What’s “new” about New Atheism?

September 20, 2012 • 11:15 am

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.

188 thoughts on “What’s “new” about New Atheism?

  1. “…critics of “New Atheism” (NA)—keep repeating that there’s nothing “new” about it…”

    Well, IIRC the critics are the ones that appended the epithet (pronounced with a sneer), so they have nothing to complain about.

    1. Precisely. IIRC (and I may not, because I didn’t consider it particularly important) it was a bishop who first used the phrase publicly, and it was then taken up by a couple of not particularly sympathetic journalists.

      Let the critics tell us what it means. (No, on second thoughts, perhaps not.) I’d certainly not use it to describe myself.

    2. Ulf Plessentin and Thomas Zenk, the two Berlin-based (“Ich bin ein Berliner Atheist”) researchers quoted by Lee, have nailed it in the presentation of their research project: “New Atheism” is mainly a media phenomenon.

      I might add: a chiefly American, or Anglo-American, media phenomenon.

      Time and again, from “New Archaeology” to “New Public Management” to the “New Democrats”, the sobriquet “New” has been affixed as a flag meant to signal a sea-change. Mostly, the profound transformation implied was but a media fad or a PR gimmick, trumpeted with the occasional connivance of the principals involved. True, France had the Nouvelle vague, the Nouveaux philosophes, the Nouvelle gauche, but the nouveau-ism fad itself faded.

      I see a lot of continuity in the intellectual endeavour of most serious atheists. If media exposure has amplified, if the community has become visible as such, I think it is partly due to the nature of forces opposed. Religious fundamentalism poses a threat to the evolution of Western civilisation, and most specifically, to America, to a degree which the “gentlemanly atheists” such as Russell, Shaw, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain or Darwin himself could hardly have anticipated. In the day or Darwin, or in Bertrand Russell’s prime, a “whiggish” notion of humanity’s progress to reason through rational discourse and scientific enquiry prevailed. Last vestiges of this hope, together with the bitter disillusions that followed it, can be traced in Jacob Bronowski’s magnificent “Ascent of Man”. We now have advanced to the point where we realise that it would take only a couple of elections gone sour to turn the clock way back, for decades if not for generations.

      The recent stridence of the “New Atheists”, so dubbed, is largely caused by, if still far less than proportional to, the rising levels of encroaching obscurantism.

  2. While you make good points, especially about the sense of community, I think the only true defining characteristic is that new atheism is just that — new.

    It’s about a century newer than the atheism of Bertrand Russell.

    It’s about two centuries newer than the atheism of Mark Twain.

    And it’s a couple dozen centuries newer than the atheism of Epicurus.

    I think you’ll find the atheism of all three very much alike, within the context of their own individual personalities and the prevailing cultures.

    But there’s no mistraking the fact that one Professor Jerry A. Coyne, Phd., is just a wee bit newer than, say, David Hume.



          1. No, if deists are supposed to hold that some standoffish “god” created the universe or the like. The Epicurean “gods” are held to be long lived tranquil beings which live between the cosmos. They do not create universes, answer prayers or do anything godly as ordinarily understood. Epicurus held that since people saw these things (in dreams) they took to be gods, they must be out there somewhere (this is a consequence of his theory of perception).

            So in my view this is a “belief in something *called* ‘gods'”, not anything more.

  3. I don’t think that it’s an accident that NA really took off post-9/11. That was a wake-up call for, not only the “Four Horseman”, but for the rest of us, as well. Now, at long last and with one voice, New Atheists are not afraid to say, “enough.”

    1. I don’t think “New Atheism” took off post 9-11. I think atheists grew their voice together with the widespread use of the internet. It all began really in the mid-90s when formerly isolated atheists found a community in the internet. The 2000s was just a natural growth outcome and would have happened I think even if 9/11 did not occur.

        1. While Sam Harris’ books are more a response to Islamic lunacy, Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett are more exercised by Christian lunacy. It’s only a question of emphasis, but I think 9/11 definitely woke a few people up.

  4. I think you handle the matter candidly; the internet has really given us an impetus on reaching out and many of us are able to come out and declare our atheism.
    On distinguishing between OA and NA, I think we are all atheists, and that really is the crux of the matter.

      1. I would be lying if I said I knew much about A+. I have seen articles on the internet on A+ but haven’t spend as much time reading any of them maybe I should just to have an understanding of what is behind their drive.

        1. The shortest answer I think would be that there has never been an atheist community since you can’t have a community that defines itself by what it doesn’t believe. That would be like everyone agreeing on the cut and colour of the clothes that the emperor isn’t wearing.
          Atheist+ is an effort to define a community that has shared values in addition to and maybe complemented by the fact that we don’t believe in god.

          1. Atheist+ is an effort to define a community that has shared values in addition to and maybe complemented by the fact that we don’t believe in god.

            They’re not the first; witness the Brights and Humanists for the first two examples off the top of my head.

            And they’re also a perfect example of the cat-herding phenomenon. Their every foundational manifesto makes it clear that they’re forming A+ in order to distance themselves from large numbers of atheists they don’t want to have anything to do with.

            Whatever their reasons for doing so, however valid the reasons, there’s no way you can even pretend to hint that they’re at all representative of atheists and atheism. That’s the whole point of A+ — to set themselves apart from other atheists.


          2. Yes. They are trying to define an atheist community, not the atheist community. Your analogy of the cats is the same as my pointing out that there could not be a single atheist community.

            You are right, they’re not the first to try to do this it’s just that Brights and Humanists have become pejorative terms so they try again. Who knows what they’ll be called in the next iteration.

          3. “Humanists” has become pejorative?

            And if it has, which is worse, atheist or humanist, and to who?

    1. The printing press and its dissemination of the Bible in the common tongue led to the devastation of religion in Europe; some extremists, however, escaped across the pond and are still remarkably religious — perhaps the internet will finish what the printing press started?

  5. What brings us together as “new” atheists is political necessity. We’re learning how we can, as it were, assemble a herd of cats into a phalanx.

    Nonbelievers. Scientists and educators. LGBTs. Feminists. All of these minorities are threatened by another minority with obsolescent ideals and, unfortunately, a disproportionate political voice.

    New Atheism is a label for an umbrella political rights movement.

  6. As far as I can see, the only distinguishing feature about the ‘New Atheism’ is … that it isn’t being ignored.

    Or, to put it another way, the ‘New Atheism’ is the kind that the ‘Guardian’ suddenly sees fit to attack every few days — in spite of supposedly being a progressive, left-of-centre paper.

    In fact, the ‘Guardian’ — with its knife never out of Julian Assange, for example — is actually a remarkable case-study in how a visceral conservatism — manipulative, anti-intellectual, in thrall to powerful and established institutions — lies at the heart of even the ‘progressive’ end of the corporate media, even in the UK…

    1. Have you seen Peter Morgan’s brilliant docudrama, “The Special Relationship”, about Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s diverging paths?

      Towards the end, Bill Clinton’s character, played by an unusually convincing Dennis Quaid, bluntly tells Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair that he is “not sure whether you are a progressive centre-Left politician any more — or if you ever were”.

      So with the Guardian. It takes a long memory — or archives reaching back to 1821 — to remember that this newspaper of record used to have impeccable liberal credentials, way back when the label “liberal” had a vigourous political meaning.

  7. The “New Atheism” is analogous to a “New Ignorance” or a “New Blindness.” Now, before people start reacting angrily at me, let me please explain that I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. I state this with all compassion. When one thinks he/she is an atheist, it is an admittance of being without light – that inner source which allows one to intellectually grasp the reality of the spiritual God.

    So, what many prior atheists had to do to begin receiving that “light” was to begin exercising their spiritual abilities. This is the key. You need to work to wake up your spirituality. If you are able to do that, it will sort of “jump start” you onto the path that you are meant to be on – a spiritual path of healing and eventual full spiritual health.

