Sam Schulman writes at OpinionJournal that the “new atheist” has lost or ignored what made their forebearers interesting, while not adding any new information to the debate.
What is new about the new atheists? It’s not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won’t encounter a single point you didn’t hear in your freshman dormitory. It’s their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote–both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.
There is no such sympathy among the new apostles of atheism–to find it, one has to look to believers. Anyone who has actually taught young people and listened to them knows that it is often the students who come from a trained sectarian background–Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon–who are best at grasping different systems of belief and unbelief. Such students know, at least, what it feels like to have such a system, and can understand those who have very different ones. The new atheists remind me of other students from more “open-minded” homes–rigid, indifferent, puzzled by thought and incapable of sympathy.
The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill. Twenty-first century atheism hasn’t found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent. Here is Sam Harris, for instance, addressing those who wonder if destroying human embryos in the process of stem cell research might be morally dicey: “Your qualms . . . are obscene.”
The atheists say that they are addressing believers. Rationalists all, can they believe that believers would be swayed by such contumely and condescension? They seem instead to be preaching to people exactly like themselves–a remarkably incurious elite.