November 05, 2009

Introducing the 'Unapologetic Atheist'

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

The term 'new atheists' has been used to describe those people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens who have called for an end to the undue deference paid to religious beliefs and have a leveled a broadside attack on all religious beliefs, not just those of so-called fundamentalists. They (and I) argue that statements of religious beliefs should be treated like any other propositions and subject to the same level of scrutiny. The fact that such beliefs are deeply held by many people is no reason for giving them a pass, any more than we would give a pass to beliefs about astrology or homeopathy or crystal-ball gazing or any other evidence-free superstition.

But the label 'new atheism' does not sit well with some 'new atheists' because it is seen as inaccurate. After all, there is nothing really new in the arguments of the new atheism, except in so far as new science is making the god hypothesis increasingly superfluous. And many of the 'new atheists' have been atheists for almost all their adult lives and are not recent disbelievers.

In a previous post titled Being a new atheist means not saying you're sorry, I said that what really distinguishes the so-called 'new atheists' from other atheists (such as those who are labeled accommodationists) is that the new atheists do not feel the need to feel sorry about their unbelief, as if it were something they should not have or would prefer not to have. The expected behavior of atheists seems to be that they should go to extraordinary lengths to soothe the feelings of believers, by prefacing any statement about atheism by sighing regretfully and saying things along the lines of "I hate to say this but I don't believe in god. But this is a personal belief that I have reluctantly accepted and I can understand why others might choose to believe in god. In fact, I envy the emotional satisfaction that religious beliefs provide. I hope you are not offended by my saying I am an atheist and if you are I sincerely apologize." This is an absurd expectation.

In a comment to that post, 'Wonderist' made the excellent suggestion that instead of the term 'new atheist', we should use the term 'unapologetic atheist', and that what we advocate is 'unapologetics' to counter the 'apologetics' of religious believers. In further comments to that same post, he says that looking around the web, the term 'new atheist' originally had a somewhat neutral meaning but later began to be applied by accommodationists like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse in a negative way by implying that it carried with it all the old stereotypes of atheists being arrogant, rude, uncivil, etc.

Wonderist's idea makes a lot of logical sense but I am not certain that this term will catch on. For starters, it will have to be picked up by more prominent people and repeated in more prominent media to gain traction. Wonderist says in his comments that he has made a start in this direction by triggering discussions elsewhere on various sites and the feedback seems to have been positive so far.

Simply from a marketing standpoint, there is some advantage to staying with the word 'new'. The word new has very positive connotations, despite its vagueness and inaccuracy. It is short and snappy. 'Unapologetic' is undoubtedly more accurate but it has two major disadvantages: it is six syllables long, and is defined negatively, as not something else or opposite to something else. These may or may not be fatal flaws to its final adoption. As I value accuracy more than marketing, I am going to start using the label 'unapologetic atheist' unless 'new atheist' is required by the context.

There are many ways that this could go. Control over the meaning of the term 'new atheists' may be taken over by those to whom the term is applied and branded positively, the way that the gay community took the formerly pejorative word 'queer' and are starting to make it their own. The word 'feminist' is currently undergoing a similar struggle for meaning with feminists trying to retain the positive meaning of the word from those who are trying to make it into a negative stereotype.

The ownership of 'new atheist' is up for grabs. While advocating for the label of 'unapologetic', I think we should not cede control of the term 'new atheist' to those who want to use it pejoratively. We should use it positively and proudly and make people realize that it in this context, new is just a synonym for unapologetic.

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"I am not certain that this term will catch on. For starters, it will have to be picked up by more prominent people and repeated in more prominent media to gain traction."

I agree. It really is up to us to use it and spread it. But it may not be as difficult as it might seem at first glance.

Here's a typical usage scenario: You see *yet another* person regurgitating stereotypes about 'new' atheists (e.g. "those New Atheists who hate believers and think they know everything"). You get fed up and want to set the record straight (not just for them; but more importantly for the people who are reading or listening in). You state that you reject the label 'new', and especially reject the stereotypes. You introduce the term unapologetic. You then demand that they support their stereotypes with quotes or other evidence. (They often provide some.) You show how that quote has been taken out of context or viewed through biased eyes (as they nearly always are). You then introduce the idea that there is a taboo, bias, double-standard, etc. They either back off, or corner themselves in hypocrisy. Either way, you win. The stereotype, prejudice, and taboo are all exposed for everyone to see, the person is less likely to spew the same garbage, and the idea of 'unapologetic' gets planted into the ground of discourse for future discussions.

This is almost always how I've found the situation to go. It's actually not that difficult to get a good, solid outcome from it. The only thing I would say is that this 'new atheist' stereotype has become so wide-spread that you should probably choose your battles. Go for someone more on-the-fence first; they are more likely to actually change their behaviour, and are more likely to have audiences who will change their behaviour as well. But it also works on run-of-the-mill anti-atheist sentiment from harder-core believers.

"it is six syllables long,"

True. That is unfortunate. However, I've found that once you get used to it, it rolls off the tongue/keyboard just fine. And you only have to use it a few times in an initial post to set up the concept in people's heads. After that, you get to bring up all the other important concepts that go with the idea, such as: The taboo, burden of proof (innocent until proven guilty), the fact that theists avoid the actual arguments, the idea that blasphemy is a victimless crime, etc. It actually is quite a fruitful area of discussion, and you get to maintain the moral high-ground the entire time.

