events in this shift was undoubtably offline: 2011’s ‘Elevatorgate’ – in short; a woman was sexually harassed in an elevator during a Skeptic conference, and blogged about it, arguing that the community should do better. She then faced haranguing from fellow skeptics and atheists.  

The response to a victim of harassment within the atheist community included Richard Dawkins writing a now–infamous letter entitled ‘Dear Muslima’, which makes the argument that as long as some women had it worse under Islamic theocratic regimes, then Western feminists really ought to shut up. [4] This felt like a dividing line: it reflected the way in which Islam had become the yardstick by which all evil was measured, adding to the sense there was a growing anti–Islam movement–within–a–movement fomenting within New Atheism. (Dawkins wrote ‘Dear Muslima’, Hitchens argued that the US should declare war on Iran, nuclear weapons or not, and Harris argued that Islam was the ‘motherload of bad ideas’, that torture was ethical, and that Muslims should be profiled at airports.) It also highlighted the male–centric nature of the movement – it was, after all, the Four Horsemen. No women ever rose to the prominence of Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, or Dennett.  

But this shift was also shaped by the wider context of the internet. The new powers of connectivity that had allowed New Atheism to flourish and spread had also made it a movement heavily based on the internet. As online life started to change, so did New Atheism. 

 

 II: The Rationality Delusion 

There’s an episode of the sitcom Parks and Recreation where Chris Traeger asks Leslie Knope why the local cult call themselves ‘The Reasonabilists’. Her response: ‘Well, they figure if people criticize them, it’ll seem like they’re attacking something very reasonable.’ 

On YouTube in particular, the New Atheist online movement had seemingly discovered its own original sin – ‘irrationality’. This was the reason people voted Bush, supported Roe v Wade repeal, believed in the second amendment, wanted to abolish the teaching of evolution in schools, discriminated against the LGBT+ community. In short, it was why people did almost anything you didn’t like. It was because you were rational and they were deeply irrational. How could you get anything done when people were so keen to listen to their stupid sky fairy?  

Logical. Rational. Reasonable. These things stopped referring to ways of viewing the world, or systems of analysing data, and instead – in the endless market of the internet – just became another micro–identity. Rationality began to refer to something you are, not something you did.  

Initially, the New Atheism seemed to be borne of progressivism. It’s fair to say that much of early noughties atheism came as a reaction to the Bush–era politics of God and Guns. Bush’s White House was a figure of global opprobrium, and the reaction was not merely located to America. The narrative that emerged, especially amongst the broadly liberal atheist movement, was not one about policy or outcomes as much as it was about intellect – or perceived intellect. It didn’t matter per se what Bush did about Iraq or Katrina or inequality. What mattered was that he was stupid, and Christian, and the people he hired were stupid, and Christian. Meanwhile, the atheist side – in the words of the great twentieth century philosophers Dexy’s Midnight Runners – were far too young and clever. 

However, roughly 75% of the US is religious to some degree, and it’s the same for the population of the EU. Worldwide it’s about 80%. The exact numbers here are far less important than the simple fact that the vast majority of the world is religious. White men in the global West don’t need much to convince them that they are supremely rational, and the emerging ‘Clash of Civilisations’ narrative post–9/11 meant that a movement led by, and predominantly made up of, white men from the global West was likely to have pretty bad views when it came to the rationality of others.  

It’s easy for men, who grow up with the stereotype that we have ‘rational intelligence’ compared to the ‘emotional intelligence’ of women, to crow about how our opinions are based on ‘facts and logic’ while everyone else is irrational. (Indeed, the late Catholic journalist Dawn Foster spoke about this smug affect being something that put her off New Atheism on The Sacred – ‘It was the very masculine and combative element of it… there was no room for empathy in New Atheism’.)  

From here, it’s easier to see how elements of the New Atheist movement would later mesh with the alt–right. There was a top–down element; Phil Torres details in Salon how many of the most prominent figures in the movement would take a rightward shift, in what he describes as a ‘story of intellectual grift and abject surrender’. (The Islamophobia of Harris and Hitchens, and some of Dawkins’ recent social media posts provide further ballast to this argument.) [5] Regardless, if your baseline assumption is that a huge chunk of society is irrational, it’s not hard to see how you start trying to ‘save society from itself’. The pipeline becomes far clearer from this point – if you start with ‘everyone but us is irrational and it’s killing western civilisation’, and you consider both religion and cultural liberalism (‘Social Justice Warriors’) as irrational, it’s just not that far before you get to (as Trumpist political operative Jeff Giesa would put it) ‘Trumpism [is] the only practical and moral path to save Western civilisation from itself’. [6]  

 

 III: Breaking the Spell: Tribes as an Internet Phenomenon 

 Having established ‘irrationality’ as the enemy – wherever it was found – online atheism set about breaking the taboos that irrationality had set up.  

