New Atheism is a term coined in 2006 by the agnostic journalist Gary Wolf to describe the positions promoted by some atheists of the twenty-first century. This modern-day atheism is advanced by a group of thinkers and writers who advocate the view that superstition, religion and irrationalism should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever their influence arises in government, education, and politics. According to Richard Ostling, Bertrand Russell, in his 1927 essay Why I Am Not a Christian, put forward similar positions as those espoused by the New Atheists, suggesting that there are no substantive differences between traditional atheism and New Atheism.
New Atheism lends itself to and often overlaps with secular humanism and antitheism, particularly in its criticism of what many New Atheists regard as the indoctrination of children and the perpetuation of ideologies founded on belief in the supernatural. Some critics of the movement characterise it pejoratively as “militant atheism” or “fundamentalist atheism”.[a]
The Harvard botanist Asa Gray, a believing Christian and one of the first supporters of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, commented in 1868 that the more worldly Darwinists in England had “the English-materialistic-positivistic line of thought”. Darwin’s supporter Thomas Huxley was openly skeptical, as the biographer Janet Browne describes:
Huxley was rampaging on miracles and the existence of the soul. A few months later, he was to coin the word “agnostic” to describe his own position as neither a believer nor a disbeliever, but one who considered himself free to inquire rationally into the basis of knowledge, a philosopher of pure reason […] The term fitted him well […] and it caught the attention of the other free thinking, rational doubters in Huxley’s ambit, and came to signify a particularly active form of scientific rationalism during the final decades of the 19th century. […] In his hands, agnosticism became as doctrinaire as anything else–a religion of skepticism. Huxley used it as a creed that would place him on a higher moral plane than even bishops and archbishops. All the evidence would nevertheless suggest that Huxley was sincere in his rejection of the charge of outright atheism against himself. He refused to be “a liar”. To inquire rigorously into the spiritual domain, he asserted, was a more elevated undertaking than slavishly to believe or disbelieve. “A deep sense of religion is compatible with the entire absence of theology,” he had told [Anglican clergyman] Charles Kingsley back in 1860. “Pope Huxley”, the [magazine] Spectator dubbed him. The label stuck.” Janet Browne
The 2004 publication of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, a bestseller in the United States, was joined over the next couple years by a series of popular best-sellers by atheist authors. Harris was motivated by the events of 11 September 2001, which he laid directly at the feet of Islam, while also directly criticizing Christianity and Judaism. Two years later Harris followed up with Letter to a Christian Nation, which was also a severe criticism of Christianity. Also in 2006, following his television documentary The Root of All Evil?, Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, which was on the New York Times best-seller list for 51 weeks.
In a 2010 column entitled “Why I Don’t Believe in the New Atheism”, Tom Flynn contends that what has been called “New Atheism” is neither a movement nor new, and that what was new was the publication of atheist material by big-name publishers, read by millions, and appearing on bestseller lists.
On 6 November 2015, the New Republic published an article entitled, Is the New Atheism dead? The atheist and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson wrote, “The world appears to be tiring of the New Atheism movement..” In 2017, PZ Myers who formerly considered himself a new atheist, publicly renounced the New Atheism movement.
On 30 September 2007, four prominent atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) met at Hitchens’ residence in Washington, D.C., for a private two-hour unmoderated discussion. The event was videotaped and titled “The Four Horsemen”. During “The God Debate” in 2010 featuring Christopher Hitchens versus Dinesh D’Souza, the men were collectively referred to as the “Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse”, an allusion to the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. The four have been described disparagingly as “evangelical atheists”.
Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling non-fiction books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, as well as two shorter works, initially published as e-books, Free Will and Lying. Harris is a co-founder of the Reason Project.
Richard Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion, which was preceded by a Channel 4 television documentary titled The Root of All Evil?. He is the founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He wrote: “I don’t object to the horseman label, by the way. I’m less keen on ‘new atheist’: it isn’t clear to me how we differ from old atheists.”
Christopher Hitchens was the author of God Is Not Great and was named among the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. In addition, Hitchens served on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America. In 2010 Hitchens published his memoir Hitch-22 (a nickname provided by close personal friend Salman Rushdie, whom Hitchens always supported during and following The Satanic Verses controversy). Shortly after its publication, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which led to his death in December 2011. Before his death, Hitchens published a collection of essays and articles in his book Arguably; a short edition Mortality was published posthumously in 2012. These publications and numerous public appearances provided Hitchens with a platform to remain an astute atheist during his illness, even speaking specifically on the culture of deathbed conversions and condemning attempts to convert the terminally ill, which he opposed as “bad taste”.
Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Breaking the Spell and many others, has also been a vocal supporter of The Clergy Project, an organization that provides support for clergy in the US who no longer believe in God and cannot fully participate in their communities any longer.
After the death of Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who attended the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, which Hitchens was scheduled to attend) was referred to as the “plus one horse-woman”, since she was originally invited to the 2007 meeting of the “Horsemen” atheists but had to cancel at the last minute. Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, fleeing in 1992 to the Netherlands in order to escape an arranged marriage. She became involved in Dutch politics, rejected faith, and became vocal in opposing Islamic ideology, especially concerning women, as exemplified by her books Infidel and The Caged Virgin. Hirsi Ali was later involved in the production of the film Submission, for which her friend Theo Van Gogh was murdered with a death threat to Hirsi Ali pinned to his chest. This event resulted in Hirsi Ali’s hiding and later immigration to the United States, where she now resides and remains a prolific critic of Islam. She regularly speaks out against the treatment of women in Islamic doctrine and society and is a proponent of free speech and the freedom to offend.
