"New Atheism" is New
Updated: Jun 4
“In 2004 Sam Harris published The End of Faith, Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. This marked the first of a series of six best-selling books that took a harder line against religion than had been the custom among secularists. This movement has been termed New Atheism.”
- Victor Stenger
Have you ever walked down the aisle in the grocery store and found a box of cereal you’ve purchased many times before with a bold new label saying “new and improved?” After you purchased it and ate it for breakfast, you found yourself asking, “What was new about that?” That’s sort of the way “New Atheism” is.
Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens have been called the “four horsemen” of New Atheism. Victor Stenger would consider himself to be among them. Collectively, they’ve written and sold about four million books promoting atheism. Yet, when you read their books, you find the same basic ingredients.
Atheism 100 years ago
Atheism of the late 1800s and early 1900s was generally built on at least six basic ideas. They’re evident in the writings of Ernst Haeckel and Ludwig Büchner in Germany, Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Gustav Spiller, William Clifford and Annie Besant in Britain and Robert Ingersoll in the United States.
1. Science is the modern way of knowing – The scientific method, microscopes and other instruments spurred a huge wave of discovery. Science was seen as fact-based, reliable and capable of discovering anything. Faith, on the other hand, was called belief without evidence and reason.
2. God isn’t needed as an explanation – To many, scientific materialism and reductionism had provided the answers to the origins of life and natural complexity. Matter was seen as eternal, the Universe was infinite, life just happened, atoms and protoplasm were simple building blocks and natural selection solved the riddle of complexity. They concluded, if people could understand the universe and explain it without God, God must not exist.
3. Religion is outdated and harmful – Religion was seen as the invention of primitive superstitious people. Its institutions were viewed as autocratic and standing in the way of intellectual progress. And, after the European wars of religion of the 1600s, it was seen as a source of social conflict. Surely modern people didn’t need it.
4. God isn’t needed for morality – In the early 1900s, ethical societies were all the rage. People didn’t need God or religion to be moral; they possessed an internal authority and could improve themselves and society without God.
5. Belief without evidence is wrong – The idea that it’s wrong to believe anything without sufficient evidence was proposed and embraced by many. Historical “proofs” for God were seen as unscientific and inadequate.
6. Pain and suffering disprove God – Even prior to World War I, the idea that pain, suffering and injustice were evidence against the existence of God was part of atheism’s case.
7. Historic proofs for God fail - Anslem's and Aquinas' logical proofs for God were seen as inadequate.
These were the basic ingredients of old atheism.
What’s new about New Atheism?
Alex Rosenberg, an atheist philosopher, doesn’t see anything new about New Atheism. To him, arguments presented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens against theism are not original. He sees them as repeats of age-old arguments that have had little effect in changing theists’ minds This raises a great question. If even other atheists see nothing “new and improved” about New Atheism, why is it called new?
Victor Stenger, in his book The New Atheism, highlights the biggest difference between the atheism of the 1900s and that of today – disrespect.
“Perhaps the most unique position of New Atheism is that faith, which is belief without supportive evidence, should not be given the respect, even deference, it obtains in modern society. Faith is always foolish and leads to the many evils of society.”
- Victor Stenger
Richard Dawkins belittles those who believe in God. David Silverman and Christopher Hitchens employ insults and anger. PZ Myers, somewhat more civilly, makes believers the brunt of jokes. However, attacks in any form are not well-meaning engagement. If what they believe is true, they should be able to kindly engage with opposing ideas and prevail. Tactics, resembling those of adolescents, would suggest flaws in New Atheism’s case.
New Atheism’s problems
New Atheism, in fact, does have problems – a lot of problems.
1. Science is not the only way of knowing – The natural sciences are applied disciplines using philosophy, language and mathematics. Other disciplines also use these tools. Science is also self-limiting to the physical. Consequently, if science is the only way of knowing, personal experience and history mean nothing and beauty, value, morality, meaning, purpose and love either don’t exist or are subjective concepts.
2. Evidence supports God – The scientific discoveries of the past 100 years actually do provide evidence for God. Here are just a few examples:
> A beginning – The big bang and the expansion of the Universe suggests there was a beginning. Matter, energy, time, space, and laws are not eternal. This implies a nonphysical first-cause.
> The Universe is not infinite – The universe is limited in space and time. This “boundary problem” has no physical answer. It implies a nonphysical limiter.
> Physics is not simple – Atoms are not simple building blocks. There are at least 17 fundamental particles, 4 fundamental forces, 26 constants, boundaries, complex structure, and laws. At the lowest levels of physics there is structure and complexity. This implies a designer.
> Information is needed – Structured purposeful information is a predecessor to life. This implies prior intelligence.
> Protoplasm isn’t the life-force – The idea that protoplasm in the cell is the universal life-force was destroyed by the discovery of DNA, its imbedded language, database, programs, self-replication and 3.1 billion characters of information. Programs imply a programmer.
> Natural selection is inadequate – The complexity in life could not have occurred randomly (based on the probabilistic boundaries of the universe) in the time available. This implies direction.
3. Rational belief – The idea that religion is blind acceptance of ancient superstition has also been dealt severe blows. Many scientists and philosophers, who were atheists, have reached the rational evidence-based conclusion that God does exist. And, the idea that religion is the greatest cause of war has been shown false by history.
4. God is needed for the morality we want – Morality starts with personhood and value. For everyone to be equally regarded as a person and possess the kind value we want – high, equal, universal and unchanging – it does require God.
5. Belief in God is not morally wrong – A strong scientific and philosophical case can be made for the existence of God. However, if science limits itself to physical explanations, it can never establish evidence for God’s non-existence.
6. Pain and suffering don’t disprove God – Most of the suffering mankind endured during the 20th century was man-made. Mankind’s imposition of harm on mankind only proves that we have the ability and freedom to make bad decisions.
7. Historic proofs are inadequate - With scientific discoveries since 1900, Anslem's and Aquinas' logical proofs have new-found credibility.
Are all atheists “New Atheists?”
Fortunately, not all modern atheists employ the methods of “New Atheism.” Based on my readings, atheist philosophers like Thomas Nagel, Alex Rosenberg, David Chalmers, Peter Singer and Kai Nielsen can be intellectually engaging without condescension, insults, anger or mockery. Many atheist scientists are kind as well. Disrespect need not be the tool of New Atheism.
Does New Atheism make sense?
There are obviously serious flaws in the ideas presented by many new atheists. They are generally the ideas of old atheism and often fail to respond to the challenges presented by science and reality. So, to call New Atheism “new” makes little sense.
The core assumption of New Atheism is also flawed. When Victor Stenger says faith is “belief without supportive evidence” he betrays a bias of atheism. It’s the assumption that people who believe in God have done so without evidence or reason. This is not the case. About 90% of American college graduates think God exists. They used their minds to reach this conclusion.
Finally, the new method of New Atheism – disrespect – also makes little sense. Insults, anger and ridicule seem a strange method to win converts. If you want others to consider your ideas, try being nice!
 Victor Stenger, The New Atheism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 11.  Ingersoll and Huxley termed themselves agnostics, but attacked belief in God. Annie Besant ultimately rejected atheist and became a theosophist.  Gustav Spiller, Faith in Man (London, England: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Limited, 1908), v, vi, 10-11, 24, 129, 190.  Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2011), X.  Victor Stenger, The New Atheism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 15.  PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist (New York, NY: Vantage Books, 2013), 6-9, 135-136.  The Standard Model of Particle Physics states that the Universe began about 14 billion years ago.  This observation is based on their books I have read. Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill. Photo purchased from iStock.