Is the New Atheism Movement Irrelevant?

Sep 26, 2016

By Phil Torres

The new atheism movement doesn’t have the public visibility that it once had. One of the founding members, the polymathic journalist Christopher Hitchens, passed away in 2011, and various controversies have resulted in a fragmentation of the movement. To this day — 12 years after the movement was inaugurated by Sam Harris’ compelling book The End of Faith — new atheism remains dominated by white men, even though women comprise 44 percent of the “religiously unaffiliated” demographic in the contemporary United States.

Despite these shortcomings, I would argue that new atheism — led by luminaries such as Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Boghossian — is not only more important today than 12 years ago, but that it could be one of the most important cultural movements in the coming decades. There are two broad reasons for this. First, we should note that secularism is winning the (ir)rationality wars within Western civilization. A 2009 study, for example, found that religion is headed for “extinction” in nine Western countries. And the “nones” demographic in the US is not only increase as a percentage of the population, but “they are becoming more secular over time by a variety of measures.”

Unfortunately, this is a provincial victory; celebration now for the achievements of new atheism would be foolishly premature. The reason is that within the global village more generally, secularism is losing to religion. According to a 2015 Pew study, the total number of “Unaffiliated” will increase from 1.13 to 1.23 billion in 2050, while simultaneously declining as a percentage of the global population, from 16.4 to 13.2 percent. Those of us in this demographic will become even more of a minority by the middle of this century. Meanwhile, the total number of Christians will rise from 2.17 to 2.92 billion, remaining steady at 31.4 percent, and Islam — the fastest growing religion in the world — will increase its numbers from 1.6 to 2.76 billion by 2050, ending up at 29.7 percent of the population. To quote Alan Cooperman, “You might think of this in shorthand as the secularizing West versus the rapidly growing rest.”


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40 comments on “Is the New Atheism Movement Irrelevant?

  • It is not irrelevant. It is marginalized. It is under reported and under represented. Atheists by their own admission are notoriously hard to galvanize on anything at all. The religious mainstream which has traditionally had a stranglehold on the country is noticing and visibly moved towards action. Their problem, however, is that their action repeatedly alienates folks in their own ranks. They are losing influence and their boat is leaking like hell.

    On another thread, i posted my desire for a “keep your beliefs to yourself” era to be ushered in. I think it is common ground for everyone and it would be a better world if the zeitgeist shifted to everyone praying or not …. in private and I’d love it considered gauche to publicly express views on the topic in either direction.

    I do not and am not calling for censorship or repression, but rather a paradigm shift in the treatment of the topic. I just wish that the majority of believers and non-believers would internalize their (meaningless) affiliations and just shut the fuck up. I do not care to hear about your sexual proclivities, your nose picking habits, how often you break wind (which happily is a lot like……) your religion.

    Stop asserting that your belief is the correct belief for everyone. Keep your shit to yourself and let’s evolve past killing in the name of differences in world view. You are entitled to your world view and if you are like me you’ve EARNED your worldview. If it works and brings you peace and does not encroach of anyone else, have at it and enjoy your life. But stop making people feel bad for things they enjoy and mind your own goddamn business.

    How about we move towards voting issues that actually matter. Instead of a xenophobic wall symbolizing permanent hatred, why not earmark the money to control midwest flooding and divert the water to the west coast who desperately need it.. We alleviate flooding and human suffering AND we alleviate drought and human suffering all at once. Use the fucking dirt to build a man made mountain range in the Midwest and try to minimize tornadoes. The Romans had aqueducts 2000 years ago for christ’s sake.



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  • Seems to tell it like it is- but the status quo may not obtain by 2050. Little matters like global
    financial melt-down, increasing wars, millions more refugees, etc. will doubtless make prediction
    ever less reliable.
    I do keep banging on about it, but nonetheless feel the most imminent threat is from Islam, not
    climate change [which looks to be inevitable, no matter what we do]. If/when the world is majority
    muslim-ruled then any hope of CC remediation is utterly futile– “insh’allah…
    So, atheism is indeed marginalized. In fact the demise of western Christianity provides the vacuum
    that islam seeks to fill.



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  • …within the global village more generally…

    It’s not a “Global Village”.

    It’s a global mess.

    Meanwhile, the total number of Christians will rise from 2.17 to 2.92 billion, remaining steady at 31.4 percent, and Islam — the fastest growing religion in the world — will increase its numbers from 1.6 to 2.76 billion by 2050, ending up at 29.7 percent of the population.

