Before I get to my main topic today, I’d like to address a couple of odds and ends. First, I am aware that the Daily Grail reported today that fringe archaeology writers Robert Schoch and Robert Bauval have published a new article on the Sphinx in a pay-for-play open access Chinese academic journal. I am reading the piece, but it’s going to take me another day or so to digest it and decide what I think. I hope to have some thoughts about it tomorrow.
If you are a subscriber to my newsletter, you already know that Le Monde reported this week that a French philosopher suffered embarrassment when it was discovered that he had mistaken a fake news story from 2014 about the “discovery” of a Viking ship near Memphis, Tenn. for a genuine science report and gave the false information in his new book Decadence. You can read the details here.
You might have seen that The Daily Grail also has an article asking if meteorites were the inspiration for religion and for the pyramids, since many meteors have a conical shape. Since the pyramid shape is the only truly stable way to raise a massively tall structure without modern internal support structures, the second claim probably falls more into the category of pyramid builders seeing a similarity, not an inspiration. The former claim is an interesting and very old one. I have in my Library an article from 1896 that makes exactly the same case, with much of the same evidence. In his Pyramidographia in the 1600s, John Greaves argued that statues of the pagan gods were often meteors. The article quotes what it says is a quotation from Clement of Alexandria on the worship of stones as the first idolatry, but the “quote” is actually the words of Edward King from 1796, summarizing what he said was an argument from Cement’s Stromata 1. However, I can’t find anything like it in the first book of the Stromata. It is my understanding from old books that the source of the claim is actually Dionysus Vossius’s translation of Maimonides’ tractate on idolatry (Mishneh Torah, treatise 4, sec. 6), which has been read to say that Jacob’s stone pillow from Genesis was the progenitor of the idols. The claim appears in Thomas Lewis’s Origines Hebrææ (1725), where stones were explicitly said to be the oldest objects of worship.
But what I am interested in talking about today is an article by atheist Phil Torres (not to be confused with the TV host of the same name) that ran in Salon on Saturday. Torres argued that the so-called “New Atheism” has slowly but inexorably aligned itself with the so-called “alt-right,” embracing a raft of positions that are contrary to the movement’s stated aim of embracing science and reason but which are closely aligned with a rightwing agenda of grievance and Manichean absolutism.
I will leave it to you to read the full article, which at times is a bit too “inside baseball” to make good sense to a general audience, but his laundry list of examples makes the case that (a) skepticism, secular humanism, and atheism have joined together though they are not, technically, related, and (b) all three are becoming suffused with an alt-right mentality that takes as its foundational assumption the superiority of the traditional white male version of Western civilization. Torres notes the usual suspects: Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, whose anti-Islamic rhetoric shades beyond reason into full-on emotional hysteria; the same characters’ misogyny, including Harris’s claim that atheism is a male pursuit because it lacks an “estrogen vibe”; the broader anti-feminist tone of atheist leaders and their warm embrace of alt-right darlings like Milo Yiannopolous in the name of challenging “P.C. culture” and Charles Murray in the name of declaring Blacks to be racially inferior. Yes, Sam Harris praised Murray and said Blacks were less intelligent on average because of their genes.
Now I don’t agree with everything Torres said; for example, there is nothing inherently irrational about being conservative, nor incompatible with being ethical or atheist. One might even hold most of the same positions as Sam Harris and defend them rationally and ethically. Torres is proudly liberal, and he wrongly chides atheists for not all embracing his set of liberal social views. But Torres is right that the most famous of the New Atheists, and increasingly their allies in the skeptical movement, aren’t defending their beliefs rationally but are promoting an ideology that nods to science and reason the same way that Soviet communism nodded toward egalitarianism.
They say they care about facts, yet refuse to change their beliefs when inconvenient data are presented. They decry people who make strong assertions outside of their field and yet feel perfectly entitled to make fist-poundingly confident claims about issues they know little about. And they apparently don’t give a damn about alienating women and people of color, a truly huge demographic of potential allies in the battle against religious absurdity.
To be frank, the criticism focuses mostly on the celebrities who use atheism as a brand, primarily Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the ghost of the dead Christopher Hitchens. Some of it applies to the second tier of atheist and skeptical leaders who mimic their style if not always their (lack of) substance.
But atheists and skeptics have picked the article apart over the past few days and I have little to add to that.
What I am interested in, however, is the question of why the alt-right has come to fore in both the atheist / skeptical movement and also the New Age / fringe movement. This is beyond weird considering the relatively small number of people who identify as alt-right and the much larger audience for both fringe history and skeptical views.
We have explored many times the rightward tilt of fringe history, a strange feature of the fringe in the past two or three decades and a complete turnaround from the middle twentieth century, when the fringe was more closely aligned with New Age liberal ideas. Today, fringe history is a parade of conservative and alt-right conspiracy theories, with a distinctive white supremacist bent. From pseudo-documentaries that propose a white master race and a sinister quasi-Semitic force planning literal or economic genocide against white people, to online hucksters who use the threat of aliens, Nephilim, or other imagined evils to sell survivalist gear and paranoia supplies, conspiracy culture is intimately tied to the right. Figures like Alex Jones, Steve Quayle, L. A. Marzulli, and Jim Marrs push the conservative line, while liberals in the fringe field like Giorgio Tsoukalos and Scott Wolter find themselves supporting and promoting rightwing conspiracies due to their participation in a systemically rightist field. The takeover came about because of the intentional marriage of rightwing anti-government conspiracy theories with UFO/alien theories and historically Eurocentric lost civilization theories. The depressing number of fringe leaders who are explicitly or implicitly racist shows that this is a feature and not a bug. Even William Shatner--Captain Kirk!—both hosted a fringe history show (Weird or What?) and offers vile alt-right commentary on his Twitter account. Leonard Nimoy he isn’t.
But how did skepticism and atheism come to promote figures with extreme conservative views on certain issues to so many positions of power? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a movement that once counted liberals like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and James Randi among its leaders would have ended up doing, much less one that devotes so much ink to creating elaborate ethical justifications for a range of generally center-left political positions that they mistake for universal constants, as well as scientific positions on evolution and climate change that are at odds with the right. And yet over the past two decades, atheism and skepticism has pushed forward leaders who have come to embrace a Western chauvinist model of social theory—one that I recently noted skeptic Michael Shermer promotes without even recognizing—along with extreme anti-Islamic views and an eagerness to support some (though by no means all) right-wing social views. (Shermer criticized the argument on Twitter yesterday, mistaking the New Atheist movement for atheism itself, a misleading position, and thus concluding that atheism itself cannot be in trouble.)
The mirroring of the two movements and their leaders’ rightward drift is interesting. I wonder why it is occurring. The facile answer is that everyone freaked out about 9/11 and tried to retrench by promoting a fantasy version of the 1950s. A paranoid person might suggest that there has been a concerted effort by a cadre of retrograde forces to infiltrate groups in order to promote a highly specific racist, misogynist, and Islamophobic agenda. But it seems difficult to imagine a project that coordinated. A soft version of this, however, might be the case, where a system of incentives leads to rightward drift because of the apparent rewards of tapping into a large, homogenous audience with a proven ability to spend on products and services that appeal to their core beliefs. While Torres is right that focusing on old white men leaves a lot of others on the table, this is only a concern if you are trying to maximize your audience. If, on the other hand, your goal is to create the strongest sense of loyalty and tribal connection in your audience, choosing a homogenous group whose shared prejudices unite them isn’t the worst choice. It’s why Fox News, the Republican Party, and the History Channel share the same base.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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