Sam Harris. Richard Dawkins. Christopher Hitchens. Daniel Dennett.
A surge of criticism of religion's role in society and the nature of religious belief itself has arisen in the last several years.
Many critics have derisively termed the authors of these criticisms and their supports as "New Atheists".
What is the "New Atheism"? And why does anyone care? Is it a category which actually is meaningful and significant, or a rhetorical device used to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes and to shut down conversation about religion and humanity's interactions with religion, especially conversation which condemns religion?
Most people would agree that atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods.
However, this does not mean that there is not greater significance to the recent emphasis by atheists to increase visibility of our existence in the public sphere (of athiests) and also to increase exposure to religious criticism in the public sphere.
To determine why this is significant, let's examine what religion is. How do we define religion through the context of our own lives and in the context of our societies? How is this important, and why should anyone care?
Why should religion be criticized in public societies? Isn't religion just a personal choice, an expression of personal values? Why should atheists criticize other people's personal beliefs? Isn't this cruel and needless stigmatization?
Such an analysis of atheists' criticism of religion is sorely misguided and does not accurately characterize the intricate series of relationships between individuals, societies, and religions.
Religion is more than personal choice; it is more often a societal and even a political construct. Throughout human history, religion has been invoked as one of many ties which bind tribes, polities, and social categories of all kinds. With changes in leadership, have come changes in the religious practices encouraged and incentivized by the state.
As a belief, as a state (or states) of mind, and as a practice, religions are invariably linked with their respective cultures. Religion is not only a political experience, but a cultural one as well.
Without the context of our societies and the groups in which we associate, how would any of us resolve our identities as human beings in this modern age?
Some critics have charged that the "New Atheism" is overly politicized. Religion has always been politicized. Any criticism of religion is essentially a political criticism. Religion is just one more imagined community, constructed in the mold of the nation-state and the social club.
Religion is shot through with power and politicking. The Pope is elected. Ayatollahs control the nation of Iran. The ceremonial head of state in the United Kingdom is also the head of the Anglican church.
"New atheism" may not be a new message or a new strategy at all. However, the public campaign for increased critical thinking about religion and skepticism is a political fight.
Did the Ayatollahs descend from the heavens? Did Pope Benedict XVI come down from the Mount of Olives? Did Queen Elizabeth II's mother receive frankincense in the manger?
I personally believe that most atheists' criticism of religion is not a criticism of personal expression -- rather, I believe that it is a criticism of the social and political construct, the established order which is modern religion, which is in turn enabled by poor critical thinking and a deficit of skepticism.