It’s 2018 and 2019 is barreling down on us like a Barcelona bull. New Atheism is about 12 years old now. That may not seem like a long time, but in the fashion industry that’s ancient history. Like all media-fueled movements, New Atheism is a slave to fashion. I’m not saying non-theism or anti-theism are mere “fashions” but I am saying the culture of “New Atheism” is a slick rebellious attitude that may have been stylish in the past, but lately it’s trending downward.
It’s too early to eulogize the death of new atheism, yet we can still ask what up-and-coming styles might give new atheism a place of sanctuary in this changing cultural climate? And make no mistake, the cultural climate has changed drastically in the last twelve years. But first, take note of how New Atheism emerged in the first place.
Just before New Atheism debuted in 2006, many people were already itching to vent their gripes against religion. They didn’t always have a place to vent their complaints. In years past, people talked respectfully about the Bible and church, even if they didn’t go to church, and even if they didn’t believe in the Bible. That was the cover charge people paid to enjoy the social and cultural benefits of being in good standing with the local church. People didn’t want to upset parishioners or they’d be a social pariah. Critics could get a low social-credit rating if they couldn’t at least play nice with Christ. People generally accepted church as part of the social standards of the town, reinforcing solidarity and community. But, the local church is no longer the cultural center of the community. Critics still had gripes, but they couldn’t broadcast those complaints too loudly or they might ostracize themselves at work, on the town, or at the next family dinner.
But the local church is no longer the cultural center. It’s not the gateway towards societal acceptance. People can complain about religion without risking anything. And now they can unroll a mile-long list of grievances about pedophile priests, hypocrites, and swindlers. Bible history adds the Canaanite Slaughter, the sacrifice of Isaac, and slavery. And Church history chimes in with the Crusades, Inquisition, Witch Trials, more slavery, and discrimination against women and minorities. Critics had a lot of fuel for burning God in effigy.
The same critics often felt “smarter” than Christians because well-meaning, but soft-headed, believers kept using circular logic, emotional appeals, and talked like their Faith is a mindless emotion instead of a fact-based orientation toward reality. Plus, they never met anyone modeling intelligent Christian faith.
But, the intellect and a list of grievances are just part of the atheist profile. Altogether those people were just atheists, and not necessarily New Atheists. Another ingredient destabilizing reverence for the Church is the Twin Tower bombing. Critics and friends of religion were all rethinking things after 9/11. The bombs still ringing in our collective ears, we all had to wonder if at least some religions are cancerous? The war on terror and a war in Iraq recharged debate about whether Islam or any religion is peaceful. Of course, devout people often pushed deeper into their faith. But many critics and moderates pulled away.
Also, in the mid-2000’s, gay-marriage was a fringe issue, a European oddity. It didn’t look like it could happen in the U.S. There was not yet any clear alliance between the LGBTQ movement, political progressivism, and atheists.
In that time, most people couldn’t name a celebrity atheist, except maybe Lance Armstrong. The venerated atheist athlete of Tour De France fame was still a hero and not a scandalized has-been, yet.
Of course, new atheist types have been around long before 2006, but they didn’t have a fancy label till Gary Wolf of Wired Magazine first called them “New” Atheists in “Church of the Non-Believer” (11/1/06). The “new” atheists in Wolf’s article were not the quiet anti-theists hiding away in their school office.
They did two things very different from their atheist forefathers. The ringleaders, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet (1) defined their view as “non-belief” instead of disbelief – they retreated from the bold and hard-to-prove position fo saying “There is no God,” and instead defined atheism in a way that’s much easier to defend, “I have no God belief.” This may look like wordplay but it’s a monumental shift. This is definition shifts the burden of proof to theists so that atheists don’t have to go on the defensive, proving their atheism. Instead, they can demand that theists prove God exists since, “whoever makes the claim [i.e., theists] has the burden of proof.”
Perhaps the most impressive new achievement of this group, however, was their attitude. (2) The new atheists added militancy to their atheism. They are hostile towards religion, actively discouraging religion in the public square. They have also been quite evangelistic, writing books, traveling and speaking, and doing what they can to promote their anti-religious and non-theistic brand around the world.
In the 1980’s or even the 1990’s, these efforts didn’t have the technological wings to fly. But, with the drifting and depleting influence of local churches, the gradually eroding American family (i.e., divorce rate, birth rate, domestic abuse, etc.), the New Atheists finally had an audience who was willing to meet them half-way. The prospect of a sexed-up version of atheism could have popular appeal in the budding internet age social media, chat rooms, and blogging empowered socially awkward anonymous critics to reign as Kings!
It’s no surprise that New Atheists had popular appeal. It’s rebellious, confident, and independent. Instead of the geeky lab-coated agnostic squirreled away in his lab or office, atheism could finally rock the leather jacket. People finally had a fashionable alternative to religious conformity. They could question Christianity, reject the line about “peaceful Islam,” and still find lots of other people who agreed with them. . . . .