The New Atheism is an informal social movement in which atheists have become more vocal in recent years than they have been in the past, gaining prominence as a result.
Old vs. new atheism
It is a matter of some debate whether the term "new atheism" should even exist. There has been no philosophical revolution in recent years; the arguments used by atheists today are not radically different from ones used in past decades and centuries.
The main difference in the new atheism seems to be an unwillingness to remain silent in order to get along with theists. Such a conciliatory attitude, many believe, prevents atheists' voice from being heard in the political and social arena. This has led to some backlash by those who believe that such outspokenness is perceived as being confrontational, and hurts the acceptance of atheism. However calling out hypocritical believers is not new. As can be shown by this phonograph recording from 1907 entitled "(But) He goes to church on Sunday."
Atheists may be more vocal as a backlash against the rise of fundamentalist religion, both in the United States (mostly Christianity) and abroad (mostly Islam). Also contacting other atheists and Freethinkers on the Internet makes some atheists more confident about speaking out.
It is, of course, difficult to ascertain the aims or goals of a putative movement with no manifesto, no central authority, no definite beginning, and no obvious cause. What follows is simply a summary of ideas that seem to have gained popularity in recent years.
Religion's place of prominence
One common idea in the new atheism is that religion has enjoyed a privileged position in public discourse: that one does not criticize religion in the same way that one might criticize a movie, a philosophy, or a political movement. People like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have argued that this respect is undeserved, and that religion assertions must be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other assertion of fact. As a result, Dawkins is often accused of being "shrill" or angry, while others believe he is merely being forthright.
In a similar vein, in Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett argues that religion can and should be studied like any other phenomenon; not in the sense of theology, but rather the psychology, sociology, neurology, anthropology, etc. of religion.
Promoting acceptance of atheism
Few prominent atheists believe that religion can be completely eliminated any time soon, or that there will ever be a time when a majority of people count themselves as atheists.
However, religious figures have always portrayed atheism as undesirable, if not downright evil and immoral. The new atheism seeks to increase public acceptance of atheism, in the same way that the gay rights movement seeks to gain public acceptance of homosexuality.
Prominent atheists all seem to endorse rational thinking and science as the best way to know about the world (as opposed to intuition, for example). However, there has long been significant overlap between rationalism and atheism, so this is not something new to the new atheism, but rather a continuation of earlier themes.
A number of books supportive of atheism have become best-sellers in the United States and elsewhere, including:
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
- Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
- Sam Harris, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation
- Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Other notable books include:
- Root of All Evil?, hosted by Richard Dawkins