New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed

Some interesting data on this article:

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I was a pretty active user on infidels.org (Internet Infidels Message Board) from around 2003 - 2008 or so. In fact, it was on this message board that I developed an interest in science, for which I am grateful. I had actually assumed that it had been shut down long ago, after a rather large and fractious conflict among the admins (of the Judean People’s Front vs the People’s Front of Judea variety, as far as I can recall).

The decline at Talk Origins makes sense, since it was primarily a reaction against creationists, and creationists haven’t really had anything remotely interesting or entertaining to say for some time now.

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I’m not sure that the evidence provided supports New Atheism’s ‘failure’. Yes, the majority of Nones are not self-identified atheists, avidly consuming atheists websites (even assuming of course that the popular websites from the author’s day are still the main hubs of atheism). But then again, according to Barna, only a small proportion of Christians are “Resilient Disciples”, proactively participating in Christianity. Unbelief has its “Nothing in Particulars”, just as Christianity has its more passive “Nomads” and “Habitual Churchgoers”.

It could be argued that New Atheism succeeded in creating space in the public sphere for unbelief, and can claim some credit for the growth of the larger group of passive unbelievers, as well as the smaller group of active ones. Also, nothing stays “new” forever, and to the extent that New Atheism has succeeded, it is becoming simply a part of the contemporary viewpoint of Atheism, and becoming less and less distinguishable over time.

Addendum: I’d also like to add these Google Trends on “christian apologetics”, “biblical inerrancy” and “christianity” as comparators to the article’s atheism-related trends. Should we likewise be asserting that Christianity has failed?

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This is a great analysis!

I wonder whether the decline in Google searches is also related to the rise of social media. Many thriving internet forums (not just about religion vs. atheism) in the early 2000s are now dead, as people find it easier to connect via FB groups. I’m a member of few religion and philosophy FB groups that I can count on to discuss various intellectual topics at a pretty decent level. At the same time, the rise of Twitter has lowered the level of public discourse in general.

This is unsurprising. Just as interest in discussing atheism online has quietened down, so did interest in its Christian counterpart. Also, perhaps it is true what @Patrick keeps bringing up: a lot of people who were closet atheists but acted as cultural Christians now no longer feel afraid to identify openly as non-religious. As there has been more polarization regarding social justice (as Scott Alexander observes), there has been crystallization of one’s stance on religion. There have been less debates and dialogues between atheists and Christians, because they become less relevant as the cultural power of religion in the US kept declining. Christians became more inward-facing. Even two years ago there was even talk among Christians about Dreher’s book The Benedict Option, wondering whether it would be best for Christians to withdraw from secular society altogether.

This is also why I think Peaceful Science is an anomaly, in that it is trying to connect both atheists and Christians again but beyond the old adversarial paradigm.

This is true. But I think Christianity always has an inherent advantage in that there’s always an impetus for Christian intellectuals and laypeople to keep writing and thinking about theology and how Christian beliefs fit with everything else. So even if there are less people consuming them, Christian churches, universities and publishers will always be churning out new Christian literature, apologetics, theology, and music because they believe that such things “build the church”. Whereas as many atheists say, atheism isn’t really a religion; there is no obligation to promote atheism in general.

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If it is, it’s not affecting the NFL, beer or “apple pie”.

But I think Christianity always has an inherent advantage in that there’s always an impetus for Christian intellectuals and laypeople to keep writing and thinking about theology and how Christian beliefs fit with everything else. So even if there are less people consuming them, Christian churches, universities and publishers will always be churning out new Christian literature, apologetics, theology, and music because they believe that such things “build the church”.

How much ‘penetration factor’ does this outreach have? I often get the suspicion that the main consumers of Christian apologetics, theology and music tend to be Barna’s Resiliant Disciples, with the Habitual Churchgoers having a far lower appetite (due to the passivity of their acceptance of Christianity), and the Nomads and Prodigals having even less (if any). This makes me question how much “inherent advantage” all this outpouring really has.

