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The New Atheist Label

Like the label of “Militant Atheist” the label of “New Atheist” has been equally thrown around. At first, the label was only reserved for the “Four Horsemen” of atheism, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. But the term was quickly transferred onto any atheist who speaks up about their lack of belief.

The thing is that the label of “New Atheist” implies that there are “Old Atheists.” The distraction between “New Atheists” and “Old Atheists” seems to be that those who step out of the closet and simply make it public that they are skeptical of the claims of theistic religions are now branded as “New Atheists.” While those atheists who continue to keep their disbelief to themselves and who even sometimes pretend to believe rather than “rock the boat” can be considered “Old Atheists.”

Could you imagine if this distinction were made in the Gay community today? If a person like Merv Griffin was considered to be an “Old Gay” because he remained in the closet until after his death and people like George Takei who is open about his marriage to his husband are labeled as “New Gay” extremists. That would effectively end the Gay Rights movement by forcing gay people back into the closet out of fear of being labeled extremists who are “Just as hateful” as those who believe that being gay is a sin and should be punished and/or beaten.

If simply stating that one doesn’t believe in superstitious myths and ancient stories is enough to marginalize someone as a “New Atheist” or some kind of atheist extremists than I have a real issue with that. It effectively shuts down conversation, debate, and any criticism of religious ideas. That however is the point. Religious people are afraid of dialog because at the end of the day there is no evidence for their ridiculous stories and beliefs.

Another analogy that I think works would be a label of a “New Mathematician” for anyone who continues to tell people that in fact one plus one does not equal five, but rather it equals two. While I would call that basic education, could you imagine what would happen if such a person was marginalized as an extremist? Why can’t people just let everyone do their own math and if someone wants to believe that one plus one equals five, well they are entitled to their opinion, right?

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  • http://atheistinsurgency.com Atheist Insurgency

    It’s interesting how people think the term “neo” means more extreme when it’s merely a chronological reference.

  • Kat

    I’m not sure I agree with you on this one, Saks. If it weren’t for the “Extremist” the gays would STILL be in the closet and so would the athiest.There ARE “NEW” athiest and gays. Merv Griffin COULD’NT come out of the closet..it would have ruined his career..but times have changed and through education and the fact that we had gay extremist, gay performers are out in the open in Hollywood…and other than the exteme religious right, nobody cares. The same goes for the Athiest…There was a time that you wouldn’t have been able to write this blog. You might not like the title “NEW” or “Extremist” but you are in fact, just that. To me that’s not such a bad thing..Sometimes you need extremism.

    • http://www.dangeroustalk.net Staks

      I am not sure you are understanding what I am saying here Kat. I don’t think coming out of the closet (for gays or atheists) is extreme. Labeling those things as extreme is simply a tool used to marginalize gays and atheists. What is an “extreme” gay? What the Religious Right have done is to make it so anyone who comes out of the closet is considered “extreme” and that is not really true. Merv Griffin had his reasons for staying in the closet and I am not placing a value judgment on that, but to say that those who step out of the closet are “extremists” is just silly. I don’t think my position on atheism is extreme in any way. What makes it extreme? That I am willing to state in public that I don’t believe? What a rebel I am, lol.

      • Kat

        Well my definition of “Extremist” is One who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm ,norm being the majority here.Extremism to me just means with a stronger or maybe even a radical view point. Yes Extemism can be a bad thing in some situations..depends on the situation. I’m not sure how old you are, Saks. But there was a time in this country ,that we wouldn’t be having this conversation except behind closed doors…and I kind of think it was “Extemist” who built this country.Being called an “Extremist” isn’t ALWAYS a bad thing..the people fighting against the Vietnam War were also called Extremist.
        I’d say they are “New” gays and “New” athiest only because they are a Stronger Force, more Out There(for lack of a better description) than ever before and it’s going to take “extremist” to fight the fight..I’m sorry, but compared to say..30 years ago…atheism and homosexuality are “extremely”..out there…and Yes..I think you’re a rebel..with a cause (:

  • Scuba Steve

    Extremism for me has always been things such as people setting themselves on fire, destroying public property and/or killing someone just to make a pointt.

