Susan Jacoby on Old Atheists v. the New Atheists

She thinks the New Atheist label for the outspoken post-9-11 atheists is a canard:

Try as I might, I find little in the works of Dawkins, Harris et. al.–apart from their knowledge of modern science–that differs significantly from the views of secular thinkers of earlier eras. What is different is that today’s atheists are not hiding behind other labels, such as agnosticism, in order to placate religious sensibilities. It is this lack of deference, more than anything else, that has outraged religious believers–particularly those on the right–in America. Most have confused their constitutional right to believe whatever they want with the idea that the beliefs themselves must be inherently worthy of respect.

I would differ with Jacoby just a little bit here. I think that the New Atheism is a real phenomenon that emerged in response to 9-11. People were outraged at the resurgence of fundamentalism in the world, and atheist non-deference itself was a form of pushback. And the Internet assisted networking and forming web communities for talking about the most popular post-9-11 book writers. Just as gays increasingly came out of the closet in the aftermath of the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s, and brought energy to the politics of gay equality, so atheists have had their version of “coming out” in the past several years. The New Atheism is a real cultural phenomenon that emerged from a contingent historical circumstance (9-11). Likewise, atheism has had other cultural turns as well, such as the existentialism associated with Sartre and Camus, which emerged out of intellectual wrestling with the meaning of another contingent historical catastrophe: World War II. I recognize that there were people writing about existentialism prior to WWII (just as there were people who wrote about atheism in outspoken terms prior to 9-11). But large historical disjunctures can drive what, in an ideology, will be emphasized, and the extent to which something will catch flame and take on broader popularity. When Al-Qaeda smashed those planes into the Twin Towers, it set in motion many unanticipated effects—one of them being a science oriented non-deferential atheist liberation movement, i.e., the New Atheism. Look, for example, at the atheist “out campaign” website here. And below is Richard Dawkins drawing the analogy between the “out campaign” and the gay liberation movement. So if you don’t like the coinage “New Atheist,” and you think that it’s a meaningless term invented by religious believers (as Jacoby does), then what do you call the atheist liberation movement that emerged after 9-11?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Susan Jacoby on Old Atheists v. the New Atheists

  1. Tor Hershman says:

    Dawkins is an Atheism As Religion dude, as moi understands his statements.
    NOW, here’s the awful facts.

  2. Brian says:

    Santi makes no sense in his commentary. Susan Jacoby is talking about the DIFFERENCES between old and new atheists and Santi is talking about ORIGINS of the new atheists.

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