For Discussion: What is a “New Atheist”?

At the annual meeting of the SBL Hector Avalos argued the distinguishing characteristic of the New Atheist was a secular apocalyptic, that is, a focus on the dangers of religion in an age of weapons of mass destruction. Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry and The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief recently argued there is nothing new with the New Atheism. Then (believe this or not) some people think my Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) is "Not quite new, but not old either…Just atheist." But I'm here to tell everyone that what may really distinguish a so-called New Atheist from an Old Atheist is the moral perspective found in Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape, which Richard Carrier shares in the last chapter for the forthcoming anthology, The End of Christianity. In any case, what do you think?


LadyAtheist said...

"New Atheist" means people who won't put up and shut up. I think bringing the moral element to the fore is important too. Dawkins made the case that morality throughout Christian history was totally independent of the teachings of the Bible. The next step is for atheists to be openly MORAL and set good examples, or at least equal examples. Considering the sex scandals of both Catholic & Protestant "leaders" now is the time!

Leah said...

My impression is that "New Atheist" was a term the media thrust on people speaking out against the dangers of religion, and since it's a relatively new term, I don't think it has a concrete definition.

I'm not sure where I would categorize myself. I oppose fundamentalism and other forms of sick religion. I think religion is imaginary, but I still like many aspects of it, in face I go to church myself because I like the ritual of it.

Adrian said...

A focus on the dangers? Maybe a chapter or two of Sam Harris's books and arguably some of Hitchens but Dawkins, Dennet, Myers and the up-and-commers Cristina, Benson, Mehta, Coyne and even Loftus focus on the simple fact that religion is wrong. I think Avalos is wrong and there's very little focus on the dangers.

LEH above has it right, "New Atheists" are newer than the atheists of the 1950s-90s in that they are (gasp) speaking up. They're out of the closet and unlike some atheists like Nietzche who placed so much value on religion that he thought society would go pfut without it, the New Atheists think religion holds us back and we'll do just fine without it.

My personal favourite rebranding is the "Gnu Atheist". Not sure where it got started but I first saw it at:

admin said...

Arguing over the definition of New Atheist, or whether New Atheists exist as a group distinguishable from other atheists, is like arguing over what constitutes Web 2.0. These are informal terms that will always be vague and subjective.

BeamStalk said...

*sigh* More of this new atheist crap.

Let me quote some things about Diagoras of Melos (5th Century BCE):

"Diagoras, who was further charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips,"

"In another famous story, a friend pointed out an expensive display of votive gifts and said, "You think the gods have no care for man? Why, you can see from all these votive pictures here how many people have escaped the fury of storms at sea by praying to the gods who have brought them safe to harbor." To which Diagoras replied, "Yes, indeed, but where are the pictures of all those who suffered shipwreck and perished in the waves?""

Yep new atheism as recent as 5th Century BCE.

d r melbie said...

Considering that atheists in America are viewed as being 'lower' than even minorities and homosexuals, any description of freethinkers is welcome by me. One can only hope that we can become a strong enough voice crying out in the wilderness of religious bigotry and prejudice. Just look at the recent fuss over the Park 51 Community Center in Lower Manhattan. Where is the viewpoint of the 'New Atheists?' I have yet to hear any of them weighing in on this issue, which is fanning the flames of hatred in our nation.

Mark Plus said...

I'd add Gregory S. Paul and Phil Zuckerman to the list of "New Atheists." They bring empirical evidence to the debate showing that people have only a weak attachment to religion, which they readily let go of when they grow up with adequate living conditions like the residents of most developed democratic countries.

Zuckerman, in particular, has shown from the social science literature that atheists display a set of moral beliefs which distinguish them from conservative theists. In general atheists tend to advocate treating "different" people with less hostility and violence than theists. For example, atheists display less anti-Semitism, less sexism, less support for the use of torture, less support for capital punishment and so forth than theists.

Mark Plus said...

@ David:

"Just look at the recent fuss over the Park 51 Community Center in Lower Manhattan. Where is the viewpoint of the 'New Atheists?' I have yet to hear any of them weighing in on this issue, which is fanning the flames of hatred in our nation."

Sam Harris has published an opinion.

Adrian said...

