New Atheism in Social Media: More than entertaining mockery?

October 19, 2016

New Atheism’s presence in the new media repeatedly takes place in the form of circulating images that ridicule and mock religion. Is there more to such iconoclasm than entertaining satire?

What is new about New Atheism?

New Atheism is characterized by relentless critique and mockery of religion and is hallmarked by a depiction of an absolute cleavage between modernity and religion. Its heritage is scientific atheism, a post Enlightenment movement based on a materialistic worldview, purportedly incompatible with religion. Nowadays it is supplied with evolutionary psychology and neuroscience that identifies religiosity as an evolutionary error; a by-product of human endeavours to attribute agency to nature. In other words, New Atheism’s critique of religion is mainly on an explanative level, which arguably fails at acknowledging the possibility that late modernity identities are constituted by multiple components, such as class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and religion.

While New Atheism largely relates to the natural sciences, the alternative – humanistic atheism – is more affiliated with social sciences and humanities. The key distinction between the humanistic- and scientific atheisms is the former’s emphasis on religion as social phenomenon, while the latter scientifically questioned the possibility of the existence of gods. Humanistic atheism assumes the non-existence of god(s), but does not feel obligated to prove it. Instead, religion is considered an irrational response to social conditions and existential anxiety. The guiding principle of humanistic atheism is social justice, while scientific atheism is more focused on freedom and authority of science and reason, which is believed to generate social progress.

The term “New Atheism” is descriptive and is a label used by journalists and scholars and does not refer to a specific group identity or ideological movement. Thomas Zenk (2013) understands New Atheism as a discursive process in which several authors eventually were labelled ‘New Atheists’. It was in retrospect that certain authors and books were named “The New Atheism” in 2006.

So, what is new about New Atheism? In one way, critics – such as Thomas Zenk  - are right in saying that there is substantially nothing new about New Atheism. In their different ways New Atheism carry longer traditions of scientific and materialistic worldviews of scientists such as Copernicus, Galilei and Darwin, which challenged religious cosmologies. Neither is their militancy and aggressiveness new considering historical attacks on religion by earlier intellectuals e.g. John Most (The God Pestilence, 1887) and Friedrich Nietzsche (The Antichrist, 1888; “Decree against Christianity”, 1888). New Atheism is thus a description of a renewed interest in scientific atheism.

The Four Horsemen of New Atheism

‘New Atheism’ is an umbrella term that is connected to certain authors and publications, later named “The Four Horsemen of New Atheism”, who became known to the public around 2006: Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006), Sam Harris (The End of Faith. Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, 2004; Letter to a Christian Nation, 2006), and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: Religion Poisons Everything, 2007).

These critical thinkers challenge religion as: a dogmatic faith for, undermining reason (Harris), and for promoting conflict. From this perspective interfaith diplomacy is deemed impossible. Furthermore, religiosity is conceptualised as a cognitive category – an attempt to make sense of nature (Dennett). This makes religiosity a research object that is primarily accessible to neuroscience and psychology. In Dennett’s view, such science is halted by an academic protection of religion as a privileged cultural phenomenon rather than a natural one. Dawkins’ critique constructs an absolute antagonism between science (evolution) and religion (creationism/intelligent design). Dawkins perceives religion as dangerous to the extent that he considers religious upbringing as child abuse, which is amongst the attitudes that are reproduced online as per The National Atheist Party’s Facebook post below.

Photo: Screenshot, National Atheist Party’s Facebook Group

Hitchens considers all religions harmful, and calls for a “New Enlightenment” and proclaims that atheist worldviews can sufficiently serve human needs for mystery, awe and ethical guidelines.

Same old story? 

In a sense, New Atheism represents nothing new at all, and base their critique on a positivist belief in an illusion of modernity: By employing rationality and the correct methods one can -  and should - remove religion from all levels of society. New Atheism is thus, in Bruno Latour’s (2010) terminology, an example of a modern cult of factish gods. In my opinion, being a cult of factish gods prevents New Atheism from delivering relevant and contextual criticism of religion. This separates New Atheism from Secular Humanism. While the latter seems more pre-occupied with freedom of belief, New Atheism relentlessly propagates against every aspect of religion. Mockery and sarcasm are important tools of the New Atheism project, which is visible in contemporary iconoclasm in social media. These images are produced and re-produced in social networks, also by some of the key thinkers themselves. Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most active in the new media amongst “The Four Horsemen”. In the entry below he questions the sanity of religious people with the text: Abraham, revered founder of the three “great” monotheistic religions. Quite a role model and the image caption: After he started hearing voices, Abe cut up his genitals and tried to murder his child. Nearly 4 billion people don’t think that sounds crazy.


