The Nonbelievers in Boston Globe Magazine

In today’s Boston Globe Magazine, you can read David Abel‘s cover story on “The Nonbelievers” (you may have to register with the newspaper to read it).

I had a bad feeling about it when I saw the cover… it misrepresents atheists right off the bat with the headline “There is no God” (a phrase atheists do not — at least, should not — use. Rather, we say “we don’t believe in God,” which is very different):

***Update***: The Boston Globe ended up using a different magazine cover than the one I mentioned above. In fact, the actual headline read: “Do You Believe in God?” (Which is perfectly fine.) They had posted the incorrect version of the cover on their website last night, which caused the confusion on my part. The actual cover is show below instead of the one I originally posted:

Globe_Revised

The focus is on Greg Epstein (in picture below), Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain. Though it seems to me like the reporter wanted to write about atheism, used Epstein as the Boston focal point, and exaggerated the “controversy” (see below) which is really just caused by a few very vocal atheists.

Still, the description of Epstein and what he does is very positive:

… after delivering a homily that might have been heard on a Sunday morning, [Epstein] explains the contradictions of his role. “I have a religious personality, without a scintilla of religious belief,” he says. “If it’s an oxymoron to believe that people who have ceased to believe in God still need caring and community, then I’m proud to be a walking oxymoron.”

Epstein

Soon, we turn to the “fundamentalist” controversy:

… unlike other humanists, many of whom argue that acceptance of even moderate views about religion legitimizes religious extremists, Epstein is more ecumenical in his atheism. He has even sparked controversy by criticizing more militant, religion-bashing atheists – in a press release promoting a conference on humanism last spring, his office referred to that group as “fundamentalists.” His goal is to prod nonbelievers to go beyond denouncing religion and denying the existence of God; he wants them to focus on what they value, what unites such a disparate array of people and views. “Life can be lonely, challenging, and we need community,” he says. “We do want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

But Epstein’s vision and criticism of fellow atheists has angered some of the very people he wants to unite. R. Joseph Hoffmann, a senior vice president at the Center for Inquiry , argues that Epstein has “abused” his links to Harvard “as a shortcut to the legitimacy he craves.”

In a letter that has made rounds in the blogosphere since last spring, Hoffmann wrote: “If the word spiritual works, they wear it; but if they need to spin things in a secular direction to win friends and influence people, they spin away like sodden spiders. This is Gen-X humanism for the Passionately Confused, and owes almost nothing to philosophy, intellectual commitment, or serious political involvement. It’s about bringing people to the table because eating together is always nice. Family-time, yes?”

The letter added: “What makes Epstein special is his determination to turn his role into that of World Leader of the New Humanism, using the Harvard name as a whip to bring recalcitrant or struggling humanist groups into his new order.”

In response to his critics, Epstein – who speaks softly and has a gentle, rabbinical way about him – says the “fundamentalist” label was misinterpreted but that he has no intention of curtailing his efforts to promote a more communal humanism. “I’m proud to say I want and need to be part of a supportive community. Sadly, this can stir up the emotions of a few atheists who have been wounded by religion and want to distance themselves from it. . . . It’s true that religion has done some terrible, irrational things, but the key question for a humanist isn’t ‘Who am I angry at?’ It’s ‘How can I make this world a better place?’ ”

Of the the bright spots to the piece is that it mentions a wide variety of atheists and atheist organizations.

For example, the Secular Student Alliance gets a shout-out:

Students on college campuses and others have begun to organize nonbelievers. The number of campus groups affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance, for example, has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years, to more than 80 groups, says August E. Brunsman IV, executive director of the Albany, New York-based alliance.

“We need to get visible and let people know that we’re much more like [believers] than different from them,” Brunsman says. “By banding together under the umbrella of nontheism, we can show the country that we are a sizable part of the population, and we can show closeted nontheists that they are not alone.”

Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America is quoted as well:

Five years ago, to try to change the low opinion many Americans have of atheists (a national Gallup poll this year found more than half of those surveyed would not vote for an atheist for president), a group of four organizations started the Secular Coalition for America. Now, the coalition employs a full-time lobbyist in Washington, regularly issues press releases about everything from stem cell research to religious language used by politicians, and represents eight national organizations with more than 25,000 members, more than a third from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Lori Lipman Brown, the coalition’s director, acknowledges they have a long way to go in a country where, polls show, two-thirds of the population still believes in God. But the venom she used to hear has faded.

“When I’m on right-wing radio or Christian radio, I no longer hear people say as much that I’m immoral or liable to commit murder,” she says. “Now, it seems, they acknowledge it’s possible that I could be a good person.”

Along the way, Rebecca Watson, Zach Bos, Brian Flemming, Bryan Pesta, D.J. Grothe, and others are also mentioned.

It’s one of the most prominent articles on atheism I’ve ever seen that didn’t focus solely on the bestselling authors. It was about the people who directly affect the atheist “movement” in their own way — and will lead the cause for atheism in the future. Yes, there will be disagreements about which groups/people have the best vision of atheism in the future, but that sort of conversation doesn’t happen unless the Tipping Point for atheism becoming mainstream is fast approaching. More disagreements mean there are more of us out there, who don’t believe in God, and who want to see non-religiosity become commonplace.

As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. We atheists are all in a better position when articles like these are published.

***Update*** The article is the Most Emailed Story on the Globe’s website today (click below for larger image):

MostEmailed




[tags]atheist, atheism, humanist, humanism[/tags]

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

    Greg Epstein seems like a nice guy, a better bet than the atheist fundamentalists if wider acceptance is the goal. He seems to have attracted some jealousy from the fundamentalists so he will probably be under increased attack from them, which will diminish his effectiveness and not do the cause of wider acceptance for atheists in general any good. That is if the realistic goal of wider acceptance is the goal. It clearly isn’t of some.

    It’s a pretty good article for the Globe Magazine, which has seen better days. They average about one good article a month these days.

  • http://raphael.doxos.com Huw

    Hmm. The response to Greg by “fundamentalists” seems rather a LOT like (ok, nearly verbatim) the response of the Boomer Christians to the “Emergent Church” movement.

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  • PrimateIR

    It seems that even the atheist community is rife with individuals eager to abdicate the burden of thinking. Epstien is a shrewd opportunist filling a niche.

    I loved this

    In a letter that has made rounds in the blogosphere since last spring, Hoffmann wrote: “If the word spiritual works, they wear it; but if they need to spin things in a secular direction to win friends and influence people, they spin away like sodden spiders. This is Gen-X humanism for the Passionately Confused, and owes almost nothing to philosophy, intellectual commitment, or serious political involvement. It’s about bringing people to the table because eating together is always nice. Family-time, yes?”

    Hermant, I disagreed strongly with this.

    I had a bad feeling about it when I saw the cover… it misrepresents atheists right off the bat with the headline “There is no God” (a phrase atheists do not — at least, should not — use. Rather, we say “we don’t believe in God,” which is very different):

    The day I hear a Christian demonstrate some basic courtesy by using the phrase “The God I believe in.” instead of just “God,” is the day I will stop saying that there is no God.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    The day I hear a Christian demonstrate some basic courtesy by using the phrase “The God I believe in.” instead of just “God,” is the day I will stop saying that there is no God.

    Why: how is being confusing and overreaching a good antidote to someone else being arrogant?

  • PrimateIR

    Bad, how is stating my position as a fact any different than a Christian stating their position as a fact. It is EXACTLY the same offense.

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  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    Bad, how is stating my position as a fact any different than a Christian stating their position as a fact. It is EXACTLY the same offense.

    That’s exactly the point: it isn’t different. It’s hypocritical. In addition to being incorrect as even you yourself seem to agree. What’s the point of that? Just to stick a finger in someone’s eye?

  • PrimateIR

    Its you who is being the hypocrite Bad. Originally you stated that they were only being ‘confusing and overreaching’, so why is it that you don’t think that I am being anything other ‘confusing and overreaching.’

    It seems you have one set of standards for theists and another for atheists.

    Its shocking to hear an atheist openly describe their position as fact. Its shocking because for decades, centuries, it hasn’t been done and the shock of it brings to light the theists faux pas in a way the courtesy has been unable to achieve.

