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 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, NY, 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?”: www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=dawkins_24_5

Plantinga lecture notes on “two dozen (or so)” arguments for God: www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/two_dozen_or_so_theistic_arguments.pdf

 

 

T

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.


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