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 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]

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    I agree with Greg’s perspective, and frankly I don’t think “fundamentalist” is too far off in describing the attitude of these so-called “New Atheists”.

    However, Brian Flemming is right too, if Greg wants to be a unifier, then he probably shouldn’t be using inflammatory terms about other atheists. Hopefully in the future he can find a way to express the same disagreement with people like Dawkins and Harris (and include them in the conversation too) without actually sinking to their level of name calling.

  • QrazyQat

    If this were, say, 1975, I would have a bit more sympathy for someone who used words that would be twisted by religious apologists, but really, is there really anyone with any brains who doesn’t realise that this happens — all the time — by now? Does anyone with any brains not realise this would be a problem before they publish?

  • Jim Henderson

    I agree with Greg’s perspective, and frankly I don’t think “fundamentalist” is too far off in describing the attitude of these so-called “New Atheists”.

    me too (although I realize my vote doesn’t count)

    What I’ve learned from my work among Christians is that the same exact kinds of hairsplitting over words goes on. I’m called a fundamentalist Christian by people who see that as a derogatory word and I just ignore it and go on taking more territory inside their world while they call me names.:-)

    FWIW I think New Atheists could take a page out of our playbook on this one .

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    When Chaplain Epstein raises the awareness of atheists to the degree that Dawkins and Harris has, I will pay attention to his “we all hold hands” methodology.

    I see real results from Dawkins and Harris (several national TV, news, and magazine coverage). I see real moderates converting to atheism as a result of the remarkable visibility.

    When Chaplain Epstein brings atheism to, say, Newsweek, I will pay attention to his strategy. Until then, he should move out of the way of the leaders who will grow the atheist population to significant voting power in this country.

    Dawkins and Harris do not seem fundamentalist to me. They are behaving very calmly and rationally. They see people abusing children and passing harmful legislation, but they rarely raise their voice in anger. Personally, I think they are restrained.

  • Mike J.C.

    I’d like to echo Anthony’s sentiments. While the New Atheists may appear to be “militant” compared to the quiet outrage of other atheist activists, they are far from the extremists we’ve come to think of as “fundamentalists”.

    We have these New Atheists to thank for the renewed interest in atheism and the surge in the atheist movement. If it weren’t for their outspokenness, I have to wonder if Epstein would receive any attention for this humanism conference or if he would even be able to hold a humanism conference .

    The last thing we need right now is a lack of solidarity.

  • http://importreason.wordpress.com Simen

    I think calling them atheist “fundamentalists” is off the mark. While I disagree with some of their opinions and methods, I don’t think that’s the right term. If atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby, I don’t see how anyone could be fundamentalists about that. Atheism, like theism, doesn’t come with any kind of dogma or philosophy to be fundamentalist about.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Atheism, like theism, doesn’t come with any kind of dogma or philosophy to be fundamentalist about.

    I think part of the reason that these “New Atheists” get branded as fundamentalists is that they treat atheism as if it does.

    A fundamentalist, IMHO, is anyone, from any belief system, who seems unwilling to coexist with differing points of view and disrespectful and intolerant of those with whom they disagree. With their anti-religious rhetoric and name-calling, these New Atheists seem to fit that description quite well.

  • Jen

    This whole thing reminds me of feminism’s history. Women prior to the various feminists movements did not speak up for themselves, and they got railroaded over. Once they started to speak up, being, for the most part, very civil and normal, people started to flip out, and the feminists started being refered to as “militant” as well as “hairy-legged” and other insults. As the old saying goes, I am a feminist because I express opinions different than a doormat, and for that I am an “evil feminist out to destroy Christianity and men.”

    Here I am seeing the same thing. For the really first time in history, people are able to not only express but celebrate their atheism. Once everyone else realizes they have a voice, they start labeling them to push down their ideas and mock them.

    Harris and especially Dawkins do not seem to insult Christianity insofar as to mock its members. One can disagree with an idea held without condemning those who believe it. I read the God Delusion from cover to cover, and I still can’t understand half the reviews that came out which insulted Dawkins for daring to speak his mind.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    If feminists started saying that all men are idiots and child abusers then they wouldn’t just be standing up for their own rights, they would be attacking those of others.

