GEEK TALK: How Atheism and Populism Related? (Part 2 of 4)

Homar Murillo

What is neo-atheism? Atheism generally refers to non-belief in any deity. However, neo-atheism is a relatively recent modern-day phenomenon distinct from the philosophical atheism of Nietzsche, Sartre and other thinkers of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Unlike the “old” atheism that was a bit romantically nostalgic and sometimes poetic about religion, neo-atheism lacks the theological-philosophical sophistication of the old atheism. It is not so much a metaphysical or scholarly critique of theology and apologetics but rather it is characterized as a sociopolitical-cultural movement that is oftentimes anti-theist in its overt contempt for organized religion and religious people, particularly antagonistic of fundamentalists. Ideologically, most neo-atheists adhere to scientism or the excessive, almost dogmatic, belief in the power of science to explain everything. The roots of neo-atheism as a global movement can be traced back to the post-Nine-Eleven terrorist attack in the United States. Atheists, agnostics, secularists and non-religious people began to form groups from simple online forums to formal real-world organizations. Atheist polemicists like the so-called Four Horsemen of Atheism – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett – became celebrities and staple of atheist conferences and conventions worldwide, earb. Their books became bestsellers. As an organized movement, neo-atheism started in the United States, but it soon spread to poorer developing countries like the Philippines through the internet. Secular and non-religious organizations such as the Filipino Free Thinkers, the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS), and the Humanist Alliance Philippines, International were formed to spread secularist ideas and to serve as socialization hubs for civic-minded nonbelievers. These organizations advocated the non-interference of the church in political matter. They advocated for the passage of the RH law, the tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ, and the taxation of church institutions. These groups held rallies in the streets, organized charity events, conducted public lectures and academic debates, and organized conferences. Some of these groups also became involved in LGBTQ issues, environmental campaigns, and other liberal-left-leaning advocacies that are a bit off-tangent with the prevailing conservative views. What is authoritarian populism? Like neo-atheism, authoritarian populism is a relatively new sociopolitical-cultural phenomenon within the context of liberal democracy. It is not necessarily synonymous with popularity, but it connotes wider appeal. In simple terms, it is about appealing to the common people or the masses by using demagogic rhetoric and divisive tactics. Unlike the typical populist politicians, an authoritarian populist would market himself as a strong-willed political outsider that is against the status quo. He would also exaggerate problems, whether imagined or real, to scare people or make them angry. Then he would present simplistic solutions, claiming that only his strong, unadulterated and uncompromising political will could deliver. Some parallelisms can be drawn between old-style fascism and authoritarian populism, but the main difference is that the latter can hijack democracy without necessarily overthrowing. An authoritarian populist regime functions more like a government of the mob but still, thriving on negative and prurient emotions of the people, particularly frustrations and anger against the liberal democrats and minorities such as immigrants, petty criminals and drug addicts. An authoritarian populist politician resort to deceit through repetitive blatant lies and gaslighting tactics to maintain divisiveness and consolidate support from his core supporters. Like other authoritarian regimes, the rule under this type of leader can be described as “crisis-based” rule that is dependent on maintaining the illusion of ongoing conflicts and problems that only the populist leader could solve or at least keep at bay. The rise of authoritarian populism can be traced back to as early as the late 1990’s but its watershed period was between 2014 and 2018 when we saw the rise of demagogues like Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, United States President Donald Trump, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán. Under this new type of popular authoritarian leaderships, democratic ideals like check and balances, human rights and the rule of law are seriously under threat. The oppression of minorities is also a common theme that pervades these regimes. The erosion of sympathy, moral values and basic civility is an alarming symptom of this type of politics. Base-superstructure model Previously, we have discussed a Marxist hypothesis that could explain the relationship between neo-atheism and populism. Specifically, this hypothesis is based on Marx’s materialist views of historical determinism, i.e., the interactions between the means of production or the economic base and the superstructure, which include non-economic aspects of society such as education, arts, philosophy, politics, etc. These interactions determine the course of history. Both neo-atheism and populism are part of the superstructure that is shaped by the modern-day technological and scientific economic base. The former is a cultural trend based on the critique of religion using scientific claims – oftentimes, in the form of misguided scientism. The latter is a political trend that is fueled by the frustrations of a significant portion of the electorate against the status quo in countries where “elite democracy” and neo-liberal policies thrive. The rise of both trends in the modern era of globalized economy is not a mere coincidence but rather it is an inevitable consequence of extreme socioeconomic inequalities brought about by neo-liberal policies such as bank bailouts and job contractualization. The inequalities between countries and between the social classes within the countries resulted in paradigm shifts that weakened the influence of religion in rich industrialized countries but also at the same time created further tensions among the social classes. Neo-liberalism’s promises of greater economic prosperity, better social mobility and equity are now seen as mere farce by many voters who felt that they were left out and betrayed by their leaders. The so-called trickle-down effect is just a hype with no actual substance. Only an elite few significantly benefitted from neo-liberalist policies while many are left unemployed or underemployed, alienated, poor and dejected. Many people, even in industrialized countries, felt alienated and betrayed by their government. They perceived liberal democracy as false and mere instrument of the oligarchs. (To be continued…)