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The rise of the 'New Atheists'

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- If you'd wanted to write a holiday season bestseller this year, your best bet would have been to write dieting guide or a self-help book.

Failing that, an impassioned denunciation of the existence of God and the dangers of organized religion should have done the trick.

With his latest book "The God Delusion" currently sitting comfortably among's top sellers and on both the New York Times and the UK's Sunday Times bestseller lists, Richard Dawkins will no doubt appreciate the irony of friends and families exchanging copies on Christmas Day.

But the Oxford University professor, who made his name as a passionate apostle of Darwinian evolutionary theory in the 1970s with "The Selfish Gene," is merely the loudest and most notorious voice among a group of thinkers and writers who make up a movement dubbed the "New Atheism."

Others include Sam Harris, author of another bestseller "Letter to a Christian Nation" which explores the influence of Christian fundamentalism on U.S. President George W. Bush, philosopher Daniel Dennett and columnist Christopher Hitchens, who is set to join the fray next year with his latest work, "God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion."

What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.

"We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can't disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster," says Dawkins. "But, like those other fantasies that we can't disprove, we can say that God is very, very improbable."

Their tone is overtly confrontational rather than gently persuasive. Harris talks of exerting so much pressure that it becomes "too embarrassing" to believe in God, while Dawkins describes the U.S. as living in a "theocratic Dark Age."

But while the New Atheists may be loud, outspoken and popular reading matter among the sort of book buyers who use Amazon or read the New York Times, is there any evidence to suggest they are doing anything more than preaching to the (non-) converted?

In fact, the vehemence of their arguments can largely be understood as a frustrated backlash against a religious revival that is still gathering pace, especially in the U.S.

An ICM poll in 2004 found that 91 percent of Americans believed in the supernatural, 74 percent believed in an afterlife and 71 percent said they were willing to die for their beliefs. Research by the University of Minnesota this year also identified atheists as the U.S.'s "most distrusted minority."

"The reason these books are proving popular is that religion is becoming center stage," said Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society. "In the last five years, in terms of the influence of religion, the gas has been turned up breathtakingly. People are starting to react against this."

In recent years religious ideas have increasingly impinged on public life in ways unacceptable to New Atheist rationalism, from arguments over the teaching of "intelligent design" in schools to gay marriage and restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

Meanwhile the hijacking of Islam as an ideological underpinning for al Qaeda terror attacks and suicide bombings has only served to further underpin atheist arguments blaming religion for the world's ills.

But more bad news for atheists is contained in an article by demographer Eric Kaufman in this month's Prospect magazine.

Kaufman argues that the world's religious population is increasing after a century of gradual decline as younger generations in the developing world reject secularization. He also points out that religious people enjoy an unassailable demographic advantage over non-believers by having more children.

Even Western Europe, which contains some of the most secular societies on earth, will be affected by a growing tide of religiosity due to immigration from the Muslim world, predicts Kaufman.

"By the mid-21st century, the peak of secular European politics will be long past," writes Kaufman. "As in America, politicians will need to stay on the right side of religious sentiment to ensure they are not outflanked by their opponents."

Ultimately then, the all-out assault waged by Dawkins and his fellow travelers against the forces of superstition and irrationalism may be thwarted as much by birth rates as beliefs.

In an interview published in this month's Wired magazine, Dawkins estimated the number of non-religious people in the U.S. to be around 30 million and compared atheists' struggle for recognition as equivalent to previous campaigns by other minority groups.

"I think we're in the same position the gay movement was in a few decades ago," said Dawkins. "There was a need for people to come out. The more people who came out, the more people who had the courage to come out. I think that's the case with atheists. They are more numerous than anybody realizes."


Leader of the new atheists? Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins: "God is very, very improbable."

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