Is New Atheism really dead? Four New Atheists respond

February 15, 2019 • 9:30 am

Three articles bashing New Atheism have recently been published (here, here, and here). I already criticized the Guardian piece, and am not going to waste my time on the others. After all, we know the tropes, which have been repeated ad infinitum: New Atheism used to be a lively and going concern, then four old white men (Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris [who’s not old]) arrogantly proclaimed themselves leaders of the movement, with at least three of those men being bigoted and/or misogynistic, as well as adherents to the alt-right (Dennett manages to escape those labels). That, goes the narrative, drove people away from New Atheism, an egress that could have been avoided if New Atheism had properly aligned itself with social justice. Now, because of the fault of its leaders and its rejection of wokeness, New Atheism is dead.

I don’t agree with this narrative on several grounds. Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris never proclaimed themselves “leaders of New Atheism”. They became spokespeople for atheism because they all had bestselling books and were also eloquent speakers.  They are not bigots or misogynists, though I admit that Dawkins was sometimes hamhanded in his use of Twitter. And it’s not that I don’t call out misogyny or sexual misconduct when I’m convinced that it has occurred, for I’ve done that with one “big name” among New Atheists. Further, my take on New Atheism was that it wasn’t really “new”, but a revival of old ideas suggested (often vigorously) by earlier nonbelievers like Ingersoll, Mencken, Russell, and Sagan. The only “new” aspect was that it was a revival of atheism offered to a new generation, and perhaps had a more intimate connection with science than previous incarnations. (A reader below suggests, correctly, I think, that these ideas were spread more widely because of the rise of the Internet.)

Finally, I don’t believe that “New Atheism” or its proponents are more bigoted, sexist, or “alt-right”ish than any other group of educated people. In fact, I think they’re less so. Yes, of course there will be some atheists who are sexists or bigots. No large barrel is free of such bad apples. But, at least in my experience, I haven’t seen the pervasive bigotry that’s supposedly associated with New Atheism—either at meetings or among prominent New Atheists, some of them friends with whom I’ve spent a lot of time. Anecdotes simply don’t make the case that New Atheism is palpably afflicted with these problems.

Of course one bigot and one incident of sexism is too many, and we should always strive to call this stuff out and treat people equally, but I don’t see these issues as especially prominent in New Atheism, nor do I think that bigotry and conservativism have driven many people away from the “movement”—if it is indeed a movement. Rather, the New Atheists had their say in the four books, which all sold well, their publication lit a fire that helped promote secularism in the West and elsewhere, and that fire is still burning and consuming belief. New Atheism isn’t dead; it’s just becoming a mainstream idea. (I’ll add that I’ve never heard anybody say, “Well, I’m going back to religion because I didn’t like Dawkins’s last tweet.”)

When I looked at those three articles again, dosing myself liberally with Pepto-Bismol as a palliative, I decided to email four people and ask them, without responding to the articles’ accusations, to tell me if they thought that the thesis of the articles was right—that is “Is New Atheism dead?” I’ve gotten three responses (well, 2.5), and haven’t yet heard back from the fourth person. Here are the responses, which I have permission to publish (and thanks to the responders):

Steve Pinker was not one of the “Four Horsemen”, but he’s certainly seen as a prominent New Atheist. Here’s his response:

The entire concept of a “New Atheism movement” comes from defensive defenders of religion. I think of it not as a movement but as the overdue examination of an idea: Does a supernatural deity exist, and should our morality and politics be shaped by the belief that it does? For various reasons—the intrusion of theo-conservatism during the presidency of George W. Bush, the rise of militant Islam, an awareness of the psychological origins of supernatural beliefs, sheer coincidence—a quartet of books appeared within a span of two years, and pattern-spotters invented a “New Atheist Movement.” (I would not downplay coincidence as the explanation—random stochastic processes generate clusters of events by default.) Judged by degree of belief, the “new atheism” is not only not dead but it is winning: every survey has shown that religious belief is in steep decline, all over the world, and the dropoff is particularly precipitous across the generations, as compared to just drifting with the zeitgeist or changing over the life cycle. This is reflected in laws and customs—homosexuality is being decriminalized in country after country, for example. These trends are masked in the public sphere by two forces pushing in the opposite direction: religious people have more babies, and religious communities turn out in elections and vote in lockstep for the more conservative candidate. If the “new atheist” message of Christopher Hitchens et al. was “Atheists should have more babies,” or “Atheists should form congregations and vote en masse for the same candidate,” then yes, it was an abject failure. But if it is “The evidence for a supernatural being is dubious, and the moral norms of legacy religions are often pernicious,” then it is carrying the day, or at least riding a global wave.