  • http://www.myspace.com/atheistteam The A-Team

    I agree. There’s nothing extreme about letting your voice be heard, nor is there much that’s really new about these atheists…unless we’re to consider Thomas Paine, Percy Shelly, Ayn Rand, etc. as new.

    • Kat

      Thomas Paine, Percy Shelly,& Ayn Rand didn’t have the scientific evidence that we have today and they didn’t have the same media we use today and they didn’t have as large a following as the Athiest leaders do today.I’m not saying what they are saying is extreme but compared to Thomas Paine..it IS new..it is bigger …and it is better and stronger.

      • http://www.dangeroustalk.net Staks

        When Thomas Paine published the Age of Reason I and II, it was read around the world. At that time, he was the Richard Dawkins of the day… and then sum. Paine called Christianity a tyranny worse than any other because it threats to control people after death as well as while they are alive. Would this man of over 200 years be a “New Atheist?” For the record Paine was a deist and not an atheist. But had he known then what we know now about evolution and science, his views might have changed.

        • Kat

          Yes I know all that(I was just answering the comment above), maybe if Paine had the information on science and evolution THEN, they wouldn’t STILL be calling this a CHRISTIAN nation.”I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of…Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.” Thomas Paine
          I still don’t think you should be taking the word “NEW’ as an insult.

  • Tomkinson

    Your analogy is deeply flawed. There have been people in the past that were openly agnostic or atheist who even criticized supernatural beliefs (e.g. Carl Sagan). What makes the ‘New Atheists’ (a phrase you claimed you didn’t understand a month or so ago) different is the extremism and hysteria in the arguments of the people you cite.

    Its one thing to claim that gods don’t exist, its quite another to claim religion is child abuse (Dawkins) or to characterize circumcision as genital mutilation of children (what other form of ‘mutilation’ is at worst harmless and at best beneficial?). Hitchens declares himself an ‘anti-theist’, not only is he a non-believer but he believes ALL forms of religion to be perhaps the greatest social evil of our time. Dennet uses one set of non-existent entities (memes) to explain another (gods) just to give religion the appearance of the long discredited mind-virus.

    I don’t often find myself in agreement with liberal atheist biologist David Sloan Wilson. But here http://deisidaimon.wordpress.com/2008/02/07/pigliucci-and-d-s-wilson-on-atheism/html are some pieces wherein he details what he means by ‘new atheists’ and I think he makes several good points. There is a good critique of some his points there and in the latest issue of Skeptic but his core argument still stands: The new atheists see things in terms of a simplistic black & white and are so determined to crush the religious impulse that these otherwise smart people often use specious, fallacious, and even irrational arguments (and methods) all the while unjustifiably cloaking themselves in the mantle of progressive ‘reason.’

    Thus a more apt analogy would not be between closeted and out homosexuals, Sagan and Wilson were/are not in the closet. I’m not either for that matter. The new atheists would be like those gays who refer to straights disparagingly as “breeders” and who fight court cases not out of the need to further justice but just to antagonize straights or conservatives. Thus where Sagan might be a Luke Montgomery, Dawkins is a Luke Sisyfag.

  • Aidan Maslow

    What I have always taken the “New Atheist” label to mean a short of derogatory shrugging off, in shorthand, of the atheistic views. It is almost like they are saying with the label, “There go those crazy atheists again. We have seen this before and these atheists are no different from all the rest. Their arguments are as weak as all the other atheists and we can easily overcome this evil as we have done in the past. God is Great.” In other words, it is a quick way to ignore what we are saying, while at the same time giving themselves a pat on the back for overcoming this “trial”.

  • http://www.myspace.com/atheistteam The A-Team

    I’ve yet to hear any of the people dubbed “New Atheists” say anything that’s an example of extremism or hysteria. What I do hear from them are blunt, but rational criticisms that people seem incapable of responding to, so they just dodge the issues by playing the “you insulted me” or “you’re dogmatic” cards. I saw an example of this just last night when talking to a fellow atheist. They said they didn’t believe anyone should actively criticize religious beliefs because “you never know.” They said we had to be agnostic about God because science can’t 100% disprove God. So I asked if she was agnostic about Santa Claus, because science can’t 100% disprove him either. Of course I knew what she was going to say: no, Santa Claus is ridiculous and it’s offensive to compare belief in God to belief in Santa Claus. And in doing so, she proved my point exactly. It was a valid comparison and her response was the very definition of hypocrisy. One doesn’t have to like the argument in order for it to be a rational and valid criticism.

