Stephen LeDrew on his ‘The Evolution of Atheism’ | an Interview

Stephen LeDrew

Stephen LeDrew was born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. He completed a B.A. and M.A. in Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, took a break from academia to spend a year and a half teaching in Japan, and then moved to Toronto to begin a Ph.D in Sociology at York University. In 2014 he moved to Sweden, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Religion at Uppsala University.

Stephen’s research and writing focuses on secularism and atheism in contemporary culture. His book The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement (Oxford University Press) explores the rise of the New Atheism and its impact on organized secular activism in North America.

He is currently investigating secularism in North America and Europe in relation to debates about immigration, multiculturalism, and religious accommodation.

This is an interview with him on his provocative and topical study The Evolution of Atheism which has just appeared with Oxford’s University Press, 219 pages plus notes, bibliography and index – a book that aims at a discussion of the status quo of atheism under the impact of the New Atheism that has evolved since 9/11 2001.

Olaf Simons is asking the questions for

Olaf: Where shall we start? Perhaps with the question whether we should first state our personal positions?
Steve: Personal positions on…? I’m not sure I want to talk about my religious beliefs.
Olaf: OK then…
Steve: I don’t mind saying I’m an atheist though I don’t know if I’d go much further than that!
Olaf: I wonder whether your book is not actually a complex statement. Let me start with the book advertisement:

  • Argues that the New Atheism has parallels with religious fundamentalism
  • Shows that divisions among atheists threaten to fracture the movement
  • Rejects the widely accepted understanding of contemporary atheism as grounded in liberalism, instead arguing for the existence of an “atheist Right” that mirrors the Christian Right
  • Contributes to ongoing public debates about the role of religion in public life and in politics

That’s heavy stuff and I guess a lot of people will read this as a provocation.

Steve: I’m sure they will and the book is certainly provocative and very critical of the New Atheism and some of their contemporaries. The argument that the New Atheism is a secular fundamentalism is sure to raise eyebrows, but in the specific sociological definition that I’m using I think it qualifies. I don’t mean to say that they’re fundamentalists in a more common sense definition that essentially means literalism since they don’t have any one core text to produce a literal interpretation of. But in the sense that they have a political program for realizing a utopian ideology, and are committed to a worldview that they really aren’t prepared to question, they are fundamentalists of a kind.
Olaf: But your book works on the premise that this is not the self-awareness of the New Atheists. They think they are anti-fundamentalist, progressive, left wing, pro LGBT. They feel they are fighting a right-wing movement of Christian fundamentalists and Moslems.
Steve: On the matter of being anti-fundamentalist, that’s true, but they are specifically anti-religious fundamentalist. They obviously wouldn’t accept the label for themselves. In terms of being progressive and left wing, that isn’t true for Hitchens, who after the Iraq war publicly broke with the left and started speaking in positive terms about a number of conservatives, especially ones who were eager to wage war in the Middle East. Harris claims to be on the left, yet is critical of almost all left wing positions. He supports same sex marriage, but so do most people these days. He’s in favour of ethnic profiling, private gun ownership, pre-emptive warfare against Muslim societies. No matter how much he may say he’s on the left, when you get into his specific views they are not typically left wing. They are fighting a rightwing movement of Christian fundamentalism in the US, but that doesn’t necessarily put them on the other end of the political spectrum, at least not on all issues. On many issues the two groups are closely aligned, however much they might disagree about the existence of God or matters of private morality.
Olaf: You said you were going to explore this from a sociologist’s perspective. Technically and methodologically: How was this book – it was your dissertation – planned, what was the method of research?
Steve: It wasn’t really planned in advance at all. I started out with nothing more than an idea to do a critical analysis of the books written by the four major New Atheists and wasn’t really sure where else it would go. Gradually I became aware that there was a social movement growing in tandem with the New Atheism that was drawing inspiration from their ideas and their public visibility. I didn’t imagine this being a study of a social movement when I started it but I realized that it would be impossible to understand the New Atheism without taking its broader social, cultural, and political context into consideration. I wanted to understand its relationship to the secular movement and began to delve into that world, reading blogs, listening to podcasts, going to conferences, and interviewing participants. What I found was that the New Atheism was responsible for a lot of the growth of the movement but, like any social movement, there was a lot of internal debate about the ideas they were promoting and how much they actually represented atheists. So those tensions became the focus of my research.
Olaf: The book has basically three components. The first is a historical setting, the second a part in which you present answers from these interviews. The third is a kind of revelation, of reading against the grain.

