New atheism

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New atheism is an literary activism movement in which atheists have become more vocal and publicly prominent in the 21st Century. This may be in part as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks and increasing religious extremism. The movement has been largely centred around the best selling publications by Atheist authors, including Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

The Movement[edit]

After the 9/11 attacks, there was renewed interest in books that blamed social problems and terrorism on religion. [1] The movement is characterised by an unwillingness to remain silent in order to get along with theists. The previous conciliatory attitude, many believe, prevents atheists' voice from being heard in the political and social arena. This has led to some backlash, from both religious and secular quarters, claiming that such outspokenness is perceived as confrontational and hurts the acceptance of atheism. The influential publications in the movement include:

It is a matter of some debate whether the term "new atheism" should even exist. There has been no philosophical revolution in recent years; the arguments used by atheists today are not radically different from ones used in past decades and centuries. However, the recent books have been updated to reflect current events and are written in a more accessible style than the original philosophical works. It may be that publishers and TV producers have been more willing to give atheists a platform rather than any shift in the debate. [2]

The Internet has also enabled the movement to be debated. This has been accompanies by the rise of Internet celebrities in many blogs, youtube channels and podcasts. There have also been TV series with similar themes and hosted by the celebrity authors, such as Root of All Evil? with Richard Dawkins and the documentary The God Who Wasn't There.


New atheism has no unified manifesto, no central authority or organisational structure, no definite beginning, and no obvious cause. For this reason, it is difficult to identify the defining ideas of the movement.

Questioning religious privilege[edit]

One common idea in the new atheism is that religion has enjoyed a privileged position in public discourse: that one does not criticize religion in the same way that one might criticize a movie, a philosophy, or a political movement. People like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have argued[20] that this respect is undeserved, and that religious assertions must be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other assertion of fact. As a result, Dawkins is often accused of being "shrill" or angry, while others believe he is merely being forthright.

In a similar vein, in Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett argues that religion can and should be studied like any other phenomenon; not in the sense of theology, but rather the psychology, sociology, neurology, anthropology, etc. of religion.

Promoting acceptance of atheism[edit]

Few prominent atheists believe that religion can be completely eliminated any time soon, or that there will ever be a time when a majority of people count themselves as atheists.

However, religious figures have always portrayed atheism as undesirable, if not downright evil and immoral. The new atheism seeks to increase public acceptance of atheism, in the same way that the gay rights movement seeks to gain public acceptance of homosexuality.

Promoting rationality[edit]

Prominent atheists all seem to endorse rational thinking and science as the best way to know about the world (as opposed to intuition, for example). However, there has long been significant overlap between rationalism and atheism, so this is not something new to the new atheism, but rather a continuation of earlier themes.

This may also be caused by the fact that atheists who subscribe to irrational or supernatural beliefs often call themselves something else, e.g., "Buddhist" or "Raelian".

Blaming religion for social ills[edit]

New atheism has laid many societal problems, such as terrorism, bigotry, discrimination and totalitarianism, directly at the feet of religion.


Accusations of fundamentalism[edit]

After debating with Sam Harris [3] and Christopher Hitchens [4], in May 2008, Chris Hedges wrote a book I Don't Believe in Atheists (2008) based on the experience. He criticised the new atheists for offering a delusional "Utopian belief system", scientism and their modernist idea of the moral progress in mankind. He claims new atheism ideas are inadvertently helping a neo-conservative agenda by promoting the same foundational doctrines of moral superiority and utopianism. He criticised some new atheism proponents for attempting to justify pre-emptive war and torture in extreme circumstances. Hedges expressed concern that anti-Islamic forces, drawing support from both the secular movement and the Christian right, could possibly result in a "call for a horrific bloodletting and apocalyptic acts of terror". [5]

Various commentators have echoed Hedge's view and cited fears of cultural bias or discrimination against religion, including Pope Benedict XVI, [6] Baroness Warsi of the UK government, [7] Alister McGrath, [8] and theologians Jeffrey Robbins and Christopher Rodkey. [9] Many writers in the new atheism movement have been called aggressive or militant atheists. This criticism has been generally dismissed by the new atheism movement. [10][11] Often what the New Atheists regard as the removal of religious privilege in society and government, the religious interpret as discrimination.

Poor and unoriginal supporting arguments[edit]

The prominent books of the movement have been criticised as shallow, poorly written, "Incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory", [12] having little understanding of what they are criticising, [13] selective use of history [14], more theatre than scholarship, [8] and the books have had little impact of belief. [15] The arguments in new atheism books are arguably a rehash of previous works by David Hume, Voltaire, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Heraclitus, Robert Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine and many others. [16] In defense of new atheism, recent books have updated the style and content of classic arguments to make the accessible to a wider audience.


