Apparently there was a Golden Age of New Atheism, wherein New Atheists were a respected ally of the Left, in good standing with the wider community. And then they managed to fail miserably, isolate all their natural allies, and now they’re hated by the Blue Tribe almost as much as the Red Tribe.
I don’t want to be a douchebag or anything, I love Scott Alexander’s work, but apparently I missed this Golden Age.
I first came out as an atheist in 1995, a good 6+ years before New Atheism became a thing. At the time there were no US Senators or Representatives that were openly atheists. The religious controlled all three branches of government, and it was understood that acknowledging one’s atheism would be a career death-sentence. Atheists were the most-despised minority in America, based on a wide variety of social metrics including “Would you consider voting for…” and “Would you allow your daughter to date…” and “Would you accept an X school teacher…” and “Would you have dinner with…”–scoring worse than every other demographic group in every region in the country. The media portrayed atheists primarily as soulless nihilists. Those on the right disliked atheist’s refusal to respect religion. Those on the left disliked atheists drawing attention to the impolite fact that God doesn’t exist, and rolled their eyes at how crass and boorish we were for not realizing we were basically farting in public.
Now there are still no open atheists in any position of power in the Federal government (one has the temerity to be “unaffiliated.” We briefly had an atheist Senator, who came out when he announced he was retiring.) Atheists only last year dropped to second-most-hated demographic, scoring above Muslims! The media portrays atheists primarily as asshole dude-bros. Those on the right dislike atheist’s refusal to respect religion. Those on the left disliked atheists drawing attention to the impolite fact that God doesn’t exist, and roll their eyes at how crass and boorish we were for not realizing we are basically farting in public, and tut about islamophobia.
Even die-hard atheists like Neil deGrass Tyson refuse to use the word “atheist” due to its long history of cultural baggage. The term “agnostic” is, for basically every practical purpose, simply an atheist who doesn’t wish to draw attention to or speak about their atheism. It is the fig-leaf that the Left has extended to non-believers that allows them to exist in polite company.
Things on the ground are better, of course. Young men have an easier time declaring their atheism nowadays–rather than working through whisper networks there is a decently thriving meme culture online where one can take solace, read about atheist thinking, and generally have a peer group. But outside of that enclave, nothing has really changed. As far as I can see, society never accepted atheists in any way. There was a bit of a fad which consisted of the learned and cultured opining on this intellectual scandal. That certainly doesn’t make the New Atheists a group that was ever in the wider Left’s good graces.
There may be other ways in which New Atheism has failed. But by the metric of Scott’s post “alienating a society that agreed with them about everything” it’s a non-question. The New Atheists were never accept. Atheists have never been welcomed, or even tolerated, by the Blue Tribe. There was no society to isolate, nothing to fumble.
The New Atheists did create a space for others to be able to say “Yeah, this is all BS, WTF?” and not feel like they are the only person in the world who sees this. I think there’s more to do, but at least they got that first step down.