    Yep, and that’s mostly because they will produce more offspring – no wonder that Pope frankie and most other big religious bosses oppose contraception so much…

    C’mon fellow atheist, let’s get busy procreating!

    🙂



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  • …the sociologist Phil Zuckerman argues that “a strong case could be made that atheists and secular people actually possess a stronger or more ethical sense of social justice than their religious peers.” He adds that “when we actually compare the values and beliefs of atheists and secular people to those of religious people, the former are markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian.”

    This may be true and wonderful, but therein lies its own problem. “Nature, red in tooth and claw” cares not a wit for the values, beliefs, and sense of social justice of atheists and secular people if they don’t confer superior survival benefits over the long term. If nationalism, prejudice, racism, dogmatism, ethnocentrism, closed-mindedness, and authoritarianism get their carriers’ genes into successive generations more successfully than those lacking these features (or just better able to suppress them), which appears to be the case historically, they are not going away without some sort of violent conflict involving a lot of dead genetic hosts. Given the values, beliefs, and sense of social justice of atheists and secular people, I don’t see how secularism will ever succeed in defeating these other “isms” without being forced to compromise its own principles, at least temporarily, if that’s even possible.



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  • if nationalism, prejudice, racism, dogmatism, ethnocentrism, closed-mindedness, and authoritarianism get their carriers’ genes into successive generations more successfully than those lacking these features…

    Pecan, I suspect you may be fuzzing a bit the boundary between genetic info and culture here…



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  • Some food (a crumb) for thought

    Let us hope that if this “movement” is successful and atheism does in fact become the norm someday, while religious people will be looked upon the same way that alchemists are regarded today… let us hope, I say, that we atheists – the majority of us – will be good, decent, broadminded and humane people, and not a bunch of rigid, intolerant amoral brutes. After all, if you take a drunk son-of-a-bitch and make him sober all you get is a sober son-of-a-bitch. No, atheism is liberating and good, but it is not by no means an ultimate solution of ignorance and cruelty will still plague us. There will be wars and dissension and abuses perpetrated amongst us. Less than there is now, presumably. (Perhaps more.)

    I care more about myself as an individual than I do for mankind.— Ironically, so did Christ. Christ, according to Kierkegaard, cared more for the existing individual than He did for that abstraction that we call Mankind: “Only the individual can become concrete.”

    Yet the individual is defined by his relationship to Mankind.

    I must love my neighbors; not for the sake of my neighbors, however; but for my own sake. —Wilde



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  • @ #6

    …you may be fuzzing a bit the boundary between genetic info and culture here…

    The boundary, if there is one, is fuzzy, at best. Genes are, necessarily, the first influence on human behavior.



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  • 9
    Pinball1970 says:

    @8

    Reading the article it is much simpler than that, it is just a numbers game we will eventually lose.

    I hope the extrapolations are not accurate but I suspect they are not that far off.

    Islam as always is the main problem right now, the UK is slowly shaking off its Christian roots and other studies suggest the USA and the rest of Europe is making progress in this area.

    However mass immigration to Europe due to war and famine from the much more religious countries in Africa and Asia poses a problem.

    Can you leave your religion at the door when you come in please?

    We cannot ask this question, the civilized west does not do that.

    Hitchens once said there is a war going on between modern secular civilization and enlightenment and religious tribalism.

    There is and it is a war we will lose it if we tolerate and facilitate these religions within our own communities.

    Modern / new atheism is about doing something, getting involved with local secular groups.

    Unfortunately we are not well funded particularly and have no political consensus either- both myself and Crooked shoes have mentioned this.

    We have our work cut out.



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  • Pecan,
    While you raise an excellent point about the transmission of genetic info and the transmission of ideas or behaviors (or beliefs), I think we benefit from discerning and keeping separate genes and memes. I think you’ve got them conflated.



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  • We need to join the moral argument far, far more. The specious muddle that morality comes from religion must be countered with positive assertions that the reverse is more often the case and the practical evidence for this builds and builds.

    Sociopathy is possibly our number one problem, especially charismatic sociopaths and their parasitic behaviours. This, I have always felt, lies at the heart of ideological extremism of which Islamism is a prime example. Until more of us recognise this and accept sociopathy as part of our inevitable neural diversity, we will fail to identify a properly tractable problem. Yes charismatic sociopaths built much of our early culture and even industry, but now is the time to notice the moral uncoupled-ness and hold them to account for their sometime shameless lying. (CNN has finally got the message.)

