Thursday, December 1, 2016
There has been much ballyhoo among strident religionists about the decline and fall of the so-called New Atheist movement. This has been going on for at least six years now. Nearly four years ago, the Catholic Herald announced that "New Atheism is Dead". Many others have been talking about the decline of the movement, as evidenced in this Conservapedia article, or the ongoing pronouncements of Shadow To Light, where these claims form a steady drumbeat, culminating, perhaps, in an obituary for the movement. Nevertheless, I don't expect to see Mikey stop beating a dead horse anytime soon.
I should note from the outset that there is no such thing as a "New Atheism" movement. There are many atheists, and they generally don't subscribe to any particular thing that could be described as a "new atheist movement". They have many different interests, and many different approaches to making their voices heard. Some are philosophical. Some are scientific-minded. Some are accommodationists, and some are anti-theistic. Others don't get involved in debates. But if you look at the variety of personalities, you will notice that they are all mirrored in the variety of personalities we see among theists. For every angry atheist out there, I can find a dozen angry religionists. But nobody is claiming that there is some kind of "New Theism" movement.
If you want to point to those atheists who advocate the use of mockery as a means of highlighting the ridiculousness of certain deeply-held beliefs in Christianity (or theism in general), and say "See how mean those nasty New Atheists are", all I can say is spare me your crocodile tears. There is nothing unreasonable about mocking what is ridiculous. It doesn't hurt anybody. It's a way of stimulating thought and discussion. It's not aggression, as Mikey claims, and it doesn't deprive anyone of their rights or harm them in any way. If your feelings are damaged because Richard Dawkins said that it's appropriate to use mockery, I might suggest to you, gentle reader, that your feelings are far too fragile.
This is not to say that I endorse vitriolic and derisive commentary, or screaming back and forth at one another with ad hominem attacks. I agree that that kind of talk does no good, and is often counter-productive. But before you accuse people like Dawkins or Coyne of that, I would ask you to read what they actually say. I have yet to come across anything in their writings (or those of Harris, or Krauss, or any of these so-called new Atheist authors) that comes close to what could be fairly described as abusive or vitriolic. In fact, I don't see too much of this in the mainstream atheistic community. Perhaps the worst of it can be found at Pharyngula. Those guys are certainly not representative of the broader community of atheists. But if you want to see vitriolic and abusive talk, there are plenty of religionist and anti-atheist sites where it can be found in spades. As I said, nobody is claiming that this is some kind of "New Theism" movement. It's just part of the variety of voices out there. Anyone who thinks theists are more civil really needs to open his eyes.
Nor is there anything new about "New Atheism". Ever since it has become possible for atheists to make their ideas known (which unfortunately has not always been the case), they (and their deistic predecessors) have been sharply critical of theism and Christianity. From Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, to Charles Bradlaugh's Who Was Jesus Christ?, and the essays of Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, and H. L. Mencken. If these guys were writing today, they would surely earn the label of "New Atheist". Their works are arguably more acerbic and polemical than those of the modern "New Atheists". So what is it about writers like Dawkins that is so new and different, or somehow worse than the earlier ones?
Finally, all those claims about decline and death of the movement appear to be greatly exaggerated. I see absolutely no evidence of that. For each of the "four horsemen" who are no longer writing best-sellers, there are several more authors who are. And I see no reversal in that trend. That doesn't sound like a decline to me. It sounds more like wishful thinking on the part of all those theists who are afraid of what they see happening around them. Religion is declining, and they know it. Church leaders in America are alarmed about the declining participation and influence of the church. Many feel they have to bully people into attending. They understand that the religion industry is built on an increasingly failing business model.
In an age of information and science, it is inevitable that more and more of us should become aware of the failings of theism. It stands to reason that the community of atheists will not continue to be silenced, as they were in the past. It starts out as a few lonely voices, whose writings could be safely ignored by religionsts. But as their numbers grow, and their voices become louder, theists are running scared. I look forward to the day, though I may not see it, when the tables have been turned, and those few remaining lonely voices of religionism can safely be ignored.