The New Atheists: Aggressive or Brave?

February 16, 2011

It has been stated by both the religious and nonreligious that the New Atheists -- think Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens -- are aggressive in their approach to religious belief. But Ian Ravenscroft of Philosophy Now, writing about what it takes to be a philosopher, sees it differently:

Arguments -- rational derivations of conclusions from premises -- are central to philosophy. But arguments in another sense -- vigorous interchanges of ideas, either verbally or in writing -- are also very common in philosophy. Vigorous exchange is central to gaining the truth; and those who are shy of the truth tend to shy away from argument. It’s intriguing how often Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and other advocates of the New Atheism are accused of being aggressive. It would be more accurate to say that they’re not afraid of the rough-and-tumble of intellectual life. Those who accuse them of aggression are, I suspect, anxious to avoid strenuous public examination of their beliefs.

So be prepared for a bit of hard talking. It won’t kill you, and it may advance your understanding.

In fact, even if one does think the New Atheists are aggressive in presenting their views to the public, their counterparts on the religious right are just as aggressive. Should the New Atheists just sit back and watch?


#1 Jason (Guest) on Wednesday February 16, 2011 at 3:40pm

I’d say rather than “brave or aggresive” that the “new atheists” are really insipid and spineless. They are a bad joke and Nietzsche would be disgusted that these guys are his intellectual children.

#2 Michael De Dora on Wednesday February 16, 2011 at 3:43pm

Insipid is one thing. But spineless?

#3 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Wednesday February 16, 2011 at 3:56pm


I don’t think that the issue is one of viciousness, but one of inter-personal contempt and an obvious lack of civility.

It is obvious that their behavior reflects disdain for their opponents, but it also reflects something else just as disturbing—an exalted opinion of themselves.

#4 Michael De Dora on Wednesday February 16, 2011 at 3:58pm

One more thing: not only are the New Atheists fearless of the rough-and-tumble of intellectual life, but they are also fearless in advocating for worldviews and values that, to put it gently, have never been well-received by the American public. That counts for something.

#5 Michael De Dora on Wednesday February 16, 2011 at 4:02pm

@Daniel Mann,

Could you give me some examples of New Atheist behavior that reflects contempt, disdain, or a lack of civility toward their opponents?

#6 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Wednesday February 16, 2011 at 7:15pm


It’s so ubiquitous and it even filters down to many of the atheists with whom I blog. They call me “idiot,” “moron,” “troll” (whatever that means). They attempt to destroy me and my reputation with many absurd allegations. But I also must admit that it’s not just atheists.

Check out this Facebook thread where harsh, untrue allegations were brought against me today:

#7 Chuck (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 7:20am

I’m sorry but Mr. Hitchens did a book tour of the major Fundamentalist Biblical Societies as part of his press strategy when he released “God is not Great” including panel discussions with leading Christian Philosophers like William Lane Craig.  He did this througout the American South.  Spineless?  I think not.  Additionally he engaged in a debate on the existence of God with William Dembski in a Christian Church (Dembski’s home court) and was cordial charitable and inviting to the students attending.  All this while suffering from treatment for esophageal cancer.  The comments here seem to be an object lesson of the instruction provided by Ravencroft.  Intense focus on an idea that demands parsimony is often seen as rude in the “I’m OK, you’re OK” world of today’s discourse.  Civility supersedes intellectualism for most people when they wish to have the space to assert their truth claims.  That type of people-pleasing is not how we’ve advanced as a species or society.  Also, it seems stupidly un-ironic to name-call on an anonymous web-board men who will step into the spot-light to promote and defend minority ideas.  Insipid and spineless indeed.

#8 Michael De Dora on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 10:27am

@Daniel Mann,

Unfortunately, I’ve seen terrible behavior on blogs of all stripes. My question was about the behavior and rhetoric of New Atheist leaders like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris. Can you provide examples of such that reflects contempt, disdain, or a lack of civility toward their opponents?

#9 Jason (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 10:39am

I see my point was missed.

Actually Hitchens is one of the worst when it comes to being inspid and spineless, the man claims to be an atheist and yet is a moral realist. How anybody can take such nonsense seriously is beyond me.

It would be good if these so called “new atheists” would take their atheism seriously and follow the logic of the position where it led instead of, as Nietzsche would have recognized, remain pseudo theists. Until these “new atheists” start akin their atheism seriously I don’t see why anybody else should take them seriously.


