A Review of The New Atheism by Victor Stenger September 22, 2009

A Review of The New Atheism by Victor Stenger

Today is the release date for Victor Stenger‘s new book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (Prometheus Books). Stenger previously authored the God: The Failed Hypothesis, the first-ever book released by Prometheus Books to make it onto the New York Times Bestsellers List.

The new book is a history of atheism… over the past five years. It essentially spans the release of Sam HarrisThe End of Faith in 2004 to the present day, explaining how the “New Atheism” rose up. (Even if you don’t like the term, it’s certainly popular and Stenger rightly capitalizes on it.) He summarizes the New Atheists’ main points and offers up a few more arguments of his own. Along the way, Stenger also discusses the critics’ arguments to what is written in the atheist books — and offers excellent rebuttals to them.

This is a wonderful book for any person who hasn’t read an atheist blog over the past five years. That is to say, older and brand new atheists will enjoy Stenger’s book — it’s an excellent primer for godless newbies.

Younger and older-but-Internet-savvy atheists might enjoy it, but much of the time, they’ll just be saying “I already know this.” Several references in the book have been seen on blogs everywhere — like why Francis Collins is mistaken when he tries to reconciles science with faith. Other references are known if you’ve read the other New Atheist books. Still, there is a lot of good information in here and I’m not dismissing the book.

There is one serious criticism that I have about it. In Stenger’s entire discussion of the New Atheism, he seems to focus exclusively on the works of the bestselling authors.

There is little or no mention of American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association, and the Secular Coalition for America. Those organizations have flourished in the wake of the New Atheism.

There is also no mention at all of the atheist blogosphere — even PZ Myers gets short-shrifted. I’m not exactly unbiased about this, but I feel like blogs are one of the main ways people find out about what is going on in the atheist community. To not mention them, even in a section titled “The Future of Atheism,” seems like a tremendous oversight.

Stenger comes off as someone who knows all about what gets released by major publishers but relatively little about what gets written on the Internet.

Perhaps that’s not too surprising. Even his bio at the end of the book — nearly identical to the one in God: The Failed Hypothesis — includes the line, “Dr. Stenger maintains a popular Web site (a thousand hits per month)…” A thousand hits per month? That was nice a decade ago, but nowadays, no “popular” web presence gets only 33 hits per day on average. (I’d like to believe more people visit his site and he just hasn’t updated the bio.)

Personal rant about ignoring blogs and national organizations aside, The New Atheism is indeed a good introduction to the New Atheism. It’s not overly philosophical and provides easy-to-understand arguments to use if you’re ever in a religious debate.

A few sample chapters from the book can be found here.

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  • The Other Tom

    I went to Fictionwise.com to see if they had this book as an ebook. I typed in the title and got this as results:
    * Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists, by R. Albert Mohler Jr.
    * The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness, by David Aikman
    * When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists, by Chris Hedges

    Well, at least it goes well with the name of the site, Fictionwise. I tried barnesandnoble.com and the results were similarly bad, but that’s no surprise given that they own fictionwise.

    Amazon.com – the dead tree media book comes up as the first result of the search… scroll past a bunch of rabid anti-atheist books… voila! $9.59 on Kindle.

    Clearly Mr. Stenger needs to call his publisher about getting his book available on Fictionwise, and Barnes and Noble. Hemant, your book seems to be well available as an ebook, maybe you could give him some tips?

  • I read his Failed Hypothesis book and enjoyed it. But I agree with Hemant that Stenger seems to miss one big aspect of the “new Atheist” movement. And that is that it is a grass-roots bottom-up movement. The new internet related technologies are allowing anybody to participate. It is relatively easy to start your own blog or You-tube channel and connect with others. In the old days, atheism was somewhat limited to the “educated elite”. Now it is becoming mainstream (if still in the minority). When historians look back on our time, they will probably associate the rise of atheism with the rise of the internet. The four horsemen will probably be in a footnote.

    Why do you think “focus on the family” went after Hemant. Even they know there is a social movement going on and Hemant is becoming a big player.