    Dawkins never said religion is child abuse. What Dawkins says is that labeling a child under the ideology of the parents like calling them a Christian child or an Islamic child or a Marxist child is abusive. And I would personally add that filling a child’s head with the notion that they’re a filthy creature worthy of eternal torture is absolutely psychological abuse.

    Circumcision is BY DEFINITION genital mutilation. Even if you wish to suggest that it’s harmless (what??? Good luck making that case.) or beneficial (though this still remains to be proven), it’s undeniably mutilation of the genitals.

    “Hitchens declares himself an ‘anti-theist’, not only is he a non-believer but he believes ALL forms of religion to be perhaps the greatest social evil of our time.”
    Do you know of any other force that is responsible for as much genocide, war, divisiveness, rape, slavery, oppression, and hate that can be reasonably discouraged other than the fascist authoritarianism that comes explicitly with religion? And again, Hitchens doesn’t merely state this but explains his reasoning behind it. And I have yet to hear a substantive rebuttal to his arguments.

    “Dennet uses one set of non-existent entities (memes) to explain another (gods) just to give religion the appearance of the long discredited mind-virus.”
    Just because a word describes a concept as opposed to a concrete noun like a football does not mean it doesn’t exist. Memes, like many other concepts, are observable phenomena. (ex. see Dangerous Talk’s previous blog citing the Richard Gere gerbil meme). And through scientific observation, we can indeed track religious memes as they evolved within a culture. So you’re going to have to back up this claim that memes don’t exist.

    “The new atheists see things in terms of a simplistic black & white and are so determined to crush the religious impulse that these otherwise smart people often use specious, fallacious, and even irrational arguments (and methods) all the while unjustifiably cloaking themselves in the mantle of progressive ‘reason.’ ”
    Nope. That would be the religious who see things in black and white whereas the religious critics illustrate how we know that these fairytales are not true and why holding baseless anti-scientific, anti-reason, pro-fascist, pro-slavery, pro-doomsday beliefs are dangerous to society. It’s actually not a very hard job at all. The religious make it very, very easy. And so far, you’ve failed to actually challenge a single point that any of “The Four Horsemen” have made.

    “The new atheists would be like those gays who refer to straights disparagingly as “breeders” and who fight court cases not out of the need to further justice but just to antagonize straights or conservatives.”
    I’ve never heard of this group of gay people that you describe. Can you provide an example?

    Religious critics of the past like Paine, Shelley, Rand, and Sagan were just as blunt in their criticisms as any of the so-called “New Atheists” today. I fail to see any meaningful difference between Sagan’s criticisms of faith and religion and Dawkins’:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2181165206611526024

  • Tomkinson

    “I’ve yet to hear any of the people dubbed “New Atheists” say anything that’s an example of extremism or hysteria”

    1. Religion poisons EVERYTHING (BTW isn’t this black & white?)
    2. Religion is a form of child abuse
    3. Religion is a mind-virus (literally)
    4. If Tony Blair converted to Catholicism he simply cannot be an intelligent man.

    “Dawkins never said religion is child abuse.”

    YES he does. Read chapter 9 of the God Delusion and that is PRECISELY what he is getting at, he goes farther than you suggest but even on that specific point: He writes “…isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?” NO IT ISN’T! It may be presumptuous but its certainly not ABUSE. If I assume the kids in the line waiting for Santa at the mall believe in Santa I am somehow abusing them? Their parents are? What ridiculous fanatical nonsense.

    “Circumcision is BY DEFINITION genital mutilation”

    No it isn’t. Its bodily modification to be sure but mutilation implies severe impairment to function. If circumcision were such than Jews would have quickly gone extinct. I ask again what other severe bodily damage is at worst harmless and at best an improvement? Should mothers be forbidden to MUTILATE their daughter’s ears?

    “Do you know of any other force that is responsible for as much genocide, war, divisiveness, rape, slavery, oppression, and hate that can be reasonably discouraged other than the fascist authoritarianism that comes explicitly with religion?”