    There’s a difference between standing up for yourself and your views, and tearing down those you disagree with.

  • http://atheism.about.com/ Austin Cline

    A fundamentalist, IMHO, is anyone, from any belief system, who seems unwilling to coexist with differing points of view and disrespectful and intolerant of those with whom they disagree.

    The problem is, this doesn’t fit any lexical or scholarly definition of “fundamentalist” — you’re just using the term as an epithet for people you think are behaving badly.

    This doesn’t even describe people who are unquestionably and self-professed fundamentalists. Not every Christian fundamentalist is unwilling to coexist with differing points of view, is disrespectful, or is intolerant of those with whom they disagree. I’ve received a number of emails from fundamentalists who agree with some of the things I write, like about church/state separation.

    Fundamentalism is a particular type of religious movement that can be found in various religious systems — in this, it is analogous to mysticism or pietism. Some fundamentalists are annoying and rude, some non-fundamentalists are annoying and rude. There is nothing about fundamentalism, though, that indicates a person will be annoying and rude.

    Using “fundamentalist” as short-hand for “annoying, rude, obnoxious, intolerant, disrespectful” is no better than using “atheist” as short-hand for “immoral, unethical, intolerant, disrespectful.” It’s wrong when Christians do the latter and it’s wrong with atheists (and some Christains) do the former. Indeed, treating “fundamentalist” in this matter is to engage in precisely the sort of straw man stereotyping which many complain about as an example of the disrespectful behavior of atheists like Harris and Dawkins!

    Fundamentalist is not a epithet. It’s just that simple.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    disrespectful and intolerant of those with whom they disagree

    It is almost tiresome how frequently Dawkins and Harris note that they believe everyone should believe as they wish. They are both seemingly libertarian when it comes to peoples personal beliefs.

    However, they speak up because people are blowing themselves up, ignoring a dying planet, voting for irrational legislation/politicians based on no evidence, and showing their innocent, uncritical children how to perpetuate these destructive ways.

    It is also tiresome how frequently Dawkins and Harris state that they would switch their beliefs in a heartbeat if *any* contradictory evidence was available. Religious fundamentalists will not do this.

    Personally, I think Dawkins and Harris make these politically-correct exceptions far too often. They do not need to excuse themselves for speaking their minds just to make others feel better. But, once again, Dawkins and Harris are largely restrained, polite, and civil.

    I think Jen nailed it. It’s not that Dawkins is a bully. It’s that he is standing up to the bully for the first time.

  • http://atheism.about.com/ Austin Cline

    It is almost tiresome how frequently Dawkins and Harris note that they believe everyone should believe as they wish.

    And yet they keep being accused of being disrespectful and intolerant. Why? Because the people demanding respect and tolerance don’t want mere respect and tolerance — that is to say, to be merely allowed to exist and believe without suppression, discrimination, or penalty. What they really want is deference and reverence. They don’t simply want others to let them believe, they want to hear that they are right and good for having those beliefs.

    They want their beliefs reinforced, even by those who don’t believe. This is, I think, a motive behind many attempts to breach the separation of church and state: people are looking for an official endorsement of their beliefs because it makes them feel better about what they believe. It may be related to how people notice the presence of others driving the same model car they just purchased, or pay closer attention to positive reviews of what they have purchased. People want to be patted on the back and reminded of good their choices, lifestyle, and behavior are.

    Open, unapologetic, and pointed criticism upsets all that.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    They want their beliefs reinforced, even by those who don’t believe.

    I reinforce this conclusion. :-)

    Well said, Mr. Cline.

  • http://atheism.about.com/ Austin Cline

    I reinforce this conclusion.

    Thank you.

