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 about.com 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]