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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

How I see the "New Atheism" - Part 1 of 2

Perhaps the first thing I need to say on this topic is that there's really no such thing as the New Atheism - at least in a sense. The authors who have come to be known as "New Atheists" are not necessarily saying anything terribly new. To the extent that there is something new in their books, articles, speeches, media appearances, and so on, it builds in an incremental way on what came before. What's really new is that people who criticise religion in a forthright way now have a very large audience interested in their thoughts. Prior to the last few years that was far less the case.

In Western countries, there's a long tradition of intellectual critique of religious teachings going far back into antiquity with the writings of Epicurus in ancient Greece and Lucretius in ancient Rome. The intellectual classes of Europe and the West increasingly turned away from Christianity in recent centuries, or at least from the orthodox traditions of the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestantism. Obviously, much happened in between.

Throughout our lifetimes, there has always been a strong body of thought according to which holy books such as the Bible are not divinely inspired but are merely human constructions, traditional religious concepts of God are highly implausible, and key Christian doctrines such as those of the Trinity, sin against God, eternal punishment, and Christ's sacrificial atonement seem unlikely or even incoherent.

Consider the 1980s and 1990s, however - the rather recent past. During those decades, you could have found plenty of material that criticises traditional religion, denying its truth claims and seriously contesting its moral authority. The sorts of secular thinkers I have in mind were likely not only to think that the claims about the world made by Christianity and other religions are false, they were also likely to deny that the Christian churches and their leaders held the high moral ground in social debates or that there was any reason to consider Christian priests, presbyters, pastors, or even the pope - perhaps especially the pope - to be moral experts.

However, during the 1980s these criticisms were seldom expressed in highly visible, highly public ways. You were most likely to see them in academic books and journals, in material published by what we can think of broadly as the rationalist movement, or, related to this, in monographs from relatively small publishers such as Prometheus Books.

The material was there for those that wanted it, but it was tucked away in the corners of the culture. That is what changed, and you can pinpoint the exact year when it changed: 2004.

Let's start by looking at what actually constitutes the phenomenon of "the New Atheism". It's mainly that the sort of material that had existed for a very long time is suddenly popular. Large publishers are now prepared to accept books that criticise religion; powerful literary agents are willing to represent such books; in some cases, very high-profile writers are writing them; and the public is buying them in rather large numbers. Some of the most prominent books have sold millions of copies.

Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry magazine, has suggested that the first cab off the rank - the first of these recent books by a forthright, unashamed atheist to issue from a major publisher - was actually Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby, published in 2004 by an imprint of the giant publisher Macmillan. But the really dramatic breakthrough was later that same year, 2004, with The End of Faith by Sam Harris, published by W.W. Norton. This was a far more fiercely anti-religious book, aimed especially at Islam, and emphasising that religious ideas actually matter because religious adherents are motivated one way or the other to act in accordance with the teachings that they accept. Harris followed up a couple of years later with another book, Letter to a Christian Nation, which is very short and provides an easy introduction to how he and many others like him think about religion (particularly Christianity), and its role in modern society (particularly the United States of America).

In early 2006, the large trade imprint Viking published Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, which calls for religion to be studied as a natural phenomenon. Dennett goes out of his way to be conciliatory to Christian believers, and his tone is far from vitriolic, but he has often been dismissed in vitriolic fashion, which tends to create the feeling on my side of the current debates that, no matter how considerately and courteously you may express yourself, you are likely, if you're a critic of religion, to be demonised. That's a bit of a problem, and I'll return to it tomorrow.

Then, later in 2006, Richard Dawkins published the best known of the so-called New Atheist books, The God Delusion, which was supported by large publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2007, high-profile journalist Christopher Hitchens added a much more aggressive book than Dawkins' (The God Delusion has a provocative title and forthright passages, but is generally more moderate in tone than you might think). Hitchens' book is called, provocatively, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It was published by a new imprint, Twelve, which has considerable marketing power, and it became a best-seller.

