'The New Atheism' is the term that has been used to describe the recent surge in books on atheism over the last couple of years. Authors in this genre include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. I’ve read stuff from some of these authors, and I've been feeling, for a while now, slightly uncomfortable with the way in which the New Atheists have exerted themselves in the public sphere.
Alister McGrath, in his historical outline of atheism, The Twilight of Atheism, argues that atheism is ultimately a worldview of fear, a fear of what might happen if religious maniacs were to take over the world. Atheism, he argues, thrives when the church is seen to be privileged, out of touch with the people, and powerful. Although I don't agree with McGrath that fear is the motivation for atheism as a belief, I do think that fear is the motivation for vocal atheism. The recent surge of atheist books, it can be argued, is probably a knee-jerk reaction to the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and in the Islamic world. Like many other individuals, the New Atheists are worried, and their worry is fully justified.
But where the New Atheists have erred, I think, in their approach is that they have alienated themselves from other groups – which include Muslims and Christians alike – who also share the same concerns about religious fundamentalism. I think they have done this by doing two things: first, by presenting the idea that atheism is linked to evolution; and second, by adopting a unbalanced strategy of attack that does not take into consideration the positive attributes of religion and religious living.
In terms of evolution: the creationists have always preached – quite falsely – the idea that evolution and religious belief are incompatible, and that evolution is based on atheism. I believe that Dawkins, in particular, has entrenched this idea by stating, for him at least, that evolution led him to atheism. I often wonder if Dawkins, through other, similar comments, hasn't unwittingly provided the ammunition the creationists need to strengthen their attack on evolution in the political sphere. There are many, many theists who don't regard evolution as threat to their faith, but I wonder how many young, bright theists will decide against pursuing evolution as a career, because they might mistakenly believe that evolution will kill their faith.
In terms of unbalanced attack: the New Atheists have written much on the evils of religion, but they have written little – as far as I have read – on the positive aspects of religious belief. The idea that all of religion is bad is a view that immediately divides the entire religious debate into two camps: those who don't follow evil religion (i.e., the good guys) and those who follow evil religion (i.e., the bad guys). This binary view automatically alienates those theists who exist in the grey area between these two extremes, those theists who share similar values to the New Atheists in terms of respecting democracy, secularism, and civil virtues.
By painting all of religion with the same brush, and by linking atheism with evolution, I think the New Atheists have weakened their position considerably. There is value in a lot of what they say, but I think the tactic they have used of bringing their concerns to the wider world has alienated many who otherwise might be willing to give them a hearing.