I've seen some derision against the popular New Atheism movement, in particular against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (particularly interesting since he makes a big deal that he studied and received a philosophy bachelor's). I don't have citations--this is just something I've observed reading forums, listening to podcast, so maybe I'm totally off base--it just seems like these popular New Atheist authors are scoffed at by the philosophy community.

Is there a sense in which New Atheism fails to be philosophical? Is it that New Atheism isn't philosophy? Or rather that it's just not good philosophy? Does it ignore important historical philosophical work done on the topic of atheism? Does it ignore important modern and/or contemporary philosophical work relevant to the topic of atheism? Can most of it be ignored as polemic? Is it just a matter of a few bad/non-philosophical authors that get all the attention at the expense of ignored authors with philosophically substantive things to say?

If the criticism is fair, what are some philosophical works that substantiate this? Truly philosophical (or truly good philosophical) works on atheism (either historic or contemporary)?

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    I imagine "The New Atheism" fails to engage with formal philosophy because mainstream religious figures do not either, and it is the mainsteam practice of religion, as opposed to fringe philosophical figures around it, that most such people would consider their target in terms of public discourse. I.e., you're right, it's not really a philosophical movement but AFAICT, it does not really pretend to be one anymore than, e.g., Dawkins pretends to be a philosopher. Philosophy is not something your average church goer (or citizen generally) has any particular use or respect for. Oct 28, 2014 at 13:26
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    You may like my answer to In what sense is atheism scientific?. I also suggest Edward Feser on scientism.
    – labreuer
    Oct 28, 2014 at 16:26
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    it's a bit isolated, and its target audience are a bit like a cult. just cos it's aimed at the pop.ulace.
    – user6917
    Oct 28, 2014 at 20:15
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    It's probably not on-topic as an answer here, but the main criticisms of the leading lights of the New Atheists that I've seen is that they often say racist/islamophobic/misogynist things (and provide intellectual cover for fascists, at least in the UK) and act as cheerleaders for empire. This seems to stem mostly from a lack of perspective -- seeing religion as the Worst Thing Ever and arguing about that without a serious evaluation of actual material conditions.
    – evilsoup
    Oct 29, 2014 at 17:00

5 Answers 5


Dawkins and Hitchens aren't particularly philosophically sophisticated. Dawkins often attacks straw man versions of theistic arguments. (Search on this site for some discussion why his understanding of Aquinas's arguments for the existence of God miss the mark.) Further, they utterly fail to take into account criticism of their own epistemology. One crucial idea that you see in Dawkins is that nobody should believe things without evidence for them. This is a position that some people still defend in contemporary philosophy, but there are serious, important challenges to it and Dawkins simply ignores all of that. That turns philosophers off because it is irresponsible--you don't get to ignore problems for your own view.

I think the best contemporary introduction to the philosophy of religion is probably Brian Davies, "Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion" (Oxford University Press) 2004. He gives a fair, evenhanded treatment of various topics in the philosophy of religion from a theistic point of view. I don't know what the best book from an atheistic point of view is.

EDIT: for an example of Dawkins attacking a straw man, see this discussion: What does Dawkins suggest, is the main flaw in Aquinas's these three arguments?

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    Dawkins is not a logical positivist. The "Tooth Fairy Agnostic" line he uses suggests he is falsificationist or Bayesian. If you're going to claim he doesn't respond to criticism of his views it would help to accurately identify what those views are.
    – Quirk
    Oct 28, 2014 at 15:04
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    There's a difference between logical positivism and the contemporary position known as evidentialism. (Logical postivists would claim that "God exists" isn't false, but just literally nonsense, like "Colorless green leaves sleep furiously." That doesn't look like D.'s view to me.) Rather, it looks to me like Dawkins is most charitably interpreted--as I do above--as an evidentialist. Evidentialists believe that you shouldn't believe something unless you have evidence for it. There are serious philosophers who endorse evidentialism, like Conee and Feldman.
    – user5172
    Oct 28, 2014 at 15:08
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    Notice too that you could be a falsificationist and an evidentialist, or a Bayesian and an evidentialist in that you could take that fact that your experiment has not been falsified yet after n many trials to constitute some kind of evidence that your theory is correct. So it's not a matter of being an "verificationist" vs a "falsifications" that's relevant here. That debate is just a different debate than the one about evidentialism vs. non-evidentialism.
    – user5172
    Oct 28, 2014 at 15:19
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    I would upvote if you edit in some examples of Dawkins attacking straw man examples.
    – DVK
    Oct 28, 2014 at 15:33
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    Not sure of your definitions here. Logical positivism can be happy with the claim "God exists" - but only if God's existence is verifiable via either logic or empirical evidence. This is evidentialist. Falsificationists dispute the notion of verifiability. Nothing is empirically correct, only not disproven. If you take your theory as entirely correct after several trials fail to falsify it, you are not a falsificationist but a verificationist.
    – Quirk
    Oct 28, 2014 at 16:45

