Over at The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta has been collecting quotes from atheists about the significance of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, which was published ten years ago today. Hemant says this about the book, “. . . you could argue that The God Delusion has created more atheists than any other book in history… with the sole exception being the Bible.”
Probably true. The people quoted include David Noise, Robyn Blumner, David Silverman, Roy Speckhardt, August Brunsman IV, me, Rabbi Adam Chalom, Herb Silverman, Jason Torpy, Dale McGowan, and Dan Dennett.
What can you say about a book like that? I’ll quote Dan Dennett’s take, which is a definitive response to the book’s critics:
Four books appeared with a few months of each other a decade ago: Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, my Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great. Although the authors knew, or knew of, each other, this near-simultaneous outburst was not planned, but we soon joined forces, informally, and somebody — not one of us — dubbed us the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. Fame — or notoriety, take your pick — followed, and we were soon joined by a distinguished cadre of other authors who had decisive and well-evidenced cases to present about various problems and failures of religion. Many of these have been well received but The God Delusion has outsold them all, probably by an order of magnitude. Whatever twinges of envy that fact obliges me to experience (I’m only human), they are obliterated by my delight in the fact that his book has outsold all the “flea” books he mentions in his Foreword by even wider margins. Those frantically scribbled diatribes — none of which, so far as I know, has attracted favorable attention — are a well deserved measure of the size of Richard’s impact. And while “sophisticated theologians” and their friends wanted the world to believe that he failed to engage serious religion in his critique, those darn fleas tell a different story: he struck a nerve, and he struck it dead center.
Is he “angry”? Is he “shrill” and “arrogant”? Look closely, and you will see that these familiar charges are without foundation. What leads people to level them is the fact that they have been accustomed their entire lives to having their darling dogmas handled with kid gloves, never challenged, always “respected.” I put “respected” in scare-quotes because — a dirty little secret that I suspect everyone knows — hardly anybody truly respects the bizarre doctrines of any religion but their own. They just feel obliged to say (in public) that they do, a bit of lip service to ecumenicism. Do you really think that the archbishop respects the angel Gabriel who visited Muhammed in the cave, or the Angel Moroni with the golden plates, or that the imam respects the transubstantiation of the wafer and wine? As one very sophisticated Episcopalian priest once confided to me “When I found out what my Mormon relatives meant by “God” I rather wished that they didn’t believe in God!”
Thanks to the new world-wide transparency that has emerged from electronic media and especially the Internet, we are now all living in glass houses, and all the diplomatic posturing that concealed this mutual disrespect much of the time (except when fighting bloody wars of religion) is beginning to lose its efficacy, so perhaps it is time to retire the faitheists’ demand for lip service altogether and join Richard Dawkins in a candid exploration of the dreams from which the world is finally awakening.
Of course many of us have already abjured—or never engaged in—the “respect” for religion demanded by its adherents, and uncompromising antitheism is said to be one of the hallmarks of The New Atheism launched by these books. But as many have pointed out, antitheism is not new: it was part of the writings of “old” atheists like Ingersoll, H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and Walter Kauffmann (see Hitchens’s compilation in The Portable Atheist to read more). My own take on what is “new” in new atheism is part of my short appreciation:
While the formal beginning of New Atheism — a form of antitheism that, taking a scientific approach, requires that religion produce evidence for its truth claims — dates from Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, the spread of the “movement” came largely from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Dawkins’s fame as a writer and scientist, combined with his accessible and lyrical prose, made millions of people re-examine their beliefs in the supernatural — with many of them then rejecting it. . .
To me, what is “new” about New Atheism is its scientific aspect: the repeated and insistent demand for evidence, as instantiated in Hitchens’s statement (not original with him) that what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Dawkins and Harris were trained as scientists, Dennett is a philosopher of science, and Hitchens had read a lot of science. Without evidence for your claims—and religion does make truth claims—you deserve no respect and no lip service.
Finally, one thing that these four books did, in combination with the internet spread of discussions about atheism, was to make atheism more respectable. Yes, it’s still demonized, but the need for mass meetings to reaffirm our nonbelief is dying off. That I think, explains why atheist conventions and meetings will slowly lose attendance and disappear over the years. The last Reason Rally was poorly attended, and I believe that’s why. Organizations with a secular rather than explicitly atheist agenda, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, will continue to hold well-attended meetings, but expect to see atheist meetings die off, one by one, over the next decade.