‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
New Atheism is hardly the only way for atheists – or nontheists more generally – to get the word out that they’re here and want to be taken seriously.
Yes it is…at least under the most usual and obvious definition of that much-used pejorative label “New Atheism.” The minimal definition of “New Atheism” is, surely, atheism that makes a point of increasing atheism’s visibility. “New Atheism” means getting the word out that atheists are here and want to be taken seriously. So how could it not be the only way to do exactly that? It’s like saying being a bus driver is not the only way to drive a bus….
No it’s pretty clear that … Rosenau … is simply assuming that “New Atheism” means “atheism that is rude and aggressive and strident and mean.” That is one assumption too many.
No, the excess assumption here is Ophelia’s assumption that she can read minds. That wasn’t my assumed definition (nor does anything I said imply it was, nor does anything I wrote depend on that purported definition). Other than mindreading, I don’t know why she’d make that uncharitable assumption about my understanding of the term “New Atheism” (which, for what it’s worth, I don’t intend as pejorative).
In particular, I vigorously disagree with the claim that New Atheism is “surely” defined as “atheism that makes a point of increasing atheism’s visibility.” Lots of atheists have had some version of that idea, and the idea that announcing one’s atheism was what made Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Vic Stenger’s books into a trend - that is, what made New Atheism “new” – is its particular focus on attacking religion and attacking religious styles of thought and argument, and its particularly dismissive approach towards moderate religion and towards nontheisms other than atheism.
To see that New Atheism can’t simply be about increasing the visibility of atheism, we need look no farther than Sam Harris, the first of the Four Horsemen to clear the gate. In 2007, addressing the Atheist Alliance conference, he addressed “The Problem with Atheism,” arguing:
declaring oneself an “atheist” would seem the only appropriate response [to the evils of religion]. And it is the stance that many of us have proudly and publicly adopted. Tonight, I’d like to try to make the case, that our use of this label is a mistake–and a mistake of some consequence….
while I am now one of the public voices of atheism, I never thought of myself as an atheist before being inducted to speak as one. I didn’t even use the term in The End of Faith, which remains my most substantial criticism of religion….
atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview–and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.
Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture.
So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar–for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.
Now I think Sam Harris is a notoriously bad at exactly that last bit. I thought The End of Faith was awful – unfinishably bad – and while I haven’t gotten the review copy of The Moral Landscape I requested, every review I’ve seen has been awful (including that in the latest NYRB, or Benson’s own efforts to find what people like in it). But that aside, a definition of New Atheism which is rejected so thoroughly by one of the movement’s headliners can hardly be credited as the obvious and minimal definition of the movement. It’s a bit like when IDolators insist they aren’t creationists because creationism has to involve a belief in a 6,000 year old earth; ignoring that William Jennings Bryan – perhaps the seminal figure in creationism’s political history – had no objection to an old earth.
Anyway, if a book attacking religion came to define a movement called New Atheism, maybe attacking religion is somehow important to the definition of that movement!
To sustain this understanding, we need look no farther than the book The New Atheism by leading New Atheist Vic Stenger. He describes New Atheism as beginning with “a series of series of [sic] bestsellers that took a harder line against religion than has been the custom among secularists.” The slide to the right is from his PowerPoint slides about that book. You’ll note that “coming out of the closet” is rather far down his list of New Atheism’s principles, well behind critiques of “all faith…including moderate faiths,” and other criticism of religion.
Look through the other writings of the defining figures of New Atheism, and I think Stenger’s list works pretty well to summarize their major themes and the ideas that separate them from other styles of atheism. Indeed, the description on New Atheism’s wikipedia page, quoted from a 2006 CNN story, seems pretty apt: “What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion [even, or especially, moderate religion -Josh] should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”
And again, this set of approaches dubbed “New Atheism” by a sympathetic journalist, is “hardly the only way for atheists – or nontheists more generally – to get the word out that they’re here and want to be taken seriously.” There’s no reason to rewrite history to escape that conclusion, or to twist the plain meanings of widely-used terms.