    As an example of this, which I failed to remember when I wrote the above comment, consider this passage from Sam Schulman’s editorial attacking “New Atheists” in The Wall Street Journal:

    To read the accounts of the first generation of atheists is profoundly moving. Matthew Arnold wrote of the “eternal note of sadness” sounded when the “Sea of Faith” receded from human life. In one testament after another–George Eliot, Carlyle, Hardy, Darwin himself–the Victorians described the sense of grief they felt when religion goes–and the keen, often pathetic attempts to replace it by love, by art, by good works, by risk-seeking and–fatally–by politics.

    God did not exist, they concluded, but there was no denying that this supposed truth was accompanied by a painful sense of being cut off from human fellowship as well as divine love. To counter it, religious figures developed a new kind of mission–like that of the former unbeliever C.S. Lewis: They could speak to the feeling of longing that unbelief engenders because they understood it–and sympathized not only with atheism’s pain but with the many sensible arguments in its favor.

    What’s so great and “moving” about those early atheists? They were sad about there not being any gods. They felt grief at not believing anymore. They engaged in “pathetic attempts” to replace god and religion. They expressed the “pain” and not being part of the Christian community anymore.

    As I said in my commentary on this editorial: rejecting religion and theism may be bad, but if you tell religious believers that you lament rejecting it all and are depressed over it’s absence in your life, then you may be socially acceptable. In the final analysis, you have to be more depressed and sad than religious believers, which means that religious believers must not only have their egos stroked by you telling them how wonderful their religion is, but must also be able to continue feeling superior to you by watching you wish that you were religious like them.

    If that’s what it takes to be respectful and tolerant, then I’ll be quite happy to be described as disrespectful and intolerant.

  • Jen

    Mike C, you are proving my point. People took ideas in feminism (just try and find someone who understands Andrea Dworkin’s views on sex) and twisted them and then used them against said feminists, to degrade their ideas. I remember in another entry you said you hadn’t read Dawkin’s books- perhaps thats why you are using his idea that pushing religion on children can be child abuse and turning it around to say that atheists think Christians are child abusers.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    However, they speak up because people are blowing themselves up, ignoring a dying planet, voting for irrational legislation/politicians based on no evidence, and showing their innocent, uncritical children how to perpetuate these destructive ways.

    If all they wanted was for people to stop doing these kind of things, then they shouldn’t mind liberal and progressive Christians who do not fit this stereotype of religion. However, they reveal their real agenda when they attack liberal Christians too and call faith of any kind “intellectual child abuse”. We’ve been over this ground already in a previous thread, and most of the atheists here seemed to agree that Harris’ and Dawkins’ real beef was not just with destructive expressions of religion, but with religion in general. They’d be happier if it all just disappeared. Do you deny this?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Mike C, you are proving my point. People took ideas in feminism (just try and find someone who understands Andrea Dworkin’s views on sex) and twisted them and then used them against said feminists, to degrade their ideas. I remember in another entry you said you hadn’t read Dawkin’s books- perhaps thats why you are using his idea that pushing religion on children can be child abuse and turning it around to say that atheists think Christians are child abusers.

    I didn’t say that Jen. I don’t think atheists think Christians are child abusers. I think Dawkins thinks most Christians are child abusers for pushing religion on their children. I have no problem with most atheists, but I do have a problem with atheists who say stuff like this, Dawkins included.

  • http://atheism.about.com/ Austin Cline

    If all they wanted was for people to stop doing these kind of things, then they shouldn’t mind liberal and progressive Christians who do not fit this stereotype of religion.

    This assumes that non-extremists are not in any way complicit in what extremists say and do, and that there is no connection between more liberal and more extreme forms of religion. This assumption is incorrect.

    I agree with Kelton Cobb, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Hartford Seminary:

    Every religion is like a rope, woven from many strands. Christianity is a weave of the teachings of Jesus, the theology of Paul, the neoplatonism of Augustine, Constantine’s conversion, the “Little Flowers” of St. Francis, the iconography of the Copts, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the piety of the Puritans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights movement, Jerry Falwell, and archbishop Romero.

