As I mentioned before, Wired magazine has an article on The New Atheists. It’s getting a lot of circulation and the article itself raises an interesting question:
How are the “new” atheists different from the “old” atheists?
I don’t mention Daniel Dennett very often since I haven’t read his book Breaking the Spell yet, but a few possible answers to the question are below:
When asked about the difference between old and new atheists, someone commenting on Fark.com said of the “old” atheists, “They have canes.”
There is some truth to this. The Wired article only mentions Sam Harris, but there is a whole new generation of atheists coming into the national picture. In terms of making atheism more accessible to others, our predecessors had obstacles of all sorts to overcome and often kicked themselves in the foot. Will a new generation of atheists be able to avoid the same mistakes and extend the bridge? I hope so. Harris, though, isn’t reaching out to anyone new from everything I’ve heard. His readers are primarily those who don’t believe God already. Other young atheists are not going to help the cause by only following this example.
The “old” atheists are still in charge of most of the national secular organizations, they are the ones most often quoted in the press, and they control the image the public sees of us based how how they appear in the media. They’ve had their chance, and they’ve learned many lessons, which are now being passed down to the rising batch of secular students.
Dawkins has said in previous interviews that The God Delusion was supposed to be written years earlier, but in the wake of 9/11, it was postponed. He wrote The Ancestor’s Tale in that time. But now Dawkins is unleashed and The God Delusion is more scathing of religion than any of his previous works, which often talked about atheism only as an aside. Maybe by pushing the book back a few years, it gave Dawkins the opportunity to be even more forceful about his beliefs than he would have been otherwise.
Are Harris’ books as fierce? Absolutely. He has said in interviews that he turned down requests to translate The End of Faith into Arabic because it would be a death sentence. Would a book that harsh have been published in the mainstream a few years ago? I doubt it.
The “old” atheists did not have the chance to write these types of books, even though they held similar opinions. But the “new” atheists are giving them an outlet they never had.
Now more than ever, people are paying attention to what atheists are saying (not just the Big Three mentioned in the article). There has been a lot of media coverage for different atheist organizations and all have benefitted from the recent surge of interest in the non-religious persective. This is the best chance we’ve ever had to present a less antagonistic, but more honest, picture of what atheism really is and what atheists really believe.
The “old” atheists never had this chance, either. The mere mention of the word “atheist” was enough to end the conversation.
I appreciate what HarKinsNett (may this meme carry on) are saying, but it’s not enough. We do need to hear about how religion has gone wrong, but at the same time, there need to be atheists out there doing their part in simply dispelling the stereotypes people have of the non-religious. This happens by having those civil conversations with religious people. Not a debate or a list of logical arguments. But talks where we hear what religious people have to say, and point out any advantages that atheism has to faith.
In a lot of ways, HarKinsNett are reawakening the idea of angry atheism, an image that didn’t get us very far– and one we’ve tried so hard to shed– in the past couple decades. We have reason and logic on our side, and that’s all we should need. We must find a way to spread our message using polite conversation. And that is possible. To point a finger at religious people and call them foolish is not working. And amidst many wonderful arguments for atheism, there are a lot of unnecessary attacks on religion in the popular atheist books that are atop the bestsellers’ lists right now.
We’ll know we’re having some success when religious moderates cross over to the atheist side of the spectrum, or at the very least begin to see atheism as a more respectable outlook on life. That’s not happening yet.
However, while the “New Atheists” don’t speak for all of us, they are giving all atheists a golden opportunity to make our voices heard.
[tags]Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, The End of Faith, Breaking the Spell, The God Delusion, Wired, New atheism, HarKinsNett, atheist[/tags]