Dan Dennett is one of the “Horsemen”, and he answered briefly.

We have said our piece, and the tidal wave of those abandoning religion keeps rolling on, growing and spreading, without any need of further encouragement from us. That’s how reason works: once you’ve said something true and persuasive, you don’t have to keep saying it again and again.  Our critics keep writing books and articles by the hundreds that disappear without a trace after a few days, convincing few if any. We’ve gone on to other topics.

Richard Dawkins said he wasn’t keen on responding to all these attacks (though I didn’t ask people to respond directly), and so I asked him if he had any answer to the claim that New Atheism is dead. He simply sent me a figure showing the UK sales of The God Delusion between 2006 and 2018, noting that the recent trend seems to be a pretty straight line. That also seems true, he noted, for American sales, though he didn’t have the exact figures. I also learned that there have been 13 million downloads (3 million in Saudi Arabia alone) for an illicit pdf of the Arabic translation of The God Delusion.

Here’s the graph I got (crikey, I wish I could sell a million books in the UK!)


When I asked Richard if he wanted to say anything else besides showing that figure, he just noted that there were at least 22 books (which he calls “fleas”) that were provoked by publication of The God Delusion, and sent me a picture of some of the “fleas”—adding that the name comes from a line in a poem by W. B. Yeats: “But was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?”

Ten of the 22 fleas:

My own take on the fleas is that they show that New Atheism was and is effective, and frightened the faithful into these many responses.  I’ll add that these books seem to have sunk without a trace: none, as far as I know, have achieved anywhere near the sales of The God Delusion.

So there you have it. I may survey some other prominent people associated with New Atheism and get their take as well. Watch this space.

But there’s one more question. Why do these atheist-bashing articles, which are all the same, keep appearing over and over again when New Atheism already made its mark and its major proponents have moved on to other issues? I’m not sure, and readers may want to weigh in.

I think some of the bashers are motivated by jealousy or hatred, others by the desire to get an article in a public place (liberal websites are always glad to bash atheism, even if nearly identical articles were published elsewhere), and some people may really feel that New Atheism is ridden with alt-rightism and bigotry, though I disagree. I invite you to respond below.


Addendum: I heard this evening from Sam Harris, and has put his response (“no”) in a new post, but am adding it here for completeness. We now have all surviving Horsepersons weighing in, as well as Steve Pinker. Sam’s take:

I’ve always been skeptical about the utility of identifying as an “atheist,” because it rarely seems helpful to heap the false assumptions that surround this term upon one’s own head. For this reason, I’ve never been eager to wear the label “new atheist” either.
However, there was something genuinely new about the “new atheism.” The publication of our four books in quick succession moved the conversation about faith and reason out of rented banquet halls filled with septuagenarians and brought it to a mainstream (and much younger) audience. The new atheists also made distinctions that prior atheists tended to ignore: For instance, not all religions teach the same thing, and some are especially culpable for specific forms of human misery. We also put religious moderates on notice in a new way: These otherwise secular people who imagine themselves to be on such good terms with reason are actually abetting the forces of theocracy—because they insist that everyone’s faith in revelation must be respected, whatever the cost.
The new atheism has not disappeared. It has merely diffused into a wider conversation about facts and values. In the end, the new atheism was nothing more than the acknowledgement that there is single magisterium: the ever-expanding space illuminated by intellectual honesty.


Once again: Is New Atheism dead?

