New Atheism

The term New Atheism was coined by the journalist Gary Wolf in 2006 to describe the positions promoted by some atheists of the twenty-first century.[1][2] New Atheism advocates the view that superstition, religion and irrationalism should not simply be tolerated. Instead, they should be countered, criticized, challenged by rational argument, especially when they exert undue influence, such as in government, education, and politics.[3][4]

New Atheism often criticised what writers such as Richard Dawkins described as the indoctrination of children and the social harms caused by perpetuating ideologies founded on belief in the supernatural. At the time, critics of the movement deployed pejorative terms such as militant atheism and fundamentalist atheism to malign vocal atheists.[a][5][6][7][8]


The 2004 publication of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, a bestseller in the United States, was joined over the next couple years by a series of popular best-sellers by atheist authors.[9] Harris was motivated by the events of 11 September 2001, which he laid directly at the feet of Islam, while also directly criticizing Christianity and Judaism.[10] Two years later Harris followed up with Letter to a Christian Nation, which was also a severe criticism of Christianity.[11] Also in 2006, following his television documentary series The Root of All Evil?, Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, which was on the New York Times best-seller list for 51 weeks.[12]

In a 2010 column entitled "Why I Don't Believe in the New Atheism", Tom Flynn contends that what has been called "New Atheism" is neither a movement nor new, and that what was new was the publication of atheist material by big-name publishers, read by millions, and appearing on bestseller lists.[13]

On 6 November 2015, The New Republic published an article entitled, "Is the New Atheism dead?"[14] The atheist and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson wrote, "The world appears to be tiring of the New Atheism movement."[15] In 2017, PZ Myers who formerly considered himself a new atheist, publicly renounced the New Atheism movement.[16]

The book The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution was released in 2019.[17]

Prominent figuresEdit

"Four Horsemen"Edit

The 'Four Horsemen of the New Atheism' clockwise from top left: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris

On 30 September 2007, four prominent atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) met at Hitchens' residence in Washington, D.C., for a private two-hour unmoderated discussion. The event was videotaped and titled "The Four Horsemen".[18] During "The God Debate" in 2010 featuring Christopher Hitchens versus Dinesh D'Souza, the men were collectively referred to as the "Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse",[19] an allusion to the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation.[20] The four have been described as "evangelical atheists".[21]

Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling non-fiction books The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, as well as two shorter works, initially published as e-books, Free Will[22] and Lying.[23] Harris is a co-founder of the Reason Project.

Richard Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion,[24] which was preceded by a Channel 4 television documentary titled The Root of All Evil?. He is the founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He wrote: "I don't object to the horseman label, by the way. I'm less keen on 'new atheist': it isn't clear to me how we differ from old atheists."[25]

Christopher Hitchens was the author of God Is Not Great[26] and was named among the "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. In addition, Hitchens served on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America. In 2010, Hitchens published his memoir Hitch-22 (a nickname provided by close personal friend Salman Rushdie, whom Hitchens always supported during and following The Satanic Verses controversy).[27] Shortly after its publication, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which led to his death in December 2011.[28] Before his death, Hitchens published a collection of essays and articles in his book Arguably;[29] a short edition Mortality[30] was published posthumously in 2012. These publications and numerous public appearances provided Hitchens with a platform to remain an astute atheist during his illness, even speaking specifically on the culture of deathbed conversions and condemning attempts to convert the terminally ill, which he opposed as "bad taste".[31][32]

Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea,[33] Breaking the Spell[34] and many others, has also been a vocal supporter of The Clergy Project,[35] an organization that provides support for clergy in the US who no longer believe in God and cannot fully participate in their communities any longer.[36]

"Plus one horse-woman"Edit

After the death of Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who attended the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, which Hitchens had been scheduled to attend) was referred to as the "plus one horse-woman", since she was originally invited to the 2007 meeting of the "Horsemen" atheists but had to cancel at the last minute.[37] Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, fleeing in 1992 to the Netherlands in order to escape an arranged marriage.[38] She became involved in Dutch politics, rejected faith, and became vocal in opposing Islamic ideology, especially concerning women, as exemplified by her books Infidel and The Caged Virgin.[39]

Hirsi Ali was later involved in the production of the film Submission, for which her friend Theo Van Gogh was murdered with a death threat to Hirsi Ali pinned to his chest.[40] This event resulted in Hirsi Ali's hiding and later emigrating to the United States, where she now resides and remains a prolific critic of Islam.[41] She regularly speaks out against the treatment of women in Islamic doctrine and society[42] and is a proponent of free speech and the freedom to offend.[43][44]



