Saturday, March 8, 2008

An early 'new atheist' piece

It is often said that the new atheist movement - Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and a host of others taking on religion - only came about because the atrocities of 9/11 opened a space for it by making it acceptable to question religion. While this view certainly contains several grains of truth, we shouldn't exaggerate 9/11's importance: atheism was alive in and well on September 10, 2001, even if it were far less salient.

I mention the above only because I serendipitously came across an early 'new atheist' article the other day: Natalie Angier's "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist", which was published way back in January 2001 in the New York Times Magazine. Angier (who, by the way, was interviewed on Point of Inquiry recently) covered almost exactly the same ground as later, much more famous, atheist writers. Appositely, the authors of the Bible itself wouldn't have been surprised:
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
- Ecclesiastes, 1: 9-11.

1 comment:

  1. As you say, the intellectual content of the "New Atheism" is not "new", and certainly it wasn't first put to paper by Dawkins, or by Mills, or even by Angier. I first saw Carl Sagan's Cosmos in 2006, although I'd read the book when I was much younger, and I was strongly impressed by how atheistical the series is: science is a better path to truth than mysticism; millennia ago, in ancient Ionia, the gods were displaced in favor of reason and experiment; whatever religion's value as cultural heritage, if it treads the same areas as science, it gets no special protection; proposing a god as the "explanation" for the Big Bang invites infinite regress and, ultimately, explains nothing. I can appreciate why, according to a few ex-fundamentalists I've met, Sagan was as vilified in those circles twenty years ago as Dawkins is today.

    In the same era, we had Richard Feynman and Isaac Asimov. Before them were Russell and Ingersoll. . . and I expect that given an interpreter, they'd all feel chummy sitting down for Saturnalia dinner with Lucretius, Epicurus and Democritus.

    What's "new" about the "New Atheism" — horrible term, sounds like a beverage, but what could we expect from Wired magazine? — is not the ideas, but rather their packaging in mass-market form and the subsequent formation of a social community, albeit mostly an online one at the present time. A better marker for this development would be the Blasphemy Challenge in December 2006. While its participants may have been in part juvenile or just tedious, it does give a data point, I believe, indicating the new social structures forming as people explore the concept of non-belief.