A Short History of the New Atheist Movement
Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note in to the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away. Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in the trash can.
Now, by your best guess, is Richard a Christian, a Muslim, a gay man, a feminist, a rapist, or an atheist? Before you answer, here’s another question: Of similar minorities (this time let’s toss in Hispanics and recent immigrants), who would you least want your child to marry? And whose vision of American society do you most disagree with?
Wait – don’t tell me. Richard – let’s call him Dick – is definitely not a rapist. That scenario is a direct quote from a study, undertaken at the University of British Columbia in 2011. The response? Atheists – not rapists – are generally more likely to commit immoral crimes. Those next few questions about marriage and American society were asked in a University of Minnesota study in 2006. Once again, atheists took the cake for the least trusted minority in the land. Say, would you vote for an atheist for President? About half of America said no, when polled by Gallup in 2007. Take heed, reader. There might be an atheist lurking near at this very moment!
Surprisingly, these findings are the good news for atheists. Thirty years ago, that Gallup poll was up to 75%. Over two-thirds of the nation wouldn’t even consider voting for an atheist in public office. President George H.W. Bush himself, in 1987, when asked if atheists deserve rights, he reportedly responded, “No, they can not be considered citizens…this is one nation under God.” (New York Times). One might have heard the disgruntled chortling of Vishnu and Buddha somewhere in the courts of the cosmos.
But first – who are atheists, exactly? Rallying atheists, goes the aphorism, is like herding cats. The non-religious have the problem of labels; it’s difficult to group together those who are simply not something – more so when one of the essential group themes is, well, not having group themes. (Allow me to take a deep breath.) “Secularists” pertains to those who support the separation of church and state, “naturalists” are those who deny the supernatural of all kinds, “humanists” calls on Renaissance ideals of mankind’s progression beyond religion, “skeptics” classifies those who doubt and inquire about the claims of others, and “freethinkers” hearkens back to the French Revolution to call on a rebellion against the suppression of scientific knowledge by pious authorities; all of these are frequently lumped into the category of “atheism,” which is historically a pejorative for those who deny the existence of God. (Inhale.)
Regardless of confusing labels, in the last decade, a boisterous movement of non-religious people has been overturning the public conversation about religion and science. The non-religious have been coming out (literally: the movement initiated by vociferous biologist Richard Dawkins is called the “Out Campaign,” encouraging atheists to stand proudly, parallel to the gay rights movement). The number of Americans who marked “None” when questioned about their religious preference has doubled in ten years since 2001 – as has the number of self-declared atheists (Kosmin and Kaysar). The global conversation about religion and science has been through a rollicking decade thanks to a revival of dissent from a series of New York Times bestselling authors who have become known as the New Atheist movement. Of course, there have always been skeptics underground, but modern America’s current secular movement is actually gaining positive publicity, and eking out a place among celebrated minorities. A “new” breed of thinker is being accepted into the mainstream. The secular community is changing the conversation about global ethics and national policy, challenging pseudoscience and religious politics, while demanding equal rights, and carving out a niche in American society.
The most notable kindling for this movement has no doubt been the exchange between creationists and evolutionists over the last two centuries – in short, religion and science. Western civilization has long had a tradition of debate between the two fields. Since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the human race has faced strong scientific challenges to our notions about, well, everything. Combined with scientific discoveries in other fields, atheists have been equipped to argue that literal beliefs in certain Abrahamic mythologies, such as the Flood of Noah, no longer hold water. The very existence of God, they say, becomes questionable because it is unnecessary; the natural world does not require such an explanation to function the way it does. Creationists, on the other hand, have strongly maintained that the Biblical story is scientifically sound; that the Earth is between 4000 and 6000 years old, and that man was created by God with his intention to rule over nature; and that such phenomena as morality, poetry and purpose can only be His hand at work…
The debate goes on as it has for years, but thanks to religious current events and new scientific discoveries, the atheist position has become more and more tenable and popular in comparison. In 1998, 93% of the National Academy of Scientists were agnostic or atheist, with belief in God the lowest among biologists (Larson and Witham). Further popularity rose in the media maelstrom surrounding a Kansas lawsuit in which the Intelligent Design movement attempted to force biology textbooks to publish a disclaimer about evolution and to teach one religious alternative – with noted support by President George W. Bush (Washington Post). Atheist voices came out in droves, supporting the scientific method and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The Kansas hearings were eventually overturned, and the Intelligent Design movement has been rejected by the National Academy, who states, “Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science.” Arguments against creationism were heard in the public square among moderates – of all beliefs – who disagreed or shared strong views on this issue. With the help of this great media attention, atheists have been able to make themselves quite public, without the lingering fear of direct brute reprisal which existed in ancient communities.