#10 Michael De Dora on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 10:41am

Why can’t an atheist be a moral realist?

#11 Chuck (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 10:49am

I’d like to know that too.

#12 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 11:12am


Here is a quote from atheist Michael Ruse regarding Dawkins:

Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.

#13 Chuck (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 11:22am


How is the question of infinite regress done in a way to expose the special pleading of Fundamental Christians (in the face of their arguments from ignorance) insipid or spineless (your original assertion)?

#14 Michael De Dora on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 11:31am

@Chuck: Daniel didn’t claim that the New Atheists are insipid or spineless. That was Jason.

@Daniel: what does Dawkins’ scholarship on religion have to do with my original question? Again, I specifically asked if you could provide examples of Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris, acting or speaking with contempt, disdain, or a lack of civility toward their opponents. Ruse charges that Dawkins has contempt, but he doesn’t share any evidence for the claim.

#15 Chuck (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 11:51am

Thanks Michael.

My apologies Daniel.

#16 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 11:52am


I trust Muse’s judgment in this matter. I also have heard many such things from Dawkins. Here is something from Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith”:

•  “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions [Christian beliefs, I presume] are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.” 

Not very free-thinking!

#17 Michael De Dora on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 12:13pm


It’s not enough to trust Ruse’s judgment on this matter. He’s made a claim without providing evidence. I’d like specific examples of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris acting or speaking with contempt, disdain, or a lack of civility toward their opponents. The reason I’m pushing this is because the claim being discussed here is often made without being supported by specific evidence.

#18 Heretic Bill (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 1:35pm

When your own positions are conceptually vacuous, when your lack of knowledge and intellect inhibit you from articulating anything resembling a lucid argument, when you are accustomed to enjoying the privilege of your beliefs being “off limits” from criticism, what can you do in the face of effective, reasoned and articulate counter-claims?  All you can do, I suppose, is resort to the ad hominem and to accusing your tormentors of incivility, in spite of having no evidence to justify even that claim.

I guess it wasn’t very “civil” of Galileo to speak up against the prevailing opinions of his day, he certainly offended many.  I’m sure many slave owners had their feelings hurt over the Emancipation Proclamation.  No doubt abusive husbands are upset if their wives disagree with them on any point whatever.

Such is the sorry lot of the believer who cannot engage in legitimate discourse, and so must retreat to whining about “civility”.

#19 Jason (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 1:41pm

Why can’t an atheist be a moral realist? Seriously?

Think about it. What are these moral principles that the attest is appealing to and where did they come from? There is no plausible way to construct a meta ethical foundation fr such things in an atheistic universe.

Don’t appeal to shared principles or evolution of morality or anything like that as each and every one of those denies that moral first principles exist and seek to reduce them to something

The serious atheist philosophers like Camus, Sartre and schopenhauer understood this quite well, and Nietzsche put it very well when he said the atheist needs to go beyond good and evil as all there really is is the will to power.

I am just fed up with the collection of preening dilettantes that want to claim to be atheists these days without really taking it seriously. They are collectively a bad joke and their so called “atheism” is anemic and pathetic. If you want to be an atheist fine but at least take it seriously.


The moral realist wants to claim that moral principles are real properties of the universe send that can’t be grounded without an appeal to a moral law giver.

Nietzsche understood this as did other atheist philosophers like schopenhauer, Sartre and camus

#20 Chuck (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 2:33pm


Alonzo Fyfe is doing very good work in this area.  I suggest you continue your reading.  One can be an atheist and a moral realist by wrestling with issues of desire utlitarianism. 

Preening dilettante indeed.

#21 Kevin Dail (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 2:41pm

The unprovable claim that no-one can have morals without a religion (specifically yours, I presume) is simply a lie on the face of it. It is an example of the desperate lengths the believers will go to to discredit any one who threatens their little fantasies. The theists are the ones who have the unprovable claims, not we atheists.

Until you theists can come up with any empirical proof for your childlike beliefs, then you will get no respect from me. Without proof, the rest is just hot air.

Maybe I am not civil, but I am tired of those with religious delusions getting a free ride. Time to put up or shut up.

#22 Chuck (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 3:06pm

Has Jason admitted he is a theist?  It seems to me he just has a devotion to old writers rather than new.