"and is defined negatively, as not something else or opposite to something else. "

Also true. But interestingly, it sets people off balance, and they have to start to re-think the situation and question their assumptions. Why did he use the word 'unapologetic'? Why does he think he doesn't have to apologize? Well, what would he have to apologize for, unless he's done something wrong. But I haven't established that he's done anything wrong yet.

See, all of these things were just assumed before, and hidden in the subconscious taboo that so many people share. By firstly identifying and secondly rejecting that taboo, it forces people to confront it. It brings it to the surface of the conversation, instead of just being part of the background, unacknowledged. So, actually, being a negative definition is useful in this case, since it brings that-which-is-rejected to the forefront.

The word 'new' doesn't do that (well, it does a little, but not nearly as effectively, IMO). Most people assume the 'new' thing is that we have some new argument or some new tactic. They quickly see that our new arguments are not really that new, and our new 'tactic' to them appears to be simply rudeness. They don't catch on right away that it is this very *assumption of rudeness* that we are challenging. Some of them do catch on right away, but not very many, to be honest.

So that's why you get all these cloned, knee-jerk reactions. "Ha! They aren't NEW! They're so arrogant to think that they are! Blah blah blah." It immediately sets them off on a tangent. If atheists continue to use the word 'new' to label themselves, they will have to continually bring people back from this tangent. And when all that hard work is done, the taboo *still* has not yet been brought to the surface to be challenged.

"These may or may not be fatal flaws to its final adoption."

True. I certainly don't pretend to know that it will succeed. However, I'm a pragmatist. I use things that work. I tend to think that those things that work well will usually, eventually, out-compete those things that don't work as well. In terms of function in a conversation, I think 'unapologetic' works much better than 'new', even if it's not as zippy and fresh. Zippy and fresh only get you so far. Zippy and fresh explains the persistence of the term 'new' from its original usage in Wired magazine. It 'worked' for a while when it was used simply as a catch-all label to identify best-selling authors and those who agree with them or use the same tactics. But it has never really 'worked' to accurately identify the key concepts which are being proposed and challenged by us.

"I think we should not cede control of the term 'new atheist' to those who want to use it pejoratively. We should use it positively and proudly and make people realize that it in this context, new is just a synonym for unapologetic."

Good point, I suppose. I'll add that to my arsenal. "The 'new' atheists aren't really new. 'New' is just a synonym for their newly adopted stance of being 'unapologetic'."

Still, I think this should be used with care, and perhaps left until a little later in the conversation, once 'unapologetic' has played its part in exposing the taboo. Once the concept of unapologetic is planted firmly, then it makes sense to say to them that 'new' should be pointed there, in the context of atheism. But if the equivalency is brought out too soon, then the 'unapologetic' label might instead simply redirect to their existing concept of rude/militant/uncivil/etc. which is where the 'new' label currently points. As in, "Ah, unapologetic is just another label for those strident, angry 'new' atheists." This would defeat the purpose of the 'unapologetic' label.

Posted by Wonderist on November 5, 2009 02:32 PM

I atone to the term 'new atheist'

I have always been an atheist, even before I stopped believing in Father Christmas. I always felt uncomfortable at Christmas, bowing my head when the the extended family said grace before tucking in to a disgustingly large meal. Afraid even to mention my feelings towards the starving children of the world and how I would prefer to dine on rice and water whilst sparing them a thought at least. Afraid to offend friends and family by refusing to be a god parent or fighting to not have my own children christened.

I helped my daughter find the strength to bow out of her confirmation at school even though the programs had been printed with her name in and she was made to feel bad by her teachers. This was my first act as a 'new atheist' at the age of 48. If I had my time again, I would not be so 'apologetic' for my atheist beliefs, I would not allow my children to be Christened without their knowledge or consent, would refuse to thank god for a big meal whilst millions starve.

I understand what it means to be a new atheist. One who is not going to be cowed by or embarrassed into compliance with perceived 'behavioural norms'.

It is a big difference, a bit like a gay person 'coming out'. There must be millions of atheists 'in the closet' even those who say they are atheist but still feel obliged to comply with many of the religious rituals to save offending others' religious sensitivities.

For me, if people want to be sensitive over their religious beliefs then let them be, they have a lot to be sensitive about!

So the term 'new atheist' has real meaning for me and I hope the term takes off.

Posted by Ray Foulkes on November 9, 2009 09:10 PM

Fair enough, Ray. With passionate people like you fighting for it, we may yet win a positive meaning for the term. Keep speaking out.

Posted by Wonderist on November 10, 2009 10:05 AM

Hi Manno,

Are you going to tell us what the picture is within the blobs?

I can't make it out yet!

Posted by Ray Foulkes on November 11, 2009 06:39 PM


The picture within the blobs is that of a Dalmatian dog sniffing the ground near the base of a tree.

Don't be surprised if you still don't see it for a while. If you need more guidance on how to see it, let me know and I'll give more details of what to look for.

Posted by Mano on November 12, 2009 08:29 AM