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The “New Atheism” 16 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Evolution, Literature, Religion, Science.
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Yesterday I listened to a podcast interview with Richard Dawkins, wherein, among other things, he addressed the notion of the “new atheism” and some of the criticisms leveled at the “movement” in the media. A friend of mine this morning made a comment that, in combination with the Dawkins interview, pushed my buttons. Here’s my cranky response:

I’ve also been following the debates about the so-called “New Atheism” for the past few years. Here’s a couple things I am observing:

1) There’s no such thing as “new atheism.” This was a term/idea made up by the media and/or the religionists as a way to deflect away from the actual arguments being made. Nothing about what they are saying hasn’t been said and written for nearly the past 150 years (or 400 if you count Spinoza and the Dutch enlightenment). [sarcasm]Instead, these are arguments finally taken seriously by the public, so the best answer is to stomp your feet and insist that religion is pretty or that the “new atheists” just don’t get it. Oh yeah, and the new atheists are sinister and evil, they want your children and they’ll destroy civilization![/sarcasm]

2) There is no political agenda to eradicate religion from humanity. That is absurd hyperbole coming from religious apologists and doesn’t match the arguments these authors/thinkers are actually making. In fact, all three of the big names (Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins) argue that religiosity is in some way natural to human psyches. Harris, the most anti-religion in general, argues mostly about specific beliefs and points people to the effect their beliefs have in the social realm. His book is blatantly spiritual, in fact. So is Dawkins. Dennett’s not as much, but he’s a cranky philosopher.

3) We are in a historical moment when there is obviously a cultural thirst for this kind of argument, otherwise, none of these books would’ve sold millions of copies. Most likely this is coming from our growing awareness in America of the power of religion in the public sphere a la Christian Right, and those who are dying for 77 white raisins, er, virgins after blowing themselves to smithereens. What has changed is that we are *finally* as a society having a public and open discussion about what is irrational in religion and its effects. And rather than being shouted down, arrested, or burned at the stake, the voices for reason are actually being heard and taken seriously on a wide scale. That has never happened before in American (or even European) history.

4) The so-called “new atheists” aren’t going door to door asking people to be saved or else burn in hell; they aren’t putting tracts in people’s mail box or accosting them in airports; they aren’t organizing mass proselytizing campaigns. That’s what religionists do. They *are* making rational arguments and expecting reasoned responses. Wait a minute…what’s that? Chirping crickets?



1. the boogeyman of the religious right « empty rhetoric - 16 December 2007

[…] atheism by curtisschweitzer on December 16th, 2007 Over at Todd’s Hammer, there’s a post up criticizing the so-called “new atheism” label that has been applied to the likes of […]

2. SlackerP - 17 December 2007

Thanks for the post! I completely agree on all points. And maybe I’ll have a little time over the holidays (thanks to religion’s efforts, I guess) to read them. While I admire the motivating beauty of religion, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wanted to just smack the zealots for leaving their critical brains at the door of discussion. I’m bemused that one of my friends going to seminary is just now learning that the biblical text might lend itself to critical and textual review as she learns biblical Greek and Hebrew.

3. Orlando - 17 December 2007

Nietzsche and Darwin: what an explosive combination. I myself prefer the simplicity of Aristotle’s Ethics (please bear in mind that Aristotle has lived 400 years before Christ).

4. Jersey - 17 December 2007

There are some atheists now with an agenda trying to get rid of religion, saying theists are irrational and backwards, though I cannot say it is these men…I haven’t read the books or anything else directly, so I cannot state my own opinion on that.

5. onemorecup - 17 December 2007

Today I ought to celebrate! This is my first experience with your blog and up to this point and I’m loving it! I agree with your assessment vis-a-vie “New Atheism.” I have been writing about atheist’s of late and why they feel so new or special inasmuch as these spikes in the phenomenon occur throughout history on a calculated, almost measurable basis.

Far be it from me, however, do any of these folks know what atheism is, or, do they have a belief system that supports anything they try and establish? I recently wrote an article dealing with the American Atheists, Inc., organization, and received more traffic, responses, and comments from Europe than every other title I endeavor to write about combined! “Please don’t include us with that organization!” was by far the most popular.

And finally—just on this issue—I must disagree with the notion made regarding “…no political agenda to eradicate religion from humankind.” In my experience, and based solely on the attacks made by this one aforementioned organization, there is in my opinion, to come after Christians in particular. Cheers!


6. pistolpete - 18 December 2007

I would agree with you that there is “nothing new under the sun”. Those who deny the existence of God have been around for ages. In fact, the Bible even talks about them, “Fools say in their hearts, there is no God.”

7. The Lodge Keeper - 18 December 2007

@pistolpete: that’s right, fools say it in their hearts, wise men say it out loud.

8. wgreen - 18 December 2007

Exactly. That’s exactly what this is all about: we as a culture have been “quietly” rebelling against God for more than a century, now we are transitioning to open rebellion. We used to say it in our hearts, now we are saying it out loud. Well put. The anger has been welling up for some time, now it is bubbling out against the “poison” and “delusion” of God.

God help us.

9. eyquem - 19 December 2007

I am mixed about this topic…

(1) I do think think that atheism is not a simple movement and deserves a nuanced understanding. The atheism of Spinoza, for example, is very different than the atheism of Dawkins. One of the differences of the Dawkins crowd is their strong rhetoric, which has probably been enough to give them a new label. One shouldn’t fret too much about this, almost every new community and its attendant worldview is branded by its detractors. So “new atheism” seems as good as any.

(2) I agree wholeheartedly on this one. There is not one atheist I can think of that doesn’t prize liberty as a fundamental value, and liberty entails at least the possibility of religious practice.

(3) Yes, but I think its unfortunate that books with loud rhetoric become so popular. But you are right in almost any area of barnes and nobles you will find the most prominatly displayed books have the most bombastic titles.

However, the so called ‘arguments’ that these books are supposed to are often of amateur quality, i.e. they are not nearly as strong as the rhetoric that motivates them. But, what else should they do, when they are responding to idiots who quote the bible in response?

(4) Dido,

-and nice post, I might add.

10. compassioninpolitics - 20 December 2007

Interesting concerns. I see a couple flaws with new-atheism that have yet to be answered by anyone. Hitchens et al (aka the new atheists) use hyperbole, poisoning the well, and stereotype to prove their points.

Additionally, they fail to account for the fact that their assumptions about truth are wedded to a narrow notion of science, which is itself a faith based system which fails to include all forms of truth.

11. Science as “Faith-based”? (The “New Atheism”, cont.) « Todd’s Hammer - 20 December 2007

[…] December 2007 · No Comments In a comment on The New Atheism thread, Compassioninpolitics wrote: Interesting concerns. I see a couple flaws with new-atheism […]

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