There seem to be more and more articles out there trying to explain the demise of the New Atheist movement. Jerry Coyne recently commented on one and offered his own analysis. Since none of these articles seems especially insightful , as a long time observer of the New Atheist movement, I thought I would help explain this movement’s demise.
There are four primary factors that came together and devoured the movement.
1.Failure To Gain Traction in Academia. Soon after Dawkins published his book, The God Delusion, he chose to pick a fight with other atheists and scholars. Dawkins argued that the problem was not creationism or fundamentalism. It ran deeper. It was religion itself. Dawkins then began to mock other atheists and previous allies by likening them to Neville Chamberlain. The problem with the “Neville Chamberlain atheists” is they were willing to tolerate religious views as long they did not amount to hardcore fundamentalism. Dawkins, who likened himself to Winston Churchill, insisted atheists must go on the attack against all religious people.
This militant attitude came to define the New Atheists. They expanded this vocabulary and begin to mock other atheists and agnostics as “accomodationists” and eventually Jerry Coyne began to mock them as “faitheists.” These were the days when Jerry Coyne was bashing Michael Ruse and Sam Harris was attacking Scott Atran. These were the days when Coyne and Victor Stenger were arguing that most scientists were cowards for not wanting to help lead the attack against religion. And let’s not forget the way Jerry Coyne used his blog to hound and attack scholar Bart Ehrman while championing the crackpot views of blogger Richard Carrier. Or the time that Sam Harris used the pages of the NYT to smear Francis Collins, arguing his religious views should prohibit him from heading the NIH.
All of this is much more significant than many people realize. The New Atheists had always needed to expand their reach into academia. In fact, that was one of their objectives in the 2006 Beyond Belief conference. This is because for any movement on the Left to thrive, it needs the support of academia. With academia on board, your movement has a plentiful supply of thinkers and advocates. Your movement has a continual supply of new converts in the form of students. What’s more, by housing your movement in academia, you increase the chance your movement will survive for generations, insulated from the ever changing socio-political terrain outside of academia.
Yet the New Atheists failed gloriously at acquiring any traction within academia. The reason is simple – the extreme, militant posturing of the New Atheists was perceived by many academic atheists as just another form of fundamentalism. In other words, the assertions and behavior of the New Atheists was deemed embarrassing. But don’t take my word for it. Pay close attention to the words of a Nobel Laureate who had little patience for New Atheist antics:
Higgs has chosen to cap his remarkable 2012 with another bang by criticising the “fundamentalist” approach taken by Dawkins in dealing with religious believers.
“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists,” Higgs said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”
He agreed with some of Dawkins’ thoughts on the unfortunate consequences that have resulted from religious belief, but he was unhappy with the evolutionary biologist’s approach to dealing with believers and said he agreed with those who found Dawkins’ approach “embarrassing”.
Now couple this embarrassing fundamentalism to the manner in which the New Atheists lashed out at the “faitheists” and “accomodationists” and it should surprise no one that New Atheism never secured a serious foothold within academia. Instead, all they accomplished was a) creating a population of scholars (atheist, agnostic, and theist) who greatly disliked them while b) ensuring that for their movement to survive, they now had to rely solely on media coverage.