Who Are the “New Atheists”? July 18, 2009

Who Are the “New Atheists”?

The term “New Atheist” is overused… I’m guilty of it, too. I automatically use it whenever I refer to successful atheist authors, whether or not that’s appropriate.

SarahH proposes a new definition of the term:

A “New Atheist” is an atheist who has somehow pissed off the person using the term “New Atheist.”

Is there a more accurate definition?

Are you a “New Atheist”?

Is there an atheist in the news these days who isn’t one?

Are there any female “New Atheists”?

Is there a better term we could use for the new generation of atheists?

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  • I simply view a “New Atheist” as someone who is evangelical about atheism who makes an effort to talk about atheism to the general public. This is in contrast to the traditional “closeted” atheist who only discusses atheism in academic circles or amongst other atheists. I don’t view “New Atheists” as necessarily being rude, arrogant, or any of the other adjectives sometimes attributed. I personally know fundamentalist Christians who are quite aware of Richard Dawkins. They think he is “Satan himself” but that is because they view him as in competition with Jesus for people’s souls. The Christians that complain about “New Atheist” arrogance are probably experiencing some cognitive dissonance… I agree with other posters here in recent posts that it takes a variety of temperaments and personality types to make atheism more acceptable in the general population.

  • River

    Reminds me of these comics from Cat and Girl. (On hipsters instead of new athiests, but the idea is the same.)

  • Claudia

    I think that “New Atheists” describes more the prominent members of the movement than the rank and file. In that sense, Dawkins and Harris, and maybe even you Hemant, would be “New Atheists”, but most of your readers wouldn’t be called that.

    Female New Atheists? Hmmm, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Julia Sweeny come to minds.

    I hate the term myself. I don’t know what I would put in its place. 21st Century Rationalists? I dunno.

  • Erp

    There is also the term ‘militant atheist’ used by people really offended by the said atheist. ‘New atheist’ tends to be more neutral.

    I’m an old atheist being fourth generation in one line.:-)

    Susan Jacoby is a fairly prominent female atheist writer. She wrote “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.”

    As for alternative terms, ‘public atheists’?

  • Chris

    The term is a contrivance like “creation science.” Creation scientists and ID proponents are simply creationists with new branding. Same fundamental arguments, new spin.

    Has Dawkins, Harris, Dennett or Hitchens brought anything new to the table in the debate between athiests and creationists outside of the advances in science?

    We should be asking ourselves, who are the “old” atheists? What were their arguments? Had they already settled the debate and we’re ignorant of it? Had they been silenced? It is just that they’re boring (unlike the hip “new” athiests) and their books are written in hard to read English?

  • Mike

    Personally, I dislike the term “atheist” as well, as if religion was a core component of humanity and atheism is a choice much like Christianity or Buddhism. By describing oneself as “atheist” one is assigning oneself a label, a way to fill in that blank called “Religion”, when really that blank should not be there as well. It’s like asking what kind of cell phone someone has when they don’t have one: they’re not choosing to not have a cell phone, they just don’t have one. It’s been my experience that many call themselves “atheist” when they’re trying to say they choose to not have religion, when really they just don’t have one.

    Personally, I like the term “Philosopher” in the ancient Greek and Roman sense, where philosophers were much like modern scientists but more spiritual without any concrete personal beliefs.

  • Philosos

    I totally agree with Claudia. It is also my belief that the “New Atheist” is about the prominent and popular people in society and seem to focus on the more intellectuals and those that have caught the proverbial eye of those in the religiousphere,i.e. those that have made a big enough splash in a case for arguing against their propaganda for them to see and these are mainly Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris. My case for this is, Bill Maher is a proclaimed atheist and he is popular, but I don’t think anyone has called him a New Atheist. Then the next part of this whole thing is…what is an Old Atheist then? Which leads you to the other thought that an Old Atheist must be referring to atheists of yesterday like Sagan, Twain, etc…
    which means that “New Atheists” are just really popular,famous and reasonable minded atheists that are still alive.

  • Veritas

    I see the term “New Atheist” (commonly, “New Athiest”) being used to refer to atheists people want to shut up. By people, I mean theists, of course. I don’t know more than that. But I feel like it is being negatively applied by the forces who would rather atheists stay closeted.

    I kinda like the “Bright” concept, though it has its difficulties, I’d prefer to be called that than a new or old atheist.

  • “Is there a better term we could use for the new generation of atheists?”

    The future.

  • Tom

    I read SarahH’s definition and thought “clever, but of course my definition is better”… but then I thought about it and realized it wasn’t. I had some notion in mind about the New Atheists being unapologetic, but then realized so were their predecessors… I tried to come up with a definition that successfully defined the group I’m thinking of while not including those I didn’t mean, but was forced to the realization that there isn’t really any difference. The New Atheists are just like The Old Atheists, they’re just more successful at it, in that culture seems to be shifting a bit to better allow someone to be atheist and be partly accepted by society.

