One might reasonably identify the advent of the so-called New Atheism with the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Bobby Henderson’s The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in 2006. Or perhaps Sam Harris, The End of Faith in 2004. One thing is clear: the movement — if one might indeed call it a “movement” — has been around for awhile now. Consequently, it would seem a good time for an assessment. What did the New Atheism accomplish?
Above all, I see two results from the New Atheism: incivility and anti-intellectualism. To take a recent analogy, the heart of American conservatism used to be defined by civil and intellectual voices like George Will and Max Boot. But in the age of Trump, anger and ignorance have overwhelmed the calm measured voice.
Something similar happened a decade ago to a large portion of the atheist community. Angry voices like Dawkins and Harris took the microphone in the public square and exhibited a lamentable incivility toward those with whom they disagreed, all the while exhibiting a distressing anti-intellectual ignorance toward the fields of discourse and intellectual communities they were attacking.
This sideshow led to a spike in cultural attention — loud, angry, strident voices tend to sell books and drive ratings. But it did little to swell the ranks of self-avowed atheists. And it most definitely did little to swell the ranks of civil and thoughtful atheists.
As a result, one still regularly hears laughably simplistic maxims like “Religion leads to violence” or “Faith is irrational” traded as a substitute for serious intellectual reflection. And just as Trump supporters safely retreat to their feedback loops in Fox News and conservative talk radio, so many aging new atheists retreat to their feedback loops in blogs and secular groups.
The one bit of good news is that New Atheism isn’t what it once was. For many the novelty has worn off and it is harder every year to fill the big tent of this cultural sideshow. One can hope that with the decline of the New Atheism there will be a commensurate rise in a more civil and intellectually engaging atheism.
I was prompted to write this rumination after reading Tom Gilson’s article “The Death of the ‘New Atheism.'”