Essay:Debating the Guitarist: The Reflections of a Post-Dawkinsian Skeptic
I was born in California, to a devout (well, ostensibly devout) Irish-German-Bohemian mother and an agnostic Danish-Scots-Irish father. I was baptized soon after, was sent to a Methodist preschool, and was then sent to a Catholic K-8 school, where my mother and her family (including my cousins) had all gone. I legitimately believed in the Creation story of Genesis until I was around 7, when my father first introduced me to agnosticism and skepticism away from my mother's family. My identity was more vaguely rebellious than actually atheist; my teachers and friends were Catholic, so I was a staunch atheist. They were various stripes of conservative, so I embraced "ironic" socialism, Marxism, even Maoism and Trotskyism. They were against marriage equality, and so I was for it. The only cause which differed from my friends for which I was committed to less out of rebellion and more out of sincere belief was women's choice; my mother was, in spite of her religious beliefs, an ardent supporter of women's choice, and I imagine she will be until the day she dies.
One afternoon, in the 7th grade, I saw my father watching another video of a debate between Richard Dawkins and some Christian, a Mormon, with the usual title of "Dawkins PWNS Mormon in Debate!", or something like that. When the video was ending, the moderator of the debate mentioned that the Mormon had to "go set up," and I was puzzled. I asked my dad what the moderator had meant by that, and he answered, "Oh, he's part of the band, a guitarist or something like that." "Why is Dawkins debating a guitarist?" I asked. While I forget my dad's response, I remember the weird feeling inside, of watching one of the Four Horsemen of the atheist movement debate a musician. While I shrugged it off then, the question came back whenever I read about people like Sam Harris or Thunderf00t, skeptics who had embraced conservative talking points usually embraced by the Christian right. I wondered what Dawkins, or even the skeptic/atheist community as a whole, could possibly gain by debating and "PWN"ing a guitarist. It was only until Ikanreed posted the topic in the Saloon about if the Skeptic community has lost that I finally, truly, understood the answer.
Because Dawkins would obviously win.
Part 1: The Death of Discourse in Skepticism
I play Dungeons and Dragons with my friends at college, just as a hobby. As a DM, I have to write the encounters, the narrative arcs, etc. If what my players say to me is true (which it probably isn't), then I'm not that bad. But it's just a hobby, and I'm just an amateur. Imagine if I were then forced to compete against Matt Mercer for the title of "Best DnD Setting Writer." Matt Mercer did not start off as a professional DM. But much of his fame comes from his skills as a DM, and over time that's become the main reason for his notability. I wouldn't stand a chance.
Now imagine this: You are a Mormon guitarist working for the band of a talk show. Suddenly, before the show really starts, you are dragged out to debate against Richard Dawkins himself. now as a Mormon, you have probably considered your faith before, perhaps even deeply, and maybe have even mounted a spirited and eloquent defense of it to your friends. In the end, though, you're a guitarist debating Richard Dawkins. While Dawkins is a professor of evolutionary biology, much of his fame comes from his ability to debate the ethics of religion and faith against cardinals, rabbi, imams, and other religious figures who have trained in theology and philosophy.
Sure, perhaps the poor bastard legitimately thought he could come at the king and not miss. But, really, we know better. The debate was an absolute slaughter in Dawkins' favor, which everyone watching knew would be the result. The title of the clip on YouTube led viewers to the conclusion that Dawkins would win as well.
The comments on that video were more of the same, praising Dawkins for his deconstruction of the Mormon's arguments, without actually adding anything to the debate, or discussing the argument in any detail. I believe this showed the problem with the latter part of what we can call the skeptic or atheist movements as cohesive entities; it turned into hero worship of the Four Horsemen. Atheist discourse turned into self-congratulatory masturbation, focused more on pissing off the religious than on actually improving society through rationalism and humanism, or bringing the religious to see the light. The kinds of atheists who watched those videos (or at least, most of them) didn't watch those videos in order to watch a debate, they came to see their worldview reinforced through the verbal evisceration of an opponent incapable of effectively fighting back. Like the Romans watching a lion devour Christians in the Colosseum, they were there to see someone lose badly.
A movement focused more on memetic jokes, irreverent offensiveness, and hero worship? Is it any wonder that we find so many former atheists among the alt-right and their fellow travelers?
Part 2: Privilege
Consider that the Four Horsemen, as well as many other atheist figureheads, were and are white, cis, heterosexual, upper middle-class males. Much of atheist discourse was focused on the evils that religion caused, such as sexism, racism, slavery, war, and other forms of bigotry. While some atheists, such as P.Z. Meyers, decided to use atheism as a vehicle for more general social justice, most others didn't. Hitchens turned from an anti-war activist who called Henry Kissinger a war criminal and wrote damningly of the Reagan administration into an apologist for neoconservative interventionism. Dawkins made excuses for a sexual assaulter (see "Dear Muslima" in Elevatorgate) and Harris is...well, Harris.
Atheism, as an ideology, has no way to deal with the privilege of its proponents, and the cheap "PWN the religious" type of atheism discouraged the type of discourse and self-reflection necessary to make the regular internet adherents of the ideology confront their own advantages. Framing the end of religion as a key step in establishing a Star Trek-esque utopia removed the need for taking further steps to remove inequality. After all, if religion is the root of sexism, or at least its main justification, then shouldn't I be exempt from the need to be a feminist if I'm already an atheist? Don't you see? I'm an egalitarian! I'm going to end sexism by ending religion! Shut up, SJW! You're as bad as the Christians!
Many of the younger atheists saw it as more of an excuse to rebel against religiosity than as an honest intellectual movement. It's a way of reinforcing their superiority over their stupid friends and teachers, and hiding their religiosity felt subversive, felt exciting.
Or at least, that's how it felt to little 8th-grade RoninMacbeth. Had I not gone to a public high school, where I was forced to confront my own privilege and even my own bigotry to an extent, I probably would be among the fellow travelers of the alt-right. I mark my political maturation as the point where my main identification stopped being "subversive atheist" and started being "reformist social democrat." The faux-rebelliousness of late-atheism allowed me to think that I was an egalitarian person, that I was fighting the evils of religion, and that I must be a good person. Only recently did I discover that fighting the evils of religion did not alone make me a good person. Advocating for and supporting good does, or at least makes me less of a bad person.
As a side note, it's interesting to note late-atheists and their relations with the religious in the US. Because the US is majority-Christian, atheists realized, begrudgingly, that simply pissing off Christians doesn't work, as there are too many to do so. Muslims, on the other hand, do not have that privilege, which I believe is why Islamophobia started popping up in the atheist movement.
More to Come Later
To answer Ikanreed's question, I believe that the reason that the atheist and skeptic movements lost is that they stopped focusing on actual, tangible goals. Promoting skepticism in medicine became pwning the anti-vaxxers and homeopathy advocates. Promoting humanism became thrashing randos on the internet. Promoting irreligiosity became bashing Muslims. Fighting against the injustices of religion became putting down the social justice movements who should have been the atheist movement's allies. Religion, as we knew it years ago, is crumbling. Anti-vaxxers are losing ground, and other irrational movements lost their prominence except as punchlines. But that stopped being the point years ago. The point was to feel better, smarter, better-spoken than our opponents. The point was to make the other side look like idiots. The point was debating the guitarist.