    Atheists are really sort of the “walking spiritually-frustrated.” This is not your fault, but just understand that you have a “blockage” of sorts. You just need something to help you dislodge whatever is blocking your spirituality…to at least get your started.

    This could occur while you are investigating Hinduism or Buddhism. But, if done fully, it will lead you at least to Judaism and hopefully to Christianity – your home.

    1. <snork />

      You know, I might be able to stop laughing at you…if it weren’t for the fact that every single authoritative religious document is at least as silly as a Leprechauns-n-Dragons children’s picture book — except nowhere near as well-written.



      1. Actually, the Bhagavad-Gita (IMO the most literary of sacred scriptures) is quite well-written even if the folks purveying it at airports are annoying.

        1. Even if it’s well-written, it’s still got all those purple-skinned aliens with thirty-seven elephant penises (or whatever).

          I mean, Harry Potter is well-written, but far more believably plausible than any religious screed I’ve encountered.


          1. I tried Harry Potter but couldn’t finish the first book ~ it didn’t seem to me to be at all well written. I think of JK as a good plotter, but a poor writer. Stephen King the same.

            Have you read Philip Pullman Ben? A much darker & richer brew IMO

          2. You know, I haven’t. I enjoyed the movie, and I’ve been meaning to add the books to The List. I really should do something about that….


          3. Greg, I hadn’t heard of that. I thought you were joking, but you’re not — and a quick skim of the first couple chapters shows great promise. Thanks!

            Lynn, I wouldn’t at all be surprised. The movie was enjoyable enough, which indicates that there’s something “there” there…which, in turn, also generally indicates that the movie is a pale shadow of the book.



    2. Atheists are really sort of the “walking spiritually-frustrated.” This is not your fault, but just understand that you have a “blockage” of sorts. You just need something to help you dislodge whatever is blocking your spirituality …

      The arrogance is breathtaking.

      Having read up well on all the world’s major religions, been raised in a Christian church, and surrounded by superstitious people my entire life, I don’t have a blockage. I continue to wonder why so many people need to conjure up an imaginary friend to comfort themselves.

    3. About Francis-Philip :-

      “I am a minor Catholic Christian theologian – a graduate of the ever-faithful and orthodox Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College…”

      Hi FP. Here’s your chance ~ please throw some theology my way in any order…

      1] Please define “spirituality”
      2] Why do you conclude that the Christian Catholic God is the correct brand of Abrahamic belief?
      3] Why did you land on an Abrahamic belief rather than on any other religion?

      [I’m asking for theology here not personal revelation BTW]

      1. 1]That special feeling that god gives to ME!
        2]Because the Christian Catholic god revealed that to ME!
        3]I didn’t land on it, god put ME!! there.

        Francis, it’s called the argument from narcissism. There’s just something so magically special about you that the one true god, creator of the universe made it all to revolve around you.

        And you are so generous too! You are offering the same magical benefits to others if they only take your magically special word for it.

    4. When one thinks he/she is an atheist, it is an admittance of being without light – that inner source which allows one to intellectually grasp the reality of the spiritual God.

      You, on the other hand, are of course the proud owner of a such a special light bulb, this sensus divinitatis, which to intellectually mature people is indistinguishable from extreme gullibility nurtured by auto-suggestion, herd instinct and psychological insecurity.

    5. Pray, tell, for starters, just what was, and what justified, the spiritual frustration that led to the horrific treatment of Galileo and Giordano Bruno for their mere opinions regarding the place of the Earth in the Universe?

  8. “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.”

    I certainly believe that this is true. For instance, the 19th century agnostic Robert Ingersoll was far more strident than any of the prominent new atheists. Bertrand Russell was just as forceful as Dawkins. I would add that theists now feel under a powerful and unrelenting rational attack coming from many corners. It does ruthlessly and doggedly underscore the inescapable silliness of religious beliefs. The French have a nice expression for this: “Le ridicule tue.”

  9. I think it is both true that the New Atheism has a stronger allegiance to science, and that many more of those who engage in debating them are fundamentalist Christians with less ground to stand on.

    Bertrand Russell mainly debated for atheism against fairly heavyweight guys like Alfred North Whitehead and Frederick Coppleston. (In fact I’ll go on record as saying Jesuit priest Coppleston’s history of Western philosophy is far better than Russell’s!!!)

    Contrast them with Bill O’Reilly whose cant-explain-the-tides bizness is the single worst argument for the existence of God in the entire history of Western civilization!!!

  10. I broadly agree with what Jerry has written as a definition of new atheism [small a].

    I would like to add though that new atheists are more likely to be anti-theists, dismissive of NOMA & against accommodationism [or more honestly ~ that is what *I* want it to be]

    My main worry about the label “atheist” today is that it seems [to me] to have attracted a proportion of people who have chosen it as a fashion statement. I remember the same thing happened with CND years ago ~ it began to attract camp followers who had not analysed their adopted position. I suppose I should be grateful that it has gained enough recognition for this to be a problem for me…

    1. If that’s the main worry then we don’t have much to worry about. So much better to be fashionable than unfashionable.

  11. I think there’s another important difference which is due to the trend towards globalisation — which in turn depends heavily on the Internet; that is, New Atheists critique all religions equally. Bertrand Russell wrote ‘Why I am not a Christian’ because Christianity was the only faith he was closely acquainted with. A New Atheist, mindful of the lunacies committed in the name of Mormonism, Scientology, Islam, Buddhism, etc, would write ‘Why I am not a theist’.

  12. The cartoon explains the difference. Before the Internet and websites like WEIT, most atheists would silently fume about questions like “Shall we begin with a prayer?” Now the new atheists know that the question is not really a question, but a demand and requirement. A new atheist says “No we shall not begin with a prayer” where a prayer is not appropriate because the new atheist can depend on like minded new atheists to support her.

  13. New atheism is, in my view, more closely entwined with scepticism and anti-dogmatism than old atheism was. Stalin and Mao could be called atheists, but not new atheists.

      1. But that proves my point. A new atheist could never be a cult leader, because a cult could never embrace scepticism and anti-dogmatism; that would be a contradiction in terms.

        It may be different with atheism+ though. 🙂

  14. For me, the only new thing about New Atheism was an increased willingness to be confrontational. For me personally that wasn’t new at all, but for a lot of previously quiet atheists, it was.

    1. And that reason for that is that because of the newfound community in the internet, atheists became empowered seeing they are not alone, compared to the real world when they would have felt few and far between.

  15. I’m not entirely sure where, but I recall hearing it explained that during the lifetimes of Russell and Hume, there was no market for popular philosophy/science books. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t disseminate their ideas as widely as Dawkins could with The God Delusion.

  16. Well, I disagree with the characterization of “radical secularism” (I’m not exactly sure what that is, anyway),..

    It means:

    1. You believe in democracy.

    2. You believe that none of the wild eyed, brainless religious fanatics from the nearly infinite religions have any right to tell you what to do or think.

    3. You don’t hate the Enlightenment and want to reverse it with a New Endarkenment.

    Much like the USA, Canada, and the rest of the developed world.

  17. Here’s what’s new about new atheism:

    Oh you’re so condescending
    Your gall is never ending
    We don’t want nothin’, not a thing from you
    Your life is trite and jaded
    Boring and confiscated
    If that’s your best, your best won’t do

    Oh we’re not gonna take it
    No, we ain’t gonna take it
    Oh we’re not gonna take it anymore

    (“Twisted Sister”).

  18. For one thing, didn’t the (dis)belief of Bertrand Russell land him in jail (gaol)? Or was it his opposition to WW I? In any event, it seems that the NA’s don’t have that to deal with.

    1. 6 months in 1919, but not to do with religion…

      During the First World War, Russell was one of the very few people to engage in active pacifist activities, and in 1916, he was dismissed from Trinity College following his conviction under the Defence of the Realm Act.

