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New Atheism

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The best definition of a New Atheist that I've ever heard, it's: a New Atheist is just any old Atheist that the Catholic Church cannot legally set on fire, anymore.
P.Z. Myers[1]

New Atheism is a contemporary intellectual movement uniting outspoken atheists. The New Atheists' philosophies and arguments are generally consistent with those of their predecessors; what's "New" is the profitability and the style. Most of the prominent New Atheists have had at least one book become a bestseller, which was almost unheard of for atheistic literature in the past. New Atheists consider belief in God erroneous as well as detrimental to society, and espouse their views frequently and publicly. In the 21st century, many anti-religious thinkers have been the subject of media attention, although many reject the "New Atheist" label. While some prefer to call New Atheism a trend manufactured by the media (specifically, in a 2006 article featured in Wired[2]) rather than a real organized movement, others later came to openly adopt the term, notably with Victor J. Stenger's publication of The New Atheism.[3]

The term sometimes acts as a straw man, as it can be used to define the tactics or personal beliefs of non-believers en masse, ignoring internal differences and tensions within the movement.

New Atheists may be contrasted with accomodationists, who argue that common ground may be found between the non-religious and those who have more moderate religious beliefs. Your typical New Atheist might respond that if religious moderates truly cared about social issues and public acceptance of science, they would ally themselves with atheists on such issues without demanding unilateral self-censorship on the part of the non-religious.

The definitions[edit]

Beyond the occasional use of capital letters, the actual distinction between New Atheists and atheists in general is unclear. The term "New Atheism" is generally only used in blogs and opinion columns, and is more of a pejorative than a self-descriptor for the New Atheists, some of whom have taken the meme up and go as far as satirising the term by coining a new one, "Gnu Atheists."[4]

Suggested distinctives of a New Atheist include that they are "angry," "shrill," or "forceful," or possibly "eat children." It is true that Richard Dawkins is quite uncompromising in his atheist writings, but he's not the entire universe of all who are labeled as New Atheists. Victor Strenger has defined it as the "harder line,"[5] while Andrew Brown observes "They are none of them philosophers,"[6] and notes that "most are scientists, none study psychology, history, the sociology of religion, or any other discipline which might cast light on the objects of their execration."[7]

The trend[edit]

I got kicked out of barnes and noble once for moving all the bibles into the fiction section.
"New Atheists" don't actually exist, have never existed, and even if they had existed they wouldn't be "new" anymore.
—/u/hurricanelantern, writing in retrospect in 2017.[9]

The "new atheist" phenomenon may not really be a set of people which have come into a new existence (so-called "second generation" atheists that grew up in non-religious households), but rather a media trend in which outspoken atheist views, particularly views explicitly critical of religion, have become more acceptable to print. This has caused an increase in atheistic writing breaking through into mainstream periodicals, prominent display in bookstores, and at least one documentary film on the BBC - the whole thing can actually be quite a lucrative business, which is possibly the cause of a lot of the harsh criticism of the authors.[10] The need for the media to provoke and attract attention may have driven this; religion has always been a touchy and controversial topic, and books with titles such as God Is Not Great and The God Delusion certainly attract the sort of hard-hitting controversy that sells well - even if their contents aren't as angry as the titles suggest.

This has been explained - in the US, at least, but also perhaps worldwide - as a backlash response to the massively unpopular George W. Bush presidency, with its fundamentalist religious base; stories that "God told Bush to invade Iraq" didn't help. The raising of fundamentalist religion into the mainstream consciousness was also assisted by the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, which cemented into popular perception how powerful belief can be. The prominent highlighting of these negative aspects of religion most certainly aided the increased acceptance of religious criticism, and by extension, atheism and anti-theism. The atheist bus campaign, where the phrase "There's probably no God - Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." was displayed on prominent adverts, was originally invented as a response to a prominent display of religious advertising that claimed that non-believers would burn in hell.

The New Atheists[edit]

Because opposing ISIS... makes you ISIS. And not a false equivalency in sight!

