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The "New Atheism": Its Cultural Backdrop and Main Players

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Christopher Barnett

on 28 July 2017

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Transcript of The "New Atheism": Its Cultural Backdrop and Main Players

In Brief
Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics
The "Four Horsemen"
The New Atheists: Basic Assumptions
Richard Dawkins
: there is no reality beyond nature; in other words, there is no God.
: knowledge is only true when it is backed up by empirical evidence; thus religious faith does not count as real knowledge and, in turn, can be deemed false.
: reason alone is capable of establishing moral norms; therefore, religion is not necessary for morality and is likely harmful to ethical flourishing.
Raised in a traditional Anglican home, but Darwinism convinced him otherwise
The Selfish Gene
(1976): genes that get passed on from generation to generation are those whose influence serves to perpetuate their replication; this explains why animal self-sacrifice is actually "self-interested."
"meme": Dawkins' term for an idea or behavior that spreads within a culture; like genes, memes self-replicate, evolve, and adapt to external pressures.
Thus Dawkins extends Darwinian evolution to a socio-personal level: everything is "survival of the fittest."
Monday, February 17, 2014
Vol XCIII, No. 311
At a Glance
The "New Atheism"
"The Equivalent of Computer Viruses"
Dawkins on Religion
A loose socio-political movement insisting that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises" (Simon Hooper).
Spurred on by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
First major publication:
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
(2004) by Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist.
Magnum opus:
The God Delusion
(2006) by the English evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins.
With the publication of Christopher Hitchens'
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
(2007), the "New Atheism" emerged as full-blown cultural force, sparking debate and controversy.
The "New Atheism":
Its Cultural Backdrop and Main Players

Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett
Not every trait results in an evolutionary advantage; conversely, some advantageous traits can be twisted and used for ill.
Such is the case with religion: a kind of meme, it is derived from the beneficial human need for authority, but then turns into something harmful; it is parasitic.
Dawkins' task is to eliminate this virus (meme), for, in his terms, only the strongest survive!
The Social Context of the New Atheism
Okay, But Why Now?
Gopnik: "Only in the past twenty years or so [has] a tone frankly contemptuous of faith [emerged]." But why?
Several reasons come to mind:
Evolutionary biology's supplanting of physics as the most dominant mode of science
Improved medical care and quality of life
The spread of capitalism and increasing economic prosperity ("As incomes go up, steeples come down.")
The fall of the Soviet Union and the re-imagining of an atheist utopia
The (startling) juxtaposition of the "end of history" and 9/11
Islamic fundamentalism
Scandals within Christianity
The Internet
Analyzing the New Atheism
An Historical Accident? Cultural Ennui?
Douthat: the recent rise of atheism is a "story about external developments shaping intellectual fashion."
Hart: "We live in an age of idle chatter. Lay the blame where you will: the internet, 940 television channels, social media, the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, whatever you like. Almost all public discourse is now instantaneous, fluently aimless, deeply uninformed, and immune to logical rigor. What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best."
The Big Bang Theory
With whom do you agree -- Gopnik, Douthat, or Hart? Why?
Sam Harris on 9/11
True Detective
(Season One)
Full transcript