#23 mal os (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 3:57pm

I don’t think this really a case of New Atheists being “Aggressive or Brave” but rather that for so long in the past society has held the position that even the slightest word against religion has been so repressed that societies perception of normal discourse/discussion regarding religion has been skewed out of proportion towards the favour of religion.
The tone, actions, words of ‘new atheists’ if it were put in to a discussion of say pure politics would not bat an eyelid (in fact I’d say it would be considered rather civil).

#24 Chuck (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 4:04pm

Well said mal os.

And also a nice recapitulation to Harris’s point.  He acknowledges that his purpose is to challenge the social taboo found in giving religious assertion automatic assent.  Religious ideas should be interrogated for their merit as much as any other.

#25 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 4:14pm

Since this thread seems to be about how secular humanists argue, it also needs to include how christians and other believers argue.

I’ve read some whining from believers on this thread that secular humanists are disrespectful and discourteous.  I suggest that someone go to youtube or the free republic and see how christians talk about gays, liberals, and secular humanists.  It is often insulting with threats of violence.  And as discourteous and, at times, as insulting as a secular humanist may be, I’ve yet to come across one who resorts to threats of violence.  In my experience, that tends to be a conservative religious habit.

I’ve also heard believers say that secular humanists are closed minded.  I find this quite vexing because I always ask a believer to present a falsifiable idea of a god and to provide evidence that backs the falsifiable idea.  If that were presented, I would evaluate the idea and consider the merit of the argument, as I would with any new falsifiable, testable idea and evidence. 

What I usually get is a challenge for me to disprove that a god exists, which one can’t do because the god idea is logically unverifiable.  It can’t be disproved and that is why it gets dismissed.  I find it odd that believers take so much pride in that a logically unverifiable idea of a god can’t be disproved.  It is that very characteristic that make god ideas ridiculous and why they get dismissed.

Asking christians and other believers to present evidence that I would require from anyone about any claim is part of what makes a secular humanist a secular humanist.

If someone refuses to present the falsifiable idea and then becomes belligerent, the person—for me—has disinvited himself from courteous discourse.  Further, for those who come to a site like this just to be a nuisance, they, too, have disinvited themselves from courteous discourse.  For those who think that any ridiculous idea deserves respect, you might want to consider what Jefferson thought on the matter:

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.”

I usually paraphrase by saying, the ridiculous deserve ridicule.

#26 sasha (Guest) on Thursday February 17, 2011 at 7:10pm

The new atheists write bestsellers, debate, and enforce seperation of state and church. I think they are a positive force.

Critics of the new atheists, rather then directing their criticism towards theists, unfortunately like to bitch and moan about other atheists. Their books generally are not as well received. They are hindering the movement and should really just get with the program or sit down.

#27 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:00am


The following quotes were obtained from Dawkins’ website:

•  The kindly God who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us and sprinkled the sky with shining stars for our delight—that God is, like Santa Claus, a myth of childhood, not anything [that] a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in. That God must either be turned into a symbol for something less concrete or abandoned altogether. (Daniel Dennett - Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)

All of these quotes demonstrate the incivility of characterizing all religious people as “deluded” or simply mindless. It would be comparable to taking the worst atheist as an example of all atheists!

•  Who will say with confidence that sexual abuse is more permanently damaging to children than threatening them with the eternal and unquenchable fires of hell? (all the following are Richard Dawkins’) [How can he make such an unsupported statement as this, especially in light of the many surveys that characterize the religious (Christians) as better adjusted than the average

•  I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.

•  The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.

•  The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn’t seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as ‘faith’.

•  Religious people split into three main groups when faced with science. I shall label them the “know-nothings”, the “know-alls”, and the “no-contests”

•  Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.

Of course, religion can embody many hazards. Just look at Islam! It’s a pity that atheists are so focused on debunking the very religion that has given them the enlightenment and the freedom to express themselves, while the religion that threatens to take all this away is barely in your sites!

#28 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:07am


Can you reference the studies you allude to where you claim Christians are better adjusted.  In what way?  How do you define “better adjusted”?

Also, I see nothing uncivil in any of Dawkins quotes and as a former Calvinist Christian who has been in extensive therapy to de-program my mind from the theological concepts of Total Depravity and Unmerited Grace I say that Christianity taken to its “Romans Road” conclusions excites much emotional and intellectual self-destruction.

It seems you want to be seen as smart without countering the accusations made and instead operate with a facile form of ad hominem using peevish calls for civility in lieu of argument.