A group of authors and speakers who came to prominence after the year 2000 are generally considered to be "New Atheists" - the top four in particular are sometimes referred to as "the four horsemen". They are also joined, in theory, by numerous individuals on YouTube who have used the medium of the Internet to publicize their views more easily and widely than was possible before the start of the 21st Century. A large number of atheistic websites and articles also appeared on the web during this same period.[11]

"The Four Horsemen"[edit]

In 2008, four prominent atheist authors got together to discuss religion and their positions. The DVD was entitled "The Four Horsemen" (in reference to the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse") and ever since they have been referred to by this title. They are:

Other "new" atheists[edit]

YouTube atheists[edit]

As well as "professional" atheists who are published authors or who often give talks at conferences such as James Randi's The Amazing Meeting, and those who get involved in campaigns such as the Atheist Bus Campaign, there are a large number of outspoken "amateurs" that have used the Internet to achieve prominence. As the popularity of these individuals rises, the line becomes more blurred between them and the New Atheist authors above. AronRa and dprjones from The Magic Sandwich Show attended the World Atheist Conference in Dublin, sharing stage time with the likes of Richard Dawkins. Scott Clifton, who is primarily known for being a US soap actor (believe it or not), also hosts his own YouTube channel, under the pseudonym of Theoretical Bullshit, to discuss philosophy with a breadth and depth of knowledge that would make the Big Four of the New Atheism movement cry. Meanwhile, Thunderf00t continues to branch out by securing interviews with the likes of Ray Comfort and the Westboro Baptist Church. Although not published or frequently appearing on television documentaries, many of these broadcasters have subscriber lists longer than most religious figures, and their video views and audience reach can rival many of the "professional" atheists.

Not New Atheists[edit]

In reality, outspoken atheism is nothing new. But the publicity thrown upon "new" atheists often clouds the scholarship preceding them.

Assuming time travel is off the table, the following people died before New Atheism rose to prominence:


Nü Atheism is an adolescent movement. The adults who follow it have adolescent (or pre-adolescent) temperaments and personalities (Maher, Dawkins, Gervais, Myers etc) and it's grown in popularity since you have a large generational cohort reaching young adulthood and seeking to set themselves apart from their parents. But it's reactionary and petulant. A pose, not a philosophy. The Christian churches helped it along by cynically allying themselves with partisan political interests...Same aggressive polarity, different party.
—Christopher Loring Knowles[13]

Straw man[edit]

I consider them atheist fundamentalists. They're anti-religious, and they're mean spirited, unfortunately. Now, there are very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.
Paul Kurtz[14]

Critics have contended that New Atheists tend to paint all religions and all people within those religions with the same brushstroke, making a bit of a straw-man out of what is an otherwise complex range of beliefs about God, god, or gods.[15][16] Furthermore, they have been criticized for painting all theists as religious fundamentalists.[17]

Some (Massimo Pigliucci) maintain that the general problem for New Atheists is their failure to distinguish the use of religion as a tool (for control, violence, etc.) from religion itself, and then claiming religion is the problem. The desire for control, the use of violence for power and wealth, would exist regardless of religion's presence in the world.

PZ Myers has countered this trend by reminding people that the real problem with theists is they believe in imaginary, unscientific, "less likely to be possible" things.[18] In addition, the argument is also largely erroneous. Yes, greed, avarice, bigotry, oppression, and exploitation would exist with or without religion; however this misses the point. Are dictatorships not that bad, because lust for power is the real problem, with or without dictatorship? Is the sexual slave trade not that bad, since misogyny and exploitation are the real problems? It's really just a sneaky and pernicious deflection of criticism of religion. Nobody in the New Atheism movement is claiming religion is the sole source of the world's ills, but that, historically, religion has been a tried and true incubator for bigotry, disinformation and bloodshed. Richard Dawkins has argued that once society accepts faith as a good reason to believe something, it becomes much harder to argue with extremists who say faith informs their violent beliefs.[19]

