The “New” Atheists vs. The “Old” Atheists

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:

1) Age

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.

2) Intensity

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.

3) Attention

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]

  • Mike O

    I thought atheists didn’t care if I believed in God or not. They’re about “free thinking” and whatever world view works for you , go with it.

    But when I read this, it makes me think that really isn’t the case. For the past three months, I’ve been trying to understand the irreligious mindset. While I can’t agree with it, I seek to at least understand it. And what I’ve been hearing is that atheists do not evangelize, they do not care if I believe in God or not. In fact, it’s important to pure atheism that I be allowed to believe whatever I believe.

    Now I read this, and it’s setting me back a bit. Is there an atheistic agenda to evangelize? It sounds like it. Is there an atheistic desire to get people who believe in God to stop believing in God? When I read comments like these

    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.

    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.

    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.

    I’m a Christian, and I don’t know how else to take it. It sounds like you do want to change what I believe, not about atheists (which would be fine), but about God.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com FriendlyAtheist

    Mike– I don’t think atheists ignore what others think (not should they). But there’s a difference in approach between those who force any belief onto others and those who write or talk about it.

    There is a desire to get people to think logically and rationally about everything, and supernatural explanations don’t suffice in an atheistic worldview. I don’t think the Big Three authors would have such harsh words about religion if it was as simple as “believing in God.” The problem is that there are people commiting acts of terrorism in God’s name or trying to change public policy to suit their own religion– and succeeding at it. That’s why the authors are so vigilant about promoting atheism. This is what I’m referring to when I talk about how religion has gone wrong. It’s not just a belief in God– it’s people acting on their belief in ways that are hurting society.

    If you believe in God, but have a mind for facts and evidence (as opposed to faith) when it comes to issues that may affect me, I may disagree with you theologically, but I’m sure we can find plenty more to agree on.

    – Hemant

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    Mike, some atheists do want to deconvert you, by the way. Atheists vary on how much they care about you believing in God.

    Hemant wrote:

    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.

    Hemant, I wouldn’t say Dawkins is more scathing of religion in TGD than his other works – I always found him very derisive of it. However as you mentioned, his comments in other works are asides – this is the first time he’s focused on religion in a book, to my knowledge.

    I’ve read quotes from him indicating that 9/11 brought home to him how dangerous religious faith is to the world. Because of that I was assuming 9/11 motivated TGD – so I’m surprised to hear it was in the works even before 9/11 (I don’t doubt what you say – I’m just surprised).

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    Hemant, you brought out an excellent point in saying that it’s the harmful effects of religion (from their point of view) which really concern people like Dawkins and Harris.

    I’m thinking they would not be so concerned if they didn’t see any harmful results of people having religious faith. Although Dawkins would still care because it concerns him that people settle for what he considers untrue – he would rather they believed what is true. (Based on the interviews I posted on CatE last week)

  • Mike O

    If you believe in God, but have a mind for facts and evidence (as opposed to faith) when it comes to issues that may affect me, I may disagree with you theologically, but I’m sure we can find plenty more to agree on.

    I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how true this already is. My son and I are watching your interview at Parkview, and you make a lot of good points (like, if only commandments 6 thru 10 were posted, atheists likely wouldn’t have an issue with it … I actually get that). In fact (and you might like this!), my son (senior this year) is bringing it to his Christian school to be used in his World Views class. The perspectives being taught are SO pro-Christian and unbalanced it’s irritating (even to a Christian!). He thinks the teacher will be amenable to using your interview so they can have a balanced look at atheism. We’ll see how it goes, huh? Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants … Hement Mehta teacing in a Christian school! :)

    That’s why the authors are so vigilant about promoting atheism. This is what I’m referring to when I talk about how religion has gone wrong. It’s not just a belief in God– it’s people acting on their belief in ways that are hurting society.

    Is it fair to say that the issue with religion/religious people isn’t what they believe, but the way they behave? What I mean by that is, if Christians actually acted like Jesus, would you like us better?