    Taking back control of education especially to fifth grade is essential. Faith schools are indoctrination, too often of the worst sort, stealing a child’s future choices.

    Trade with and engage with and invest in Muslim countries if you can see a way to benefit the poorest.

    It is now clear that Erdogan is a charismatic parasite sociopath using a return to religion to better engage with the religious less educated Muslims to secure his power base.. Turkey’s secular folk are the (Gulen!) educated, well-to-do and the ones he most fears. Finding ways to lift the poor religious out of poverty is a way to loosen the exploiters grip on them.

    Did someone say Trump?

    The often dismal “Beyond Belief” produced gold in this episode for any who can access it…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07w9jg7



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  • Crooked,

    The meme of sympathy builds on the phenotype of empathy. The shape of the substrate, in some fractal way, can carry the form forwards.

    The broadness of genetic expression for humans has profound cultural (memetic) implications.



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  • Crookedshoes @# 1.

    “I’d love it considered gauche to publicly express views on the topic in either direction.”

    I already think it is, and intrusive and boring for most people too, unless the exchange is with a like-minded individual, which limits the value the discussion somewhat.

    I personally lack the patience to spend my time arguing about religion with religious people; I did try for a number of years but never had a positive response.

    I liken it to trying to talk someone out of an addiction when they themselves are the only one who can deal with it; the best you can hope for is to sew a seed of doubt in them and hope it takes; never has yet, and to be frank my dear, life is too short.



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  • @ #8

    The boundary, if there is one, is fuzzy, at best…

    Of course it’s fuzzy – I guess I should have written ‘a bit too much’ in my previous post.

    I don’t see how you could imagine not there being any boundary at all, though.

    After all, genetic info is encoded in DNA, whereas cultural info is encoded through learning in the brain (the details of which we still don’t understand).



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  • Stafford. I switched to arguing with religious people about their immoral behaviours. Just as little result, but at least, they will feel judged and found wanting. Something they thought they had bought off.



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  • Nice to hear from you Stafford,

    I am thinking that my sentence did not convey my actual thought and that is this:
    The “public expression” that would be gauche would not be limited to a discussion between any two people, but any public declaration at all, including wearing symbols and/or garb that “gives away” your affiliation. Please realize that this is not calling for a moratorium because I hate crucifixes or burkas. rather I’d like individuals to be deciding to leave them at home because the zeitgeist has shifted to that being the norm.

    I do not care to speak to people about their beliefs, either, but it is truly galling to see Trump being allowed to act like he give a shit about any religion, god, book, or institution outside himself. It should be relegated to being a private matter between the individual and their world view. Again, i am not asking for anyone’s worldview to change, I just need them to shut the fuck up about it. It means nothing.

    Standing in a church/mosque does not make you a good person any more then standing in a garage makes you a car.



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  • @ #12

    The meme of sympathy builds on the phenotype of empathy. The shape of the substrate, in some fractal way, can carry the form forwards.

    Yes, “can” -but all too frequently cannot, or at least does not. There are other phenotypes, not so empathetic, and tending to have little sympathy for sympathy and those (others) who express it, that have other things building on them. Things that are not easily defeated by sympathy.

    The broadness of genetic expression for humans has profound cultural (memetic) implications.

    Indeed, it does.



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  • Thanks for the clarifications, crookedshoes.

    I entirely agree that people should be at liberty to believe whatever they choose just as long as they don’t impose their notions on others and are prepared to face the consequences of any harm they may inflict if they do so; I’m thinking primarily of harm to children brought about by intimidation and the arrested development of their intellectual potential by having dogmas and popularly received ideas foisted upon them.

    The young should be free to make up their own minds in their own time whilst knowing that they can always seek advice from their parents when necessary.

    And parents should be honest and admit when they don’t know the answer to a question their offspring asks them, that way perhaps parent and child can learn something together.

    “Is the New Atheism Movement Irrelevant?” No, it just needs an overhaul.



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  • “Is the New Atheism Movement Irrelevant?”

    No! . . . . . .
    But it has achieved some of its objectives, in bringing the fundamentalists into the public eye to be challenged rather than humoured, where cultural Christians can see the idiocy of YECs and evangelicals as the culturals drift towards rationality, and the new generations become more secular, educated and rational.