The historical perspective goes back into the 18th and 19th centuries, yet eventually you arrive at a demarcation line: 9/11, 2001. The present movement seems to be mostly a post 9/11 child.

Steve: It is, and more specifically it started as a reaction to the unprecedented power of the Christian Right during the Bush presidency in those years. But the movement had been around for a long time in one form or another. Perhaps what distinguished it the most after 9/11 was the both defensive and optimistic character it took. Atheists in America felt like religion had become far too powerful, and at the same time sensed a real possibility that atheism was about to have its day and religion was on its last legs.
Olaf: …which is strangely paradoxical – because you imply or reveal that the movement’s leaders are basically, shall I say, neo-conservatives or neo-liberals themselves.
Steve: Yes it’s paradoxical on several levels. First there’s the idea that religion was becoming much too powerful but also was more vulnerable than ever before. I think the power of the Christian Right actually empowered atheists and inspired them to take up a fight for secular America. There is also, as you mentioned, the fact that many – though certainly not all – atheist leaders are neo-conservatives, neo-liberals, libertarians, or whatever you might call it – at any rate, not left-wing progressives. But a lot of atheists really didn’t realize that in the days when the movement was growing explosively. It took some time before people began to see that aside from not believing in God, they didn’t have a lot in common with a lot of the public figures of atheism. Eventually there was a kind of grass-roots rebellion among left-wing atheists who were critical of the leaders and public representatives of their movement, and the divisions that came out are only becoming stronger.
evolution and christianity
Olaf: This is my own feeling when I think of creationism. What we are observing here is mostly a win/win situation. It is apparently working well in the US – yet it developed a strange momentum far beyond: Western Europe, Scandinavia are basically atheist regions and yet they accept this confrontation. What is your impression of the global appeal which New Atheism undoubtedly has?
Steve: I’m not sure I get your point about creationism. You’re asking about the global appeal of the New Atheism?
Olaf: Well creationism was dead in Europe – I do not know whether it still is. Being an atheist is nothing spectacular – nothing you have to “come out of a closet” with in my environment. I have been wondering what exactly this confrontation is doing here in Europe. Is New Atheism spreading the notion that creationism is an alternative option, which we all have to fight as Atheists?
Steve: It’s a good question because the appeal of the New Atheism in the US is obvious. You have a country that’s both extremely modern yet deeply religious, which is an exception in the western world, which as you noted is generally quite secular. It’s no surprise that atheists in the US would be excited when finally someone came along and started speaking very critically about the impact religion was having on their society, especially since so many of them feel silenced in their personal lives. But in Europe, it’s true, being an atheist doesn’t make you exceptional, so it is interesting that it’s caught on in places like Sweden as much as it has. You can speculate about some plausible reasons. Many European countries have established churches, or even if disestablished the churches still retain some kind of influence or power, however small. So people may be reacting to that. But I can’t imagine that people in a place like Sweden or England believe that their governments are being controlled or heavily influenced by religious authorities. So what’s the appeal? I think it’s mostly social. People want to talk to others who share their views on some of the big questions – who are we, where do we come from, and so on. The New Atheism inspired the growth of a lot of online meeting places where people could do this. That’s not a really satisfying explanation but there’s no other obvious political motivation for atheist activism, though that has of course changed recently with the migration crisis and the intense debates about Islam and multiculturalism in Europe. If the New Atheism hadn’t had success here before they probably would now.
Olaf: Looking back into the 1990s I’d say I’d rather have considered political and philosophical options wherever I was looking for a personal position than this question of religion versus atheism. Today we see movements like the Sunday Assembly – emerging in London, not the US, and spreading from there through the Commonwealth. Is atheism a common denominator, a cohesive force – or are we rather looking on a heterogeneous map. And if it is heterogeneous what happened to the old philosophical options in this debate. (A question I ask as a Quora reader – where I wonder what is left of philosophy. The old philosophical debates have crushed under the peculiar imperative of the debates New Atheists have reinforced on us.)
Steve: Well it is to some extent a cohesive force since a movement has coalesced around the idea of atheism. But it’s also very heterogeneous since within that group there’s been a lot of arguing, fracturing, and some people losing interest and leaving, all because they realize there’s a lot of diversity in their views, even their views on religion, never mind the deep political divisions. I don’t know how much atheism on its own can serve as a cohesive force. It can for small groups but for a lasting movement something else has to come into play. Some have argued that a return to humanism is what’s necessary, though again there are a lot of people who call themselves humanists but are also libertarians opposed to social welfare.