#29 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:10am

Also Daniel, please learn your history.  Christianity and America’s father of Christian practice, Jonathan Edwards, was a sworn enemy to enlightenment thinking and free will argumentation because he thought that individual and inalienable rights absurd in a Universe governed by a Divine Sovereign.  Deism, Arminism, and Aryism where the animating theologies behind enlightenment thinking and all were seen as heresy then and would remain heresy now.

#30 Heretic Bill (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:14am

Daniel has listed several quotations, which I will stipulate as accurate without double-checking them.  But he baldly asserts that these represent incivility, and adds a couple of baseless claims of his own.  Disagreement is not incivility, and this is precisely the point of the statement referenced by Michael in his original post.  Despite the clear explanations provided by many, Daniel won’t have any of it.  Like many believers, he apparently wishes to characterize any discussion of his faith that falls short of utter obsequiousness as “uncivil”.  It’s exactly this sort of absurd non-argument that makes it so difficult for rationalists to take believers seriously.

#31 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:16am

And the last quote Daniel posts as evidence of incivility is a verbatim explication of St. Paul’s definition of “faith”.  Belief without evidence.  In a post-enlightened world that intellectual posture should not be seen as a virtue.

#32 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:21am


Try former atheist Patrick Glynn’s book, “God: The Evidence.”

I’m deeply sorry that you have had such a negative experience. However, to know Him is truly to love Him. I can’t help but think that what you had been exposed to wasn’t truly about Him! It took me years:

#33 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:23am


Darn, my links do not appear in my comments. Please go to my blog at

#34 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:25am


What in the world is the matter with your blog?? I can’t refer anyone to my blog! Is it a turf issue?

Let me try it this way:

Chuck, look at the second essay on “holiness.”

#35 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:31am


I am still very good friends with many Christians and find Calvinist theology the most rational of all theologies.  Modern Christianities are no different than other supernatural belief systems which seem to exist to allow the believer to feel good about themselves.  I find the practice of skepticism much more edifying and leave religion consigned within an arena of myth and legend.  If you are referring to knowing Jesus (“Him”) I suppose there are some nice things about that character that are interesting in the Gospel of Luke.  The Gnostic version in the Book of John is not someone I’d like to know and the Apocalyptic Jewish prophet announcing the imminent Eschaton in both Mark and Matthew seems alien to my modern sensibilities.  I am very familiar with the bible and am interested in religion.  I don’t think the privileged superstitions of Christianity any more valid than those of any other world religion however.  Commitment to beliefs that offer no method of ascertaining their connection to reality seems to be an epistemic irresponsibility.

#36 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:47am


I’ve gone in the other direction, coming from a Jewish background and having been a devout Zionist. Having struggled with intense depression, I had seen five highly recommended Psychologists, each leaving me more screwed up than the one before.

It has only been in Christ that I’ve found life, but also a rational system to make sense out of my life.

#37 Michael De Dora on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:47am


I’m not sure why you’re having issues with posting a link, but I can assure you it’s not a turf thing. I’ll look into it.

#38 Michael De Dora on Friday February 18, 2011 at 9:56am


The first quote does not characterize *all* religious believers as deluded or mindless. It characterizes only a specific type of religious believer. And while I might not use such language myself, I also can’t say the statement is incorrect.

As for the rest of your quotes, they are largely focused on ideas and concepts—not people—so I’m having a hard time accepting them as evidence of contempt, nastiness, or incivility toward religious believers.

#39 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 10:02am

Good luck to you Daniel.  I’m sorry that mental-health practices didn’t work for you.  They’ve been a “God-send” (pun intended) for me.  Atheism and skepticism afford me a self-reflective moral agency that is not dependent on making a fetish out of my ignorance or credulity.  If I don’t know something today I understand I don’t know it.  I don’t look for supernatural meaning in the form of sin or temptation to rationalize my ignorance.  I like this way of thinking where probability replaces certainty as a method for understanding reality.

#40 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 10:04am


The blog links appear in my email but not here.  I will check out your blog.

#41 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 10:12am


Browsing your blog I feel bad for you because your perspective seems to resemble that of mine when I tried desperately to utilize the Ancient Near Eastern mythology and cosmology that makes up the bible as if it were a primer on practical moral living.  I wish you luck in your pursuit of bible application to living but, for me, I only see that as a losing proposition.

