Atheists Argue About AP Article April 2, 2007

Atheists Argue About AP Article

A couple days ago, an article discussing the upcoming The New Humanism conference at Harvard circulated through the Associated Press wire. The story was picked up by many papers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian.

This was personally exciting if for no other reason that the Secular Student Alliance that I chair is working together with the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy in promoting the conference (the SSA is sandwiching the main event with our own “activist training” sessions for students). And this is a good deal of exposure.

But not everyone was as excited.

Before writing any more, here’s the first line of the original press release (DOC) sent out by Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein:

A group of renowned Humanists, atheists and agnostics will gather at Harvard in April, to take on an unlikely opponent: atheist “fundamentalists.”

Now, here’s some of what the AP article said:

Among the millions of Americans who don’t believe God exists, there’s a split between people such as Greg Epstein, who holds the partially endowed post of humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and so-called “New Atheists.”

Epstein and other humanists feel their movement is on the verge of explosive growth, but are concerned it will be dragged down by what they see as the militancy of New Atheism.

The most pre-eminent New Atheists include best-selling authors Richard Dawkins, who has called the God of the Old Testament “a psychotic delinquent,” and Sam Harris, who foresees global catastrophe unless faith is renounced. They say religious belief is so harmful it must be defeated and replaced by science and reason.

Epstein calls them “atheist fundamentalists.” He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.

The tone of the New Atheists will only alienate important faith groups whose help is needed to solve the world’s problems, [Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist E.O.] Wilson said.

“I would suggest possibly that while there is use in the critiques by Dawkins and Harris, that they’ve overdone it,” he said.

… Epstein worries the attacks on religion by the New Atheists will keep converts away.

“The philosophy of the future is not going to be one that tries to erase its enemies,” he said. “The future is going to be people coming together from what motivates them.”

Notice the part in bold, because it’s causing a rift among some atheists.

Greg was happy with the story being published, but while promoting the article to his mailing list, he had this to say:

A small quibble with the article in the Times– I did not actually call bestselling authors Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris “atheist fundamentalists.” That part of the story was taken from the press release about our conference… in which Dawkins and Harris are referred to not as “atheist fundamentalists” but as atheist “fundamentalists,” scare quotes intending to denote we know there is a huge difference between Harris and Dawkins– whom I greatly respect but also respectfully disagree on some issues about how to advance Humanism– and actual religious fundamentalists, who can be incalculably worse.

This didn’t stop a small barrage of criticism. Other atheists weren’t only angry and upset about the fundamentalist line (regardless of where the quotes were placed), they were mad about the tone of the piece as a whole.

Austin Cline at wrote this:

Here, Greg Epstein is playing into their hands by using the same [“fundamentalist”] label himself — not because the people he is criticizing have anything “fundamentalist” about them, but simply because he disagrees with their tactics or manner. That’s irresponsible and does serious harm to atheists in America by lending unjustified, unwarranted, and unnecessary credence to theists’ as hominems against atheists.

Greg Epstein hasn’t done anything that has been getting people talking about atheism and atheists in the same way that people like Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett have done. By refusing to play the expected roles of obsequious, submissive atheists, these writers have forced others to take notice of them and what they have to say.

This, I believe, is the critical misstep which Greg Epstein makes: in his position as humanist chaplain, he may be completely justified in saying that it’s more important for him to focus on promoting positive virtues of humanist philosophy rather than criticize their opposites. He is not justified, however, in acting like other atheists, humanists, and skeptics should adopt the same perspective. There can be no humanist philosophy with positive qualities that is worth promoting if there are no humanists willing to forcefully reject, criticize, and condemn things like injustice, violence, bigotry, irrationality, and anti-intellectualism.

Brian Flemming, the man behind the movie The God Who Wasn’t There, had a post titled “Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein wants you to join him, asshole” where he said this:

So you want to unify freethinkers, but you refer to those who state obvious facts plainly as “fundamentalist”?

Good luck with that unity thing, Chaplain Epstein.

The New Humanism organizers actively pitched a story to the media about a conflict within freethought, and suggested the use of the word “fundamentalists” to describe one side right from the start.

It’s the story they asked for.

Ironic quotes or not, Epstein and the conference should apologize for using that word to frame this conflict and suggesting its use to the media.

Greg finally responded to all this earlier this morning by making a post on his own blog. In this case, he writes a letter specifically to Austin Cline (Brian Flemming’s blog doesn’t take comments). The letter is worth reading in its entirety but here is one part of it:

… I believe we have to do our best to be the change we want to see in the world. One of the changes I want to see is, I don’t expect religious people to change overnight and become like me, but I’d like to see them reach out to me in friendship and respect and work with me on that which we have in common, such as the desire not to see the environment go down the sewer. We atheists and Humanists can’t solve that problem alone. In fact, no one single group of human beings can solve any problem alone in the world we live in today. We have to find ways to work with one another, and to see the good in one another. I feel the general spirit of the “New Atheism”… has simply not done nearly enough to offer the kind of respect it would like to see.

