The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Movement

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By: Stephen LeDew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

Review by: Dr Bill Cooke

The English historian Norman Stone once noted that doctoral dissertations are about amassing ponderous armies of facts to pursue a war of attrition on behalf of some trivial insight. The Evolution of Atheism, which is the result of Stephen LeDrew’s doctoral work, is an example of this genre. For the most part, the book is a sociological critique of New Atheism, with some changes of focus along the way. New Atheism, we are told, is a white male-driven secular fundamentalism, utopian in its ideological zeal for scientism and anxious to roll back pluralism in the interests of ‘cultural homogenisation through scientific hegemony.’ (p 175) This core assertion is repeated in various guises throughout the book, though, as noted, the targets change as the book progresses.

Research for this book is relatively broad but very shallow, and is replete with airy generalisations and in-language. The constant talk of ‘narratives’, ‘discourse’ and ‘strategies’ reduces the people he is writing about to something akin to bacteria on a glass plate, ready for inspection through a microscope. From these Olympian heights, LeDrew analyses the feeling American humanists have of being embattled by a religious majority. This ‘perception’, we are told, is only to be expected in subcultures working with a strong sense of ‘other’. (pp 107-8) LeDrew reserves for himself a God’s-eye view that he disparages in others when he declares that New Atheism is ‘only ostensibly about religion.’ What it’s really about, we are then told, is ‘an extension and manifestation of the modern project of scientific mastery of the world and the rationalisation of society.’ (p 15) Later on, American Atheists under Madalyn Murray O’Hair is spoken of as ‘a product of its time, framing its discourse and activism within the narrative of the emerging civil rights movement…’ (p 106) This reliance on in-house jargon and fondness for dialectical generalities gives his work an oddly elitist tone, which jars in a book condemning elitism. He’s also incorrect to call American Atheists the first organisation formed to advocate specifically for atheists. The American Association for the Advancement of Atheism predated American Atheists by more than three decades.

It comes as no surprise that LeDrew’s prime target is Richard Dawkins. Some of his criticisms are valid, as when the wisdom of Dawkins’ more strident tweets are called into question. But LeDrew is on much shakier ground when he denies, more than once, that Dawkins is the ‘enthusiastic Darwinian’ he claims to be. Once again taking a God’s eye view, he accuses Dawkins of a progressionist evolutionism more associated with Herbert Spencer (p 33). Two points need to be understood here. First, it is important to appreciate how much of a put-down this is from LeDrew’s point of view. This is not just a fastidious point of academic correctness: it’s an insult. Second, it’s simply not true. Dawkins regularly condemns progressionism in evolutionary thinking. It would be tiresome to cite example after example, so this one from Unweaving the Rainbow must stand in for the others. Here Dawkins condemns what he calls ‘bad poetic science’, mentioning Spencer by name, as well as Julian Huxley and Teilhard de Chardin. Bad poetic science is explained as ‘contriving a general law of progress working at all levels in nature, not just the biological level.’ (p 192) When claiming to know a person’s thoughts better than the person who uttered them, as LeDrew does, extraordinary levels of evidence need to be made available. This does not happen.
Much of LeDrew’s book reads more like the literature review a doctoral candidate works up prior to undertaking research. It’s a survey of what’s already out there. And disparaging words are reserved for those who fail to acknowledge the supremacy of his own discipline. In this way, work not showing due deference to the paramountcy of sociological expertise is ‘highly provincial’ (p 53). Without realising it, LeDrew exhibits a great deal of the ‘territorialism’ (his term) he claims to see in the New Atheists, as when he devotes several pages to Dawkins’ criticisms of sociology. And elsewhere he is generous in the use of scare quotes, but only for terms he disapproves of. Words like ‘scientific’ are routinely scare-quoted, but words like ‘nuanced’ or ‘diversity’: never.

Then there is the issue of the range of research undertaken. LeDrew’s strong reliance on Michael Buckley’s history of atheism skews his approach. With little appreciation of the wider and deeper range of history in this area provided by Jonathan Israel, for example, LeDrew’s historical account of atheism is limited. And, though it appeared too late for his book, Tim Whitmarsh’s game-changing history of atheism in the Classical World also makes LeDrew’s historical overview a bit underdone.

This weak historical awareness is compounded by LeDrew’s limited range of primary source material, restricted mainly to the works by the main New Atheist authors, but very little from the wider movement. No evidence, for example, is offered from other earlier evolutionist thinkers. Take Joseph McCabe as an example. McCabe was the Richard Dawkins of the early twentieth century, with nine books, several translations and pamphlets, and countless articles, lectures and debates on evolution around the English-speaking world. For LeDrew’s work to ring true, we should expect to find McCabe’s work to be progressionist, teleological, Eurocentric and prone to social Darwinism. In fact, none of this is true. McCabe was a critic of social Darwinism, eugenics, and other fads of the time like emergent evolution. He told his non-specialist readers there was no law of progress and scorned claims that the advantages enjoyed by Westerners were the inevitable product of natural superiority. The weaknesses LeDrew wants to see in ‘scientific atheist’ evolutionists are in fact just as apparent, often more, in religiously-inclined evolutionists, like J. Arthur Thomson.