Many contemporary atheists write from a scientific perspective. Unlike previous writers, many of whom thought that science was indifferent or even incapable of dealing with the “God” concept, Dawkins argues to the contrary, claiming the “God Hypothesis” is a valid scientific hypothesis, having effects in the physical universe, and like any other hypothesis can be tested and falsified. The late Victor Stenger proposed that the personal Abrahamic God is a scientific hypothesis that can be tested by standard methods of science. Both Dawkins and Stenger conclude that the hypothesis fails any such tests, and argue that naturalism is sufficient to explain everything we observe in the universe, from the most distant galaxies to the origin of life, the existence of different species, and the inner workings of the brain and consciousness. Nowhere, they argue, is it necessary to introduce God or the supernatural to understand reality. New Atheists reject Jesus’ divinity.
Non-believers assert that many religious or supernatural claims (such as the virgin birth of Jesus and the afterlife) are scientific claims in nature. They argue, as do deists and Progressive Christians, for instance, that the issue of Jesus’ supposed parentage is not a question of “values” or “morals” but a question of scientific inquiry. Rational thinkers believe science is capable of investigating at least some, if not all, supernatural claims. Institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and Duke University are attempting to find empirical support for the healing power of intercessory prayer. According to Stenger, these experiments have thus far found no evidence that intercessory prayer works.
Stenger also argues in his book, God: The Failed Hypothesis, that a God having omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent attributes, which he termed a 3O God, cannot logically exist. A similar series of logical disproofs of the existence of a God with various attributes can be found in Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier’s The Impossibility of God, or Theodore M. Drange’s article, “Incompatible-Properties Arguments”.
Richard Dawkins has been particularly critical of the conciliatory view that science and religion are not in conflict, noting, for example, that the Abrahamic religions constantly deal in scientific matters. In a 1998 article published in Free Inquiry magazine and later in his 2006 book The God Delusion, Dawkins expresses disagreement with the view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion are two non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), each existing in a “domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution”. In Gould’s proposal, science and religion should be confined to distinct non-overlapping domains: science would be limited to the empirical realm, including theories developed to describe observations, while religion would deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. Dawkins contends that NOMA does not describe empirical facts about the intersection of science and religion: “It is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”
Popularized by Sam Harris is the view that science and thereby currently unknown objective facts may instruct human morality in a globally comparable way. Harris’ book The Moral Landscape and accompanying TED Talk How Science can Determine Moral Values propose that human well-being and conversely suffering may be thought of as a landscape with peaks and valleys representing numerous ways to achieve extremes in human experience, and that there are objective states of well-being.
New Atheism is politically engaged in a variety of ways. These include campaigns to draw attention to the biased privileged position religion has and to reduce the influence of religion in the public sphere, attempts to promote cultural change (centering, in the United States, on the mainstream acceptance of atheism), and efforts to promote the idea of an “atheist identity”. Internal strategic divisions over these issues have also been notable, as are questions about the diversity of the movement in terms of its gender and racial balance.
The theologians Jeffrey Robbins and Christopher Rodkey take issue with what they regard as “the evangelical nature of the New Atheism, which assumes that it has a Good News to share, at all cost, for the ultimate future of humanity by the conversion of as many people as possible.” They believe they have found similarities between New Atheism and evangelical Christianity and conclude that the all-consuming nature of both “encourages endless conflict without progress” between both extremities.
Sociologist William Stahl said, “What is striking about the current debate is the frequency with which the New Atheists are portrayed as mirror images of religious fundamentalists.”
The atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse has made the claim that Richard Dawkins would fail “introductory” courses on the study of “philosophy or religion” (such as courses on the philosophy of religion), courses which are offered, for example, at many educational institutions such as colleges and universities around the world. Ruse also claims that the movement of New Atheismwhich is perceived, by him, to be a “bloody disaster”makes him ashamed, as a professional philosopher of science, to be among those holding to an atheist position, particularly as New Atheism does science a “grave disservice” and does a “disservice to scholarship” at more general level.
Paul Kurtz, editor in chief of Free Inquiry, founder of Prometheus Books, was critical of many of the new atheists. He said, “I consider them atheist fundamentalists… They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they’re very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good”.
Jonathan Sacks, author of The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, feels the new atheists miss the target by believing the “cure for bad religion is no religion, as opposed to good religion”. He wrote:
Atheism deserves better than the new atheists whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.
The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci contends that the new atheist movement overlaps with scientism, which he finds to be philosophically unsound. He writes: “What I do object to is the tendency, found among many New Atheists, to expand the definition of science to pretty much encompassing anything that deals with ‘facts’, loosely conceived…, it seems clear to me that most of the New Atheists (except for the professional philosophers among them) pontificate about philosophy very likely without having read a single professional paper in that field…. I would actually go so far as to charge many of the leaders of the New Atheism movement (and, by implication, a good number of their followers) with anti-intellectualism, one mark of which is a lack of respect for the proper significance, value, and methods of another field of intellectual endeavor.”
Atheist professor Jacques Berlinerblau has criticised the New Atheists’ mocking of religion as being inimical to their goals and claims that they haven’t achieved anything politically.
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