I’ve been meaning to write this column for a couple of years. In the blogosphere, in the pages of other freethought publications, even sometimes in Free Inquiry, people chatter about the “New Atheism” as if it were a movement. They gossip about New Atheists as if such people exist. However belatedly, allow me to perform for my fellow secular humanists the public service that it’s said the New Atheists seek to perform for humanity at large, namely, dispelling a falsehood. There is no such thing as the New Atheism. It follows, then, as surely as junk e-mail follows an online purchase, that there are no such persons as New Atheists.
So how did the idea get abroad that such unicornish entities exist?
In the beginning, there was Sam Harris. (Though it wasn’t the beginning at all. But I get ahead of myself.) In August 2004, W.W. Norton published his fiery The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Beyond question, it was the most radical and blistering attack against religion released by a major publisher to that time. In February 2006, Viking published Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, a thoughtful, scholarly tome that further developed themes he’d explored in previous books, including Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Because Dennett called for religion to be treated as a human phenomenon—that is, under the assumption that its supernatural claims are untrue—Breaking the Spell came to be seen as an unlikely companion to The End of Faith.
In September 2006, Richard Dawkins unleashed his own ninja strike at religion, The God Delusion (published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and the die was cast. In an article in the November 2006 issue of Wired titled “The Church of the Non-Believers,” Gary Wolf, a journalist best known for profiles of cyberworld icons Ted Nelson and Steve Wozniak, wrote: “The New Atheists 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. Now that the battle has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking.
“Three writers have sounded this call to arms.”
You guessed it. Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins were “the New Atheists.”
In May 2007, this estimable trio gained a fourth: Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great was published by the new high-luster imprint Twelve. Pundits dubbed Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens “the Four Horsemen,” releasing “New Atheist” to be taken up by anyone who’d been touched by the Horsemen’s writings. A movement was aborning, or at least being written about with feverish energy.
If only there were New Atheists.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming that Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens don’t exist. Nor am I suggesting that their books do not merit the attention they’ve received. Far from it. It’s just that, with all due respect to my friend Vic Stenger (see Leading Questions, page 6) there’s nothing new about the New Atheism.
Let me say that again in bolder type. There’s nothing new about the New Atheism.
How can this be? The key to the mischief lies in that phrase I used to describe The End of Faith: “the most radical and blistering attack against religion released by a major publisher” [emphasis added]. An “establishment” press releasing a freethought title in 2004 was a breakthrough. Oddly, the book in question was not The End of Faith (I told you it wasn’t the beginning). Four months before Harris’s book appeared, Susan Jacoby’s magisterial history, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, was published by Metropolitan, a Macmillan imprint. It, not End of Faith, was the breakthrough title. But Freethinkers was a sober history, not a polemic, so it fell to the incendiary Harris to make the pundits think something new was afoot.
Something new was afoot, but it was only this: for the first time, uncompromising atheist writing was coming from big-name publishers and hitting best-seller lists. You could buy it at the airport. In consequence, people who had never before experienced atheist rhetoric got their first exposure to arguments that had formerly been published only by movement presses. One of these newcomers was Wired’s Gary Wolf. Encountering sledgehammer assaults upon religion that he had never seen before, knowing nothing of freethought’s rich, enclaved history, he thought he was seeing something genuinely new. And the New Atheism was born—out of ignorance, ironically enough.
But it was nothing new. Readers familiar with nineteenth- and twentieth-century freethought literature—which, of course, most people weren’t—knew that everything the Horsemen were being praised and condemned for had been done before. Well. Many times. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, articulate writers had declared religion untrue, faith a social evil, and the archetypal stories told by the world’s great creeds nothing but clumsy legends. Names from Robert Green Ingersoll to Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Bertrand Russell, Chapman Cohen, Joseph McCabe, and Joseph Lewis come to mind, and I’m only scratching the surface (McCabe in particular drew from the best science of his day tools with which to bludgeon faith no less effectively than Dawkins or Stenger in our own). Then there’s Paul Kurtz’s 1987 The Transcendental Temptation, a rigorous deconstruction of (among other things) the Abrahamic traditions that can stand alongside anything the Horsemen wrote.
The difference is that when “movement” material came from publishers like Watts and Company, the Rationalist Press Association, the J.P. Mendum Company, the Truth Seeker Company, and to a degree even Haldeman-Julius and present-day Prometheus Books, it tended to stay within the movement. The triumph of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens was to take arguments against religion that were long familiar to insiders, brilliantly repackage them, and expose them to millions who would never otherwise pick up an atheist book. That’s no small achievement. But too many commentators lacking the requisite historical background have treated them as though the horsemen invented atheism. Not so!
That’s why I think it is important to recognize that there is no New Atheism. There are no New Atheists. There is atheism, and there are atheists. A spectrum of national atheist, freethought, secular humanist, and religious humanist organizaztions already stands prepared to serve unbelievers of many inclinations, without the need for any New Atheist group to hang out its shingle. Atheism and its companion life stances can be proud of roots that extend far, far deeper than (snicker) 2004.
The so-called Four Horsemen deserve admiration for exposing millions of contemporary readers to refutations of traditional religion that our movement has been burnishing for decades, sometimes centuries. We need to do a better job of sharing the rich literary and organizational history out of which these ideas sprang. At the same time, secular humanists need to do all they can to encourage people newly drawn to atheism to make the added journey to the fully rounded, exuberant lifestance we call secular humanism.
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Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007).