Almost five years ago, having been disturbed by the hostile and highly aggressive tone of the New Atheist movement, I wanted to do a small social experiment. I posted the following set of questions in several discussion groups in Facebook to check the pulse of the movement as a whole. The post read:
For those anti-theists who believe that religion is evil, wicked, deluded, violent, poisons everything and to raise a child with religious beliefs is a worse form of child abuse than sexually molesting them (aka you agree with Ditchkins and Harris et al), if you were given the reigns of the nation, how would you change the laws? For example, if religious education is really more damaging to a child than sexual predation, then why would you NOT make it illegal and punishable by lengthy prison sentences?
The answers that came in were shocking. They ranged from banning religion for anyone under 21, reclaiming all religious buildings, extreme privatization of religious expression to within one’s own home, removing children from religious parents, and so forth. It truly was a testament to the house that Dawkins and co. had built by that time.
However, thankfully most commentators and social observers have noticed basically the death of the New Atheism as a movement. Dawkins is viewed as largely passé and somewhat comical by even many atheists now. The movement has not been able to gain momentum around idealistic and almost utopian visions espoused triumphantly at Reason Rallies, which basically became echo chamber festivals and eventually diminished to the point of having to be cancelled due to their weight of their own lack of substance and inability to draw the crowds that it once had. It was all so… religious, what with Sunday Assemblies and all. Those who used to wear Dawkins’ visage on their favorite t-shirt, are now wishing he had never discovered Twitter. The scandals that rocked much up the upper echelon of its personalities regarding sexual assault, sexist remarks, and the trend toward an alt-right contrarian agenda all seemed to dry up whatever fuel was left in the tank.
Largely atheism has demilitarized. Of course you will find pockets of resistance, as in the case with any failed revolution – hold outs from the old guard kicking against the indignity of defeat and blaming the compromisers of their own regime; don't you worry Coyne, you’ll always have the Alamo my friend. However, by and large the atheistic movement heading into the 2020’s is largely defanged compared to what it was coming into the 2010’s.
And for those who think that I am just some Christian apologist with my head in the clouds, wishing and inventing and spinning the myth of the death of the New Atheists from hay, this rapid demise of the movement was brought to my attention by numerous atheists who swore it to be true. I did not believe them in fact. Rumors of the final gasps of the movement seem to have begun as far back as 2013, seeing them largely moving away from reasoned disbelief (if that ever was accurate to their rhetoric is debatable) to all out anti-theistic evangelists. It did not get much attention back then and naysays were everywhere. By the time we reached 2015, many people were talking about the decline of the movement, or at least some major compromises being made away from harsh polemics to a tactic of “well… let’s learn to get along.” The old “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” rhetoric of Dawkins’ pontifications of Reason Rallies gone by just would not cut it anymore as a public strategy. How could they win over the mostly religious public by insulting them publicly? I suppose that glaring tactical error never crossed their well-reasoned minds.
By July of 2018, National Review was prepared to pronounce the obituary on the movement. By August American Thinker confirmed its death. By the end of August, Metamodernist had notified its widow. From my conversations with many atheists online, I find that they were either too young in the movement to really even notice the change since they didn’t know the good ol’ days to begin with, or they had long seen it coming, had done some time with hospice care, and were ready themselves to move on with their lives with the newer, sleeker Atheism XP.
The religious should not celebrate victory over the New Atheism too early however. While it is yet to be seen if the philosophical and conceptual content of this new trimmed down and leaner atheism is really any different or will faire any better under scrutiny than the dogmatic, fundamentalistic extremism of the decade before, what has been accomplished is the shedding away of some of the more publicly distasteful and belligerent aspects of the movement which largely kept it in the spotlight but also maintained its ultimate irrelevance. Their rhetoric was provocative to be sure, but the substance was mostly puerile and vapid. Will the new and improved Online Infidel 2.0 be more successful after shedding the ethos of the angry and ignorant elitist? We shall see. In one sense, the New Atheism is dead and buried – but what is rising in its place still has an unsure fate. Yet without much of the seeming animosity (or at least lacking the desire or will to really be all that angry at the gods and the church and blame them for all the world's ills any longer), will they be more successful and garner more support for the culture as a whole? Will they be able to gain a culture or political standing more than they had in the past or will it just be another phase? We could even ask the more sinister and skeptical question - is the old guard simply resting, in hibernation waiting for warmer weather before trying to take Mount Olympus from the gods again?
Time will tell.
So having come to agree with my atheistic friends that the official New Atheistic movement, with its bombastic rhetoric and fundamentalistic demonization of all they opposed, is ostensibly gone, I then wondered more about what had taken its place. I mean, I was still interacting with atheists – they were still endorsing absurd Jesus Myth views and parroting many of the same nonsensical memes about Flying Spaghetti Monsters that I had seen for over a decade. So if the New Atheism was in fact dead, why did it look so much the same? And what really remained?
So the other day I decided to re-administer the same set of questions I had before. I was curious – would they give the same answers revealing the same level of hostility as before – in 2013, what appears to have been the zenith before the decline? Would they still be that anti-religious but just more experienced now to articulate it in a less offensive manner? Or had they really grown and matured to the point of being productive members of this thing we called Western culture, able to work together with those across the aisle (no matter how stupid and backwards they think they are)?
Well the results came in. Sure, there were some who simply accused my question of being dishonest and as a Christian surely all I wanted to do was ignore what they said and argue with them – the fundamentalists aren’t completely gone. Yet with very few exceptions what I found were responses such as, “well I don’t agree with it, and I think in some cases religious upbringing could result in child abuse, but the first amendment covers their right to raise their kids how they see fit.” Other more moderate responses were along the lines of making sure that religion was not overtly taught in publicly funded schools. Yet the overwhelming majority, had one response to how they would change religious interaction with the public political square; one common answer to how they would correct the excesses of religion and relegate the harm it has on society – taxes. After all, we are told only two things are certain, and the New Atheists have already tried death...
In my next article I will explore the issue of tax exemption and the church.