Is New Atheism New?
This week we begin a new semester of tutoring, and for the third time I have the privilege to tutor on a course at New College called ‘Atheism in Debate: Dawkins and his Allies.’ While the last two versions of this course have found progressive successes, not only in bringing in students, but also in how the content is presented, there have been, as might be expected, a few complaints. However, overall it would seem a marginal success.
Of all the discussion points that resurface each year, one has perhaps been brought up more often than any others: the question of comparison. How, we are often asked, are the New Atheists similar to the ‘old’ ones? Or, said otherwise, how is New Atheism in any way ‘new?’ These are indeed precarious questions. After all, when we look at the larger discourse that feeds into the definition of Atheism, we might argue that, in fact, New Atheism is not all that new. Rather, and as our course tends to conclude, New Atheism is merely the repetition of many of the facets of ‘old’ Atheism.
For instance, one might consider the philosophical positions of those who contribute to the discourse that forms this ‘old’ Atheism, such as Voltaire, Hume, Strauss, Marx, Feuerbach, Hegel, or Nietzsche, in comparison to the critiques made by the New Atheists. Many of these same thoughts are, presumably, ‘recycled.’
However, I might offer a discursive defence of New Atheism here. Yes, we might see similarities between these two Atheisms, or even almost identical critiques in Harris’ The End of Faith or Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Yet, I would argue this sort of criticism overlooks the much larger distinction of contextualization, so that, even though the criticisms made by these ‘New Atheists’ seem like recycled arguments from the ‘old Atheists,’ they are still being made in completely different contextual milieux. The time in which Strauss was writing his Life of Jesus, or Voltaire his Candide is not the same as the context that birthed Dennett’s Breaking the Spell or Hitchens’ God is not Great. That is, while I would agree that through comparison we might not find anything inherently ‘new’ about New Atheism, I would also concede that it arose out of an entirely different time and place, and thus offers us, if nothing else, an insight into that context so that we might locate why and how these particular critiques took shape.
In this way, the New Atheism is a discursive product. The language used is that of particular individuals in a particular time, and in particular places. For me, then, trying to compare or contrast the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ fundamentally overlooks the fact that comparisons are not necessary, and, what’s worse, can become abstractions, distracting us from finding value in each of these ‘types’ of Atheism as discursive or cultural data. Yet, New Atheism as a title still persists. Is that a wholly negative issue? Yes and no. On one end, giving even a nominal distinction to this discursive sample engenders a dichotomous perspective, demanding a comparison, and leading us back to those same abstractions where we might find ourselves lost amongst an apologetical argument that one is more ‘genuine’ or ‘original’ than the other. On the other end, we have the issue of too slack a distinction.
In this way, we might find ourselves, such as occurs in the larger discussion of the definitions of Atheism or ‘religion,’ with having to contend with the differentiation between ‘nominal’ and ‘virtual’ terminology: the former denoting a word that can be used in any number of iterations, and the latter denoting a use of that word in a more unique or specific way (see Jenkins 2008). This also brings us into discussions about the differences between real or essential definitions (terms that act to summarise the ‘essence’ of a thing) and lexical or historical ones (terms that have particular meaning to particular individuals at particular times [see Baird 1991]). While these are worthwhile discussions, and are quite pertinent to the issue at hand, this is neither the time nor place to truly devote our attention to such issues. Rather, I will from here on adopt a perspective that might be deemed more on the side of the virtual or lexical, and try to make some sense out of the persistent question concerning the ‘newness’ of New Atheism within the context of it as a discursive source.
Assholes: A Theory
The erudite and somewhat famous theorist of religion, Ninian Smart, was said to have a method of teaching that perfectly exemplified his notion of epoche. A practice employed by researchers and lecturers, ‘epoche’ essentially means the suspension of one’s disbelief, a pragmatic mindset utilised in order to remove the individual from either interpreting or presenting the concept religion with any sort of confessional bias. For Smart, this did not mean the complete abandonment of one’s personal beliefs, but rather was a means with which the researcher/lecturer might objectively approach a subject like religion without muddling the data with subjective opinions.