Morality and the social role of religion[edit]

They have been criticized for misunderstanding the social role of religion by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, anthropologist Scott Atran, and biologist David Sloan Wilson. Haidt and Wilson contend that sociological and psychological data demonstrate that religion can be a force for good and evil. They argue that religions that help their followers bind into "moral communities" can be socially beneficial. Wilson specifically rejects Dawkins' argument that religion is an evolutionary by-product, and advocates a group selection[20] hypothesis that religion played an adaptive role in human evolution. Atran disagrees with Wilson and sides with Dawkins on the by-product hypothesis; however, he stresses the persistence of human irrationality due to cognitive biases and the limitations of scientific rationalism in resolving political conflicts.[21][22]

Islam and terrorism[edit]

I was a New Atheist. I promoted it, I happily wore the label, I was initially optimistic that we were going to change the culture, I was naive and stupid. I swallowed some of my early reservations — is this just a reaction against Bush fueled by xenophobia inspired by the September 11th bombings? — but figured that would pass, that people would step in the door and then find enduring meaning in science and evidence-based reasoning. Boy, was I wrong.
—PZ Myers[23]

Amarnath Amarasingam contends that they often fall prey to the fundamental attribution error, an observation in social psychology that individuals "downplay situational reasons for the actions of others while overestimating the significance of dispositional causes."[24] This observation particularly singles out Sam Harris' claim[25] that all it takes for someone to become a suicide bomber is to have "perfect faith" when, in fact, causes are far more complicated than that and even, as noted by Robert Pape,[26] strategic and secular in influence. Atran also criticizes the New Atheists on this point, singling out Dawkins and Harris. He argues that the New Atheists overlook or downplay the role of American imperialism and globalization as causes of terrorism. He also points out that suicide bombers have little to no religious education but often do have training in a science or engineering discipline -- they are largely self-indoctrinating. His social network analysis reveals that religious education is actually a negative predictor of suicide bombing while the best predictor is having a friend involved in jihadi activity, leading to self-indoctrination and a "band-of-brothers" social dynamic.[27]

Former radicalized Muslim Mubin Shaikh -- who now assists the Canadian government in preventing terrorist attacks -- finds it "ironic that ISIS and New Atheist types, or anti-Muslim types, quote the same verses in the exact same way." As an example he states:[28]

I also used to cherry pick and misquote the verses the same way both of them do it. So in Chapter 9, Verse 5, I used to say the same thing. I said, "Look, the verse says, 'Kill the kuffar, wherever they are.'" Now, in fact, that's not what it says. I mean, it's a portion of a longer verse. And that portion actually says, "Al-Mushrikin," it talks about polytheists. So when the scholar in Syria was trying to de-radicalize me, he said to me, "Tell me, do you normally begin reading chapters from verse 5? Maybe you should start with verse 1. I don't know, it's just a thought."

So Verse 1 talks about "The polytheists... This is in regards to the polytheists with whom you made a treaty and have violated the treaty." If you look at Verse 4, which directly precedes Verse 5, it says, "Not included in these instructions are those polytheists who kept the covenant, the treaty, and did not assault you and participate in violence against you. Then keep the term of your contract with them." So it makes it very clear. The content is very specific, it's those people who are actually fighting you unlawfully, because you're a Muslim.

Shaikh also argues that New Atheist claims about radicalized Muslims are frequently reductive, ignoring the actual political grievances they have. He observes that the terrorists come out of a larger social movement that has a "grievance narrative" which is "based in fact." So, it is wrong, and possibly dangerous, to dismiss Islamic terrorist motives as merely or purely religious.


