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What is New Atheism? What is a New Atheist?

By

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Allison Shelley / Getty
Question: What is New Atheism? What is a New Atheist?
Answer: New atheism is presented in both positive and negative ways. The positive explanation of new atheism is that it is a modern, 21st century movement in atheism which is openly critical of theism and religion and which is less willing to be accommodating to religious beliefs, traditions, or institutions. The negative explanation of new atheism is that it is a militant, fundamentalist movement dedicated to the eradication of religion.

The term "New Atheism" appears to have been coined by Gary Wolf for an article in Wired magazine.

This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking.

Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. A few months ago, I set out to talk with them. I wanted to find out what it would mean to enlist in the war against faith.

Wolf seems to have only meant it to describe the increasing self-assertiveness of some atheists today and the unapologetic nature of their atheism — and to that extent, the term might be considered justified. The problem is, though, that self-assertiveness isn't "new" about new atheism. In fact there isn't anything new at all about the ideas, arguments, attitudes, or perspectives that tend to be grouped under the label new atheism.

The only thing that is genuinely new about new atheism is the attention that it receives. When atheists of the past expressed assertive arguments and unapologetic ideas, the audience tended to be narrower and smaller — atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers who bought atheist magazines and atheist books from specialized publishers.

Today, though, these arguments and ideas are being published by mainstream companies, getting attention in the mainstream press, and being read by more than just a narrow atheist audience. So all the "new" in new atheism is in the reception of new atheism — the "new" in new atheism lies in how everyone else is responding to new atheism, not in the new atheism itself.

It's only the attention and popularity of "New Atheists" which is truly new, and this is precisely what its critics find so objectionable: atheistic criticism of religion was marginally acceptable when it was unknown. Now that its getting widespread attention and gaining serious traction, it has to be attacked.

It might be more accurate to use the label "new reception to atheism" rather than new atheism, but it's more awkward and it's far too late anyway.

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