After all, we might remark, studying something is not the same as advocating it, just as studying that same thing is not the same as being without an opinion about it. It’s a fine line, indeed, but in the pursuit of objectivity it’s always useful to recognise and acknowledge the utility of these sorts of distinctions.
As the stories go, Smart would stand on one side of the lectern (let’s say the right) when lecturing, giving ‘just the facts.’ When asked, or when he felt inclined to do so, he would switch to the other side (the left) and give his opinion. This bipolarity would, one might imagine, be quite entertaining, especially when dealing with religious beliefs and practices that might seem ‘taboo’ or ‘provocative’ to a particular audience. For my intentions herein, this little anecdote is quite useful. While I (on the right side) approach Atheism as a discursive term, something that is imbued with meaning through the use of particular language by particular people in particular times and places, and thus approach it with a strict objectivity, that doesn’t mean that on the left side I do not have an opinion of my own. However, I also might acknowledge that a strict binary between these sides is not always the most useful. Thus, the following theoretical approach might be best understood as a sort of ‘tacking,’ a ‘back-and-forth’ approach that demonstrates both a right and left side perspective.
For me, what makes New Atheism new is that the New Atheists are assholes.
In his, Assholes: A Theory, the political philosopher Aaron James defines an asshole as someone not only immune to his or her own criticisms, but who, when criticised with the same sort of language, feels that he or she is, in fact, an unprovoked victim. In summary, his brief definition states:
Our theory is simply this: a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunises him against the complaints of other people. (4-5)
More focused on a few ‘stereotypical’ examples, such as demonstrated by individuals like US General Stanley McChrystal, US General Douglas MacArthur, Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson, and Ann Coulter, an asshole is someone who, like these individuals, believes their opinion to not only be correct, but infallible via a sense of privilege. In three parts, this is as follows:
(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
(2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3) is immunised by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. (5)
To further define this individual, and in order to lead me toward my association of New Atheism and James’ theory itself, he offers a few more examples:
So, for example, the asshole is the person who habitually cuts in line. Or who frequently interrupts in a conversation. Or who weaves in and out of lanes in traffic. Or who persistently emphasises another person’s faults. Or who is extremely sensitive to perceived slights while being oblivious to his crustiness with others. (5)
Now, to differentiate the asshole from, say, a ‘jerk,’ the former is defined by inclinations or incentives:
What distinguishes the asshole is the way he acts, the reasons that motivate him to act in an abusive and arrogant way. the asshole acts out a firm sense that he is special, that the normal rules of conduct do not apply to him. (5-6)
Thus, because the asshole is immune to his or her own criticism, and because he or she sees him or herself as unique or different or special, he or she equally becomes incensed by the beliefs or opinions of others:
Because the asshole sets himself apart from others, he feels entirely comfortable flouting accepted social conventions, almost as a way of life. Most important, he lives this way more or less out in the open. He stands unmoved when people indignantly glare or complain. He is ‘immunised’ against anyone who speaks up, being quite confident that he has little need to respond to questions about whether the advantages he allows himself are acceptable and fair. Indeed, he will often himself feel indignant when questions about his conduct are raised. (6)
New Atheism and Assholes:
New Atheists are assholes because their language (discourse) is imbued with the sort of criticism James associates with the definition above. They are overly critical of a particular position, and yet they feel as if they are immune to counter criticism because their position is incapable of being incorrect.
