Which Authors Were Known to Oppose Christianity?
By 2014, many Americans had forgotten about New Atheism. For liberal Americans in the depths of the Bush years, anti-religious best sellers by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens came as—for lack of a better word—a godsend. With the Christian right in the White House, and jihadist terrorism perceived to be a constant danger in the wake of 9/11, a vocal rationalist atheism appeared to many a natural and necessary counterweight. But after nearly six years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Bush and his born-again gang were far from the high seats of power, the War on Terror was no longer a feature of most people’s daily lives, and there was a widespread impression of leftward progress on social issues. The services of the anti-religious crusaders were no longer needed.
The New Atheists are authors of early twenty-first century books promoting atheism. These authors include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. The “New Atheist” label for these critics of religion and religious belief emerged out of journalistic commentary on the contents and impacts of their books. A standard observation is that New Atheist authors exhibit an unusually high level of confidence in their views. Reviewers have noted that these authors tend to be motivated by a sense of moral concern and even outrage about the effects of religious beliefs on the global scene. It is difficult to identify anything philosophically unprecedented in their positions and arguments, but the New Atheists have provoked considerable controversy with their body of work. In spite of their different approaches and occupations (only Dennett is a professional philosopher), the New Atheists tend to share a general set of assumptions and viewpoints. These positions constitute the background theoretical framework that is known as the New Atheism. The framework has a metaphysical component, an epistemological component, and an ethical component. Regarding the metaphysical component, the New Atheist authors share the central belief that there is no supernatural or divine reality of any kind. The epistemological component is their common claim that religious belief is irrational. The moral component is the assumption that there is a universal and objective secular moral standard. This moral component sets them apart from other prominent historical atheists such as Nietzsche and Sartre, and it plays a pivotal role in their arguments because it is used to conclude that religion is bad in various ways, although Dennett is more reserved than the other three. The New Atheists make substantial use of the natural sciences in both their criticisms of theistic belief and in their proposed explanations of its origin and evolution. They draw on science for recommended alternatives to religion. They believe empirical science is the only (or at least the best) basis for genuine knowledge of the world, and they insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence.
To conclude, the question of what, if anything, is genuinely “new” about new atheism is one that has yet to be properly addressed. Critics of new atheism, as well as many new atheists themselves, contend that in philosophical terms it differs little from earlier historical forms of atheist thought. But while continuities with earlier varieties of atheism are apparent, new atheism is also unique in a number of important ways. The expansive political activities of new atheism, in particular its hybrid mix of Enlightenment-based rationality with postmodern themes of identity and culture, signal a clear departure from the unbelievers of years gone by.