Is it that New Atheism isn't philosophy?

Yes -- it is not a philosophy; wikipedia describes it as "a social and political movement" first associated with Sam Harris, an American writer who holds a B.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D in neuroscience but does not practice either professionally in the sense of having academic tenure. Harris's works appear to be bestseller non-fiction, a category which includes celebrity biography, self-help, travelogue, etc.; Harris is a popular writer and "New Atheism" is a essentially a populist movement.

I have participated in online atheist discussion groups with people who would be considered part of the "New Atheist" movement, and they are, like most religious practitioners, not particularly interested in philosophy. By this I mean, most of them (like most churchgoers) have never read a single volume from the Western canon (almost however you want to define it) and most likely never will.

I think the significance of "social movement" may need a bit of explaining for people who live outside of (particularly the southern) United States. In most of the western world it is probably not a big deal to be an atheist; there is no great social tension around it. I currently live in Canada and a decent proportion of average, non-philosophical people will casually admit atheism; if not, they are not particularly upset by it.

However, this is not the case in most of the United States. Even when living in liberal, multi-cultural New York City -- a generally fantastic place -- it was very rare for me to meet someone who did not claim to believe in God and profess one religion or another. Further, while I was never made to feel uncomfortable as an atheist, it was a bit bizarre to sometimes be an object of curiosity ("I've never met an atheist before...", "What does the atheist have to say about this?", etc), as opposed to here where the topic is generally considered too dull to bother with.

In other parts of the U.S. the situation is considerably less palatable for people who publicly deny the existence of God. For example, in many U.S. states, atheists cannot legally hold a public office.1 This is not a context in which a philosophical movement is very useful. An average person in the online discussion groups may be a young adult living somewhere where he/she does not know any other atheists and may already have been subject to repercussions amongst his/her family, at school or work, etc. To these people, the discussion groups offer encouragement and hope in the form of a positive, progressive social movement. Some of them are interested in reading (or may have been motivated by) Dawkins et. al., but most of them are not. They enjoy commiserating with other people about their predicament, and many of them do end up finding people to connect with in the real world because of online acquaintances.

The average atheist, like the average theist, does not consider his/her belief something that needs any particular tuning and so the idea of doing copious reading to support it is besides the point.

This is why such groups often bar argument about the topic. I.e., if you join up and then say, "I'm a theist here for a philosophical debate!", you will politely be told that is not welcome. They are not there to argue about it any more than the person who shows up to church on Sunday.

1. Note that these laws have long been deemed invalid by U.S. Federal Courts, however, they still mysteriously exist, with occasional minor consequences. Further discussion and references are in the comments. Please also note I am not trying to argue for the "New Atheism" movement but only explain some of its self-justifications, which (for better or worse) often include citing these State laws.

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    "athiests cannot legally hold a public office" - that's somewhere between "not nearly nuanced reading" and "outright falsehood", sorry. At best, there are laws that say that atheists don't enjoy protection under "no religious discrimination" laws (e.g. an atheist CAN hold office... but if they are barred from office for some reason due to their atheism, the religious protection clause of state constitution doesn't apply to that person. BIG difference). Also, none of those clauses, when tested in court, were found valid, because they contradict US Constitution that supercedes state laws.
    – DVK
    Oct 28, 2014 at 14:57
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    Also, I don't mean to imply that you made things up, but "may already have been subject to repercussions amongst his/her family, at school or work, etc." just begs for a citation, since if this indeed happened, anti-religious left wing US mass media would be all over the case like bees on honey. Usually, the persecution in schools is the opposite (students castigated for praying, or displaying religious symbols); and I won't even go to US colleges where professors out and out discriminate against those whose political views they find hateful (and that includes being religious)
    – DVK
    Oct 28, 2014 at 15:02
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    @DVK Sure, as the linked article clearly states, these laws would not hold up if challenged. My point is simply that they are still on the books -- most first world governments would consider this abhorrent -- and this reflects something about the society. "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state," repeated in one State Constitution after another, is not an unambiguous or nuanced statement: It's a threat (albeit a mostly empty one) but... Oct 28, 2014 at 15:05
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    ...still used to hassle people: alternet.org/story/145501/… (e.g.) Oct 28, 2014 at 15:06
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    @DVK is correct. As soon as article IV of U.S. Constitution and the "No Religious" test doctrine was adopted (1788), it became legal for anyone, anywhere in the US to hold any office, regardless of their religious opinions or lack thereof. The existence of a state statute to the contrary doesn't mean anything.
    – user5172
    Oct 28, 2014 at 15:15

