A program of the Center for Inquiry
The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement, by Stephen LeDrew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0190225179) 280 pp. Hardcover, $27.95.
In the beginning—well, in 1971—Colin Campbell, a young British academic, published a slender volume titled Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. “No tradition for the sociological study of irreligion as yet exists,” Campbell declared in its introduction. “[T]his book has been written in the hope that it will help to stimulate the development of just such a tradition.” It was the opening shot in a war that declined to break out. Thirty-five years later, independent scholar Frank Pasquale could still publish an article decrying the social sciences’ neglect of unbelief. Yet Campbell had lit a fuse that never completely died. It was not long after Pasquale’s article saw print that social scientists belatedly embraced unbelief as a vital area of study.2
Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism represents the next step, an attempt at a sociological analysis of the U.S. atheist/humanist/freethought movement—in hardcover from Oxford University Press, no less. It is meant to be seen as an Important Book. Heady stuff for another young academic; LeDrew, a Canadian, is a postdoctoral fellow at Sweden’s Uppsala University. The book is expanded from his York University (Toronto) doctoral dissertation.
Organized unbelief in the United States has been greatly altered by the New Atheism and the simultaneous, if unrelated, growth of the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation (the Nones). LeDrew strives to place these and related phenomena into cultural and political perspective.
Make no mistake, there is analytic richness here. LeDrew is insightful when he charts the rise and gradual decay of the New Atheism. He is thought-provoking when he proposes that three principal currents stir the movement today: an atheism oriented toward extending the influence of scientific authority; a generic humanism inclined toward left-liberal concepts of social justice; and an individualist-libertarian rationalism. He is one of the first writers to reflect deeply on the strange-bedfellows phenomenon of atheists and neoconservatives taking similarly harsh stances toward radical Islam after September 11, 2001. (Imagine any other subject on which Bill Maher and Ann Coulter might make common cause.) LeDrew makes sense when he describes the New Atheism as resisting “a confluence of challenges to an already established cultural authority [that of science and Enlightenment modernism] . . . it actually defends a social order that it identifies with—liberal capitalism, a social system friendly to scientific and cultural innovation.”
Yet The Evolution of Atheism is marred by significant historical, analytic, and conceptual errors, to say nothing of a ponderous postmodern style all too familiar in the social sciences today. Try this turgid passage on for size: “The analysis in this book offers a picture of a movement confounded in its attempts to define itself by a complex and sometimes self-contradictory set of discourses, and of groups of people united only by their lack of faith struggling to maintain cohesion in the face of deep divisions in their politics.”
As for the errors, they permeate LeDrew’s book. They include an incorrect definition of atheism, a contradictory view of the New Atheism, a disturbing lack of historical understanding, and an underlying hubris that encourages the author to jump to conclusions instead of admitting when he lacks information.
Very early in the book, LeDrew commits a crucial mistake, adopting the popular lay misdefinition of atheism as the active rejection of belief in a god. “Unlike agnostics, true atheists assert that God does not exist,” he proclaims (emphasis in original). Specialists in the field (in rough chronological order, Antony Flew, George H. Smith, Gordon Stein, Michael Martin, Bill Cooke, me, and Austin Cline, among others) prefer the view that atheism is at minimum the absence of belief in gods, following the word’s Greek roots (a-theos, “without God”). While some atheists do deny God’s existence and a distinction is often drawn between “strong atheists” who do so and “weak atheists” who merely lack belief, the mere absence of belief is sufficient to secure one’s membership in the atheist club. LeDrew’s mistake is doubly damaging because he will (appropriately) invest so heavily in treating the New Atheism as important and Richard Dawkins as a dominant figure in the New Atheism.
