Understanding New Atheism

Jerry Coyne struggles to define “New Atheism”and comes up with four traits that are supposed to distinguish Gnus from old atheists.  In his attempt to do this, he describes a New Atheist as something that does not really exist.  Yet by analyzing where his Gnu idealism goes wrong, we non-Gnus can get a better understanding of “New Atheism.”

Coyne writes:

1. The repeated and strong emphasis on having evidence for your beliefs.  Although this has always been a theme of atheists—after all, the absence of evidence is the reason most people are atheists—the force with which we challenge theists to document and support their beliefs is something new.  I wasn’t around in Bertrand Russell’s day, but I doubt there were as many debates between atheists and believers then. The Internet (reason #4) is one reason for their proliferation.

Not quite.  Gnu’s do insist that theists have evidence for their beliefs.  But the Gnus exempt themselves from this requirement.  When it comes to their beliefs about politics, humanity, the future, stories in the news, drama on the internet, or just about anything else, Gnu atheists have no such repeated and strong emphasis on having evidence.

What’s more, it is not clear what Gnus would count as evidence for God belief.  Coyne says he would accept some miraculous demonstration as evidence, although there is no evidence he would.  Yet PZ Myers claims that nothing can count as evidence for God.

So let me provide a better way to phrase this trait.  Given that Gnu atheism is a movement, we need to define it from this context.  All movements that are trying to change culture need to go on the offensive.  And the Gnu way of going on the offensive is to demand evidence for theism.  That way, they get to play judge and jury.  They get to put theists in the position of having to justify themselves.  It’s all about posturing and positioning.

Unfortunately, many theists get easily played by this tactic.  They think the Gnu is honest and sincere in wanting “evidence.”  So they try to provide evidence, only to consistently find the evidence they supply does not count.  All the time, they are on the defensive without realizing there is no reason at all that they should have to justify their theism to a closed-minded Gnu.  Yet by attempting to provide evidence for the Gnu, they are working to validate the authoritative posture the Gnus sneakily adopt.

So a more accurate way of viewing the Gnu is not as someone who places a high value on “evidence,” but as someone who pays lip service to the need for evidence and who seeks to use the concept of “evidence” as a rhetorical and propagandistic tool to adopt an authoritative posture in the culture wars.

2.  The emphasis on science.  This is one aspect of NA that I think Lee gets right, and it’s closely connected with #1. If you’re science oriented, as so many NAs are, then you’ll naturally challenge believers on the evidence. This, I think, is one reason why NA has been so successful, for the faithful simply have no evidence.

The NAs are only “successful” (if that) in the bubble of the internet.  We can tell this because NAs are always complaining most real world scientists won’t join them in their movement and have to come up with exotic rationalizations to explain this.  Most scientists who are even paying attention to the Gnus recognize them as the secular equivalent to the religious fundamentalist, even to the point of the Gnus demanding a god-of-the-gaps explanation as scientific evidence.

Just to take the “four horsemen”: Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, Sam Harris got his Ph.D in neurobiology, Dan Dennett works on the philosophy of science and knows a ton about evolution and neuroscience, and Hitchens, though a journalist, was deeply read in science and was friends with the other three (see #3 below).  I got Hitchens, for example, to endorse WEIT.

This description is laughable.  Notice how Coyne incrementally lowers the standards to place the “four horsemen” in this category.  He starts with Dawkins as an evolutionary biologist (although scientist EO Wilson claims Dawkins is no longer a scientist).  Then he moves to Harris, who does not do any science.  For him, it’s good enough that Harris “got his Ph.D in neurobiology.”  Then it’s Dennett, who is not even a scientist and is a philosopher.  Okay, that’s good enough because he uses philosophy to analyze science and knows a lot about evolution.  Finally, we get to Hitchens, a journalist.  His qualifications?  He read a lot about science and was friends with other members of the Gnu’s scientific rag-tag team.

Was friends?!  This is hilarious.  So the “emphasis on science” amounts to reading some popular science books and being friends with someone who does philosophy of science and knows a lot about evolution!

Again, let’s deal in the real world.  The Gnus do not have an emphasis on science in the sense that they have this commitment to doing science.  After all, recall that recently Jerry Coyne just pooh-poohed the need to do science.  And ask yourself how many experiments have the Four Horsemen published that tested and disproved the existence of God?  None.  Not one.

