What Was New About The New Atheists?
by David Glass
“We are in need of a renewed Enlightenment”, wrote Christopher Hitchens in the final chapter of his bestselling book God is Not Great.[i] In his closing sentence he stated, “To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it” (GNG, 283). The enemy was religion which, he told us, “poisons everything” (GNG, 13). We can be grateful that he was not calling on his fellow atheists to take up arms, but to participate in an intellectual and cultural project to marginalise religious belief.
Why the antagonism towards religion? The rest of his final chapter identified at least two main answers to this question. First, religion is dangerous. While discussing the aspirations of President Ahmadinejad for Iran to become a nuclear power, Hitchens commented, “This puts the confrontation between faith and civilization on a whole new footing” (GNG, 280) and he then went on to discuss the role of religion in the terrible atrocities of 9/11.The second answer was that religious belief is no longer tenable in the light of modern science. He expressed this point as follows:
Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. (GNG, 282)
How exactly this was supposed to follow from the existence of the telescope and microscope is not immediately obvious, but throughout the closing chapter and in the rest of his book Hitchens was adamant that there is a conflict between science and religion, a conflict with only one winner. Indeed, science would have such a central role to play in his new Enlightenment that it almost seemed to take the place of religion: it “offers the promise of near-miraculous advances in healing, in energy, and in the peaceful exchange between different cultures” (GNG, 282).
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Hitchens’ closing chapter provided a summary not only of his own book, which was published in 2007, but also a fairly accurate summary of books published by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris in the preceding few years.[ii] In addition to their content, the other factors linking these books were their enormous success in terms of sales and their impact in promoting debate about the existence of God and the place of religion in the modern world. As well as formal debates, there were many reviews in magazines and journals, a substantial number of book length responses, numerous TV and radio interviews, and seemingly endless online discussions about their ideas.
Their provocative claims about belief in God were such that readers now tend to fall into one of two categories: enthusiastic supporters or ardent opponents, with very few lying anywhere in between. In fact, the distinctive nature of the atheism on offer is such that it has become known as the ‘New Atheism’.[iii] Although other atheistic writers such as Victor Stenger and Michael Onfray could also be described as New Atheists, there is little doubt that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens were the founding figures of this movement.[iv]
There are a number of themes which are prominent in New Atheism. One of the most important aspects of the New Atheism is that it promotes a rejection of belief in God on scientific grounds with particular prominence given to Darwinism. This is despite the fact that arguments for and against God’s existence lie within the domain of philosophy rather than science. So although scientists are quite entitled to offer arguments for or against God’s existence, it must be recognised that when they do so they are engaging in philosophy, not science…