The Impact of the New Atheists a Decade After 9/11 August 27, 2011

The Impact of the New Atheists a Decade After 9/11

There’s an article by Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service making the rounds about how 9/11 was a major spark for the New Atheism movement. It’s the event that led Sam Harris to write The End of Faith, and that book was followed by several others:

Published in 2004, Harris’s “The End of Faith” launched the so-called “New Atheist” movement, a make-no-apologies ideology that maintains that religion is not just flawed, but evil, and must be rejected.

Within two years, Harris was joined on the best-seller list by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, who all took religion to task for most — if not all — of the world’s ills. Collectively, the men whose books sold millions of copies around the world came to be known as the apocalyptic-sounding “Four Horsemen.”

How did that surge impact the rise in atheism over the past decade?

One such beneficiary is The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which was mentioned in Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.” In 2004, it had fewer than 6,000 members. By 2007, membership had doubled, and this year topped 17,000.

“We feel like we owe a huge debt to these people,” Dan Barker, co-president of the foundation, said of the Four Horsemen, many of whom have appeared at FFRF events.

The Secular Student Alliance, which blossomed from 59 campus groups when “The God Delusion” appeared to 273 today, is now routinely invited to participate in interfaith projects with Muslim students.

“This is something we would not have seen before the New Atheists made sure we were on everybody’s mind,” said Jesse Galef, a spokesman for the SSA. “The attention has done wonders.”

I was interviewed for this article but my statements didn’t make the cut. So I thought I’d share here essentially what I wrote to the reporter about the impact the New Atheists have had, for better and for worse, and what their legacy might be:

What the New Atheists have done — and what young activists and the Internet have helped streamline — is making it ok to come out publicly as nontheistic. If you are uncertain about your faith, there are now books to help you confirm your doubts. If you don’t know any other atheists personally, there are now local groups, bloggers, podcasters, and national organizations who can give you the social network you need to work through your (lack of) beliefs and talk to without having to censor yourself. If you see a violation of church/state separation, there are now communities of atheists (and lawyers) who have your back. We’ve also seen an explosion of atheist advertisements that state our message, or, more often, simply say that atheists are good people who exist in your area. The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s OUT Campaign “A” symbol has become ubiquitous. For a lot of people, coming out as an atheist isn’t a simple task — you may risk losing your job and/or family — but many others have gone through the experience and they’re eager to help new atheists through the process.

That will be their legacy. That atheism is a regular, even popular, topic of discussion over the past decade is due (initially, anyway) to the popularity of their books. However, those books alone didn’t cause the change. It took thousands of atheists coming out of the woodworks on their campuses, on their blogs, to their friends, and beyond to really make this a movement.

Is there anything bad about the New Atheists’ contributions to the freethought community? I wouldn’t blame them for this at all, but the bestselling New Atheist authors include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens — all white men. While there have been a few popular atheist minorities (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali), we’re now faced with the dilemma of trying to appeal to a broader spectrum of people, those who tend to see atheism’s demographics as older, whiter, and male… when, in fact, there’s no reason we should be limited to age, race, or gender. Again, this isn’t the fault of any one individual or the “Four Horsemen.” But it’s an issue we now have to deal with and an issue many groups are struggling to solve.

(Thanks to Matthew for the link!)

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  • True, the “Four Horsemen” are white males, but Wendy Kaminer and Susan Jacoby come immediately to mind, and numerous beloved female atheist bloggers, as well as Reggie Finley “The Infidel Guy” and plenty of others who are not white men. I’m delighted to have 49 atheist blogs in my personal blogroll. More will be added…

    Thanks for a good post!

  • Really odd that people would see atheists as old white men. The non-believers I follow come from every race, ethnicity and nationality and tend to be young rather than old and are just as likely to be women as men. 

  • Annie

    It’s too bad your statement about the four horsemen being all white men didn’t make the article.  It was a good point.  The two comments above mine state that they know many atheists from various backgrounds, and so do I, but I think the point was that the article focused mainly on these four… and not the true diversity that is present.