Yet readers of Dawkins’s The God Delusion will recall how carefully Dawkins described a continuum of atheism with active denial of a god’s existence at one end point—then positioned himself one pip short of that extreme. Dawkins’s atheism, then, is probabilistic—an absence of belief reflecting the absence of evidence but not a categorical denial. LeDrew concurs: “The God Delusion is primarily a sustained argument that [quoting Dawkins, emphasis added] ‘God almost certainly does not exist.’ . . .” LeDrew seems not to recognize how utterly he has unhorsed himself. If atheism truly requires the explicit denial of God’s existence as he insists, then, um, Richard Dawkins is not an atheist. I offer LeDrew this hint, one writer to another: If your definition of atheism has the unintended consequence of excluding Richard Dawkins, then your definition needs more work.
How “new” is—or was—the New Atheism? Most of the time, LeDrew views the New Atheism as nearly earthshaking in its novelty. The analysis below is typical:
We can view this development [the New Atheism] as a product of—and reaction to—three major events or trends: (1) the rise of young-Earth creationism and intelligent design among anti-evolution Christians in the United States, (2) 9/11 and its cultural aftershocks, and (3) the influence of relativism in two forms falling under the umbrella of “postmodernism,” which the New Atheists understand as a combination of epistemic relativism and cultural pluralism, manifest in policies of multiculturalism in liberal democracies. These factors refer us to reactions to two very different kinds of ongoing threats: one “premodern” (in the case of creationism and 9/11, which the New Atheists understand as natural consequences of the persistence of premodern forms of religious fundamentalism) and one “postmodern” (in the case of epistemic and cultural relativism, which the New Atheists consider responsible for a misguided effort toward tolerance that takes the form of multiculturalism).
Recall that the New Atheism began with Sam Harris’s publication of The End of Faith in 2004. Are we truly expected to accept that no one in organized unbelief had noted or responded to, say, postmodernism, relativism, or multiculturalism prior to 2004—that only the New Atheism alerted sleepy unbelievers to these trends in the larger culture that they had hitherto failed to notice? How is it, then, that scholar Alan Sokal perpetrated his brilliant hoax, publishing a spoof monograph filled with postmodern-sounding gobbledygook in the trendy journal Social Text —an achievement LeDrew denigrates as “infamous,” for whatever that’s worth—in 1996? If someone objects that Sokal was not strongly identified with the atheist-humanist-freethought movement, we can ask instead how Free Inquiry devoted a cover feature to Sokal’s hoax and its implications in its Fall 1998 issue, two years later but nonetheless six years before The End of Faith. I could furnish additional counterexamples were this review not already of epic length. Suffice it to say that LeDrew spends most of his book treating the New Atheism as an unprecedented injector of hitherto-unimagined concepts into the movement.
Except when he doesn’t.
“Indeed, the New Atheism is ‘new’ only to the extent that it is current,” LeDrew writes, “while the ideology is no different from the scientific atheism that arose from a fusion of Enlightenment rationalism and Victorian Darwinism in the nineteenth century.” That insight comes early, on page four. Eighty-six pages later, he reiterates: “The belief system the New Atheism promotes is different from nineteenth-century scientific atheism only in the greater sophistication brought to evolutionism by the nascent disciplines of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.” In other words, there’s actually not much new about the New Atheism. I have argued no less in these pages.3 But LeDrew had been maintaining the opposite. In the end, his position on the degree to which the New Atheism was intellectually seminal is, at best, inconsistent.
Throughout the work, LeDrew displays a patchy knowledge of movement history. The developments he chooses to narrate are drawn mainly from 2001 and later. Then along comes a short, seemingly discursive segment in which LeDrew summarizes the 1962 and 1963 U.S. Supreme Court school-prayer and Bible-reading cases, and mentions the founding of American Atheists (AA) by the mother of the victorious plaintiff, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. This is actually the moment at which an American freethought movement nearly moribund since the 1920s began to relaunch itself, more than four decades before the New Atheism. But LeDrew gives it short shrift. To him, the rise of AA is meaningful only as “a shift toward identity politics.” This brief section seems not of a piece with the rest of the book.