Photo: Screenshot from Richard Dawkins Twitter account


Atheist sarcasm is not new and has existed since ancient Greece, according to Tim Whitmarsh (2015), and it is an integral part of modern cartoon satire. Contemporary atheism in social networks is predominately covered with mockery of religion. For better or worse, the main purpose seems to raise science above religion with as few words as possible and supported by a certain iconography. Take different Facebook groups for instance, e.g. We Fucking Love Atheism, Atheism and Atheists Against Pseudoscientific Nonsense. Most of the posts are images and captions, wittingly questioning the rationality of religious teaching, imagery and ethics: So Bad So Good ridicule the creation and adhering iconography; Norwegian Heathen Society describes believers as ignorant to science – To lazy to learn science? Not bothered about truth? Need a false feeling of being superior to other people? TRY RELIGION. In the second screenshot from that group, traditional iconography is combined with a strong description of belief as mental illness. The Atheism group essentially states that believers stick their head in the sand to cover up their irrational beliefs.


Photo: Screenshot from Facebook group: So Bad So Good


Photo: Screenshot, Norwegian Heathen Society’s Facebook Group


Photo: Screenshot, Norwegian Heathen Society’s Facebook Group


Photo: Screenshot, Atheism Facebook Group

These posts are not necessarily representations of self-identified New Atheists. Nonetheless, they are relevant because they are examples of how the key arguments of New Atheism are reproduced in the social media.

Many narratives, but no balance

The term “New Atheism” is still useful, because the various actors and networks involved share a common project of modernity and an aim to fight religion with reason. Whether it is based on neuroscience and psychology (Harris and Dennett), or biology (Dawkins), they all depict religion as an irrational weakness, a human error that is theirs to solve. This is reproduced and simplified in the online imagery. The scientific methods behind the criticisms vary, but the end results are more or less the same: religion is reduced to being a cognitive obstacle for human beings and ought to be replaced by science. 

I’m well aware that my characterisation of the images as “simplified” might appear smug and moralistic. And perhaps it is. But the reason for doing so is that there is a lot more to learn from the atheist camp than well-established facts about the natural order of things. If we ought to track back for political and philosophical inspiration, Darwin is perhaps not the most relevant. There is nothing wrong with theories of evolution in the outset, but it is not the best fit for social and political analysis of contemporary society. Not in Europe, or beyond for that matter. The question remains though, if the socio-evolutionary project of New Atheism is core to the one-dimensional discourse I’m addressing here, or if it is a product of social media logics. And by that I’m referring to images, designed for casual amusement on social, which nonetheless carry certain ideological messages. Many of the images are admittedly funny, but what is their potential as critique? Do they enlighten people of faith or are they made for entertainment of a likeminded audience? I suspect the latter, and if I’m right the New Atheist representations online are more likely to socially alienate than liberate people of religion.

Stuck in grand narratives of the past

Within a secular framework, such as contemporary Europe, there is simply no need to challenge neither the factuality of the Bible, nor the iconography that is related to it. I realise that the iconography is made for a giggle, but it also constructs an ultimate incompatibility between religion and science, which I believe is not a de facto challenge for religious people in their everyday life. Regardless of Charles Taylor’s (2007) creative genealogy of the buffered self exclusive humanism, I think his theory of late modernity (secularity 3) is an accurate portrayal of the cognitive state of contemporary civil society. According to Taylor’s theory, we can regard the construct of an absolute dichotomy between science and religion as surplus, due to the fact that a discourse of an immanent frame is solidly established. The iconoclash that is constructed by New Atheism does not resonate with contemporary religiosity: people of faith hardly need to choose between science and religion. Ethics might be religiously inspired, but in order to be reasoned with it is translated to a secular (immanent) framework and articulated in such a manner that it is comprehensive to anyone regardless of their (non)religious orientations.

The New Atheism mockery might be part of an established lingo of social media. The end results are simple messages, which in this case attack religions on explanative terms. I assume that both the proponent of New Atheism’s conviction that science can cure religion, and the format of social contribute to the simplified critique of religion embedded in the iconography. In my view New Atheism promotes an inadequate critique of religion because it reduces religion to hard science and neglects perspectives on religion as multiple cultural phenomena.

The atheist legacy originates from an admirable courage to challenge authority. Atheism in its many variants can perhaps be considered an upheaval against mind control. Challenging authority and promoting independent thought appears to be a driving force for New Atheists too, but their obsession with mockery might end up building walls rather than tearing them down.