October 26, 2017 • 12:30 pm

Reader Diane G. (and later a few others; thanks to all) called my attention to a piece by Scott Alexander in Slate Star Codex called “How did new atheism fail so miserably?” It’s the usual stuff about Dawkins and the rest of us alienating the Left, and cites an even weirder article in The Baffler called “Village atheists, village idiots,” by Sam Kriss, a journalist who just got into trouble—and suspended from the Labour Party—for sexual harassment.

Kriss’s piece is simply unhinged, spewing out invective and then atheistsplaining that the New Atheists—among whom he wrongly includes Neil deGrasse Tyson, who doesn’t even like being called an atheist—have literally been driven insane by repeating their godless litany over and over again. Get a load of Kriss’s style and contentions:

SOMETHING HAS GONE BADLY WRONG with our atheists. All these self-styled intellectual titans, scientists, and philosophers have fallen horribly ill. Evolutionist faith-flayer Richard Dawkins is a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism. Superstar astrophysicist and pop-science impresario Neil deGrasse Tyson is catatonic, mumbling in a packed cinema that the lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space, that a spider that big would collapse under its own weight, that everything you see is just images on a screen and none of it is real. Islam-baiting philosopher Sam Harris is paranoid, his flailing hands gesticulating murderously at the spectral Saracen hordes. Free-thinking biologist PZ Myers is psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon. And the late Christopher Hitchens, blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.

Critics have pointed out this clutch of appalling polemic and intellectual failings on a case-by-case basis, as if they all sprang from a randomized array of personal idiosyncrasies. But while one eccentric atheist might be explicable, for all of the world’s self-appointed smartest people to be so utterly deranged suggests some kind of pattern. We need, urgently, a complete theory of what it is about atheism that drives its most prominent high priests mad.

His explanation, which is just plain dumb:

These New Atheists and their many fellow travelers all share an unpleasant obsessive tic: they mouth some obvious banality—there is no God, the holy books were all written by human beings—and then act as if it is some kind of profound insight. This repetition-compulsion seems to be baked right into their dogma.

Under the correspondence model of truth—the one favored by scientific rationality—a true statement is a thought-image that mirrors actual events; truth is just a repetition of the world. But as anyone who’s spent time with the mad knows, there’s something dangerous to one’s sanity about doing the same thing over and over again.

It would be hard to maintain, I think, that Dawkins, Tyson (not a New Atheist) and Sam Harris are mad, much less people like Anthony Grayling, Dan Dennett, or even me (I’ll pass by Myers without comment). But let it be said that everyone mentioned is engaged in other activities, and hardly spends even 15% of their time promoting atheism. Richard is promoting his books and lecturing about evolution, as well as answering people’s questions (often about atheism) in public lectures, Tyson is popularizing astronomy and cosmology, Sam has largely given up talking about atheism in favor of his podcasts that cover a huge diversity of subject, Dan is writing popular philosophy books, and I’m back to writing books about science as well as a children’s book, and am more interested in free will than in atheism.  Kriss’s piece can be ignored largely as simple raving by someone who, for unspecified reasons, doesn’t like New Atheism.

Alexander’s piece is at least sane, but he makes the same accusation as does Kriss: the Left doesn’t like New Atheism. I’m not sure that’s true in general, since those who like it aren’t going to write articles about it, but it’s clear that many Leftists not only criticize New Atheists (see Salon, for instance), but also assert that New Atheism is a failure.  The former bit is true, but the latter is not. First the reasons for our failure:

According to Alexander, New Atheism has failed because

  • New Atheists were right, “but in a loud, boring and pointless way.”

Nope. The “Four Horsemen’s” books were all big best-sellers, and they continue to attract crowds wherever they go.  When Dawkins (or even I) give a talk, even about evolution, most of the questions are about religion, whether it comports with evolution, or simply about atheism itself. When I go online to answer questions from college classes about Why Evolution is True, about 70% of the questions are about religion and atheism, even though I don’t bring it up! Maybe Alexander was bored, but a lot of other people weren’t—and aren’t.