    YES communism, Nazism, tribalism etc. Religion sometimes abets these impulses and sometimes hinders them but even the Protestant/Catholic conflicts in Northern Ireland are primarily political at heart. Communism is expressly anti-religious and it is responsible for far FAR more death than all known religious wars combined. Hitchens’ counterarguments on this issue are laughably weak. This then is a point that challenges Hitchens.

    “So you’re going to have to back up this claim that memes don’t exist. ”

    A meme is not merely a false proposition e.g. “Gere sticks gerbils up his ass” it is held to have an agency independent of the minds in which it inhabits. No one has isolated a meme in a laboratory or explained what the building blocks of memes are. There is no agreement on what precisely a meme is.

    Susan Blackmore says “memes are not like genes” while the meme central faq says “Memes are the basic building blocks of our minds and culture, in the same way that genes are the basic building blocks of biological life.” Dawkins says memes are “viruses of the mind”, how so, ALL viruses are detrimental to their hosts; not so for all memes. Do memes spread in ways predicted by epidemiology? NO! So how PRECISELY are they like or not like viruses?

    Give me a SINGLE example of something memetics explains that more conventional theories do not. And by the way this IS a point that challenges both Dennet and Dawkins.

    “That would be the religious who see things in black and white …why holding baseless anti-scientific, anti-reason, pro-fascist, pro-slavery, pro-doomsday beliefs are dangerous to society.”

    This is untenable nonsense. There were religious critics who were pro-slavery and believers who were against it, the larger number belonging to the latter. The agnostic Jefferson was a slave-holder the deeply religious Adams was an abolitionist.

    The most prominent religious critics in the early 20th century like Margaret Sanger were pro-eugenics, ALL major faith groups were opposed. There were religious and anti-religious forces that both supported and opposed fascism. The Danish King Christian X and his religious followers were largely responsible for protecting Denmark’s Jews from Hitler.

    The same thing goes for doomsday scenarios. Agnostic Bertrand Russell advocated preemptive nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union hoping that a Utopian one-world government would emerge from the ashes. Most of the people that embrace the ludicrous and apocalyptic claims made in An Inconvenient Truth are secularists, yet there are plenty of religious conservationists. This refusal to acknowledge the subtleties at work stands directly against the primary thesis of “New Atheists”

    Finally “Paine, Shelley, Rand, and Sagan were just as blunt in their criticisms as any of the so-called “New Atheists” today.”

    Well lets start with Paine, true he criticized Christianity but he ADVOCATED intelligent design (eww!): “It has been the error of the schools to teach astronomy, and all the other sciences, and subjects of natural philosophy, as accomplishments only; whereas they should be taught theologically, or with reference to the Being who is the author of them” Thus I doubt he was an ancestor of “New Atheism”

    Shelly was at least in his later years a pantheist that believed more and MORE in a world spirit. Were he as hostile to religion as say Hitchens such a conversion would not have been possible. Also its quite a stretch to call someone with Shelley’s remarkable poetic gifts “just as blunt” as the New Atheists.

    Rand is a discredited fanatic and I would not insult the Four Horsemen by associating them with her. I actually respect some of what they do. Rand regarded herself as infallible and referred to anyone who disagreed with her philosophy as “subhuman creatures”. She was essentially a cult leader and if you want to make a comparison between New Atheism ans Randianism it only WEAKENS your case.

    As for Sagan watch the clip you link to from about 7:00 onwards. Yes he criticizes irrationalism but in a measured way. He then praises religion for its connections with art, ethics, poetry, morals etc. He then praises protestantism and reform Judaism as they are not at war with science. Finally he states that he too feels the urge to wish he could survive death and have communion with his dead parents. He even claims he hears them “calling” him from time to time. This is not the bigoted rhetoric and “anti-theism” of Dawkins and Hitchens.

    • existential blues

      If Carl Sagan said that Protestantism is not at war with science, then he must never heard of fundamentalist Protestantism, at war with science on a regular basis in public schools.

      Apparently “new atheist” means “person who’s up front about his atheism and has sold a lot of books on the subject”. Does that rate a new phrase? Why not just call it “atheists who suck ass and really piss me off with their outspokenness”? Too long? It’s as long as your post, and far more focused.

      I suggest you do more research on the downsides of circumcision, and learn why it became so popular in the U.S. just over 100 years ago.

