The One New Thing About 'New Atheism'

Robert G. Ingersoll. Library of Congress descr...
Robert G. Ingersoll. Library of Congress description: "Ingersoll, Robert (The Infidel)". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been fairly critical of the mainstream news media's embrace of the "new atheism" label, questioning whether there is really anything new about it. When I think about the sort of writing Bertrand Russell was doing or the speeches Robert Ingersoll was giving all those years ago, I don't see the so-called "new atheists" writing or saying anything that is different enough to be characterized as "new." But I'm perfectly willing to admit when I'm wrong, and I think I might have been wrong here. There does appear to be at least one thing that is at least sort of new about "new atheism."

Austin Cline (About.com Agnosticism/Atheism) writes some good stuff about atheism, and much of it is aimed at the sort of visitor who would arrive at his site after having searched the Internet for answers to specific questions about atheism. I want to draw your attention to a recent post: What's So 'New' About 'New Atheism'? What is New Atheism (update: link no longer active)? Not only is this a fairly common question, but Cline's answers are spot on.

After providing a brief introduction to one of the mainstream news media's favorite terms to use during their occasional coverage of atheism, he reminds us where the term originated and how it quickly morphed into something else. I think he's correct to note that what was initially intended to signal a sort of unapologetic atheism soon became a loaded term to reflect whatever the user did not like about atheists.

Austin reminds us that there really isn't anything new about "new atheism" except for maybe one thing:

It's only the attention and popularity of New Atheism which is truly new, and this seems to be precisely what its critics find so objectionable: atheistic criticism of religion was marginally acceptable when it was unknown. Now that its getting widespread attention and gaining serious traction, it has to be attacked. Religious apologists can't admit this, though, so they make up the idea that there is something "new" that bothers them.

Yes, the sudden popularity of what is being called "new atheism" appears to be the one thing that might deserve to be considered new. Increased media attention has provided atheists with a platform we have not had in some time, if ever.

But the best part of Austin's post is what he has to say about how "new atheism" has become an epithet for expressing anti-atheist bigotry. He makes the case that the manner in which "new atheism" has been defined by packing practically everything religious believers dislike about atheists into it looks an awful lot like what they have done with other groups they devalue.

Kids in the past used to be polite and respectful but today are unruly anarchists. Women in the past were demure and moral but today have become sluts. Gays used to stay in the closet and keep their sexuality to themselves but today they shove their perversions down our throats. Black people used to know their place but now the are all too uppity.

Wow! I had never thought about it like this before, but I think he's right. We atheists have started to do the one thing for which the religious majority cannot forgive: we have started to speak out and to question religious privilege. Some of the religious now long for the "good ole days" when we knew our place (i.e., scared silence). Whatever else we may represent, we seem to represent change. Naturally, this is going to be opposed by those for whom change might result in an erosion of religious privilege.