've seen some derision against the popular New Atheism movement, in particular against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (particularly interesting since he makes a big deal that he studied and received a philosophy bachelor's). I don't have citations--this is just something I've observed reading forums, listening to podcast, so maybe I'm totally off base--it just seems like these popular New Atheist authors are scoffed at by the philosophy community.

Sam Harris proves why post graduate studies in philosophy is really required. The lack of substance to their books and the immense shrill tone of the rhetoric really makes it unappetizing reading for those who are not already in acceptance of their views.

They seem to be more concerned with the size of their wallets and their pseudo celebrity status than creating literature that has any long lasting influence on the field of Philosophy of Religion.

Just the fact that they pretend to be intellectuals but go on Bill O'Reilly and Mahers TV shows should explain to you what kind of pop academia they are interested in.

The arguments are also often poor. Dawkins seems to think everything has a cause which on its own is an incredible statement that would warrant a great deal of qualifying to be a real premise for an argument. He does no qualifying of this view at all. He seems to just assume three premises and makes his case from them.

To me, the main issue with their movement is not the atheism. It is the cavalier attitude that they bring to the issue. Now, it is OK to not be an expert on everything. No one is forcing them to write these books. But if you are going to take the time to write responses to views that you find abhorrent then they should at least be of enough substance as to not get a failing grade in a freshman philosophy class.

That is of course if you really are this champion for reason and that which is rational as you claim to be.

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    "If you are going to take the time to write responses to views that you find abhorrent then they should at least be of enough substance as to not get a failing grade in a freshman philosophy class", I don't think so. All they have to be is appealing to the target audience, and apparently they are. Nuanced philosophy never appealed to masses, and mass movements weren't very nuanced philosophically, even if they were originated by philosophers, like Marxism.
    – Conifold
    Nov 4, 2014 at 21:34
  • Yes if all you are after is a quick buck then these books are fine for that purpose but these writers do portray themselves as being intellectually superior to those they criticize.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 5, 2014 at 17:03

The disconnect between Atheists and Theists largely stems from using very different semantical contexts to really describe the same perspective. Especially the difference between Atheism and Animistic Pantheism is purely semantic. If we were to adjust our semantics more to each other, many of us might see more similarities than they ever held possible.

The so-called New Atheism movement lacks any significant knowledge of religion beyond Judeo-Christianity and therefore fails to appreciate the mere semantic difference between Atheism and Animistic Pantheism. It fails to truly comprehend why the belief in Gods is so popular and how the perception of natural phenomena relates to the perception of supposedly supernatural phenomena.

Additionally, the New Atheism movement doesn't contribute any new ideas of significance to Atheism, making it mostly an anti-movement (focused on countering Christians and Christian rationale in American culture).

I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. […] It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.

— Christopher Hitchens


New Atheism’, a time period coined in 2006 via way of means of Gary Wolf, got here round on the identical time as profound modifications in our on line infrastructure. It formed the net, became formed via way of means of the net, and went directly to form a number of our present day world. [3] Online atheism is an exciting phenomenon on this regard; it spans a in particular turbulent time withinside the evolution of the net, because it morphed from the net of the overdue 90s/noughties: blogs, forums, chatrooms – and loads of them – to the greater closed, regulated area we're in now. Knowing this, it’s viable to discover methods wherein New Atheism served because the canary withinside the coalmine for the factors of net (and contemporary) tradition we're now grappling so profoundly with: the manner systems form discourse, oppositional politics, and political identification

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