Who are the New Atheists? Just what is “new” about them?

Who are the New Atheists? Just what is “new” about them?

Wired Magazine has done a series of profiles and articles about the New Atheists, have indeed help codify them as a group, as a movement. A decent introduction to their project is found here, although it doesn’t include Hitchens (no, this is not required reading):


Dawking helpfully gave a recent interview with cnn.com:

Dawkins: Religion no moral compass

Search wired.com for Hitchens, Dawkins, or anyone else, and you’ll find some interesting coverage.

What is “new”? I’d say it’s two things, which overlap:

(1) New Atheist authors are sarcastically, ascerbically outspoken in their critique of all of religion. Nietzsche and Sartre both believed, albeit it in rather different ways, that atheists should not exhaust themselves in proofs that God or gods did not exist; instead, present your own theory, which assumes atheism as a premise, and hopefully the truth of atheism will sink in. Whereas New Atheist authors believe that showing that the claims of religion are false, that religion itself is mostly of great harm to the world, is a deeply important project in-and-of itself. We atheists, they are saying, must speak the truth about religion, regardless of which atheist theory we subscribe to. And the truth they see about religion is shocking and dismaying.

(2) The New Atheists are populist, this being the opposite of elitist. They believe that atheists ought to, “come out of the closet.” It is difficult to overstate how radical this is in the history of ideas. There were atheists among ancient Greeks and Hindus, but they did not believe, as far as we know, that it was important to stand proud and say, “I am an atheist,”; indeed, almost all intellectual movements surrounding atheist writing have assumed, until this latest crop, that most people would probably remain religious, because most people cannot handle the truth. Not so, say the New Atheists; that is insulting to, “most people.” Your average Joe can become an atheist. Your average soccer mom can handle it, would indeed be better off.

Questions for discussion: People who geek out about these authors are often enamored of the Pastafarian movement, AKA, the church of his noodly appendage. These are people who claim (and they are an officially registered religion with the US Federal gov, with the right to marry people and register houses of worship as non-profits) to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Their mantra: “We’ll stop believing in our God when you stop believing in yours.”

The FGM website and movement centers around a fascinating, simple argument, begun, perhaps, by the philosopher David Hume, who suggested that the world might have been created by a loving God, or it might have been laid as an egg by a gigantic chicken floating in outer space; neither claim was any more or less verifiable or rational. Similarly, the FGM crowd’s argument can be summarized in two forms:

(1) So some of you believe in God, and some of you believe in karma and reincarnation. Well, guess what! I believe that the there are two Gods; one is Butterfinger wrapper that’s in my kitchen trash can, and the other is the sweater I’m wearing. My claims are no more or less verifiable or rational than yours. Mock me, and you mock yourself.

(2) The extreme diversity of religious belief about the origin of the universe and the purpose of existence, the world, and mankind is such that the most logical conclusion is not that one belief system is right, but that they are all wrong. If any particular supernatural narrative were true, it would have become manifest or dominant by now. The rational person either accepts one religion, or rejects them all, because religions make factual claims about the world that directly contradict one another, so you can ‘tolerate’ and ‘respect’ as many as you like, but you cannot accept them.

Both arguments have a common strategy: that all claims about the supernatural are on equal footing by definition, so therefore we may as well just make up our own ‘god’ or else stop believing in all spiritual narratives. This basic, sarcastic, total dismissal of all religious experience is quite effective and popular among a growing number of people. Just in San Francisco, several groups with Pastafarian pamphlets picket religious events at AT&T park to hand out atheist literature. What do you think of these arguments?

A few caveats for discussion:

The most common response to this topic is something akin to, “Well, I think we should respect everyone’s religious belief, so I don’t know why these writer and people are being so intolerant.” It’s important to note that all these authors and probably all their followers respect the legal right of anyone to believe anything they want. They’re not trying to take the ‘right to believe’ away from anyone. Their attitude is that being forthright and aggressive (aggressive in terms of argument and intellectual engagement) in trying to spread their belief system is no different from any religious missionary, and ought to be taken seriously. In other words, try to engage with the arguments, instead of simply pointing out that they are rude.

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