  • Awesome post. I’m sad your comments didn’t make the cut as diversity is a very current and ongoing issue within our community.

  • Allison Wolf

    I am a bit disappointed with this article, as it acts like strident atheism is something new. If you go read older atheist stuff like Ingersoll’s work, it’s pretty darned fiery.

    While I don’t always agree with the four horsemen (well, they don’t agree with each other on everything, either!), I do respect much of what they’ve done. I think of their work as being aimed at people who are in serious doubt or who are “in the closet” and at getting these people to come out. In order to do this, it’s often necessary to convince people that they are doing harm by staying hidden. I think the move towards diversity in the movement, both in gender and background/race terms and in terms of including people like Epstein who some consider accommodationists, is also important because as people come out it’s good for them to be able to find a community they could consider a shelter in that storm.

  • Anonymous

    To say that the “A” symbol is ubiquitous is a wild overstatement. But it’s out there and that’s cool. As for the “Four Horsemen” happening to be all white males… I simply refuse to see this as a negative. To feel excluded by this is irrational. By all means reach out to everyone, the more the better, regardless of demographic (old white men too!). You say it’s no one’s fault. What fault? There’s no fault to be had? None. Nada. Zip. It’s a myth I don’t believe in. What’s that? You see it differently, oh well…

  • Marc Barnhill

    It’s disappointing, but not remotely surprising, that your concluding point wasn’t mirrored in the article, Hemant. We seem to be at a crossroads moment regarding race in the atheist and skeptical movements, and luckily many people (mostly of color themselves) are stepping up to seize it, though collectively we need to do so more broadly. We’re working on some events and outreach on our campus, and it’s a rewarding experience, but nonbelief desperately needs a more inclusive public face.

  • 9/11 was huge for me.  For the previous forty years, I had been a “live and let live” atheist.  I didn’t care if the public schools celebrated Christmas, because I saw it as culturally important.  I was willing to accept my minority status.  But because of 9/11, and because Jacques Chirac’s autobiography mentioned that Bush called him in the middle of the night to talk about how war in Iraq could help bring about Armageddon, all that changed.  I can’t begin to describe what a breath of fresh air “The God Delusion” and “God is Not Great” were for me–it was the beginning of an inkling that I wasn’t alone.  

    And now I subscribe to several atheist blogs, and spend most of my online time on the atheist board on Ravelry.  Not only do I have a good knitting community, but I have a great ATHEIST knitting community.  You wouldn’t believe how many great atheist knitting patterns there are–all designed since 9/11.

  • ludovico

    Agreed that “…there’s no reason that we should be limited to age, race, or gender.” To that I would add: political party/ideology. Are there atheists who are conservatives/Republicans? Sure. Are there atheists who oppose abortion? Sure. Are there atheists who are NRA members? Sure. Let’s keep in mind that diversity ought to also include diverse viewpoints on today’s contentious issues.  

  • Allison Wolf

    A&AC on Rav is a wonderful place! 🙂 One thing I do love about the past decade is how much easier it is to meet other atheists.

  • Lupita

    I remember going to a monthly meeting at the Center for the Inquiry in Hollywood and most of the people there were old white men + some older white women. I definitely did not feel like I fit in. And from what I read this has been the experience of many woman attending atheist events.

  •  older, whiter, and male…

    and not poor.

    As Mark Baddely once put it:

    Atheism is like designer drugs: it’s a lifestyle choice for a small westernized elite.

    I get the feeling that as Dawkins gets more shrill, he’s being taken far less seriously and being seen as far less relevant in his non-scientific rhetoric.

  • Rich Wilson

    9/11 gave birth to aggressive, unapologetic `New Atheists’

    Ya, like the religious have never been aggressive or unapologetic…

  • I’d have to wait for him to get shrill and then more shrill to test your notion.

    I think you mean he’s been called shrill. But as the billboards show there is no message so harmless it will not be seen as an agressive attack by theists.

