Newsweek Reports on Atheist “Controversy”

Lisa Miller of Newsweek is reporting in the upcoming issue that there’s a controversy brewing in the atheist community.

… what’s happening in the “atheist, humanist, freethinkers” community is more like what happens to any ideological or political group as it matures: the hard-liners knock heads with the folks who want to just get along, and the cracks are beginning to show.

The article focuses on Harvard’s Humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein, and the (misquoted) comment he made way back when referring to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. as “atheist fundamentalists.”

This was sort of news back in early April (my posting is here), when the whole issue blew up in the blogosphere. But after several criticisms of Epstein by bloggers and atheist leaders, and several attempts by Epstein to explain what he meant, it looked like it was all taken care of.

When the Harvard Humanist conference finally happened in late April, it all looked like water under the bridge. No one that I spoke to at the conference even mentioned the topic. It was old news. And while there were some minor criticisms of the conference, they had nothing to do with the “fundamentalist” comments and the conference was considered by most to be an overall success.

Then, a Washington Post article came out a couple weeks ago and the controversy started up again:

Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein went so far as to use the (other) f-word in describing his unbelieving brethren.

“At times they’ve made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism,” Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. “What we need now is a voice that says, ‘That is not all there is to atheism.’ ”

(Dammit, Greg. You’re not helping those of us who support what you do.)

Still, his point was clear. There need to be atheists who can communicate more powerfully about what we do believe in rather than what we don’t believe in.

“My problem with the atheists,” [Epstein] told NEWSWEEK, “is not that they’re saying God doesn’t exist. What I’m saying is we’ve got to build something.”

Touché. The problem is that a lot of atheists aren’t convinced we need to build something until the old building has been demolished first. But these don’t have to be separate events. We can do them at the same time.

Some atheists believe it should be the bestselling authors (who already have the mics and loudspeakers) who should be advocating the positive aspects of atheism. Personally, I think that message can come from anywhere. If it’s good, it will spread. The “marquee” names of atheism are doing plenty in trying to explain why religious beliefs should not be taken seriously; we can’t rely on them to do everything. Believe it or not, there are other atheists out there, in leadership roles, who can spread a positive message.

As E.O. Wilson said of religious people in the Post’s article:

“[They] are more likely to pay attention to that hand of friendship offered to them . . . than to have suggested to them, let us say, Richard Dawkins’s ‘The God Delusion,’ which sets out to carpet-bomb all religion.”

Jeff Nall, whom I respect greatly, gets some space in the Newsweek article as well. He agrees wholeheartedly with Epstein:

“The polemicists are interested in nothing more than selling,” says Jeff Nall, a peace activist and grad student in Brevard County, Fla., who wrote a piece on this issue for The Humanist magazine. “The danger is in this ridiculous star status—they’re seen as representative of the broader atheist community.”

I’d like to think there’s more to the atheist authors than just caring about the numbers of books sold… But I do agree that it’s a problem to pin all of atheism’s hopes for the future on a few guys who have written popular books.

This wouldn’t be a controversy if there were more atheists (and atheist organizations) who were spreading the positive message about what atheism offers. It’s not enough to do it once or to have one link on a website that explains as much.

Every time there is media coverage, we need to be speaking about what atheism has to offer, not just what religion gets wrong.

(On a side note, anyone else surprised that Newsweek’s poll said only 3% of respondents called themselves atheists? That number seems remarkably lower than I expected.)

[tags]atheist, atheism, Lisa Miller, Newsweek, humanist, freethinker, Harvard, Greg Epstein, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, atheist fundamentalists, Washington Post, The God Delusion, Jeff Nall[/tags]

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