Many contemporary atheists write from a scientific perspective. Unlike previous writers, many of whom thought that science was indifferent or even incapable of dealing with the "God" concept, Dawkins argues to the contrary, claiming the "God Hypothesis" is a valid scientific hypothesis,[48] having effects in the physical universe, and like any other hypothesis can be tested and falsified. The late Victor Stenger proposed that the personal Abrahamic God is a scientific hypothesis that can be tested by standard methods of science. Both Dawkins and Stenger conclude that the hypothesis fails any such tests,[49] and argue that naturalism is sufficient to explain everything we observe. Nowhere, they argue, is it necessary to introduce God or the supernatural to understand reality. Some New Atheists adhere to the Christ myth theory, believing the Jesus from the Bible is a strictly fictional character.[50]

Scientific testing of religionEdit

Non-believers (in religion and the supernatural) assert that many religious or supernatural claims (such as the virgin birth of Jesus and the afterlife) are scientific claims in nature. For instance, they argue, as do deists and Progressive Christians, that the issue of Jesus' supposed parentage is a question of scientific inquiry, rather than "values" or "morals".[51] Rational thinkers believe science is capable of investigating at least some, if not all, supernatural claims.[52] Institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and Duke University are attempting to find empirical support for the healing power of intercessory prayer.[53] According to Stenger, these experiments have found no evidence that intercessory prayer works.[54]

Logical argumentsEdit

Stenger also argues in his book, God: The Failed Hypothesis, that a God having omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent attributes, which he termed a 3O God, cannot logically exist.[55] A similar series of alleged logical disproofs of the existence of a God with various attributes can be found in Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier's The Impossibility of God,[56] or Theodore M. Drange's article, "Incompatible-Properties Arguments: A Survey".[57]

Views on non-overlapping magisteriaEdit

Richard Dawkins has been particularly critical of the conciliatory view that science and religion are not in conflict, noting, for example, that the Abrahamic religions constantly dabble in scientific matters. In a 1998 article published in Free Inquiry magazine[51] and later in his 2006 book The God Delusion, Dawkins expresses disagreement with the view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion are two non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), each existing in a "domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution".

In Gould's proposal, science and religion should be confined to distinct non-overlapping domains: science would be limited to the empirical realm, including theories developed to describe observations, while religion would deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. Dawkins contends that NOMA does not describe empirical facts about the intersection of science and religion: "It is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims."

Science and moralityEdit

Popularized by Sam Harris is the view that science and thereby currently unknown objective facts may instruct human morality in a globally comparable way. Harris' book The Moral Landscape[58] and accompanying TED Talk How Science can Determine Moral Values[59] propose that human well-being and conversely suffering may be thought of as a landscape with peaks and valleys representing numerous ways to achieve extremes in human experience, and that there are objective states of well-being.


In the context of international politics, the principles of New Atheism establish no particular stance in and of themselves.[60] New Atheism's key proponents are, states PZ Meyer, "a madly disorganized mob, united only by [their] dislike of the god-thing."[61] That said, the demographic that supports the New Atheism is a markedly homogeneous, one that is primarily American, "more likely to be younger, male and single, to have higher than average levels of income and education, to be less authoritarian, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, less conformist and more tolerant and open-minded on religious issues."[60] Because of this homogeneity among the group, there exists not a formal dynamic but a loose consensus on broad political "efforts, objectives, and strategies."[62] For example, one of the primary aims here is to further reduce the entanglement of church and state, which derives from the "belief that religion is antithetical to liberal values, such as freedom of expression and the separation of public from private life".[62][63][64] Additionally, new atheists have engaged in the campaign "to ensure legal and civic equality for atheists", in a world considerably unwelcoming to and distrustful of non-religious 'believers'.[63][64][65] Christopher Hitchens may be the new atheist concerned most with religion's incompatibility with contemporary liberal principles, and particularly its imposed limitation on both freedom of speech and freedom of expression.[63][66] And because New Atheism's proliferation is accredited partly to the September 11 attacks and the ubiquitous, visceral response, Richard Dawkins, among many in his cohort, believes that theism (in this case, Islam) jeopardizes political institutions and national security, and he warns of religion's potency in motivating "people to do terrible things" against international polities.[67]


Scientism, accusations of evangelicalism and fundamentalismEdit

The theologians Jeffrey Robbins and Christopher Rodkey take issue with what they regard as "the evangelical nature of the New Atheism, which assumes that it has a Good News to share, at all cost, for the ultimate future of humanity by the conversion of as many people as possible." They believe they have found similarities between New Atheism and evangelical Christianity and conclude that the all-consuming nature of both "encourages endless conflict without progress" between both extremities.[68]

Political philosopher John Gray asserts that "New Atheism", humanism, and 'scientism' are extensions of religion, particularly Christianity.[69]

Sociologist William Stahl said, "What is striking about the current debate is the frequency with which the New Atheists are portrayed as mirror images of religious fundamentalists."[70]

The atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse has made the claim that Richard Dawkins would fail "introductory" courses on the study of "philosophy or religion" (such as courses on the philosophy of religion), courses which are offered, for example, at many educational institutions such as colleges and universities around the world.[71][72] Ruse also claims that the movement of New Atheism—which is perceived, by him, to be a "bloody disaster"—makes him ashamed, as a professional philosopher of science, to be among those holding to an atheist position, particularly as New Atheism does science a "grave disservice" and does a "disservice to scholarship" at more general level.[71][72]