Again, you should read the entire post.

We are entering one of the best periods in history to be an atheist and I agree we have Dawkins and Harris (among others) to thank for much of that. Without their in-your-face writing, and the subsequent articles written about their books, people would not be paying this much attention to atheists. And there are still many more books coming out on the subject in the near future, so this heyday is not about to end anytime soon. However, there does also need to be room for those who take a different approach in spreading the atheist word: people who extol cooperation with those of other beliefs and who embrace the more liberal of our religious friends.

To steal a phrase from the Secular Coalition for America’s mission statement, our first focus should be on increasing the “visibility and respectability” of atheism. Once that happens, we can work more on helping more people appreciate logic, reason, and evidence-based thinking. Greg is doing his part by making this upcoming conference happen and he should be commended for that. He of all people appreciates the contributions made by the popular atheist writers and acknowledges what they’ve done for the movement.

[tags]atheist, atheism, The New Humanism, Harvard, Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, Guardian, Secular Student Alliance, Humanist Chaplaincy, Greg Epstein, Humanist, agnostic, fundamentalist, Richard Dawkins, God, Old Testament, Sam Harris, E.O. Wilson, Austin Cline, Brian Flemming, The God Who Wasn’t There, Secular Coalition for America[/tags]

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  • julietrubanathan

    i saw your show with jim in the tbn ,thank you for your veiws about christians and christianity,from now on you will be in our cell group prayer list we will be sincererly praying for you and your work one day God will purchase your soul,
    sister in christ,

  • I was recently accused of being an “atheist fundamentalist” not so long ago by a normally moderate Christian. I tend to agree with Mr. Epstein that Dawkins and Harris do go too far, although I confess that I’ve on past occasions expressed much the same anti-religion rhetoric as Harris and Dawkins have in my blog. Frankly, I think that Harris and Dawkins are doing a disservice to the atheist community in that they give real religious fundamentalists a perfect scapegoat; the Right has long preached against so-called “God-bashing atheist liberals” and now here are two high-visibility atheists attacking the very notion of religion itself. The Right can now point its finger and say “Look, all atheists want to destroy religion!” which, although completely false, would provide a rallying cry for moderates and skeptics among the religious community. I have personally met many religious moderates and I disagree with Harris and Dawkins when they attack moderates on par with their critique of fundamentalism. Moderates and skeptics (ironically) seem to be turned off by atheism precisely when the New Atheists compare them with extremists.

  • Godfree

    The thing I find most notable when watching Harris or Dawkins debate even the most rabid theists is their gentlemanly, measured response to attacks upon themselves. Personally, I think they’ve done a fantastic job of furthering the atheist cause.

    Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Hitchens. But, although he’s often strident, he’s no less accurate in his statements.

    We need them all and this internecine squabbling only serves to weaken us.

  • Mriana

    This true and I rather like all of them, but I like Epstein’s approach too. The thing is, I admire Dawkins’s self-control. I you watch closely when he is being attacked, you can see he is trying HARD to control himself. He did this with Tim Haggard too. Dawkins will grit his teeth and swallow hard before he speaks. I find it a bit amusing, yet at the same time I’m glad he has that control over himself.

  • Maria

    So anyway, back to Harris. My impression is that his objection to moderate believers is based on him wanting a good strong wacking cudgel to hit the looneys with, and the moderates deny him that.

    Actually, I can think of several moderates who would agree with him. But I think they might not take too kindly to him saying they’re “stupid” and providing a cover to the fundies. And frankly, I don’t blame them. As unhappy as I am with organized religion, to make the blanket statement that makes it sound like ALL moderates provide cover to the fundies is ridiculous and stereotypical.

  • julietrubanathan

    To all atheist,
    sirs and madams what is the use of being an atheist, what do you gain by it, only hopelessness and dispair,being a thesist you can depend on the supernatural power and live with some hope and contentment.By beleiving in God we fill the vacant place in our heart, we can lift up our morality be a useful member of the soceity.

  • Mriana

    There is plenty of hope, Julie. We have hope that we can better ourselves and the world. We have hope every morning when we get up. We don’t need a belief in the supernatural to have hope. We have hope that when we die we will leave a good impression on this world and live on in the hearts and minds of others.

    It’s not hopeless, but rather hopeful. We have an inner drive to help make things better in life, among other things. There is no despair contrary to popular belief. It is misinformation to think there is. There is joy, freedom, fulfilment, and contentment. Far more than there is with the oppression, degredation, and control of religion.

  • Godfree

    Perhaps Julie has a point. If one sincerely believes the tooth fairy is about to leave a fortune under one’s pillow such belief must provide a level of joy missing from the less credulous–at least until morning comes.

    To that extent, and likely no more, delusion can provide a finger-hold above the abyss.

  • Moderates and skeptics (ironically) seem to be turned off by atheism precisely when the New Atheists compare them with extremists.


  • There is joy, freedom, fulfilment, and contentment. Far more than there is with the oppression, degredation, and control of religion.