Indeed, LeDrew’s whole treatment of identity politics seems oblique to the larger thrust of his thinking: “The old interests in socialism and the conditions of the working class that featured prominently in the early years of the secular movement are virtually invisible today, as a group of highly educated people with a degree of economic security have turned their attention to identity politics.” On a trivial level, this is true enough: for example, the number of movement organizations administered by decently paid professional managers has never been higher. But how does that bear on LeDrew’s thesis? Is it his view that the New Atheism represents a turn toward scientific triumphalism, eclipsing the previous identity politics exemplified by, say, Madalyn Murray O’Hair? Does he intend to argue that a new identity politics, perhaps of the sort embodied in David Silverman’s Fighting God, is only now overcoming the New Atheism? (Or perhaps he thinks the New Atheism displaced one sort of identity politics and is now being displaced in its turn by another.) LeDrew’s identity-politics discourse coexists so uncomfortably with the rest of his book, and moves so independently from the bulk of his analysis, that its meaning is ultimately unclear.
As the quotation above suggests, LeDrew is familiar with one other corner of movement history, apparently owing to his study of Campbell. He quite ably describes the nineteenth-century battle for control of Britain’s National Secular Society, pitting the socialistic George Holyoake, who aimed his activism at working-class audiences, against the far more bourgeois Charles Bradlaugh (Bradlaugh won). LeDrew is correct in viewing this as a template for later conflicts between social-justice activists and those who defend (or at least accept) the standing economic order—or as he colorfully terms it, “a conservative and reactionary dimension within the secular movement motivated by the desire to dismantle religious authority while maintaining traditional but modern structures of power.” Yet if one admits that the movement’s conservative wing has such deep historical roots, that would seem to undermine LeDrew’s thesis that coolness toward social-justice concerns is a novel development ushered in by the New Atheists.
Simple errors abound throughout the book. For reasons of space, I’ll unpack a single example here, again drawn from LeDrew’s recounting of history first chronicled by Colin Campbell. LeDrew writes, “Campbell’s history of ‘irreligious movements’ extends to the United States, where his analysis of the Ethical Culture movement and the Rationalist Press Association unearths tensions similar to those in Britain.” Unfortunately for LeDrew, the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) was a British, not an American, organization. (I examined the passage in Campbell that LeDrew cited, and the error is LeDrew’s; not surprisingly, Campbell, who as a young man took part in the RPA, knew perfectly well what it was.) The “tensions . . . in Britain” to which LeDrew refers still concern the conflict between Holyoake and Bradlaugh, or more generally between socialistic and pro-capitalist political inclinations. If LeDrew wished to limn similar conflicts during American freethought’s golden age—and if, sigh, he knew his history better—he might have contrasted the movement’s most prominent attorneys: Clarence Darrow, an outspoken socialist, and Robert Green Ingersoll, who generally supported the existing economic order (though even Ingersoll wanted workers to earn better wages). Or LeDrew might have pointed to the friction between Ingersoll and, among others, D. M. Bennett over whether the movement should, in effect, advocate for the free passage of sexually explicit materials through the mails by fighting to repeal the Comstock laws.4 Comparing Ethical Culture with the RPA was not only specious but unnecessary.
LeDrew’s treatment of more recent social-justice controversies is similarly incongruous, especially when he ventures into territory I know well. He associates secular humanism with the humanistic/ethical side of the movement, describing it as “concerned principally with morality while removing itself from theological debates.” Longtime Free Inquiry readers will marvel at LeDrew’s apparent suggestion that secular humanism avoids theological debates, to say nothing of the implication that we at the Council might be more closely aligned with a Left-leaning social-justice agenda than, say, our colleagues at the American Humanist Association. Elsewhere, LeDrew names “three subgroups as relatively distinct elements within the secular movement: secular humanists, atheists, and libertarian rationalists.” He associates the Council for Secular Humanism first with the atheist subgroup, later with the individualist-libertarian rationalists. The irony of the only American organization with “secular humanism” in its name being anything but secular humanist would be chewy and delectable if only LeDrew had spooled out its ironies more explicitly—and if he could have made a better case for it. Since he couldn’t, perhaps he had little choice but to underplay his hand.
