What Do New Atheists Actually Believe That Makes Them, Well, New?

I think it’s fair to say that “old school” atheists of previous generations, like Baron d’Holbach and Albert Camus, share a number of beliefs with the New Atheists of the 21st century. For example, “old school” atheists would agree with the New Atheists that:

  • There’s one world, not two
  • All phenomena can be reduced to matter
  • Death is extinction

Okay, fine. But what makes them different? In an essay for a new anthology of apologetic writings, Contending with Christianity’s Critics  (B&H Academic 2009), philosopher Victor Reppert suggests it has to do with the way that New Atheists now promote their atheism:

[T]here is a difference in the way the New Atheists advocate for atheism. Aggressive advocates for atheism, they maintain that religious belief is not only false but also held in an irrational way by adherents and is morally pernicious. They feel no obligation to respect the religious beliefs of others; rather, their stated goal is to usher in the end of religious belief, especially belief in the existence of God. One of the the central claims they make is there is no evidence whatsoever for belief in the existence of God. All of the evidence lies firmly on the side of unbelief, not on the side of belief. Persons who believe in God do so for irrational motives, not because there are any good reasons to believe in God. To be rational is to form beliefs in accordance with the methods of natural science; natural science leads us in the direction of atheism; therefore all reasonable people should be atheists and not theists.

Is this characterization of New Atheists a straw man? I think, perhaps, in part, but only in part. In a sense, there really is no new thing under the sun. An old school atheist like Baron d’Holbach, for example, could never be accused of going light on religion, as Voltaire clearly perceived and Wikipedia notes:

In 1761 Christianisme dévoilé (“Christianity Unveiled”) appeared, in which he attacked Christianity and religion in general as an impediment to the moral advancement of humanity. The deistic Voltaire, denying authorship of the work, made known his aversion to d’Holbach’s philosophy, writing that “[the work] is entirely opposed to my principles. This book leads to an atheistic philosophy that I detest.”[7]

Voltaire, it might be said, was among the first intellectuals to take an “accomodationist” stance towards religion. And d’Holbach clearly did not. This strikes me as an exact parallel to the dividing lines among secular people today. Though essentially secular himself, Voltaire nevertheless was reluctant to dismiss religion in its entirety, or reject outright its social usefulness. Likewise, Albert Camus, though not a deist but an atheist, when he spoke to a gathering of Dominican Friars in 1948, said:

I wish to declare also that, not feeling that I possess any absolute truth or any message, I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it.

I think that, in this sense, Victor Reppert has captured accurately the New Atheism. Post 9/11 atheists have become more strident. Camus’s ecumenical language would not be welcome among them. New Atheists may not be all that much different from many of the old atheists (atheism has always had its “militant” factions), but there was a time (in the mid-20th century) when it looked like religion was going gentle into that good night, and intellectuals like Camus could set a conciliatory tone with religion (as one might set a conciliatory tone with a dying uncle you’ve always disagreed with). Clearly a post-9/11 New Atheist like Richard Dawkins sounds markedly different from a post-WWII atheist like Albert Camus. Religion, afterall, seemed to have little to do with any of the horrors of WWII. It was post-Christian Europe that tore itself apart, and intellectuals after the war were trying to account for that. (And it still needs accounting for.)

But after 9/11 I think that religion had itself to be accounted for again, and this is where atheists came forward, and did so pissed off. 9/11 signaled that religion, in even its most primitive and destructive forms, was not ceding the stage of history to science and reason, and would not die peacefully in its sleep. In short, the fight was on again. And with the Internet, and a few bestsellers, the strong atheist voice has returned to combat. It will not go dormant again until religion wanes into 1950s and 60s quietude, and this means that New Atheist voices are going to be very vocal for a very long time. They’re not going away anytime soon. Nor should they.

Even though I’m an agnostic and have tried to keep my head about me with regard to religion (even in the face of a resurgent fundamentalism), I understand the atheist reaction. I just think that it needs, at some point, to mature, and to learn nuance, temperance, qualification, and patience with human frailty. But really, sanity and calm need to return to both sides. Religionists provoke atheists and atheists provoke religionists.

I’m with Spinoza:

I have laboured carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand human actions.

But I realize, after horrors like WWII and 9/11, it’s hard to be detached about the large forces that seem to underlie them, and it’s hard to resist taking broad rhetorical swipes at them. But here’s Spinoza’s quote again, and in a fuller context:

I have laboured carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand human actions; and to this end I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties, just as pertinent to it, as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere, which phenomena, though inconvenient, are yet necessary, and have fixed causes, by means of which we endeavour to understand their nature, and the mind has just as much pleasure in viewing them aright, as in knowing such things as flatter the senses.

If there’s something “new” about the New Atheism it’s this: After 9/11, atheism has become a passion again. It’s not that beliefs have changed. Atheists, in the main, have always held religion, to some degree, in contempt, but now they’re much more vocal about it. And atheism is no longer something that intellectuals and secular people simply take for granted as the inevitable (if slow) direction of human history. Instead, atheism is something once again in contention. It is something that secular people once again feel passionately about (both for and against). Atheism divides secular people over the nature and value of:

  • pluralism;
  • civility;
  • cruelty; and
  • rationality

Thus, insofar as the New Atheism provokes discussion about these very important subjects, it’s a damn good thing to have around. Spinoza, I think, would understand, and I know which side an “old school” atheist like d’Holbach would be on. I also know which side I’m on.

I’m with Camus.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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