In November 2006, prior to the publication of Hitchens' book, a journalist called Gary Wolf published a piece in Wired magazine under the title "The Church of the Non-Believers". In this piece he dubbed Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins "the New Atheists" and hyped up their hostility to religion, as opposed to mere disagreement with religious doctrines. Since Hitchens joined the group, the colourful epithet, "the Four Horsemen" has also been applied to Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens.

You can add in Michel Onfray, A.C. Grayling, Victor Stenger ... and I should mention my own anthology, co-edited with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, which offers quite a spectrum of thinking from outspoken non-believers. It should be pointed out, however, that whatever books you count as "New Atheist" books ... there are already far more books written to try to answer them (often sporting titles like The Dawkins Delusion, The God Solution, Beyond the God Delusion, Letter from a Christian Citizen and so on). Apart from these opportunistic or reactive works, there are many other books published every year advocating one or another form of traditional religious belief. These far outnumber books by the New Atheist writers and some of them outsell even Richard Dawkins.

So the publishing phenomenon of the New Atheism needs to be kept in perspective.

Still, something has changed. Large publishers are interested in the New Atheist books and some of these books are, as I said, selling in very large numbers. There's a hunger in the population for these kinds of books and there's also a vibe of people organising under the banner of atheism. These people are not extremists - they are not going to blow things up, take hostages, or conduct violent revolutions - but there's a sense of many people being, frankly, fed up with religion.

Tomorrow, I want to begin by asking why that might that be so.

15 comments:

Eamon Knight said...

Did Bertrand Russell's essays never get a wide circulation? (Before my time; I wouldn't know). What about Ingersoll? These and others are prominent names that have come down to us from previous generations, but I have no idea how "popular" they were in their own day.

Steve Zara said...

My view is that New Atheism started in 2002, with Dawkins' unexpected "Atheist Call to Arms" TED talk, in which he put the case for 'militant atheism'.

llewelly said...

I think books like Sagan's The Demon Haunted World deserve some consideration. Sagan was (and still is) enormously popular, and while he focused on science and skepticism, it was clear that he had a low opinion of religion:
"Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn't a religion on the planet that doesn't long for a comparable ability - precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics - to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close."
The same book has extensive harsh coverage of religion-driven persecution of "witches", and quotes Thomas Paine ("Whenever we read the obscene stories the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon rather than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it as I detest everything that is cruel.") and other harsh criticisms of religion approvingly. Sagan does throw the occasional sop to the "liberal" believer ("There is no necessary conflict between science and religion"), and I'm sure publishers saw such remarks as a necessary fig leaf, but despite the popularity of Steven Jay Gould, I think the portion of people who viewed these sops as more than fig leaves was modest; I loved Gould, I had friends, classmates, and cow-orkers who loved Gould, and we all hated Rocks of Ages. My mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather all insisted Sagan and Gould alike were both atheists who "hated god."

A whole generation of science-interested folk grew up with Sagan and his intellectual allies (including Dawkins, who wrote a few books before TGD), and these people are very much over-represented among the users and builders of modern computer technologies, particularly in the early years.

The same generation grew up hearing news story after news story about religion-related rape and sex abuse scandals; I recall reading news articles about clergy abuse among Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, televangelists, Muslims, and many others, throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Yes, most of the regular press took decades to admit there was a pattern, and that these stories needed to appear on the front page now and then, but some of us saw the pattern anyway.

Encouraged to be skeptical of religion by those we admired most, having seen many excesses of religion, and having careers built on the fruits of science, and having a disproportionate ability to talk about atheism, there was already a strong audience ready to hear the message of the "new atheists". In fact - since the GSS clearly shows most of the recent increase non-belief took place in the 1990s, I will claim the big-name publishers were quite late to the game; I suspect that had Macmillan been willing to publish something has harshly critical of religion as TGD in 1998, it would have done nearly as well; Doubt, and Freethinkers, I would argue, did not do as well as TGD largely because their criticism of religion was too soft.

Matt said...