A literal explosion in the religious debate took place on September 11, 2001, when fundamentalist Muslim terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Towers. The Western world cringed and initially avoided crediting these attacks to a religious source; President Bush sparked a vague “War on Terror,” against “extremists.” In 2004, in the first “New Atheist” book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, neuroscientist Sam Harris argued that these men were “extreme” in nothing other than their faith (Harris 29). He points out that the inherent religious element in these attacks had been stepped lightly around. “Why would someone as conspicuously devoid of personal grievances or psychological dysfunction as Osama bin Laden,” he writes, “devote himself to cave-dwelling machinations with the intention of killing innumerable men, women and children he has never met? The answer to this question is obvious – if only because it has been patiently articulated ad nauseum by bin Laden himself. The answer is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe.” (29.) Harris later devotes half a dozen pages to direct quotes from the Quran, and fashions arguments against religion based on scripture itself, finalizing his case with an appeal to a “science of good and evil,” involving meditation and the rational study of human brain states during spiritual experiences (170). He claims his purpose in writing was to, “help close the door on a certain style of irrationality…In the best case, faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence.” (223). With this declaration of war, the New Atheist movement has also become known as “militant” or “angry” atheism – a movement on the offensive, proudly performing attacks on religion. The book itself received mixed reviews, but shot to #4 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for several months. This was the beginning of a huge outburst of angry angst about religion, initially directed by Harris at fundamentalist terrorists and the global religious moderation and acceptance that enables them (19).
A bigger splash came two years later from Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, who had already come to fame in collegiate biology classrooms with his landmark books on evolutionary theory, The Selfish Gene (which originally coined the term “meme”) and The Extended Phenotype. His next groundbreaking book, The God Delusion, was a massive success, another New York Times bestseller for months. Like Harris, Dawkins’ central goal was to attack religion on its own ground. “What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?” he asks. “I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else” (27). Dawkins, needless to say, puts on brass knuckles. He hits religion where it hurts by replacing it with a fundamentally scientific theory of how complex organisms must evolve from simple ones; even including a chapter on such anomalies as human morality. The best explanation for life is a slow, gradual, ancient progression from simple to complex; there is no need, and no suitable explanation, for a manipulating creative force – especially one which has any influence or answers prayers (158). He argues not only that the belief in God is a dangerous delusion, but that teaching it to children in the 21st century constitutes child abuse (310).
Tufts University professor of philosophy Daniel Dennett, like Dawkins, was already well-known in college campuses across the nation for his books Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, which are frequently debated in upper-division philosophy courses. In 2006 he published Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which, again, caused a stir by claiming religion must be the result of evolution. While lacking the polemic popularity of the last two books, Dennett’s proposal brings in arguments against theism based on philosophy and psychology. Dennett calls evolution by natural selection “the single most important idea anyone has ever had,” and this is no exaggeration. The theory of evolution brings to life a view of the cosmos as an entirely natural phenomenon, and connects man to animal to plant to ancient ocean (or otherwise material origin); in short, atheists can argue that such an idea would explain social functions of religion, mythology and even poetry, within the context of a purely natural cosmos.
Journalist and Vanity Fair contributor Christopher Hitchens was readily known for books on the lives of George Orwell, Thomas Jefferson and a scathing account of Mother Teresa. With his extraordinarily successful #1 New York Times bestseller, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (author’s lower-case emphasis), “Hitch” formed the final member of what would come to be known as the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” including Harris, Dawkins and Dennett. Certainly the most polemical of the four, as a public intellectual and serious debater Hitchens launched a nuclear assault, and never held back in a direct attack upon the three great Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He tackled the issue from a historical perspective. “Violent, irrational, intolerant,” Hitchens wrote, “allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience” (56). When debating a Catholic priest, before allowing his opponent to defend the institution, he at once called for a direct apology on behalf of the human race (Intelligence Squared). Shortly after the death of evangelist Jerry Falwell, Hitchens expressed on Sean Hannity, “If you gave Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.” Before his death by cancer in 2010, Hitchens was the emblem of New Atheism: no-holds-barred, intellectual, growling and hell-bent on the extinction of organized religion. The movement had now taken on its ultimate tone with the Four Horsemen: “angry atheism” rose to massive popularity.