As for the author’s treatment of libertarian thought within the movement, it is ludicrously anachronistic. Incredibly, LeDrew regards libertarianism within the movement as another innovation of the New Atheists. He speaks of “the revelation [emphasis added] of an atheist Right, an ideological group that was until recently latent within movement discourse but has since become more bold. . . .” Elsewhere, he amplifies: “Individual freedom is indeed of increasing importance in movement discourse as the political ideology of libertarianism has become more influential in recent years.” Again LeDrew demonstrates his unfamiliarity with movement history. He seems no more conversant with the peculiar history of the mid–twentieth-century U.S. libertarian movement and its reshaping by the open atheist Ayn Rand. As I noted in my recent editorial “Where Have All the Anti-altruists Gone?” (Free Inquiry, August/September 2015), secular humanism’s libertarian wing was far larger, more vocal, and more influential between 1980 and 2000 than it is today. It is now notably in decline. A new rightward current has bloomed within the movement since 2004—think Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the late Christopher Hitchens—but its character is neoconservative, not libertarian. Elsewhere, LeDrew addressed this trend with some acuity, but he seems to have forgotten it here as he warns of an imagined present-day libertarian surge. To the contrary, at least in our movement, libertarianism seems so-o-o twentieth century.
LeDrew’s spotty acquaintance with movement history before 2000 is on extended display when he takes up recent controversies involving the Center for Inquiry (CFI). In LeDrew’s defense, some of the facts never entered the public record. Yet he did not let that stop him from drawing unfounded, sometimes absurd, conclusions.
Let’s begin with this harsh accusation: “[T]he Council for Secular Humanism is now much more an organization interested in promoting political libertarianism than humanistic ethics, which was the concern of its founder, Paul Kurtz. The shift in direction from Kurtz’s vision of secular humanism toward radical individualism and aggressive atheism is an important aspect of the story of the movement.” He’s talking about the Council, not CFI, but as we shall see shortly, this charge is of a piece with his case against CFI. (And I can hardly fault anyone for having difficulty keeping the Council and CFI straight!)
Still, did “Kurtz’s vision of secular humanism” eschew “radical individualism and aggressive atheism”? Did it hold consistently “that secular humanism should lead to a concern for social justice,” as LeDrew maintains elsewhere? It is true that Kurtz advocated doggedly for world government, despite pushback from many Free Inquiry readers. It is true that his 1980 “Affirmations of Humanism”5 declared, “We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.” Yet other parts of his ethical program were firmly rooted in, well, individualism. Here again are the “Affirmations”: “We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.” Kurtz himself recruited the staunch libertarians Thomas Szasz and Tibor Machan to write for Free Inquiry in the magazine’s early years. And what shall we make of this Kurtzian passage from 1981?
Many on the New Right fail to recognize that many secular humanists voted for Ronald Reagan and other conservative candidates. There are right-wing, conservative, and libertarian freethinkers as well as liberal, radical, and left-wing ones. Some are pro-labor, others are pro-business; some advocate world government, others are against it; some are for nuclear energy, others oppose it; some support welfare programs, others are opposed to them; some insist on a strong foreign policy, others do not; some are liberals and socialists, while others are critical of egalitarianism and defend individualism, free enterprise, and humanistic capitalism.6
It is probably more fair to say that Kurtz’s ethical views were based partly upon mid–twentieth-century ideals of social justice and partly upon an Enlightenment individualism that did not embrace the libertarian agenda uncritically but recognized the necessity (again, stronger then than now) of respecting libertarian voices. Despite his frequent personal expressions of left-leaning political views, Kurtz meant the secular-humanist movement he helmed to be politically neutral, a “big tent” open to all political persuasions.
