Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?

BETH ASKS:

Are there any substantive differences between traditional atheism vs. what is called “New Atheism”? Or is the term used just to describe a bunch of popular books (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, etc.) coming out at once? Who coined the term “New Atheism” and can it be described as a new philosophical movement (or reframing of an old one)?

THE RIDGEWOOD RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The “New Atheism movement” originated, or at least gained wide currency, with a 2006 article by Gary Wolf in Wired the technology/cyberspace magazine (whose innovative founding editor Kevin Kelly happens to be a devout Christian).

Yes, Wolf’s news peg was a “bunch of popular books” preaching atheism that appeared around that time: “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (now professor of science literacy at Britain’s New College of Humanities), “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett (co-director of Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies”) and “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris (a Ph.D. in neuroscience who runs Project Reason). Later books capitalized on the trend.

What’s new about New Atheism?

No, not substantive arguments for disbelief, which are as perennial as the case for God. Rather, a tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush. Such tactics win visibility and sales, much like what we get in current U.S. politics and political media. Wolf said the new approach demands uncompromising hostility by folks like himself, “we lax agnostics, we noncommital non-believers, we vague deists.” The New Atheists insist that such fence-sitters must arise to ”help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith… They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.”

Thus all religions must be ridiculed, believers scorned as naive or stupid, and even trivial acknowledgments of religious heritage extirpated from public life. Some proponents even think parents should no longer be permitted to raise children in their faith. (It’s unclear whether government should enforce this by law or whether in fairness atheists should likewise be forbidden to press their skepticism upon offspring.)

No more mere tut-tutting in faculty lounges or living rooms. It’s all a throwback to Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), a preacher’s kid and onetime Illinois attorney general who fashioned a lucrative career delivering caustic, entertaining lectures that assailed religion and the Bible.

What did agnostic Wolf conclude about the anti-God ruckus?

“Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd” due to democratic values and “the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there’s always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.”

Turning to old atheism: Certainly Anglo-American universities and book publishers have long featured articulate thinkers who oppose religion. In terms of organizations, however, the atheistic cause has generally seemed marginal if not cranky. The strongest outlets are probably ”secular humanist” groups in Amherst, N.Y., associated with Paul Kurtz (1925-2012), a philosophy professor at S.U.N.Y. Buffalo. The Kurtz axis began with his Prometheus Press in 1969 and also includes the Center for Inquiry, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) and its “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine, and the Council for Secular Humanism and its “Free Inquiry” magazine, now allied with a young Washington, D.C., lobby, the Secular Coalition for America.

Christian responses include “The Dawkins Delusion?” and “Dawkins’ God” by Alister McGrath, a former atheist with an Oxford doctorate in molecular biophysics who became a Christian.

Such critics contend that the New Atheism employs slanted evidence (which The Guy also sees in some pro-religion propaganda). For instance: Underscoring long-ago atrocities by purportedly Christian regimes while downplaying believers’ repentance about that and pooh-poohing the worse evils when modern atheists gained the state power that Christians once wielded. Also, generally ignoring the good that religionists often accomplish in spite of their flawed humanity.

Of course those sorts of atheistic arguments don’t tell us whether or not God exists, and New Atheists are not necessarily embraced by academic philosophers who argue against theism. They in turn are countered by members of the Society of Christian Philosophers, founded in 1978 for professionals in the field, and its “Faith and Philosophy” journal. The leading figure in technical pro-God logic is Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame (Catholic) and Calvin College (Protestant). As indicated by the title of his “Warranted Christian Belief” (2000) Plantinga figures that theism is fully as reasonable as any number of beliefs humans necessarily live by.

A typical Dawkins manifesto, “What Use Is Religion?” And Plantinga’s “two dozen (or so)” arguments for God (.pdf).

Print Friendly

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • tmatt

    Please folks. Comments and questions go RIGHT HERE.

  • FW Ken

    This isn’t a newspaper article, so I’m not sure how to comment, but here goes.

    I like The Guy in general, and find this one of his best posts. It hits the main points of distinction between the two manifestations of atheism accurately, I think. It presents the major responses to new atheism without distracting from the main point.

    So is posting this a new direction for GR?

  • RayIngles

    Thus all religions must be ridiculed, believers scorned as naive or
    stupid, and even trivial acknowledgments of religious heritage
    extirpated from public life.

    I’m actually having difficulty restraining myself from invective. This is quite simply false. Mr. Ostling is being at least as unfair as he claims “New Atheists” are.

    I’d like to see some quotes establishing that, say, Daniel Dennett advocates any of the above. Heck, I’d like to see quotes establishing that Richard Dawkins advocates all of those. Take “even trivial acknowledgments of religious heritage extirpated from public life”. Where’s the support for that? Both of them are in favor of students – even in (gasp!) public schools – learning about the Bible.

    (By the way, is advocating that the government not make references to religion the same thing as asking that religion be “extirpated from public life”? Is government the sole venue of “public life”?)