  • Pretty much the only thing I thought Dawkins was right about in TGD was his argument that religion should not be exempt from criticism.

    But far from an ‘agressive attack’, I thought Dawkins’ & Co’s UK bus ads were somewhat of an own goal..  why get people thinking about God when they otherwise wouldn’t? (though from what I gather, things are hugely different in the US )My big problem is that his philosophical dabblings are shallow, and way more heat than light, and I think people are starting to tire of the overblown ‘religion is evil’ rhetoric. I also don’t think his name-calling of the Pope and support for arresting him (which was clearly a stunt not based on any careful understanding of how Ratzinger has actually handled the child abuse issue  – I’m not a Catholic and they have much to answer for btw, but why shoot the guy who’s turning the ship around?) has done much except make him appear petty and prejudiced to the general public. Of course, you may think differently of him, and maybe where you are the general feeling is different, but that’s my perception of things in the UK.

  • To say that the “A” symbol is ubiquitous is a wild overstatement. 

    As well as 9/11, one of the other big catalysts for the rise / growth of the ‘New Atheism’ is the internet. In many ways, it is the ‘church’, the place of community for many atheists. The flip side of this is that Atheism tends to be more represented online than in the ‘offline’ world, and, to keep the church analogy, if a couple of hundred theists gathering together give them a disproportionate feeling for their numbers or influence, I suspect the same can be true of Atheists online. The “A” might be ubiquitous online, but I suspect that ‘offline’ it’s far less recognised as a symbol.

  • Michael Gibb

    You can’t ignore the fact that the role model for the Economic Conservative, Ayn Rand, was an atheist.

  • Anonymous

    Ratzinger trying to turn the ship around?  The same guy that wrote letters recommending stall tactics?

  • Charles Black

    Indeed good does result from the most evil deeds.
    If poverty is the mother of religion, ignorance is the father & the class society is the grandmother.

  • Mgv12345

    Living in a secular country like Canada, the usual response I get when talking about atheism is “Who cares?” or “I have bills to pay” or whatnot. It just doesn’t register here, probably because religion is more of a personal thing, and with churches closing left and right doesn’t have much of an impact.

    I tend to ignore anything the horsemen say. They’re posers. And rich, snooty ones at that. I have more regard for Mauray Madlyn O’Hare (sp?) since she actually made a difference.
    I really think that if atheism is going to grow, it’s going to have to enter the political and entertainment arenas. Oh and….this is KEY, atheism needs to STOP FOCUSING ON RELIGION. Yes, I KNOW the point is to secularize, but by drawing attention to xtianity etc you’re just giving them free advertising! When these discussions come up:

    i)Atheist charter. Need a poltiical party or charter saying what beliefs, goals, etc. are.
    ii)Need a leading politician to follow.
    iii)Need to steer away from the religiion angle and focus more on politics, health, education, etc. Basically, the quicker indifference to religion is established, the quicker atheists will win. Again Canada, no one gives a crap about religion here because it’s not inhe public eye at all and has no political power
    iv)Need YOUNG reps. Not older white guys and scientists, but someone young and convincing.

    Overall, I see atheism being stalled forever until it either (heh) religionizes and places of atheist gathering are established in each city (Basically the opposite of the goal), politicizes itself through government presence and becomes something super trendy and popular.

    Kinda like Coca-Cola, without the sugar and bad health side-effects.

  • Grisha


    While you are right about “four horsemen” being all white men (and three of them old white men), it is at least partly changing.  Even elevatorgate points to this direction. 

    How you can see at last few TAMs, women participate more and more and young people too.  There were TAMers from different ethnic background as well.  The sad exception was black people.  There was so few of them that I counted.  Out of almost 1500 attendees I counted 11 or 12.

    The similar picture at my local Atheists and Agnostics meetup – about half participants are females,  different ages including at least one mid-schooler, different ethnic/cultural background, but I do not remember seeing single black person.

    It may mean that along with continuing monitoring and ensuring separation of church and state we need better introduce non-theism to black communities.

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