    I don’t like several of these strands, but when I study them I discover that they contain fibers I recognize in my own faith. Inside the racism of the Ku Klux Klan one can find firm beliefs surrounding Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, divine election, God’s sovereignty over all reality, hatred for the devil, absolute faith in the resurrection of Christ, the importance of purity and righteousness, and the lordship of Jesus Christ. The Klan did not come out of thin air; it is a development within Christianity which I abhor, but in calling myself a Christian I am complicit and have to answer for it.

    Liberal, moderate, and progressive believers don’t have the luxury of saying “those extremists have nothing to do with me — if you don’t like what they’re doing, complain to them and leave me out of it.”

    The Kelton Cobbs of Christendom are the ones who can accept some responsibility for the extremists in Christendom, and this means that they are the ones who are most likely to make any progress when it comes to moderating the extremists. The others who refuse to accept any responsibility for extremists in their religions may offer many great arguments for why the extremists are wrong, but they won’t accomplish much. People who cannot accept any responsibility for a problem cannot be counted on to solve that problem.

    Harris’ approach is to argue for ditching the entire religious structure. You may not agree with that approach, but at least it’s an approach that recognizes the connected nature of all points along a religious spectrum. Have you even come up with your own alternative approach? It won’t stand a chance if it ignores that basic insight articulated by Cobb — so long as you treat extremists as something other than genuine and sincere brethren, you’ll get nowhere. And, until you try, you’re not really in any position to complain about Harris’ suggestions.

  • Jen

    I didn’t say that Jen. I don’t think atheists think Christians are child abusers. I think Dawkins thinks most Christians are child abusers for pushing religion on their children. I have no problem with most atheists, but I do have a problem with atheists who say stuff like this, Dawkins included.

    But that is what I am trying to say. You are misunderstanding what Dawkins is saying, and using it against him.

    But you are correct, I read your statement as you thinking this was all atheists who believe this, when in fact it is no atheists.

    Also, I do think that any belief in supernatural theory is damaging to people in general. I think the world would be better without religion. Does this make me a bad person? Why can’t I think this? I am not stopping you in an any way from having your religion, or expressing it. However, I do think that a religionless world would be a better place. Does this mean I have an “agenda” to get rid of religion?

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    They’d be happier if it all just disappeared.

    I have never heard this statement from either of them. I have heard, several times, that they believe people should believe as they wish. And that they see a new way to believe that is based on evidence. Harris especially moves in this direction. Both authors have never advocated any form of thought-policing or abolishment of the 1st amendment. My take is that they advocate for the exact opposite – freedom in the marketplace of ideas, where no subject is taboo. In this place, the morality of carbon emissions and the morality of Paul of Tarsus are fair game.

    Yes, Dawkins and Harris find fault in liberal “tolerant” supernaturalists for the above mentioned world problems. This is because they find supernaturalism to be the cause! They can’t just delineate supernaturalism for the comfort of a liberal supernaturalist. This is especially so when a supernaturalist claims that we cannot debate their ideas out of respect, even when their ideas directly lead a small minority to suicide and murder. In fact, those are the very ideas worthy of debate.

    My overall take-away from Dawkins and Harris is that religion belongs in the marketplace of ideas along with all other ideas: naked, vulnerable, and subject to change.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    Dawkins thinks most Christians are child abusers for pushing religion on their children.

    These are a reasonable, important scientific questions:

    Does pushing children to take philosophical stands on enormously complex questions of cosmology, existence, and sociopolitical controversies before they are able to distinguish Santa Claus from Reality a healthy or abusive action?

    Are children who undergo such a process on indoctrination likely to experience suffering later in life as a result? Are they more likely to inflict suffering on others?

    These are scientific questions. Dawkins and Harris seem to interpret the data as indicating abuse. That’s all that is going on here. If you think they are wrong, then make a scientific argument based on the data that shows your position.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    And by science, I refer to this process:

    http://www.flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=444180867&size=o

  • Pingback: What Is Atheism and Can It Be Extreme? « import Mind.Reason

  • http://www.agnosticatheism.com AgnosticAtheist

    FA,

    I blogged on this subject a couple days ago.

