Kings and queens of the æther

We are the New Atheists. We do not, however, like the name — ask any of us, and we’ll tell you that there’s nothing new about our atheism — all we’re doing is speaking out about godlessness. I’ve talked to a lot of the so-called New Atheists, including some of the biggest big shots in this movement, and what do they do when they hear the term? Roll their eyes and shrug. We only grudgingly accept the term, not because we find it agreeable, but because it is imposed on us by a clueless media and an even more ignorant body of theists.


Weirdly, I’m now hearing more and more about something called Atheism 3.0, and unbelievably, they are using the term unironically, as if they really think they have something new to offer, some advance over the “Old Atheism,” whatever that was, and the “New Atheism,” misnomer that it is, and deserve a moniker that implies a new bump in the version number. I would like to remind the proponents of Atheism 3.0 of two things: they’re offering nothing new, either, and a version increment isn’t always a good thing. I remember Mac Word 5.0, which was a clean and simple thing of beauty, and Mac Word 6.0, which was an abomination, a hideous slug of a program that should have been aborted and the mewling, squirming undead fetus incinerated. I kind of feel the same way about this New New Atheism.

Atheism 3.0 is, as I said, nothing new. It’s been around as long as atheism has, and there’s a much better and far more descriptive term for it: “Atheism But.” As in, “I’m an atheist, but I think religion is a wonderful institution (usually for someone else, just not me.)” It’s atheism for people who don’t like atheism, or who want to neuter atheism so it doesn’t challenge a pious status quo, or have this condescending idea that the rest of society is dumber than they are, and needs the palliative of unreasoning faith. The New Atheists, as much as we detest the title, at least offer an honest, open integrity about their ideas; these guys seem to be more interested in hiding the significance of the nonexistence of gods so they can hide behind a façade of superficial religiosity, and appeal to a waffly, wishy-washy middle ground.

Greg Epstein, one of the most conciliatory members of the Atheist But brigade, even goes so far as to praise Rick Warren’s awful little book.

Epstein argues in his forthcoming book, “Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” that morality does not depend on a judgmental deity and that nonbelievers can lead meaningful, even purpose-driven, lives. But they can also learn from people of faith, such as California megachurch pastor and “Purpose Driven Life” author Rick Warren, Epstein says.

Warren’s best-selling book basically says that “you have to have a purpose in life bigger than yourself, and that not everything is all about you,” said Epstein. “And he’s absolutely right about that. But he’s wrong in saying that you have to believe in Jesus Christ and if you don’t you’re going to hell for eternity.”

Have you ever read The Purpose Driven Life? (You can read the first seven chapters for free, not that I recommend this drivel). It’s ghastly. It is Rick Warren stating with absolute certainty the intent and needs of an omnipotent being, which just happens to be that the most important mission you have in life is to be his personal slave. Oh, and the unwritten subtext is that since Rick Warren has such clarity of understanding of this ineffable and inconsistent being, you’d best listen carefully to Rick Warren. It is a wretchedly evil little book that represents all the misbegotten inanity of religion: the claims of divine knowledge, the demands that followers be subservient to the deity, and the charlatanry of making promises of strength, prosperity, happiness, and immortality to everyone who obeys the words of the prophet.

Atheists should not respect this book, and they should not encourage others to appreciate its message…except in the sense of acknowledging the effectiveness of propaganda and the adept sleight of hand of the professional con artist. An Atheist But can babble about learning from Rick Warren, but an atheist will simply tell you that all you can learn is what not to do.

What the Atheist Buts are trying to do is occupy a middle ground, compromising with religion to find an illusory magic mean. They’re all but indistinguishable from another group, the God Buts. These are people who don’t use the word atheism at all, but instead preach a nebulous version of religion that has no relationship to any established religion — instead, they want you to accept the virtues of simply believing in…something. Anything. If you told them you worshipped the transcendant god personified by the earthly presence of Mickey Mouse, they wouldn’t question you in the slightest. Deny god, though, and suddenly you’re treated as shrill, militant, and strident.

One of the eminent God Buts is Karen Armstrong, who I’ve laughed at before. Another is Robert Wright, who is becoming increasingly shrill, militant, and strident himself in his criticisms of New Atheists. This is a telling point, too: these defenders of religion never seem to get as riled up about the ranting fundamentalists as they do a few outspoken atheists. Wright’s latest is full of fury and claims that the atheists are doomed, also citing a familiar complain: atheists are hurting the cause!