Right, none of the New Atheists wrote about the mosque, except for Sam Harris (already linked), PZ Meyers (, Jerry Coyne ( and Christopher Hitchens ( But you know, apart from some of the most prominent ones who spoke out, no one did.


dfsd said...

There's a problem though. It is exchanging one religion for another. "lets debunk christianity to form our own religion." Everyone is religious without question--you might be in the religion of self promotion and have faith in you. Where does this lead? How many members are there? What are the consequences?

Tarthus said...

I feel that the term "New Athieist" Is a way for Theiests to address additionall concenrs towards the threat they see that we are to the word. Stating that we are "NEW," To them, implies that we have much more dirty tricks to day to attack God and this makes us even more formitable.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

RE: I think Avalos is wrong and there's very little focus on the dangers."

The reason I argue that the New Atheism is characterized by a secular apocalypticism is as follows:

1. The majority of the atheist best-selling titles
were written after 9-11.

2. Hitchens's god is not Great (p. 280) mentioned the nuclear capabilities of some Muslim countries, and said:

"This puts the confrontation between faith and civilization on a whole new became worse on September 11, 2001...the succeeding stage, very plainly announced in hysterical sermons, was to be the moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincided with Armageddon weaponry."

3. The movie, Religulous, starts and ends at Armageddon, and so has furthered the theme of the potential of religion to destroy our world

4. My book, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005) focuses on the dangers of religion to destroy the world.

5. John Loftus said in his SBL paper last November:
"As such, professor Hector Avalos accurately pinpoints what is missed most often as the hallmark of New Atheism, a secular apocalyptic."

6. Samuel P. Huntington had developed a clash of civilizations thesis in the 1990s that has undercurrents in some New Atheist literature. Most people miss some of the political theory behind the New Atheism.

7. While atheism is not new, very little, if any, atheist literature before 9-11 discussed the potential of religion to destroy our world. Pre-9-11 atheist literature mostly focussed on the philosophical, social, or ethical problems rather than on a catastrophic potential to end the planet.

So that is one thing that is mostly new in the New Atheism.

The New Atheists are much broader now than Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. There is a need to understand why the movement emerged so strongly after 9-11 despite the fact that Dawkins had been writing for years.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

I should add that I will have an article on this idea in a forthcoming reference work:

"Explaining Religious Violence: Retrospects and Prospects" in the Blackwell Companion to Religion
and Violence.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much Hector, I should have responded myself to Tyro. There should be no doubt that what thrust atheism front and center was Sam Harris's book, The End of Faith, even though he is not actually an atheist. And he started writing that book on 9/11!

I had several email exchanges with Tom Flynn who said there was an atheist conference after Hal Lindsay's book, "The Late Great Planet Earth," where Lindsay claimed there would be a nuclear world ending destruction. Sure, okay. But there was nothing that followed because of it, no bestselling atheist books, no talk of the town, no increase in the numbers of atheists.

The so-called New Atheism is a cultural phenomenon set off by the actual destruction on American soil of about 3500 lives by religious nuts, something that had never happened before. The New Atheists are very concerned that does not happen again.

Buffy said...

New Atheists are the ones who don't accept the status quo, are out of the closet, and are vocal about their atheism.

Adrian said...

I don't contest that 9/11 was an inspiration for Sam Harris and who knows what the Religulous gang were thinking. I don't know that much about earlier atheists but in what little I have seen, they haven't argued that religion can lead us to harm. Indeed, people like Nietzche seemed to believe that religion was what was keeping us good!

Which leads me to what I think is actually going on. It isn't apocalyptic thinking except as a chokingly large hyperbole (poor science education in Texas, "oh no, the world is ending!"). It's rejecting the claim that belief helps make us moral and instead arguing that we're moral in spite of belief (a la Dawkins' "Moral Zeitgeist"). It's rejecting the privileged position that the church held to make moral pronouncements.

To this extent, Hitchens may have gotten there well before 9/11 with "The Missionary Position" where he exposed Mother Teresa for a cruel apologist.

So yes, Sam Harris in 2001 was very focused on the harm that religion could play but even he has largely left the subject and instead is focused on the bigger issue of providing a moral process independent of religion. Where's the doom-sayers, the apocalyptic beliefs? Instead we get a calm TED Talk about science informing morality.

