I find stream-of-consciousness-style writing helps me wrestle with ideas and concepts, organizing thoughts into ideas from the chaos. To be clear, I'm a leftist agnostic (some might say atheist)...
I find stream-of-consciousness-style writing helps me wrestle with ideas and concepts, organizing thoughts into ideas from the chaos. To be clear, I'm a leftist agnostic (some might say atheist) who's been thinking about new atheism and skepticism a lot recently. I spoke to a friend who is a liberal atheist, and they consider themselves a skeptic first, and an atheist second. This seemed strange to me, not because I'm unfamiliar with the skeptical movement, but because it doesn't fit into my current mental model of skepticism. I don't really like the term skeptic. Below, I will attempt to work out my ideas into words, and hopefully have a conclusion.
A quick note: my view of atheism, especially from this era, was largely mediated by YouTube and limited to trends in the US.
Late '00s and early '10s: The Rise of Reactionary Skepticism
For me, no one embodies this era of atheism better than Christopher Hitchens. His videos were one of the many factors that led to me "converting" to atheism. He was a brilliant debater, and mastered the art of crafting rhetoric. Being successful in debate doesn't equate to having more accurate beliefs, but it does mean you can convince people of your ideas more effectively. Upon re-watch of these old videos, they are somewhat intellectually unsatisfying. A case that was impactful to me recently was that upon being presented with a fairly standard formulation of the moral argument, Hitchens feigns shock, and implies that Craig (his opponent) had implied that atheists couldn't act morally (which he clearly didn't.) This is why Hitchens destroys his opponents; he is far more effective at debate than Craig, who looks weak when trying to maintain philosophical precision by choosing statements carefully and hedging/qualifying his statements.
Being skeptical is a valid, often important epistemic tool for increasing the accuracy of our beliefs. For the sake of this post, I will oversimplify skepticism to something like "deconstructing big ideas" and "poking holes in overarching narratives". It starts from a position of neutrality, and seeks to determine if there is rational warrant in believing ideology "X". There are various reasons why one could use skepticism to shape their worldview.
There's a certain kind of skepticism that gained popularity during this time. It was the "'x' DESTROYS 'y' in debate" where "x" was often a new atheist and "y" was often an apologist. There's something both persuasive and cathartic about seeing someone representing your worldview deconstruct someone else's. For many, the reason for watching the content was nothing more than the entertainment value of seeing people get "DESTROYED" in debate. For some, the satisfaction of humiliating the opponent intellectually was the entire point.
Early to mid '10s: Seeking Out Other Ideologies to Destroy
There are only so many religious debates one can have before getting bored. There's basically a set list of apologetic arguments one can have these sorts of debate about before they either get too philosophically dense, or are just so incredibly silly that it isn't satisfying to DESTROY them (in the case of young Earth creationist apologetics.) How many videos can one possibly make debating the Kalam before viewers get bored?
It shouldn't necessarily be surprising that many skeptics turned out to be reactionary. Skepticism is, at least dialectically and sometimes politically, a reactionary position. It turns out there are a lot of ideologies and overarching narratives the left believes in: feminism, progressivism, and various beliefs relating to sexual and gender identity. Gender identity at this time wasn't really on the map, but feminism was. Many prominent atheist YouTube channels pivoted to "'x' DESTROYS 'y' with FACT and LOGIC" but instead of deconstructing religion, it sought to deconstruct feminism. If Christopher Hitchens embodied the previous era, though not an atheist, Ben Shapiro embodies this era.
It seems correct to me that these folks were "skeptical" of feminism. They, from a position of neutrality, sought to "poke holes" in feminist ideology. Of course, the new atheists weren't neutral on religion; they were strongly atheistic. So too were these feminist skeptics. They were strongly misogynistic. Of course, like the new atheists before them, only so much content can be made
2016 to Present: Reactionary Skeptics Abandon Atheism
Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists is the person I pick to personify this era (he was also partly inspiration for these weird person-on-the-street interviews of Christians where they just begin so-called Socratic questioning ("but WHY do believe that, and WHY do you believe that?"), similar to right-wing person-on-the-street interviews of feminists). He's had multiple interviews where he states that criticizing religion is unhelpful; that Christians can be powerful allies against a much worse religion in needing of deconstruction: Wokeism. (yes, he really does use that word)
Skepticism is now a mainstream component of conservative thought. While Climate Change skepticism has been around for awhile, in the COVID-era, skepticism of vaccines and masks is probably one of the more powerful pieces of evidence that skepticism is a core component of modern American conservative ideology. It's also applied to right-wing ideologies: once united on subjects like foreign interventionism and free trade, now there's greater skepticism among conservatives about once unquestioned conservative beliefs. Despite whether you think they are "doing skepticism the right way" they are certainly "doing a skepticism".
Jordan Peterson, famous reactionary, identifies as a Christian. His actual metaphysical beliefs, though he tries to squirm out of elaborating on them, are closely aligned with what the majority of people would describe as atheism. But, like Boghossian has already recognized, Christianity is a tool to be wielded for reactionary political aims, even if you are a de-facto atheist. In 2023, "Christian" implies "conservative" more strongly than any period in my living memory.
New, New Atheism
The movement that has been abandoned by who I call the Reactionary Skeptics has been left primarily with progressives, LGBTQ folks, and many suffering from religious trauma. Christianity more strongly maps onto conservatism in the modern era, therefore its negation isn't a merely reactionary process; it is a progressive, revolutionary one. In keeping with my cringe habit of anointing a YouTube creator for each era, I'd point to Genetically Modified Skeptic (there's that word) as the embodiment of this era.
Obviously these folks were part of "the movement" (if it can even be called such) the entire time. But they are largely who is left. Why did reactionaries decide to leave? Because they realize that religion structures power in a way that they find beneficial, and that atheism can be used to restructure power in a progressive or revolutionary way.
This movement, due to the aforementioned abandonment is far more profoundly progressive than any previous era. Folks like The Satanic Temple come to mind. It's hard to find an atheist creator nowadays that isn't an outspoken proponent of LGBTQ rights and feminism. Atheism has been ceded to the left.
What's the point of this damn post?!
If you are talking in earnest about atheism now, you're probably a progressive. And I don't think it's helpful to use term skeptic. Yes, what a dumb quibble. And yes, you are a skeptic of one particular largely right-wing overarching narrative. But the term is unhelpful. Its confusing. What is meant by skepticism, whenever I press my progressive "skeptical" friends is something along the lines of "having rational beliefs" or "'good' epistemology", which... like come on, that's not what skepticism means. Besides, most people believe they "have true beliefs", which leads me to wonder, what's the point of telling people you're a skeptic?
I get the point. It's about saying something more than "God's not real." But there are simply better, more impressive political projects with less baggage than skepticism.
Thanks for reading :)