    Compare to a classic “Old Atheist”, what’s the substantive difference in doctrine? Are the styles really all that different?

    • mattwardman

      RayIngles.

      I think you don’t know your Dawkins, perhaps?

      Would Dawkins’ most significant public speech in the US in 2012 be good enough for the “scorned with contempt” part of this? He calls for contempt for all religion, using Catholics as an example.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dq7rHRplZKU&t=24m12s

      It was at the “Reason Rally”. “Believers are naive or stupid” runs through Dawkins corpus as if it were in a stick of rock. Here is the relevant piece of the transcript:

      “When I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is “don’t believe you”;

      I don’t believe you until you tell me: “Do you really believe – for example if they say they are Catholic – do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the Body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?”

      Mock them!

      Ridicule them!

      In public.

      Don’t fall for the convention that we are all too polite to talk about religion.

      Religion is not off the table.

      Religion is not off limits.

      Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged, and – if necessary – need to be ridiculed with contempt”.

      Later commentary attempted to pretend that he was attacking beliefs, not people, and Catholics in particular. That wasn’t what he said.

      Example on Patheos:
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/04/in-defense-of-dawkinss-reason-rally-speech/

      Trailed on Dawkins own site, misdirecting his followers:

      http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/645493-in-defense-of-dawkins-s-reason-rally-speech

      The author of the piece is spot on.

      Matt

      • RayIngles

        Excuse me – but the quote you yourself provided establishes the claim – “he was attacking beliefs, not people”. As he specifically said,“Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged, and – if necessary – need to be ridiculed with contempt”.

        As in, the claims need to be “ridiculed with contempt” – sometimes. That – apparently I need to point this out – is, by the way, not the same as saying that “believers [should be] scorned as naive or stupid”, the way Ostling portrays. Got quotes of Dawkins saying that?

        And, finally, can you substantiate Dennett calling for ridicule or contempt? That was my larger point – Ostling lumps a lot of different people into one big pile, and makes no distinctions. Isn’t that what Ostling’s accusing atheists of doing?

        • mattwardman

          RayIngles

          As I said, I don’t know Dennett well, so I can’t comment on that.

          The quote I gave is crystal clear.

          “Mock them! Ridicule them!” is aimed at the people he talks about – “somebody who claims to be religious”. I won’t go into Dawkins non-knowledge of his subject here.

          And because it was a prepared speech with a published transcript I assume Dawkins meant what he said.

          Now, on RD saying that “believers [should be] scorned as naive or stupid”. Better than that, he makes up his own prejudicial language for that express purpose. Here he is chattering with his friends in his own forum as to which made-up words they should invent so as to be the most scornful:

          ================
          “Continuing the ‘gloves off’ theme, does anybody agree with me that the word ‘religionist’ — which is presumably intended to have negative connotations as it is only ever used by atheists — is weak and ineffective? I never use it, but we clearly need a noun that covers followers of religion generally. We can’t use ‘Christian’ because that excludes Jews, Muslims etc.

          I have from time to time used ‘faith-head’, and I think that if lots of people adopted it it would turn out to be a good consciousness-raiser. Isn’t it rather an accurate word, penetrating straight to the heart of the addiction?

          And, by the way, the faith-heads really hate it, so it seems to be hitting home. It’s a pity about the hyphen, but the hh in ‘faithhead’ looks awkward, and ‘faithead’ doesn’t work either (except that it looks a bit like ‘fathead’).

          What do you think? Is ‘faith-head’ a good meme, worthy of spreading? Or can you think of a better noun to replace ‘religionist’?

          Richard”

          ==========
          (Sun May 03, 2009 6:37 am).

          Link:http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/3767-truckling-to-the-faithful-a-spoonful-of-jesus-helps-darwin-go-down/comments?page=1#comment_351636

          RD’s contempt for people he disagrees with dribbles from his mere language.

          “Accommodationist” – of atheists who disagree with his hardline stance.

          “Appeasers” – ditto.

          “Compliant Quislings” – people who don’t demonise the idea that science and religion are not in total conflict.

          And so on, and so on, and so on.

          • RayIngles

            As I said, I don’t know Dennett well, so I can’t comment on that.

            Actually, you didn’t say anything about Dennett. Your entire comment was about Dawkins exclusively.

            Which just reinforces my main point, unfortunately. You – like Ostling – seem perfectly willing to indict and dismiss a large and diverse group of people based on snippets of the work of one or two members.

            I’d contest the ‘definitions’ you provide of Dawkins terms – context for the ‘quisling’ (singular) bit, which doesn’t resemble how you characterized it – but there doesn’t seem to be much chance of you revising your conclusions.

  • Julia B

    An aggressively atheist friend of mine goes to a CONVENTION every year in Las Vegas where they yuck it up about dumb believers. Did this kind of thing exist for older atheists?