  • Devika Keral

    I really feel that religious people who harm others in the name of god are only using religion as a medium to express their own pathology. I would argue that religion has little to do with it. Extreme people are extreme.

    As a humanist, I don’t care so much about what other people think re: religion, unless it affects the public sector. That’s the line that has to be crossed for me to rail against use of religious “expression” to inform political, educational, & healthcare agendas. But sharing a community with people who believe in a god? That’s okay with me.

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    What I mean by that is, if Christians actually acted like Jesus, would you like us better?

    Heh heh…for what it’s worth, I have seen several atheist criticisms of Jesus’ behavior saying it wasn’t so great after all.

  • Mike O

    Really? In what way? As a lifelong Christian, it never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t like Jesus (other than religious people). Not believe in him, sure. But not like him? That’s a new one to me.

  • HappyNat

    I really feel that religious people who harm others in the name of god are only using religion as a medium to express their own pathology. I would argue that religion has little to do with it. Extreme people are extreme.

    Harris argues the opposite. The belief of the person is what causes the suicide bomber to kill himself and others. Then people/media don’t focus on religion as the reason for their actions because we don’t want to offend. When the religious belief is the only real explanation for their actions. Extreme people may be extreme, but would their outlets or targets be the same without their religious belief?

  • Mike O

    Extreme people may be extreme, but would their outlets or targets be the same without their religious belief?

    Interesting question! Are you asking if that homocide bomber would still have a bent towards martyrdom, even in the absence of religion? Would he still “die for the cause,” only it would be a different cause? We’ll never know, but it’s an intriguing question!

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    Mike, here are a couple of articles critical of Jesus’ ethics/morality:

    Why Jesus? (Freedom from Religion Foundation Pamphlet)

    Jesus’ Ethics

  • http://www.friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    Siamang was having trouble posting, so he sent me a message. I’ll post it as he sent it.
    *****

    Mike wrote:

    Are you asking if that homocide bomber would still have a
    bent towards martyrdom, even in the absence of religion?

    Perhaps fewer would. I think you’re always going to have crazy
    people doing crazy things. But Dawkins argues that a supernatural
    belief in infinite rewards in the afterlife removes natural barriers
    against suicidal violent action.

    I think you’ll still get people willing to “die” for a cause. Heck,
    Socrates took hemlock willingly to die for what he believed was
    right. He was “convicted” of atheism!

    If people thought that death was really the end, you’d still have
    some people violently attacking others and risking or taking their
    own lives. But I’d think you’d find fewer people lining up to do the
    deed.

    I’d concur with Helen that there are atheists who yes are trying to
    convert you (deconvert?).

    But I don’t think that all discussion of the merits of atheism or the
    atheist arguements against religion are direct conversion attempts on
    committed believers.

    I think they’re attempts to convince fence-sitters, bet-hedgers,
    maybe-yes-maybe-noers, people going through a re-assesment process,
    seekers, etc.

    I think that by and large they are attempts to get people who don’t
    believe but don’t think about this stuff much to take an active step
    and consider what they believe.

    The number of people who pick up TGD from the bestseller rack and
    after reading it make an immediate journey from committed Born Again
    to committed atheist probably will number less than 20.

  • Karen

    The number of people who pick up TGD from the bestseller rack and
    after reading it make an immediate journey from committed Born Again
    to committed atheist probably will number less than 20.

    If that many. However, there are probably a few hundred or more will read it, denounce it, think about it, re-read it, get started reading some other things about belief, and eventually wind up on one of those spiritual journeys that may end up at agnosticism, atheism or some other religious belief.

    As for those fence-sitters, when Dawkins was interviewed on NPR recently, a guy called in and said he’d been an agnostic, but after reading the book had decided he was an atheist.

