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What's So New About the New Atheism?

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The editors of Wired magazine in 2006 used the term "new" to describe the atheistic movement initiated by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. I think they were right. In a recent article for The Huffington Post, I made the claim that religious belief in the United States is at the edge of a significant evolutionary change. One reason I cited for this change is the pressure coming from "The New Atheism." One reader commented that there really is no "new" atheism. The contemporary atheism is the same old thing in modern packaging. I don't think it is.

The general consensus on the part of professional philosophers on all sides of the question is that the popular arguments being made by new atheists like Dawkins and Dennett are not all that new. Some argue that neither are they particularly strong versions of their classic cousins. At the very least, many find that the new atheist polemic is not being delivered in a way that is particularly winsome or compelling -- a problem that seems to have plauged atheists for as long as there has been athiesm.

Renown Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga in a review for Books and Culture of Dawkins' seminal book The God Delusion teased, "You might say that some of [Dawkins'] forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class." Agnostic and mathematician David Berlinski, always quotable and, in his tomes on religion, always edgy, writes of Sam Harris', Letter to a Christian Nation, "if his book is devoid of any intellectual substance whatsoever, it is, at least, brisk, engaging, and short." He adds, "To anyone having read Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, these will appear as very considerable virtues."

Even thinkers who might be considered "friendlies" sometimes find the new atheism hard to stomach. Shortly after Dawkins and Dennett published their books, skeptic Michael Ruse, professor of Biology at Florida State University, in public correspondence with Dennett wrote, "I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design ... what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues. Neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas."

Of course, there are many who support the work of these scientists and philosophers but I can find few who think the atheism being proffered is innovative or unique such that it merits the adjective. Still, while the arguments themselves may be well-worn, I do think the "new" in New Atheism is accurate primarily because of the way it leverages and amplifies the ideological milieu in which it is being advanced.

Perhaps for the first time in recorded human history do we have an idea that achieves or exceeds the explanatory power formerly afforded to religion. Many believe that Darwin's theory of natural selection has matured and with that maturity has given us a model for framing -- and answering -- just about any important question having to do with human existence. Most obviously, hard sciences like health science, brain science and reproductive science benefit from Darwin's theory. But more recently even disciplines in the humanities like human sexuality, psychology, social science, political science and, many argue, religious studies are being analytically dissolved in what Dennett calls Darwin's "universal acid."

This has had two important effects. First, philosophers and theologians seem less and less inclined to view religious belief as the kind of thing that exists to explain the world. While religion in the West slowly has been shifting into more of a private ideology for decades, this shift has been accelerating recently in proportion to the explanatory power of science. Christian Philosopher Paul Moser admits in his latest book, "the fallout of Darwinism for philosophy and theology is far-reaching by any standard if it includes [Jerry] Fodor's 'true scientific vision' of reality." Moser's solution is to reject the basis for the supposed conflict and acknowledge that God is not the type of being that would leave physical traces of his activity: "we should not expect God to be an object of empirical science or expect the evidence for God's existence to fall within empirical science."

This has led to the second effect: the role religion is permitted to have in the public square focuses mainly on personal meaning. Political point scoring aside, serious talk that God is somehow involved in the daily workings of this world and that public life should be oriented toward pleasing Him and following His will has almost vanished. The New Atheism has succeeded in shifting broad attitudes towards public talk of this kind from one of mild amusement or irritation to one of outright fear and derision and has done so inside of just a decade.

So modern atheism, while not necessarily new in the ideas it presents, is new in that it comes out of a position of cultural authority that it formerly lacked. But believers are not yet willing to concede the battle. In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. Many are responding to the new atheism by claiming that science is unable to answer two of the most important questions humans face: What does life mean and how can we be good? In his recent book, The Language of God, former head of the Human Genome Project and professed Christian Francis Collins wrote, "The comparison of chimp and human sequences, interesting as it is, does not tell us what it means to be human. In my view, DNA sequence alone ... will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God." And these, believers claim, are the most important questions of all.

Portions of this post previously appeared on Philosophynews.com

Around the Web

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