 The author Will Davies argues that New Atheism marked out its first principles as such:  

They were defending evolutionary science and secular values, but as much as anything they were asserting their right to attack the beliefs of others, regardless of how cherished those might be. [7] 

To be an Online Atheist relied on constantly finding a new theist to offend. Put another way: If an atheist shouts ‘there is no God’ in a forest, and no believer is around to hear it, did they even shout it at all?  

This ‘tradition’ led to oppositionalism becoming an identity marker online. Every free speech warrior that has come since has subscribed to the great karmic balancing act of New Atheism – for my speech to be truly free, it must be upsetting someone. Indeed, as Davies puts it, ‘Far from being an obstacle to free speech… “snowflakes” (who are all too willing to take offence) are actually one of its component parts.’ 

As the architecture of the internet shifted, it became easier to find people to offend. The internet is built around a model of advertising that herds us into smaller and smaller encampments, all the better to lob data–driven ads at us. Internet culture, perhaps unsurprisingly, mirrors the base economic reality of the internet. However, with the transition away from internet 1.0, small encampments are starting to be our undoing. Small tribes work on small blogs. Make everyone use the same few platforms, however, and context collapse will suffocate any chance of decent discourse.  

As Marie le Conte points out for IPPR, the internet’s fundamental shift means that ‘everything we post, can, in theory, be seen by more or less anyone’. This is a profoundly unnatural thing. We modulate what we say – and how we say it – almost all the time; even when we’re saying the same thing. For a second, imagine you’re in the pub, with your friends, taking about something political you all agree on, and care about passionately. Think about how you might talk. Now imagine you’re trying to get someone who hasn’t really heard about that issue before to agree with you. Your ‘script’ probably looks a lot different. Context collapse gets rid of this mediation. Want to believe that feminism is solely about the murder of every single living man? Head to tumblr, type in #killallmen, and bingo – thousands of posts, by aggrieved young women, which are aimed at each other, and never meant to be read by you, will reassure you that you were right all along.  

 

IV: online Is Not Great, or Why The Internet Poisons Everything 

 One of the platforms that we’re all herded onto now is YouTube, which has a particularly interesting role to play in our current discourse. To many, YouTube is often characterised as ‘cat videos’, and maybe at its inception years ago that was the case. Now, though, it’s a huge player in entertainment – already the world’s second most–visited site, and the world’s second biggest search engine. [8] People are becoming overnight millionaires from the platform, and ask any teenager who their favourite YouTuber is and you’ll almost certainly get an answer. Only by understanding the history of YouTube can we really understand the platform’s relationship to our contemporary discourse, and what became of the New Atheists. 

In the beginning, YouTube rewarded hits. So, for instance, if your cat does something funny and you get it on tape and 15 million people watch it, your channel does well. However, there’s a problem. I might click on the cat video, watch it, maybe send it to a colleague, and then click back onto my emails. That’s no good for keeping me watching adverts, which is how YouTube makes money.  

 To solve this, they switched the focus of their algorithm. YouTube began to reward watch time. If I put out an hour long video and 10,000 viewers watch it for 45 minutes, I am rewarded more than someone who puts out a 10 second cat video that’s seen 100,000 times. Rob Larson, professor of economics and author of Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley sums it up thus: ‘[Google] Search was designed to move users on to their web destinations quickly, with the goal of the “long click”, where a user does not return to try other results. But with YouTube, Google has a stake in keeping viewers on the platform to view more videos and more ads – prioritizing since 2012 the site’s ‘stickiness’. 

This led to a change in content – for a short time, content about the popular video game Minecraft became almost ubiquitous, because the interactive and free–spirited nature of the game lent itself well to longer videos. This change, however, led to increased monetisation of people who would riff for, let’s say, 30 minutes about a topic. If you could get a large audience to listen to you for a long video, then you would do well. So yes, Minecraft videos became popular. But if you weren’t a gamer, then you could produce discussion content, and this very often meant atheist content.  

These two trends combined. A YouTube phenomenon popped up, with titles like ‘Theist gets DESTROYED by LOGIC’, delivered by science types who ‘debated’ with creationists for views. This formulation – expressed algebraically as ‘[figure X] + [violent verb] + [noun related to intelligence]’  – tended to equal ‘views and ad revenue’. These were red meat to the internet atheist crowd, who revelled in seeing their heroes take apart ‘silly creationists’. We all love to see our opinions validated, and these videos became popular, with an online ecosystem springing up around them on other sites. 

