The so-called “new atheists” (or Gnus) – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, etc., generally get a very bad press from the religiously inclined. Even some atheists (usually of the “I’m an atheist, but . . “ persuasion) chip in. A common complaint is their “stridency,” even “militancy.” They are told to wind back the tone of their critique of religion, to recognise the positive side of relgion or just to STFU.
But here’s an interesting thing. Recent waves of criticism of these gnus are actually, seemingly without the awareness of the critics, an acknowledgement of their very success.
For example, this Spectator article currently much touted by religious apologists - Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists. It’s opening paragraph sums up its “take home” message:
“The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day.”
But, as evidence, the article mentions the new “New Atheists.” The authors of books which belong to the new popular genre in literature – the atheist book.
Strange – before the gnus like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett appeared almost a decade ago the genre hardly existed. Publishers thought such books just would not sell. That the bookshops and readers would not accept them – would probably be offended by them.
But all that seems to have changed. These book are not only acceptable, they are popular. They sell well. Something changed in the 2000’s. Those nasty gnus may not have created that change but their books certainly revealed it. Their publication, popularity and huge sales made this new popular genre possible. Atheist writers authoring today’s popular books are, in effect, riding on the coat tails of the original gnus. (So, of course, are many of the religious apologists who have published their own books in response – or even run Church and Bible Classes to give the “Truth” about these horrible gnus).
The spectator article was of course blinkered. It only considered new “New Atheists” who expressed hostility towards, or disagreed with, the original gnus.
“Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. . . . . This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’.”
The Publishers’ Weekly also mention these critics among the new authors in its article Atheists, the Next Generation: Unbelief Moves Further into the Mainstream. It adds How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau and Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman. But, more honestly, it mentions a number of other authors who are not described as critics of the original gnus. Who in fact are, in some ways, repeating and developing their original messages.
Mentioned in the article are books like:
- God and the Atom by Victor J. Stenger,
- 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison,
- The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True by John W. Loftus,
- Hope after Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism by Jerry DeWitt with Ethan Brown,
- Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless by Greta Christina,
- What You Don’t Know about Religion (but Should)
by Ryan Cragun, and
- The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking out on Religion—and Others Should Too by Candace Gorham.
Publishers’ Weekly draws a very different conclusion to the Spectator and other naysayers who like to see the proliferation in the genre as somehow a rejection of atheism.
Still, nonbelief, however it is defined, is moving into the mainstream. There is at least one nonbelieving member of Congress (Kyrsten Sinema, D- Ariz.); the Secular Coalition for America has a full-time Washington lobbyist; and there are atheist characters on network television (Big Bang Theory, Malibu Country). And in January, Prometheus Press, a stalwart of the category based in Amherst, N.Y., announced it had reached a groundbreaking distribution deal with Random House. On announcing the deal, Prometheus V-P of Marketing Jill Maxick told The Buffalo News, “The fact they sought us out is an endorsement for what we have to offer the reading marketplace.”
So those horrible gnus did, in fact, start something. Atheism is now moving into the mainstream. People now see normal people who are atheist, like the guys in Big Bang Theory, in their popular TV programmes. Of course this means there are critics, as well as supporters, of the original gnus – that’s perfectly normal and as it should be. The very diversity of views these new “New Atheists” represent is a sign of the fact that atheism is now an accepted part of society. It has matured as a popular and legitimate social attitude.
So these religious apologists who are gloating at articles like that in the Spectator are being rather childish. They see them as support for their own ideology – that’s why they are busy cherry picking and hot linking them. But in fact movement of atheism into the social mainstream only supports religion in the way that a rope supports a hanging man.