The “emphasis on science” is really a politicized version of scientism.  Again, we need to look at the Gnu positions from the context of their movement.  Like all movements, they have a socio-political agenda and simply want to be seen as “scientific” in an effort to extract some form of authority from this public perception.  What’s more, if the Gnus can succeed in getting Christians to view them as representing science, they can bait Christians into attacking science and that helps the Gnu movement by making the Christians look “anti-science.”  Yet because they are a movement, their tactics are not scientific at all.  They rely on propaganda, cherry picking, psychological attacks, character assassination, sensationalism, spin, and more, to make their case.  So ironically, their “emphasis on science” is really an abandonment of science.  Gnu atheism is inherently hypocritical.

As for the other two traits, these are more accurate:

3. Collaboration and friendship between prominent NAs.  The Four Horsemen, of course, were a pals before Hitchens died, and I also know all three living ones pretty well.  Most of them know Krauss, Stenger, Pinker, Grayling and Shermer, and several are good friends with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  (The NAs have been dominated by males—largely because the Four Horsemen all wrote bestselling books—but that dominance is, I hope, on the wane.)  The collaborative and interactive nature of many prominent New Atheists has created a synergism that helps spread the word.

As you can see, the Gnus do collaborate with each other to get their message out.  So the political dimension is there for all to see.  Keep this in mind the next time you see several Gnus seeming to independently arrive at the same point on some issue in the news.  There is a good chance the multiple voices agree with each other because of prior collaboration in an effort to propagate and amplify some talking point that serves their agenda.

4.  We have the Internet. Because of the Internet, the sense of community among atheist leaders has grown to encompass the rest of us who aren’t as prominent. Websites like those of Harris and Dawkins, blogs—or website collections like Freethought Blogs—provide an online community for freethinkers that simply couldn’t exist without the internet.  A good essay (like the one Harris put up yesterday) is instantly disseminated throughout the community, heartening us all. And through discussions on websites, we recognize kindred (or nonkindred!) atheist spirits.  By lessening our isolation, that also strengthens our movement.

Ah yes, the internet.  It “strengthens our movement.”  Let’s be crystal clear – Gnu atheism is different from old atheism in that the former is a MOVEMENT.  It is a movement spawned as a reaction to 911.  To understand Gnu atheism, you need to understand it as a socio-political movement and all that comes with being a movement.  If you view Gnu atheism as an expression of science, scholarship, or a genuine, open-minded desire for truth, you will be misled and baited.   

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7 Responses to Understanding New Atheism

  1. Crude says:

    This description is laughable. Notice how Coyne incrementally lowers the standards to place the “four horsemen” in this category.

    That was beautiful. And Richard Carrier?

    Uhhh… Carrier’s favorite superhero is Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four! That counts!

  2. Raonoc says:

    In response to the “What evidence do you have for your God-belief, you silly little theist” question, just ask them to define “evidence” philosophically, i.e., what it means exactly to say that “X is evidence for the truth of proposition Y.” Then take note of how deeply pathetic and squirmy of a response you get.

  3. Usually, for the evidence question I get, “You know…’evidence’! I need evidence to believe what you’re saying”

  4. cl says:

    I. Salute. You.


    You can say that again! Surely you’ve heard of the so-called “freethought” blogs, right? Well, Mr. Smarty Pants Atheist Cool Guy J.T. Eberhard recently challenged me to a debate, and when I took that tactic—demanding that he define “evidence” lest I waste time lobbing arrows at a moving target—he declined his offer and banned me from his blog! You can read the details here, if interested.

    QUESTION TO BLOG OWNER: is it frowned upon here to link back to one’s own blog? If so, just let me know, and I won’t do it again.

  5. Michael says:

    No frowning. In fact, you inspired to new blog posting. 🙂

  6. Raonoc says:

    I just read the exchange. The most surprising part is how utterly unsurprised I am that these Gnu’s would actually view the “What is evidence?” question as a form of trolling. Such behavior is laughable in its ignorance and arrogance, since a massive chunk of epistemology and the philosophy of science deals with that very question. Seriously, give the Stanford Encyclopedia’s article on evidence a quick skimming, and while doing so imagine the following sneer of the seedy Gnu in your head: “That’s just trolling.”

  7. cl says:

    Yeah, I agree… the quickness to push the “troll trigger” is another key feature of Gnus. I’ll keep that in mind as I work on this new project y’all will be EXTREMELY excited about. I don’t normally boast, but the (a)theist blogosphere is about to get rocked. 🙂

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