  • Devika Keral

    Harris argues the opposite. The belief of the person is what causes the suicide bomber to kill himself and others. Then people/media don’t focus on religion as the reason for their actions because we don’t want to offend. When the religious belief is the only real explanation for their actions. Extreme people may be extreme, but would their outlets or targets be the same without their religious belief?

    This is very interesting. I would argue, based on my work experience that yes, extreme people do find other outlets for their behavior, aside from religion. The “belief” that you mention is the behavior I’m talking about.

    Think about all the people with substance dependence/exhibit extreme promiscuity/etc. who later find Jesus/Allah/etc. That fervor traditionally associated with religion can be found across behaviors. We learn less about that ubiquity, however, because when someone OD’s and dies or kills the girlfriend they were obsessed with, it doesn’t make the same headlines as planes flying into the World Trade Center. See what I mean? I would argue the media is first and foremost a business and “extreme extreme” sells best. I feel like there is always an implicit media assumption that religion is the root of all this, and I disagree, as an atheist. To me, it’s akin to saying that heavy metal music makes people commit suicide. I think there are flaws to that argument.

    I’m really enjoying reading all these responses, it’s a good thread to keep us all thinking.

  • Michael K

    Hi Hemant and others.

    This is what I’m referring to when I talk about how religion has gone wrong. It’s not just a belief in God– it’s people acting on their belief in ways that are hurting society.

    ———————————————-
    Imagine this:
    I read The God Delusion, found it to be really accurate and truthful, and began telling everyone that I’d read this book and how great it is. Then, imagine for some reason there is this huge rush of people buying the book. Copies are flying off the shelf. And all of a sudden, “religious” people start talking about how much they love the book. Only problem is they’re completely misreading it. They start pointing out excerpts from the text to justify really weird and stupid things. In general, they act like idiots, but, all the while, they are talking about how great and true the book is and how everyone should read it.

    Then some rational, sensible person comes along and asks my opinion of the book. Now, I still have (at least, what I consider to be) a very rational and accurate understanding of what the book is about. In fact, I really love this book. But I know what the sensible person is thinking. I know he’s thinking (rightly so) that the people that have come so fanatical about this book are idiots. I know (never having read the book himself) he’s wondering how anyone could support the teachings of such a book.

    So do I try to explain to him that the book is not really about what he thinks it is about? Do I tell him I like the book even when I know as soon as I utter those words he is going to write me off as an irrational idiot? Do I tell him I like the book and, in doing so, associate myself with the millions of other people that also like the book but have gotten it completely wrong?

    ————————————————-

    Thus it is with Christianity. I know that so many professing Christians are acting like idiots. I cringe at the idea of being associated with many of them. But the problem is, I think they’re actually on to something. I think it is a very sensible, logical, thought-out belief. But they’ve taken something very reasonable and turned it in to something ridiculous.

    So what do I do? I swallow my pride and allow others to label me what they will. I try my best to explain “No no, it’s not like that at all” and “Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense to me either.” Sometimes I feel like I’m able to make things clear. Sometimes I feel like people have been exposed to far too many of the “idiots” to ever give me a chance to explain what Christianity is really about.

    And then I’ve got to face the facts and admit that I get it wrong too. As much as I want to say I’m not like them, I still act like an idiot myself in many ways. Then comes the whole “hypocrite” battle cry and I may end up farther back from where I started.

    Hemant, I think you might feel like you’re fighting the same battle in terms of Atheism–that you have to do your best to show people that an atheist isn’t…whatever it is people think atheists are. It’s no different for many Christians.

    Does anyone ever wonder if you’d be too embarrassed to “cross sides” because of the stigma the other side has associated with it or because of what people would say when you did? I do. I wonder all the time if I’d have enough guts to follow my convictions, no matter where they take me.

    Thanks for the posts Hemant.

  • Mike O

    Siamang said …

    I think that by and large they are attempts to get people who don’t
    believe but don’t think about this stuff much to take an active step
    and consider what they believe.

