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The legacy of the New Atheism

The ten-year anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is approaching, and it has already been over ten years since Sam Harris published The End of Faith. These two figures, along with the late Christopher Hitchens, are the most important in the anti-religious movement known as the New Atheism. A few years ago, they were a ubiquitous presence on cable news and talk shows, but recently they’ve somewhat faded from the spotlight (a notable exception was Harris’ heated and highly publicized argument with Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher last year). At the peak of their public visibility, their fans heralded them as representatives of a dawning new age of reason that would finally put an end to superstition and religious ignorance, while their detractors either counter-attacked them as dogmatic evolutionists or dismissed them as yet another ephemeral anti-religious blip on the radar of history.

The ones who dismissed them as insignificant were wrong—and academics who obsessively reject the idea of secularization are some of the worst offenders in this regard. Social science in general has not yet fully appreciated the significance of the New Atheism and has tended not to take it very seriously, with the exception of those working in the new sub-discipline of secularity studies. But whatever one might think of the New Atheists’ ideas, an honest appraisal would recognize that they have had a significant and lasting impact.

The most obvious evidence of this is the growth and increasing visibility of the atheist movement in America. Fashioning themselves as the last frontier of the civil rights movement, atheists have pushed their way into mainstream American culture by adopting a minority identity and mimicking the strategies of the LGBT movement. Their “coming out” and “Good Without God” campaigns encouraged atheists to tell their friends and neighbors about their non-religious identity and show the country that they are good, moral people. To illustrate their outsider status, they have frequently pointed to surveys indicating that most Americans would rather see a Muslim or a homosexual than an atheist as President.

But they aren’t the outsiders they used to be. A 2015 Gallup poll found, for the first time, that a 58% majority of Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist candidate, and “atheist” is no longer at the top of the list of characteristics that would be a deal-breaker for voters (that spot is reserved for the dreaded “socialist”). Revealing the general demographic shift in views about religion, 75% of those in the 18-29 age category said they would vote for an atheist—precisely the same number who said they would consider voting for an evangelical Christian. It appears that atheist activism may be having the desired effect, especially among young people, though this could also simply be related to a more general trend: people moving away from organized religion. The proportion of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has spiked sharply in recent years, growing from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2015, with the number soaring to 35% among Millennials. While atheists and agnostics constitute a smaller subset of that group, their numbers are also growing.

The New Atheists might not be responsible for all of this (though they may be for some of it), but we can say that they’re a symptom of some significant cultural changes. They should be remembered for catalyzing a movement for religious dissent and inspiring atheists to come together and find a voice in American public life. But there’s a much darker side to the legacy of the New Atheism that stems from its imperialist and xenophobic tendencies, to say nothing of some thinly veiled Social Darwinism and arguments for eugenics. Sam Harris in particular is now known more for supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine and ethnic profiling at airport security than for his science-based critique of religious faith. Richard Dawkins’ personal legacy has taken a heavy hit in the past few years, as his rambling criticisms of feminism and Muslim “barbarians” on Twitter have led to charges of sexism, racism, and general arrogance and intolerance. On many social and political issues, the New Atheists are on the same page as the Christian Right.

Many young atheists have discovered that the atheist thinkers they admired turned out to have a lot in common with the worst aspects of the religions they railed against. The result is that the movement has lost a good deal of steam, at least in its New Atheist form. Many atheists today want to move beyond bashing religion to emphasizing the more positive and constructive aspects of atheism, but there’s little agreement about what that means exactly. The conservative narrative of western cultural supremacy and science-driven social progress favored by the New Atheists and a growing constituency of right-wing libertarians has come up against a grass-roots movement of younger activists who tie atheism to ideas about equality and social justice. The dominant trend, however, is still the old militant one, which leaves younger atheist who are disillusioned with the old prophets of scientism wondering if this is the right movement for them.