    The more secular countries are now reaching tipping points where the strongly assertive religious are widely regarded as ridiculous irrationals, rather than figures of knowledgable authority!



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  • Trends come and go, and I think these “movements” do lose and gain momentum year by year, usually fuelled by the headlines and concerns of the day …
    But the more important aspect is the de-mystifying of the labels of Secular or Athiest. Step by step progress is made, and the first (IMHO) is getting the stigma off the labels and allowing people to admit, openly in the lack of a belief system in one of the anceint myths.
    I think there is generational change (like geologic time), it takes time for the “soil” to turn over, exposing the thinking of the next generation. My kids are late teens and 20´s, they admit the fervent religiousness is losing steam – it took me a long time to de-convert – my older siblings and parents, never will.



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  • “Dominated by white men”…………sounds like there is another ideology at play here. This is honestly the last place I would have expected to see that type of rhetoric. Can you tell me how on earth can you bring gender and race into the issue of atheism? Or does simply raising this question make me ‘not the right type of atheist’?



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  • Argle Bargle

    “Dominated by white men”…………sounds like there is another ideology at play here.

    As much as I’m not happy about the situation, what if it’s true? If it’s true then we need to acknowledge it and do something about it.

    If you disagree with the statement then tally up the public voices of the ‘”new atheism” movement and let’s see how it falls by gender. The numbers don’t lie.

    Before we start to shriek “ideology”, let’s make sure we have the truth of the matter. If it does end up that we have a good gender mix and racial mix at the top of the heap then claims of patriarchy will be dismissed.



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  • @ #24

    Can you tell me how on earth can you bring gender and race into the issue of atheism?

    One way would be in an attempt to describe the current composition, in terms of recognized demographic categories, of the “New Atheism” movement, perhaps as an aid in understanding why it might be “irrelevant”.

    But that’s just a guess.



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  • Wow. Way to complicate and confuse what I believe to be a relatively simple idea……the lack of belief in a supreme being. So now we will need affirmative action to make sure that enough women and minorities are atheists?
    I still don’t see what gender has to do with this idea, unless you start splitting hairs and want to push another agenda. There’s no ‘atheist church’ and as a simple idea you can’t just make people subscribe to it. Please, enlighten me because I’m starting to think I was inadvertantly redirected to some Tumblr blog.



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  • Argle

    Like it or not it is most often women who traditionally had most interactions with young children. We now know that early interactions with children are the most permanently formative through a cultural copying process identified as over-imitation. (This was first identified by primatologist Dr Victroria Horner comparing how chimp kids and human kids learn. Human kid believe grown ups against the evidence of their own eyes and reason). This results in high fidelity copying that may be the very lynch pin of one of those two primates having a rich, creative culture. It may be the very reason why Religious and Social Conservatism with stay-at-home brood-mothers is a rule with no exceptions.

    Finding the trick of getting women more interested in atheism may be the very key to our pressing problem of rampant religiosity.

    Maybe enhancing the argument that you make more moral kids with skepticism in the face of dogma? Maybe that children’s life chances are enhanced by it?

    This presumption of women as the undue influence on kids…is this sexist?

    Only because strongly religious communities are by definition sexist.

    Having more atheist women visible may encourage more religious women to think again, may encourage them to give their children a wider choice.

    The children of atheists are more likely to choose an alternative life style to their parents than those of any religious grouping, particularly fundamentalists. It seems Atheist folks really do walk the walk of intellectual freedom.



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  • The New Atheist movement?? What the old ones all died? All the members just decided to be atheists? Sounds like a soap commercial- the New and Improved Atheists.

    I vote for the New Enlightenment. Or Enlightenment 2.0. or how about Godsmack. That would be an interesting activity for CFI to consider. Rename the movement. Maybe a New York PR firm is in order. Maybe Dennett needs to start wearing a robe and some sandals. Harris can wear a pointed hat, a robe and a big ring. CFI could have Imagine playing softly on the website homepage. How about a national children’s group called the Little Atheists. There should be a comic strip on the website as well–Little Orphan Atheist.
    I just affirmatively crossed the boundary of empathy with my big phenotype in tow. And I am a white man and damn proud of it. There are more male atheists because men are too lazy to get up on Sunday!