    BTW, your attitude towards Christians and those who disagree w/you are an inspiration.

    aA

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    And by science, I refer to this process:

    http://www.flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=444180867&size=o

    We’ve already deconstructed that ridiculous diagram over at the OTM boards. Rather than repeat that conversation, I’ll just direct you over there.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Also, I do think that any belief in supernatural theory is damaging to people in general. I think the world would be better without religion. Does this make me a bad person? Why can’t I think this? I am not stopping you in an any way from having your religion, or expressing it. However, I do think that a religionless world would be a better place. Does this mean I have an “agenda” to get rid of religion?

    I don’t know, do you? You’re free to believe whatever you like, but yes, if you think that religious belief is “damaging” then that does put you in the same camp as a Dawkins or Harris. What you do about that belief is up to you. If you use that belief to oppress others (whether by words or by legislation), then I think you’ve taken your beliefs too far. (By the way, I’d say the same about religious believers who think that non-belief is damaging and try to use verbal or political force to oppress those who disagree with them.)

    The bottom line in this discussion is that some people (some atheists and many Christians) seem to think that getting everyone to share the same metaphysical beliefs are the most important thing. And thus the goal is to convert others to your point of view and ridicule those who will not convert. In the mind of these folks (I’d call them fundamentalists but your definition may vary) it’s most important to be right.

    I used to think that way. I used to think that the most important thing was to get everyone to agree with my belief in God. And I used to get in people’s face about it, and mock those who believed differently than me. I used a lot of the same tactics and same kind of language that I now see people like Harris and Dawkins and some people on this blog use in defense of atheism.

    But I eventually rejected that approach to my beliefs. I became convinced that (to steal a phrase from Jim Henderson) “it’s more important to be kind than to be right”. Metaphysics aren’t really that important, ethics are. I’m far more interested in building bridges and working together with others for shared ethical goals (like justice for the oppressed, compassion for the poor, care for our environment, equality & respect for the marginalized, etc.), and frankly I don’t care if your metaphysical beliefs match up with mine or not as long as you’re willing to work for love and justice in the world alongside me.

    That being the case, all of a sudden the methods I use become more important. If I think there are much bigger problems in the world than the fact that not everyone agrees with my metaphysics, then I can’t afford to alienate potential allies by insulting them. I can’t waste my time trying to convert them either, unless it’s to try to convert them to the way of love.

    (BTW, I’m not claiming to always do this very well. As I’m sure you all have noticed, I can get my hackles up as much as the next person and spend a lot of time here arguing my point – but know that my goal is not really to “convert” you. I just enjoy the conversation.)

    I’m all for atheists getting more recognition and more respect, and I understand why you might be excited that people like Dawkins and Harris seem to be gaining that for you. But honestly, they’re getting you the wrong kind of attention and creating as many enemies as they are “winning converts” (if that’s important to you). They borrow the negative attitudes and tactics of their fundamentalist enemies (a temptation for any revolutionary movement) and thereby drive a wedge between people who ought to be able to find much in common. That’s why I greatly prefer Hemant’s friendly atheist approach, it’s far more productive for what’s really important.

    Peace,

    -Mike

  • stogoe

    That was a, well, long piece of wordage there, Mike C. But I’m still going to have to echo Anthony Rasmussen’s first post on this thread:

    When Chaplain Epstein raises the awareness of atheists to the degree that Dawkins and Harris has, I will pay attention to his “we all hold hands” methodology.

    Everything else is special pleading.

  • anti-nonsense

    I personally really do believe that religion is on balance damaging to society as a whole. The problem with moderates is that many of them also have a problem with people speaking up about the fact that their religion doesn’t make any logical sense. They are blocking reasonable discourse about religion, this has been going on for a long time now.

    I don’t always agree with Dawkins’ choice of language, but I do agree with what seems to be his overall goal – to get people to stop tiptoeing respectfully around patently ridiculous beliefs and point out that they ARE ridiculous, hopefully separating the beliefs from the believers and not condemning the believers as bad people in the process, which I think Dawkins sometimes fails to do sufficiently, although I don’t think he believes that all religious people are bad people..