      He was charged a fine of £100, which he refused to pay, hoping that he would be sent to prison. However, his books were sold at auction to raise the money. The books were bought by friends; he later treasured his copy of the King James Bible that was stamped “Confiscated by Cambridge Police.”

      A later conviction for publicly lecturing against inviting the US to enter the war on Britain’s side resulted in six months’ imprisonment in Brixton prison in 1918.

      He used his time well writing the Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy while doing his porridge

  19. Chances are probably pretty good that any Western sect picked at random has changed more in the last 50yrs than atheism. Nobody tried to call the Mormonicals New when they decided that black people were human after all (was this thru input from a Latter Latter Day Saint?). And guaranteed there are more sects now than 50yrs ago.

    If the label is allowed to stick, then eventually the obscurantists who started it all will prance around shouting, “There’s nothing New about New Atheism.” Or at least people will continue to ask, “What the hell is new about this, anyway?”

  20. Well, if ‘religion’ meant what the New Atheists say it means, then I would agree with them. In fact, I do agree with them in regards to many of the blighted, twisted, and deformed versions of religious culture that exist in the world. But my understanding has always been that these are failed attempts, or wrong turns, or misrepresentations. But they have failed at something, or missed something, or misrepresented something- and the NA’s don’t understand what it is, that they have failed at.

    1. It doesn’t matter if there exist religions that tolerate, include, promote peace and compassion.

      The issue is faith vs evidence. Untold human misery could be avoided if we would only jettison faith and start looking at the world through clear, unbiased, unprejudicial, adult eyes, and draw our conclusions from those observations.

      Even the most benign religion is inimical to that kind of endeavor.

    2. Isn’t it funny, though — the followers of these ‘blighted, twisted and deformed versions of religious culture’ would say exactly the same thing about yours. They must not be enlightened, like what you are.

  21. One other point – the first chapter of The God Delusion was called ‘A Very Religious Non-believer’, and it was about Albert Einstein’s views. But I don’t think the depiction of Einstein’s views on God were at all accurate. About 6 months after TGD was published, Walter Isaacson came out with his superb biography, ‘Einstein’s Universe’. There is a whole chapter devoted to Einstein’s God. It makes it clear Einstein thought organized religion was infantile and puerile. No question there. But he was definitely not atheist. In fact he said ‘There are people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is when they quote me in support of their views’ (Einstein’s Universe, Pocket Books, 2008, p389)

    So had Dawkin’s book come out in Einstein’s lifetime, I very much doubt that he would have endorsed it.

    1. “I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in Nature.” – Albert Einstein

      “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” – Albert Einstein

      I don’t think he would have been too harsh a critic of Dawkins, but we will never know.

    2. But he was definitely not atheist. In fact he said ‘There are people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is when they quote me in support of their views’ (Einstein’s Universe, Pocket Books, 2008, p389)

      This quote comes from Prince Hubertus of Lowenstein, a Roman Catholic activist who was decorated by Pope John XXIII. It comes from his autobiography (“Towards the Further Shore”), in which he claimed that Einstein had said this many years earlier at a dinner party.

      The book making this claim was published in 1968, whereas Einstein had died in 1955, and thus had no opportunity to correct or comment on this quote.

      For these reasons I don’t regard this as a genuine Einstein quote, but as a dubious claim about him.

  22. Not sure if the style of atheism is new or rather the place it has in cultural discourse – I’d say that’s the “newer” part of it, at least in recent history. Religions, often, include zealous recruitment methods, with incentives such as “You are saving this person from the burning fires of hell.” That would be rather motivating, if you believed it. It seems to me atheism has often lacked this sort of incentive to promote itself, and when it has been present it’s been under the guise of a new dogma (i.e., communism.) I’m not up on the history of atheism, though, so correct me if I’m wrong.

    I think this is important in that it creates such an intersubjective agreement. This is one point I still have a hard time explaining to people who grew up in secular households or whose brains were just wired in such a way that they never believed. What you’re exposed to as a child is The Way Things Are. And as a child, you accept that people as a group believe in a lot of things that you will never personally experience or verify, things like the existence of planets. Our perceptions typically begin to change with exposure to competing viewpoints. We grow up, go out into the world, and see that other people were raised differently, grew up in different environments, in different cultures, and so on. We have a few ha-ha moments where we realize how quirky our families were in some ways, because apparently in some schools of parenting children are not caffeinated from infancy onwards (tea in our bottles and a steady stream of diet soda by first grade, my mother thought it was good for attention…) The thing about religion, though, is that traditionally no one has challenged that particular perception. You’re never met with that voice that says “Ha ha, that was weird!” and the power of perceived agreement, especially if you have no reason to give the topic a lot of scrutiny, is a powerful one.

    1. Steve Pinker is a psychologist with close ties to data

      Ha! I can’t tell if this was meant snarkily or not, but it brings to mind a host of other great lines. “Lawrence Krauss allegedly bedfellows with repeatability!” “The closed door alliance between Sam Harris and empirical data!” “Jerry Coyne: Alleged ties to rational thinking!”

  23. I think what is new about New Atheists, and the reason New Atheism is so reviled, is their newfound willingness to indiscriminately slaughter people who disagree with them… no, wait, I’m thinking of someone else. Sorry.

  24. The thread of M. Rosenhouse about scientism is really bad. He doesn,’ even address scientism (tough maybe he thinks he does..?)
    When you read the first sentences, it looks like he is going to respond to a post made on Rationnaly Speaking, Pugliucci’s blog.
    But not all.

    He just dismisses scientism by saying it is a term invented by religious people who don’t like the scientific method. He mainly opposes religious behaviour to scientific behaviour and make some obvious conclusion.

    The problem is that he doesn’t address nowhere at all the points raised by M. Pugliucci who doesn’t even talk about religion…

  25. the faithful simply have no evidence

    There is a difference between the evidential burden, which in the specific case of Christianity is satisfied by testimony, and the persuasive burden, which is subjective on the part of the reader. In any case, how does one persuade a creature that has no free will?

    One key difference between NA and OA is Vatican II. Christopher Hitchens appeared to recognise that when he debated with David Allen White on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.

    Another difference is that Antony Flew, one of the OA, ceased to be an A. So far, none of the NA “freethinkers” has budged. Not even, it seems, in the area of morality.

    1. “There is a difference between the evidential burden, which in the specific case of Christianity is satisfied by testimony, and the persuasive burden, which is subjective on the part of the reader.”

      Is this meant to refute Jerry’s claim about the lack of evidence for god? It does no such thing.

      What you’ve basically said is that some people will read WEIT or The Greatest Show on Earth and not be persuaded, and some people will read anecdotes about burnings in bosoms or warm fuzzies and consider that conclusive. You can see that this only demonstrates human idiosyncrasy and has nothing to say about the objective validity of the given evidence, can’t you?

      “which…is satisfied by testimony.”

      This is an inversion of logic I cannot comprehend, and that theists perpetrate all the time. Why do theists’ standards for valid evidence go down when it comes to god, which, if one existed, would be the most important thing to know anything about. Would you take an untested medicine because your doctor had a gut feeling it would actually work and not kill you? Would you be content to serve a life sentence in prison because someone had a gut feeling you were guilty?

      As the stakes get higher, the standard for evidence should go up! Testimony ain’t good enough!

        1. I think the difference is that, in court, a witness’ testimony refers to real world events and objects, and so is amenable to corroboration.

          When theists bear testimony, they are essentially saying they have a feeling that x is true. This kind of testimony would never fly in court.

          1. It would suggest that there is a common phenomenon; it does not require accepting that the cause they attribute for the common phenomenon is accepted.

            There’s a wide range of internal, spiritual experiences described by various people. Three particularly similar ones makes them more interesting; however, less so in so far as they are part of a general phenomenon which has conventional/non-paranormal explanations.