#42 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 11:10am

Well Chuck,

I guess we feel bad for each other—not a bad starting place. I was a nihilist at one point in my life. At first, the realization that reality could not censure me was both liberating and intoxicating. I was the captain of my own ship and could navigate it anywhere I pleased. Life was my oyster, and I would crack open its every delight.

However, it wasn’t long before I found that the surrounding deterministic impersonal forces were more unforgiving than the moral absolutes I had discarded.

Many atheists have come to an empty end. At the end of his life, Bertrand Russell wrote about the good news of atheism:

“I wrote with passion and force, because I really thought I had a gospel [good news]. Now I am cynical about the gospel because it won’t stand the test of life.” (Os Guinness, “The Journey,” 106)

#43 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 11:24am


I’m additionally sorry that you were a nihilist.  I am not.  I just see Christianity as a myth.  And see Christian theology as morally inferior to other moral systems.  The central theme of propitiate blood sacrifice as a substitution where an innocent takes on the crimes of the guilty can never be sufficiently rationalized for me as moral outside the historical context in which it was written.  I also think blind faith in any belief when evidence contradicts its assertions is to cripple one’s epistemic commitments and invite moral chaos.  Myths are good if they are not taken as literal history.  I like many myths and gain wisdom from stories.  I even gain wisdom from some of the Christian story (in its proper perspective) but I no longer privilege it with personal revelation.  Personal revelation is the province of tyranny and allows madness to masquerade as wisdom.  I wish you well on your journey but find in your assertions old news I’ve discarded as neither good or wise.

#44 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 11:47am


At this point, I fear that we will simply inundate each other with our mutual sorrowful expressions of compassion. I therefore will not express my profound sorrow for those who have embraced the unfounded myth of naturalism. (Did I say that??)

#45 Val Esman (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 12:08pm

Whether Dawkins or Hitchens are aggressive or not is irrelevant.  What matters is whether or not women, especially poor women can continue to get abortions in this country and whether PBS which is one of the few organizations left presenting foreign news, stays on the air.  If they don’t address the relevant issues of our time they are moot and will end up in the dustbin of history.  Worse, women will end up dead in back alley abortions and Americans will no longer know what is happening in the world and become more out of touch than they already are.  CFI has a sick obsession around the issue of the existence of God which is doing nothing to change either the social or political landscape.  It’s a self indulgence of those who have tuned out from the real world and real suffering while imagining themselves to be secular “humanist”.  Unfortunately, ya’ll have only embraced one half of the term.

#46 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 12:36pm

Val, and don’t you see that God-belief becomes a reverent cause to end the things you fear losing?

#47 Chuck (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 12:58pm

Daniel, naturalism works in realizing the predictions it estimates.  It allows us to work with evidence to become better.

#48 Val Esman (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 1:13pm

No Chuck, I don’t see how the God-belief is relevant to the fact that the Koch Brothers funded the Tea Party movement and that the Supreme Court removed political power from the American people by declaring corporations to be “persons” and enabling them to pour an unlimited amount of money into the political process thereby annuling our democracy.

It’s a question less of religion than of money and corporate power—that of the plutocrats, not the theists.  But the plutocrats will make common cause with and support the theists as it suits their purposes. It is in their interests first and foremost to keep Americans ignorant and women weak, powerless and brutalized.  But it is not in the interests of either Christians or Americans.  They are being led by known forces in political process they are not aware as most people rely on TV and mainsteam corporate media.  Probably 95% or less of the people who supported the Tea Party were not aware of the Koch Brothers.  And I doubt many are even following or care what is happening at many Tea Partiers are older and past the age of childbirth.  But their children and grandchildren can and will be affected.  Sadly, many don’t care. 

Something terrible has gone wrong in American society.  Terrible and sour and I don’t believe it’s due to the Christian Right.  PBS is next on the chopping block.  Christopher Hitchens and Dawkins will only become relevant when they start discussing the true economic forces subsidizing the political campaigns of those on the Christian Right.

#49 Nathan Bupp (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 2:10pm

@Val # 45

You couldn’t have said it better. Especially:

“Unfortunately, ya’ll have only embraced one half of the term.”

#50 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 2:14pm


ID is no different in this regard. We too believe in laws, formulas and predictability. However, while you believe that everything has a naturalistic basis and sustenance, we think that these phenomena are better explained by ID. In fact, there isn’t a wit of scientific evidence in support of naturalism.

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