Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer

Good Lord, the religious right had some bad press lately. Most recently it was due to the federal government’s infamous “consent” videos. Not only were they cringeworthy, problematic and enormously expensive (as Amber Schultz reported in Crikey on Thursday), the sex-ed resource was produced by an organisation with possible links to a US-based conservative religious think tank, and it hosted a video and study guide featuring “blatant victim-blaming rhetoric” from another Mormon organisation.

The inclusion of untrained religious groups against expert advice echoed the Coalition’s couples counselling foray in the domestic violence space. Morrison also continues to cop criticism from Australian of the Year Grace Tame and others for promoting Amanda Stoker to assistant minister for women. Stoker is a hard-right Christian who controversially defended a “fake rape on campus” speaking tour and the awarding of an Australia Day honour to its leader Bettina Arndt.

Arndt has previously interviewed Tame’s own alleged abuser, during which Tame claims they “defended crimes against children including rape and child pornography”.

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The Morrison government is reportedly looking to win back the trust of women with a more female-friendly budget and a national summit on family violence. But the influence of its conservative Christian wing, to which Morrison belongs, and their continued regression on gender politics is hampering such efforts, drawing fewer allusions to the CWA than to, say, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The relevance delusion

Right when the influence of religion on public life is ripe for renewed scrutiny, prominent atheists look just as backward as the Bible bashers.

Richard Dawkins was last week stripped of a prestigious humanist award for offensive remarks about transgender people. The American Humanist Association said the author of The God Delusion had “accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalised groups”.

Meanwhile, proudly godless Australian philosopher Peter Singer last week launched a new Journal of Controversial Ideas to rapturous applause from The Australian, promoting the dubious narrative that academia has been ruined by left-wing “cancel culture”.

So threatened by the baying mob are the precious professors, the journal will allow them to publish anonymously. Pseudonymity has legitimate pros and cons, but Singer’s example of shielding a feminist professor from backlash against her anti-trans writing would, as Deakin philosopher Patrick Stokes wrote, merely provide “a safe-house for ideas that couldn’t withstand moral scrutiny”.

The New Atheists are getting old

These are merely the latest in a string of disappointments from the New Atheists, the obnoxious non-believers who came to prominence in the early 2000s. Their demise is lamented particularly by those of us influenced by them.

At 12 years old, I stopped believing in God after watching Christopher Hitchens videos on YouTube. I had once played Joseph in the church nativity play. But watching the “four horsemen” dissect the pompous magniloquence of Biblical rhetoric, I found their logic irrefutable and their charisma intoxicating. From then on, I was an atheist.

Yet these public intellectuals soured with age, especially since the Iraq War turned their focus to increasingly hateful denunciations of Islam. As Jeff Sparrow wrote, they revealed themselves to be “toxic know-it-alls”.

By focusing less on the institutional abuses of churches and more on the supposed idiocy of their followers, they provided a liberal veneer to the dehumanising rhetoric of Bush-era neo-conservatives. Indeed, they lost touch with the Christian tenet most worth preserving — “love thy neighbour”.

An unholy alliance

It’s unsurprising that the former doyens of New Atheism are now so distracted by the inflated excesses of student activism on university campuses, especially regarding the issue of transgender rights. The essence of their schtick has always been to condescendingly browbeat the “delusional” other with (in this case, dubious) “logic” and “science” — something trans people are far too accustomed to.

Their ideal university campus is one in which the freedom to be a belligerent arsehole predominates over one’s responsibility to listen, empathise and be kind.

Then as now, the political projects of Dawkins and their ilk are often, ironically, indistinguishable from those of the reactionary right. By pushing beyond contrarianism into intolerance, they wound up allied with the very forces of mysticism they set out to dismantle.

Now more than ever, we need a movement capable of critiquing the influence of religion in politics. While religion is the opium of increasingly shrinking masses according to the latest census, our political class remain disproportionately devout.

Conservative religiosity in Parliament is not going anywhere, with a recent Christian Right conference imploring evangelicals to increase their numbers in the Coalition and former Australian Christian Lobby leader Lyle Shelton likely set for a seat in NSW Parliament.

But for non-believers, it will not be the tired “old masters” of New Atheism that lead us to the promised land.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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