            Additionally, “exactly” is rarely the case; the degree similarity is often explainable by cross-communication. That is, hearing the description of person #1 influences the how person #2 describes something, even in ordinary testimony.

          2. It’s the sort of thing that would win you the 1 million dollar challenge from the JREF, so I suppose we cannot rule it out as a possibility. Then again we also should remember that such claims have yet to be proven anywhere, even once.

        2. > don’t we routinely accept witness testimony > in court?

          It’s not ‘accepted’ uncritically, or without cross-examination. It’s also subject to scientific disproof. What’s more, for some unaccountable reason, reports of miraculous events defying time, space and causality are not taken seriously.

          And when someone claiming to be a ‘witness’ turns out to have lied about their name or their whereabouts, or is found not to have been born when the crime took place, their testimony goes in the bin — where it finds itself next to the New Testament, which is there for precisely the same reasons.

          1. That’s potentially possible by forensic evidence. The impact of a car and a bus tend to leave traces on both — bent metal, paint scraped from one to another, and so on. There also may be skid marks left on the pavement, allowing details to be inferred about the speed and path of each vehicle involved.

            In addition, as noted, it might also be disproven by showing that the three were not actually eyewitnesses — such as being elsewhere at the time.

            There appears to be a relatively recent overview on the state of the reserarch on eyewitness limits: “Generalizing eyewitness reliability research”, in “The handbook of eyewitness psychology” Volume II.

        3. Yes, but we also understand that eye witness testimony is terribly unreliable. I’m no lawyer, but I think most serious crimes do require some physical evidence to get a conviction.

          1. Yes, I was about to make this point (although I similarly lack legal expertise).

            Even if it turns out “testimony” is enough to get a conviction in some cases, that doesn’t mean it’s a good form of evidence, and I’d campaign to change the system. If the stakes were high enough, I wouldn’t even want to trust my own testimony. Give me tangible, objective evidence.

    2. “There is a difference between the evidential burden, which in the specific case of Christianity is satisfied by testimony, and the persuasive burden, which is subjective on the part of the reader.”

      This is the old, “voice in my head told me” nonproof.

      Millions claim that the voices in their heads are from god and told them this or that. The voices all disagree with each other. Mostly the voices in their heads say god told them you should send them money and their cutest teenage boys and girls.

      All faith claims reduce to voices in someone’s head.

      It’s not proof. It’s not convincing either which is why we have thousands of gods, dozens of current religions, and 42,000 xian sects in an ever expanding cloud of silliness.

  26. Actually one question really puzzles me about atheism and evolutionary materialism, as a view of life. It is this. Richard Dawkins loudly and continually claims that ‘to ask why life exists’ is a meaningless question. He said this on Australian TV earlier this year, and just the other day in a debate with Lord Sachs in the UK. He says it is completely meaningless to ask why there are living beings, and why life evolved.

    I never really understand why he says this. If you picture the early earth, 4 billion years ago, before life evolved on it, it was basically water, rocks, and volcanoes – I guess. There were, by definition, no complex life forms, or any life forms. Yet, now, here we have these vastly elaborate civilizations and the human mind which can plumb the depths of the Universe, and so on.

    So I really don’t understand why the assertion that this all happens ‘for no reason’ actually says anything. I just don’t see the point.

    1. I think it’s because of ‘methodological naturalism’. Obviously one can’t take into account higher-level purposes, and so on, in a scientific theory. I can see the point of regarding the evolution of species from a purely functional perspective, with no question of ‘purpose’ other than that of survival. But it seems to me that to draw the conclusion that ‘the universe exists for no purpose’ is to extrapolate,or project, this kind of methodological naturalism to a higher level – to actually read more significance into it than it actually has.

      I can’t think of any other explanation for it.

      1. The point as I understand it is that if life hadn’t appeared, if multicellular organisms hadn’t evolved, if humans hadn’t developed, it wouldn’t have been in the least surprising. Just another billion years in the everyday life of an ordinary planet.

        The fact that it all HAS happened makes us extraordinarily lucky from a personal standpoint, but that’s a matter of complete indifference from the larger perspective of the history of the universe.

      2. I really don’t understand why the assertion that this all happens ‘for no reason’ actually says anything.

        It says that no higher intelligence designed life for a purpose.

        … to draw the conclusion that ‘the universe exists for no purpose’ is to extrapolate, or project, this kind of methodological naturalism to a higher level

        Methodological naturalism is not so much a prior assumption of science, it is a product of science. We adopt naturalism because there is no evidence for any higher power having designed the universe for a purpose. If you have such evidence, please present it.

        1. We decide what kind of evidence we will admit, on the basis of the assumptions we started with, which we claim are the result of what we already know. Slim chance of discovering anything new there.

          1. I don’t agree. We are genuinely willing to consider any evidence for a higher intelligence who created the universe for a purpose, but all attempts to point to such evidence have been utterly feeble.

          2. I didn’t mention ‘higher intelligence’. The point I made was simply Dawkins continued assertion of the the idea that life happens, for no reason or no purpose. He says it is improper to ask ‘why do we exist’or ‘why did life evolve’. It doesn’t seem improper to me, to ask that question. I don’t see life or the universe as meaningless, in that sense, and I don’t see why asserting that it is, is regarded as a philosophical view of life. If anything, it is an anti-philosophical view.

          3. Having a “meaning” or “purpose” to life is the same thing as it being created by a “higher intelligence”, since by “purpose” we refer to something done deliberately by an intelligence.

            What Dawkins is saying is that one shouldn’t assume that there is such an intelligence by assuming that there is an answer to “what is life here for?” or similar questions. For such a question to be meaningful you first need to establish that there is a higher intelligence who created life.

          4. “why do we exist” has a mechanistic answer which explains “how” we came to exist. If the answer doesn’t satisfy, then you were looking for a “purpose” answer to your “why” question, which is meaningless given that there was no purpose-capable mind who created life.

    2. I think what he said or meant was that there is no “purpose”. It is meaningless to ask “what is the purpose” for things that are not products of purpose-capable minds. But also read up on Dennetts “free-floating rationales”.

  27. which, apparently, only humans are aware of.

    You see, this is where I am having the problem. We are constantly assured that science is on the verge of understanding how inorganic chemicals coagulated into the vastly complex forms of even very simple life. But at the end of the day, if you ask ‘why did that happen’, the answer seems to be ‘well, for no reason’.

    So what I don’t really get is what is being ‘explained’. I am completely on board with the facts of evolution – no question – but this seems to me to involve a very significant value judgement, posing as science.

    1. If I drop a glass on the floor and it falls to pieces, does it make sense to you to ask why the fragments are arranged in the way they are? If so, what could an answer be like?

      1. Poor analogy. The analogy for the emergence of DNA is more like broken glass forming itself in to a whole glass, don’t you think? After all, disregarding all the ‘entropy’ business, DNA contains vastly greater amounts of *ordered information* than does the supposed ‘primeval soup’.

        1. But you cannot disregard this ‘entropy business’. That’s why there can be order locally. It still remains a pointless question to ask why there is order. Why is there order in a snow crystal?

          This reminds me of an anecdote about a famous concert pianist who was known to play almost everything unusually fast. When asked why he did this, he answered: ‘Because I can.’

          1. There is order in snow crystals, because water has the property that gives rise to that structure. But the comparison is facile. Crystals do not evolve or mutate. There is an enormous amount of information in a single cell. I don’t see any fundamental principle in science which accounts how information of that order, arises from chaos. It is order of a different order.

          2. Natural selection stops things from happening, it is not a creative force, as such. Nature is creative, clearly, but why it is so, is a much deeper level of question than I think Darwin was prepared to tackle. We’re not allowed to say there’s anything driving the process, right?

          3. Evolution explains perfectly well how ‘information’ arises.

            A point mutation can turn this:


            into this:


            A gene duplication followed by another point mutation can turn that into this:


            Would you agree that the last contains more information than the first?