  • The Other Tom


    A thousand hits per month? That was nice a decade ago,

    No, it really wasn’t. I helped maintain a web site a decade ago that got a million hits a month, and it operated from an ordinary desktop computer in a private home connected to the internet full time with a modem, and had no advertising budget.

  • littlejohn

    Today is the release date? Then how did I buy it more than a week ago at Borders? It’s a small book; I read it in two days. It’s good, but there’s not much new. The index lists PZ Myers on the wrong page!

  • Thanks for the favorable review. I am sorry I did not give bloggers and some organizations more recognition. I guess I am an old-time physicist who takes published works more seriously than informal,unedited, exchanges that are mostly soundbites rather than deep discussions. Read the article in a recent Atlantic about how bloggers are killing the old, respectable journalism where reporters worked hard to dig out the truth and are replacing it with advocacy of little substance and no middle ground. While you can accuse me of advocacy as well, I do look at the arguments on the other side. Several reviewers have remarked about my taking the trouble to read a lot of the anti-new-atheist literature and respond to it. And, I make it clear that if the science turned up otherwise, I would change my views.

    But then it is true that times are changing and I thought I acknowledged the increasing role of young people.

    I disagree that there is little new in my book. I would like to see where much of it has appeared before except in my own writing. Even the Collins reference to my own review probably predates much of the internet discussion.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The new book is a history of atheism… over the past five years.

    Big whoop, anyone could do that. Now, if he had given us the history of atheism over the next five years…

  • Tim Stroud

    Atheists are still a minority, don’t get tunnel vision and think that we are really having a significant effect yet. There is a lot of reasoning and promoting still to be done. The “silent majority” are still religious.

  • Siamang

    Also, Dawkins’ new book comes out today.

  • Sorry for the brief visit to Snarkytown… but a thousand hits a month?!? I really hope that’s a typo. If my blog goes below 1000 hits a day, I know I’m doing something seriously wrong. And I’m only a moderate-sized fish in this pond.

    I wouldn’t bring this up… except that it does, as Hemant and Jeff have noted, point to Stenger missing one of the most essential characteristics of the so-called “new atheist” movement. And that’s the fact that it’s largely a netroots movement. It is as much a bottom-up movement of people talking to each other (on the Internet and elsewhere) as it is a top-down movement of people listening to the Four Horsemen and other leaders… and arguably much more so.

    If you’re writing about the new atheist movement and you don’t have, at the very least, an entire chapter about the atheist blogosphere, then you don’t understand the new atheist movement.

  • Brian C Posey

    I visited Stenger’s site.


    It said I was visitor 94946 since 12/07/2001. That averages out to a little over a thousand hits per month.

  • OK so my web site is not popular. Remember it is not a blog but basically a place where I put links to my various writings. So there is no reason to check in daily as you do with blogs.

    I’m sorry, but I have looked all over the internet and never found anything on the New Atheism that comes close in intellectual merit or maturity to the six N Y Times bestsellers and other books I mention. I am a very experienced computer user. I wrote my first computer program exactly 50 years ago when a graduate student. I love my grandchildren but don’t refer to their scribblings in my books.

    Vic Stenger

  • Siamang

    I’m sorry, but I have looked all over the internet and never found anything on the New Atheism that comes close in intellectual merit or maturity to the six N Y Times bestsellers and other books I mention.

    Clearly you never read my post where I called Ted Haggard a poopyhead.

  • Mr. Stenger:

    I think you are missing the point. The point is not to be snarky about the popularity of your website. The point is this: Claiming that 1000 hits a month makes your Website popular is pretty strong evidence that you don’t understand the power and influence of the Internet in modern atheism.

    And if you haven’t found anything in the atheist blogosphere that comes close in intellectual merit or maturity to the six NY Times bestsellers, then with all due respect, I don’t think you’ve been looking hard enough. To give just one example: I would like to direct you to the Daylight Atheism blog, and his companion website Ebon Musings, which has some of the most clear and closely- reasoned writings about atheism that I’ve read. And yes, that includes the NY Times bestsellers.

