New Atheism

The Four Horsemen

New Atheism is the name given to the ideas promoted by a collection of 21st-century atheist writers who have advocated the view that ‘religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.’

The term is commonly associated with individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (together called ‘the Four Horsemen of New Atheism’ in a 2007 debate they held on their criticisms of religion, a name that has stuck) and Victor J. Stenger. Several best-selling books by these authors, published between 2004 and 2007, form the basis for much of the discussion of New Atheism.

The 2004 publication of ‘The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason’ by Sam Harris, a bestseller in the US, marked the first of a series of popular bestsellers. Harris was motivated by the events of 9/11 which he laid directly at the feet of Islam, while also directly criticizing Christianity and Judaism. Two years later Harris followed up with ‘Letter to a Christian Nation,’ which was also a severe criticism of Christianity. Also that year, following his television documentary ‘The Root of All Evil?’, Richard Dawkins published ‘The God Delusion,’ which was a bestseller for 51 weeks. Other milestone publications include ‘Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon’ by Daniel C. Dennett (2006); ‘God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist’ by Victor J. Stenger (2007); and ‘God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’ by Christopher Hitchens (2007).

The New Atheists write mainly from a scientific perspective. Unlike previous writers, many of whom thought that science was indifferent, or even incapable of dealing with the God’ concept, Dawkins argues to the contrary, claiming the ‘God Hypothesis’ is a valid scientific hypothesis, having effects in the physical universe, and like any other hypothesis can be tested and falsified. Other New Atheists such as Victor Stenger propose that the personal Abrahamic God is a scientific hypothesis that can be tested by standard methods of science. Both Dawkins and Stenger conclude that the hypothesis fails any such tests, and argue that naturalism is sufficient to explain everything we observe in the universe, from the most distant galaxies to the origin of life, species, and even the inner workings of the brain and consciousness. Nowhere, they argue, is it necessary to introduce God or the supernatural to understand reality. New Atheists have been associated with the argument from divine hiddenness and the idea that ‘absence of evidence is evidence of absence’ when evidence can be expected.

The New Atheists assert that many religious or supernatural claims (such as the virgin birth of Jesus and the afterlife) are scientific claims in nature. They argue, for instance, that the issue of Jesus’ supposed parentage is not a question of ‘values’ or ‘morals,’ but a question of scientific inquiry. The New Atheists believe science is now capable of investigating at least some, if not all, supernatural claims. Institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and Duke University are attempting to find empirical support for the healing power of intercessory prayer. So far, these experiments have found no evidence that intercessory prayer works. Victor Stenger also argues in his book, ‘God: The Failed Hypothesis,’ that a God having omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent attributes, which he termed a ‘3O God,’ cannot logically exist.

The New Atheists are particularly critical of the two ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA) view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould regarding the existence of a ‘domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.’ In Gould’s proposal, science and religion should be confined to distinct non-overlapping domains: science would be limited to the empirical realm, including theories developed to describe observations, while religion would deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. The New Atheism leaders contend that NOMA does not describe empirical facts about the intersection of science and religion. In an article published in ‘Free Inquiry magazine,’ and later in his 2006 book ‘The God Delusion,’ Richard Dawkins writes that the Abrahamic religions constantly deal in scientific matters. Massimo Pigliucci, in his book ‘Nonsense on Stilts,’ wrote that Gould attempted to redefine religion as moral philosophy. Matt Ridley notes that religion does more than talk about ultimate meanings and morals, and science is not proscribed from doing the same. After all, morals involve human behavior, an observable phenomenon, and science is the study of observable phenomena. Ridley notes that there is substantial scientific research on evolutionary origins of ethics and morality.

James Carse, Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at NYU, wrote ‘The Religious Case Against Belief’ in 2008 as a response to New Atheism. It presents a criticism of both firm believers and firm disbelievers by positing the essential metaphysical unknowability of the universe, and advocating for the wonder inherent in agnosticism and doubt. In a 2010 column entitled ‘Why I Don’t Believe in the New Atheism,’ Tom Flynn contends that what has been called ‘New Atheism’ is neither a movement nor new, and that what was new was the publication of atheist material by big-name publishers, read by millions, and appearing on best-seller lists.

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