            Now, you could object that the first may be ‘meaningful’, while the last perhaps is not. But that is where natural selection enters the story. You should read our host’s book about it. It has the same title as this website.

          4. To sum up andreschuiteman’s on-the-nose explanation: imperfect replication of self-replicating molecules is the creative force you mean.

        2. Erwin Schrodinger delved into the subject of what is life? in the similarly titled book from 1944.

          The point he was making in this book involved addressing the question you are asking here.
          What is the reason why complex life developed.
          I think Schrodingers entropy answer is probably the best answer yet produced. The idea is that living processes tend to lead to an increase in entropy (disordered, low energy available for work) thus life feeds on negative entropy (ordered, high energy available for work)
          The more complex life becomes, the more negative entropy it is able to consume, and since the earth is not a closed system, there is energy available for life from the sunlight being pumped onto the surface of the planet. Evolution drives life in the direction of more efficient consumers of negative entropy and thus it tends to proceed from less complex towards more complex replicators.

          1. Thanks for the link to that book. I will look at that. I think it is outside the purview of current evolutionary biology, however. As it happens, Schrodinger was a lifelong reader of Schopenhauer, and, later in life, also of Advaita Vedanta. So his philosophy tended towards idealism. I don’t think you can place him in the company of the new atheists, even though he was certainly not a religious believer.

            I am looking forward to John Gribbin’s forthcoming biography of him.

          2. I don’t know his religions beliefs – you don’t need to be an atheist to accept that life is a purely natural process, entirely within the explanatory scope of physical laws.

          3. About Schrodinger, you find in Wiki that
            “He had a lifelong interest in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, which influenced his speculations at the close of What is Life? about the possibility that individual consciousness is only a manifestation of a unitary consciousness pervading the universe.”

            How can such a rational mind fall into that trap..?

          4. Physics is a long way ahead of biology. And physics stopped being ‘physicalist’ in the 1920’s. They had no choice. The evidence overturned all of the common-sense notions of ‘what was really there’. This is why Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Wigner, and others, became interested in Eastern philosophy and Continental idealism. They were looking for a metaphysics to make sense of what the empirical results were saying. But we don’t want any of that here.

            It’s ‘woo’.

    2. The difficulty here lies in the conflict between how we are programmed to ask questions (how our minds evolved) and what the real world is like.

      We are ourselves products of evolution, and it has been advantageous to our survival that we have an agency-detector in our minds. We make false positive detections (for example thinking that there is a rain God that sends down rain), but overall it has been a benefit that we detect agency and intentions in the things that happen around us. For the most part this works because important things that happen around us are indeed caused by intentional agents (scheming people, hungry lions, etc).

      But this agency-detecting frame of mind confounds us when we look at the natural world. It makes us ask meaningless questions like “why is there life”. Evolution led to the eventual coming about of brains capable of thinking and designing and having purposes. Before there were brains, there was no such thing as an intention or purpose. There is zero evidence that there is an intelligence capable of having intentions before there was life. And there is all evidence that evolution is purposeless – meaning undirected by intention. But our evolutionary programming sets us up to be emotionally satisfied when we detect agency. That is where the conflict is. Some people invent agency (God) despite the contrary evidence; other people refuse to delude themselves.

      1. How would you know an intention when you see it? Everything about nature seems intentional to me, even though it is also whimsical – it acts spontaneously and capriciously.

        It is a curious fact that the things that are discovered by human reason, pre-exist human intelligence. What evolves is the *capacity* for reason. But reason does not come into existence with humans, as the result of chance occurence, any more than does the law of the excluded middle. The capacity to reason reveals things about the nature of reality, but what is revealed, pre-existed us. But to use reason to explain this away as ‘something that happened for no reason’ is anti-philosophical, in my view.

        Man seeks to know. Evolutionary development is the unfolding of the capacity to know, the capacity to reason, the capacity to understand meaning. Maybe our purpose is simply to do that – to ask questions like this, to pursue science, art, and whatever else we do. There is no contradiction between this idea and evolutionary biology. There is a conflict between it and evolutionary materialism. But these are different things.

        1. “Man seeks to know.”

          • So does woman.

          “Evolutionary development is the unfolding of the capacity to know, the capacity to reason, the capacity to understand meaning.”

          • Very poetic, but unsubstantiated by any evidence.

          “Maybe our purpose is simply to do that – to ask questions like this, to pursue science, art, and whatever else we do.”

          Or maybe it isn’t; just something we can do if we’re so inclined.


          1. “Evolutionary development is the unfolding of the capacity to know, the capacity to reason, the capacity to understand meaning.”

            • Very poetic, but unsubstantiated by any evidence.

            Any evidence?? Have you heard about one of evolution’s latest product, the Homo Sapiens?

          2. Sum ergo cogito — you’re putting Descartes before de horse…


            PS. And it’s Homo sapiens; italics, and only the generic name capitalised.

        2. Half your problem is conflating ‘reason’ with ‘intentional purpose’. Be clear what exactly is it you are looking for. There are causes to things and events – and those are their reasons. But if you are looking for intention then that’s a different thing – that requires a consciousness capable of that feat. Note that you can use poetic language to anthropomorphize things (the clouds intentionally poured rain) but be aware when you are doing that too so you don’t get confused.
          It is fine to hypothesize an intention behind some occurrence, but to validate that hypothesis you need to check the evidence. The way things ‘seem’ to you may not reflect reality. Even when dealing with people (whom we direct evidence exists) intention is a hard problem. Did he intentionally run over the child or was it an accident? When you’re talking about evolution of life you don’t even have anything you can attribute the intention to? Sure you can dream up gods but unless you are happy with deluding you need to look at the evidence.

  28. “distinguishing NAs from OAs isn’t nearly important as fighting for our beliefs.”

    Or should that be “fighting for our lack of beliefs”?

  29. I don’t really buy this stuff about scientism.

    I’m sure that if someone could demonstrate that a better (more accurate, useful, reliable, whatever) understanding of the universe could be acquired through prayer or reading deepities, scientists across the world would be using those methods.

    The suggestion of an unreasonable adherence to a scientific approach to understanding things is bollocks: in spite of thousands of years of usage, these other “ways of knowing” have proved useless, while science has not.

  30. I go to church with my wife every Sunday but I’m not religious in any way. I feel it’s something I shoud do to support her even though I usually just sit there for an hour day-dreaming about photography and designing DIY cameras in my head.

    I used to question her beliefs and those of my sister-in-law which would occassionally lead to some ill-feeling. Now I just accept they beleve what they believe. It’s their human right to hold whatever beliefs they want without having to explain or justify them to anyone.

    What I find hard to understand is why atheists cannot accept this, too. Why do you feel the need to have a “community”? Who do you feel is threatening you that you have to gang together?

    Why do you need to be “heartened” by a good essay written by a like-minded individual? Again, what is it you fear that makes it desirable to “strengthen” your movement. Although I have no faith but the type of brain that requires evidence, I, nevertheless, admire people for their faith. The parish priest is a great guy, regardless of what he believes or possibly because of it. I sit amongst belevers in the church but have never felt threatened or the need to join a community.

    I remember watching the Hitchens v Tony Blair debate where the former annihilated Blair. Did I feel strengthened? No, I actually felt sorry for Blair (for the first and last time) because people of faith cannot argue against guys like Hitchens for the reason you know: Blair has no evidence. What people of faith have, however, is something inside them that makes them believe. I wish I had it, too, and I suspect the reason you feel the need to constantly question and search for answers whist feeling threatened is because there’s something lacking in you, the same way there is something lacking in me.

      1. You’ve missed the point. I have no problem with pursuing the truth: I’m like that myself. The questions are why (the collective) you feels the need to form a community, why you feel threatened, why you feel the need to tell people of faith that they are wrong and why and why you can’t allow them to exercise their human rights without having to challenge their beliefs? Why does what they believe matter so much to you and why do you feel the need to tell them they’re wrong? It all smacks of insecurity.

