Most people know “New Atheism” as a term for the particularly militant, aggressive, populist, anti-intellectual, noxious atheism of the second half of the first decade of the 20th century, typically represented by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, lesser lights such as Michel Onfray, Victor J. Stenger, Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, and their epigones. But the thing was misnamed. There wasn’t really anything new about New Atheism, except one thing. As Tom Flynn wrote in 2010,
Since there wasn’t really anything new about the New Atheism, except as a popular novelty, one which has now worn off, it seems fairly safe to say that the New Atheism is more or less over. New Atheism is passé. It has suffered the fate of everything foolish enough to put the word “new” in its name suffers: it stopped being new, and got old, as things do.
However, just because New Atheist phenomenon has burnt out doesn’t mean that we can’t repurpose the name, which could still be useful. This is a suggestion made by a Twitter friend of mine, @philosophynerd2, one I heartily endorse. He suggests that we classify atheists as either Classical Atheists or New Atheists, defined as follows:
A Classical Atheist is an atheist who understands atheism to mean the denial of the existence of God, and who holds that God does not exist.
A New Atheist is an atheist who accepts Antony Flew’s redefinition of the term “atheist” and understands atheism to mean a lack of belief in the existence of God, and so is an atheist who doesn’t deny the existence of God, but only insists he does not accept the existence of God.
Flew himself used the term negative atheist to describe his new kind of atheist, as opposed to the older positive atheists. That never caught on, since it sounds strange to call a denial of the existence of God positive (it makes sense, but it still sounds wrong to most people).
Back in the early 1990s, when I used to lurk on Usenet’s alt.atheism, the terms strong atheist and weak atheist were used to distinguish those who denied the existence of God and those who claimed in a Flewian fashion only to lack a belief in the existence of God. Sometimes the weak atheists would complain that the term “weak” made them sound a bit, well, weak. To which the strong atheists would usually retort that they were weak, that they should man up, stop being pussies, and become strong atheists (which were still generally regarded as atheists proper). It wasn’t that weak atheists weren’t considered atheists, but they were definitely widely considered to be an inferior or second class kind of atheist. But that was then.
I think the assessment of the strong atheists was and is entirely correct. Weak atheists are an inferior kind of atheist. They are inferior in intellectual rigor and intellectual honesty—largely because the accept not only Flew’s redefinition of atheism but also his contention that it follows from this redefinition that atheism is the presumptive “default position” and that the burden of proof in the atheism/theism debate lies entirely on the theist. As it happens, Flew is wrong. Neither of these things in fact follow (and are no longer taken to follow in the philosophy of religion, largely thanks to the work of Alvin Plantinga, who made such a powerful case for the rational presumption of theism that he essentially single-handedly rolled the discussion back to its pre-Flew state).
But at the same years professional philosophers of religion were working out that Flew was wrong (and Flew himself was reading Aristotle seriously for the first time, which eventually led him to theism), Flew’s ideas were trickling down into the wider population, where they have now essentially become the new atheist orthodoxy. This has had a number of bad consequences, especially with respect to the level of atheist intellectual discourse. Since the Flewian New Atheist considers himself not to hold a position, but to win by default, he has not, as a rule, cultivated much capacity in the way of making a rational case for his position (why should he expend the effort of time and thought to make a case for a position, when he wins by default precisely by not having a position?). Now to win, even by default, the New Atheist does still have to make some arguments, but this is limited to criticism of theistic arguments. And as everyone knows, it is much easier to criticize and tear down than it is to create and build up. It is hard to make a detailed case for something; it is fairly easy, on the other, hand to attempt to poke holes in someone else’s case. Not many people can successfully do the former; the latter lies within the range of most mediocre intellects.
One can’t help but of think of C. S. Lewis’ characterization of two English teachers who used a watered down Emotivism and the “fact/value” distinction to ‘debunk’ all claims involving an expression of emotion or value:
Worse still, since the New Atheist believes he wins by default and that atheism is merely “a lack of belief in God”, he can claim victory (of a sort) if a theist fails to induce in him a belief in God—something which is entirely within the power of his own will to prevent.
The New Atheist, if you let him define the terms of the debate in a Flewian manner, cannot lose: he wins by default if the theist fails to persuade him to believe in God, and this is something entirely within his power to refuse to do no matter what. You can see why a certain sort of atheist likes this situation very much—I suspect they are the same sort of people who play video games on “god mode”—but these circumstances are not healthy with respect to finding out the truth. A cheap and easy rhetorical victory is substituted for a serious inquiry and endeavor to find the truth. This is why popular Flewian “New Atheism” tends to make one anti-intellectual, lazy, dogmatic, strident, arrogant, and willful.
I think I will adopt my friend Philosophy Nerd’s technique of requiring atheists to self-identify as either a Classical Atheist or a New Atheist. “New Atheist” seems to be a perfectly good term which either is or will shortly be in search of a new use—and since Flewian “lack of belief” atheists represent an entirely new definition of atheism, it seems like a perfect match.