What is New Atheism? Definition of New Atheism

Atheist Dictionary
Atheist Dictionary. Anthony Bradshaw; Getty

New atheism is defined in both positive and negative ways. The positive definition of new atheism is a modern, 21st century movement in atheism and among atheists which is openly critical of theism and religion and which is less willing to be accommodating to religious beliefs, traditions, or institutions. Atheists themselves are most likely to use this definition, assuming that they acknowledge that anything like "new atheism" exists in the first place.

The negative definition of new atheism is a militant, fundamentalist movement dedicated to the eradication of religion. Something like this definition will be be found among critics and opponents of atheism and even occasionally among a few atheists themselves — usually those who seem to be embarrassed that they are atheists in the first place and feel some sort of need to apologize for the fact that there are people who dare to criticize religion.

Either way, the concept of new atheism tends to overlap more established labels like strong atheism, explicit atheism, critical atheism, positive atheism, and antitheism

The term "New Atheism" appears to have been coined by Gary Wolf for an article in Wired magazine.

 

What's So "New" about "New Atheism?"

It's long been obvious that there is nothing substantively "new" about the so-called "New Atheism." If you ask any of the critics of New Atheism just what it is about it that they find new and objectionable, they can't point to anything that can't be found with atheists, skeptics, and critics of religion in earlier ages.

This suggests extreme ignorance about atheism and atheists on the part of these critics — so much ignorance, in fact, that none of their conclusions should be taken at face value.

It's only the attention and popularity of New Atheism which is truly new, and this is precisely what its critics find so objectionable: atheistic criticism of religion was marginally acceptable when it was unknown.

Now that its getting widespread attention and gaining serious traction, it has to be attacked, and that's a strong testimony to the effectiveness of approach of "new atheists," all the criticisms notwithstanding.

Anyone with a clue about even just the recent history of atheism will be familiar with the name Madalyn Murray O'Hair. More importantly, they will be familiar with the fact that she was incredibly acerbic in her attacks on organized religion, never offering a moderate or friendly word on the subject, and constantly filing lawsuits in defense of absolute church/state separation (more absolute than just about anyone else, then or now).

Because of all that, she wasn't well liked — not just by religious theists, but by many atheists as well. Well, let's add in the fact that her tone and activities ensured that she got quite a lot of media attention, thereby ensuring that atheists and at least some of their interests were in the news and in people's minds. This was not something being accomplished before or after by anyone more moderate. Some of the attention was negative, yes, but people were reminded that atheists exist, that they have legitimate concerns, and that they need not hide who they are.

This almost exactly describes the situation for so-called "new atheists" today.

Leading figures in the "new" atheist movement may be doing all of this better than O'Hair, though they are also living at a time when the culture is already a bit more accepting of what they have to say. Nevertheless, it's a fact that they aren't saying much that's different from what she said and they are doing it in a similar tone as well (in fact, some of them are probably less harsh than she was). And, as a consequence, they are making it easier for others to either admit to their atheism or to become atheists.

Regardless, the attitudes which characterize "new" atheism are not universally popular; naturally many religious theists object but even some atheists object as well. It's not always clear why, though.

So often the objections raised are clearly based on misunderstandings or even falsehoods. So often the "new" atheists are accused of violating standards which no one seems to apply to anyone else or to any other subject matter.

 

Synonyms

  • strong atheism
  • explicit atheism
  • critical atheism
  • positive atheism
  • antitheism

 

Misspellings

  • new athiesm

 

Examples

Where do you stand on God? It's a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I'm afraid I have no choice. ...This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.
- Gary Wolf, "The Church of the Non-Believers," in Wired, November, 2006.

"What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises."
- Simon Hooper, "The rise of the New Atheists," CNN

"Of course, there are those who clearly see the religious aspect of so much of the violence and hatred in the world, and thus are moved to take a stand against religion, per se. This is an attitude that animates the works of the "new atheists," who assert a moral urgency in the critique of religion. ... The impressive popular success of the "new atheists" is a telling sign that there is receptivity to a critical evaluation of religious claims."
- John Teehan, In the Name of God The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence