Professor George Hawley of the University of Alabama has a new book out next month called Making Sense of the Alt-Right. It’s a deep dive into the movement and the people who make it up. That’s presumably why he was invited on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday to comment on the white supremacist march in Charlottesville.
But when he was asked about the people who make up the alt-right, his response surprised me:
I would say it is definitely a young movement. I’d say that it is predominantly white millennial men. It is not sort of stereotypically conservative in its profile. I’d say that probably it is a more secular population than the country overall. That is, there are a lot of agnostics and atheists or people who are just generally indifferent to religion. And I think that it is a fairly well-educated movement on average, that as I think that probably the model alt-right member has at least some college education.
It’s one thing to say they’re “secular” or indifferent to religion. I could understand that. Everything I’ve seen shows they’re apathetic on the subject. The sort of people who hang out on hateful internet forums aren’t exactly swapping Bible verses. They’re also not logical or rational or critical thinkers. They’re bound by an ideology of hate and victimhood, and unlike the KKK, the inspiration for their bigotry doesn’t necessarily come from a holy book.
But it’s not like they’re spreading Richard Dawkins passages either. The idea that they’re atheist or Agnostic suggests that alt-righters have put thought into he subject of religion and — more importantly — are acting on those beliefs.
I haven’t seen evidence of that at all. When the white supremacists in Charlottesville yell “Jews will not replace us,” they’re not reciting Sam Harris‘ talking points. Atheists (as a whole) tend to be equal opportunity critics of religion, not anti-Semites who single out one faith while ignoring the rest. There’s nothing inherently “atheistic” about hating black people, and the alt-right has never talked about eradicating all religion (or even argued against it, as far as I know). Plus, states that honor the Confederacy aren’t exactly known for their tolerance of atheists…
If anything, the alt-right’s religious beliefs are probably similar to Donald Trump‘s… which is to say it doesn’t factor into their lives at all. They’re atheists like babies are atheists. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not that there aren’t atheists in the movement, but it’s not a movement of atheists.If anything, the Religious Right’s roots are planted in the white nationalist movement. (You’ll never guess which religious demographic is most likely to oppose interracial marriage…)
I should note that Richard Spencer, one of the figureheads for the alt-right movement, is an atheist. (He also thinks separation of church and state “is an utter illusion.” So make of that what you will.) And when I scanned through Hawley’s book on Amazon, the only significant mention of “atheist” or “Agnostic” was a quote from Spencer describing the average alt-right supporter as “someone who is thirty years old, who is a tech professional, who is an atheist, and who lives on one of the coasts.” There’s no evidence to back that up, though. It’s pure anecdote.
Did Hawley have any further justification for saying the movement primarily consisted of non-religious people? I asked him that question last night and he told me this:
… in my qualitative research, I did not talk to a single Alt-Right supporter that was a serious Christian. There are Christians in the movement, but most of the leaders share Spencer’s views of Christianity. On average, I am confident that the Alt-Right is much more fond of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris than, say, Pope Francis or Russell Moore. That said, the Alt-Right has largely moved away from its overt hostility to Christianity, probably because it does not want to alienate potential supporters.
Dawkins, for what it’s worth, has firmly denounced the alt-right rhetoric and even said his criticism of Islam shouldn’t be mistaken for support of Trump’s anti-Muslim policies.
But what Hawley is saying seems much more in line with my argument that we’re talking about a group of people who don’t take religion or non-religion seriously. Their racist dogma isn’t rooted in the writings of prominent atheists. Don’t mistake their religious apathy for vocal irreligion.
It’s also worth mentioning that several large atheist organizations in the country unequivocally condemned the alt-right march, including the Center For Inquiry, American Humanist Association, International Humanist and Ethical Union, and American Atheists. No group with any sort of prominence has defended the alt-right crowd. (Update: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has released a statement denouncing the alt-right as well.)
So let it be known that even if the alt-right is made up of non-religious people, no organized group of atheists wants anything to do with them.