Like many other comparisons between atheists and religious folk (militant muslims stab or behead enemies, "militant" atheists use stern words in an Op Ed), this one seems stretched to breaking.

1. The majority of the atheist best-selling titles
were written after 9-11.

The publishing world has changed, sure, but I don't see how this means 9/11 is a core (or even significant) part of the NA. Our culture changes and people are speaking openly about atheism now where once it was closeted. (The majority of gay tv and movie characters came out after 9-11 also!)

Another major factor has been the rise of blogs which really took off in 2002. This is why Pharyngula was launched, again as a complete co-incidence (it started out as a class communication mechanism). This has given voice to many people who were formerly hidden and voiceless. Just a co-incidence that this happened after 9/11.

2. Hitchens's god is not Great (p. 280) mentioned the nuclear capabilities of some Muslim countries, and said:

A more complete & fair summation would be that Hitchens (and others) are not content to show that religion is wrong but they argue that religion and religious belief don't improve morality and can make it worse. They argue that we aren't moral because of the bible, we're moral in spite of it.

Is that apocalyptic?

Adrian said...

Just to add, "apocalypse" is the end of the world. A fiery end time. With apocalyptic preachers or writers, they thump on about this a significant part of the time, whether to lust after it or to caution against it.

The worst example you can come up with was a couple of writers saying that religion can lead to conflict and wars, something which is already happening. No one is talking about an apocalypse, no one is talking about the end times. Indeed, the closest quote you have is Hitchens warning us against just the sort of apocalyptic ravings that happens within the religious communities!

In the best tradition of religious smear artists, atheists become dogmatic by asking for evidence, militant by writing op eds (without hinting at violence), and now are apocalyptic by discussing the harm of irrational violence. It's double speak.

(And please, I'm sorry for writing after WS. I find him as repulsive as everyone else here, even if he's also disagreeing with Dr Avalos. I'm not with him, he's not with me!)

Papalinton said...

I think the term 'new atheist' has emerged from the confluence of a number of social issues reflecting that its time had arrived. It includes secular apocalyptic sentiment following 9/11. It includes the first and second forays into Iraq, and the long continuing debacle in Afghanistan. It includes the exponential growth in the descriptive and explanatory power of the sciences to offer alternative perspectives to much in society that was just accepted, taken for granted based on theological, traditional, and folk lore etc. What is occurring in Africa is a testament of the malaise of perpetrated by theism an no lessons have been learned from the conquistadores in Central America and South America. Indeed, have any lessons been learned by the religious ethnic cleansing of the Balkans? Atheism has always been here, as some commentators here have rightfully pointed out, since the earliest of times. But it was always an uphill struggle when any such contra-theo talk would likely conclude at the end of a rope. They say the difference between 'old' and 'new' atheists is that christians are no longer allowed to burn them at the stake.
But it is the timing that distinguishes the 'new' form. And 9/11 played a large part in its catalyst role. Enough was enough. The right wing, screaming, raving christian fundamentalists in the US, together with the truly blindly irrational, dangerous and frightening motives of islamic fundamentalism from its sister faith was simply the tipping point for most fair-minded, reasoned thinking people around the world. Not only were we concerned about the events in the middle east, but we also began to scrutinise our own backyard, to challenge and clean up our own filthy mess, if society is to progress. No more was theism to be handled with soft gloves and accorded an undeserved and deferential place in our society. The roman catholic church blew it with its pastoral care of the young and Ratzi's connivance, the protestant fundamentalists blew it with their distasteful behaviour (Haggard, Bakker, Westboro Baptist, etc).

The second half of the 20thC was the point of coalescence of all these threads into 'new' atheism being not only a viable, but robust, commonsensical, and necessary alternative worldview. And the timing was right to hear humanist voices rise above the din of theism that had for so long been suppressed. Religion has had a consolidated hold on society since the Nicene Creed and for the next 1400 years to the Enlightenment, during which community began questioning the role of theism. What is happening now is the continuation of that questioning and is a sign of a groundswell that will emerge in transition from the post-modern era into the post-theism period of civilisation. There will be steps back and forward. But it is inexorable.

Keith Sewell said...

General agreement with the definitions here, and especially Buffy's. But I identify myself as an 'antitheist', on grounds of superior brevity and descriptiveness. The 'anti' nails my active opposition colors to the masthead.