For all of the differences between these groups, there is a general consensus to transition away from the New Atheism’s wildly optimistic goal of converting the world to a scientific worldview, and toward an emphasis on advancing the social standing of atheists and giving them a voice within a diverse cultural landscape. But regardless of their current standing among atheists, the fact is that the New Atheists gave life to a cultural and political movement. Perhaps they were just the trigger on a gun that was already loaded, but that doesn’t make their role any less important.

The New Atheism, ten years on, is not “new” anymore, but its ongoing influence shouldn’t be underestimated. It would be difficult to say that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens were causes of a cultural revolution, but they may be a sign of one. The God Delusion should be regarded as one of the most important books of the past decade if only because it’s so rare for a single book or thinker to galvanize so many people to such a degree, to say nothing of its role in mobilizing activism that would establish recognition of a new minority group in American society. This is a major accomplishment, even if religious belief doesn’t vanish any time soon.

Image Credit: “2012/03/06” by Sach.S. CC BY NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin

    Don’t forget new atheist Victor J. Stenger and his excellent book called “God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist”!

  2. Robert Davidson

    It seems clear to me that the trend was boosted by a post-traumatic response to 9/11, which resulted in looking around for someone to blame. Religion got picked, albeit with wafer-thin understanding. Sam Harris could then write a book on faith without giving any indication of familiarity with the literature on that subject.

  3. Steve Greene

    I don’t know if the information from relevant surveys already exists, but I would suspect that the acceptance of and “mainstreaming” of atheists is and will be a generational matter. In other words, we still have to wait a couple of decades or so for the oldest generation(s) to die. (I’m referring to the United States here.) I don’t mean to sound harsh. I’m just stating this plainly. It’s how a lot of the changes in social perceptions evolve over time, not by people changing their minds, but by older generations dying and younger generations with different ideas replacing them. But I’d be interested to know if relevant analyses of survey information support my supposition, or contradict it.

  4. Steve Greene

    Different topic (from my other post)…

    The problem with the whole AtheismPlus is precisely the attempt to tie political leftism in with atheism, which is, fundamentally, a fail. That’s not what atheism is. Atheism refers to not believing in any gods, typically as a result, in some manner, from a critical thinking/evidentiary standards perspective.

    Thus, in regard to political philosophy, it’s independent. And thus, we find atheists of all political stripes. Atheists who attempt to tie their particular political philosophy to atheism don’t succeed, by definition. And it’s a little self-serving in this regard, to claim that the atheism “movement” has “lost a good deal of steam” merely because atheists who are politically leftist haven’t succeeded in having their particular political agendas broadly embraced by atheists. That’s just irrelevant.

    Also, what in the world do you mean by “scientism”? I only ask, because I do find religious apologists employing that term all the time as a straw man boogeyman. And where is this “general consensus to transition away from the New Atheism’s wildly optimistic goal of converting the world to a scientific worldview” you speak of? I’m not seeing this anywhere. Obviously not everyone is going to become a scientist, and “New Atheism” never had any such goal. At the same time, appreciation for a good education in basic science is only growing – as it should – and respect for science, not only in what it achieves but for the scientific process itself, is only increasing as well – as it should.

    If you’re referring more broadly to the entire world, then there’s no doubt that Islamic countries have a ways to go in this regard, but this is only because their “Enlightenment” hasn’t quite happened yet and seems to be fraught with considerable more danger from widespread Islamic extremism. In regard to certain elements of that culture, in comparison it’s as if they’ve been held back in time a few hundred years.

  5. Stephen LeDrew

    Thanks for your comments Steve. Since you seem to be interested in these issues I hope you’ll read my book, where you’ll find extended responses to the questions and criticisms you raised, but I’ll briefly note a few things here. First, atheism, at least in its organized and “lived” forms, has never been just about not believing in God. It’s always been tied to political views and projects of various kinds, so Atheism Plus was nothing new in that respect. In fact the central argument of my book is that the New Atheism is itself a systematic political ideology, but only one among several different ones at work within the secular movement more broadly. Second, by scientism I mean something very specific: the extension of the domain of natural science beyond its appropriate boundaries so that it encompasses the study of society, culture, history, politics, economics, and so on. The New Atheism wasn’t about making everyone scientists, but it was about convincing people to accept the authority of science and scientists in areas where they have no legitimate authority.