LeDrew’s analysis is also limited by his focusing only on North Atlantic atheism, most especially in Chapter Six, which is an extended treatment of fifteen American and Canadian atheists. Reading these responses was interesting, but the survey is far too small to make valid points about the irrelevance of the New Atheist priorities, which is the point of the chapter.

An important distinction for LeDrew is that between scientific atheism (his main target, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins) and humanistic atheism, which he clearly prefers. Here LeDrew follows – sensibly – Colin Campbell’s ground-breaking work Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971), which made the distinction between ‘abolitionists’ and ‘substitutionists.’ LeDrew acknowledges Campbell’s ‘uncanny prescience’ and has usefully updated Campbell’s categories.

But this good work is undermined by LeDrew’s preference for sharp binaries, which runs counter to his preference elsewhere for nuances. A theme which runs through the book is the ‘fundamental ideological tension between atheism and humanism that has gripped the secular movement since its birth in the nineteenth century.’ (p 125) I agree that atheism and humanism have different trajectories and react to religion differently. But LeDrew overstates this division, seeing it in more dialectical terms as an irrevocable rift. Another strong binary, more assumed than stated, is his assumption that the New Atheist advocacy for science and reason must necessarily exclude the possibility of successful pluralism. (p 87) This is a zero sum game for which there is no evidence.

Nowhere does this preference for dialectical rifts distort the facts more clearly than with his account of Paul Kurtz’s departure from the Center for Inquiry (CFI), which LeDrew casts as an ideological clash between Kurtz’s kindly humanism versus the rebels’ confrontational atheism. (p 145, 147) Kurtz was instrumental in founding the sceptical movement in the United States in 1976 and the Council for Secular Humanism, formed in 1980, was his humanist advocacy group. Both organisations were brought under the umbrella of the Center for Inquiry in 1991. LeDrew’s reading of Kurtz’s departure is, at least, a gross overstatement. The Council for Secular Humanism slogan: ‘Beyond atheism, beyond agnosticism, secular humanism’ should be enough to counter this claim. Rather than humanism being an ‘unnecessary and meaningless addition’ for the CFI rebels, as LeDrew asserts, humanism is seen as the logical culmination of atheism. Atheism can only say what one is not. Secular humanism goes further by saying what one is for. LeDrew misunderstands what is going on here. He also misses the fact that Paul Kurtz’s declining health was as important a reason for his departure as any great clash of principle. These messy contingencies are overlooked because LeDrew sees Kurtz’s departure in dialectical terms, something built inevitably into the fabric of the movement. He also draws some shaky parallels between Kurtz’s departure and the disagreements in England between George Jacob Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh over the future of the National Secular Society.

Late in the book, LeDrew alters his line of fire. Till now the so-called Four Horsemen (Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and, especially, Dawkins) have been the main targets. But all of a sudden they disappear and attention shifts to the CFI. Via little more than a series of anecdotes from recent events, LeDrew makes a case for the CFI being a preserve of misogyny and right-wing triumphalism before concluding that 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.’ (p 214) And this comes only a few pages after acknowledging that no reliable link can be drawn between the atheist movement and the ‘ideology of evolutionism’, misogyny, and a host of other things. (p 209).

As the person who co-ordinates the CFI’s international programme, it is hard not to be bemused by this. It is hard to see why a misogynist and doctrinaire right-wing CFI, given over to libertarianism individualism, would demonstrate ongoing commitment to helping the poor and dispossessed in Africa, Asia and South America, as it does. In the years I have attended CFI events, I have never once heard an objection to its international work along libertarian lines, or along any lines for that matter. The only regret I’ve ever heard expressed is that more support cannot be given. And among the many atheists, humanists, sceptics and rationalists in Africa and Asia (where these distinctions hardly register) who work, sometimes at considerable risk to themselves, LeDrew’s accusations would come across as meaningless armchair theorising.

And finally, issue has to be taken with LeDrew’s labelling, in Chapter Six, of scientific atheists as ‘purists’, because of their dogmatism and avoidance of nuance. But can’t LeDrew’s own approach also be seen as irretrievably purist? Criticising a movement for failing to conform in every respect to one’s own preferences seems a lot like purism. As it happens I agree with LeDrew about libertarianism. But, not being a purist, I am happy to involve myself in a movement where I cannot expect to be agreed with at all times, on all subjects. It’s called being nuanced.

It might seem, after such a relentlessly negative review, that Stephen LeDrew’s book has no merits. But that is not the case. LeDrew is right to lament the dearth of scholarship on non-religious people. He has done good work updating Colin Campbell’s pioneering research on the sociology of non-religious people. His teasing out of the issues around confrontation versus dialogue with religion is helpful and pertinent. And much of his work on libertarian atheism is insightful. His criticisms of many of Sam Harris’s more excitable pronouncements are entirely warranted. But the weaknesses, distortions and simple falsehoods are frequent and serious enough to undo these positives, and call the book’s value seriously into question.


Atheism & Secularism, The Politics of Unbelief

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