  • Stephen

    As already mentioned, there can’t really be such a person as a fundamentalist atheist, since there is no atheist holy dogma, no equivalent of bible, koran or liturgy. If “fundamentalist atheist” means anything at all, then it is someone who is trying to get religious people fired from their jobs, churches closed, and practice of religion prohibited by law. Do you know any such atheists? I do not – but I do know of religious equivalents.

    If “militant atheist” means anything at all, it means someone who throws stones at church-goers and fire-bombs at places of worship. Do you know any such atheists? I do not – but I do know of religious equivalents.

    If you know of better atheist tactics than those used by Dawkins and Harris, then by all means get out there and demonstrate their effectiveness. But to refer to such writers as “fundamentalist” or “militant” is ludicrous exaggeration, not to mention debasement of the English language. People who do so (theists and atheists alike) should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

  • http://atheism.about.com/ Austin Cline

    I became convinced that (to steal a phrase from Jim Henderson) “it’s more important to be kind than to be right”.

    I would rather speak the truth than, by my silence, allow falsehood to continue unchecked out of fear of upsetting those for whom truth has become offensive.

    I don’t care if your metaphysical beliefs match up with mine or not…

    In principle, I agree – if you don’t bring up your metaphysical beliefs, I won’t trouble you with my opinions about those beliefs (how can I, if I don’t know what they are?). As soon as you make them part of the public discourse, though, you can’t justifiably complain about critical comments.

  • Darryl

    First of all, the atheism in question is not a “new” atheism. Polemicists like Dawkins and Harris are simply two recent authors making additions to the body of god-mocking literature that stretches back into antiquity. It’s only the crescendo of fundamentalism in recent history and its attacks upon science (e.g., evolution) that have prompted the reemergence of a more forceful and provocative criticism of religion. When the patient is very sick, and refuses to accept the truth about their condition, the doctor must be blunt.

    Secondly, Christian fundamentalists love to make the fallacious “he-said-she-said” argument. If I say they cannot prove that god exists, they say I cannot prove he doesn’t. If I say they are extreme, they say I am extreme. Somehow they fail to grasp the idea that, absent any proof of god’s existence or means of verification, the burden of proof rests with them, not with me, or other atheists. Somehow they fail to grasp the idea that hating gays and leaving them alone makes them extreme (and immoral) and me egalitarian. Their silly game of name-calling gets them nowhere. They try to bolster their position by establishing an equality among combatants. But, there is no equality between the atheist position as I know it and the religious fundamentalist position. For example, Jesus said “By their fruits you shall know them.” Now, tell me, compare the words and actions of religious fundamentalists with those of the so-called ‘atheist fundamentalists’ and what do you find? Take any fundamentalist that you know or know of and any unsparing atheist that you know or know of—Jerry Falwell and Richard Dawkins would do—and make your comparison. Compare their statements and actions. Compare their mind-sets and attitudes towards peoples, cultures, laws, and institutions in our world. Ask yourself which of these two men you would want as the judge at your trial, the doctor at your bedside, or the President of your country. Once you have answered these questions, hopefully in the affirmative, then ask yourself why the affirmative?

    Thirdly, I take a middle road on the matter. I can cheer Dawkins and Harris because they accurately diagnose the illness, and also take a pragmatic approach to its treatment. Incremental reform of religion is the treatment, provided there is no imminent threat. Dangerous fundamentalists cannot be gently treated. Fundamentalism is a cancer. Unfortunately our patient will not tolerate surgery—our recourse must be to a slower regimen of drug therapy. This controversy is false, a mirage that benefits those who would divide and conquer free-thinking, rational people.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    But I eventually rejected that approach to my beliefs. I became convinced that (to steal a phrase from Jim Henderson) “it’s more important to be kind than to be right”.

    Then stop using the strong arm of government to enforce your metaphysical beliefs! No more bans on research, no more amendments, no more stone tablets in courthouses, no more creationism/ID in schools, no more!

