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New Atheism is a term coined in 2006 by the 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.
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]
- 1 History
- 2 Prominent figures
- 3 Perspective
- 4 Criticisms
- 5 Declining influence of the New Atheism movement
- 6 Major publications
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 External links
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 September 11, 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.
The "Four Horsemen"
On September 30, 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 vs 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 magazine. 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 resulted in Hirsi Ali's hiding and later immigration to the United States, where she now resides and remains a prolific critic of Islam, and the treatment of women in Islamic doctrine and society, and a proponent of free speech and the freedom to offend.
While "The Four Horsemen" are arguably the foremost proponents of atheism, there are other current, notable atheists including: Lawrence M. Krauss (physicist, cosmologist, and author of A Universe from Nothing), Jerry Coyne (biologist and author of Why Evolution is True and its complementary blog, which specifically includes polemics against topical religious issues), Steven Pinker (cognitive scientist, linguist, psychologist and author), A.C. Grayling (philosopher), Dan Barker (former minister and atheist activist, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation), Greta Christina (Why are you Atheists so Angry?), James Randi (paranormal debunker and former illusionist), Michael Shermer (noted skeptic and author of Why People Believe Weird Things), David Silverman (President of the American Atheists and author of Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World), Ibn Warraq (Why I Am Not a Muslim), Matt Dillahunty (host of the Austin-based webcast and cable-access television show The Atheist Experience), and Bill Maher (writer and star of the 2008 documentary Religulous).
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. Other contemporary atheists such as Victor Stenger propose 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, 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 while upholding the possibility of one.
Scientific testing of religion
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 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".
Views on non-overlapping magisteria
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."
Science and morality
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 proposes 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.
The politics of new atheism
New atheism is politically engaged in a variety of ways. These include campaigns 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.
Edward Feser's book The Last Superstition presents arguments based on the philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas against New Atheism. According to Feser it necessarily follows from Aristotelian–Thomistic metaphysics that God exists, that the human soul is immortal, and that the highest end of human life (and therefore the basis of morality) is to know God. Feser argues that science never disproved Aristotle's metaphysics, but rather Modern philosophers decided to reject it on the basis of wishful thinking. In the latter chapters Feser proposes that scientism and materialism are based on premises that are inconsistent and self-contradictory and that these conceptions lead to absurd consequences.
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 Atheism—which 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.
Glenn Greenwald, Toronto-based journalist and Mideast commentator Murtaza Hussain, Salon columnist Nathan Lean, scholars Wade Jacoby and Hakan Yavuz, and historian of religion William Emilsen have accused the New Atheist movement of Islamophobia. Wade Jacoby and Hakan Yavuz assert that "a group of 'new atheists' such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens" have "invoked Samuel Huntington's 'clash of civilizations' theory to explain the current political contestation" and that this forms part of a trend toward "Islamophobia [...] in the study of Muslim societies".
William W. Emilson argues that "the 'new' in the new atheists' writings is not their aggressiveness, nor their extraordinary popularity, nor even their scientific approach to religion, rather it is their attack not only on militant Islamism but also on Islam itself under the cloak of its general critique of religion".
Paul Kurtz, editor in chief of Free Inquiry, founder of Prometheus Books, and a man who has been called the father of secular Humanism, 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 feels that the new atheist movement overlaps with scientism, which he feels is 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."
Journalist Robert Wright wrote that while the new atheist's ultimate goal was to advance reason, their self conception can "abet self-delusion, making it easier for them to be blind to their own lapses of reason". He adds, "This human tendency to view enemies through a biased lens points to another flaw in the thinking of the 'new atheists'". He feels that the new atheists "[believe]... that when religious people display seemingly irrational intolerance or hatred, the root of the problem is religion." He critiques such a belief by arguing that the accusations of irrationality the new atheists make towards religious people is due to the fact that "when you view people or ideas as your adversaries view them in zero-sum terms your unconscious mind does the rest of the work, making you conceive them and depict them in less flattering terms than is objectively warranted". The end result, he writes, is that the worst is brought out of religion.
