Atheists who fit today’s dictionary definition, in that they lack belief in any gods, have probably been around since the 1600s, give or take a century. Before that time, the term atheist didn’t really mean what it means today, for example, for the Romans, Christians were atheists in that they rejected the gods of Roman polytheism. The term atheist in the early days meant “godless”, as in “someone who rejects the gods our society believes in”, and was therefore a term of slander, an insult, an accusation. But certainly from the 17th century onwards, we have written evidence of people who lacked belief in any gods, who were atheists as we use the term today. Examples of atheists before the 21st century include philosophers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, JS Mill, the Baron d’Holbach, Comte, Diderot, Sartre, Russell, Hume, and scientists like Dirac, Feynman, Bateson, Freud, Turing, Sagan, to name just a few that immediately come to mind.
So these thoughts have been around for a long time, and have been published for a long time, nothing new here. Then, as far as I can see, 2 things happened. One was the religionification of the American society in the 1980s and 90s, which saw a resurgence of a rebranded creationism movement, lobbying even harder to teach what they now called “Intelligent Design” in schools alongside science, and the second event was 9/11/2001.(The third event, if you like, might have been the invention of the Internet)
I think it is at least in part due to those two (or three) developments, that the first decade of the 21st century has seen such an explosion of books, articles, debates, blogs, about issues regarding religion, atheism, and secularism. The books by Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are most often named as examples in this context, and in 2006 a journalist from Wired magazine, in a silly article named “The Church of the non-believers“, named them the “New Atheists”.
That term “New Atheist”, has since somehow become a dirty word, just like “atheos” was in Greek times, it’s somehow become connotated with an accusation of stridency or militancy, and in some circles it is argued that this more vocal atheism might endanger science education, this applies particularly to the USA. The New Atheists themselves can’t do much about this, other than to run with it, so therefore we now call ourselves “gnu atheists”.
What is the difference between an old and a new atheist, you might wonder ? PZ Myers said in a speech last year (I paraphrase) that a New Atheist is just any old atheist the Church can’t burn at the stake anymore. If anything, the new atheists tackle the god question more from a scientific perspective rather than a philosophical one, as a hypothesis that can can be tested just like any other. They argue that religion and science, while incompatible as ways of gaining knowledge, are not non-overlapping magisteria in the Gould sense, that religion is not what makes us moral or gives us our values, and that religious claims, just as questions of ethics or morality, should be, and can be, object to scientific testing and investigation (Anyone who still argues that morality is not a topic where science can help us gain insights should go and read this article immediately). Dan Dennett shows in “Breaking the Spell” how religious belief is a natural phenomenon, and how organised religion developed from origins in animism and shamanism. Modern physics have taught us that something can come from nothing, and Victor Stenger shows in his newest book how and why the physical constants of the universe are not, and don’t have to be, finetuned for human life to be possible.
Some of the more common pseudo-arguments we hear from believers and certain more accomodating unbelievers alike, is how new atheists are just another church, that we somehow scare the children away from learning science in schools, that we’re just trying to destroy religion, that we aim to convert Auntie Mabel to atheism on her deathbed, that we evangelise, that we are fundamentalist and militant, you get the idea.
Well, new atheists don’t fly planes into buildings or kill abortion doctors, their militancy is limited to writing books and blog posts and newspaper articles, and drinking beer with fellow atheists, secularists and humanists.
They also don’t go from door to door to evangelize for not collecting stamps. What would that even look like ?
With regards to the claim by some so-called “science communicators”, and other religious accomodationists over in the USA, that scientists who also argue for atheism somehow endanger science education by scaring the children, we have mounting evidence that those claims are a load of crap. A recent review of 4 studies found “that perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice”. In other words, as was the case with the gay rights movement in the last century, the more present and vocal and visible atheists are, the more prejudice against them is reduced. Accomodating religion and preserving the status quo for the sake of not offending anyone does in fact not help to further science education, in my opinion. New atheists, and with them secularists and humanists, must value truth and evidence, and value truth and the content of our messages more than the tone they are presented in, and we must make it clear that we don’t accept claims about the supernatural just because they are of a religious nature and therefore somehow ipso facto deserving of respect. They aren’t. I don’t think any new atheist wants to destroy or ban religion, but what we would like to see, while no evidence for any gods exists or seems to be forthcoming, is that religion is practiced by adults, in their places of worship, without teaching anything other than comparative religion to children in the schools, without tax exemptions, and what we would also like to see is that religious belief is no longer perceived as some kind of necessary prerequisite for being a moral and responsible and loving and caring human being. Because it isn’t.