And this year doubts about that mission have taken root among the New Atheists’ key demographic: intellectuals who aren’t religious and aren’t conservative. Even on the secular left, the alarming implications of the “crusade against religion” are becoming apparent: Though the New Atheists claim to be a progressive force, they often abet fundamentalists and reactionaries, from the heartland of America to the Middle East.

If you’re a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won’t turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world’s most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world’s most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.

So, we have a rising tide of liberal secularists who dislike atheists…wait, no we don’t. These are the same old conciliatory apologists who have been around for ages, the Atheist Buts. A chorus of whining from the nags and scolds who are ashamed of atheism isn’t going to dissuade anyone, although Wright may find comfort in it.

That last paragraph, though, is the crux of the problem. Children might leave the faith of their fathers, and this is a horrible, evil, scary possibility, since, after all, atheists are monsters. What we should do is ask all those scary atheists to go hide their scary faces so the God Buts and the God Firsts and even the Atheist Buts can continue to freely demonize them. Only Good Christians should be promoting evolution. That Dawkins can be both an atheist and a scientist, and even worse, explains that science led to his atheism, is going to empower creationists.


Evolution has implications about how the world works. If you deny them, if you pretend evolution is cheerily compatible with the god-is-a-loving-creator nonsense religions peddle, you aren’t teaching evolution. You are pouring more mush into the brains of young people. If you are a conservative Christian, it’s entirely understandable that you would fight evolution, because the truth does not favor your position. If you are a moderate Christian, you are not helping science education by enabling fear of atheism by continuing to lie to people, assuring them that science isn’t going to challenge their religious beliefs. It will, or the teachers are doing it wrong.

Unfortunately, Wright’s message is that we can’t challenge religion.

All the great religions have shown time and again that they’re capable of tolerance and civility when their adherents don’t feel threatened or disrespected. At the same time, as some New Atheists have now shown, you don’t have to believe in God to exhibit intolerance and incivility.

Flip it around; that’s an admission that the religions feel intolerance is justified when they’re not coddled and respected. That’s part of the problem, too. I don’t respond well to extortion from god-bothering zealots, sorry. What the New Atheists (who are the same as the old atheists) have shown, though, is that they can be subjected to generations of intolerance and to continued denigration by people like Wright, who think their call for atheists to be silent and modest is a liberal attitude, and yet we manage to cope without resorting to violence or threats to shut up our critics. That’s something the apologists for faith need to learn, too: religion should be strong enough to stand against academic rudeness and mockery without this pathetic bleating for shelter from skepticism. It’s easy to be tolerant and civil when you’ve compelled everyone to be agreeable with you; the challenge is to do the same when you’re being denounced.

All the Atheist Buts and God Buts are missing the key point, too. We don’t care if you think religion is good for you, or if you love your faith, or if you think rituals are lovely, or if believers have done good in history, or if a lack of praise for Jesus irritates the Baptists. That’s not the issue. The central, fundamental question is whether anyone has any reasonable evidence for the existence of any gods, especially the gods that everyone is so busy propitiating. You haven’t got any? Then we’ll continue pointing out that you’re chasing leprechauns, no matter how annoying you find it. It’s the truth. Argue against that with evidence — anything else is fluff and noise.

They can’t do that, though. They’ve decided that they can’t compete on that ground, and instead have rushed to occupy a meaningless middle…an intellectually empty wasteland with no approximation to the truth, only a comforting distance from the real crazies of the devout. They’re nothing but the lords of vapor, the kings and queens of the æther, too frightened by the retreating ghosts of old myths to join us in reality.


  1. Paula Kirby says

    Superb article: give me a genuine believer over these ridiculous believers-in-belief any day. I just disagree on one thing: I LOVE the label of New Atheist. There IS an important difference between us and the Old Atheists, and that is that the Old Atheists generally kept their mouths shut and didn’t rock the religious boat. Well, we WON’T keep our mouths shut, and frankly, we don’t care how much that boat rocks either. Gone are the days when religion got a free pass by default – and it’s the New Atheists who have brought that about. I’m a New Atheist and proud of it!

  2. David Marjanović says

    Our purpose is to carry on our genes.

    No, that’s not a purpose. It’s merely what will happen if we’ll happen (…or choose…) to have children.

    “God Hates You. Hate Him Back”

    That’s misotheism, not atheism.



    9/11 and Fort Worth were acts of jihad too, of course

    “Of course”?

    Seems to me they were acts of nationalism with just enough religious overtones for TV. Some of the 19 hijackers were fundamentalists who scraped the icing off muffins because it might contain pig fat, others drank wine.

