Nostalgia for the “old atheism”

Hemant Mehta has an interesting find today: it’s more proof that the atheists of old were no friendlier than the gnus of today to the religious establishments of their time. In fact, it’s the kind of refrain one hears a lot these days. The “new atheists” are in-your-face, rude, militant, nasty, overreacting…you get the picture. You might even begin to think that atheists weren’t ever like that before (assuming this is even true), that they were mild-mannered, accomodating and – yes – perhaps even a bit melancholy that they lacked the “gift of faith.” The Italian film director Nanni Moretti said that very thing just last night on television while promoting his new film, Habemus Papam. There went my dinner, all over the screen.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of unbelief knows that our predecessors in atheism were rarely such a sad-faced bunch. Names like Robert G. Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, Baron d’Holbach and many more were completely fine with their atheism. And they were pretty much as outspoken as Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers is today, only they lacked the immediacy of Twitter to broadcast their message. Technology may be the only difference worth noting between then and now.

So the next time you hear nostalgia for the “old atheism”, inquire what is meant. You’ll likely find that your interlocutor is: a) unaware of the history of atheism; or, b) just spouting nonsense. Or both.