What happened to Richard Dawkins? How did an acclaimed scientist and public intellectual transform himself into the dreary boor regularly popping up in your social media feed with yet another drunken uncle tweet about gender or race?
Dawkins, you might say, has aged like milk, except that’s not exactly true. As a matter of fact, he’s always been like that. He’s not the one who has changed – the world has.
The New Atheism Dawkins helped forge related to philosophy rather as Nu Metal pertained to music. In retrospect, they’re preposterous and embarrassing but, in their day, both presented themselves as cutting edge, even progressive.
Remember the whole Four Horsemen shtick, that presentation of well-spoken university types (Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) as avenging angels of the apocalypse as they gave lectures about ideas (‘science is good!’, ‘blind faith is bad!’) you could hear from your average high school teacher – or, indeed, vicar?
In the early 2000s, Dawkins was the Limp Bizkit of the Qanda crowd, enjoying an entirely undeserved reputation for edginess, largely for being in the right place at the right time.
As a movement, New Atheism owed more to 9/11 than to any particular intellectual breakthrough. The attacks on the Twin Towers pivoted the world away from the Cold War against godless communism and into a new order where the West’s enemies could be denounced for their faith rather than their disbelief. Handily, New Atheism separated old-style Freethought from any social critique, producing an atheism that could lend its ‘progressive’ – even radical – colouration to Islamophobia and liberal imperialism.
Back in 2011, I wrote a piece for New Matilda making that point, and then became embroiled in an angry debate with atheists enraged to be associated with the right. In retrospect, it’s an argument very much of its time, a product of an era in which a not insignificant group of people who identified with the left (does anyone remember the Euston Manifesto?) tacitly or explicitly backed western interventions in the Middle East.
The evolution of Hitchens, the most overtly political of the Horsies, into a shrill and hysterical warmonger dampened down much of the progressive enthusiasm for New Atheism – as, of course, did the collapse of the whole liberal imperialist venture. But Dawkins has played his role in discrediting his movement, too. If 9/11 helped him paint himself as a herald of the antichrist, its retreat into historical memory allows his natural Boomerism to shine.
On Twitter, Dawkins uses, like everyone else, his account to promote his various appearances and enterprises. Yet every so often he supplements this thin gruel with something rather meatier.
His effort the other day was entirely typical. Apropos of nothing in particular, he posted a rumination on eugenics.
‘It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds,’ he explained. ‘It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.’
When, as might be expected, this startling declaration provoked something of a backlash, Dawkins explained, like an aggrieved thirteen-year-old, that just you could breed humans like pigs and dogs that didn’t mean that you should.
Then, inevitably, he began complaining about the nastiness of twitter and its inability to conduct a civil debate.
On one level, all this is simply garden-variety attention seeking: you gin up a bogus controversy so you can proclaim yourself a victim, persecuted for truth telling.
But there’s also something more going on.
In a tweet a few days earlier, Dawkins complained about the reading habits of ordinary people:
Forgot to take something to read in doctor’s waiting room. Had to fall back on magazines provided. Sample headlines: “Mum shut my baby sister in the freezer. I found her behind a meat pie.” “My poor hubby’s privates got EATEN.” People buy magazines like this. They vote
It’s an example of a trait embedded deeply within the New Atheist DNA (as it were): a tendency to regard the masses as ignorant fools who need the guidance of their philosophical superiors. Where an older, Marxist-derived atheism explained religion as a product of alienating social conditions, Dawkins and co. attributed it to the gullibility of the populace. The elitism in that perspective informed their political orientation, allowing them to embrace a liberal interventionism in which enlightened Westerners dragged the ‘backward peoples’ into modernity by their hair.
You can see how the mentality of that tweet (how dare people read popular magazines rather than, say, trolling Twitter all day long!) can lead to some pretty dark places. When Dawkins expressed incredulity about those he regards as his intellectual inferiors being accorded voting rights, he was presumably making a rhetorical point rather than outlining a fighting program.
Others, however, take the argument to its logical conclusion. If the masses are foolish and uneducated, why should they be allowed to take part in political debates they can’t possibly understand? Why let them vote?
Why, indeed, let them breed?
Let’s note, at this point, that Dawkins’ onetime associate Sam Harris now spends his time on the Intellectual (sic) Dark Web lauding racists like Charles Murray, a man who genuinely does look at the human gene pool from the perspective of a canny pig farmer.
Let’s also remember that the rightward trajectory of New Atheism allowed many of its adherents to venture down some similarly nasty paths, with the ‘facts ignore ideology’ slogan echoed in the ‘fuck your feelings’ meme of the alt-right.
If you spend any time on the sites where the online fascists gather, you’ll encounter plenty of Christian fundamentalists, Catholic reactionaries, Odinists, Satanists and other oddballs. But you’ll also find a goodly number of atheist edgelords who have combined Dawkins-style scientism, Islamophobia and elitism into a particularly poisonous brew.
Dawkins isn’t one of them, of course.
He’s not a fascist, nor even a supporter of the alt-right. He’s better understood as an extraordinarily entitled member of the political class, who happens to possess a huge platform through which he can express that entitlement.
Nevertheless, with the far right making increasing inroads into the mainstream, it’s important to remember the role that Dawkins and his friends have made and continue to make in popularising its ideas.