As a vaguely relevant aside: Voltaire was confident that within 50 years of his death the only Bibles would be moldering in attics or museums. His mistake was in crediting our species with too much intellectual honesty.

Gandolf said...

IMHO maybe use of the particular word apocalyptic seems to tend to make it sound like it was maybe about some kind of divine prophetic revelation or spiritual dream.For some folks maybe it kinda puts it to much in a type of spiritual sounding religious light.

I dont see it as being anything like that.One doesnt need to be any kind of prophet with divine inspiration, to still be able to clearly see where any religion belief taught as being infallible ,has us all very likely to be headed toward. Crikey even many kindergarten kids these days can almost sense the writings really on the wall,its kind of lots like adding one plus one and realizing you have two.Religion taught as being infallible spells great trouble ,as history has already proved .Folks would need to be blind not to know it.

And i think the fact that special events such as 9/11 all of a sudden tended to make matters more obvious to many more people , causing many more of them to feel more need to become personally interested and involved. Is what tends to be translated by some folks as being like its some kind of religious movement , when in reality its no more religious than special interest in stamp collecting or following the rugby or having interest in matters of our childrens schooling etc.

Faithful folks would like to see the atheist movement as simply being another religion.It helps with propping up their denial of there actually being any real problems with religious faith.

Hector Avalos i think some atheists have become very wary and shy of use of any words that might have religious faith connotation .And its maybe because this is a line of attack, the manipulative folks in faith circles try using against us.

The reasons why many atheist are wary and shy of these things ,maybe? is because many folks totally understand ! the manipulative tendency of faithful folks very well.And im sure plenty feel its very important faith circles dont get simply handed the right to use their usual tricks as they feel like .And that fear i can kind of understand ,because its very true many theist are well known to twist things and use any underhand tactic they think they can get away with.

I think humans struggle with recovering from a world thats been dominated by mass religion .

It seems to me among atheists there are two groups.One group still feels a need for all atheists to have some kind of group think that to me almost seems still kind of remnant of religious ,these folk seem to think how another atheist might act or writes a book, somehow has to be accepted has some direct influence on ALL atheist as a whole group .Almost as if they fully accept the theist mindcontroling manipulation!,that yes atheism is just anouther faith group.Which im sure many theists would quite likely find very pleasing and heartening to see.The human flock is still quite easily controlable.

The other group fights for the right to have personal opinions ,to leave religious faith grouping behind and not be jammed into some special group as if we should still be some type of faith clones.

Mark Plus said...

@Keith Sewell:

"As a vaguely relevant aside: Voltaire was confident that within 50 years of his death the only Bibles would be moldering in attics or museums. His mistake was in crediting our species with too much intellectual honesty."

It took more like 250 years for that to happen in Voltaire's native France, and in much of the rest of Europe. The same process has started, belatedly, in the U.S. Refer to Gregory S. Paul's website.

It turns out that those Enlightenment intellectuals who predicted the decline of christianity as a result of the spread of education, science, reason, democratic government and prosperity had basically the right idea, even if they got the timing wrong.

I suspect the christians in the U.S. who adopt end-times beliefs have done so in response to this unfavorable historical trend, even though proponents of this nonsense like Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye and Jack Chick have all reached their 80's by now without getting raptured. They equate the coming "Jesus who?" era with the literal end of the world. I have news for them: Billions of human lives have come and gone in ignorance of christian teachings, and billions more will likely come and go after christianity has passed into obscurity, if not oblivion.

O'Brien said...

Mark Plus,

As a statistician, I think it's marvelous that you cite Gregory S. Paul, a dinosaur doodler. It reminds me of the conversation I had the other day with the pizza delivery boy concerning Kolmogorov's Three Series Theorem and the Lehmann–Scheffe Theorem. I wait with bated breath for Gregory S. Paul's groundbreaking studies that imply ice cream consumption causes polio and violent crime.

GearHedEd said...

I may be wrong, but I get the impression that "The New Atheists" is a reference by the Christian camp to the recently prominent authors (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, etc., etc...), intended to be disparaging toward us "regular Joe" bloggers who (in the Christians' view) blindly follow whatever our "leaders" tell us to. This, of course paints us "New Atheist" followers as uninformed band-wagoners, only claiming atheism because someone else said out loud that it's OK and rational to be an atheist.