  • Other progressive causes, like feminism, environmentalism, and anti-Trumpism were, says Alexander, are guilty of the same thing, but New Atheism is special in that it alone has been demonized by the Left. According to Alexander, that might be because it “failed to make the case that New Atheism was socially important”, or maybe because we “just didn’t know how to stay relevant”:

“Trump resistance always has new tweets to keep its attention. Social justice always has a new sexist celebrity to be angry about. Sure, a few New Atheists tried to keep up with the latest secretly-gay televangelist, but most of them kept going about intricacies of the kalam argument that had been done to death by 1400 AD. This is just an example – maybe there are other asymmetries that are more important?”

There may be some truth here, as the New Atheists have had their say and there isn’t much more to add. I myself have argued that, over the next 15 years or so, until the next generation needs educating, we don’t really need more atheist conferences. But, as I’ll argue below, New Atheists did achieve their goals, and, knowing this, and knowing that it will take time for society to change, have moved on to other things.

  • And Alexander adds this: “Maybe the New Atheists accidentally got on board just before a nascent Grey Tribe/Blue Tribe* split and tried to get Blue Tribe credibility by sending Grey Tribe signals. At some point there was a cultural fissure between Acela Corridor thinkfluencers with humanities degrees and Silicon Valley bloggers with STEM degrees, and the former got a head start on hating the latter while the latter still thought everybody was on the same anti-Republican side.” [See bottom for the definition of these “tribes”.]

That I don’t get, as New Atheist books and talks were attended by members of both tribes.

Finally, Alexander hits on one point that, I think, does account for some pushback against New Atheism: the fact that even liberal nonbelievers have a sneaking sympathy for religion, and don’t like people going after it. Or that there are more liberal feminists than liberal atheists, so success for New Atheism was bound to be smaller than for other liberal causes:

  • “And the cynic in me wonders whether New Atheism wasn’t pointless and obvious enough. There are more church-goers in educated liberal circles than Trump supporters, climate deniers, or self-identified racists. Maybe that made the “repeat platitudes to people who already believe them” game a little less fun, caused some friction – ‘You’re talking about my dear grandmother!’”

The thing is, I don’t much care about these articles that demonize New Atheists (except insofar as they slander my friends), for in the main we won. New Atheist books (especially The God Delusion) were huge best sellers, thousands of people wrote in to people like Harris and Dawkins thanking them for helping them give up their faith. And who can argue persuasively that New Atheism didn’t play any role in the increasing secularization of America? To paraphrase Dawkins on Darwin, the New Atheists made it intellectually respectable to be a nonbeliever.

There’s little more to say now: the arguments against God, never really “new”, have been made, and will need to be reprised for the next generation, and America continues to lose its religion. In most places save the South you are no longer ostracized for saying you’re an atheist. The only problem that remains is one that Diane G. raised: “Why is a movement that has been so successful also been so hated by the very people who should adhere to its claims?” Why do so many Leftists, including nonbelievers, rail and fulminate against not just the famous New Atheists, but against New Atheism itself?

Jealousy is one reason, I think, and so is a secret softness for religion—perhaps the view that society needs belief in God to remain cohesive (the “Little People’s Argument”). In the end, articles like Kriss’s and Alexander’s may raise questions about psychology, but what they haven’t demonstrated is their main premise: that New Atheism has failed. Hatred of a movement’s proponents is no sign that it has failed. Were that true, you could argue that the Civil Rights movement failed in the American South.


*The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

Sam Harris drains the intellectual cesspool of Salon

November 26, 2015 • 12:00 pm

Over the years, Salon has proven itself an organ of the Regressive Left, vilifying atheists at every turn, constantly flaunting the canard of Islamophobia, and coddling religion. With the exception of Jeff Tayler’s “strident” antitheistic Sunday Secular Sermons (see his most recent piece on the soppy, faith-osculating David Brooks), it’s a pretty vile place for those who adhere to Enlightenment values.

