Back in the mid to late 1990's, I was active on the Usenet newsgroup alt.atheism. Those were good times. We talked about all kinds of stuff, from ethics and morality to politics, economics, and metaphysics, with the occasional fundamentalist providing enough entertainment to keep things cheerful. Lately, all that stuff has popped up in the mainstream, under the label of New Atheism. Much of what gets said about it appears to be either complete nonsense, or based on significant misunderstandings, or at least confusion between any of a number of concepts.
So who, or what, are we dealing with, exactly, when we talk about New Atheism or New Atheists?
First off, we need to make a few distinctions. Lower-case-A atheism is not the same thing as the loose collection of somewhat like-minded individuals that fall under the New Atheist label. Plain ol' atheism simply denotes a lack of belief or disbelief in a personal god or gods (theos). Any number of people with any number of belief systems are atheists, and any number of conceptual systems, from mathematics to physics, are atheistic as well, even if many people who use them, aren't.
New Atheism isn't a philosophical movement as much as an activist one. It's a reaction to a number of societal problems that revolve around religion in general and some religions in particular. While individual New Atheists can range in philosophical and political views from Objectivists to Marxists, and everything in between, they do share a narrow but identifiable agenda that comes with the identity.
The special privileges of religion should be abolished. We have stuff like state churches and tax exemptions for religious organizations. If you run a business and fire someone because you find out he's gay, you're liable to be sued for discrimination, except if you're a religious group whose religion forbids homosexuality. New Atheists hold that religious organizations should be treated the same way as any other associations or businesses; that religious views should not give you a free pass to do—or avoid—something that you'd otherwise have to deal with.
Religious speech should be treated no differently from other speech. The concept of blasphemy gives religious concepts special protection against criticism or mockery: while it's entirely acceptable to make a no-holds-barred attack, complete with mockery, imprecations, moral opprobrium, and what not on Marxism or libertarianism or Tea-Party-ism or Liberalism, it's not acceptable to make the same kind of attack on religions—at least not some religions. (In the USA, for example, Christianity and Judaism clearly enjoy a more favored status than, say, Islam or Hinduism.)
Public morality, ethics, and laws should be based on reasoned argument. Arguments from authority, tradition, or the bandwagon, or other logical fallacies, should have no place in public speech. Instead, ethics, morality, and laws should be based on open and explicit rational argumentation and debate.
Religious education has no place in schools. If religious matters are taught at all, they should be taught as comparative religion studies, in the context of social sciences or history. Instead, schools should teach children to think rationally, to understand the basics of the scientific, rationalist worldview, and to learn enough skills and knowledge to be able to navigate the masses of information our society is bombarded with.
And that's about it, really. Individual New Atheists will hold a huge variety of different views on any number of other political issues, but this is about as far as any shared agenda goes—a frontal attack on the special position of religion in society and thought. New Atheism doesn't really make any claims about the nature of the Universe; the theory of evolution doesn't have any special place in its conceptual apparatus, other than being talked about a lot because religious fundamentalists, especially in the USA, try to stop schools from teaching it. Individual New Atheists will certainly have ideas on these topics, but they won't always agree on them. What they have in common is a shared perception of what needs doing vis à vis religion. New Atheism isn't a philosophy; it's an in-your-face attitude about religion and believers. Back on alt.atheism, we called it BAAWA—Bad Ass Atheists With Attitude.
Incidentally, I'll gladly support any of these causes.
However, things get a little bit more thorny once you delve below this activist surface, to find out what kinds of values drive the agenda. They also get a lot more complicated, because things start to diverge quickly between individual New Atheists. Nevertheless, I think we can identify a few ideas that most New Atheists would probably agree that they support.
Religion today is a net negative. While most New Atheists will admit that religions have resulted in good things as well as bad ones, either as relative improvements to the social situation where they arose (e.g. the way Islam gave women legal status as individuals, such as the right to own and dispose of property), or as enduring cultural artifacts (e.g. the religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach), they argue that in today's world they are holding back society (e.g. the way Islam defines a woman's property rights as half a man's).
"Moderate" believers are enablers for dangerous fanatics. By providing cover to religious irrationalism, nonfundamentalist Christians or Muslims are complicit in the offenses of fundamentalists, whether we're talking about gay-bashing televangelists or suicide-bombing Al Qaeda terrorists.
Religion is nothing more or less than a set of (flawed) propositions and behaviors accepted on faith. These propositions include statements about the nature of the universe, ethical imperatives, values, and rituals. The physical and metaphysical claims have been superseded by scientific discoveries, the ethical imperatives and values are based on nothing but irrational belief in authority, and the rituals are merely "mind viruses" set up to replicate themselves.
People are, or should be, fundamentally rational. People behave irrationally because of the irrational values and behavior patterns transmitted to them by society, in particular by religions. Should these pernicious influences be removed, people will naturally start to behave rationally, and most of society's woes will go away. If a problem cannot be solved by reason, it is insoluble.
The world ends at Wittgenstein 7. If something can't be defined or verified, it's as good as non-existent and therefore not worth talking about.
This is where I part ways with New Atheists. Human reason is powerful, but it's not unlimited. Conceptualized thinking—"discriminating thought" in Buddhist terms—by definition excludes direct experience. We can talk about the color red all we want, but ultimately we have no way of knowing whether your experience of red is anything like my experience of red. Just because something isn't tractable by reason doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or isn't important; in fact, I believe that the things that really matter fall in this category. For them, we leave the realm of reason, and enter the realm of music, poetry, art—and religion. While individual New Atheists will certainly have ideas about music, they'll no longer have these ideas qua New Atheists. With that stuff, they become just another guy with an opinion.
Moderate believers aren't mere enablers for fanatics; they're our best hope for keeping the fanatics from taking over. As the world becomes more globalized, there won't be such a thing as a religious majority. That means that the best way for any believer to protect her freedom to practice her religion is a society that doesn't take sides among religions. A secular state is in everybody's best interest, except the fanatics'. By explicitly alienating their biggest potential ally in the struggle for such a state, New Atheists are doing their cause a huge disservice.
The tragic irony of New Atheism is that while they start out with an entirely laudable goal—that of putting religion on the same footing as any other human activity—they so often overshoot it. They fall into exactly the same trap as the one they're trying to dismantle, and end up treating religion not like football or opera or Lady Gaga or libertarianism, but as something altogether different. The only difference is that they treat it as different and nastier, while the status quo treats it as different and better. I don't think religion is fundamentally any different from any of the other stuff we do. It's all just stuff, and it all has its flip side. Football is great for keeping fit, making friends, and being entertained and excited, but it also gives you hooligans, fixed games, corrupt gambling, and what have you. Religion can be deeply meaningful in ways that go beyond words, or it can lead you to throwing rocks, or worse, at people who believe differently.
They don't quite get what religion is, or can be, either. That's probably because so many of them either have had no deep personal contact with a living religion, or they hail from a fundamentalist background that really does match their caricature of Bible-thumping, hellfire-throwing, obscurantist fanaticism. Shame, really.