    • Mr. X

      Who F***ING cares about ANY of this?!

      I’m so secure in my atheism that I’ve stopped following most of these discussions.

      I like Dawkins when he’s debunking things like homeopathy. IF I read any of his books, it’ll be for the discussions of biology etc. I don’t need to review the case against theism again.

      I’ve read some of Hitchens’ books on modern history & current events, but I already know the gist of what he has to say about religion. His argument against “vicarious redemption” was insightful and all, but I don’t really need to hear any more!

      “The End of Faith” had some interesting parts. Meanwhile, Daniel Dennet continues to bore the hell out of me.

      Consider this: Insofar as these men take a “Howard Stern” approach to promoting atheism – intentionally stirring the pot, offending people, etc. – then they’re arguably the heirs of Anton LaVey, as much as Carl Sagan. La Vey made his name by pandering to rebellious teens, who wanted to irritate their parents and challenge the status quo of the culture they were brought up in. He sold them a culture of gothic silliness and faux occultism.

      If Dawkins has turned the study of evolutionary biology into an outlet for teenage rebellion – is that NOT an improvement?!

      And anyway, we don’t NEED religion; we’ll be better off if we can get rid of it. Not through censorship or oppression, but through education, and by providing an alternative (read as: energetically publicizing – “preaching”, even).

      Rationalism, skepticism, and respect for the rights of INDIVIDUAL humans – if such a philosophy, such a movement, could build up as much momentum as the major religions presently have, then we may have hope of some day abolishing these patently irrational world-views.

      It would be idiotic to deny that there would be conflict along the way, or to flinch from it.

      As a species, we COULD be doing a lot better; we still have a LONG way to go; and the entire ride ISN’T going to be pretty.

  • http://www.myspace.com/DD_NU4EVER Diana

    Well, we can always just own the label. If they want to call us names, if they want us to be extreme we can certainly oblige.

    I don’t like the badgering back and forth that’s been going on. It’s intriguing repartee for sure but it ultimately unproductive.

    The past is vast and if we want we can use it to prove anything because it’s full of people who were living in a different time, with different cultures and of course acted in accordance with their environment. No one in the past was “all good.” George Washington owned slaves, Christopher Columbus was an evil man and yet we celebrate him every year. People of the past made their contributions, did naughty things, had their personal beliefs and died just like everybody else. Arguing one person’s flaws or characteristics and then transferring those flaws or characteristics to a group of people to make a point about a group of people is silly.

    I’ve never heard the phrase “New Atheist” but I think you have all made good points…if not good certainly unique. If it was a term designed by people to undermine us and what we stand for then…that is a pretty weak comeback my friends.

    “You are ignorant and gullible and you perpetuate a social disease that is detrimental to the progression of human kind,” says the Atheist.

    “Oh yeah! Well…you’re a New Atheist!” says a theist.

    “Ok—yeah…” says the Atheist in genuine bewilderment.

    I have to laugh :)

  • Mr. X

    I’ll read Tomkinson’s hot air later (maybe), and for now, just comment on the blog.

    I suggest that it goes back to the general “conservative” mentality. “Conservatism” is characterized by fear of change; and to attack religion is to threaten their dearest, most backward-ass institution.

    Thus, when the anti-religious movement suddenly gains new attention, popularity, etc., their natural reaction is to try to paint it as some “horrible new trend” – regardless of how old this movement may actually be, or how blasphemously outspoken previous generations of atheists may have been.

    It’s all about maintaining the “status quo”, and the illusion that the “status quo” has never been shaken up or threatened ever before.

    Calling them “a set of popular, outspoken atheists, kind of like the ones we had a generation ago” just doesn’t stir up as much hysteria as branding them as part of something new and scary. And hysteria is their specialty.

  • David Brunton

    I’ve found that scientology is a really excellent tool to use when dealing with christians, especially the ‘liberal’ ones who really want us to know how much they care about us but whose solution to every problem inevitably means us shutting up and letting them do what they want.

    Whenever they try to [pull the ecumenical bull i know they don’t actually belive, I just plug in scientology.

    “We should respect all religions!” So I ask them if that includes scientology. If they say no, I point out that they don’t actually believe what they are saying. If they say yes….well that’s self explanatory.