Can you tell me what you mean by the old philosophical options?

Olaf: Well you could be Marxist materialist, or postmodern relativist back in the 1980s – in the latter case with different traditions reaching back into logical positivism or left wing anarchism… to name just a few of the options. Today we have a debate on whether philosophy is dead – eaten by science, the new provider of ultimate knowledge and ethics. And it often seems to me that atheists confuse the argumentative ammunition of their fights with theists with academic philosophy. Being a historian I read the arguments of these confrontations and frown. Have I not seen all these arguments already present in medieval scholastic debates? – and here they are, fresh as ever!

A point closely related is the question of morals. 20th-century philosophers dissociated ethics from what can be known in the strict sense. And here we suddenly have people who assume that they are better moral beings if they convert to atheism… The entire debate of morals was pretty dead at the end of the 1970s or 1980s.
Kira Knightely

Steve: There’s a lot of antipathy to philosophy among the New Atheists, or at least Dawkins and Harris, and some other leading figures, like Lawrence Krauss. But then again one of the New Atheists is a philosopher, and one of the British New Atheists is philosopher A.C. Grayling. And even Harris did his undergraduate degree in philosophy. So there’s a tension there. I don’t think it’s necessarily that they think philosophy is dead, but that they believe in one correct kind of philosophy, and in the event that philosophy is perceived to come into conflict with science as they understand it, philosophy loses every time. The connections they draw between science and morality are interesting. Their project is of course to establish a material basis for morality, but in that they’re inconsistent. This is where I think the New Atheism most clearly drifts into religious territory. Science and the idea of evolution are used in very unscientific ways to ground their specific form of liberal ethics,
Olaf: You are writing about this in your book:

The New Atheism is an ideological defense of a modern utopia against its perceived antagonists: religion and relativism. It takes shape as a cultural movement that seeks to universalize this ideology, converting the masses to scientism and asserting scientific authority in all spheres of life. As both a utopian belief system and a social movement that advances a political program for maintaining the structural arrangement of modern society, it can be understood as a secular fundamentalism, as opposed to religious fundamentalisms that are anti-modern. Like all fundamentalisms, New Atheism is totalizing. Just as communists claimed to have a scientific understanding of the laws of motion of history and thus legitimated the centralized management of society by experts, the New Atheists see a law of evolution guiding history on its natural course toward civilization – that is, a society administered by scientific authorities. The evolution of society, in this view, is driven by the evolution of atheism.

Stephen Le Drew, The Evolution of Atheism (2015), p.91.

I was wondering whether science can still serve as this demigod. We are speaking here of a territory of debate and programmatic internal fragmentation. I was not quite sure how atheism and science in the broadest view – reaching into the humanities and social studies – will eventually fit into this paradigm of science, the new god.

Steve: I’m actually a bit unclear about your question here
Olaf: Well you seem to imply that the New Atheists have basically dethroned God and put Science on its chair. Evolution is the new Jesus of this religion – the agent that brings morality and teleology where we were about to lose it in the era of postmodern relativism…
Steve: I think that’s roughly right. Science is re-asserted here as a response to uncertainty. In the absence of religion there can be a new truth or total chaos, and the New Atheism is putting forward its version of the truth and a path to salvation. Put your faith in science – and scientists, it’s important to add – and we’ll all be brought to the promised land, so to speak.
Olaf: Which is something no one in the humanities – no historian, no one exploring the 19th and 20th centuries will subscribe to…
Steve: No and there’s the reason the New Atheists don’t like the social sciences and humanities. A historical perspective relativizes science itself as a cultural enterprise. I think this is in part a matter of a struggle for authority – whose discipline is the best – but it’s in part a sincere conviction that science is our only hope. I think Dawkins believes what he says very sincerely, even if he exaggerates for effect and constructs enemies for ideological purposes.
Olaf: We are on the other hand witnessing something like science denialism at the moment, in the ongoing debate on climate change for instance, and there seems to be a broader network behind this form of denialism: We have seen a series of interventions reaching from the tobacco industry’s claims that tobacco does not kill of the 1970s and 1980s to creationism and climate change denialism. Much of this has been sponsored by lobbyists in a cooperation with the US Republicans, and this is one of the fields where I was not too sure whether we should end up in a right/left opposition. The New Atheists are opposing this right-wing propaganda war.
Steve: Yes and this science denial is also very dangerous but I don’t think the New Atheism is the answer to it. If anything they might be making it worse because by linking science so strongly with atheism they’re essentially telling people they have to pick a side, so more moderate Christians in the US who might come on board with the idea that we need to deal with climate change, or even fundamentalists for that matter, might be put off by the idea that they have to choose between their faith and reality as described by science. There are of course areas where the New Atheists take a progressive position, and I wouldn’t put any of them strictly in the category of right-wing, but they all contribute in some way or another to the discourse of the right, especially when it comes to the clash of civilizations narrative.
Olaf: The relationship of the New Atheists towards science might be precarious – unilateral, a form of hijacking the sciences in their broad spectrum, a spectrum that is not interested in the god-question. The social composition of the movement is certainly as precarious – this is from your introduction:

While ostensibly a critique of the dangers of irrational superstitions, then, the New Atheism is ultimately about power – more specifically, socially legitimate authority. It is a response to challenges to the authority of science, and by extension, those who practice science and regulate its institutions. By a further extension, it is a defence of the position of the white middle-class western male, and of modernity itself, which is perceived to be under threat by a swirling concoction of religious ignorance, epistemic relativism, identity politics, and cultural pluralism. The New Atheism is a reaction to 21st century challenges to the established modern social hierarchy and structure of cultural authority, seeking to eliminate perceived challenges to scientific authority not only from ‘pre-modern’ religion but also ‘post-modern’ social science. This is an attempt at placing an ideological manifestation of the natural sciences in a position of uncontested authority in the production of legitimate knowledge and in the cultural sphere of meaning and normativity.

Stephen Le Drew, The Evolution of Atheism (2015), p.2.

Why is it that this is such a male movement, a movement of white males? You give uncanny accounts of New Atheist gender relations in the final seventh chapter, “The Atheist Right”. Women complain about how the movement is treating them and are ridiculed by Dawkins and others as feminist wimps who have not seen what real oppression means. It remains puzzling that this is a world of white men. The classical paradigm of 19th-century gender views would have been that women are less rational, more emotional and hence more religious. You imply that they sense a misogynist undercurrent in the leaders of this movement. Why do we have these disproportionate gender relations in New Atheism – but also in other communities such as the Wikipedia community? Philosophy was not really much better – it has always been broadly male. Esoteric movements are on the other hand dominated by female voices – which would rather support the 19th century view of women being emotional and hence more on the side of irrational beliefs. I have no idea how to get beyond a gut feeling on this issue. The sociologist might be in a better position, though I wonder what methodological approach would bring light into this.

Steve: Like you, I’m not sure how to get beyond a gut feeling on this either. I can say that the perception among women in the movement that they are surrounded by sexists and outright misogynists is correct. Not all atheists of course, but many are sexists, and many clearly hate women. I don’t know why this is true for atheists any more than I know why it’s true for any other group or for the world as a whole. The true misogynists are, I think, actually quite rare, but the general patriarchal tone of the movement can’t be denied. It’s unspoken but I do think there’s a sense that women are emotional and not quite up to the same standards of cold, objective reason that men can achieve. I don’t doubt that there’s a Darwinian rationale for this belief in many minds, even if it’s a bit unconscious, though I’m sure it’s quite conscious for some.
Olaf: The question of methods seems to have been the most difficult part of your work. A reading of central texts against the grain is more of the literary historian’s profession. Getting into the movements and conducting interviews is a classical sociologist’s job – yet how would one do that? How many people does one have to ask? What kind of questions does one have to ask in order to show the distances between the social movement and the books these people are reading? What would be a map of all these movements? Can we get this map with an analysis of the books they are reading and the heroes they are following – and if not, how can we get the picture of the spectrum?
Steve: It’s difficult to answer these questions, and at best I think we can identify some broad categories, or that’s the best I can do based on the research I did. Mapping this movement more precisely would require a lot more work – surveys, interviews, deep ethnographic research. You can’t answer these questions based on the books people are reading or the ‘leaders’ they are following because few of them accept everything these people say and write. My conclusions, such as they are, are tentative and meant mostly to move us toward developing a deeper understanding of the different ideas and goals that motivate atheists.
Olaf: I confess, I liked your book, though with mixed feelings – mostly because it made me reconsider my own interest in this matter. I am far more interested in the history of positivism than in any of the books written by Dawkins and his group. In fact I have not read any of these books thus far. It is a challenge to think about knowledge, and as a historian I would add: It is a challenge to think about what will come after atheism (in my eyes a thoroughly theological position). A return to religion? Probably not. Atheist churches? I have my doubts; Auguste Comte experimented with them. They might work as parodies. Atheism as the new core of morality? God beware. I join groups with wherever I share a particular interest and I do not mind if friends I make in these groups are religious. I enjoy pluralism.