        1. You must have missed the tendency of most religions to lay down the law for others based on supernatural nonsense. Is it really necessary to point this out?

          It has nothing to do with insecurity and everything with the preservation of a sane society.

          1. So what you’re saying is that their dogma is just as bad as your’s?

            Do you believe that society is more sane now than it was, say, 50 years ago when church membership was much higher?

          2. Society is clearly more sane today with respect to racism, women’s rights and homosexuality as compared to 50 years ago. Wouldn’t you say so?

            We are also more sane compared to, say, Saudi Arabia. Shouldn’t we keep it that way?

          3. What about crime levels, the widening gap between rich and poor, family breakdowns, unemployment, wars, taxation levels, public debt, government debt. These don’t count then?

          4. For starters, by “taxation levels,” do you mean some tax payers are having to pay at too high a rate?

            Do you mean Wall Street billionaire hedge fund managers – employees and workers by definition – are having to pay too much in taxes at the bottom 15-17% rate paid by maids, nurses aides, etc.?

            Do you mean investors who can simply sit still and not strike a lick and have their money work for them having to pay too much tax at the 10% rate (as constrasted to the laborer who, per The Bard, “grunts amd sweats under a weary life” earning his wage and bread and paying a tax on it at a rate likely exceeding the investor rate)?

            Do you mean a corporation like GE which (if one can believe everything he reads in the N.Y. Times) paid $0 in federal income taxes in 2010?

          5. Ansel, my understanding is that higher crime rates (murder, rape, assault, robbery) and more inequitable wealth/income distributions tend to be correlated with areas of higher religiosity, both US and internationally.

            In the US, higher religiosity also correlates to some “family breakdown” rate increases, such as for divorce and for adolescent pregnancy. A quick check suggests higher August 2012 seasonally adjusted unemployment may correlate to a higher fraction of people in the state who consider religion highly important; however, that one is relatively weak and may be below the threshold of statistical significance.

            Secularity may not cure those problems, but it clearly cannot be their cause.

          6. Ansel,

            Crime rates have actually decreased with in the past 50 years. Wars are no more frequent than ever.

            And do you really think the above or these:

            “…the widening gap between rich and poor, family breakdowns, unemployment, wars, taxation levels, public debt, government debt.”

            have anything to do with religion? If so, you’re far to immersed in religious culture and have bought into their propaganda, i.e., distortions of reality.

            Want to know what a society with low levels of crime, especially violent crime (most especially murder),the smallest gaps between rich and poor, and some of the highest standards of living, look to the most atheistic of countries, particularly Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Denmark. I highly recommend Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God for more in depth info. Even easier (because you don’t have to buy a book), here are some links to articles where Jerry covers some of this info:



            And here’s a link to one of the articles (actual a research paper) Jerry discusses in the first link above, entitled “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions”:


        2. “why you feel the need to tell people of faith that they are wrong and why and why you can’t allow them to exercise their human rights without having to challenge their beliefs?”
          For a start, do you really think that people here are going around telling believers they are wrong?
          When was the last time someone burst into one of your church services and told the congregation they were sadly mistaken?
          I’ll guess never.
          Have you ever had a knock on the door from evangelizing atheist missionaries?
          Where believers are starting to get questioned by atheists is in the public arena whenever the believer makes the assumption that the ‘normal’ thing to do is to believe in God (their God, mind, not any of those other false gods)
          As for letting them “exercise their human rights without having to challenge their beliefs”, do you realize that this means?
          It is the human right of someone to ask others to pray. If I do not believe in that particular religion then it is my right to challenge the belief that I should. If I am not allowed to do so (and your statement hints that you think I and other atheists shouldn’t be allowed to do so) then what about my rights?
          We are not stopping anyone believing anything. We are simply challenging the assumption that their belief affords them special privilege not available to non-believers.

          1. I see. Atheists on this website are just preaching to each other? Now I understand.

            Why do you feel the need to challenge “the assumption that their belief affords them special privilege not available to non-believers”? Why not just accept that’s the way they are and ignore it. Why do you feel threatened by that and what are you afraid of?

          2. But I do accept that that’s the way they are and I ignore it in almost every circumstance where it doesn’t impinge on my rights.
            Where it does personally affect me I don’t ignore it – for the simple reason that I don’t happen to agree that religious views supersede all others.
            You seem fine with the idea that religious views should be privileged.
            I’m not.
            In the country in which I grew up a religious person can bring me to court on a blasphemy charge if I say something that he or she finds offensive to their religion. Of course that is not a threat – so long as I keep my mouth shut – as you seem to be advising.
            In other countries, even keeping your mouth shut isn’t enough to prevent people being sentenced to death for similar ‘crimes’.
            As for feeling threatened, I can assure you that religious people are not threatening to me BECAUSE I and others are finally choosing to speak out. It was only when people were like you, rolling over at their feet without so much as a whimper, that religions got away with the kind of crimes against humanity that was commonplace in the time of my Mothers youth.

          3. That’s a very interesting and revealing answer! Your last sentence is a hoot and based on about as much factual material as the average religion.

          4. Why do you feel you have to come here and question how atheists commune with each other? Why not just accept them for how they are and shut up? What are you afraid of?

    1. >>What I find hard to understand is why atheists cannot accept this, too. Why do you feel the need to have a “community”? Who do you feel is threatening you that you have to gang together?

      The reasons to have a community should not be mysterious. They are the same reasons that people form communities around any other common interest – photography, DIY hobbies, religion, etc.

      Why people cannot accept the belief of others? I guess some people just find irrationality repellent. And if you’re surrounded by it everyday, sooner or later you’ll speak up or move away.

    2. Ansel,

      You ask:

      “Why do you feel the need to have a “community”?

      For the same reason anyone seeks out a community: we are a social species. The company of others makes us feel good. The company of others with whom we can be honest and open without worrying about causing, to use your words, “ill-feeling,” feels even better. Why are there religious communities? The answer is the same. We homo sapiens like being around like minded people. It feels good.

      “Who do you feel is threatening you that you have to gang together?”

      First, no one needs to feel threatened to desire community (see above). In fact, given the huge number of different religious communities and the rather large number of members of these communities, you’re saying that they must feel threatened to have needed to form these communities. Is this what you mean to say? Second, strength in numbers. Why do the religious have an inordinate amount of influence on government, often successfully getting their dogma incorporated into laws that cause others harm (some of those others being gays, women, nonbelievers, and those with non-mainstream religions)? Because they have huge, long-established communities and thus lots of political power. We atheists don’t have that yet and many of us are beyond sick and tired of of the influence the religious have. And we’re tired of being told we have no morals because we don’t believe in a being for which there is no evidence. We are tired of having to pretend we are something that we are not just to get along. We are sick of being treated as second class citizens because we value evidence over nonsense. And we’re sick of people pretending that religion is either good or harmless, because it’s neither. Basing beliefs, which result in actions, which sometimes result in laws, based on ignorance (often under the guise of faith) is harmful.

      I hope this has adequately answered your questions.

      BTW, what country do you live in? Some have more tolerance for nonbelief than others.

    3. “Of course people are free to believe in any daft thing they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. The problem is that daft beliefs about religion, just like daft beliefs about medicine, do harm other people.”

      — Prof. David Colquhoun, “Science, philosophy and religion: which best offers us the tools to understand the world around us?”, 5 November 2011


  31. I’m just getting round to reading The Portable Atheist after Sigmund recommended it about a month ago in another thread. I’m not very far into it yet, but already I realised that I’d missed Hitchens’ writings since his death.

  32. Greetings,

    I beg to differ with you, Prof. Coyne, on the difference between Old Atheists and New Atheists.

    The Old Atheists were primarily interested in social issues – the fact that they also happened to be (soto voce) atheists was by-the-by.