A while back, after Sam Harris had been subjected to a number of misguided and hateful pieces in Salon—like this one—he decided to write the place off, refusing to be interviewed by the site and telling his publisher not to send them review copies of his books. I don’t blame him.

Recently, however, Sam suspended his boycott and sat down for an interview with Sean Illing, a Salon staff writer whom I’ve criticized in the past for bashing New Atheists (Illing is a nonbeliever), as well as for Illing’s osculation of religion and promulgation of the Little People’s Argument (“everyone but folks like me need religion”). Illing, by the way, appears to have been butthurt by my piece, and mentions it in his interview.

Sam gave several conditions for the interview, which you can see at the transcript (Sam kept his own record), but he couldn’t prevent Salon from editing it—which it did. It’s a good interview, and Sam is quite eloquent, giving a few choice words about regressive Leftists like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald. He also makes a few remarks about the incompatibility of science and religion, as Illing, here and in the column I criticized previously, suggests that almost no religious people take the empirical claims of their faith as literal truths.

I recommend reading all of Sam’s piece as a good digestif after today’s food orgy. I’ll highlight just one Q&A bit before I mention the perfidy of Salon.

Below Sam discusses why religion must surely play a role in jihadism and the brutality of organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram, and I can’t see how he’s wrong here (my emphasis in Sam’s answer).

[Illing]: Let’s start with your views on Islam. You’ve acknowledged that Islamic extremism is a hydra-headed problem that can’t be reduced to single variable – certainly I agree with that. Given that the Islamic world has not always been what it is today, and has at times been more civilized than the Christian world, how much weight can we give to factors like history, geopolitics, foreign policy, or Western interventionism? And if these non-religious variables are significant, does it undermine the argument that Islam is a uniquelyproblematic religion?

[Harris]: The short answer is that I think the problems we are seeing throughout the Muslim world—jihadism, sectarian conflict, and all the attendant talk of Muslim “humiliation”—are almost entirely religious. And wherever rational grievances do exist, they are invariably viewed, and become magnified, through a religious lens. The truth is that a belief in specific religious doctrines is sufficient to produce all the violence, intolerance, and backwardness we see in the Muslim world.

The abysmal treatment of women, the hostility to free speech, the daily bloodletting between Sunni and Shia—these things have absolutely nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy or the founding of Israel. And, contrary to the assertions of many regressive Leftists and Islamist apologists, violent jihad is not a product of colonialism or the 20th century. The tactic of suicide bombing is relatively new, of course, as is the spread of jihadist ideology on social media, but if you had stood at the gates of Vienna in 1683, you could have not helped but notice the civilizational problem of jihad.

Yes, politics and ordinary grievances enter into many of these recent conflicts. It isn’t difficult to see why a person who has lost his or her family in an errant drone strike might hate America, and there is no question that a desire for revenge transcends religion or culture. But the truth is that a sincere belief in the metaphysics of martyrdom can turn an ordinary person into a dangerous religious maniac. And only Islam preaches this doctrine as one of its central tenets.

I have yet to hear the blame-the-West crowd explain why the items in bold, not to mention the killing of apostates, Yazidis, and gays, can be pinned on the West. Saudi Arabia’s brutality, which I mentioned in the last post, can’t really be pinned on colonialism, either, as the country is supposedly our ally. Seriously, can you make any coherent argument why the oppression of women endemic to most Muslim lands  stems from colonialist missteps by the West?

Every country that criminalizes apostasy, some imposing the death penalty, is a majority-Muslim land. Is that a result of colonialism—or religion? And the death penalty for blasphemy—also given only in Muslim-majority nations (save Nigeria, which is largely Muslim)—how can that be blamed on anything but religion? After all, the very idea of blasphemy involves religion!

But I digress. One thing that stands out in Sam’s interview is the bit that wasn’t published by Salon. As you might expect, that was the one part that was critical of the website. Here’s Sam’s transcript of what Salon said when it published the piece:

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 9.07.54 AM

When I checked the interview on Salon, I noticed that that disclaimer was gone, and in the interview’s preface, Illing now says this:

This was mostly an email correspondence, not a traditional interview, so remarks were edited throughout.

