You may remember that a short while back Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist, went after Gnu Atheism, confessing his boredom while accusing us all of being theological morons (yawn). Well, perhaps good Caspar has had a change of heart, for he’s allowed Ophelia Benson to defend the Gnus at his site. One thing that bugs Ophelia, as it bugs me, is the maddening reluctance of Gnu critics to name the supposed miscreants.
Angry reaction doesn’t have much use for accurate and careful – angry reaction is trying to shut down the opposition, not make it better. If you don’t believe me, just Google a name or two along with “New Atheism” – try Michael Ruse, Andrew Brown, Madeleine Bunting, Mark Vernon, Barney Zwartz, Chris Hedges, Karen Armstrong, Chris Mooney, to name just a few.
Much of this situation – this dispute – is an artefact of the internet. Anything written can be instantly discussed; factions form, then groupthink and othering come into play. Blogs are notoriously liable to this. I’ve seen (and sometimes been part of) many blog arguments about the putative evils of New Atheism in which, when pressed to give actual examples of militant strident aggressive new atheism, the critic will cite comments on a blog.
At least we know where we are when that happens. Blog comments, especially on popular sites, can very quickly generate an atmosphere of mobbing, simply because most regular readers share a point of view. But that is a feature of blog comments and the internet more generally, not of new atheism as such. The picture is further confused because New Atheism can mean the big four (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens), or the big four plus some others, or all of them plus all avowed explicit outspoken atheists. Worst of all, it can mean the big four plus all drive-by shouters on the internet. It is seldom made explicit which is meant, and the result is that critics often oscillate between various meanings without notice.
So come on, ye critics like Phil Plait and Caspar Melville—put up or shut up. Atheism thrives on evidence, not innuendo. These criticisms without attached names remind me of Joe McCarthy’s never-revealed lists of Communists in the State Department.