    But perhaps more importantly: Even if you think the level of intellectual discourse in the atheist blogosphere is lacking, it is still undeniably a massively powerful force in the movement. To write a book about the history of atheism in the last five years and not mention atheist blogs and online forums is like writing a book about the history of the gay community without mentioning gay bars. The level of discourse may not meet your intellectual standards… but it is where the conversation is happening for millions of people. And it’s a huge part of where the organizing and political action is happening. Even I agreed with your assertion that the level of discourse is not high (which I don’t), it is nonetheless a crucially important aspect of this social and political phenomenon.

    I am a great admirer of your work. I just think you missed the boat on this one.

  • Siamang

    Greta Christina owns.

    As usual.

  • OK, I promise to mention blogs in my upcoming talks on The New Atheism and say more about them in any next addition. I am sure they are influential. Perhaps I can be fed some exemplary cases to use.

    However, I still insist I googled every subject discussed in my book and have referred in numerous places to URLs. I still think the medium has not superseded books and journal articles that are carefully reviewed and edited before being published and where you can develop arguments in detail. Point me to a blog that picked up the Hawking quotation abut the universe not beginning in a singularity and turning it meaning completely around. Point me to a blog that recognized the theological significance of this.

  • Dr. Stenger,

    Your arguments certainly apply to scholarly fields such as cosmology and particle physics. Atheism, though is simply the lack of theistic belief. While the “new atheism” movement on the internet is an unscholarly exercise in rhetoric, one must remember the Jonathan Swift quote: “It is impossible to reason someone out of something that he did not reason himself into in the first place”. People are conditioned to be religious through church and social custom. The army of new atheists on the blogosphere function to soften up the conditioning and social customs to the point where invaluable books on cosmology (such as your own) can provide realistic alternatives to religion’s creation myths.

    In discussing the history of a war, one must not just mention the generals and their elegant strategies. The foot soldiers also play an important role.

  • OK, I promise to mention blogs in my upcoming talks on The New Atheism and say more about them in any next addition. I am sure they are influential.


    Perhaps I can be fed some exemplary cases to use.

    Hemant, do you maybe want to make this a question of the day? “What atheist blogs do you think provide enough exemplary intellectual stimulation for Victor Stenger?”

    Point me to a blog that picked up the Hawking quotation abut the universe not beginning in a singularity and turning it meaning completely around. Point me to a blog that recognized the theological significance of this.

    With all due respect, this sounds a bit like the “modern theology” argument made by many apologists: “If you haven’t read/ addressed (X theologian or argument), you have no right to reject theism.” I’m not sure whether any atheist bloggers have addressed that particular point (it’s not leaping to mind offhand)… but I can tell you that there is serious intellectual substance to be found in the atheist blogosphere.

    There’s also a lot of news, politics, organizing, motivation, jokes, rants, strategy discussion, and gossip. This is a social and political movement as well as an intellectual one, and that stuff is important. (See below.) Plus there’s a lot of re-addressing the same old arguments, and trying to find new ways to do it… since the same old arguments are what we keep encountering.

    And there’s also a lot of dreck. Sturgeon’s Law applies to the atheosphere as much as it does to anything else. 🙂

    However, I still insist I googled every subject discussed in my book…

    I suspect this may be the kernel of the dispute. It sounds as if you researched new atheist subjects, ideas… not the new atheist movement as it exists on the ground. It seems that you see the new atheism primarily as an intellectual movement — while many of us see it primarily as a social and political movement. And while I don’t dismiss the intellectual movement — on the contrary, I think it’s massively important — I think focusing on that to the exclusion of the social and political movement is an overly narrow focus, and is missing some of the movement’s most exciting aspects.

    Again, I have tremendous respect for your work, and God: The Failed Hypothesis was very influential to me in my early days as an atheist. But we in the blogosphere and the online forums are the ones in the trenches, debating one on one with believers almost every day. Please do not dismiss us.

  • Oh, I forgot to mention this:

    I still think the medium has not superseded books and journal articles that are carefully reviewed and edited before being published and where you can develop arguments in detail.

    I definitely must dispute this. I’ve been a professional writer for over 20 years… and I have never had my ideas carefully and ruthlessly challenged by an editor the way they’ve been challenged in debates on my blog. One of the greatest strengths of the blogosphere and online forums is the opportunity they provide for developing, refining, and changing your arguments.