Many observers have noted a strain of aggressive sexism in New Atheist circles.[29] When Skepchik writer Rebecca Watson blogged about receiving unwanted sexual advances at the 2011 World Atheist Convention in Dublin, misogynist Richard Dawkins wrote a very graphic open letter condemning her for bringing the issue to light instead of staying on message and only condemning sexual violence in religious communities. He would apologize for this several years later.[30] Much more direct misogyny has come from Sam Harris, who told a Washington Post reporter in 2014 that "There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women. The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that [women] would want.”[31] Many early leaders of Gamergate, most prominently Phil Mason, also had their beginnings in atheist communities online. There have been serious and widespread complaints about aggressive and unwelcome sexual attention some women receive at atheist conferences and online. Online those who attack harassment of women appear to outnumber people who commit it or tolerate it. But to be fair, most conference organizers now have sexual harassment policies which they try to enforce.[32]

Miscellaneous criticism[edit]

  • Massimo Pigliucci has criticized them for sloppy philosophical arguments on a number of issues, including religion, the scope and limitations of science, and free will.
  • Michael Ruse got a little cranky after Dawkins and Myers called him mean names ("Neville Chamberlain" and "clueless gobshite" respectively), while also criticizing their philosophy.[33]
  • Sikivu Hutchinson criticizes them in her book Moral Combat for inadequate sociological analyses of religion and blind spots concerning race and gender equality.
  • Chris Hedges said that Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens externalized evil and then unloaded as much religious zeal on 'the enemy' (Islam) as was done by their neoconservative religious counterparts, that Harris's argument for torture was absurdly vile (a point with which many New Atheists concur), and that trying to debate Hitchens was akin to stabbing his brain with a fork.

Religion vs. Ideology[edit]

New Atheism begs a question: Why take it for granted that religious ideologies, by virtue of being termed "religions", are fundamentally different from secular ideologies and therefore to be singled out as an evil that stands apart?

If what are decried as the evils of religion are actually the evils of a larger class of ideologies -- aggressive varieties of utopianism, for example -- then an excessive focus on religion, traditionally defined, may blind us to those same evils when they arise in ideologies that are not religions as traditionally defined. (Fascism and Communism are most commonly invoked in this connection, because they're easy, safe, and obvious targets, but the question should not end there.)

Far Right[edit]

New atheism has been criticized by Salon as being a far-right movement. As Phil Torres (from Salon) writes, " It's a real shame that New Atheism, now swallowed up by the IDW and the far right, turned out to be just as prejudiced, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, closed-minded and authoritarian as many of the religious groups they initially deplored."[34]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  2. The Church of the Non-Believers, Wired, Issue 14.11, 2006
  3. Victor Stenger. (2009) The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  4. Gnu Atheists
  5. Debunking Christianity - Understanding the New Atheism, an Interview with Victor Stenger
  6. His article does not include an examination of Daniel Dennett.
  10. the Wall Street Journal - New Atheism
  11. Atheism on the Web
  12. [:// The train wreck that was the New Atheism]
  13. "The Church and the Black Swan", The Secret Sun 3.28.15.
  15. Hitchens calls religions (all religions) a "plague" yet his descriptions of religions are clearly based only on the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions.
  16. Dawkins uses the very real issue of child abuse by religious leaders to not just admonish, but dismiss all religions as dangerous.
  17. Lightning Peter Jay. Misunderstanding Religion: A Critique of the New Atheists. Wesleyan University Honors College theses, paper 316.
  20. On group selection
  21. Religion and the New Atheists: A Scientific Critique, Lena Groeger
  22. Against All Faith: Scientific Naturalism and the New Popular Atheism, Taner Edis, Truman State University
  23. The Train Wreck that was the New Atheism, PZ Myers
  24. Amarnath Amarasingam. To Err in their Ways:The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists. Studies in Religion 39(4), 2010, 573–588
  25. Sam Harris quotes
  26. See the Wikipedia article on Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.
  27. Scott Atran. (2010) Talking to the Enemy. See pp. 411-426 for criticisms of Dawkins and Harris.
  29. Salon: Atheism’s Shocking Woman Problem[1]
  30. Daylight Atheism: Is Richard Dawkins Evolving?[2]
  31. [3]
  32. Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?
  33. Why I Think the New Atheists Are a Bloody Disaster, Michael Ruse
  34. Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right