    Mriana, I get the feeling that you are looking in the wrong place for the answer to your personal conflicts. Looking at Dawkins or Myers or any number of others in full lather, Harris to an even greater extent or Hitchens even under alcholic sedation I don’t see any “joy, freedom, fulfilment and contentment. The present day atheist fundamentalism is not in any way about freedom, it’s about bigotry, suppression and propaganda.

    If you want freedom and contentment, I’d suggest you try Buddhist meditation. It’s safely non-theistic so you don’t have to worry about being defiled by believers and it’s quite effective.

  • There’s been a big brouhaha in the secular community over the use of the word “fundamentalist” to describe people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

    I call them fundamentalists for several reasons:
    1. They pretend to knowledge of things about which no knowledge is possible, only belief or non-belief.
    2. They pretend that their personal viewpoint has the status of Truth.
    3. They practice and incite bigotry about those who don’t share that viewpoint and like most fundamentalists they heap hatred on other non-believers who don’t choose to be obnoxious bigots “Neville Chamberlain Atheist” isn’t a term that was invented by liberal religious folk or agnostics.
    4. They are absurdly confident, against all evidence, that their viewpoint will prevail and become controling politcally and socially.

    While I don’t like to upset people who don’t like the term “atheist fundamentalist” that’s no reason to stop telling the truth about these guys.

  • Mriana

    olvlzl, no ism, no ist said,

    June 11, 2007 at 9:56 am

    Mriana, I get the feeling that you are looking in the wrong place for the answer to your personal conflicts. Looking at Dawkins or Myers or any number of others in full lather, Harris to an even greater extent or Hitchens even under alcholic sedation I don’t see any “joy, freedom, fulfilment and contentment. The present day atheist fundamentalism is not in any way about freedom, it’s about bigotry, suppression and propaganda.

    That’s not where I have looked, olvlzl, and no, I’m not looking in the wrong place. I, personally, have found it in the philosophy of Humanism, but not Hutchens, Dawkins, and Harris’s idea of atheism. No, I’m afraid what I know of Humanism is the old school.

    My older son is a Buddhist and I’m not interested. I’m more interested in what Humanism has to offer and I’ve spent years studying it. I am very happy with it and the Humanists I have met along the way.

    Try reading Jeaneane Fowler’s book “Humanism: Beliefs and Practices”. I love her style of writing and she does a really great job of explaining it. I have many other resouces for Humanism too and they are not Harris, Dawkins et al’s brand. My sources are very focused on the human and human needs without being undignifying, which makes me very happy.

  • Mriana

    Besides, olvlzl, aren’t we suppose to kill the Buddha if we see it? I’d rather get it psychological help- sense supposedly if you see it, then it’s not Buddha.

  • Miko

    aren’t we suppose to kill the Buddha if we see it? I’d rather get it psychological help- sense supposedly if you see it, then it’s not Buddha.

    As I understand it, that argument is intended to remind people that the Buddha shouldn’t be deified. Various traditions do this to various extents, with some basically making the Buddha into an Indian version of Jesus, which is problematic since it makes Buddhism into just-another-savior-cult. It’s intentionally hyperbolic language, since people have a tendency to deify whatever’s at hand unless they constantly remind themselves not to. As the Buddha said, “Though much he recites the Sacred Texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who counts others’ kine. He has no share in the fruits of the Holy life. Though little he recites the Sacred Texts, but acts in accordance with the teaching, forsaking lust, hatred and ignorance, truly knowing, with mind well freed, clinging to naught here and hereafter, he shares the fruits of the Holy life.” Buddhism is more focused on the individual and on individual action than on any other religion I know of and as such focused on results more than reasons. There’s good evidence that meditation does have certain mental benefits; whether you believe that you’re passing through four jhanas en route to a state of abhigna is beside the point.

  • Mriana

    I never could relax to meditate. While it maybe healthy, I find it is silly for me- I end up laughing. I find relaxation in other things- thinking/pondering, helping others, reading, enjoying the company of my cats, listening to music (with or without mental imagry), or just enjoying life.

    No, my son and everyone else who likes Buddhaism can have it, but it’s not for me. I’ll stick with Humanism thank you- which is exactly what I tell my son too when he encourages me to give Buddhism a try. I’m just not interested.

  • Besides, olvlzl, aren’t we suppose to kill the Buddha if we see it?
    Only if you go Zen. Have you tried mindfulness meditation? I’ve got horrible sinus trouble and couldn’t get anywhere with it until I tried walking meditation. There are all kinds of things about it online. “Mindfulness in Plain English” is available on line, it’s a good place to start.

  • Mriana

    If I get a migraine or sinus headache, I prefer imagry- I imagine a particular man, like say Chakotay or Sully, is holding me and it helps the pain (along with pain meds and a nice pillow), believe it or not. It can be anyone, not just a TV character.

    That’s the closest thing to meditation that I’m interested in. Meditation bores me. 🙄

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