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Oh, absolutely. The vast majority of Christian laypeople don’t read up on creation vs. evolution debates or systematic theology, especially if they are living in a culturally Christian area where there are few non-Christians around to challenge their beliefs. (Maybe contemporary Christian music is an exception.) But having some sort of theological knowledge still tends to be useful to ascend to the “elite” echelons of Christian leadership. Even Christians who don’t know or care much about theology will tend to respect someone who does. In most denominations knowing some theology and apologetics is virtually a prerequisite to becoming a pastor or Christian leader (although groups like Pentecostals could be an exception).

What I meant by “inherent advantage” is more that Christians will always keep writing books about theology and there will always be some place and community to discuss them even if it doesn’t significantly influence secular or even Christian communities in general. In contrast, militant atheism is almost by definition reactionary. Without Christianity there is no militant atheism, only indifference or ignorance towards religion. In contrast, without militant atheism there can be (and has been) Christianity. Even in the Medieval era where basically everyone in Europe was presumed to be Christian, plenty of people endlessly debated theology.

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But would atheists consider this to be a bad thing? And the fact that if religion didn’t exist, people would be indifferent to and/or ignorant of this now-non-existent thing, is hardly surprising (if it were only Christianity that didn’t exist, atheists would presumably turn their attention to other religions).

It only becomes a genuine “advantage”, if it gives Christianity an edge over non-belief. For this to happen this literature would have to spread beyond merely ‘preaching to the converted’, otherwise it has no real impact (beyond making already-true-believers feel a bit better about themselves).

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Well this is exactly my point. “Bad thing” is a vague term for atheism since atheism encompasses so many different things. Many atheists care nothing for intellectual defenses for atheism.

Seems like you measure “advantage” by number of people that can be converted to a viewpoint. That’s not what I’m talking about. I already said multiple times that Christian theology and apologetics is not read widely even by Christians themselves, much less atheists. But most Christian apologists won’t mind if you say to them that the primary purpose of their work is “making converted believers feel better about themselves.” That’s part of building up the body of Christ. So they’ll keep churning out the literature regardless, and some fellow Christians will keep publishing, funding, and reading it, because it’s considered a sort of civic Christian duty to do this sort of work.

Yes, maybe this is not “real impact” in society in your eyes. But that’s the advantage: Christians don’t necessarily need the motivation of having “real impact” in society to keep being motivated to do apologetics and theology because they’re “storing up treasure in heaven.” Many would consider this activity a good in itself.

But there’s no such thing in intellectual atheism. Maybe atheists wouldn’t care as it is not a difference with “real impact”. That’s fine too. Oddly enough you seem to care about this asymmetry to keep insisting that it either doesn’t exist or is not “real.”

6 posts were split to a new topic: What is Sin and Grace?

You will forgive me that, when you talk about an “advantage”, in a discussion about two opposing worldviews, I took you to mean an advantage of one over the other. This is the more normal usage of the word:

advantage n, 1 Superior position.
1.a The position, state, or circumstance of being in advance or ahead of another, or having the better of him in any respect; superior or better position; precedence, superiority, esp. in contest or debate.
1.b To have, gain, get, give advantage of, advantage over (advantage on obs.): superiority over. Also techn. to have the advantage of (a person): to have a personal knowledge that is not reciprocal.

I now see you did not mean this, but took “advantage” to mean more a benefit to Christianity, completely independent of its disputation with atheism.

But there’s no such thing in intellectual atheism.

Isn’t there? How is identifying the fallacious logic and axioms of Christian Apologetic arguments not an intellectual exercise? It is of course a contingent exercise (contingent on the existence of religions to argue against), but that does not diminish its intellectual content.

A post was merged into an existing topic: What is Sin and Grace?