Paul Kurtz, editor in chief of Free Inquiry, founder of Prometheus Books, was critical of many of the new atheists.[7] He said, "I consider them atheist fundamentalists... They're anti-religious, and they're mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, there are very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good".[8]

Jonathan Sacks, author of The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, feels the new atheists miss the target by believing the "cure for bad religion is no religion, as opposed to good religion". He wrote:

Atheism deserves better than the new atheists whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.[73]

The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci contends that the new atheist movement overlaps with scientism, which he finds to be philosophically unsound. He writes: "What I do object to is the tendency, found among many New Atheists, to expand the definition of science to pretty much encompassing anything that deals with 'facts', loosely conceived..., it seems clear to me that most of the New Atheists (except for the professional philosophers among them) pontificate about philosophy very likely without having read a single professional paper in that field.... I would actually go so far as to charge many of the leaders of the New Atheism movement (and, by implication, a good number of their followers) with anti-intellectualism, one mark of which is a lack of respect for the proper significance, value, and methods of another field of intellectual endeavor."[74]

Atheist professor Jacques Berlinerblau has criticised the New Atheists' mocking of religion as being inimical to their goals and claims that they have not achieved anything politically.[75]

Roger Scruton has extensively criticized New Atheism on various occasions, generally on the grounds that they do not consider the social effects and impacts of religion in enough detail. He has said, "Look at the facts in the round and it seems likely that humans without a sense of the sacred would have died out long ago. For that same reason, the hope of the new atheists for a world without religion is probably as vain as the hope for a society without aggression or a world without death." He has also complained of the New Atheists' idea that they must "set people free from religion", calling it "naive" because they "never consider that they might be taking something away from people."[76][77]

Criticisms of responses to theistic argumentsEdit

Edward Feser has critiqued the New Atheists' responses to arguments for the existence of God, especially Dawkins' and Dennett's.[78]

Accusations of IslamophobiaEdit

Some commentators have accused the New Atheist movement of Islamophobia.[79][80][81][82] Wade Jacoby and Hakan Yavuz assert that "a group of 'new atheists' such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens" have "invoked Samuel Huntington's 'clash of civilizations' theory to explain the current political contestation" and that this forms part of a trend toward "Islamophobia [...] in the study of Muslim societies".[83] William W. Emilson argues that "the 'new' in the new atheists' writings is not their aggressiveness, nor their extraordinary popularity, nor even their scientific approach to religion, rather it is their attack not only on militant Islamism but also on Islam itself under the cloak of its general critique of religion".[84]

Major publicationsEdit

Title Author Date
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason Sam Harris 2004
The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali 2004a
Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam Michel Onfray 2005
Infidel: My Life Ayaan Hirsi Ali 2006b
The God Delusion Richard Dawkins 2006
Letter to a Christian Nation Sam Harris 2006
God Is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything Christopher Hitchens 2007
Why we cannot be Christians (much less Catholics)[b] Piergiorgio Odifreddi 2007
Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity John W. Loftus 2008
Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists Dan Barker 2008
Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless Greta Christina 2012
A Manual For Creating Atheists Peter Boghossian 2013
The God Argument A.C. Grayling 2013
Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now Ayaan Hirsi Ali 2015
Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World David Silverman 2015
Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible Jerry A. Coyne 2015
Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End John W. Loftus 2016
God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction Dan Barker 2016
The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American Andrew L. Seidel 2019
Outgrowing God: A Beginner's Guide Richard Dawkins 2019

(a) original in Dutch, English translation 2006; (b) original in Dutch, English translation 2007

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The term is sometimes used benignly, for example by atheists such as Frans de Waal.[5]
  2. ^ Original title in Italian: 'Perché non possiamo essere cristiani (e meno che mai cattolici)'


  1. ^ Lois Lee & Stephen Bullivant, A Dictionary of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2016).
  2. ^ Wolff, Gary, in The New Atheism, The Church of the Non-Believers reprinted in Wired Magazine, November 2006
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  4. ^ Hooper, Simon. "The rise of the New Atheists". CNN. Retrieved 16 March 2010.
  5. ^ a b De Waal, Frans (25 March 2013). "Has militant atheism become a religion?". Retrieved 9 March 2017. Why are the 'neo-atheists' of today so obsessed with God's nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that's worth fighting for? As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like 'sleeping furiously.'
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  9. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (15 August 2007). "God Bless Me, It's a Best-Seller!". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 14 April 2016. the last two years there have been five atheist best-sellers, one each from Professors Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and two from the neuroscientist Sam Harris.
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  21. ^ Stedman, Chris (18 October 2010). "'Evangelical Atheists': Pushing For What?". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2 March 2017. something peculiarly evangelistic about what has been termed the new atheist movement ... It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism — an atheist fundamentalism.
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