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With friends like these: Atheists against the New Atheism

In Western countries, there is a long tradition of intellectual critique of religious teachings - going far back into antiquity. This tradition has sometimes thrived, though sometimes it has been suppressed. In any event, twentieth-century Westerners did not lack access to material that disputed the existence of deities and challenged popular religious doctrines.

Consider the 1980s and 1990s, however - the rather recent past. Critiques of religious teachings were available but not especially fashionable and not highly visible.

Mostly, they were tucked away in academic books and journals, in material published by what we can think of broadly as the rationalist movement, or in monographs from relatively small publishers such as Prometheus Books.

This has now changed, and you can pinpoint the exact year when it happened: 2004. That was the year when large trade imprints in English-speaking countries began publishing forthright, unashamed attacks on the truth of religious doctrines and the moral pretensions of churches and sects. Since then, some of the most prominent books, such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, have sold millions of copies.

In November 2006, journalist Gary Wolf published a piece in Wired magazine under the title "The Church of the Non-Believers." He dubbed Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett "the New Atheists" and hyped up their hostility to religion, as opposed to mere disagreement with religious doctrines.

The New Atheism thus acquired its label, though the main thing that had changed was the reading public's hunger for such material.

That hunger continues, and with it there is a vibe of people organising under the banner of atheism. For whatever reasons, large numbers of us seem to be fed up with religion, and we're not afraid to say so.

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