Your quoted definitions of advantage are all variations on the word “superior”. The question is, with respect to what metric? The metric I’m choosing is level of engagement. All I’m saying is that in terms of engagement, there is greater likelihood there will always be audience and interest in Christian theology and apologetics among a segment of Christians. Whereas for atheist intellectual apologetics, even if it is very sophisticated and genuinely high quality intellectual argumentation, there is less reason why atheists or non-religious persons in general should care about it. (In fact, Christians themselves are more likely to care about atheist apologetics than the average non-religious person.)

This also explains why, for example, the majority of analytic philosophers of religion are theists. This is because if you’re not a theist you probably wouldn’t think it worth studying in the first place.

@dga471

… esp. in contest or debate.

Your “metric” does not fit.

In fact, Christians themselves are more likely to care about atheist apologetics than the average non-religious person.

And this is a disadvantage (using the word in its common meaning, not as a disbenefit or a metric-of-level-of-engagement) how? It means that the people who are most likely to care about a work are those who have a possibility of having their worldview changed by it.

Note to mods – this discussion is about Atheism NOT "Sin and Grace"

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This is incorrect, but I’m not taking the bait. Why don’t we use a different word other than “advantage”, if it bothers you so much? “Difference”?

Tim, it seems that you have the same problem of the internet atheists that Scott Alexander described: you seek to win an internet argument at all costs, even if it’s on a technicality. So now you’re basically criticizing me for not using the English language properly (“advantage” or “metric”). If you read the article in the OP, you’ll realize that there’s a very low probability that you’ll convince me to completely give up my main argument based on a technicality. So we are both wasting our time if you go this path. Rather, it’s more productive if you go past differences in terms and focus on the meat of the argument: there is more potential engagement for Christian apologetics than anti-Christian apologetics.

It’s not a disadvantage in your metric. But that’s not what I meant.

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No.

I was seeking to explain why I misunderstood you.

Why don’t we use a different word other than “advantage”, if it bothers you so much?

Already done:

I now see you did not mean this, but took “advantage” to mean more a benefit to Christianity, completely independent of its disputation with atheism.

Now I am heartily sick of the word “advantage”. If you choose to use a word idiosyncratically, then choose to make a stink when somebody misinterprets it, then I choose to avoid you.

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This is true for both camps. I doubt many atheists have been converted by christian apologetics, and I doubt that many have lost their faith after reading works by self proclaimed atheist thinkers. Those works are more about justifying a position that someone already holds. People are seeking out affirmation more than logical reasoning. Once the argument boils down to “I just don’t believe you,” then there is no more progress, which is probably why a lot of these forums and websites died down over time.

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“I just don’t believe you” is rarely where disagreement ends. Far more common end points are:

  • You haven’t provided any evidence
  • That’s contradicted by the available evidence
  • That’s a fallacy
  • You’re contradicting yourself
  • That’s unintelligible
  • That’s not what your source says
  • You’re just repeating your claims without addressing any of the counter arguments

and the far too common

  • I’ve just caught you in multiple lies
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It occurs to me that Youtube could be a factor (I don’t know if that data is included in “Google search” data, but I guess not.) If I want to view atheist content, I am much more likely to run a Youtube search than a Google search, and the amount of atheist content and commentators there certainly seems to be growing. For many other things, I will search on Google and not Youtube.

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Thunderf00t is one of the old generals of the New Atheist Army, and he is still putting out great content. However, it really isn’t focused on atheism or creationism anymore. Instead, he seems focused on pseudoscience and marketing scams, and still well worth a watch. It looks like he still puts out some creationist stuff, but that isn’t the focus anymore. His Youtube channel might serve as an interesting model for what has happened over the last 10 years.

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I think this is a natural progression. There was an initial period of excitement because atheists could find each other on the Internet. But “atheist” is a not a group, it’s a label for people who don’t accept the religion label - like a social group for people who don’t play golf. There is no common positive trait to link all atheists. When the initial excitement of meeting like minds wears off they move on to some other positive interest, be it social justice or something else.

That said, atheism, new or old, is better off without the anti-social justice-ers, misogynists, anarchists, philatelists, and militant rebels-without-a-clue.

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