The Course of Reason

Forget “the New Atheism” – Introducing “Third-Wave Atheism”

November 18, 2011

Dave Muscato here. My friend Steven Olsen, President of Springfield Freethinkers (Springfield, MO), co-founder of Carl Sagan’s Dance Party, and co-author of Unbelievable History and I, along with a few others, recently had a discussion on JT Eberhard‘s Facebook wall about the term, “New Atheism.”

I thought it was an interesting conversation and hope you enjoy it. I’m interested in your thoughts; please leave a comment below!

 JT’s original status:

They shouldn’t call us the new atheists. We’re the improved atheists. 



I do a talk about this (“Atheism 101″ – I cover the history of atheism, definitions, etc)

I make the claim that there really is no such thing as “new atheism.” While there was a change between philosophical-only atheism (600 BCE to the Enlightenment) versus scientific + philosophical atheism (which coincided with the rise of the idea of “transcendent reality” in the 18th century – specifically, the rejection of it), at ~200 years old, this is not exactly a new idea.

In my experience, the term “new atheism” is mostly used by Christian debaters and apologists. Atheism has a loooooong history and over thousands of years of progress, we’ve been chipping away at the god-of-the-gaps. I’m not convinced there is really any major uprising that can’t be contributed simply to better education and the internet (as fuel for intercultural awareness).

Steven Olsen:

Epicurious would be proud at how we’ve been able to refine the arguments of the ancients and augment them with our own.

David T:

Dave, you are right as so far as there is no “new atheism” since there really is no way to upgrade “without a belief in a deity”, but the new atheist movement is the “better education and the internet” you referred to. Minorities are often controlled by isolation. Now that our numbers know they are not alone (Out Campaign, AA’s efforts, etc.) we can stand together for actionable change.


I agree completely, David. I do acknowledge the “new atheist *movement*”, just not “New Atheism,” like it’s somehow different from the atheism “practiced” by atheists going back 2600 years:

There is definitely a new, impassioned interest in atheist activism starting around 2005 with the Four Horsemen (or, arguably, going back to Carl Sagan & Dawkins in the ’70s & ’80s… or was it Bertrand Russell in the ’20s… or was it Robert Ingersoll…?) lol


My point is that, in a sentence, there is an unbroken chain of atheist philosopher-scientists going back 2,600 years, but the “New Atheism” refers not to any kind of new set of ideas or even approaches, but rather to the more recent *activism* associated with atheism, now that we don’t have to worry so much about being burned at the stake (and “only” have to deal with things like being discriminated against in public office and other stuff listed in Greta Christina’s “Atheists & Anger” post).

Steven Olsen:

Yeah. I am actually a proponent of using the term though. The press wants to make atheism new and shiny, I say let ‘em.


You could compare it to the gay rights’ movement. It would be a misnomer to call it “New Homosexuality.” Gay people have been around since before there were homo sapiens. Gay people today are no different than gay people 50 or 100 or 100 years ago except that they can now (arguably) feel safe coming out of the closet. The “new” part is simply the activism associated with it – activism for rights, activism against bullying, and activism against discrimination.

It’s standing up for rights; there is actually nothing new about the gay aspect itself at all. Same with atheism. The only part that changes between “old” and “new” is that, using media, the internet, etc, we are better able to show people the true horrors of the discrimination, and make people aware of the fact that their straw-man misconceptions of what it means to be gay (or an atheist) are responsible for much of their hatred, and thus shame society into improvement.


I disagree, Steven. I think it’s belittling to the history of atheism, making it seem like it’s a fad. A major reason people give so much “respect” and leeway to Christianity is that it’s hella old. Well, atheism is older. If you can reframe something as a passing trend, it’s much easier to tear it down. For example, how do you think people would respond to Catholicism if it started in 2005, and already had a reputation of raping children? The only reason they get a legal pass (for now!) is that people see them as an institution, not as a terrifying trend that can be stopped. Which is exactly how they’re trying to paint us – a terrifying trend that can be stopped.

Steven Olsen:

That’s possible. But from all of my experience in journalism, the goal is usually not to push an agenda (unless you are Fox) but rather to be sensationalist. They want you to get excited. So yeah, some will see it as a fad or a dangerous trend. But it can also tap into the enthusiasm that people have for the movement. I guess I’m just saying, sometimes it’s better to work with what they give you than to make a stink about it.


Or we could borrow from feminist terminology and call ourselves third-wave atheists (first wave = the ancients, second wave = the Enlightenment thinkers, third wave = Four Horsemen, Sagan, et al to present)


If you’re not familiar, feminist thought is more-or-less broken up into three “waves,” the most recent of which, Third-Wave feminism, is regarded to have come together around 1980 and continues to the present. Feminism has of course been around a very long time, but it’s useful in certain academic and media circumstances to be able to categorize different era thinkers in this way.

I propose we institute a similar line of thinking for atheist activism. Atheism has, of course, been around as long as religion – longer, in fact. There is indeed nothing “new” about atheism per se. The “new” part is just the methods by which atheist activists are getting ourselves out there and connecting with each other – the internet, social networks, etc. We’re a new generation of atheists, yes, but the atheism itself has a long & respectable history.


So, what do you think about this? How does “Third-Wave atheism” sound as a replacement for quote-unquote “New Atheism”? Looking forward to your thoughts.

- Dave

This post originally appeared on the MUSASHA blog.



About the Author: Dave Muscato

Dave Muscato's photo

Dave Muscato is Vice President of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics (MU SASHA). He has appeared in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, and Entertainment Weekly, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, and Howard Stern. Muscato is a junior at the University of Missouri majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin. Muscato posts updates to the Official SASHA Blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is and he can be reached at




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