You can see a lot of references to "new atheism" and "new atheists" in the media today, but when was the last time you saw anyone use these terms and actually explain what they mean? When was the last time you saw someone clearly explain and define what it was they were criticizing when they attacked "new atheists" and "new atheism"? You almost certainly haven't, but it's used so negatively so consistently that the impression is created that "everyone knows" what it means, if as no one can quite define it.
Origin of New Atheism
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. Many critics of atheism, though, invest the label with everything they don't like about atheists. Their goal, then, appears to be to shut down the self-assertiveness and unapologetic atheism in favor of a quiet, meek, and submissive atheism.
What's New About New Atheism?
If there were anything about "new atheism" that was neutral or objective, it would be possible to point to something genuinely "new" which is common to all those who qualify as "new atheists" and which cannot normally be found among "old" atheists. The people using this label shouldn't have any trouble citing to the qualities, behaviors, or attitudes they think are new — but thus far, none have managed. You'd be hard pressed to even find any that have tried.
In the few instances that a few have tried, though, they don't succeed in pointing to anything that can't be found among numerous atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers of the past. At best, this suggests extreme ignorance about atheism and atheists on the part of these critics — so much ignorance, in fact, that none of their conclusions should be taken at face value.
It's only the attention and popularity of New Atheism which is truly new, and this seems to be 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. Religious apologists can't admit this, though, so they make up the idea that there is something "new" that bothers them.
What Does New Atheism Mean?
A number of qualities are attributed to "new atheists" and "new atheism." Here are a few which seem most popular:
These attributes all have one thing in common: they are all negative. None of them are even neutral, never mind positive. It is thus no surprise that the people most likely to use the label "new atheist" are probably the least likely to count themselves as member of that group. They don't use the label as a neutral, objective, or fair designation; it is, instead, a label designed solely to convey a negative evaluation and criticism. By hiding all that in just a label, however, the person making the criticism hopes to avoid being called upon to support it.
New Atheism as an Epithet & Attack
It would be fair to dismiss the attacks made by critics of "New" atheism as mere anti-atheist bigotry, but they also look suspiciously like other complaints we see about diverse groups. Kids in the past used to be polite and respectful but today are unruly anarchists. Women in the past were demure and moral but today have become sluts. Gays used to stay in the closet and keep their sexuality to themselves but today they shove their perversions down our throats. Black people used to know their place but now the are all too uppity.
In this, atheists may be just another group which is assumed to have once been more "tolerant" (which is to say more respectful of the established order), but which today has become too uppity, aggressive, and militant. There is an element of truth to all these complaints because it's true that many people throughout society have become a bit less willing to submit to authority figures simply because they have some measure of power and authority.
People are refusing to accept second-class status simply because it is "tradition." People in society are placing more value on individualism, self-fulfillment, and asserting oneself. At the same time, though, it isn't true that people in the past all meekly submitted to authority without question.
It's more a difference of degree than kind and that's why the so-called "New" atheists aren't really new: they aren't saying anything new because aggressive criticism and even ridicule of religion occurred in the past, but their popularity seems new because such criticism and ridicule wasn't welcomed as widely. That really is new, and it's something which every freethinker, skeptic, and supporter of liberty should welcome.