Now how about Kurtz’s claimed opposition to atheism? Are we talking about the same Paul Kurtz who penned an editorial titled “Letting Atheists Out of the Closet” (Free Inquiry, Summer 2000), which ends with these words: “If society deplores anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, or anti-gay talk, why should it not also deplore anti-atheist vilification? Is it not time that we fight back? Let us declare: ‘We are secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics and proud of it! We demand equal access and equal rights.’”
True, Kurtz’s rhetoric softened during the mid-2000s; in a string of editorials, he distanced himself from atheism generally and the New Atheists in particular. Yet this needs to be understood in context. The politics of the George W. Bush years had unnerved Kurtz deeply—especially the 2004 elections, when an electorate that arguably hadn’t voted Bush into office in 2000 unaccountably did vote to grant him a second term. The day after the election, Kurtz summoned CFI managers to a strategy meeting where he argued that the times required a retreat from atheism. And retreat Kurtz did; once he went so far as to forbid a frequent author from even using the word atheism in an essay!
Given the statements I have marshaled above—and literally scores of similar writings accessible to anyone prepared to peruse the record pre-2004—does Kurtz’s cold shoulder toward atheism in and after 2004 represent his best and most representative thinking? Or should we interpret it as a miscalculation by an aging titan whose mind was beginning to be overwhelmed by events? I knew him pretty well, and I’m not sure myself.
Whatever the reasons, Kurtz’s attitude toward atheism during his final five years at the helm of Free Inquiry—which LeDrew mistakes for “Kurtz’s vision of secular humanism,” full stop—seems anomalous and unrepresentative of his oeuvre. When we consider his total output as Free Inquiry’s founder, it seems clear that Kurtz’s long-term agenda was not as different from that espoused by current CFI leadership as LeDrew contends.
This brings us to LeDrew’s harsh conclusions regarding Kurtz’s replacement by Ronald A. Lindsay (who himself stepped down as CEO of CFI at the beginning of 2016). LeDrew charges first that “The difference of opinion that led to the change in leadership at CFI is not only philosophical or strategic; more precisely, it is political” and, second, that Lindsay has led CFI down a rabbit hole of libertarian extremism. Let us examine each contention in turn.
LeDrew’s confidence that the motives behind the leadership change must have been “philosophical,” “strategic,” or “political”—or that they must have been driven primarily by a “difference of opinion”—overlooks the true cause. By the mid-2000s, CFI had a grave case of what the management literature terms “founder’s syndrome.” If new hands did not take the tiller quickly, the organization’s survival stood in peril. Frankly, this left little room for scheming to push CFI in one ideological direction or another.
LeDrew offers a fevered portrayal of Lindsay as, of all things, a libertarian ideologue, describing his “leadership of the Center for Inquiry” as “the clearest sign of contemporary atheism’s departure from its roots in social justice movements and ideologies, with a group emerging that moves away from humanism and embraces something like Ayn Rand’s vision of atheistic individualism.” The notion of Lindsay-as-Randroid is risible; Enlightenment individualism and libertarianism in the late–twentieth-century American mold are two quite different things. Still, during his tenure as CFI’s president and CEO, Lindsay did consistently champion Enlightenment modernism; his critiques of postmodernism and multicultural identity politics repeatedly sparked outrage from the social-justice Left. But that hardly makes him a libertarian extremist. At last, it seems LeDrew can only splutter: “Lindsay . . . argues that there is no inconsistency in being an atheist or a humanist and a Republican.” Yet that is only to say that Lindsay advocated the same politically neutral “big-tent” strategy as Kurtz himself did between the Council’s founding in 1980 and that watershed year of 2004.
