New Atheists Punks

The lovely and talented Greg Laden makes an admirable effort to make the “so-called New Atheists”[1] out to be totally punk:

The new atheist response to being told to quiet down is to point out that being told to quiet down (or be more civil or follow certain rules) is step one (or two) in a series of steps that the established religio-normative culture routinely uses to end the argument and let things get back to what they think is normal.

No one likes to be told to shut up. And, to be fair to Greg, he is primarily describing the way “so-called New Atheists” feel, not saying that this represents some objective reality. The rest of the post includes an excellent discussion of the beneficial diversity of opinions and approaches.

The “so-called New Atheists” may think that “The Man” is trying to keep them down when they tell them that their approach is distracting or ineffective. “The Man” may indeed be trying to keep them down and protect the status quo. Alternatively, their may actually be distracting or ineffective.

Being “punk” is not just about the iconic, physical trappings like loud music, leather, and mohawks. It is about challenging arbitrary and repressive authority. These displays are one way to challenge those norms, but not the only way to create change.

It is an error to conflate people who actively work against change with those who desire change, but are not convinced that your preferred methods are efficacious or have a somewhat different list of priorities (e.g., the NCSE).

If we want to maintain the illusion that we are rational and scientific, then it is incumbent on the “so-called New Atheist” to provide evidence that the null hypothesis (methods are ineffective)[2] can be rejected. As Michael McRae of The Tribal Scientist, suggests, such evidence still seems to be missing:

In short, what we understand to be ‘New Atheism’ has all the heat and anger of science but little of the rigor or mutual respect. And it claims to be defending it.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. . .Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

Similarly, there is a difference between being “punk” and just liking loud music, leather, and mohawks. Are you fighting the power or fighting reason?


  1. Is it just me or does appending “so-called” to a label strongly signal that everyone finally knows who should be labeled that way?
  2. A claim of no effect is the simpler and, therefore, preferable hypothesis. Thus the use of “ineffective”. Claiming that the methods are harmful would also involve presenting evidence to disprove the null hypothesis of no effect.

Author: Josh Witten

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