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 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.
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, many other books are 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.