People—usually critics of “New Atheism” (NA)—keep repeating that there’s nothing “new” about it except perhaps the stridency of its advocates. And indeed, not much that New Atheists have said hasn’t been said already, as one can see by reading Hitchens’s The Portable Atheist (highly recommended). The novelty of NA is the topic of short piece by Lois Lee in The Guardian’s “Comment is Free” section,” titled “What does the ‘new’ in ‘new atheism’ really mean?”
The piece is pretty lame: its main point seems to be that there are many “denominations” of NA (it mentions another CiF piece on “atheism +”), and of course we knew that already, since we recognize the disparate interests and foci of different New Atheists. Lee’s one attempt to define NA, however, intrigued me for two reasons. First, it incorporates the dread word “scientism” into the definition (my emphasis):
In fact, when Plessentin and Zenk organised a conference on the topic last year, there was some consensus in support of a common sense definition of new atheism. Most identified new atheism with a particular and identifiable cultural movement, necessarily associated with the work of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. Despite the notable differences in their approaches and interests, the combined work of these authors describe the cultural movement as a whole: a movement that is critical of “religion” and “theism”, promotes radical secularism and takes a view which is particularly informed by contemporary science (especially genetics and cognitive science) and scientism. This general definition makes it possible to use the label as a measure of other things, not merely as a way of identifying a body of literature and broadcasts by these particular people.
Well, I disagree with the characterization of “radical secularism” (I’m not exactly sure what that is, anyway), as well as the pejorative term “scientism” (why isn’t “science” sufficient?). I don’t know any of the New Atheists, at least of the more prominent ones, who think that all questions are of interest only insofar as they can be answered scientifically, or who have no interest in the arts or humanities.
The problem is that Lee doesn’t define scientism, and since the word almost always is intended to have bad connotations, the reader is left with a bad taste in the mouth about NA. But if “scientism” means the view that “all questions about what really exists in the universe are amenable only to empirical observation, reason, and agreement among different observers,” then yes, I am guilty of scientism, though some other NAs aren’t.
But this definition got me thinking about what does distinguish New Atheists from “Old” Atheists like Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Camus, and the like. I don’t want to bang on about this at length, for everyone has an answer and, in the end, distinguishing NAs from OAs isn’t nearly important as fighting for our beliefs. But I did think of four things that distinguish NAs from OAs, and here they are:
1. The repeated and strong emphasis on having evidence for your beliefs. Although this has always been a theme of atheists—after all, the absence of evidence is the reason most people are atheists—the force with which we challenge theists to document and support their beliefs is something new. I wasn’t around in Bertrand Russell’s day, but I doubt there were as many debates between atheists and believers then. The Internet (reason #4) is one reason for their proliferation.
2. The emphasis on science. This is one aspect of NA that I think Lee gets right, and it’s closely connected with #1. If you’re science oriented, as so many NAs are, then you’ll naturally challenge believers on the evidence. This, I think, is one reason why NA has been so successful, for the faithful simply have no evidence.
Just to take the “four horsemen”: Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, Sam Harris got his Ph.D in neurobiology, Dan Dennett works on the philosophy of science and knows a ton about evolution and neuroscience, and Hitchens, though a journalist, was deeply read in science and was friends with the other three (see #3 below). I got Hitchens, for example, to endorse WEIT. And don’t forget Victor Stenger and Larry Krauss, both physicists and vociferous atheists. Steve Pinker is a psychologist with close ties to data (see The Better Angels of Our Nature).
The connection between science and disbelief is an obvious one, but seems much stronger in NA than OA.
3. Collaboration and friendship between prominent NAs. The Four Horsemen, of course, were a pals before Hitchens died, and I also know all three living ones pretty well. Most of them know Krauss, Stenger, Pinker, Grayling and Shermer, and several are good friends with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (The NAs have been dominated by males—largely because the Four Horsemen all wrote bestselling books—but that dominance is, I hope, on the wane.) The collaborative and interactive nature of many prominent New Atheists has created a synergism that helps spread the word. I am not aware that prominent OAs formed their own community or had much interaction around nonbelief.
4. We have the Internet. Because of the Internet, the sense of community among atheist leaders has grown to encompass the rest of us who aren’t as prominent. Websites like those of Harris and Dawkins, blogs—or website collections like Freethought Blogs—provide an online community for freethinkers that simply couldn’t exist without the internet. A good essay (like the one Harris put up yesterday) is instantly disseminated throughout the community, heartening us all. And through discussions on websites, we recognize kindred (or nonkindred!) atheist spirits. By lessening our isolation, that also strengthens our movement.
This all seems obvious, but, lacking free will, I am compelled to put down what I see as the dominant traits distinguishing NAs from OAs. Let me add that the common accusation that we are more vociferous and strident than OAs is, I think, wrong. What is new is not that individual voices are louder, but that the community’s voice is louder. A collective voice is more powerful than a solitary one, however “strident” one person may be. To the extent that we become connected, so we become more willing to speak up, and that creates a self-perpetuating increase in the volume of our message. The faithful are beginning to hear that collective voice, and they are running scared. That wasn’t the case for OA, which never posed a serious challenge to faith.
It’s all encompassed in this cartoon:
I’m sure most readers have their take on what, if anything, is “new” about NA, and I invite them to weigh in below.
p.s. For a good critique of the scientism canard, see Jason Rosenhouse’s new post, “More sillness about scientism, part one.“