May 19, 2020

Don't Forget the New Atheists

girl learning math

I have said repeatedly that there is nothing new about the so-called "new atheism" unless one means only that the mainstream news media has decided to pay a little bit of attention to us. And I suppose that is not really new either. After all, atheism was once even more scandalous than it is today. But even though I have discouraged atheists from propagating "new atheism" because it detracts from the accomplishments of our predecessors and from the long and distinguished history of freethought, I have to acknowledge that atheism went through a resurgence around the time people were talking about it.

The title of this post is not intended to refer to that "new atheism" but to people who are new to atheism (i.e., those who are just beginning to explore atheism). Those of us writing atheist blogs should remember that many new readers are finding us each day and that at least some of them are still fairly new to atheism. They are an important portion of our readership, and we would do well to remember that.

It does sometimes feel like we are re-treading familiar ground on atheist blogs. That is probably inevitable since atheism is a very narrow subject. That's why few of us confine ourselves to it. But you know what? I think that the repetition can be a good thing too, especially when one remembers the changing (and hopefully expanding) nature of our audience. If one assumes that at least a portion of one's readers are still fairly new to atheism, the fact that we are writing about the same topic again begins to make a great deal of sense.

As an example, I recently had someone ask me about the difference between atheism and agnosticism. He wondered why many of the atheists he had encountered online had told him that he was probably an agnostic atheist. He'd never heard that phrase before. And you know what? Up until around 2010 or so, neither had I.

This is precisely the sort of person (i.e., someone new to atheism) that we should take care to make sure we are reaching. I remember the confusion and loneliness all too well. Had I encountered impatient and rude people when I was first beginning to explore atheism, I'm not sure where I would be today. And I am not thinking of this only in terms of people who are creating and sharing atheist-oriented content. I believe we all have a role to play. And yes, I am aware that the post I linked to in the previous sentence makes some people quite angry. I hear from them whenever I share it on social media.

In writing Atheist Revolution, I sometimes struggle with how best to mix introductory material with more advanced stuff. I periodically catch myself thinking something like, "Everybody already knows this." I forget that I have visitors who are atheists and may not realize it. I forget that I have visitors who may still believe some unfortunate things about atheists they have been taught by clergy or bigoted family members. Clearly, not every visitor will have studied atheism. I never want to lose sight of this. I didn't have many people to help me begin my journey to atheism, and I know it would not have taken me as long as it did if I had felt supported. This is something we can offer. All we have to do is remember where we came from and have realistic expectations of others (e.g., recognizing that other atheists may are often at different places on their journey than we are on ours).

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2010. It was revised and expanded in 2020.