  • I have admitted that I did not give due attention to the blogosphere and will welcome your help to correct that in future editions.

    However, I deeply dispute the notion that anyone who has been following the blogosphere will learn nothing new reading my book. I think the reviewer didn’t read it. I bet I can make a list of 50 items in the book that are discussed nowhere in blogs.

  • I understand Dr. Stenger’s points about the difference between academically vetted work vs. self-published off the cuff blogging. But even as far as that goes, it’s not like Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris topped the NY Times Bestseller list with groundbreaking academic work in epistemology or ontology. They did it by writing accessible stuff that generated new memes for far older ideas.

    The problem to me is simple. The vast majority of scientists and other academics are either atheists or their work is de facto atheist in the sense that it never lets God ideas interfere with their theory formation and defense. It is taken as a given that the Bible (or other religious source) is no authority in any natural science, social science, or rigorous branch of philosophy. Our vastly growing body of knowledge in the West is de facto atheistic. And it would not take much for academics to connect the dots, write popular books for the hoi polloi that say, “Look, this is what we know about psychology and it makes it abundantly clear that your religious experiences are false” or “here are the reasons that faith is a bad epistemology,” etc. There is centuries worth of available literature on ethics that shows no need for reference to God to ground moral concepts. And yet the general public and even educated discussion seems nearly completely oblivious to any of this research and argumentation. In public eye philosophical and theological debate is engaged by political hacks and journalists who know little to nothing about sophisticated philosophy and whose take on the world is barely forced to acknowledge the extent of human knowledge and how it undermines their ridiculous sophistries in a thousand ways.

    And, like I said, much as I love Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris—they’re not writing academic books here, they’re popularizing and rallying atheists to explicitly own their atheism. What they’re doing is introducing into the mainstream discussion the idea that the same automatic rejection of religious authorities that academics make belongs in the public discourse. Scientists don’t consult Genesis as a source of knowledge and it’s about damn time that public discourse stops doing so too, for example. Philosophers and social scientists reason from entirely secular sources and so should our politicians when they think about justice and when the most efficient legislation for our flourishing.

    The great accomplishment of those books was that they were precisely not academic treatises in tone or content but rather extremely well-written calls for an insistence that public debate start showing the same scrupulous insistence on keeping fairy tales from influencing debates that academia has long had and which is the reason academia is intellectually vibrant and successful while politics is mired in incredible superficiality and artifice and deception.

    And so from an academic standpoint, some of the New Atheists are going to be shown much the same contempt for not advancing sophisticated work that takes into account the last 100 years of epistemology and ethics. I mean, Hitchens’s chapter on whether religion is necessary for morality, for an easy example, is just a list of the vices of religious people. Where in any of their books is discussion of the leading scholars in moral philosophy? Where are Korsgaard or Williams or Smith or Railton or Harman or Sinnott-Armstrong or any of a number of other people brought up in the New Atheists’ books when they address morality and religion? Where are debates about epistemological externalism vs. internalism or about evidentialism? There’s some great collaboration with moral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt at the Edge conference. Peter Singer pops up occasionally. But in the big NY Times books, vast resources of academic originality are left wasted.

    But the virtue of what Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins are doing is that they are creating and spreading vital memes that are putting theism on the defensive and denting the educated popular mind.

    And the most important thing that they are grasping is that academics can be de facto and actual atheists all they want, as they have been for many decades, but it will not affect religion’s hegemony over the minds of the hoi polloi. Unless academics come down from their ivory towers and sully their thoughts by making them accessible to the masses, they will continue to work out truths that will never dent the culture or which the culture will hear about and flat out deny because the only people who care enough to teach the average person anything that sounds like a philosophy of life and morality and metaphysics are the religious institutions.