The thing that struck me was your open decision to unmask the heroes of the present movement as misogynist, right wing, economic liberalists, advocates of the strong state, and pro-war as soon as the Muslim world is the target. Right and left, so my feeling are insufficient categories on this map. The reader who can appreciate your revelations has to be left-wing, anti-authoritarian, tolerant and so far a blind follower – who would abandon these heroes if only he realised what they actually stand for. The book seems to be positioned as a wedge to be driven between the grassroots movement and the movement’s present representatives.

I was not so sure what to think about your evaluation of the situation.

The future of the movement is unclear, but the increasing diversity of ideological positions is currently producing fragmentation, with a traditional division between atheism and humanism becoming more complex as changing sociocultural circumstances are reflected in groups that combine these belief systems with political ideologies in novel ways. […] We are now in the midst of a revolutionary movement in atheism’s history. New forms of atheism peculiar to the twenty-first century are emerging, most importantly a relationship between atheism and right-wing politics – a radical break from its traditional association with socialism and social justice movements. […] For all the vitriol launched toward religion, and for all the differences on metaphysical questions of the nature and origin of material reality, when it comes to politics and the ordering of the socioeconomic world – the things that really matter in terms of the conditions and possibilities of life – the New Atheism offers nothing radically different from that offered by conservative Christianity. Atheists are therefore confronted with a decision about what they consider a greater priority: social justice and welfare or scientific hegemony.

Stephen Le Drew, The Evolution of Atheism (2015), p.213–215.

You give a picture of a modern fundamentalist movement under the tight control of its public heroes – and you complain (with a look at the base) that this movement is about to disintegrate since the base will not agree over political views. Is this a conflict between secretly right-wing leaders and a left-wing pluralist base? And why the undertone of alarm? We might just as well read the present situation as a win/win situation between a pluralist base and its radical and controversial advocates – advocates anyone can follow with a critical personal distance.

You seem to write (if I may say this) with a hidden agenda, an agenda you would not like to state that openly – perhaps mostly because it remains caught in a paradox between a wish for unison and a dissatisfaction about the agreement we get with the central protagonists. That was the reason why I opened our conversation with the unusual question about our personal positions – yours as an author of an analysis and mine as your potential reader.

Steve: Let me clarify a few things. I wouldn’t say that the movement can be clearly divided between a right-wing leadership and a left-wing grassroots membership. At both level there is a great deal of variety in beliefs, whether you’re talking about philosophy, politics, ethics, whatever. So I don’t want to give the impression that this is a situation where there are two sides. There are many sides. There are people in leadership positions who advocate humanism and want to move away from aggressive atheism and hostility toward religion, though they are probably the minority. What I do try to outline very clearly is the ideology of the New Atheism itself, which is fairly consistent across its major thinkers, with some minor differences. But I don’t claim that the movement is under their tight control. They do seem to have a number of devoted followers, but there are a lot of people in this movement who are critical of them, some extremely critical. This is a movement with some stronger ideological trends and some slightly weaker ones, but there is no such thing as total control, just ongoing struggle.

As for my position, I wouldn’t say I have a hidden agenda, only because I don’t think it’s hidden. I am clearly very critical of the New Atheists and more sympathetic to the movement’s social justice branch, though I have reservations about them as well, but that’s not the focus of this book. Yes, I have taken a position, a very clear one. As a sociologist I think it’s tragic that the tradition of religious criticism that we have within our discipline has been forgotten. I think there are people in this movement who adopt a New Atheist kind of position on religion because they don’t have other critical frameworks for understanding it or for articulating their intuitions, so they wind up just saying that religion is stupid and religious people are ignorant, which is the trite view of Dawkins. I think it’s a bit of a failure on the part of social science in this respect, and the book is partly an argument that the social sciences offer a much more honest, nuanced, informed, and accurate perspective on religion than Dawkins or any other sociobiologist could ever provide.

Olaf: Food for thought. It was cool to have you for this interview, and I am looking forward to the first reviews.


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