The Death of ‘New Atheism’

By Tom Gilson Published on October 27, 2017

For a while it seemed like a movement set to take on the world. Today it’s gasping for a few last hopeless breaths of seeming respectability.

“New Atheism” hit the world like a storm in the early 2000s. It started with a small book by Sam Harris titled The End of Faith, arguing that 9/11 happened because “faith” does that kind of thing. Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins each published strident, mostly angry atheistic books soon after. They got the title “the Four Horsemen” of New Atheism.

Dawkins rolled on to gain international rock star status, capped perhaps by his appearance at the March 2012 “Reason Rally” on the Mall in Washington, D.C., It drew an impressive 10,000 to 20,000 attendees on a damp and blustery spring day.

Now even secular people say that New Atheism has grown old and tired.

Seeds of Decay

The seeds of its decay were in it from the beginning. It called itself a movement of reason. But its “reason” was never about thinking well to reach sound conclusions. It was about starting with the one approved test and reaching the one approved conclusion: “If it isn’t scientific, you can’t know it’s true; therefore you can’t believe anything religion says.” That claim itself can’t be proven scientifically, which makes it not much of a foundation for “reason.”

I was at the Reason Rally in 2012, along with a group from the Ratio Christi campus ministry. One of the atheist stars on stage that day, a singer/pianist whose name I have mercifully forgotten, sang a song about the Pope that featured more than 70 instances of the F-word. My friend Blake and I spoke with P.Z. Myers, biology professor from Minnesota and a second-layer New Atheist leader, who told us he could never visit any church because he couldn’t be civil there.

I had an extended conversation with an attendee who didn’t care much about Jesus’ resurrection, but was intensely interested in “how the donkey talked.”

That was just over four years ago: Has anyone heard from Richard Dawkins since then?

Dawkins himself urged the crowd to take up the (ahem) reasonable strategy of ridiculing Christians’ beliefs. The next year he was voted the world’s “top public intellectual.” That was just over four years ago: Has anyone heard from Richard Dawkins since then?

Elevatorgate and In-Fighting

A few people have. Atheists, actually. And they’re not happy. He’d gotten himself involved in discussions over “Elevatorgate,” an incidence of alleged sexual harassment taking place at a 2011 atheist convention. He’d embarrassed both himself and the whole atheist movement with sexist comments on Twitter.

It was perhaps the earliest sign of atheist in-fighting over what to believe, how to behave, and more. No one in the movement — and least of all Dawkins, the movement’s leader — has come out of it looking very strong.

There’s more behind New Atheism’s collapse, including, per the ever-insightful Shadow to Light blog, the New Atheists’ “failure to gain traction in academia,” which I would rephrase as their failure to produce any intellectually respectable thinking on their side. There are solid-thinking atheists, but they have stayed clear of this New Atheist movement.

Shadow to Light also attributes New Atheism’s demise to the election of President Obama, which stripped the in-fighting New Atheists of a useful common political enemy. And to Richard Dawkins himself:

In essence, Dawkins shredded his credibility with a thousand cuts courtesy of Twitter.  It all culminated with the once popular science author being deplatformed, an event that contributed to his stroke and the end of his twitter popularity.

And with that, the New Atheist movement was gone. 

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