    For the love of god, man – it was christians idea in the first place to create a secular government. Why do the atheists have to defend your own creation? If christians would have remained consistent with their views on government between1776 and today, I don’t think you’d have a ‘New Atheist’ movement to deal with now.

    creating as many enemies as they are “winning converts”

    To take a lesson from my first year marketing class – You don’t become remarkable by being something that everybody likes.

    And Mike… I want to say that I do honor and respect your focus on ‘taking action’ in areas of poverty, injustice, etc. I do believe that theists and atheists can do just about anything together in this context. All of my friends and family are theists and it isn’t an issue. But these christian attacks on science (ID, global warming, stem cells, condoms, etc) via the government have got to stop. And religious ideas can no longer be unnecessarily guarded in the marketplace of ideas, especially those which may lead to suicide or murder.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    Mike C: We’ve already deconstructed that ridiculous diagram over at the OTM boards. Rather than repeat that conversation, I’ll just direct you over there.

    I understand that both naturalists and supernaturalists can use the scientific method.

    But this diagram (although tongue-in-cheek) does reflect how many naturalists view faith.

    Naturalist: “As a mere human, I cannot know anything. But I can take my best guess based on the world as it is.”

    Liberal Supernaturalist: “As a mere human, I cannot know anything. But I can take my best guess based on the world as it is. And God did it.”

    The Liberal Supernaturalist can invoke both their own use of the scientific method and the Naturalist’s use of the scientific method. In both cases, their worldview is confirmed and enhanced.

    But the Naturalist can only invoke their own use of the scientific method. They’ll view the Liberal Supernaturalist’s use as dumbfounding and confusing. “Why add the extra ‘And God did it’ idea at the end?”, they’ll ask. To them, the Supernaturalist is expressing the second side of that diagram.

    Then there is the Traditional Supernaturalist: “God did it! Burn the Naturalist!”

    Mike C: Neither is science quite as pure and Vulcan-like as the diagram portrays – not when you start to figure in things like the need for funding, academic tenure & rivalries, corporate and national interests, inherently subjective realities (like human beings), dominant paradigms, etc.

    Yup. Thankfully scientists study these issues, develop corrective measures, promote scrutiny, and expect debate. There are researchers who have devoted their lives to studying these corrective measures alone.

    Tell me… what are the corrective measures for Pastor Bob’s axiom of God? What contradicting evidence would rule out the hypothesis of the resurrection of Jesus?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Then stop using the strong arm of government to enforce your metaphysical beliefs! No more bans on research, no more amendments, no more stone tablets in courthouses, no more creationism/ID in schools, no more!

    Sorry? When have you ever seen me endorsing any of these practices? You’re again falling into the Sam Harris fallacy of lumping all different types of believers together and trying to blame us all for the actions of the extremists.

    (Do you do that with all people groups? For instance, will you vilify all Muslims for the actions of al Quaeda?)

    I’m afraid I can’t answer for these kind of beliefs or actions, especially when I spend plenty of time arguing against them myself. I can only answer for my own behavior.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Tell me… what are the corrective measures for Pastor Bob’s axiom of God? What contradicting evidence would rule out the hypothesis of the resurrection of Jesus?

    The concepts of religion have undergone revision and correction for centuries. Faith is no more static than science is. (Perhaps you missed that part of my comment over in the OTM discussion. It was right before the part you quoted.)

    How that revision and correction occurs is complicated and comes from many sources and methods, some of which are very similar to the “scientific” process on the left hand side of the diagram. But I don’t have time to get into all the details right now.

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    Sorry? When have you ever seen me endorsing any of these practices?

    When you admitted to being a Christian.

    Please see above posts for how moderates create space for fundamentalists to thrive.

    And again, I honor and respect how we can take action side-by-side on these issues. Theists and atheists can take several actions against injustice together.

    Faith is no more static than science is.

    Sorry, Mike. But that is bull and you know it. Pastor Bob’s axiom of God will never be falsifiable with a supernaturalist. The resurrection of Jesus is here to stay no matter what. These are the right side of the diagram.