    Yes. I do have better things to do. And yes I know there are real comedians who are out of work.
    Hasta La Vista Baby – Just living the dream down here in Texas!



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  • Craig Domin #31
    Sep 30, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    There seems to be some need for clarity about issues.

    The New Atheist movement?? What the old ones all died?

    The difference between the New Atheist movement, and the old closet atheists, is that the New Atheists are prepared to challenge theist attempts at assertive domination, while the old closet atheists, just keep their heads down and give assertive theists free reign to pretend they represent the majority of the population, morality, and political wisdom!

    All the members just decided to be atheists?

    Nope! Some of them decided to be more publicly visible atheists.

    Sounds like a soap commercial- the New and Improved Atheists.

    Not really! Just an honest presentation of atheists, to replace the repetitively, and dishonestly preached, strawman atheist, created as a demonic concocted public image by disparaging evangelising theists.

    I vote for the New Enlightenment. Or Enlightenment 2.0. or how about Godsmack.

    That seems to be a renamed version of the New Atheist “Hitch-slap”!

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hitchslap



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  • 34
    wilke appeldorn says:

    What the article fails to mention is that it were the feminists and SJW´s that started those controversies that led to the fragmentation of the movement.



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  • wilke

    It would be interesting to do a gender profile of SJWs. I suspect women may be the more numerous. I think SJWs are well intentioned folk whose empathy outstrips their sympathy. They are well endowed with an emotional and instinctive concern for the (first perceived)underdog but reluctant to analyse the relative merits of all underdogs in the case.

    Any gender analysis of empathy (and its various absences in psychopaths and autists) demonstrates a depletion in men and an abundance in women relatively speaking (though not by much in the bulk of the population).

    Atheism’s new and combative stance, setting empathy to one side in favour of reason-before-feelings, may be part of its less appetising nature for women.



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  • 36
    Pinball1970 says:

    @31 Texas? I hope you tune in to Matt Dillahunty and the atheist experience.
    What do we want to change? I dont care if its old new or all improved atheism what do we want to change? How do we change it?



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  • Alan4-
    All of my comments about the name were simply a joke, (apparently not appreciated by all) no clarity required. I really could care less what people call it. I especially like it when they call us those God Damned Atheists. FYI- Godsmack is the name of a rock band who had connections to witchcraft and the occult. It is also a euphemism for a heroin overdose, ironically said to be one of the easiest ways to get to heaven. But I will be glad to pay homage to our late comrade any chance I get.

    PeacePecan- In all seriousness, I really think that it is the effort that is important, rather than the result. Sure, statistically it may seem irrelevant now as the article points out, but human history does not always follow statistical probability curves. Trying to prognosticate the ultimate outcome of a centuries old clash of beliefs based on the latest polls may be of little utility. Maybe the current escalation of Muslim demographics and aggression will serve as an example to Christians of what religious dogma leads to, since they seem oblivious to their own history. Or maybe it will result in an escalation of Christian fundamentalism in retaliation. Either way the New Atheist movement can do nothing better than use this opportunity to hold up the proverbial mirror so all sides can see their misguided wretchedness. People should act on their principles rather than a perceived chance of failure.

    Pinball- Thanks for the reference. I will check it out.

    Phil Rimmer- interesting point you make about SJWs and the new atheist movement. It amazes me that the severe chauvinism of religion has not dramatically affected female participation in New Atheist movement. This is an area ripe for investigation and analysis. Where are the ladies? Where are the feminists? Nothing holds women back more than religion.



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  • Craig Domin #37
    Oct 3, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    Alan4-
    All of my comments about the name were simply a joke, (apparently not appreciated by all) no clarity required. I really could care less what people call it. I especially like it when they call us those God Damned Atheists. FYI- Godsmack is the name of a rock band who had connections to witchcraft and the occult. It is also a euphemism for a heroin overdose, ironically said to be one of the easiest ways to get to heaven. But I will be glad to pay homage to our late comrade any chance I get.

    Thanks for that further clarity.
    I had not heard of that US rock band, – possibly because I am more into the earlier forms of rock and don’t live in the USA.



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  • 40
    Pinball1970 says:

    @David-r-allen whats David Allans view on new atheism?

    He is down under and they have had the pleasure of Krauss and Dawkins down there recently

    They also have the king of new super cool hard edged Oz atheism in Jim Jeffries

    We need ALL types to make a difference



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