I recently found myself disagreeing with a fellow on these here internets about the “new atheists”. As a prelude to writing something more substantive, let me define a few terms, at least as I have been using them–not everyone is required to use them the same way, and you’re welcome to comment if you view the terms differently.
As I see it, the most important feature of the new atheism is its public profile and the attention it’s received in the press, attention that has accrued to a very specific set of individuals, based on works published within the past decade. I would put Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens as the primary members of this group, based on my casual impression of whose names I read and whose books I see.
Atheism itself is old, as is public profession of atheism. Nor is it the case, as I have heard it said, that today’s prominent atheist intellectuals are less deferential. It’s true that Bertrand Russell was somewhat more polite than Christopher Hitchens, but I don’t recall any evidence that Russell censored his ideas. In any case, the difference in tone might be grounds for calling Hitchens a jerk, but in the larger scheme of things, it’s not that important.
I also don’t see much evidence of anything intellectually new going on here. However, let me be clear that I don’t mean anything negative by that. If you are critiquing the cosmological argument or the ontological argument, especially for a popular audience, there is little need for novelty. We have known that these arguments are bad arguments for a long time, but so long as their proponents offer them, someone will have to stand up and remind the world how bad they are. That’s not something I’d like to spend my time on, but it’s still work that has to be done. Intelligent design is more or less new, I suppose–you can cite Paley here, but there’s clearly something new going on today. Of course critics of ID are legion–they’re just about everyone who’s thought hard about the issue, new atheist, old atheist, or theist. So I don’t think ID can really be a defining feature of the new atheists.
For those reasons, I see new atheism as a media or sociological phenomenon, and that matters, because it means that there’s no point in applying the term to most individual atheists. Aside from atheism itself, there isn’t anything connecting them. I suppose in a derivative sense, you might say that Joe atheist is a “new atheist” because he was made passionate about the issue by Dawkins, thinks that Dawkins is almost always right, or whatever else. But in the first instance, the term applies to Dawkins and his fellows, not Joe.
That means that generalizations about the new atheists are generalizations about a relatively small group of people who are in the public eye. It’s not incredibly important whether my use of the term is the right one–though I do think it’s the way that the term is being used–whether or not it’s right, it’s the sense that I attach to the term, and it’s the way to understand anything that I say.