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Meet the New Atheism / Same as the Old Atheism?

by Tim Madigan

“God is Dead” – Nietzsche

“Nietzsche is Dead” – God

So goes the famous graffiti (almost as famous as “To Do is to Be” – Plato; “To Be is To Do” – Aristotle; “Do Be Do Be Do” – Sinatra). This issue of Philosophy Now is devoted (if that’s the right word!) to understanding the so-called ‘New Atheism’ movement. Starting in 2004 a spate of bestselling books (Sam Harris’ The End of Faith; Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) launched an ongoing public debate over faith versus reason, with Messrs Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens being dubbed ‘The Four Horsemen of Atheism.’

Such public debates are not completely new in recent times. For instance, the Existentialist craze after the Second World War and the so-called ‘Death of God’ movement in the 1960s also involved vociferous disputes over the nature and existence of a deity. The most famous Time magazine cover dates from April 8, 1966, consisting solely of the question “Is God Dead?” in bold red letters on a stark black background. Certainly for many, if not most, philosophers in 1966 the answer would have likely been in the affirmative. The celebrated Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, came out right around then and, while it has many entries dealing with the philosophy of religion, the general tone – exemplified by Edwards’ own long contribution on ‘Atheism’ – was in line with the prevailing Analytical tradition that talk of ‘God’ was at best unrewarding, and at worse literally meaningless.

Yet such dismissal of ‘god talk’ helped to inspire a countermovement, with renewed interest in both traditional and nontraditional arguments for the existence of a deity, as well as an ongoing philosophical debate over the justification of belief. Since the early 1970s the philosophy of religion has been a growth industry, and the presumption of atheism as an attribute of philosophers no longer a near-certainty.

While atheism as an intellectual concern has been a time-honored aspect of philosophy, it has never been generally popular (as Socrates learned when he was put on trial for impiety). Twenty-five years ago I joined the editorial board of the secular humanist publication Free Inquiry, which, then as now, was dedicated to the proposition that one could live a good life without religion. It should be noted that in 1985 one of the most common definitions given in dictionaries for “atheism” was “immoral”, and Free Inquiry was committed to countering this misconception. At the time, disbelievers in a deity tended to be identified either with the Soviet Union (“godless communists”) or with so-called ‘village atheists’, caricatures of cantankerous figures who reveled in offending the sensibilities of religious believers. At Free Inquiry we attempted to show the rich and varied history of freethinkers and nonbelievers, but at best we reached an audience of a few thousand readers. We often, if you’ll pardon the expression, felt like voices crying in the wilderness of faith. One of the facts I found remarkable during my fourteen years as an editor there, was how many subscribers requested that the magazine be sent to them in a brown paper wrapper, so that their neighbors or family members wouldn’t know they were receiving such a controversial publication.

Now, as the following articles demonstrate, there is a resurgence of interest in atheism – both as a philosophical theory and as a life-commitment – and disbelief has come out of the closet. There are multiple likely causes for this unanticipated turn of events: the collapse of the Soviet Union, revulsion against religious fundamentalism, a concern over collusion between church and state, and, not least of all, the growth of the internet as a means of disseminating both new works in free thought and classical pieces such as Bertrand Russell’s provocative essay ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’.

In this issue’s symposium, our contributors address such themes as how to define ‘atheism’ (as Paul Edwards pointed out in his encyclopedia entry, this is no easy matter); the historical connections between present-day debates and the Victorian Crisis of Belief; the arguments over whether believers or nonbelievers have the burden of proof; and what, if anything, is really ‘new’ about the New Atheism other than its public prominence.

Given the Time reference above, one might well ask the question: “Is God Still Dead?” The vigorous give-and-take in the following pages (which we hope our readers will continue to explore on the Philosophy Now website as well) shows that, at the very least, the debate is alive and well. Atheism has truly fought its way out of the brown paper bag.

Tim Madigan firmly believes that for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.

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