At BioLogos, MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson has a theory as to why the gnu atheism, since 9-11, has gained some traction in the culture: the gnu atheists do not offer religion and faith respect:
That’s perhaps part of their attraction to a certain segment of the population—that is, that’s what makes it a new kind of phenomenon in that it basically shows no respect for religion whatsoever, because militant atheists think that religion is basically a bad thing and needs to be condemned.
I don’t like Hutchinson’s phrase “militant atheist”—it’s a cheap shot and is itself disrespectful—but his larger observation is well taken: the thing that distinguishes an atheist like Albert Camus in the 1950s from an atheist like, say, Jerry Coyne in the 21st century, is that Coyne declines the polite public deference usually accorded religion and faith.
And this comes as a shock.
It really is an emperor has no clothes moment. Gnu atheists are asking theists for good and clear reasons—including evidence—for their beliefs, and when these go wanting, the gnu atheists are not quiet about noticing. It’s the puncturing of a bubble of rectitude.
But what’s happened to religionists in this decade happened to liberals (of which I am one) in the 1990s: as talk radio, Fox News, and the Internet picked up steam, there was simply no way to maintain a liberal consensus around public policy and the parameters of civil and “thinkable” debate. The ABC-NBC-CBS monopoly on how most Americans got their news was broken. Today the religion monopoly has also been broken: big religion, like big media, no longer gets a deferential pass. Atheists, once closeted or easily ignored, have set themselves up in the new media environment and have to be dealt with.
The gnu atheist position—when the blue pipe smoke of accusations about incivility and “militancy” clears—is a more than reasonable one, and that’s the genuine problem for theists (not contemporary atheism’s rhetorical tone). It really is an open question as to whether religion and faith (as opposed to critical thinking and doubt) are good things and deserve praise. And so, like a Saturday Night Live “Coffee Talk” segment with Linda Richman (Mike Myers), gnu atheists have brought the following unsettling thesis out from behind closed doors and into the full and unclouded public sunshine:
Religion is basically a bad thing and needs to be condemned.
Discuss. This is all that the gnu atheists are really doing. That’s not miltancy, but freedom of speech and honesty. It’s Harry Truman telling the truth as he sees it, and others calling it hell.