But years later, the anger within the movement has hit a tipping point, as nonbelievers of all kinds come to terms with their position. Religious studies professor Stephen Prothero notes in his 2010 book God is Not One, “The New Atheism stands at a crossroads. Until now it has been spearheaded by the sort of white, male firebrands that led the charge for evangelicalism during the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century. But there is a different voice emerging – call it the new New Atheism – and with it a very different agenda. The friendlier atheism sounds more like a civil rights movement than a crusade, and it is far more likely to issue from the lips of friendly women than from the spittle of angry men” (327). The ultimate response to the New Atheist movement came on March 24, 2012, at an event called the “Reason Rally.” The event was predicted to be the “largest secular event in world history,” and drew over 20,000 people to rally at the Washington, D.C. Mall. The goals, according to the website, were to dispel myths about atheists, encourage political equality, and reduce negative stereotypes. It had begun to sound less like an attack upon religion than a fight for equal rights, on par with the gay, feminist and civil rights movements. At the event, author Greta Christina addressed accusations of anger.
“Atheists aren’t angry because we’re selfish, or bitter, or joyless. Atheists are angry because we have compassion. Atheists are angry because we have a sense of justice. Atheists are angry because we see millions of people being terribly harmed by religion, and our hearts go out to them, and we feel motivated to do something about it.”
Adam Savage, star of Mythbusters, also spoke at the Reason Rally.
“I am a very non-confrontational person,” he said, to cheers from new New atheists. “I am, most of the time, the very definition of a reasonable man. I don’t like telling people things they don’t want to hear. I want people to get along. I want people to like me. I want to find good things in people. I want to understand viewpoints that differ from mine. I want my tombstone to say, he was nice to work with.”
The Four Horsemen mounted a powerful attack upon religion, kindling a fire for a revival of natural philosophy through intellectual defiance and rebellion. However, the anger of these firebrands is settling, and the movement is taking on hues of the positive. The rise of atheism in America is gradually losing its adolescent rage and shaping itself into something friendly. With the Reason Rally’s emphasis on equal rights, the anger and vitriol of the movement appears to be losing its centrality. Equal rights demands an inherent philosophical positivity; one must stand for something, not merely against. The label for these values which seems most fitting is “Secular Humanism,” which emphasizes the positive values of non-believers, rather than the negative values of religion, though labels still present a problem. As atheists of all kinds gather together to celebrate their humanity and their philosophy, will we see anger and vitriol die, and a new positive philosophy of compassion and reason arise? As the secular movement changes from “angry atheism” to “friendly atheism,” when America is asked about Dick, the stranger who backed into someone’s car and sped away, will we think twice before assuming he’s an atheist?
UBC Study Explores Distrust of Atheists by Believers. Media Release, University of British Columbia, 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.
Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According to New U of M Study. University of Minnesota, 28 Mar. 2006. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.
Americans Still Hold Certain Biases in Choosing President. Gallup. 20 Jun. 2011. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.
Transcript of President Bush’s News Conference. New York Times. 4 Nov. 2004. Web. 2 Jun 2012.
The Catholic Church is a Force for Good. Intelligence Squared. 19 Oct. 2009. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.
Kosmin, Barry A. and Keysar, Ariela. “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population.” Trinity College, 2009. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.
Larson, Edward J. and Witham, Larry. “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Nature Magazine. 23 Jul. 1998. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.
Baker, Peter and Slevin, Peter. “Bush Remarks On ‘Intelligent Design’ Theory Fuel Debate” Washington Post. 3 August, 2005. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.
National Research Council. Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1999.
Harris, S. The end of faith, religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.
Prothero, Stephen. God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World. 1st ed. New York: HarperOne, 2010. Print.
Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything. Paperback. New York: Twelve, 2009. Print.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York City: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006. Print.