Jacob Hamburger writes over at The Point, asking what the New Atheism even was. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since Gary Wolf resurrected the term at Wired in 2006 in his oft-cited essay. Asking and mostly getting the same answer, over and over.
There’s really only one position in relation to “New Atheism” that I’ve ever been completely comfortable with: that it doesn’t exist, that it never existed, and that the term was a snarl word that only functioned rhetorically. The phrase “Gnu Atheism”, an altogether un-serious mutation of the term born a few years later out of a scam that snared journalist and vocal critic Chris Mooney, always seemed a far better candidate to be taken seriously, despite its obvious satirical bend.
People using the term almost only ever define themselves in relation to the “New Atheism”, rather than in the affirmative. Who called themselves a “New Atheist”? A notable exception would be the late Victor Stenger, who seemed quite innocently unable to realize how odd he was in doing so. Mostly the meaning of the term shifted and slid according to the short term requirements of authors and pundits.
One day Daniel Dennett could have been a “New Atheist”, and the next a bulwark against it. The critique was folly. “New Atheism” was a shadow puppet.
Supposedly coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf at Wired, the term was used much earlier in 1986 by Robert Morey in his “New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom”, and possibly earlier than that again. Tacking a “new” onto the start of any “ism” being an old formula that’s sadly never gone stale.
Wolf’s article is more restrained than either Morey’s thesis, or any number of the jeremiads using the term that would follow. He focused on three authors, none who called themselves “New Atheists”; Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris. This was shortly before Christopher Hitchens had entered the fray.
It’s weird, even humorous that Wolf invoked the late Paul Kurtz in contrast to the “New Atheists”, then of the Centre For Inquiry. In the 1980s, the afore mentioned Morey was lambasting Kurtz himself as one of the “New Atheists”. It was an old game and one Kurtz would have been aware of, especially on account of the matter of stridency; the man was a supporter and friend of the not-exactly-timid Madalyn Murray O’Hair who also came in for a smearing in Morey’s tome.
Criticisms of Dawkins, typical of the time, came down to him being “strident”, and being incapable of alliances with liberal-minded Christians (despite his cooperation with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the matter of creationism in schools). When you strip away the objections based on fiction, you were basically left with tone, which doesn’t have very much meat to it as far as purported ideological demarcations go. Anything that foreshadowed “Dear Muslima” was thin on the ground.
Wolf seemed even less capable of presenting a meaningful difference between Dennett and the likes of Kurtz.
Lashings of embellishments from a variety of authors in the following years didn’t flesh things out any further.
“They’re logical positivists!” (No “they” weren’t).
“They want to destroy Christian culture!” (Basically a re-branded War on Christmas fiction for people who imagined they were above Fox News).
“They support the Iraq War!” (Mostly “they” didn’t).
“Scientism!” (Having a poor conception of the boundaries of science does not a scientismist make, and at any rate, Harris’ philosophical silliness wasn’t widely adopted by purported “New Atheists” anyway – not unless you tweaked your definitions to perform an act of circular logic, at least.)
The worst part of these takes on the “New Atheism” though, wasn’t that they were untrue (although frequently they were). The worst part was that so little, if any of it, could be used as demarcation criteria. And when it was a suitable for demarcation, you’d find “New Atheism” being split off into other categories.
Even in the early days there was a whiff of sexism about the scene you couldn’t easily deny; Dawkins’ lilting waffle about the gentler sex; Harris’ bias for male pronouns; more overtly, Hitchens calling the Dixie Chicks “fucking fat slags”. Aside from how conspicuous it is that people wanting to bury the “New Atheism” at the time buried the lede on this one, this is still insufficient to demonstrate that there is (or was) a “New Atheism”. How would this sexism set the “New” apart from the “Old Atheism” – the old guard Wolf mentions?
Wolf wrote favorably about Asimov as an example of the old, but that guy was a complete shit to women; a serial groper, a condescending patriarch and completely unable to render women believably in fiction to boot. A demarcation criterion needs to be able to make a distinction, but “fucking fat slags” is a sentiment you could imagine ass-grabber Asimov getting behind, so sexism’s probably not going to do the job.