    So, I guess the best I can do now is to amend SarahH’s definition, to:

    A “New Atheist” is an atheist who has somehow pissed off the theist using the term “New Atheist.”

    Not a clue how to define it if a theist is using it and they’re not pissed off.

  • Tony

    I thik that the term is used by commentators like Julie Burchill who ludicrously claims that atheism is a new middle class fad (thus disavowing herself of the middle classes and putting herself firmly with the proles. Despite having a successful career in journalism and publishing…

  • ATL-Apostate


    Are you seriously suggesting that there are people out there who do NOT have a cell phone?



  • Here’s where I think the distinction ought to be made. (Whether it corresponds with popular usage is another story.)

    The “Old Atheist” is concerned primarily with church-state separation and tends to have an accommodating stance towards religion. Live and let live. Old Atheist tends to assume that most people are too intellectually lazy to appreciate or benefit from atheism, and so isn’t focused much on outreach. Old Atheist is very much concerned with countering the popular religious critiques of atheism, and therefore Old Atheist is intensely concerned with maintaining rational credibility at all costs. Old Atheist actually cares, therefore, about whether fellow atheists are “weak” or “strong” or “agnostic,” because he fears being made to look bad — that is, irrational — by association.

    “New Atheist” cares about church-state separation and cares about rationality, but New Atheist has scrapped the live-and-let-live philosophy in one sense: New Atheist is going to say in public that if falsehoods are bad and religion is demonstrably false, then something about religion must be bad. New Atheist does this because he has observed that no amount of rhetorical civility will persuade religion to let atheists and secularism and science go about their business. New Atheist has decided to abandon the unconscious assumption that atheists will always occupy a cultural ghetto, and as a result New Atheist happily evangelizes a naturalistic worldview for its own sake. New Atheist is less concerned than Old about the pure philosophy dividing weak from strong from agnostic, and sees credibility more as a matter of following the preponderance of evidence and living authentically with one’s choices.

    I’m not famous and nobody cares what I think, but I’d happily call myself a New Atheist.

  • Veritas

    Hey ATL-Apostate;

    I don’t have a cell phone!

  • Gabriel G.

    By that definition, I’d probably be considered a New Atheist (even though I’ve considered myself one for 3 years and have been anything but religious for most of my conscious life), seeing as I don’t hold myself back when someone asks me why I hate religion.

    I don’t have a definition for “New Atheist” because I don’t use it. However, to me it seems that a New Atheist is an atheist who doesn’t stay in the closet about it.

  • I’d have to go with Marvin and Gabriel G. on this one. Actually, Marvin put it very well in a way that I’ve thought but never articulated. It’s like any other outspoken movement, I think – when they were closeted, they were ignored. When they started talking, they were given a name. It’s not that the message has necessarily changed or that there were not people like this in the past. It’s that we’re beginning to organize and have a more public face. Consider the feminist, civil rights, and GLBT movements. There were people who could have those definitions before the movements themselves were defined.

    I have not had a problem identifying as a New Atheist (partially because I am a new atheist, lower case). I hadn’t even realized there was a problem

  • Tom

    Is there a better term we could use for the new generation of atheists?

    Hemant, watch out for creating something that might not really be there, like a “new generation” of atheists. How are they so different than the old?

    I suggest Contemporary Atheists as an umbrella!

    *my apologies to the earlier “Tom” I need to use a different name than one of the most common first names in the English language!

  • ihedenius

    A “New Atheist” is an atheist who has somehow pissed off the person using the term “New Atheist.”
    Is there a more accurate definition?

    No I think that is accurate. I believe ‘New Atheists’ was first coined here:
    The Church of the Non-Believers – Wired Nov 2006
    I’ve never been able to figure what is ‘new’ about ‘New Atheists’. And after listening to Ingersoll (for example), I still can’t find whats new. Ingersoll sounds like our contemporary religion critics despite saying it ca 150 years ago. I wish atheists wouldn’t embrace the term because it is not accurate and probably serves the other sides agenda.

    Their is no need to invent new arguments against religion. The old ones were never refuted.

  • ErinM

    I’m with Marvin — I associate the term “New Atheist” with atheists who have a stated mission to be “out” and to get atheism into the mainstream of American culture. They quite deliberately pull no punches with religion and faith — dumb ideas are dumb ideas and the sooner we all admit that, the better.

    Strangely — and this is just my gut associations with the term, based on nothing concrete — I don’t associate New Atheism with church-state activism as much as I associate it with simply an open and unapologetic critique of religion.

  • Aspentroll

    “New atheist” can not describe me. I have always been an an atheist. I have never believed in gods or attended church except for weddings and funerals and believe it or not, I look the same and act the same as anyone else on the street. What’s more I have never been in jail or charged with as much as a traffic offense. I am now 75 years of age and in good health. I could die anytime without regret or fear of some imaginary hell or heaven. some fundies I know are very frightened about dying.