This is partly shaped by the style of their arguments, the way they seem, with such ease and skill, to set up straw man positions, only to easily knock them down. Look at Harris’ opening characterisation in The End of Faith. After giving a short description of a young man who has detonated himself on a full public bus, he casually, with almost Dan Brown efficiency, refers to these as ‘the facts:’
These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else that we can infer about him on the basis of his behavior? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all. Did he have a college education? Did he have a bright future as a mechanical engineer? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort, and hundreds like them. Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy—you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on- it easy—to guess the young man’s religion? (11)
In a note at the end of this characterisation, he offers a description and some details about a Sri Lankan separatist movement known as the Liberations Tigers of Tamil Eelam. However, this does not mean that the description of the young man on the bus is in any way based in fact. We might ask, why? Why not just provide a detailed and cited description? Why make something up?
As an introductory statement about his treatment of ‘religion’ this fictionalisation perhaps best describes his asshole nature. Rather than engage with these sorts of atrocities in a manner that might be conducive to a rational or objective criticism, he instead creates a violent example that he then uses to demonstrate his larger criticism of religion as inherently violent. As he blithely states with the cited paragraph above, associating this sort of action with religion is a trivial connection, so easy, in fact, you could bet your life on it.
While each of the four New Atheists (which I would argue wholly embody the concept ‘New Atheism)’ use this same sort of argument in their own ways, they are not equal in their assholeness. In fact, Dennett, whose career as a philosopher has distinguished him as a rather erudite examiner of cognition and scientific philosophy seems somewhat out-of-place in this discourse. Aside from the fact that his argument in Breaking the Spell that religion could, and should, be scientifically examined, might be roughly dismissed if someone merely walked him across his campus to the Religious Studies department, the language he uses is not altogether that of an asshole. On the other hand, Dawkins is perhaps the larger asshole of the group. Though Hitchens comes in a close second, Dawkins’ vocal and vehement language, as well as his seemingly evangelical passion, easily characterises his asshole nature. In fact, as perhaps the predominant voice in shaping the New Atheist discourse, his being an asshole is what really shapes this discourse in this way.
There are a myriad of examples to cite here. Perhaps too many. Here are just a few.
One of the possible reasons Dawkins seems like such an asshole is the fact that in his obsession with arguing the inherent violence and uselessness of religion, he is betraying the objectivity of his position as a biologist. One might even ask why a biologist would be in any way interested in religion, which is all too obvious given his extremely poor, almost amateur level of criticism in The God Delusion. What’s interesting here, though, is that his need to point out the problems of religion seems to overpower his notion that there is, in fact, grandeur to be found in his scientific worldview. Look at the opening discussion in the trailer of his and Lawrence Krauss’ The Unbelievers:
When asked which is more important, teaching the beauty and majesty of science, or ‘destroying religion,’ his hesitation, and then later acceptance toward the latter, is quite telling. First off, why would anyone assume that he might actually be able to do so, even with the power of scientific discovery on his side? Second, rather than promoting something that he finds more useful or beneficial than religion, he would prefer the latter, to point out the negative aspects instead. A clear ‘asshole move.’
Interestingly, his asshole nature is even utilised by others. For example, in the first year of our course on Atheism in Debate, one of our guest lecturers played the following video clip, not just because it provides a useful sample of the sort of ‘asshole Atheism’ that Dawkins himself seems to promote, but because it equally demonstrates how his Atheism is used by others to facilitate debate.
The part of this clip discussed in that lecture begins around the 2:40 mark. Dawkins has joined the circle ‘on stage’ and immediately begins his all too expected attack on religion, particularly aimed at mormonism, embodied by another guest, Brandon Flowers (the lead singer of The Killers). Note the way he describes the Book of Mormon as a ‘modern fake,’ the product of a charlatan or crook, the way he vehemently attacks his opponent with no real provocation.