    It’s interesting that we Christians hope to do the same … to get people who don’t
    believe but don’t think about this stuff much to take an active step
    and consider what they believe. What I do is try to get people to look around them and see God’s hand in life. You try to get people to look around and question God’s hand in life. I don’t mean anything by that other than that it is an interesting similarity in technique. Looking at the evidence, I say there’s no way there could be no God. You say there’s no way there is. Interesting, is all. Same evidence, vastly different conclusions.

    Maybe my point is that Christians aren’t this unthinking pack of lemmings just following the guy ahead of us into god-knows what. Sure, some of us are. Some atheists are, too. But many of us Christians have done the critical thinking and evaluation of our beliefs and found them to be sound.

    And what I’m learning, coming from the other side of the argument, is that atheists, like Christians, have done their homework. I have unfairly classified atheists as people who just haven’t asked the hard questions yet. “If you would just look around you and think about it, you would see the hand of God.” But, news flash to me … many of you have looked around. And you don’t see the hand of God. I can’t explain how that can be. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. And while I see no way I would ever “de-convert”, I respect atheists more than I did, that’s for sure!

    Devika said …

    Think about all the people with substance dependence/exhibit extreme promiscuity/etc. who later find Jesus/Allah/etc. That fervor traditionally associated with religion can be found across behaviors.

    This may be a different thought than you had in mind, but I’ve noticed that when people come to some sort of faith, they tend to be the same kind of person they were, but their framework changes. Intense people are still intense people. Passive people are still passive people, etc. Perhaps mean people are still mean people and nice people are still nice people.

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    Mike wrote:

    And what I’m learning, coming from the other side of the argument, is that atheists, like Christians, have done their homework. I have unfairly classified atheists as people who just haven’t asked the hard questions yet. “If you would just look around you and think about it, you would see the hand of God.” But, news flash to me … many of you have looked around. And you don’t see the hand of God. I can’t explain how that can be. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. And while I see no way I would ever “de-convert”, I respect atheists more than I did, that’s for sure!

    Thanks, Mike. Maybe I’m only “almost an atheist” but I still appreciate this!

  • Siamang

    Mike wrote:

    And what I’m learning, coming from the other side of the argument, is that atheists, like Christians, have done their homework.

    Thanks for that. And that’s a benefit to discussing this stuff. The dangers are that discussion like this will be seen by the religious person or attempted by the atheist as a conversion message. Or that it is all mixed up with stridency and so we don’t get to the benefit of this mutual respect.

    I think the red-meat rhetoric sells books. The trick is to sell enough books without selling out your own message.

  • Siamang

    Oh, and I can post again. Wierd bug. I couldn’t post at CatE for a short span either.

  • txatheist

    Mike O, imo, the idea we have about the alleged Jesus is similar to Gandhi, one of a healer and uniter, nothing wrong with that concept in looking for someone to emulate. But please look at this as something that could use improvement
    He threatens damnation to those who do not believe in his gospel (Mark xvi. 16), and to those who blaspheme against the Holy Ghost (Mark iii. 29). He is remarkably abusive (cf. Matt. xi. 20), especially towards the Pharisees, with whom he at least once engages in cleversilly argument (Matt. xxii. 15-22). He harshly neglects his family relations for his gospel (Matt. xii. 46 ff.). He expects his gospel to result in parricide and in the betrayal of brothers and children to death (Matt. x, especially verse 21). He withers a fig tree and destroys a herd of swine. Matthew Arnold seems to me far from the truth when he finds ‘sweet reasonableness’ in Jesus. There are a few ‘sweet and comfortable sayings’; but the prevailing atmosphere is harsh. One of his most judicious twentieth-century followers, Professor T. W. Manson (The Sayings of Jesus, p. 75), acknowledges ‘the seeming harshness of Jesus and His almost brutal thrusting into the background of natural feelings and obligations’, but puts it down to ‘the overwhelming urgency of His task’.

