I often wonder just what is meant by the phrase “The New Atheists”. I think it depends on the speaker – it generally seems to mean something like “atheists who are prominent in the public sphere (unlike the good-ol’ days)” or “atheists who are more aggressive/irritating than they used to be”.
But prominent, assertive, active atheism is by no means new. Consider these quotes from Robert Green Ingersoll:
I will not attack your doctrines nor your creeds if they accord liberty to me. If they hold thought to be dangerous – if they aver that doubt is a crime, then I attack them one and all, because they enslave the minds of men.
Religion has not civilized man — man has civilized religion. God improves as man advances.
If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the New, he would be insane.
Ignorance is the soil in which belief in miracles grows.
In fact, listen to the podcast of his works.
Sound familiar? Now, Ingersoll was no minor figure. According to Tom Flynn (interviewed on Point of Inquiry), he was a very well-known public lecturer in America, as well as a campaigner for the Republican party. That’s over 100 years ago.
In fact, public atheism is millennia old, and the irritation it provides to entrenched religious beliefs is just as old. Consider Socrates, who was executed for spreading ideas considered harmful to the youth of the day. (It may be difficult to disentangle the religious from the political motivations for his prosecution – but I’ve no doubt that his enemies used religion in their arguments against him.)
In fact, I suspect that the main reason many people use the label “new” is that they people would like to consider this latest upswing of vocal religious dissent to be a flash-in-the-pan. They want it to be a fad which, like bell bottoms and mullets, will soon be a thing of the past.
Now, I don’t know if they had mullets in Socrates’ time, and “bell-bottom togas” seems redundant, but the “new” atheism is no passing fad. The only thing new about it, in fact, is probably that it’s the first time many of these individuals have been confronted with confident assertions of atheist belief. So the next time someone uses the phrase “new atheism”, I’ll think “new-to-you, maybe”.
For anyone interested in sampling the long tradition of atheist thought, I recommend the Humanist Anthology, edited by Margaret Knight and revised by Jim Herrick. I was given a copy for my birthday this last year, and have been discovering and rediscovering many beautiful nuggets of humanist compassion and reson, from the ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers to modern atheist writers.