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An Agnostic’s Assessment Of New Atheist Attitudes


Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens—these are the posterboys for what some have called the “New Atheists”.

What’s new about the New Atheists? In his book, Gunning For God, Oxford mathematician John Lennox says it’s their tone and emphasis.

The tone of today’s New Atheists is one of intensity and aggression. They are not out to merely inform. They are out to convert—to de-vangelize. In the The God Delusion, Dawkins admits:

“If this book works as I intend, religious leaders who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” (p. 28)

The fearless polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, visited the University of Toronto in 2006 and—to the roaring applause of the crowd—he rallied his troops with these words:

“I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.”

In Letters To A Young Contrarian, Hitchens writes:

“I’m not even an atheist so much as I’m an antitheist”.

These words reflect precisely the intention and emphasis of the New Atheists and their disciples: to put an end to religion, or as Sam Harris has put it:

“To destroy the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” (Letter To A Christian Nation, p.ix)

But the New Atheists are not the only atheists out there today. Indeed some modern atheists object rather strongly to the tact of their counterparts. Atheist Paul Kurtz, founder of the The Center For Inquiry (a secular humanist organization), is cited as giving the new atheists the following assessment:

“I consider them atheist fundamentalists,” he says. “They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they’re 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.” (Barbara Bradley Hagerty, “A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists”)

Another skeptic who has given a critical assessment of the “anti-theist” division of popular atheists, is BBC Radio personality, John Humphrys, an agnostic. Here is how he responds to seven common New Atheist attitudes in his book, In God We Doubt (I have reconfigured the statement/response format for easier reading):

1. Believers are mostly naive or stupid. Or, at least, they’re not as clever as atheists.

To which Humphreys responds:

“This is so clearly untrue it’s barely worth bothering with. Richard Dawkins, in his best selling The God Delusion, was reduced to producing a “study” by Mensa that purported to show an inverse relationship between intelligence and belief. He also claimed that only a very few members of the Royal Society believe in a personal god. So what? Somebelievers are undoubtedly stupid (witness the creationists) but I’ve met one or two atheists I wouldn’t trust tochange a light-bulb.”

2. The few clever ones are pathetic because they need a crutch to get them through life.

To which Humphrys responds:

“Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible. It doesn’t prove anything about either.”

3. They are also pathetic because they can’t accept the finality of death.

To which Humphrys responds:

“Maybe, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Count the number of atheists in the foxholes or the cancer wards.”

4. They have been brainwashed into believing. There is no such thing as a “Christian child”, for instance—just a child whose parents have had her baptised.

To which Humphrys responds:

“True, and many children reject it when they get older. But many others stay with it.”

5. They have been bullied into believing.

To which Humphrys responds:

“This is also true in many cases but you can’t actually bully someone into believing—just into pretending to believe.”

6. If we don’t wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed.

To which Humphrys responds:

“Of course the mad mullahs are dangerous and extreme Islamism is a threat to be taken seriously. But we’ve survived monotheist religion for 4, 000 years or so, and  I can think of one or two other things that are a greater threat to civilisation.”

7. Trust me: I’m an atheist.

To which Humphrys responds:


He adds:
“I make no apology if I have oversimplified their views with a little list: it’s what they do to believers all the time.”
(Image credit: Wales Online)

Matt Nelson

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Matt holds a B.Ed from the University of Regina and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in Toronto, Canada. After several years of skepticism, he returned to the Catholic Church in 2010. Now alongside his chiropractic practice, Matt is a speaker and writer for FaceToFace Ministries and Religious Education Coordinator at Christ the King Parish. He currently resides in Shaunavon, SK, with his wife, Amanda, and their daughter, Anna. Follow Matt through his blog at ReasonableCatholic.com.

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