A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? IV: Anatomy of a Pipeline

This is a follow up to the three previous Pipeline posts- the original, II: Feedback and Insight, and III: Fragmentation and Space.

Up to this point, I’ve been talking about the “alt-right pipeline”, which emerged relatively recently and gained mainstream salience around 2015 with the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. However, that is pipeline, not the pipeline. There is no one pipeline, many have existed throughout the decades. They share common features and can be identified by those features, and several have targeted certain portions of the Unitarian Universalist population.

I’m going to use this post to explore the aspects of a pipeline, how its innocuous surface makes it easy for well-meaning, progressive people to fall down. To do this, I’m going to use an earlier pipeline- the New Atheism pipeline, which transitioned into an anti-Islam and anti-feminist movement over time. Figures in the New Atheist movement like Richard Dawkins were common reading among UUs- the first copy of The God Delusion I saw in print was at my old congregation’s book sale table. Some of the introductory figures weren’t ever reactionary, some became reactionary over time, and some were always reactionary but had some surface level of scientific credential or other traits masking their underlying nature.

The New Atheist pipeline is older than the alt-right pipeline, but they fit together imperfectly, like a kitchen pot with the wrong lid. There are some figures who have figured into both. The New Atheism pipeline is older, but its infrastructure never went away- people everyday are growing up, discovering the works of major 21st century atheists, and being led down the path to intolerance. Compared to the alt-right, which has had many of its key figures and communities banned from major websites and otherwise marginalized, the most salient New Atheists still retain the platform they once had. They continue to publish, appear at conferences, do guest spots on one another’s podcasts.

This is not an exhaustive timeline of New Atheism. For an overview of its key figures and their general argumentative framework about god and belief, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good overview, as does RationalWiki. We’re speaking of a thread that begins around 2004 (Sam Harris’ The End of Faith) and reached perhaps its greatest salience a couple years later (Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation (2006); Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006); Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (2007)). The “movement” goes through multiple phases, eventually ending up at GamerGate- the systematic harassment  of female cultural critics like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoë Quinn, starting in 2014 and largely becoming indistinguishable from the nascent alt-right a year later. Some figures remain distinct from the alt-right, some have a foot in each camp, some went straight from being part of one pipeline to another

Edit: A commenter mentioned that New Atheist-minsogynst controversies predate GamerGate by several years, particularly “Elevatorgate” (beginning in July 2011) which involved unwanted sexual advances, convention culture, and the male, cisgender, white demographic dominance within the skeptic community. This also involved Richard Dawkins both dismiss these concerns and in the process say some horrible things about Muslim women. It shows how Dawkins, an entry point in the pipeline, also quickly can pivot to highly regressive opinions, and frequently uses incidents like Rebecca Watson’s story of unwanted sexual advances to instead launch into a rant about Islam.

Here is the general sequence of a pipeline, using commonalities between the New Atheist and alt-right pipelines:

  • Intellectual figures begin a pivot from areas of their expertise to politics and philosophy. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor with clinical and teaching experience dating back to the 1990s, suddenly goes from talking about psychology to “free speech” and the right to misgender trans people. He then begins to critique postmodernism, Marxism, and cultural studies, which he has no real background in. Richard Dawkins goes from influential evolutionary scientist with works like The Selfish Gene to talking about religion and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Figures with media and/or academic credibility begin to share the stage with more extreme, polemical individuals, legitimizing them and their ideology. Peterson goes on the Rubin Report. Dave Rubin also interviews far-right British xenophobe Tommy Robinson and “race realist” Stefan Molyneux. Sam Harris has race scientist Charles Murray on his podcast to talk about race and IQ.
  • An online community gradually moves from the entry point to more extreme content through aggressive targeting by profit-seeking grifters. YouTube videos on a wide variety of subjects (including left-wing and liberal politics!) are preceded by long ads for Dennis Prager’s “PragerU” propaganda outfit, and Ben Shapiro’s show. Shapiro does an ad read for a toothbrush company in the middle of an anti-abortion speech, because his politics and money-making ventures merge into one.
  • The original point of the movement is lost, and is replaced with right-wing bigotry. New Atheist personalities like thunderf00t stop making videos about Young Earth creationists and start mostly complaining about feminists. Sam Harris talks about Muslim migrants “replacing” white French citizens, which was an influence on the Christchurch shooter’s ideology, gradually replacing religious arguments with “cultural” or racial arguments.GamerGate was ostensibly about “ethics in video game journalism” but from day one was rooted in an attempt to weaponize the internet against women. GamerGate eventually ‘hollowed out’, with only the most unhinged, radicalized people left to carry on the campaign- a split between “true believers” that fell down the pipeline, and the grifters. Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, started in GamerGate, but moved on to Brexit and anti-“SJW” rants when the media attention, and sources of money, shifted.

 

These may seem like jarring shifts, but taking place over multiple years, the transition can be too gradual to see effectively. Each stage of the pipeline is connected to the next- they share conference appearances, podcast guest spots, promote each other’s books. Thus, an atheist in 2004 could start with The End of Faith, and end up 12 years later hearing Harris give Charles Murray two hours to talk about race science. The God Delusion, sold at the UU congregation I spent five years in, is connected through common platforms to “red pill” anti-feminists and Islamaphobes. Sometimes the transition is a handoff between different people, other times a single person shifts over time. Those that became a fan of an author’s early writings, and retained some attachment to their work, could end up with a much more extreme set of values just by keeping up with the work of Dawkins, or Harris.

