An Extremely Brief Encounter: From Old to New Atheism

Admittedly, there is nothing “new” about atheism. Wherever, whenever, and however religion takes form, creeping doubts seem to inevitably follow. History is rich and multivariate with those who had doubts about divine things, from ancients like Protagoras and Socrates, to more modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Ayn Rand and Carl Sagan. Whereas to publicly voice doubt about Deity in ancient times meant being burnt at the stake, this new breed of Twenty First Century doubt is much bolder, more aggressive about divine things than its timorous past can admit. A November 2006 article in Wired Magazine entitled, “The Church of the Non-believers,” written by Gary Wolf, expresses that the atheists of today “will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.”

The recent surge of interest in the so-called “New Atheist” movement, made popular by its fierce and fluent proponents — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (together known as “The Four Horsemen”) — has given rise to a public, bristling attack not only on the existence of God, but of religion itself. Other exponents of the movement including Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, and Alex Rosenberg have also maintained a fierce tradition of skepticism in religion and are equally unafraid to castigate faith in all its forms.

Historically, the motivation for these attacks sprung from one of the largest cataclysmic events in American past, September 11, 2001. This would be a date that would forever haunt the American people, when Muslim terrorists hijacked four planes and used them to destroy the World Trade Center in the service of Islamic fundamentalism. Jonathan Kirsch, author of the 2004 book, “Gods against Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism,” explains the horror of 9/11 as a direct result of religion and its destructive capacities:

“The men who hijacked and crashed four civilian airliners were inspired to sacrifice their own lives, and to take the lives of several thousand “infidels,” because they had embraced the simple but terrifying logic that lies at the heart of monotheism: if there is only one god, if there is only one way to worship that god, then there is only one fitting punishment for failing to do so: death” (2).

The reaction of 9/11 was combative. Another anti-religious movement was born. Now that religious beliefs had again inspired the worst of human atrocities, only this time in modernity’s wake of weapons of mass destruction, this new anti-god iconoclasm would no longer just disagree with religious mythos. It would disagree with tolerating them. In his book, “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins argues: “As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers” (306). The goal of New Atheism is simple. It is, as Sam Harris claims, to “convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behavior in the name of “morality” to break these commitments and to live better lives” (49). “We believe with certainty,” follows Christopher Hitchens, “that an ethical life can be lived without religion” (6).

According to The Four Horsemen, all religions are delusions based on metaphysical propositions that can neither be verified by science nor explained by reason. To accept these delusions is to simultaneously accept a supernatural intelligence that lies beyond the natural, physical world. An intelligence not only beyond fully rational exploration, but one who even commands violent behavior against, and has little tolerance for, unorthodox views. Dawkins defines this sort of religious mania as belief in “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” (Dawkins 31). Anything believed outside the purview of naturalism is hence fundamentally at odds with the New Atheist manifesto. These contentions are key to understanding the New Atheism.