The New Atheism: A Brief History

New-atheism-colaPZ Myers is attempting to change his image. For those who aren’t familiar with him, he is known for being caustic even by New Atheist standards, but has just released a book titled “The Happy Atheist”.

Apparently, even the book itself gives the lie to the title, and Myers past behavior certainly does. But, since others have already made that point, I want to focus on the fact that even Myers is realizing that the New Atheists have a serious image problem.

The group in general has been beating the “we’re oppressed and angry” drum, right along side the “we should have the right to contemptuously mock your beliefs” drum, for almost a decade. Now that they’ve gotten media attention, they seem to be learning that not all attention is good.

I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’ve long suspected that the group would reconsider their tactics, not after being given a good argument, but when it became obvious that neutral parties saw them less as the champions of peace and rationality than as one more obnoxious group telling us all what we can and can’t do.

But that isn’t entirely right. In fact, I was horribly wrong on one point. I claimed, years ago, that the New Atheism would have the wind kicked out of it, not by an apologist’s argument but by a South Park episode (by which I meant the aforementioned public reaction). It turned out, however, that South Park did release an episode poking fun at Dawkins’ ideas (which didn’t seem to phase him or his fans) just about the same time that Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig became a big focus.

In that sense, things worked out almost exactly opposite of my expectations.

Whatever happens to the group, I think it’s safe to say that Craig was the end of the brazen intellectual posturing. As Dawkins slowly degenerated into saying that he wasn’t willing to debate anyone who disagrees with his view (except, of course, for Bill O’Reilly), the New Atheists had a choice: follow Dawkins away from real challenges and into political campaigning that simply assumes they are right, or stay and debate at the risk of being shown wrong (and without help from Dawkins).

Though there were exceptions, the group has mostly chosen the former path. Even when debates happen, the focus is on who got in the good zingers. Careful construction of a solid argument is simply not high on their list of priorities.

And this is not surprising. From the beginning, it seemed obvious that media attention was the end, and debate the means.

But, now that it’s becoming obvious that grabbing attention through “ridicule with contempt” is simply going to make them look rude and close-minded, the group seems to be facing a second choice: participate civilly in the public square, or return to the debating floor and really deal with the arguments.

Either way, loud confidence and mockery isn’t going to be enough. Simply claiming to be “on the side of reason” is nothing more than a bluff unless the group can logically demonstrate that any reasonable person would share their views. And claiming to be oppressed won’t fly so long as they’re angrily shouting at soft-spoken theists.

So, has the New Atheism finally run its course? I think it’s premature to be saying so. But I will predict that, unless it begins choosing thoughtful (rather than simply clever and confident) leaders, we’ve passed the apex of the movement.

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