    Finally, your comments about Islamic countries are very similar to the views of the New Atheists, who see Islamic civilization as stalled or stunted in its development. This view can only be maintained in willful ignorance of some very obvious facts: that Islamic civilization thrived as a global center of intellectual and artistic achievement in the Middle Ages when Europe was in a shroud of darkness, that religious fundamentalism is not a relic of some pre-modern period of history but itself a thoroughly modern phenomenon, and that some places that many atheists now consider “backward” or stuck in the bronze age (notably Iran) were in their recent history modern secular states. The idea that there is a universal progression toward “Enlightenment” that all cultures go through, and that the “Islamic world” is un-enlightened, is really just an ethnocentric favouring of western civilization. History doesn’t progress in a pre-determined straight line in a similar fashion in all contexts. It’s marked by massive upheavals, reversals, and unexpected outcomes. Anyone honestly committed to evidentiary standards would have to note that empirical reality is out of sync with this idea of universal progress and cultural convergence.

  6. A A

    What you wrote about Sam Harris and Dawkins are LIES. I urge everyone to read or listen to the links. The author is betting you will not click on them.

    Very unethical behaviour.

  7. […] LeDrew wrote an interesting post about the influence the so-called “New Atheism” movement had on society, pointing out […]

  8. Mike

    Thanks for this post. I have been interested in the “recent history” of 21st Century “New Atheism” (given its so young a phenomenon from a historical perspective) so I was happy to find your analysis here.

    A couple comments on your post (admittedly from someone far less versed in the details than yourself):

    I completely agree with your observation that Atheism “in the wild” involves far more than a simple statement like “I don’t believe a god exists.” As an atheist, I can say that for me and other atheist friends, being atheist is no more limited to “not believing in god” than Christianity is limited to believing “Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected”.

    Most people seem to value a sense of coherence in their personal philosophy, and so one pronouncement is generally correlated with a slew of others, all of which we claim come from some “common basis” (although you’ve got liberal and conservatives who both claim base their view on their religious/atheistic beliefs).

    A word about scientism and the “proper” venue for science. Insofar as science can be defined as “the systematic study of a phenomenon with the aim of understanding its underlying principles” then it is hard to see what subject of study would WANT to not be scientific.

    However, I noticed that you qualified your statement by saying that its “the extension of natural science … so that it encompasses society, culture, history, politics, economics.” Therefore, I’d be interested in knowing what theories, tools, or “modes of knowing” from the natural sciences you see being inappropriately applied. For example, sociology, archaeology, political science, and economics have all tried to actively embrace many methods from the natural sciences (which I believe is the origin of the phrase “physics envy”).

    On the other hand, one area where I have seen the methods of natural science be a big flop is in the area of ethics or ‘morality’. Harris attempted to assert that we can scientifically discover the “true” human values. Unfortunately, his book has been widely criticized and I stopped reading it halfway though because I could not get over the circularity of its premise that “well being is the ground of ethics”….this is just an Axiom, not a genuine discovery. There are examples of societies where individual well being is decidedly not the main focus (and INDIVIDUALS in that society AGREE with that!).

    So, +1 for the humanities in that area :-)..I’m pretty sure secularists such as myself are stuck with relativism (I always feel a bit awkward when trying to argue from purely moral grounds, I usually first try to identify a common outcome and argue from consequences, not moral principles). We humans seem to have a lot of creativity when it comes to lifestyles…any. Perhaps the most scientific thing we can say about morality is that it is a fundamentally emotional phenomenon grounded in concepts of self, others, and one’s sense of aesthetics.?

    Anyway, great post, its great to have serious work being done on atheism, and not just atheist and apologist “armchair intellectuals”..

  9. […] The legacy of the New Atheism – Stephen Ledrew | Oxford University Press Blog […]

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