 It’s entirely probable that people really wanted to listen to this stuff. But the platform gave them a nudge. One of the key ways that YouTube promotes ‘stickiness’ is deciding to ‘promote more extreme views in its “Recommended” or “Up Next” algorithm… The Wall Street Journal conducted an extensive investigation of the platform’s algorithm by hiring a former YouTube recommendations engineer to study the site, finding that it reliably promotes clips that draw strong traffic and keeps users clicking on more videos. When it comes to news related subjects, these results tend to be those with more extreme views, especially conspiracy theories from the political right.’ [9] In other words, the more outrageous you could be, the more likely you were to have people funnelled to your channel, given that more than 70% of YouTube traffic is driven by recommendations. [10]

 Indeed, Guillaume Chaslot, another former engineer at YouTube, now runs a site that tracks how YouTube decides how and what we watch. In one report, it found the number one verb to get your video in the ‘recommended’ section – meaning it shows up to users – was “dismantles”. Indeed, ‘Although milder terms such as “educates” and “debunks” also score highly, confrontational words like ”obliterates”, “shreds”, “owns”, “insults” and “destroys” make up a substantial portion of the list.’ [11] Chaslot argues that turbulence and confrontation “makes people more upset on social media, more engaged, spending more time… so the algorithms are going to try and reproduce this division,” he says. “The algorithms are putting oil on the fire.” [12]  

 This initially began to filter through the US right; Ben Shapiro now gets more clicks on his platform – the hard–right Daily Wire – than the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or The Atlantic magazine. [13] Much of his SEO skill comes from cutting his teeth in the world of YouTube – type in ‘Ben Shapiro’ and the recommendation will, almost certainly, point you towards him ‘destroying’ someone: a la Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro–Abortion Arguments, and Shapiro DESTROYS Feminist Who Says Originalist Judges Are Sexist. Now, we have Boris Johnson SCHOOLS Jeremy Corbyn being released by the Conservative Party’s official YouTube channel. [14] The left is not immune to this; only this week, PoliticsJOE (often perceived as a centre–left outlet) released a video entitled ‘Kier Starmer eviscerates Boris Johnson‘. [15] A trend that began with the New Atheist internet movement has been reincarnated by the chthonic power of algorithms – and what began as a misguided view of debate as an inherent good has misenchanted it, and destroyed it in the process.  

 

V: The End of (Good) Faith 

 You’ve probably heard before that we can’t have more than 150 friends, so we’re just neurologically unequipped to handle social media. [16] I don’t know if that’s true or not – but I do know that it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what the internet does anymore.  

 Much is made of the internet’s ability to put you in touch with people who think the same thing, or at least are interested in the same kind of thing as you, via filter bubbles and echo chambers. Far less is made of the negative polarisation the internet enables, which is arguably more psychically damaging (and indeed, more economically rewarding). Now, the internet puts you in touch with everyone you hate, all of the time. You can find the most antithetical view to your own, at any point, and get angry about it. Echo chambers aren’t just bad because you hear the same thing over and over again; they’re bad because they’re full of people furious at the same stuff.  

 If you’re making money from videos in which you ‘destroy’ your irrational opponent with ‘facts and logic’, you will need people to destroy. [17]  The problem was that they had already identified ‘irrationality’ as the root cause of all evil.  And indeed, the same YouTube culture that had thrived previously by debating Christians would go on to take up the cause of fighting ‘political correctness’, on the grounds that it was simply a new, liberal form of irrationality. The macho, combative culture was still there, but with a new enemy – the ‘SJW’, or now ‘the Woke’. It was this adherence to the culture and affect of New Atheism that allowed many of them to ally with traditionalists and reactionaries, on the basis that the enemy of their enemy is their friend.

 The legacy of New Atheism can be seen in the various ‘Is ‘Wokeness’ a religion?’ articles churned out, usually by outlets who have already decided that the answer is ‘Yes, and that’s naturally a bad thing.’  This overwhelmingly white and male movement had decided that anything it didn’t agree with was ‘irrational’ – and so the video titles stayed much the same, only this time replacing ‘Christian’, or ‘Theist’ with ‘Leftist’, or ‘Feminist’.

Indeed, Jordan Peterson identified this strategy when, in an interview, he said that he had “figured out how to monetize social justice warriors.” [18] In another video, he makes a similar claim, saying that his audiences “came for the scandal and stayed for the content.” [19] In other words, people were now actively seeking out content they actively disagreed with. Even if you weren’t looking for it personally, you were heading to content creators that would do it for you. Anger and resentment has driven our politics for some time, but internet culture allowed it to become part of your very identity. 

 Context collapse meant everyone had access to everything. Turning back to Davies, he argues that:  

News doesn’t need to be “fake”, it just needs to be strategically extracted from the vast archive of digital content, and presented to the public as the frightening new norm. The British press are masters of this, establishing a new role for newspapers in tracking down online behaviour that will nourish their readers’ prejudices. [20] 

 YouTube and other platforms meant there were whole audiences devoted to watching people they didn’t like get ‘destroyed’. This, and the embrace of ‘irrationality’ as the new original sin, combined to create a culture where hundreds of young men who’d started watching for anti–creationist content were instead getting recommended hundreds of hours of anti–feminist, anti–‘social justice warrior’, anti–‘snowflake’ content.  

 I disagree with Davies that this is a particularly British phenomenon. Everywhere you turn, legacy media has turned to Twitter to try and stay current in a hyper–fast world, and ‘posts’ are now news. The reasons the press are so good at this is twofold: that form of content is cheap, easy, and gets readership with little outlay. The other is that, like everyone else, the people working there have been shaped by the culture of the internet, which in turn, has been shaped by the New Atheism. The Press, Politics, the Prime Minister – all are merely appendages of the New Flesh that New Atheism helped herald. 

 It’s hard to see how we claw back civility from here. Big Tech (Alphabet, Facebook, and Twitter) have a combined revenue greater than 146 of 213 countries. If, as Andrey Mir suggests, the correct question isn’t ‘how do we get rid of polarisation’ but rather ‘how are we going to live with it?’ then understanding every single part of where it came from will be increasingly crucial. [21]  


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[1] There is little academic literature on this term, but a quick Twitter search will provide all evidence needed for the term’s popularity.

[2] Roisin Kiberd, The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through The Internet, (Viper Books, London), p.2

[3] See The Church of the Non–Believers | WIRED for the first use of the term in print, in 2006 in WIRED Magazine.

[4] See Atheists, Don’t Be That Guy | Adam Lee (patheos.com) for a transcript of ‘Dear Muslima’.

[5] See the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s identification of Sam Harris as a ‘gateway’ figure to the alt–right on their website here: McInnes, Molyneux, and 4chan: Investigating pathways to the alt–right | Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org). In addition, see Dawkins’ tweet here, in which he makes the revolting argument that a woman pregnant with a child diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome should ‘abort it and start again’: https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/502106262088466432?s=20

[6] See Julia Ebner, Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists, (Bloomsbury, London, 2020)

[7] Will Davies, The Free Speech Panic: How The Right Concocted A Crisis, in The Guardian 26th July 2018 The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis | Freedom of speech | The Guardian [accessed 19/8/21]

[8] See Digital 2021 – We Are Social from We Are Social for global use, and Digital 2021 UK – We Are Social UK – Global Socially–Led Creative Agency for UK–specific data.

[9] Rob Larson, Bit Tyrants, (Left Book Club, UK, 2020) pp. 143–144. See Jack Nicas, ‘How YouTube Drives People to the Internet’s Darkest Corners’, Wall Street Journal, Feb 7 2018 for the full investigation.

[10] https://mediastreet.ie/youtube-says-70-watch-time-driven-recommendations/

[11] Why are politicians getting ‘schooled’ and ‘destroyed’? – BBC News

[12] See Why are politicians getting ‘schooled’ and ‘destroyed’? – BBC News and AlgoTransparency

[13] Miles Parks, Outrage As A Business Model: How Ben Shapiro Is Using Facebook To Build An Empire, for NPR, July 19, 2021. Available at How Ben Shapiro Is Using Facebook To Build A Business Empire : NPR [Accessed 12/8/21]

[14] (1) Boris Johnson schools Corbyn over the NHS – YouTube

[15] (1) Keir Starmer eviscerates Boris Johnson over Afghanistan withdrawal – YouTube

[16] This tends to derive from Dunbar’s Number – a number proposed by R.I Dunbar as the limit on group size in primates, where the limiting factor is the size of the neocortex. Various writers have since extrapolated Dunbar’s Number onto social media. See Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates – ScienceDirect for the original study.

[17] The prevalence of one side allegedly having sole access to ‘facts and logic’ is a much–mocked element of noughties internet culture, see The magical thinking of guys who love logic | The Outline

[18] Bari Weiss and Damon Winter, “Opinion | Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” The New York Times, May 8, 2018, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/opinion/intellectual-dark-web.html

[19] The Rubin Report, Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro: Frontline of Free Speech (LIVE), accessed June 27, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRPDGEgaATU.

[20] See Davies, footnote 7.

[21] Andrey Mir, How Both Old and New Media Polarise Society for Profit (or Survival), IPPR Progressive Review 27(4), How both old and new media polarise society for profit (or survival) (wiley.com)

Photo Credit: KeiferPix/Shutterstock.com

Pete Whitehead

Pete Whitehead

Pete joined Theos in February 2021 as Research, Events and Communications Assistant. Previously, he worked for a democratic engagement organisation, focused on engaging young people in politics and connecting them to their elected representatives.

Posted 16 September 2021

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