We arrive now at a towering irony. If LeDrew meant to document libertarian influence within CFI, he had no need to twist Lindsay’s writings. He could simply have quoted some of my older stuff! Unlike Lindsay, I actually was for some years an outspoken libertarian—so much so that when I was named Free Inquiry’s editor in 2000, the Libertarian Party sent out a press release celebrating this achievement by one of its members. (I must have been a great disappointment after 2008’s economic meltdown, when I became a Keynesian.) LeDrew does once observe that “Tom Flynn has compared social welfare programs to Ponzi schemes.” The reference is to my op-ed “Beyond Ponzi Economics” (Free Inquiry, December 2007/January 2008). It is accurate but out of context: in that piece, I wasn’t inveighing against the redistribution of wealth but rather criticizing existing social-welfare programs as obstacles to combating overpopulation because they reinforce a perceived need for each generation to be larger than the one it replaces. Had LeDrew read Free Inquiry’s earlier volumes more carefully, he could have found far-juicier quotes of mine that would document beyond question a libertarian wolf in CFI’s fold. To cite them now would be anachronistic, as I no longer hold those views; but we have already seen that LeDrew is unafraid of anachronism.
Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism offers some astute insights into the patterns of growth and conflict that have marked the humanist/atheist/freethought movement since and after the rise of the New Atheism. LeDrew may be correct that the tensions among the strands of activism emerging in the New Atheism’s twilight—if we can call it that—signify “deep divisions that threaten movement fragmentation or even a massive breakdown.” But LeDrew’s attempts to weave a sweeping, if somewhat conspiratorial, analysis of it all too often founder, usually on the rocks of his incomplete knowledge of the movement’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century history.
Better-grounded historians of the movement will sigh knowingly: here comes one more fiery young analyst for whom the freethought world began with Sam Harris.
The flaws in LeDrew’s method are perhaps best exemplified by this passage: “Atheism’s popularity and public presence . . . [have] given way to more moderate and specific instrumental goals of constructing and defending a minority identity, and the functional differentiation of religious and political spheres. This strategy is a tacit recognition that the narrative of secularism has not been realized as expected and likely will not be in the foreseeable future.”
Assuming that “atheism’s popularity and public presence” peaked with the height of the New Atheism, we are once more being asked to believe that strategies such as “constructing and defending a minority identity” and “functional differentiation of religious and political spheres” (an obtuse way of saying “campaigning for separation of church and state,” I think) entered the movement only after one could no longer find Dawkins’s The God Delusion or Hitchens’s god Is Not Great in airport bookstores. Simply put, that is nonsense; “constructing and defending a minority identity” for atheists dates back at least to Madalyn Murray O’Hair circa 1963, as LeDrew himself elsewhere affirms. Meanwhile, activism to keep the religious and political spheres separate has been a linchpin of movement activism since—well, it was already a familiar notion when Octavius Frothingham and Francis Abbot wove it into their “Nine Demands of Liberalism” in—wait for it—1873.7 As for LeDrew’s assumption that “the narrative of secularism has not been realized,” that too is in error. True, broad-based education, greater understanding of science, and other social improvements did not cause religion to wither as quickly as nineteenth- and early twentieth-century freethinkers had hoped—in the United States, at least. Yet Western Europe has been effectively post-Christian for decades now; Canada and Oceana attained the same status more recently. And even the United States is catching up: for example, 22.8 percent of U.S. adults now claim no religious preference. Explicit atheism has risen too, and all these figures are much higher among the young. As Greg Paul and Phil Zuckerman argued as early as 2007, it was even then unbelief, not any religious tradition, that was growing rapidly worldwide, with only unbelief posting large gains by means of adult conversion.8 Steve Bruce’s 2002 God Is Dead: Secularization in the West offered another demonstration that at least some specialists recognized the resurgence of secularization well before the rise of the New Atheists. (Bruce rejoined this controversy with his 2011 book, Secularization.)
Scholarly and popular interest in the rise of organized unbelief is higher than ever. Doubtless that is why Oxford University Press (OUP) chose to test the waters with a high-profile hardcover book on that subject. The Evolution of Atheism has undeniable strengths, but its many and serious flaws erode its value. In offering this book amid such trappings of importance, OUP has engaged in a noble experiment. It’s a shame they couldn’t have done it with a better text.
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.