    Hence the cartoon’s depiction of the Old Atheist thinking “I’m an Atheist!”

    As has been pointed out already, the (derogatory) epithet “New Atheism” is a creation of the media.

    Certainly the New Atheists are more vocal than their older counterparts – but why? What’s changed since Russell’s time?


    Since then, there have been major strides in our knowledge, both scientific and – perhaps just as important – biblical scholarship (history, archaeology, etc – which all comes under “Science”).

    This has given modern atheists a solid footing – evidence – on which to stand and proclaim their atheism

    It should not be surprising then to find that those at the forefront are themselves scientists and/or those well-versed in science.

    The internet has helped to inform the general public and enabled the rise of the “Atheist Movement”.

    Following their success, and with the “Atheist Movement” bringing atheism to the fore, and being “in-your-face” about their atheism, people (like Jen McCreight) have now realised that the social issues have fallen by the wayside.

    At the end of the day, which is more important? Social issues or being an atheist?

    But instead of taking a step back to the Old Atheists position – social issues to the fore with atheism tagging along for the ride – they’re now trying to keep atheism to the fore and tag on social issues by calling it “Atheism+”.

    The opposite of Theism is not Atheism but Naturalism.

    I think the “Plussers” would do better to embrace Tom Clark’s Naturalism, which encompasses both scientific empiricism/methodology and the philosophical “world-view” of atheism, which is intrinsic to its approach.

    Kindest regards,


    1. I don’t think the main changes are in science. (Specifically, science as the body of knowledge which has accumulated.) Rather, I think the main change is simply numbers. Furthermore, the rise is mostly due to relatively smooth (but self-catalytic) trends in the numbers from the days prior to the New Atheists.

      The “New Atheists” seems to be a phase transition in the cultural mix, where they finally reached a concentration to crystallize their impact.

      1. Greetings,

        abb3w, the “rise in numbers” is due to the increase in scientific knowledge – as we’ve learned more, it’s become increasingly obvious that phenomena are explainable through natural causes, rather than supernatural.

        Thus more people have become atheistic – and those who’ve been atheistic have become more vocal.

        Kindest regards,


        1. I’m not sure that conjecture explains the close fit to the logistic curve — expected if the growth is largely autocatalytic, proportional to the number of unbelievers times the number of believers.

          1. A ‘refutation of the New Atheism’ would be someone who *actually has a god to show us*.

            I think it’s a fair bet that Edward Fesser *doesn’t*, and merely wants us to dance around a load of words with him.

            If it turns out he’s suddenly found a real god, do get back to us.


          2. Dear mark d.,

            I asked a question. Have you read the book? So far, you have certainly reacted to the title of the book. It is good that you are seeking God (by your words, “a real god.”)

          3. Haven’t read it, the definition doesn’t show up readily in snippet view over at Google Books. Looking at the Amazon cover blurb, it looks like he fails to make the connection that thermodynamics is a mechanical basis ordering outcome choices, and like he and I would also disagree with what constitutes a “foundation”.

  33. I’d argue that “New” Atheism is really just another stage of Modern Atheism, which kicked off in 1770 with the publication of “The System of Nature”, by Baron d’Holbach. This is the first book of modernity to openly argue for the complete non-existence of God, not just on a moral but also scientific basis. In many ways, it is a forerunner of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” the book that kicked off the latest stage of modern Atheism. Like Dawkins’ book, d’Holbach’s also prompted a host of scandalized rebuttals from “fleas” and raised the profile of atheist thought. There are no 20th century translations of the “The System of Nature,” but plenty of old public domain ones are available, and d’Holbach is one of the main subjects of the excellent book “A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment,” by Philip Blom. It shows that like Dawkins and company, d’Holbach had to put with the sniping of accommodationists like Voltaire. Of course, back then the accommodationists rather than weak-tea atheists, just as back then d’Holbach had to publish anonymously in order to avoid prison. So we’ve made some sort of progress…

  34. That’s funny that they reference the four horsemen as the modern Atheist agitator. While it is true that they planted the seed to this movement. It is quite a much larger movement than these people can describe in one article.
    Keep trying religious. You’ll find yourself on the right side of the Coyne.

  35. I offer that this NA or OA divide is a bit of a waste as it, mmm, divides us(?) So I wondered which was I? Then I saw the cartoon and knew I was an OA. Im not a scientist hate math and i credit darwin, my older brother’s death, and the movie The Last Valley, with Michael Caine, as the roots of my atheism In reading the prior comments I also realize 1 reason I’m an OA is arguments often bore me. On the other hand when another older brother told me “well if you don’t believe in god, you just don’t know enough about science!” I ended the arguement with the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” argument. So I’m grateful for you folks that like to carry on. I think that equating atheism with a scientific mind is also a bit of snobbery. As if only educated people are capable of what really is just common sense. (And let’s not forget the highly educated 9/11 terrorists) anyway thanks everyone for the discussion. And sorry I also hate proof reading my posts for the Internet ( but my daughter rightfully said that “theyre more interesting that way” ouch!

    1. I think that equating atheism with a scientific mind is also a bit of snobbery. As if only educated people are capable of what really is just common sense.

      If common sense means preferring reason and evidence to faith (“pretending to know things you don’t know”), then that’s enough of a scientific mind (with Jerry’ broad definition); no education required.


  36. I think that if one reads the responses to my earlier post, they prove the points I posted to be correct about the frustrated position of the “new atheist.”

    Healing for the atheist can take a long time. But, it does not start without some inkling of a will to obedience.

    I don’t mean obedience in the since that you are being forced to do something that you dislike; I mean obedience to that reality inside of you which is quietly and gently telling you that something is not quite right within your soul and that you need to do something about it before you can really be actually happy.

    It is a quiet call to happiness. But, health and happiness are not found in atheism. Atheism is like a prison; you need to get out of prison, and you can do so with patience, perseverence, and hope once you have accepted even an inkling of faith.

    1. The screed above resembles nothing so much as the demented belief of the hopeless drug-addict that neither he nor anyone else can survive without his drug.

      It would be disgusting, if it weren’t so pitiful.

    2. Sir, regarding “obedience”: do you subscribe to the blblical admonition to wives to submit to the authority of their husbands? Even in cases where the husband is a Philistine ignoramus and wife-beater?

      1. Dear Filippo – many misunderstand the Scriptures on this point. This is not a directive on slavery. It is a counsel on loving complementarity Wives “submit” in love to their husbands who “submit” in love to their wives. No, it is wrong for anyone to beat their wives. St. Paul would never require such a thing. Absolutely not.

      2. Jesus Christ taught us to love each other. God is Love. In that God gave us free will, He expects us to use that gift to love each other, not to enslave each other. He commands us to love Him and to love each other as ourselves. And so a husband beating his wife is violating that commandment. Jesus Christ teaches forgiveness – intense forgiveness. Even if a wife angered her husband and he had just cause to be angry, he should forgive her and the two should work together to amend whatever is wrong. The wife should, out of love, be able to admit her guilt if she really is wrong; the same goes for the husband. But love must be and is expected to be at the center of every marriage – every sacramental marriage. Where God is not at the center of a marriage, much can go wrong. For as Jesus instructed us, “…you can nothing without me.” Without love, we’re really lost – off the path.

        1. Jesus Christ — have you even read the Bible?

          Jesus as a love god — what a joke!

          Matthew 10:32 Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.

          33 But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

          34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

          35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

          36 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

          37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

          38 And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

          39 He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.

          There’s lots more where that came from.

          Sure, there may be a few touchy-feely phrases sprinkled in for flavor, but you can find the same thing in Mein Kampf. Any character who would give the above speech is clearly the evil mastermind sonofabitch who kicks puppies and “thinks of the children” by putting pipe bombs in their knapsacks.

          And let’s not forget Luke 19:27, not to mention Armageddon and Hell itself.

