Most people I know are atheists. But they're atheists of the old kind who have no particular interest in proselytising because they do not believe that anything of importance hangs on whether or not people believe in God and because they recognise that theological claims are controversial. Unlike the New Atheists they don't think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting.
Ophelia thinks that this is obviously false, and she’s right. But there is something new afoot.
So, what is ‘new atheism’? The phrase, apparently coined in 2006, seems mostly to be used pejoratively by critics, often accompanied by the words ‘strident’, ‘shrill’, ‘aggressive’, ‘intolerant’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘dogmatic’.
But what the term seems to refer to is people (there’s no coherent ‘new atheist’ movement) who believe, and are not afraid to say out loud, most if not all of the following: there is no god; belief in god is irrational; irrational faith is not good for the individual; religion is not good for society; religion is not good for government. Obviously, none of these positions is remotely new. But what’s new is the prominence of a few people taking these positions publicly and robustly (most notably Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins – see this article and this video). What’s also new, crucially, is the context in which they do so.
As far as I can make out, ‘new atheism’ is a fairly small cultural phenomenon, existing primarily in parts of the media and academia, which is largely a response to the changed dynamic between Christianity and Islam in Western countries over the last decade or two. The UK story, very roughly, runs as follows:
From around the Rushdie fatwa, Islam in the UK has been increasingly willing to assert itself as a social and political force. Muslims in the country had been and remain mostly of south Asian origin, facing prejudice and often great poverty. Until the late 1980s, though, talk had been more of ‘Asians’ than of ‘Muslims’. This was to change, and of course the religious aspect of their identities became more prominent and more politicised after 9/11.
The political mainstream - mostly Christian and post-Christian in culture if not religion – has mostly responded by seeking accommodation with non-extremists. Islamic organisations were nurtured and listened to eagerly, religious ‘community leaders’ sought out and put on official task forces, and visible efforts made to promote Islam as part of a ‘multi-faith’ society.
Many Christian leaders and commentators, though, didn’t like the way this was going. It seemed to them that their (majority) religion was being ignored, taken for granted and even demoted, and so they made the effort to speak out on political and cultural matters from a more self-confidently Christian perspective. No doubt they had always said such things, but they took advantage of a new climate in which religion – in the form of Islam – had become much more of a talking point, and of a press that was keen for another twist in the story of the decade.
Some of these ‘new Christians’ (as it’s equally absurd to call them) were openly critical of Islam; others were conciliatory, focusing on the need for people of faith to come together.
All of which left people of no faith out in the cold.
The rise of political Islam in the UK – sometimes in the slipstream of extremists abroad, sometimes in opposition to them – presented Western critics of religion with something new. There had been little mileage in taking on Christianity, which had usually seemed an inoffensive, unremarkable default setting: near-omnipresent yet barely visible.
But Islam, brought to public attention through the worst atrocities of its vilest adherents, created scope and appetite for discussing the flaws of religion afresh. For most Brits, it was an alien religion: people wanted to know more, they were inclined to greater suspicion, and it had no stock of cultural goodwill to draw upon.
Then the Christian reassertion came, and the government felt bound by even-handedness to listen to all ‘faith groups’ alike. Religious influence over public policy – most notably in education – grew, and a political fightback became more pressing. Atheists, secularists and humanists spoke out, saying that religion shouldn’t get special treatment in politics, that most ‘religious hatred’ is inspired by rival religions against each other, that people with ‘faith’ aren’t thereby more virtuous or insightful than those without, and indeed that this whole god idea is deeply suspect.
The reaction to that, of course, was righteous indignation at these strident, shrill, aggressive, intolerant, arrogant, dogmatic atheists for daring to disagree without pulling their punches.
There wasn’t a ‘new atheism’. There was a new need for atheism, and for the humanist values and secular politics that often go with it.