  • peregrine

    Why get hung up on terms? implicit, explicit, strong, weak, atheist, agnostic, Bright, Freethinker, Humanist, “New Atheist”…

    Why worry about trying to categorize ourselves? To me, it just seems like it makes not believing in something more complicated than it needs to be.

    I don’t need a “term” to define myself. I’m me. I’m Peregrine. Well, online, anyway. Offline, I’m… well, without reveling any personal information, I’m myself. I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in any god(s), but I don’t identify with the term. I don’t shake hands with people, and go “Hi, I’m [name], I’m an atheist.” I don’t need a big red A on my Web site. I don’t have T-shirts printed up with my existentialist philosophy. I don’t hide it, but I don’t need to raise the flag either.

  • Ron in Houston

    Mike at 4:44 really made a great comment. (Emphasized quite well by Peregrine.) Labeling yourself as anything carries its own baggage.

    A whole lot of folks have way too much ego identification with their atheistic belief systems.

  • I’ve been an atheist for quarter of a century. I got there on my own. But then followed up with philosophical works to help me understand my decision more thoroughly. I’m fascinated why people believe. It’s an interesting subject for sure.

    There are atheists, and there are theists, and very little else it would seem (ok, probably wrong but…) and recently atheists have found a voice. But not longer do you have to say “I’m agnostic” (if you were brave) or pretend you’re religious when you’re not.

    The new atheists are the old atheists, but with the power of the internet and mass communication behind them.

  • Female “New Atheist” — I think Ophelia Benson (http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/) would qualify.

  • Stephen P

    I think Sarah’s definition is pretty applicable. I don’t think the term “new” here has any actual meaning at all.

    I suspect the usage of “new atheist”, particularly by the people (whoever they were) who first started using the term, mainly indicates that the users are self-important and either young or poorly informed. Certain people love to think that they have discovered something new. How often have have you seen the term “new” applied to something which isn’t new at all? If you’re over forty, probably quite often.

  • AmandaT.

    Atheists 2: Electric Boogaloo.

  • Sebeka

    I’m more of a pre-owned atheist than a new one.

  • Veritas – man, what an oddball. You’re like the proverbial white crow no one thought ever existed.


  • The New Atheism, I think, recognizes the threat not just of fundamentalist religion, but of the mindset that makes people willfully credulous, that celebrates intentional ignorance. It says that religion (and everything else) ought to be criticized on its merits. I have used different terms to separate “new” and “old” atheism, but my terms are not based on newness or oldness. I have divided atheists into instigators (New Atheists, Hirsi Ali, Myers, etc.) and policers (Newdow, FfRF, etc.). Read all about that here.

  • Ben Payne

    I recently got called a “Scientific Extremist” whilst having a discussion about religion.

    While trying to think of a better term for “New Athiest”, I came up with “Nay-theist“, which I think is quite clever (I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else).

  • I agree with ihedenius –

    Just what, exactly, is “New” with “New Atheists”? Ingersoll, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton – if any of these people started speaking publicly today they would be labeled “New Atheists”.

    It’s a meaningless distinction applied to us by the religious in order to trivialize and denigrate our philosophy.

    Are we more strident than Stanton? Do we ridicule religious people more than Twain? Do we show the foolishness of the Bible more than Ingersoll? Do we label religion as “superstition” and defeat it with logic more than Bertrand Russell?

    When ever I’m confronted with a religious person using the term “New Atheist” I ALWAYS ask them to please give some sort of defining characteristic that would allow me to tell a “New” atheist from an “Old” atheist.

    Religious people always equate “New” atheism with prominent contemporary figures like Dawkins or Harris. They often know nothing about historic atheists – so how would they even know the difference between old and new?

    For the religious, “New Atheist” is a code word that really means, “People who have the audacity to have an opposing opinion about religion.”

  • I think New Atheist is meaningful precisely because the term is already coined. I wouldn’t call it a perfect term where the words New and Atheist slam together meaningfully. But we sort of understand it to be the atheists around the time of the publishing of the God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, Letters to a Christian Nation, and God is not Great. Do you remember the “New Deal” in History class? It’s just as meaningful. Atheism isn’t new and the arguments aren’t either, but if we’re going to get free advertisement, we may as well use it.

    I think atheists have a lot of work cut out for them anyway. Theists don’t seem to get how atheists work. Atheism doesn’t have an intrinsic moral code and all that, although Humanism is a popular choice.

    Just as Christians each like to point out how their church is different and distinguish themselves, I think the label New Atheist allows us to possibly unite terms everyone favors in different ways: agnostic, skeptic, deists, and free thinkers while preserving the lower case descriptors.

    You’ll probably notice deists are not atheists, but I would consider a deist to be an atheist of a very classical type who probably has a very religious minded family and cares about their feelings. Suffice to say, I never pass a church of deism. So I tend to think those types are a lot like me and I’m an atheist type.

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