    It’s vitally important, therefore, that we academics DO flood the internet more than we have. That we DO run the risk of sloppiness that comes with responding to the daily events as part of the daily conversation. And it is MOST important that we recognize that the struggle is over the culture, it’s not over academia. Academia is as secular as it needs to be. It is not ruled by the Bible but by peer reviewed research. The struggle is over the average person’s mind. Religion has been intellectually dead meat for a couple of hundred years. It’s alive and well and trusted by too many people over credible sources because its powers are NOT intellectual but cultural. And if the New Atheism does not thrive as the cultural phenomenon as Dawkins and Harris, et al. have been wise enough to call for it to be, then it’s really just pointless. Academics didn’t need to be told to ignore the Bible when they think. Almost all do. It’s the general public that does. Fighting religion only with the mind is the route to a loss. It’s a cultural power and it can only be defeated with equal rival cultural powers.

    And so to dismiss the blogs because just the average blogger is indisputably unsophisticated and unqualified compared an esteemed physicist or biologist is not to understand the purpose and nature of the blogs. They are an organizational tool for the spreading of the memes. Serious academics need to give genuine support to those bloggers who can actually take ideas well understood in the ivory towers to the street where political and social decisions are being affected on a daily basis by ignorance and superstition.

    And, I submit that more academics should be willing to do what I am trying to do which is mix both—debate rigorously and vigorously the events of the day from an academically informed perspective, help add intellectual heft to the cultural atheist activism, reach out directly to general readers with the ideas one’s developing (rather than just save them for the academics in one’s niche), and stop letting there be unnecessary barriers between academically sophisticated atheism and the channels to the popular mind.

  • Ms Christina & Dr Stenger are clearly in the same trench, shooting at the same thing, but they’re shooting with different weapons. While they’re both scoring palpable hits, I think Dr Stenger hasn’t realised precisely how much the combination of Greta’s assault rifle and his sniper rifle compliment each other.

    That is not to say Greta’s approach is in any way less accurate (her shots have been ruthlessly accurate over the years I’ve been following her blog); it’s just that the blog approach allows a faster rate of fire and a faster rate of return or complimentary fire in the form of comments and feedback. It’s more or less a real-time strategy game as opposed to a turn-based assault.

    OK, enough military analogies. The fact is that, for me and for many others, the discussion on the internet has been invaluable in promoting intelligent discussion of great depth and breadth amongst the freethinkers of the world as well as between them and the world’s believers. The relatively instant response of the blog world helps countless non-believers to crystallise their own thoughts on the nature of religion and to realise precisely what their own beliefs are – as well as what others believe, how they differ and how to discuss, clarify and if necessary defend them. It should go without saying that this same real-time online discussion and clarification has armed many of us with a great arsenal against the standard and more-or-less unchanging tactics of creationists, fundamentalists and dogmatists of all stripes.

    In concert with all the “New Atheist” literature that’s been released in the last few years, the constant back and forth of online philosophical discussion has been invaluable in creating and spreading awareness of atheism, non-belief and objections to religious privilege and opposition to inappropriate religious activity. There is an enormous worldwide community of non-religious people that are constantly swapping points of view, battling dogma and assisting each other online. There is no doubt that long-range weapons like traditional print media are invaluable, but as far as many atheists are concerned, they’re written by the generals like Dawkins & Coyne (many of whom, it must be said, do maintain an impressive online presence anyway), while much of the action amongst regular non-publishing atheists is happening unseen in countless comment threads across the net.

    OK, so I lied about quitting the military analogies. So shoot me.

    The point is that blogs and books complement each other and neither should ever be overlooked in favour of the other or underestimated. Books can & do cover things to a depth that blogs by their necessarily brief nature may not be able to; blogs are able to rapidly respond to new & changing situations and raise discussion and debate about them almost instantly (PZ Myers comes to mind with his swarming of ridiculous polls!).

    Blogs are also, as it happens, one of the best tools to raise awareness about pertinent books: were it not for my internet interactions I might never have heard of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Neil Shubin, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or of Dr Stenger himself – certainly not within the small space of time since the end of 2006, when I read The God Delusion.

    For those of us fighting on the same side, it’s time to recognise where our strengths are and where each approach can strengthen the other.

  • Even my lowly blog (which, frankly, hardly anyone reads) had (goes off to check) more than 250 views this last week, suggesting over a thousand a month.

    PZ gets something over 3 million page views a month.

    So, yes, PZ has to count as influential, at least in the sense that he has a huge community of atheists gathered around him.

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