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  • http://www.hinduchristianjew.wordpress.com Archana

    This is a great conversation. I just heard about the New Atheists on the NPR podcast of “On the Media”. As a person of faith (with a blog on religion and politics), I became intrigued by the New Atheists’ almost-fundamentalism. Really interesting stuff… Another interesting point is a comparison between atheism and say, Buddhism, which really is “atheistic” at its core…

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  • Richard Wade

    Since Nov.15 I’ve been slugging it out over at the Washington Post’s On Faith site, which sometimes looks like it’s trying to make the Guinness Book of World Records in the “Largest Bar Room Brawl” category. I stepped outside for a breather and stumbled on this great place. There’s a lot less saliva and blood over here, and it’s very refreshing.

    I’m excited to see that Christians like Mike O and Michael K are participating. I have so many questions I want to ask you. I haven’t found any Christians I can ask about their thoughts and opinions about atheism. They glance to either side as if looking for something to clobber me with. They seem to think that either I’m going to try to convert them, or that they’re obligated to attempt the same with me.

    I’m only trying to understand why, unlike Mike and Michael, many Christians seem so threatened when confronted with an intelligent, sane person who doesn’t share their belief. I wonder if that apparent fear/threat is what feeds the absurd stereotypes listed in Sam Harris’s “10 Myths” article, as well as the out and out hatred I’ve experienced and heard of.

    I don’t want to change someone’s beliefs to resemble mine; I want to influence their behavior for the better. Believe as you will, but don’t shun, slander, fire, beat or kill atheists. All I can do is first to make certain my own behavior is exemplary, and then stridently confront and oppose those behaviors every time I encounter them. But to do that skillfully, respectfully and therefore effectively I need to understand what is at the root of their fear and loathing. Is it too individual or idiosyncratic to make any general observations, or can anyone here see patterns, traits, or categories that can shed light on this?

    Mike O, I want to clarify one detail in your wonderful juxtaposing of your point of view and that of an atheist. You said,

    “What I do is try to get people to look around them and see God’s hand in life. You try to get people to look around and question God’s hand in life. I don’t mean anything by that other than that it is an interesting similarity in technique. Looking at the evidence, I say there’s no way there could be no God. You say there’s no way there is.”

    Actually, We don’t say, “Looking at the evidence, there’s no way there is a God.” We say, “There’s no evidence.”
    No one can find evidence that there is no God. We just don’t find any evidence that there is. This can seem like a razor’s edge distinction, but it is essential if you want to understand the more thoughtful atheists you encounter.

    When I have no evidence of something, I don’t believe, and I don’t disbelieve. When I do have evidence of something, I still don’t believe; I have more confidence in its likelihood. Believing or disbelieving is something that never occurs in my head, evidence or not.

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  • Mr Data

    I meant Person X:

    If someone were to make medicine that allows people to become immortal and gradually slow down age as well the newer Atheist will try to make the topic an argument about different religion beliefs and how they are silly for not taking the so called (medicine not realizing.

    They will also ignore the fact that not all/every churches are evil and that NOT ALL Christians even GO TO !##$ church in the FIRST PLACE to practice their belief since churches are meant to just fellowship with like-mind people. *gasps* :o

    Then Person X says something *which is likely made to be humorous* that causes *Modern Atheist* to jump on Person Xs throat thinking it an attack on his freedoms causing an argument that makes person X look tame in comparison while using the same lines over and over again to make person X not believe in Christianity or some other spiritual belief in order to take the medicine.

  • Mr Data

    Hell if the newer Atheist wish to help solve the word problems I would be more then happy to allow them to build their own *Atheist* churches so they can gather like-minded people and debate.

    This church there will be no worshiping and the sermon instead will be lectures taken by Goverment biased projects about how humans are the problems for the world and the debate about killing the human race is on! :o :o

    It’s part of the freedom of religion to gather people with the same goals as you the atheist. ;)


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