    Naturalists can and do change their mind about the very nature of the universe based on evidence. Just by finding a low probability of God or Jesus exemplifies this flexibility. A Supernaturalist cannot compete with a Naturalist on the malleability of ideas. Not by a long shot.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    When you admitted to being a Christian.

    Please see above posts for how moderates create space for fundamentalists to thrive.

    Yeah, I saw that post, and it’s a bunch of bull. But we’ve already been over all this ground in an earlier thread, and I’m not going to waste my time arguing the same point all over again.

    Sorry, Mike. But that is bull and you know it.

    Nope, sorry, I don’t. Try picking up a text on historical theology, or even just on the liberal vs. fundamentalist theological debates of the last century and you’ll see a lot of variation of belief and a lot of change. Personally I’m part of the leadership of a new movement of Christianity called the emerging church that is currently rethinking and reimagining much of the Christian faith – and all that’s just happened in the last decade.

    Sure some will never change, but so what? Others will, and they are the ones to be watching. If you only ever focus on the Pastor Bob’s then I suppose you never will see any change. But try widening your vision a little bit and you’ll notice a much more colorful mosaic of faith than the narrow stereotype you seem insistent on painting.

    Just some friendly advice…

    Pax

  • Anthony Rasmussen

    try widening your vision a little bit

    I’ve debated emerging christians before too. Although, to be honest, those debates tended to be about modernism vs. postmodernism, realism vs. solipsism, quantum physics vs. “What the Bleep Do We Know”.

    I’m actually surprised we went so long on naturalism vs. supernaturalism, rather than address these other dichotomies. My debates with emerging Christians were almost solely in these other arenas. After all, why debate truth when all truth is subjective?

    And yes, I know that my use of “X vs. Y” is a very modernist thing of me to do :)

    The way emerging Christians have described themselves to me, their beliefs are so far progressive, so far postmodernist, and so far interpretivist, that they stretch the common academic definitions of “religion”. Dawkins and Harris are likely barely referring to you when they talk about religion (barely, but still).

    I gotta admit – my arguments break down when I’m met by a postmodernist or solipsist. I don’t know how to debate with a subjective self/co-constructed experience.

    BTW – Here is Dawkins take on postmodernism.

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  • http://www.imagineNOsuperstition.comindevelopment Stephen F. Uhl, Ph.D.

    Be ware of name calling, for the name can be taken out of context so readily. If the term used to describe some of these so-called new atheists were “foundational” or “basic,” rather than fundamentalist, perhaps these forceful and clear thinkers would escape getting tarred by being somehow associated with the popular and destructive fundamentalists of today.

    This whole terminology tempest would quickly settle into appropriate insignificance if the altercants will just take the time to read the foundational, basic, hard-hitting, but tolerant and humorous, little paperback, Imagine No Superstition..

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  • http://www.atheistvolunteers.org Tomcat

    I stand by what Hemant said. And I will go as far as to say I AM a fundamentalist. I am fundamental about truth and the search for it. This does not mean I cannot be compassionate to those who do not agree with me.

  • Godfree

    I think Epstein may be on to something with this call for tolerance, and the christians may be setting the example. They seem to have already stopped burning us.

    Seriously, I understand Epstein’s ironic use of the term “fundamentalist,” but nonetheless its use changes the focus of the debate somewhat and gives ammunition to our detractors. The last thing we need at this point is fragmentation within our own ranks.

  • Jack

    If Dawkins, Harris, and Flemming are considered fundamentalists, then I am quite eager and proud to place myself alongside them.

    To borrow the framework of a quote by the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, and making changes in only two words to suit this particular occasion: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of REASON is no vice. Let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of SECULARISM is no virtue.”

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  • julietrubanathan

    hemat,
    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,
    juliet
    Bahrain

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  • http://the-life-and-times-of-tolerant666.blogspot.com/ Tolerant666

    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.

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  • 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.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

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

    Yup

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    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.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    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.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    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. :roll:

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