Sam verified that in the original version, the disclaimer was the first one shown above. It was changed by Illing, apparently in response to Sam’s own post.

Why did Salon change this disclaimer? Because the first bit on editing was simply a bald-faced lie: Salon did make substantive changes in the interview. And those changes were the ones eliminating the critique of Salon. Here’s the stuff Sam said that Salon chose not to print:

As long as we’re talking about the regressive Left, it would be remiss of me not to point out how culpable Salon is for giving it a voice. The problem is not limited to the political correctness and masochism I’ve been speaking about—it’s also the practice of outright deception to defame Islam’s critics. To give you one example, I once wrote an article about Islamist violence in which I spoke in glowing terms about Malala Yousafzai. I literally saidnothing but good things about her. I claimed that she is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. I said she is extraordinarily brave and eloquent and doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do, which is to stand up to forces of theocracy in her own society. I also said that though she hadn’t won the Nobel Prize that year, she absolutely deserved it—and deserved it far more than some of its recent recipients had. And in response to this encomium, Salon published a piece by the lunatic Murtaza Hussain entitled, “Sam Harris Slurs Malala,” which subjected my views to the same defamatory and dishonest treatment that I’ve come to expect from him. And this sort of thing has been done to me a dozen times on your website. And yet Salon purports to be a forum for the civil discussion of important ideas.

Most readers simply don’t understand how this game is played. If they read an article which states that Sam Harris is a racist, genocidal, xenophobic, pro-torture goon who supported the Iraq war—all of which has been alleged about me in Salon—well, then, it’s assumed that some journalists who work for the website under proper editorial control have actually looked into the matter and feel that they are on firm enough ground to legally say such things. There’s a real confusion about what journalism has become, and I can assure you that very few people realize that much of what appears on your website is produced by malicious freaks who are just blogging in their underpants.

I’m not saying that everything that Salon publishes is on the same level, and I have nothing bad to say about what you’ve written, Sean. But there is an enormous difference between honest criticism and defamatory lies. If I say that Malala is a total hero who deserves a Nobel Prize, and Salon titles its article “Sam Harris Slurs Malala,” that’s tabloid-level dishonesty. It’s worse, in fact, because when one reads about what a nanny said about Brad and Angelina in a tabloid, one knows that such gossip stands a good chance of not being true. Salon purports to be representing consequential ideas fairly, and yet it does this sort of thing more often than any website I can think of. The latest piece on me was titled “Sam Harris’ dangerous new idiocy: Incoherent, Islamophobic and simply immoral.” I don’t think I’m being thin-skinned in detecting an uncharitable editorial position being taken there. Salon is telling the world that I’m a dangerous, immoral, Islamophobic idiot. And worse, the contents of these articles invariably misrepresent my actual views. This problem isn’t remedied by merely publishing this conversation.

I love the bit about “malicious freaks who are just blogging in their underpants.” Sam is clearly extremely angry at Salon, and it shows, but I can’t blame him given the site’s one-sided behavior, dressing up hatred as journalism.

And that behavior continues. The first disclaimer was simply a flat-out lie, with Salon leaving out the stuff that makes it look bad. That’s reprehensible journalism—if you call what Salon does “journalism”. If a website solicits an interview, they can’t simply expunge the criticism of their own behavior without looking duplicitous. Well, the first disclaimer has mysteriously vanished.

And even with the amended disclaimer, saying that Harris’s remarks were “edited throughout,” the piece remains mendacious, for “edited throughout” implies that Salon simply tweaked the piece because it was “email correspondence.” The new disclaimer is still a lie, for, as Sam told me, it wasn’t “edited throughout”: the only edit to the text was the section Salon omitted.

Since Illing apparently wrote the emended disclaimer himself, he’s responsible for this, not his editors, and it’s just more dishonest journalism. Salon can’t even conduct an interview without trying to cover its tuchus, and Illing is complicit in that. But. as a staff writer, he knows who butters his bread.