    Xenophanes […] Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius


  3. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Actually, I kind of agree with this (#220)

    (2) the ultimate failures of religion are logical and conceptual, not factual and empirical.

    Many times on this forum (and in the original post above) one will see calls for theists to procure evidence that their god exists. I find this to be an unfair demand because most concepts of “god” are so vacuous that it isn’t clear what evidence might actually falsify the idea. IMO, such a concept begs the meaning of the word “existence” in the first place. Its not even meaningful enough to require scrutiny other than as a cultural phenomenon. In this sense I also disagree with Dawkin’s presentation of God as a “hypothesis”, because a hypothesis has logical implications about the real universe; it makes some predictions and precludes others. Most conceptions of god don’t do this…this makes them metaphysical statements, rather than scientific statements.

    My point is that you can reject the idea of God without invoking empiricism.

  4. Peter Magellan says

    This whole New Atheist/Atheist 3.0/Atheist But thing is why I prefer to call myself a rationalist. Plus it defines me in terms of what I do believe in rather than what I don’t.

  5. zhu-wuneng says

    I just want to comment on all the “Buddhism can exclude the supernatural” nonsense above; you cannot exclude the supernatural from Buddhism without being really, really intellectually dishonest. The earliest records we have of Buddhism (the Pali records, which are almost as historically suspect as the Christian gospels) include very clear references to the supernatural right alongside the four truths, eightfold path, and so on. Reincarnation is referred to repeatedly and clearly, as is the ability to gain mystic powers. The Victorians discovered Buddhism and projected their own desire for a “rational” religion onto it, which has influenced Western Buddhism to this day. The vast, vast majority of the world’s Buddhists practice a religion that is most definitely incompatible with reason. A comparative handful of white guys who practice Zen and Vipassana can use the No True Scotsman fallacy to argue that I’m wrong and that real Buddhism can do this, but they’ll find no support from the original Buddhist texts to do so, only their own wishful thinking. I would argue that there are ethical and psychological insights in Buddhism worth exploring; and I like Buddhist mythology from a storytelling standpoint. But the weird idea of true Buddhism that crops up among rationalists is insulting and quasi-racist; what, do you think Asians were too dumb to figure out their own scriptures and it took white people to understand what they were really saying? Please. There is no major Buddhist sect that does not accept the supernatural in some way. The supposed atheism of Buddhism (when in fact it is almost always effectively theistic) doesn’t negate this at all.

  6. oldfuzz says

    I find the identification of atheists by versions–1.0, 2.0, 3.0–enlightening, informative if your object to enlightenment. In the real world there would be interim releases between new versions, but I digress.

    Theists prefer names; e.g., God, Allah, YHWH, etc.

    Does this suggest to others, as it does to me, that a key difference between them is left-brain versus right-brain dominance?

    I try to be a middle-brainer which is a no-brainer for me.

  7. says

    Myers and Company:

    You guys have gotten it all wrong. And I am disappointed that you neglected me — I wrote a book all about Atheism 3.0. Specifically, “An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than without It.” And the distinction between the old “New Atheism” and the new “New Atheism” or Atheism 3.0 is a difference of attitude, orientation, perspective, intention, and purpose. We believe that religion has much to offer humankind, even if I cannot bring myself to believe in God. See my website and blog.

    Another distinction between your atheism and mine: I am a writer of substance, not frills and thrills. I am a philosopher, not a superficial polemicist. And I have much to say about PZ Myers. The two blogs are: “The Schism Within: Distinguishing Between Militant ‘Hard’ Atheism and Humanistic ‘Soft’ Atheism” and “Can We Be Good Without God? A Challenge to the ‘New Atheism.'” I would love to hear your response to any of my critiques, not mere insults and offensive remarks.

    Bruce Sheiman

  8. Owlmirror says

    I am a writer of substance, not frills and thrills.

    Your self-importance is so noted.

    The Schism Within

    Deep Rifts !!

    Can We Be Good Without God?

    If God doesn’t exist, then everyone who is good, is good without God.

    I would love to hear your response to any of my critiques, not mere insults and offensive remarks.

    This is Pharyngula. You may very well get all of the above, quite possibly in the same comment.

  9. Janine, She Wolf Of Pharyngula, OM says

    Oh, great. We have yet an other person who knows he does not need a god. But the rabble, they need to believe a lie. Just an other variation of the souls made with bronze, silver and gold. I am not interested.