Stephen LeDrew, a post-doctoral researcher in sociology at Uppsala University in Sweden, is an atheist critical of the anti-religious “New Atheism” movement popularized by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. LeDrew puts his knowledge of sociology to the test in his sure-to-be controversial book, The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement (Oxford University Press, Nov.), calling the movement a "defense of the position of the white middle-class western male." PW caught up with the first-time author to talk more about how the growing atheist community is influenced by the social and political environment.
The principle argument of your book in an interesting one: can you tell me about it and how you developed it?
Essentially I argue that the atheist movement historically has been divided between two major groups: those who oppose religion because they see it as a challenge to scientific authority, and those whose objection is based more on religion as a source of, and support for, various forms of social oppression. Today in America it’s even more complicated, since there’s also a group of libertarians who tie atheism to economic freedom, and on the other side there’s a growing group of mostly younger atheists who are interested in promoting social justice and equality. So there’s a political spectrum within the atheist movement and there are groups that are directly opposed to each other in some ways.
Your book focuses on “New Atheism.” What motivated you to write about this topic?
I’m an atheist, and though my book is quite critical of the New Atheists, it’s certainly not because I object to atheism in general. When I first encountered the New Atheism I was excited that a critical public dialogue about religion was happening. As I got to know these thinkers better, I began to see some of their ideas as quite dangerous—such as the intolerance they have for cultural diversity and some seeds of social Darwinism. So part of the motivation for it was that I think atheism can do much better than people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
We are often our own worst critics, what do you think some of the criticisms of your book might be?
I’ve already heard some criticisms from academic colleagues. I think one thing that will come up is the question of what evidence I have to support my arguments about the divisions within the atheist movement. I admit that I don’t have a lot of numbers or any large-scale surveys to back this up, but really I’m just trying to identify the major goals and sets of ideas that are shaping the movement, and I’m confident that I’ve done that.