I think of this as the second part of the mystery around New Atheism’s decline: why did a successful social movement so quietly and complacently agree to turn into a totally different social movement?
As always, it’s hard to briefly summarize one of Alexander’s posts, but: he’s wondering why New Atheism went out of fashion, and concludes that it mostly morphed into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Social Justice, Inc. I’d agree with that. The roadies of online atheism, like PZ Myers, looking for a way to differentiate themselves from the rock stars like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, hit upon the idea of infusing New Atheism with New Left identity politics, and with identity politics being the cancer it is, it quickly metastasized and devoured its host. Alexander thinks this change was because New Atheism was a failed hamartiology, “a subfield of theology dealing with the study of sin, in particular, how sin enters the universe.” New Atheism blamed social ills on the irrationality of religious beliefs. Social justice blamed social ills on racism/sexism/etc. For whatever reason, whether it was due to deep convictions or the ephemerality of intellectual fashions, more people eventually found the social justice brand more convincing.
He only mentions Internet culture in passing, noting the differences between the before/after social media eras:
At some point, in a way unrelated to the fall of New Atheism, the Internet stopped being like this. The topics that interest people today don’t get debated in the same way. People dunk on each other on Twitter, occasionally even have back-and-forth exchanges, but the average person doesn’t post long screeds and get equally long responses fisking each of their points. There’s less need for giant databases containing every fact you might need to win a particular argument, organized Dewey-Decimal-style by which argument you are trying to win. People just stopped caring.
He doesn’t follow this line of thought much further, which seems to me a shame. Yes, the style of online argument changed — because instead of a limited number of people using blogs and message boards, a huge number of people started using Facebook and Twitter. The conversational center of gravity shifted; or, if you prefer, online conversation finally found its way down to sea level. Noise drowned out signal. Intricate, tedious debates about theology and morality, of interest only to a select minority of intellectuals, couldn’t compete with the deafening roar of vox populi. The law of noospheric entropy states that ideas and concepts are forever decaying into clichés, slogans and buzzwords. This is all the more relevant when people, who are naturally lazy to begin with, are handed tools like social media which make communication as quick and thoughtless as possible.
But even if technology explains why discourse became dumber over the last fifteen years, what does that have to do with the shift in focus? Why did we start arguing more loudly and stupidly about social justice than about religion? My suggestion, as always, is to credit demographics. The mini-baby boom of the millennial generation produced a surge of overeducated, underemployed twenty-somethings which just happened to coincide with the shift to smartphones and social media. Suddenly, the collective voice of those who had accrued far too much debt in pursuit of a worthless degree was amplified and broadcast like never before. They didn’t have careers yet and weren’t optimistic about getting any, and they hadn’t settled down with families yet, so they had a lot of free time to post and tweet reflexive reactions to the news, informed by whatever they learned in their grievance-studies courses. Will they age out of it? Will social justice lunacy and trans trendiness be the twenty-teens version of mullets and parachute pants from the ’80s? Or will social media preserve all the same norms for successive generations? I suppose only time will tell.
I do agree that ours is a sin-haunted culture, however post-religious we think we are. We’re just as obsessed with avoiding the Devil’s omnipresent snares as any Puritan ever was. We don’t accuse women of dancing with Old Nick during blasphemous rites in a churchyard under a full moon anymore; we accuse young men of consorting with misogynists, racists and duplicitous Russians under cover of the dark web. That’s why I keep reiterating that the social-justice atheists should just go ahead and rebrand themselves as the newest phase of the Protestant Reformation, redefining sin and righteousness for a postmodern age.