One thing I don’t fully understand is the depth of rancor that many atheists have towards the “New Atheists,” especially people like Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. We’ve all seen it, and I’ve written about it many times. One example is a new book by An Atheist Who Shall Not Be Named, The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists, discussed on The Godless Spellchecker‘s site. (Hemant Mehta has just written his own take on the book.)
The critique of New Atheists by other atheists seems to consist largely of ad hominem accusations, distortions of what they’ve said (Sam Harris is particularly subject to this), and, most of all, complaints that they dare criticize religion publicly. As Nathaniel Comfort said in the comments section of his own Nature review of Dawkins’s new autobiography:
I do say. You’re making an absurdly large leap and insulting the many atheists (including myself) who are perfectly happy to leave people alone with their views if they let me alone with mine. Dawkins, et al. are evangelists for atheism. That’s what I’m criticizing. Just as not all straight people are homophobes, not all atheists are eccesiophobes. And you can be scientific without being scientistic.
This is an explicit statement that if you publicly and passionately criticize religion, you’re the Wrong Kind of Atheist. You’re insulting the Quiet Atheists.
Now I’m perfectly happy accepting that it’s not the style of some nonbelievers to openly declare their atheism, much less to publicly criticize religion. But why go after the ones who do, especially when they’re simply articulating the reasons why the non-vociferous atheists have rejected religion?
I can think of a couple of answers. The first is simple jealousy: some atheists haven’t achieved the fame or public profile of people like Hitchens, and so attack their character rather than their arguments. It’s also a way to get attention for yourself if you feel unappreciated.
The second is the feeling by the Quiet Atheists that “New Atheists don’t represent me,” and so they must be called out. But since when have prominent New Atheists ever said they represent all atheists? They are representing their own views, and I doubt that any of them have said that they speak for all nonbelievers.
The attacks by atheists on New Atheists stand in strong contrast with how religionists act when they disagree. Christians, for instance, don’t spend lots of their time attacking the character and arguments of other Christians like William Lane Craig or Pat Robertson. Yes, I know that there is some criticism along those lines. But I can’t think of a Christian or a Muslim who makes their living writing article after article criticizing individual coreligionists. Nor, do I think, do believers try to damage other believers by consistently misrepresenting their positions or questioning their characters. When they do engage in such criticism, they’re usually straightforward about their disagreements, not prone to distortion, and are rarely snarky.
Finally, believers who do criticize coreligionists—Maajid Nawaz and his criticisms of radical Islam, for instance—usually don’t engage in character assassination or personal attacks: they go after what they see as the palpable dangers of extremist faith. If your response is that “well, some atheists see New Atheism as extremist, too” I’d reply that the New Atheists aren’t even close to damaging society in the ways that Boko Haram or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ISIS organization are. New Atheists just write books and give talks; they don’t urge their followers to kill people, forcibly impose their views on others, or urge the murder of those they oppose.
These are just some tentative thoughts, but the rancor of atheist criticism about New Atheists repeatedly surprises and saddens me. And I don’t fully understand it. Readers are invited to share their opinions below.