Maybe vanity and thin skin? No. I mean, Harris and Dawkins, and maybe Dennett could be accused of thin-skin, much like a number of other less known “New” atheists. But nice-guy Sagan’s “Butt-Head Astronomer” legal battle with Apple arguably tops any fit-of-pique the purported “New Atheism” could lay claim to.
Kurtz’s labelling of Ron Lindsay’s management style as Stalinist seems grounded in vanity as well. And the criticism of offensive cartoons – something he himself presided over but overlooked in a way suggestive of preening – brings us neatly back to the issue of confected difference.
The function of the “New Atheist” trope, at least from the secular progressive side, isn’t primarily to critique atheists. It’s a tool by which authors write about themselves in negative relief, a direct approach to extolling their own virtues being far too obvious. “Look at the New Atheism! [I’m not like that! Allow me to list the qualities I don’t have!]”
Back to Hamburger: So what came of “it”?
Hitchens is dead, for one. I think he would have objected to Hamburger’s attribution of the idea of liberalism ideally being grounded in pure reason alone. It’s almost as if Hamburger missed the discussion of “rationalist naiveté” – and Hitchens proximity to that discussion. Only Hamburger’s focus on that period is quite extensive.
And why the weird narrative tales? Non-belief and scientific rationality only becoming political causes after Hitchens joined with Dawkins et. al.? Harris “founding” the “New Atheist” genre, as if the other books by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens weren’t authored independently? That’s not how it happened.
I don’t think Hamburger is being mendacious. I don’t even think he’s writing his essay in an attempt to position himself with readers in the way that PZ Myers’ recent testimony-cum-denouncement so obviously labours to do. In a way, I suspect he’s naively fallen into the same trap Victor Stenger did, albeit from the opposite end of the pit.
It is possible to be unwittingly maneuvered into writing this kind of thing even if you’ve only passively adopted just a few questionable assumptions in good faith.
There are meaningful trends in the detritus of the readerships of the Usually Mentioned Atheists. You can find misogynists pretty easily. There’s a particular school of handwaving concerning the boundaries of science that’s been masquerading as clear and forthright ever since The Moral Landscape.
There’s been pride expressed over political ignorance and a related if often inverse dismissiveness regarding philosophical literacy. “You used a word that philosophers use! You’re one of those Politically Correct Ismists that are saying things! Now I know I can ignore you! Bwaha! You should leave the pub and leave me to stroke my most intelligent of beards!”
Depending on how the net has been cast, there are also more-or-less decent, more-or-less intelligent, and more-or-less anodyne sorts in there with more than salvageable ideas. But again, none of this is “New” and none of it is uniform across the purported “New Atheism”.
What can be done to collate meaning in all of this mess? Rather than giving the vague snarl word of “New Atheism” any serious coinage (or excessive dismissal in cases where no malice is evident), I think someone’s going to have to work out a taxonomy based on actual positions held, that actually matter taxonomically; something akin to John Nerst’s notion of the Pomo-oid Cluster, albeit for atheist authors post-2004. Or rather, someone should have tried this a long time ago.
Going beyond just the concept of a cluster and actually making a map of the territory would be immensely useful too, even if it wouldn’t take off in every-day conversation. At the very least people arguing in good faith could more easily avoid talking past each other, and a kind of convention for recognizing disingenuous railing against “New Atheists” could be more easily practiced.
As it stands, it’s too easy for woke-acting columnists to rail against “New Atheists” (The Guardian and Salon have offered up several examples over the years), just as it’s too easy for genuine criticism of atheist authors to be dismissed as disingenuous or hostile (which you can see for yourself if you crawl down this rabbit hole).
Forget how the various tribes of authors feel about this for a moment, and ask yourself “in a civil democracy, how does this particular form of ambiguity – this confected grouping – serve the public interest?”