Theorizing the Atheist-Skeptic Movements

It’s not obvious why the atheist-skeptic movements emerged. We know a little bit more about how they emerged, but even then, how they came to alter the intellectual and public landscapes remains an open question.

Some scholars have attempted to come up with some general explanations for how social and scientific/intellectual movements emerge and develop. One such theory, which I used for my Masters research, is Frickel and Gross’s general theory of scientific/intellectual movements (SIMs).

SIMs are similar to social movements, but they tend to focus on scientific or intellectual change with knowledge production as the primary goal. Frickel and Gross detail four propositions as a starting point to guide empirical research:

  1. SIM emergence is largely driven by established scholars who are dissatisfied with the prevailing practices of their field.
  2. Success depends on opportunity structures and access to resources, which includes access to employment, ways for securing intellectual prestige, and mobilizing structures.
  3. Micromobilization contexts provide local sites in which recruitment can take place and networking can flourish, such as conferences, retreats, and of course, academic departments.
  4. In addition to the importance of framing to inspire and guide collective action through boundary-work, intellectual identity plays a fundamental role in the development of ideas.

After reading these propositions you might have noticed that Frickel and Gross’s theory seems to have more to do with academia than something more general, which makes it somewhat difficult to adopt if our focus is the atheist-skeptic movements.

Lena and Peterson argue that there is some common ground to be found with the development of SIMs and other types of movements. They argues that the genre formations in music have similar lifecycles:

The growth of academic disciplines thus resembles musics in the first three phases of the [Avant-garde, Scene-based, Industry-based, and Traditionalist genre forms] trajectory. Much the same process is found in the development of churches that grow from sects or cults. Whether derived from an existing denomination as a sect, or born from fresh inspiration as a cult, these groups can experience similar developmental paths as … genres, until they too wither or become established churches.

Baumann outlines a theory of artistic legitimation, and like Lena and Peterson, he draws parallels between an art movement and a SIM: “Each involves collective action through a network of actors who champion a counterhegemonic idea.”

Perhaps Frickel and Gross’s theory is broad enough to explain the atheist-skeptic movements even though they aren’t exactly academic social movements. I’m not suggesting that the atheist-skeptic movements don’t have academic histories, but the New Atheism and the New Skepticism are distinct from past movements. In this regard, I disagree with Tom Flynn, who doesn’t believe in the New Atheism.