Declining influence of the New Atheism movement
On November 6, 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.."
- Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer (1997, republished in 2002)
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (2004)
- Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam by Michel Onfray (2005)
- The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2006 in English)
- Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2006 in Dutch, English translation 2007)
- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006)
- Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (2006)
- Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (2006)
- God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger (2007)
- God Is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007)
- Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity by John W. Loftus (2008)
- Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan Barker (2008)
- Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless by Greta Christina (2012)
- The God Argument by A.C. Grayling (2013)
- Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2015)
- Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World by David Silverman (2015)
- Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye by Michael Shermer (2016)
- Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End by John W. Loftus (2016)
- God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction by Dan Barker (2016)
- A Brief History of Disbelief – 3-part PBS series (2007).
- Atheist feminism
- Brights movement
- Conflict thesis
- Critical thinking
- Criticism of religion
- Faith and rationality
- History of atheism
- Metaphysical naturalism
- Psychology of religion
- Relationship between religion and science
- Secular movement
- Sociology of religion
- The term is sometimes used benignly, for example by atheists such as Frans de Waal.
- Lois Lee & Stephen Bullivant, A Dictionary of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2016).
- Wolff, Gary, in The New Atheism, The Church of the Non-Believers reprinted in Wired Magazine, November 2006
- "New Atheists". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
The New Atheists are authors of early twenty-first century books promoting atheism. These authors include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. The 'New Atheist' label for these critics of religion and religious belief emerged out of journalistic commentary on the contents and impacts of their books.
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- De Waal, Frans (25 March 2013). "Has militant atheism become a religion?". Salon.com. Retrieved 9 March 2017.
Why are the 'neo-atheists' of today so obsessed with God's nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for? As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like 'sleeping furiously.'
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...in the last two years there have been five atheist best-sellers, one each from Professors Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and two from the neuroscientist Sam Harris.
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On the 30th of September 2007, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens sat down for a first-of-its-kind, unmoderated 2-hour discussion, convened by RDFRS and filmed by Josh Timonen.
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As Western society grappled with radical Islam, Harris distinguished himself with his argument that modern religious tolerance had placated us into allowing delusion rather than reason to prevail. Harris upended a discussion that had long been dominated by cultural relativism and a hands-off academic intellectualism; his seething contempt for the world’s faiths helped launch the “New Atheist” movement, and together with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, he became known as one of the "Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse."
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something peculiarly evangelistic about what has been termed the new atheist movement ... It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism — an atheist fundamentalism.
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Michael Ruse (2009) claimed that Dawkins would fail 'any philosophy or religion course'; and for this reason Ruse says The God Delusion made him 'ashamed to be an atheist'
- Ruse, Michael (August 2009). "Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster". Beliefnet. The BioLogos Foundation as a columnist of Beliefnet. Retrieved 19 August 2015.
… the new atheists do the side of science a grave disservice … these people do a disservice to scholarship ... Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing … the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group … the new atheists are doing terrible political damage to the cause of Creationism fighting. Americans are religious people ... They want to be science-friendly, although it is certainly true that many have been seduced by the Creationists. We evolutionists have got to speak to these people. We have got to show them that Darwinism is their friend not their enemy We have got to get them onside when it comes to science in the classroom. And criticizing good men like Francis Collins, accusing them of fanaticism, is just not going to do the job. Nor is criticizing everyone, like me, who wants to build a bridge to believers – not accepting the beliefs, but willing to respect someone who does have them … The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist … They are a bloody disaster …
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- Pigliucci, Massimo (2013). New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement. Midwest Studies in Philosophy. pp. 151–152.
- Wright, Robert. "Are the "New Atheists" Really Rational?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 3 May 2017.
- Is the New Atheism dead? by Elizabeth Bruenig, New Republic, November 6, 2015
- The New Atheism as a Stealth Religion: Five Years Later by David Sloan Wilson, Evolution Institute website