Home > Bits and Pieces > Ophelia Benson attempts to score some points … fails.

Ophelia Benson attempts to score some points … fails.

July 1, 2009

Ophelia Benson has a piece over at Butterflies and Wheels about Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s new book Unscientific America. I haven’t read it yet so won’t comment on their argument. I will however note the following from Benson:

[New atheism] is a stupid term. We all know that. There is no such thing – it’s just that some existing atheists have written some books which did well, and they and other existing atheists have done other writing and speaking, and atheism has belatedly managed to get a little more public attention than it was able to get ten years ago. That’s all. That’s not such a coherent or organized or sinister phenomenon that it deserves its very own label, but CM and SK give it one anyway, and treat it as established and self-evident. The nonsense about the ‘big four’ or (why would we prefer?) the ‘four horsemen’ is just dopy journalistic jargon; it should be beneath them.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, new atheism does exist and the term is used positively by atheists. It is a coherent social phenomenon. Secondly, Dawkin’s himself has used the term “four horsemen” going so far as to title a documentary by that name (see here). So I guess we can accuse Dawkins of “dopy journalistic jargon”. She might not like the terms but plenty of atheists do and she can’t really thus criticize Mooney & Kirshenbaum for using them.

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  1. Michael Fugate
    July 1, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Don’t you think new atheist is becoming pejorative like darwinist and liberal now are?

  2. July 1, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    It certainly could be in danger of becoming so. My currently feeling is that the term certainly describes a coherent (albeit loose) movement, while the ideas being espoused are not, of course, new. So the term still has a clear positive meaning. ‘Darwinist’ does not unless one is talking about a very specific point in time and about a very specific view. Those who use ‘liberal’ pejoratively are clueless as to what the term actually means.

  3. July 1, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Benson quotes Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book as stating that “America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made.”

    I would rewrite this as “America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between *empirical claims made by religions which have been falsified by science* and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made.”

  4. July 1, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    I was just about to ask, if the ‘new atheism’ is understood as a social movement then what, other than the social, is ‘new’ about the atheism being espoused? I would agree that there seems to be little, if anything, new about the ideas or arguments being used. If anything, atheism has broken into the mainstream in ways in which it never had before.

  5. July 1, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Perhaps one very important aspect of the ‘new atheism’ movement is their strong critique of moderate believers and so-called ‘accommodationists’ searching for a middle ground or otherwise reaching out to people of faith to join sides against fundamentalists. This certainly comes out in everything by Sam Harris that I have read.

  6. July 1, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    James said:

    Perhaps one very important aspect of the ‘new atheism’ movement is their strong critique of moderate believers and so-called ‘accommodationists’ searching for a middle ground or otherwise reaching out to people of faith to join sides against fundamentalists. This certainly comes out in everything by Sam Harris that I have read.

    I think that is very much true. And I think that part of what Mooney and Kirshenbaum are reacting against (as indeed I have reacted against in the past).

  7. July 9, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    I’ve been an atheist activist since 1993, before it was trendy. Am I a “New Atheist?” Thomas Paine wrote “The Rights of Man” in 1794. Is he a “New Atheist?” Regardless of whether it is sometimes used positively, the term is utterly meaningless, is used to shortcut thinking, and has absolutely turned into a pejorative (See: comments section on The Intersection blog) that’s now simply thrown out there as a substitute for an actual argument against a legitimate intellectual position. There’s nothing bigoted about criticizing faith. Bigotry is hating a person for aspects that they cannot change. Religion, on the other hand, is ideology. And dangerous ideology ought to be criticized even if it hurts someone’s feelings. I don’t really think I have to mention the obvious examples of dangerous ideology from the 20th century. Writers like Sam Harris have gone to great lengths to clarify the reasoning behind their charges against religious moderates as well. So far, I’ve yet to actually hear a real rational argument that refutes those charges.

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