Whence the term "New Atheism"? Is the phenomenon it points to really something new? In fact, all this stuff about the New Atheism is little more than journalistic hype, and the arguments are not especially new. Nothing is (very) new about the so-called New Atheism. It's more a matter of resumed transmission than a whole new program.
But there's something to the idea, all the same. Here's the deal.
Through the 1980s and 1990s and even a bit earlier, most unbelievers in academia, journalism, the media dropped the ball. In the 1960s and 1970s, and earlier, there was plenty of public criticism of religion, but this changed in the last decades of the twentieth century. It became taboo to critise religion in the public sphere; there was a reluctance to be harsh about the cultures of peoples who were (supposedly) on the receiving end of Western imperialism; it was widely assumed that religion was going away, in any event, and didn't need to be fought anymore; in the academy, bright minds in philosophy turned to other topics, thinking that there was no interesting work to do in philosophy of religion; bright young atheists were certainly not steered into philosophy of religion, which looked like a dead end.
How wrong all this turned out to be. In Western countries, especially the United States, religion regrouped during the 80s and 90s. It organised politically, developing new and popular forms. Within the academy, bright young theists were encouraged into philosophy of religion; Christian intellectuals developed new arguments to counter the ones that had made religion look so intellectually shaky by the 1970s. It came to be almost a truism that traditional problems for religion, such as the Problem of Evil, were exaggerated and could be solved.
The New Atheism is the restoration of normal transmission. Some high-profile thinkers (Richard Dawkins/Daniel Dennett/Christopher Hitchens) and one not-so-high profile but very energetic thinker (Sam Harris) decided, for whatever mix of reasons, that enough was enough and it was time to break the taboo of the past couple of decades. But plenty of other people were starting to feel that the taboo must be broken. Even before most of the New Atheist books came out, I was starting to hear people say that it was necessary to engage in the public sphere with the epistemic content of religion (this is philosophy-ese for contesting religion's claims). While Dawkins and others may have been an inspiration, and may have opened up a publishing market, some people were beginning to think this way before the New Atheism came along. I was certainly one of them.
I expect to see more and more people speaking up. There are plenty who have been holding their fire until now, as Udo Schuklenk and I found when we began to put together Voices of Disbelief (or, as it has become, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists).
For example, it's become increasingly apparent to me, partly from the Voices of Disbelief exercise, that many people in the bioethics community are fed up with the never-ending resistance from religionists to rational bioethics. Some of them are asking what credentials religion has anyway. Religious leaders are, of course, able to put their arguments in public, like anyone else. But they cannot expect anyone to defer to them if they rely on controversial religious claims.
It's one thing for the state to protect us from internal and external violence, to provide a social/economic safety net, and to engage in a variety of other functions that can be given some secular justification or other. It is another thing for it to ask what the views are of various religious traditions when it is confronted by an issue such as stem cell research. But this is just what has been happening. I suggest that religious leaders should be free to put their arguments, but if the arguments depend on doctrines such as ensoulment, the views of God, the sanctity of the natural order, and so on, these popes and priests should not expect to wield any influence. Those are not the sorts of worldly concerns that should influence government policy.
But there's a further twist. If religious leaders insist that it's legitimate to put an argument such as "stem cell research should be stopped because my deity says so", they are going to be met, inevitably, with questions about whether this is even true. How do you know that that's what your deity says? Why should we believe you? How do we know that your deity even exists? The more that religious leaders rely on arguments based on essentially religious claims, the more those religious claims will themselves be challenged. The more they rely, implicitly or explicitly, on their own authority as moral leaders, the more that authority will be challenged. Where does your moral authority come from? Is it your expertise in the moral claims of a holy book or a religious tradition? But why should we think any of those moral claims are even true, leaving aside the question of whether those sorts of moral claims are those that governments should heed?
If we were pure secularists, we might simply argue that the church should be separate from the state, that discussions about public policy should rely on secular principles such as the Millian harm principle, and that specifically religious morality is not even relevant. Indeed, we should continue to argue that; if it were generally accepted, the question of whether any particular body of religious doctrine is true would not even arise. But it's clear enough that many religionists do wish to argue, or otherwise influence policy, on the basis that religious claims have some kind of special authority. It's also obvious that many governments are prepared to listen to religious views in the process of framing policies. In practice, religionists and politicians don't limit themselves to debate about such things as the harm principle, the need to provide an economic safety net, and so on. In that context, there is some urgency about asking whether the religious claims are true or not, whether religious leaders really are tapping into some kind of traditional wisdom, or not. Those questions are not going to go away, and nor should they.
In editing our book, Udo and I found that there is plenty of support Out There for asking those questions. Many people who have not yet entered the New Atheism debate are in favour of breaking the taboo, and are willing to do so themselves. There's a feeling that enough is enough and that religious doctrines must once again be critiqued and even directly opposed.
If so many religious leaders had not become so aggressive in trying to impose their views on the rest of us - i.e., beyond their congregations - the phenomenon being called the New Atheism might well not have happened, but popes and priests can't have it both ways. If they're going to bring their claims of authority, truth, and traditional wisdom to the public sphere, as they have been doing, then they must expect their credentials to be challenged. The reaction won't stop until religious leaders cease trying to influence governments - on essentially religious grounds - with respect to stem cell research, science teaching, abortion rights, gay rights, and all the other issues that they get involved in.
Many of the people who are now getting involved would probably prefer to get on with making other cultural contributions (as scientists, philosophers, journalists, or whatever); they are taking time out from what they'd normally be doing in order to answer the widespread claims of religion to exercise some special authority in the public sphere. These people, including Dawkins and the rest, have much more to offer than, "The claims of religion are false" - but the time has come, once again, when that view has to be put strongly and clearly. That's what's "new" about the New Atheism.