What I find interesting is how 'New Atheism' is making other criticisms of religion more popular and accessible. Being close to Easter, and the inundation of TV with shows about Jesus, it was rather nice to see PBS showing a account of the real archaeological history behind the Bible. Stuff like Ehrman's books that analyze the historicity of the New Testament might be finding a large audience because of atheists being interested in them.

Bud Symmes said...

As always, I appreciate your view on religious and moral issues, and reviews.

I want to point out that "Freethinkers" by Susan Jacoby is spelt with a "y" in my edition.

llewelly said...

um ... could you let me know why my comment is not showing up?

Russell Blackford said...

Comments are moderated. So if your comment isn't up, even though it's a legitimate comment, it means that it hasn't been cleared yet.

Please, everyone, remember that most of my readers are in the US, whereas I am in Australia in a totally different time zone. Most comments come in while I'm asleep.

Russell Blackford said...

And the spelling of Susan Jacoby's name corrected. Oops.

Blake Stacey said...

Isaac Asimov's autobiography (two volumes) was published by Doubleday in the mid-1970s; he admits his atheism on the back cover of the second volume. His memoir, which came out after his death, was also published by Doubleday and goes into some detail about his irreligious beliefs. Of course, none of these books were devoted to atheism. The same goes for that colourful anecdote book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Bantam, 1985), which describes how its author left religion behind.

Russell Blackford said...

Yup, but as you say these were not books devoted to atheism.

There were very good books published by J.L. Mackie, Michael Martin, and others during this period, but they were from university presses and they were a bit dry for ordinary readers.

Steve, that 2002 TED talk was certainly a call to arms - but it didn't immediately cash out into a phenomenon that the public could see.

Ken Pidcock said...

This is a welcome contribution. As well as acknowledging the impact of the new atheist writers, we need to acknowledge the impact of those whose inane and specious arguments in reaction led so many closeted atheists to dissociate themselves from accommodation. Thank you, Terry Eagleton.

I look forward to the next installment.

Arthur said...

I saw Peter Atkins ferociously counter the Archbishop of Westminster on BBC News, during a discussion of the December 2005 tsunami. While Dawkins' 'Root of All Evil' film was broadcast shortly after, in January 2006.

To me these episodes represent the first sightings of a "New Atheism".

llewelly said...

Russell Blackford:
"Comments are moderated. So if your comment isn't up, even though it's a legitimate comment, it means that it hasn't been cleared yet."
My apologies. I had thought that a full 24 hours had passed with my comment sitting in never-never land, but looking back on it, it was more like 8 or even less. Not sure how I got so confused.

Thank you.

llewelly said...

Eamon Knight | 15 April, 2011 00:41 :
"Did Bertrand Russell's essays never get a wide circulation? (Before my time; I wouldn't know). What about Ingersoll? These and others are prominent names that have come down to us from previous generations, but I have no idea how "popular" they were in their own day."

I discovered Bertrand Russell in about 1985 (I do not recall how, unfortunately). I really loved his work, so I spent a fair amount of time looking for it. This would seem like an easy thing to do, since I naturally haunted bookstores and libraries. But between 1985 and 1997, I saw a Bertrand Russell volume at a bookstore exactly twice (used bookstores both times). Unpopular Essays was at almost every public library I checked, but most libraries had little or nothing else by Russell.

Ingersoll I had read brief mentions of as early as 1985, but prior to about 1997 I was entirely unable to find anything he wrote, or any transcripts of his speeches, or any descriptions of his his speeches extending to more than a short paragraph. And nearly all mentions of him I encountered were of the sort "Ingersoll campaigned for politician so-and-so", and "Ingersoll was an ally of the women's suffrage movement". His views on religion were almost never mentioned.

This may be an aspect of growing up in Utah, but several of my university profs assured me that even outside of Utah, "you have to go to a university library, or at least a university bookstore for anything as anti-religious as Russell."

One aspect of Jennifer Michael Hecht's book Doubt: A History that I really appreciated was her coverage of how religion was repeatedly successful at making the works of past freethinkers nearly unknown to each new generation, requiring freethinkers to continually go through a process of re-discovery.

downtown dave said...

There's no such thing as atheism, much less "new atheism". http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/