Friday, January 11, 2013

New Atheism in political context.

Post WW2 Europe witnessed an unprecedented population increase fueled by stable employment, improving  medical care, optimism, stability, government cash incentives, returning prisoners of war and immigration from former colonies. By 1950 the unemployment rate in western Europe was just 3%; by 1960 it was just 1.5%.  Europe had rebuilt itself from the destruction of WW2 and was once again thriving and above all, it was young. In France, for example, one person in three was under thirty.  To paraphrase Harold Macmillan, Europe never had it so good.

The extraordinary high birth rate and the determination of parents who suffered during WW2 to create a better life for their children, led to an extraordinary increase in the number of schools and universities and therefore an increase of the numbers of educated young people. Thanks to the economic stability and prosperity of the 1950's and 60's, parents could afford to allow their children to keep the money they earned in part-time jobs.  The new media of television and radio become wide spread across Europe.  The stage was now set for the famous youth fueled 1960s.

The 1960s is famous for sexual experimentation and political activism. However this is mostly exaggeration.  The 60s did see the rise of the teenager and young adult consumer who for the first time had disposable income of their own to spend.  And spend they did - on music, clothes, films and holidays.  This generation was above all aware of it's youth and uniqueness.  The clothes and music they bought reflected this. Clothes became age-specific, reflecting a youthful rebellion against the older generation those were bodies unsuited to revealing clothes only flattering to the young.  The popular music of the time loved to outrage the older generation and guardians of morals. But contrary to myth, the 1960's marked the point when Europe turned away from politics:
The illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism: that illusion was crushed under the tanks on August 21st 1968 and it never recovered. Alexander Dubček and his Action Program were not a beginning but an end. Never again would radicals or reformers look to the ruling Party to carry their aspirations or adopt their projects. Communism in Eastern Europe staggered on, sustained by an unlikely alliance of foreign loans and Russian bayonets: the rotting carcass was finally carried away only in 1989. But the soul of Communism had died twenty years before: in Prague, in August 1968. -  Postwar Europe, Tony Judt.
The disgrace of Communism during the 60's cannot be overstated:  an entire generation of the youthful left grew up steeped in Marxist rhetoric;  rhetoric which by 1968 was truly discredited.  By 1970 the baby boomers were entering middle age in a post-prosperity Europe plunged once again into recession by two unexpected oil crisises and the US abandonment of fixed currency exchange.  Young adults who once talked of "alienation" and "liberation of the proletariat" developed into middle aged men and women more concerned with supporting their families and their future pension plans in social welfare states now living beyond their means. Worse, the rise of constructivism during the 60's  - which claimed all behavior, opinion and knowledge was socially derived and therefore politically instrumental and should be regarded with suspicion - had by the 1970's hardened into a widespread cynicism where an aging population was forced by circumstances to give precedence to their own individual well being.  The politics of the Left and Right were closer than ever before, distinguished only by social issues like marriage and reproduction.  What then emerged was "single issue politics"  -  movements whose members are united only by a single cause and reluctant to formally support any existing political party.

Three such movements would have lasting impact:  feminism, environmentalism, peace activism.

It is in this context I believe New Atheism should be placed and understood.  New Atheism is a single issue movement united by a single cause which like feminism and peace activism (but not environmentalism) has been incorporated with various degrees of success into mainstream politics but is without a political party of it's own.  It was no surprise then when the Atheist+ movement was stillborn over it's adaption of feminism; I would expect similar splits to occur should Atheist+ attempt to adapt peace activism or environmentalism due to the absence of any common denominator or unifying belief.  This is not to say the Left, as it commonly claimed, is out of ideas. Rather the Left  is out of grand ideas.

What will the future hold for New Atheism?  Those who attempt to dismiss the movement as a fashionable fad are wrong.  It is no more a fad than feminism and it will exist so long as religious organizations demand political power.

But the glory days of consistent best selling books and media headlines are over.  Richard Dawkins best selling God Delusion spawned a near countless number of published rebuttals from outraged believers of every religion and earned Dawkins a headline media profile.  He has done more to promote religious debate in Ireland than any member of the Roman Church.  But his star like the Roman church itself has faded. The public appetite for such debate is sated and so the attack dogs of the New Atheists and the righteous defenders of God are destined to grapple together in the virtual and published worlds while the West at large ignores them both.

In short, the fate of  New Atheism is linked with the faith of political religion;  both will rise and fall in response to public apathy. The next battlegrounds are opening in Africa and Asia where religion has seen huge gains but so too have religious motivated identity politics and violence.  New Atheism is destined to remain a single issue movement whose success will lie in its ability to lobby well established political parties. It will remain  part of the ebb and flow of the political tide for some time to come.
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