Russell Blackford has a new essay pinpointing what's new in the so-called New Atheism. Blackford is promoting the new collection of essays he co-edited with Udo Schüklenk, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.
According to Blackford, the New Atheists have emerged at a historical moment when growing numbers of people want religious teachings examined rationally. For far too long, particularly in America, religion has enjoyed a privileged position, with its claims and dogmas enjoying a status that protects them from being questioned and that dismisses the questioner.
Even while some New Atheists have become quasi-celebrities, we see that religious opponents rarely deal directly or rigorously with the arguments of the New Atheists, preferring instead to engage in character assassination and to forge rabbit trails of mythical New Atheist incivility, hostility, and "fundamentalism."
Without a doubt. the New Atheists have discarded the "live and let live" presumption that formerly characterized relations between the believing and un-believing public. This is a good thing, too.
But why the abandonment of the detente? Because in the post-9/11 world it's become all too clear that the push of religion and religious teachings is to assume authority in the public sphere; religion in America is not about seeking simply to worship in peace. Blackford describes the situation aptly:
For a start, a revived Christian philosophy is well entrenched within Anglo-American philosophy of religion. More importantly, perhaps, religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social power. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. At various times, religious lobbies have opposed a vast range of beneficial, or at least essentially harmless, activities and innovations. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights; most contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; and a wide range of sexual conduct involving consenting adults. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian moral concerns.We have ample reason to contest religion's claims to pronounce authoritatively on matters of ultimate truth and moral correctness, and we have a social obligation to voice such challenges. What's more, as Blackford notes, given the enormous issues that face us both as members of a world community and as individuals - issues from climate change to end-of-life decisions - we urgently need to understand who claims to have authority and knowledge, and upon what grounds exactly:
The situation is far worse in the US, where religious conservatives regrouped with dramatic success during the 1970s and 1980s, establishing well-financed networks, think tanks, and even their own so-called universities. Slick attempts are made to undermine public trust in science where it contradicts the literal Genesis narrative; a rampant dominionist movement wants to establish an American theocracy; the recent Bush administration took the country some considerable way down that path; and the election of a relatively liberal president has produced hysteria on the religious right (polling shows that many American conservatives now believe that Barack Obama is the Antichrist). American religiosity is real, and there is nothing subtle or liberal-minded about its most popular forms.
Meanwhile, we are confronted every day by the horrors of political Islam, with its ambitions to extend sharia law universally and its ugly violations of human rights wherever it actually has power. Many critics of religion were radicalised by the traumatic events of 9/11 when thousands of people were murdered by terrorists. Islam doubtless has moderate and even liberal manifestations, but prominent, politicised forms of Islam take a hard line against secularism, modernity, and all forms of liberal thought.
The current debate about the truth-claims, moral authority, and social value of religion is very timely. It reflects the cold fact that the struggle of ideas is far from over, and that this is, after all, a good time to subject religions and all their claims to sceptical scrutiny. Those of us who do not believe have more than enough reason to dispute the unwarranted prestige enjoyed by the many variations of orthodox Abrahamic theism (and, indeed, all other religious systems). The time has come, once again, when critiques of theistic religion must be put strongly, clearly, openly, and unremittingly. What’s new about the New Atheism is its restoration of some balance – that, and the sheer number of people who have come to the same realisation.To me, the New Atheist phenomenon has been about placing critical thinking and argumentation in the center of the public sphere. I take heart that so many people are engaging in dialogue, challenging claims, identifying logical fallacies, and making arguments. This is good, and I suspect that the more people engage in reasoned scrutiny of other ideas and their own, them more people will arrive at Atheism.