          I mean, really. Jesus got his rocks off by getting Thomas to fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound. How much more obvious does it get?

          If Jesus loves you, it’s the same way a shepherd loves his sheep: first to fleece, then to slaughter and roast over an open fire.



          1. Why are you afraid Ben? God doesn’t need to eat us. 🙂 And as a analogical proof, humans (made in the image of God) don’t eat animals that they love, true? God loves us. We are far more to Him than pets are to us; to Him, we are like children to be nurtured and cared for and loved.

            “The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him
            but were unable to join him because of the crowd.
            He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.”
            He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers
            are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” [Luke 8:19-21, NAB]

            Jesus sees us as his family if we love and obey God. Being a child of God has a lot to do with loving and obeying HIm, and to obey Him is to do good, that is, to love truly.

            Now, think about what is in your heart. Why are you afraid? What makes you afraid? God created your soul; he lovingly gave you life. He wills that you return to Him and live forever with Him in happiness. Indeed, our eternal vocation is to be happy with God. Did you know that?

          2. What on Earth makes you think I’m any more afraid of your Jesus than I am of Darth Vader or Lord Voldemort or the monsters that apparently still hide under your bed?

            But, apparently, I should be the one asking you what you’re afraid of. After all, you’re the one who runs away from your Bible when presented with quotes and extended passages in which Jesus demands human sacrifices be made at his altar.

            Face the facts, man. Your Jesus is just as much a bloodthirsty monster as any other war god. Indeed, his only saving grace is that he’s every bit as fictional, as well.

            If you weren’t too chicken to actually read your own holy book, rather than sheepishly accept what your pastors tell you to think, you’d know this.

            Remember that Twilight Zone episode with “It’s a cookbook!”? If you can’t figure out that To Serve Man was a stand-in for the Bible, then you miserably failed high school English.



          3. Dear Ben – God is real, but what is in your imagination about God right now, as you have presented it to me, is a very scary un-reality.

            Twilight Zone, Star Wars and other scary shows were not written to encourage faith, nor were they meant to present any sort of truth; they were written to make money. These shows do not present reality.

            I recommend, based upon your preoccupation with non-fiction, that you stay away from such shows and try to get in touch more with reality.

            God is real; the Twilight Zone is not real.

            Reading the Scriptures, for your soul, is like drinking clean water. Watching shows like the Twilight Zone, for your soul, is like drinking moonshine or filthy water. One is good for you; the other makes you sick.

          4. Well, there’s your problem.

            Had you actually ever bothered to read more than one book, you’d know how to tell fact from fantasy.

            Here’s a hint: books that open with a story about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard are fantasy.

            So are books that feature a reluctant hero who gets magic wand lessons from a talking plant.

            And that’s especially true of books whose grand finale involves a zombie who not only commands his thralls to magically cannibalize him for the rest of history but who gets his jollies from having people fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound.

            I know, this is shocking news to you, that the one book you’ve ever skimmed does not, in fact, have anything at all to do with reality. So sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

            Oh — while we’re on the subject: Santa is your parents, as is the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. And the monster under your bed.

            Not the monster in your closet, though — he’s totally real.




          5. Why are you afraid Ben? God doesn’t need to eat us. 🙂 And as a analogical proof, humans (made in the image of God) don’t eat animals that they love, true? God loves us. We are far more to Him than pets are to us; to Him, we are like children to be nurtured and cared for and loved.

            “The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him
            but were unable to join him because of the crowd.
            He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.”
            He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers
            are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” [Luke 8:19-21, NAB]

            Jesus sees us as his family if we love and obey God. Being a child of God has a lot to do with loving and obeying HIm, and to obey Him is to do good, that is, to love truly.

            Now, think about what is in your heart. Why are you afraid? What makes you afraid? God created your soul; he lovingly gave you life. He wills that you return to Him and live forever with Him in happiness. Indeed, our eternal vocation is to be happy with God. Did you know that?

          6. So what do we do with these pitiful people? These brainwashed idiots who just recite their garbage over and over? There’s no way at all that they even remember what’s pointed out to them… They have, essentially, precisely the function and utility of *computer viruses*… except that a computer virus isn’t so stupid as to imagine that the Key to the Universe is a story on the mental level of a normal 5-year-old…

            Would it be possible to send them to an island somewhere, do you think? While the rest of us get on with not messing up the world?

          7. Dear Sastra – but you don’t know that I don’t know. Your statement is negative. I’m sorry that you are angry and frustated.

            I do write from a firm foundation of prayer, faith, grace, personal knowledge, personal experience, institutional knowledge, and the documented experience of man-kind. I am very sure, and have much proof to back up what I write.

            You are afraid that no one knows, but we do know, and we have thousands of years of well-studied proof.

          8. I am very sure, and have much proof to back up what I write


            Care to share any of it with the rest of us?

            You really should. Not only would you be the first to do so, but you’d instantly become the most famous scientist in all of history and convert basically the whole planet to Christianity at the same time.

            Or are you one of those who mistakes a bit of indigestion for some sort of intuitive proof?


          9. Dear Ben – the proof is already available to you. You know this.

            If you really are interested, I recommend you start by reading the the Gospel of Luke followed by the Book of Acts from the New American Bible or the Revised Standard Version (RSV) Bible. Luke actually penned both of those under the tutiledge of St. Paul. I am recommending Luke, first, because he expressly writes in order to carefully capture and present the facts. In other words, he puts the Gospel into writing for the sake of those who are concerned or worried about facts.

            For a long time, the Gospel was simply preached orally; later in the 1st Century, the Apostles began having the Gospel put into writing.

            The next step I recommend (you can do this simultaneously) is that you find the nearest Catholic Church (Roman Rite), visit the rectory, and see if you can enroll in Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). This will help you learn more about the Faith for free. The intent is to prepare adults to become Christian and/or to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church (for those who are already validly baptized Chrisitans). I entered through RCIA. RCIA carries NO obligations and it is free. You might meet some friends there too. You might establish a caring network / safety net for yourself.

            If you really are interested, start with those two things above. RCIA is starting this month in most parishes and concludes during Easter 2013. Find a parish in Tempe at the following link:


            Hey, it won’t hurt you to try. Do it for yourself. I’m sure you are probably a really nice guy in person. You can do it! 🙂

          10. Oh dear, the Catholic gambit was a mistake. Not that you hadn’t made any already, but it added a touch of comedy *gets out the popcorn*

          11. If you really are interested, I recommend you start by reading the the Gospel of Luke followed by the Book of Acts from the New American Bible or the Revised Standard Version (RSV) Bible.

            <snork />


            That’s the best you’ve got?

            God damn, but you’re gullible.

            I mean, really. Luke? Seriously?

            And you think I haven’t already read it?


            Hey — while we’re on the subject, I’ve got some prime beachfront property in Arizona to sell you. The prices are still deflated thanks to the market, but they’re set to blow through the roof. Since you’re such a nice guy, I’ll even sell it to you at a personal loss. Interested?


          12. I gave you some good advice

            No, you didn’t. You delivered some pretty pathetic literary analysis of some third-rate faery tales, and you have the nerve to claim that, in doing so, you’re communicating the desires of the chief villain of the story.

            Thanks for the land offer, but I don’t need land there.

            Oh, but you do. This is your one-and-only chance to get a real slice of paradise, and for only pennies on the dollar. Pass it up, and you’ll be condemned to spend the rest of your life living in abject misery by comparison.

            Look, what do you have to lose? If I’m right, nothing at all, plus you win the greatest jackpot on Earth. If you’re right, all you’re out is a few measly dollars that your Jesus said you should render unto Uncle Sam anyway. But, if I’m right, you’ll have even more of those dollars to render!

            So, what about it? Are you really going to just walk away from a deal like this? A deal like this, you can’t afford not to take me up on it.

            What’re you afraid of?



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