9/11 gave birth to aggressive, unapologetic `New Atheists'

August 27, 2011

(RNS) In September 2001, Sam Harris was an unknown doctoral student who
didn't believe in God.

But after the World Trade Center crumbled on 9/11, he put his
studies aside to write a book that became an instant best-seller -- and
changed the way atheists, and perhaps Muslims, are perceived in this
country.

Published in 2004, Harris's "The End of Faith" launched the
so-called "New Atheist" movement, a make-no-apologies ideology that
maintains that religion is not just flawed, but evil, and must be
rejected. 

In the book, Harris frequently uses the image of a Muslim suicide
bomber to highlight the dangers of religion, depicting Islam as a "cult
of death" and a "machinery of intolerance and suicidal grandiosity."
Within two years, Harris was joined on the best-seller list by
Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, who all took
religion to task for most -- if not all -- of the world's ills.

Collectively, the men whose books sold millions of copies around the
world came to be known as the apocalyptic-sounding "Four Horsemen."
Now, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks that launched the movement,
freethinkers are taking stock of the New Atheists contributions to their
community, which includes atheists, agnostics, humanists and other
nonreligionists. 

Many laud their defense of what they see as a truthful but unpopular
stance. Others, meanwhile, say their heavy-handedness with people of
faith -- especially Muslims -- has caused irreparable harm.

"9/11 ushered in a big change, in that it put Islam squarely in the
center of the discussion," said Tom Flynn, director of The Center for
Inquiry, and a supporter of the New Atheists. "Previous freethinkers
would have said religion is horrible, look at the Crusades, look at the
Inquisition. This opened up the possibility of directing strong
arguments against religions other than Christianity."

Flynn points out that atheists have long called for an end to
religion. What's "new" about the New Atheists is their stridency and
refusal to compromise. 

"I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and
contempt, and I claim that right," Hitchens told a Toronto audience in
2007. Freethinkers who are in dialogue with people of faith are
"accommodationists," the New Atheists have charged, and "enemies" of the
movement.

That rift has had real consequences. In 2010, Paul Kurtz was ousted
as founding leader of the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center
for Inquiry in what he described as a "palace coup." Talk amongst the
freethinkers was that Kurtz was too accommodationist.

"They're anti-religious, and they're mean-spirited, unfortunately,"
Kurtz told NPR in 2009. "Now, they're very good atheists and very
dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive
and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good."

Harris declined to be interviewed for this article, and Dawkins and
Dennett could not be reached. Hitchens, who is battling cancer, is too
ill to conduct interviews.

But the New Atheists have also done good, observers say. Fred
Edwords, head of the United Coalition of Reason, an umbrella group of
freethought organizations, describes 2004 (the year Harris's book hit
the shelves) as "the year the dam broke."

"My job exists because of all the new local groups that emerged in
the wake of the rise of the New Atheists," Edwords said. "And the
publicity that I generate for these groups tends to attract people who
found their own identity because of the New Atheism."

One such beneficiary is The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which
was mentioned in Dawkins' "The God Delusion." In 2004, it had fewer than
6,000 members. By 2007, membership had doubled, and this year topped
17,000.

"We feel like we owe a huge debt to these people," Dan Barker,
co-president of the foundation, said of the Four Horsemen, many of whom
have appeared at FFRF events.

While multiple factors have affected Americans' negative views of
Islam after 9/11, many American Muslims partially blame the New
Atheists. A 2010 Pew poll found that only 30 percent of Americans have a
favorable view of Islam, down from 41 percent in 2005, a year after
Harris' book.

"I would say they have harmed," Omid Safi, a Muslim and a professor
of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
"They direct much of their venom against Muslims, and I have seen some
of their material used by Islamophobes."

Even so, there have been bridges built. The Secular Student
Alliance, which blossomed from 59 campus groups when "The God Delusion"
appeared to 273 today, is now routinely invited to participate in
interfaith projects with Muslim students.

"This is something we would not have seen before the New Atheists
made sure we were on everybody's mind," said Jesse Galef, a spokesman
for the SSA. "The attention has done wonders."

Ryan Cragun, a sociologist of religion at the University of Tampa,
is more qualified in his assessment. In their extremism and intolerance,
he likens the New Atheists to Fox News Channel -- "so far to the right,"
he said, that they opened up the middle.

"Now it is OK to be a moderate atheist because you can point to the
stridency of the New Atheists and say, `At least I am not one of them,"'
he said. "It opens up a bigger space for freethinkers to actually
communicate."