The New Atheists, Pah!

Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the dearly departed Christopher Hitchens have been tagged with the label “the New Atheists” and their teachings as being the “New Atheism.” This, of course, is hogwash. There is no New Atheism, there is only old atheism that has been brought through modern communication systems to the attention of people who were not previously exposed to such thinking. If one goes back just 100 years, in order to hear such thoughts you had to attend a face-to-face meeting with such a person. Now, you can go on YouTube and search for any of the above prominent atheists and be exposed to hours and hours of them delivering their own words. And when talking about sensitive matters, hearing and seeing augment a simple stream of words tremendously. (Think about the movie “My Cousin Vinnie” and the phrase “I did it.”)

Consider the following:

If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him? If he is just, why fear that he will punish the creatures that he has filled with weaknesses? . . . If he is inconceivable, why occupy ourselves with him?

and . . .

I would not for my life destroy one star of human hope but I want it so that when a poor woman rocks the cradle and sings a lullaby to the dimpled darling, she will not be compelled to believe that ninety-nine chances in one hundred she is raising kindling wood for hell.

The first is from Percy Bysshe Shelly (partially from Baron d’Holbach) ca 1811 and the second from Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899). And, it was the Greeks who first created writings discussing the gods and some of these writings also deplore the atheism of some of their fellows. Certain prominent philosophers were executed for the crime of atheism, Socrates comes to mind (impiety being “not believing in the gods of the state”). So, for as long as we have had gods we have had unbelief and atheism.

There is no “new” atheism, the old serves quite well, thank you.

Categories: Atheism

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36 replies

  1. The best I’ve found to distinguish between new and old atheists is that new atheists separate the belief from the knowledge, whereas the likes of Russell and Huxley thought that agnosticism was a kind of neutral god belief.

    • Interesting, I have always felt agnosticism was a fence sitter’s response, basically it is “can’t prove anything either way,” so it wouldn’t be biased toward or against theism. It was often a label hidden behind by many naturalists, i.e. God is nature folks, so possibly “agnosticism” is a big tent in which one can find many beliefs.

      On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 11:34 AM, Enquiries on Atheism wrote:


      • I view fence sitting as unwittingly taking a side. Essentially, what you’re saying as a fence sitter is that you find the evidence lacking one way or the other. Your belief can be determined by what you then do. If you go on about your life as though there is no god, then you be an atheist. These agnostic god-is-nature folks may not realize it, but they’re pantheists. The fact that they may have the ability to acknowledge that they can’t know if it’s true doesn’t matter, it’s what they actually believe. Agnosticism is a big tent much as being white is a big tent. It can influence the distribution of other beliefs, but the beliefs are not limited to staying under the tent.

        • Point made! fence sitting is either due to cowardice or prudence. It is shocking how irreligious ordinary people were when interviews by the effing Inquisition (they kept very good records). They were either ignorant of what the party line was or they believed they should tell the truth. Unfortunately for many of the unfortunate, all it got them was a “heretic” label (and the accompanying torture, et. al.). They did not have the option of checking the “agnostic” box on their survey, that being a modern invention. I have always viewed agnostics as folks unwilling to take a side, and damn, you are making me rethink!

          On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 1:12 PM, Enquiries on Atheism wrote:


  2. One may of course argue that atheism is older than theism. Before the first gods were dreamed up everyone held an absence of belief.

    • Damn, wish I’d made that point! We got them beat on quantity, too. We disbelieve in one more god than any of the theists!

      On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 12:07 PM, Enquiries on Atheism wrote:


    • I dunno, you could also argue that it is the natural state of a human to believe, and that disbelief is more cognitively demanding.

      • Ah, I’ve seen this before. It’s true, we are genetically predisposed to finding agency… it was once a very useful survival mechanism.

      • If that were so why wouldn’t we believe fishing stories. I would argue that it is the natural state to exaggerate one’s accomplishments and minimize one’s failings which provides us with a barometer of others claims. If they boast, they are probably exaggerating. If they demur, they are probably hiding something. If they quibble, they are afraid of making a mistake. Agnosticism seems a quibble to me.

        On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 1:18 PM, Enquiries on Atheism wrote:


  3. Being primarily a scientist by training and inclination, I don’t find agnosticism to be fence-sitting. Under practice of the scientific method, if something isn’t proven and is still under study it’s a hypothesis, nothing more. You aren’t supposed to be an adherent of “it is” OR “it isn’t”. In my view it takes the most discipline to accept that questions remain unanswered at this time, and it’s undetermined whether they will ever become answerable.

    But I always enjoy reading sites where thoughtful people are considering the questions.

    • Maybe I can’t see you, Invisible Mikey, but I feel you, brother. We have not found an empty hole and conclusively determined that any god would have to currently exist therein. Perhaps we have found a god’s lair, but could that god just be out for the day, perhaps visiting Piglet? Alternatively, could he be lying in wait for Christopher Robin somewhere in the Hundred Acre Wood, planning to turn him into a pillar of salt? These and other similar questions might not appear to be worthy of further inquiry, but for some less rational observers, they do remain “under study.”

      In any case, these questions remain unanswered, and those of us who hold ourselves to the strictest standard of discipline stoically endure both this uncertainty, and the public humiliation of being labeled “fence sitters.”

  4. I have to disagree with you, Steve; there’s a reason New Atheism is capitalized and it isn’t because atheism is being spelled anew. As a proper noun, New Atheism isn’t a kind of New Non Belief, which is the way you are caricaturing it.

    Sure, non belief in gods or a god isn’t new. The four horsemen have never pretended otherwise. What is new is a movement to publicly challenge religious privilege whenever and wherever it can be found, to spread the word and get people thinking critically about the role religion plays in the public domain.

    New Atheism is a direct response to 9/11. We need to achieve an end to publicly respecting faith as a way to legitimize belief. This is the purpose of New Atheism, and anyone who works towards ending public respect for faith aids this movement.

    • I am all for it, and I still think that people knew atheism existed in the past but their contact was limited for the obvious reasons (talk about and you die, mo fo). But I like your definition, let’s go with that.

      On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 2:07 PM, Enquiries on Atheism wrote:


  5. Vegetarian–someone who only eats vegetables… but not really.(Very common)
    Vegan–someone who really is a vegetarian.(Very rare)
    Agnostic–someone who does not know that any gods exist. (Everybody)
    Asexual–someone who does not actively engage in sexual relations with humans or other animals (Rare)
    Atheist–someone who does not actively engage in spiritual relations with imaginary superior beings. (Most people)

  6. I always saw the term “New Atheism” as a way for the theists to separate modern atheists from the great freethinkers of the past. As to say Russel and Dawkins are not on the same page, therefore writing the modern atheist off as something “new” and to not be taken seriously.

    • I see it as a way to divorce current atheists from those in the past and to paint them as a “new threat” when really they aren’t saying anything the old atheists did.

      • There is something newish going on regarding atheism. We are no longer the non-belief that dare not speak its name. “Say it loud, I’m godless and proud!” Not only that, there are more of us ready to break the taboo of speaking against religion. Child porn, Nazism, religion…sometimes it is ok to be intolerant. A movement based on this understanding is fairly described as “new,” even if the underlying ideas are not really new, and “movement” is something of an exaggeration.

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