This not only demonstrates Dawkins’ asshole nature, it also exhibits the way he represents a discursive entity. Judging by the way this conversation goes, by the way it is directed by the host, by what Dawkins says, and the fact the Brandon is given really no time to defend himself, this clip provides for us an insight into how others view and use particular discourses to their benefit. As the signature asshole Atheist, Dawkins has become a useful example. He is placed across an adherent to a religious belief system that he would, presumably, disagree with, and is then prompted to respond about Mormonism as if the person across from him stands as an equal representative of his objections. One could even hypothesise that prior to his joining the group ‘on stage’ he was prepared ‘backstage’ with points about the discussion, yet not told, perhaps pragmatically, that his opponent in this debate would be whisked away without given the chance to respond. In fact, around the 4:46 and 5:00 minute mark it looks almost as if Dawkins is embarrassed by his actions, even apologising to Brandon, as if he was unaware that he would be leaving without the chance to defend himself.
This gives us a glimpse at the asshole realising he has been an asshole, and then regretting, even briefly, his asshole nature.
As a last example, we might look at his ever-entertaining comments on twitter, two of which should suffice for this analysis. The first, focused on his opinion about aborting a child discovered to have Down Syndrome, presents the sort of language inherent in James’ definitions above.
While the opening line is a somewhat benign representation of someone’s opinion, its the second part of the tweet that truly demonstrates his sense of immunised and entitled beliefs. Perhaps this is reading a bit too much into the ‘tone’ of the words here, but it nonetheless reads like a pre-emptive defence of what he might perceive as an attack on his equitable logic.
Next, we have his opinion on rape. While we could easily discuss the way he might be categorising different ‘types’ of rape here, its really his response that earns his language here true asshole status.
Again, the tone is pre-emptive. It even inspired a secondary rejoinder:
His tone here, his inability to accept that what he has said might be misconstrued or misunderstood outside of his initial intention, not only shows a lack of empathy, but also a type of arrogance, a refusal to acknowledge that his language might be understood in a malignant manner. In other words, it reads like the words of an asshole.
Are Atheists Assholes?
There is perhaps an easy comparison to be made between the asshole mentality of New Atheism and the criticism that shapes Atheism-in-general. Atheism is, if we define the term within the context of a modern world, a position built upon the rejection or denial of another person’s position. It is, in this modern manifestation, an ‘A-Theism,’ and is thus dependent upon Theism in order to exist. This, then, makes it a critical position. After all, to be simply ‘without God,’ an etymological reading of the term promoted by advocates of separating the concept between positive (explicit) and negative (implicit) notions, is not the same thing as shaping one’s identity on the belief that another’s belief is not true.
So are Atheists assholes? If so, is the asshole nature of New Atheism proof of this? That is, as New Atheism is a lexical example of Atheism-in-general, does it not depict the latter as having an inherent asshole nature?
No. Or maybe. That’s not really my point here.
Rather, my use of the theory of the asshole has not meant to impute this notion onto Atheists or Theists, or anyone in a ‘general’ sense. Instead, I have used it herein to dictate a particular discursive source, to create a border around a distinct lexical field, so that we might make better sense of a smaller part of the larger Atheist whole. As a discursive unit, the asshole nature of New Atheism does not necessarily mark it as ‘new’ in the sense that it is in any way different or unique from the ‘old’ Atheism. Nor should it be seen as a definitional assessment of Atheism in a general manner. Alternatively, its use as a boundary marker represents a type of utility, a pragmatic separation used not so much to acknowledge New Atheism as new, but as a distinct discourse in and of itself.
Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (New York: Doubleday, 2012).
Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2004).
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006).
Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006).
Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Warner, 2007).
Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Richard Jenkins, Social Identity, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008).
Robert D. Baird, Category Formation and the History of Religion, 2nd ed. (Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 1991).
See also this useful video of the four New Atheist authors in a roundtable discussion:
 For example, perhaps the largest complaint we have received has been about the lack of discussion on the four New Atheist texts themselves, replaced, it seems, by a more predominant focus on 17th-20th century European philosophy in order to critique New Atheism as providing nothing ‘new.’ While this did indeed cause a few issues in the beginning, the amendments to the course over the years have endeavoured to address this.