New Atheism was launched as a campaign against fundamentalism and irrational conservatism. Its intended audience included many UU humanists and atheists. But key people who helped create the movement eventually flipped all the way around, to become Western chauvinists, Islamaphobes, anti-feminists. Or, sometimes, they were always these things but they had a more innocuous entry point that disguised their underlying ideology. 

 

 

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? III: Fragmentation and Space

Building off of my first two posts in this series (Part I and Part II: Feedback and Insight), I will now explore a phenomenon that either is very recent (if you’re of a certain, younger age) or quite old- the unity and fragmentation of UU spaces.

Unitarian Universalism is very congregation-focused. The question I get all the times by people who are curious is “what is a UU service like?” And any long-time UU knows that’s an impossible question to answer before the service. Congregations vary widely between themselves and week-to-week, as guest ministers and special speakers may deviate sharply from routine. The Unitarian Universalist Association gets a lot of focus put on it, both by external parties and individual congregants, but it comes from a very historically weak legacy. David Robinson, in The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985), says that for many decades in the 19th century, the very idea of a national Unitarian organizing force was viewed with profound suspicion. Obviously, things have changed a great deal since then, but congregations are both very idiosyncratic and hold a lot of authority, both day-to-day and in sending delegates to the General Assembly.

Speaking of General Assembly, it serves as one of the few (some may argue, the only) national-scale space for UUs to gather and cross-pollinate. But even it is restricted- most people don’t attend General Assembly in a given year, many never will. And the space, while national in composition, is also a bubble of sorts. The fallout of Rev. Eklof distributing The Gadfly Papers at this year’s Assembly was confused and chaotic to outside observers. Even myself, someone who considers themselves up-to-date on UU matters, who has a call tomorrow with the Boston University School of Theology to explore a divinity degree, could hardly follow what happened. There were notable statements issued, a wide variety of individual reactions spread over social media, but a lot was lost between GA and the larger whole. Answers like whether the minister was disciplined, on what grounds, by whom, and when, were difficult to come across.

So if General Assembly is not a national space in a true sense, let alone for Unitarians, both ex-pats from North America and indigenous Unitarian traditions, that span the Earth, does such a space exist?

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The evolution of the Internet has made large spaces both easier and more difficult to create. In the early Internet, UU and UU-adjacent listservs and Usenet groups were comparatively universal in reach among those online- there was little in the way of competing platforms. Though the reach of the Internet has grown spectacularly in essentially a quarter-century, the rise of competing, proprietary corporate-created social media platforms has fragmented the spaces where Unitarian Universalists discuss the faith. Much of the online population remains on Facebook, where privacy settings tend to keep discussion within certain boundaries. I have very few UU Facebook friends, so most discussion of the religion, for me, comes from public pages like DRUUMM and Black Lives of UU. And even then, like many millennials I spend little time on Facebook compared to other platforms like Twitter, Discord, and Instagram. A lot is being said, but it replicates the congregational structure rather than breaks through it, with the exception of certain individuals whose contacts span multiple areas and churches.

Spaces that could be more inclusive, like Reddit, are now breaking apart rather than coming together. A splinter of the /r/UUReddit community formed this week, in reaction to more stringent rules about hateful conduct and bad faith arguments tactics like sea lioning and ‘just asking questions’. This is not the only splintering of UU space there has been, just the most recent. Fragmentation is born of fragility, especially white fragility. Certain groups are unwilling to move forward and instead retreat backwards towards a mythical, pre-political, pre-anti-racist church.

An attempt is being made by myself and others to reach out, find both old allies and new potential Unitarian Universalists. The UU Discord chat server (join by clicking the invite link here) started from a suggestion on Reddit, but has matured into an autonomous community including ministers, divinity students, lay leaders, congregants, and people who just found out about UUism fifteen minutes ago and have all kinds of questions.  It skews young, as existing Discord users are likely to be podcast listeners or gamers. Recently the Discord launched a Twitch stream, which besides the usual game playthroughs has great potential as a source of new UU content- book clubs, worship services, discussions, and much else can be done streaming for a live audience all over the world.

There are efforts made to make a larger, distinctly UU space. A recurring motif in welcoming new users to the Discord is “why didn’t I know about Unitarian Universalism ten years ago”. There is a need for more visibility, even if UUs will forever shun the kind of door-to-door evangelizing that other faiths practice. People find the faith when they find it, but it could have been a great source of affirmation, comfort, and support had they known about it during prior crisis moments in their lives. This means reaching out, both within and beyond the UU community.

Unitarian Universalism, if active in online spaces, can also be a counter to alt-right radicalization with a voice encouraging principles of equality, inherent worth, and love in our living tradition. If there is no UU content on a platform, that is just more space for the reactionaries- we cannot expect billion-dollar profit-seeking corporations to keep the alt-right in check. We must be active directly.

As Mario Savio implored to humankind, both then and now, on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in 1964:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! (Source)

It is unlikely that a vote or a petition will shut down the alt-right pipeline.

It’s up to us.