While many women are promenant activists for atheism, the media has portrayed the new atheism movement is dominated by males. Books by women on skepticism and secularism published at the same time, such as Doubt: A History and A History of American Secularism have been largely ignored in mainstream discourse. Various reasons for this have been advanced, including the upbringing and social role of women, their supposed aversion to confrontationism and sexism [17] Similar gender biases are also manifested at skeptic conferences [18], in philosophy [19], and in science and technology careers [20]. This issue is jarring considering the generally progressive nature of the new atheism movement.

Holy books and what theists believe are separate things[edit]

New Atheism often points to the intolerant sections in holy books, saying that such a belief is appalling. However, apologists point out that holy books are interpreted in a wide variety of ways. In fact, holy books can be interpreted in any way you choose to believe. Many theists ignore the intolerant sections. Therefore, it is unfair to criticise religious belief based on an interpretation of a text that it does not even share (which would be a straw man).

"I think the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false. People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity."

Resa Aslan[21]

Some commentators reject this argument saying it is postmodern nonsense. They point out that a literal interpretation of holy texts might have at least some influence on a person's behavior:

"This might pass muster in the college classroom these days, but what of all those ISIS warriors unschooled in French semiotic analysis who take their holy book’s admonition to do violence literally? As they rampage and behead their way through Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters know they have the Koran on their side – a book they believe to be inerrant and immutable, the final Word of God, and not at all “malleable.”[22]"
"So every time a jihadist yells “Allahu Akbar” and severs the head of a non-Muslim from his body with a knife, citing verses like 47:4 and 8:12-13 from the Quran, you can blame every possible factor for his actions except the one source that literally contains the words, “Smite the disbelievers upon their necks”? And these words have nothing to do with an action that is completely consistent with them?[23]"
"The line Aslan is selling us — that Islam consists not of propositions (conveyed through the Quran) regarding the origins and future of the universe and our species, accompanied by instructions to all of us about how to behave, but of ethereal, infinitely malleable abstractions — “symbols” and “metaphors” and such — may pass as credible on a talk show.[24]"

There is no one interpretation of a holy book. While some Muslims have this literal interpretation, most Muslims rely on one of the traditional scholarly interpretation of the text. This also seems like an argument from emotion and it is obvious that most Muslims are non-violent. It is a hasty generalization to say all Muslims have the same view as ISIS. Arguably, the problem is with literalism and the means used to indoctrinate people to such a view.


  1. Huff Post, 'New Atheists' Emerge From 9/11, Updated 10/26/2011 [1]
  2. Flynn, Tom (2010) . "Why I Don't Believe in the New Atheism". Retrieved on 2011-07-28.
  3. Religion and Politics: The End of the World? A Truthdig Debate, Royce Hall, UCLA, May 22, 2007 [2]
  4. The "Is God...Great?" Debate, King Middle School, Berkeley, May 24, 2007 [3]
  5. Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists, Continuum, 2008, pg. 36
  6. Benjamin Wiker, Pope Benedict XVI vs. Secularism, National Catholic Register, Mar 09, 2013 [4]
  7. Baroness Warsi, We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith, The Telegraph, 13 Feb 2012 [5]
  8. 8.0 8.1 Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2007.
  9. Religion and the New Atheism A Critical Appraisal., ed. Amarnath Amarasingam, chapter Beating 'God' to Death: Radical Theology and the New Atheism, Jeffrey Robbins and Christopher Rodkey, pg 35, Haymarket Books, 2010
  10. Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges, Sam Harris Blog, July 26, 2011 [6]
  11. Richard Dawkins, My critics are wrong to call me dogmatic, says Dawkins, The Times, 2007-02-12 [7]
  12. [8]
  13. [9]
  14. [10]
  15. American Faith: A Work In Progress by Stephen Prothero, USA Today, March 10, 2008, page 11A [11]
  16. List of atheist philosophers, Wikipedia
  17. Victoria Bekiempis, Why the New Atheism is a boys' club, The Guardian, 26 September 2011 [12]
  18. [13]
  19. [14]
  20. [15]
  21. [16]
  22. [17]
  23. [18]
  24. [19]

External Links[edit]

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on New Atheism

v · d Atheism
Terminology   Etymology of the word atheist · Weak atheism · Strong atheism · Agnosticism · Atheist vs. agnostic · Tenets and dogma
Contemporary literature   The End of Faith · The God Delusion · God: The Failed Hypothesis · Letter to a Christian Nation · God Is Not Great · Irreligion · 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
Classic literature   Why I Am Not a Christian
Atheist and secular groups   Atheist groups · Secular charities · How American Non-Atheists view Atheists
Contemporary authors   Richard Dawkins · Daniel Dennett · A. C. Grayling · Sam Harris · Guy P. Harrison · John Allen Paulos · James Randi · Victor Stenger
Internet non-believers   Reginald Vaughn Finley · PZ Myers
Writers and philosophers   David Hume · Robert Ingersoll · Friedrich Nietzsche · Bertrand Russell · Carl Sagan · Voltaire · Jean-Paul Sartre · John Stuart Mill · Karl Marx · Heraclitus