Answering Questions About New Atheism

In the comment section of a previous blog entry, atheist makagutu asked:

And what really is new atheism and who made Jerry a leader.

I replied:

Google is your friend. From Wiki:

“New Atheism is a social and political movement in favour of atheism and secularism promoted by a collection of modern atheist writer”


“While The Four Horsemen are arguably the foremost proponents of the New Atheism, there are a number of other current, notable New Atheists including: Lawrence M. Krauss (author of A Universe from Nothing[28]), Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True[29] and complementary blog[30] which specifically includes polemics against topical religious issues),”

Makagutu then had more questions.

Michael, how does foremost proponent translate to leader?

Coyne is a foremost proponent within a movement. As such, he is a lead voice in the New Atheist movement. A lead voice in a movement is a leader.

Kevin nicely answered this question:

A leader is not necessarily someone who issues orders and people obey. A leader is also someone of high profile who inspires others on a certain issue. There’s actually another Wiki article on leadership that includes the following: “A leader is a person who influences a group of people towards a specific result. It is not dependent on title or formal authority.”

Who does he lead?

I like TFBW’s response: “As for who Coyne leads, that would be his followers. Ask a pedantic question, get a flippant answer.”

Coyne is a leader among a subculture of internet atheists who hate religion and religious people. I think such people agree with most or all of Coyne’s writings about religion/God and want to help promote him (and defend him) as extensions of themselves.

And who refers to atheists as new atheists? Are they the atheists themselves or someone else?


New Atheist Victor Stenger wrote a book entitled, “The New Atheism:Taking a Stand for Science and Reason.” Here is part of Stenger’s description:

In 2004, Sam Harris published The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason which became a major bestseller. This marked the first of a series of series of bestsellers that took a harder line against religion than has been the custom among secularists: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (2006), The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett (2006), God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Goes Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger (2007), and God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) by Christoper Hitchens.

These authors have been recognized as the leaders of a movement called New Atheism. (emphasis added)

Jerry Coyne himself uses it. For example:

Pigluicci’s piece starts out all right, accurately identifying the distinguishing trait of New Atheism as its connection with science and its taking the idea of God as a hypothesis to be tested. The other characteristic is that it’s immensely popular—even more so than the works of “old” atheists like Ingersoll and Russell (but not Mencken).
Really, “most of the New Atheists haven’t read a philosophy paper”? I seriously doubt that. I won’t defend myself on this count, for I’ve read many, and so, I suspect, have Dawkins, Harris, Stenger, and others seen as important New Atheists. 
And they have done so—quite effectively. In fact, the success of New Atheism in recent years can be attributed mainly to “philosophically naive” books like The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great, as well as to the dissemination of New Atheist videos and writings via the Internet and the connection that the Internet provides between previously closeted and isolated atheists.

The term is even commonly used on Richard Dawkins’s web page. For example:

For a community that is often portrayed as aggressive and pugitive, New Atheism has recently been on the backfoot, defending itself from claims dreamt up by those who should – and, surely, in many cases do – know better.

Who came up with the idea of new atheism?

That goes back to 2006. Gary Wolf was the first to introduce the term in a thought-provoking essay in Wired. Wolf himself comes across as an agnostic/atheist (someone who would score around a 5 on Dawkins scale of belief):

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.

So the term “New Atheist” was coined by an agnostic/atheist. Which makes sense. Not all atheists believe religion is evil and think it needs to be eradicated. Such atheists would thus want to distance themselves from the extreme, black-and-white rhetoric of people like Dawkins, Harris et al. Wolf made this clear:

Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I’ve decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism – this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism – is too much for me.

The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there’s always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.

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4 Responses to Answering Questions About New Atheism

  1. Ilíon says:

    Coyne is a leader among a subculture of internet atheists who hate religion and religious people. I think such people agree with most or all of Coyne’s writings about religion/God and want to help promote him (and defend him) as extensions of themselves.

    Which defense includes acting stupid about whether he is a leader within gnu atheism.

    Look: atheists are liars when it comes to matters touching upon God or “religion” (meaning Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism) or atheism — *all* atheists are liars on these matters; it’s just that the gnu atheists start seeing God’s shadow sooner than other atheists do, and consequently start lying sooner, and combine the lying with a rabid hatred of “religious people”.

  2. TFBW says:

    … *all* atheists are liars on these matters …

    I doubt that you can substantiate that sweeping generalisation.

  3. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    I would hardly characterize atheists as liars on the issue of the existence or non-existence of God. I think it’s important not to make a generalization like that because there are plenty of people who arrive at disbelief in a seemingly honest manner, without caricatures of believers or bad repackaging of theological arguments, and so forth.

  4. Truth2Freedom says:

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.

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