    In short it is effective.

  • PrimateIR

    Bad – a better question would be – Isn’t expecting change from behavior that has been ineffective for millenia the definition of insane?

    Uncle Tom ism is impudent…but your probably correct in thinking it will get you some Christian play.

  • miller

    If “Humanism” means having a bunch of quasi-religious traditions, that might appeal to some people, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I didn’t even like all that stuff before I deconverted. I hardly feel united under Humanism.

  • Miko

    The day I hear a Christian demonstrate some basic courtesy by using the phrase “The God I believe in.”

    I’ve heard them use that phrase, but it’s usually in the context of attacking other Christians (“The god that you believe in isn’t the God that I believe in.”).

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Its you who is being the hypocrite Bad. Originally you stated that they were only being ‘confusing and overreaching’, so why is it that you don’t think that I am being anything other ‘confusing and overreaching.’

    I’m not sure you understand what the word hypocrite means, because I don’t see how you think it applies to me here.

    Its shocking to hear an atheist openly describe their position as fact. Its shocking because for decades, centuries, it hasn’t been done and the shock of it brings to light the theists faux pas in a way the courtesy has been unable to achieve.

    So, when a scientist tries to explain evolution, they should feel free to be shocking even at the expense of being accurate? Should we flat out misstate science, just because creationists do?

    It has nothing to do with courtesy. Be as blunt about things as you like. But the whole point of being blunt is to be honest. And I just don’t get why being inaccurate works out to some sort of sensible “ha ha” payback, or what the purpose of that is. It might be more effective at getting people to hear you in the way that screaming is more effective… but it’s more effective at spreading the wrong message.

    Worse, it’s their message: that non-believers are people with faith in absolute propositions, that we are inconsistently rational, and so on, are all things that theists have always tried to claim about us. Agreeing with their slander hardly seems to be a winning idea.

    Isn’t expecting change from behavior that has been ineffective for millenia the definition of insane?

    I guess it would be… if that argument made a lick of sense. Nothing anyone is doing or saying these days is something that has been going on for millenia. Nor is the argument “I’ve tried punching through this brick wall for years and it hasn’t budged: I think I’ll start banging my head against it next!” a very compelling one.

  • PrimateIR

    How are you a hypocrit? I was very clear

    Originally you stated that they were only being ‘confusing and overreaching’, so why is it that you don’t think that I am being anything other ‘confusing and overreaching.’

    What does science have to do with this. We are talking about manners and daily interaction. Tell you what Bad. Bring us one Christian that will demonstrate courtesy by consistently using the phrase “The God that I beleive in.” and who has been brought to heal via the power of your boot licking and I will stand corrected.

    Nothing anyone is doing or saying these days is something that has been going on for millenia.

    Four shockingly title best sellers say you have it wrong junior. You’re late to the game and taking your “friendly position” as the new paisley.

  • Darryl

    PrimateIR, your tactic is only effective as anything but a jab if the Christian toward whom it is directed understands what you’re implying by saying “there is no god.” Without this understanding, they take away just what Bad has said, the idea that the stereotype of atheists that they have been spoon-fed is accurate: atheists are arrogant, irrational people who violate their own scientism because they claim to know what they cannot prove or know, that there is no God.

    Furthermore, pointing out to the Christian that your precise choice of words is intended to counter their presumptiousness likely does little practical good. You’re not going to change their beliefs. If this is the case, then, in effect, Bad is correct; you’re just taunting them.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    No, you were not clear, and still aren’t. In fact, your quoted section isn’t even intelligible grammatically, so how am I supposed to know what you are trying to say?

    Again, it has nothing to do with courtesy: it has to do with accuracy. I could care less what Christians do, or even, really, what you do. But you haven’t presented a coherent justification as to why simply agreeing with fundamentalist stereotypes about atheists somehow advances the cause.

    Not particularly interested in bringing anyone to heel either. Is that what you’re after, perchance?

    Four shockingly title best sellers say you have it wrong junior.

    Er, how? How does that even respond to anything I said?

    Reminder: when you try to make arguments, you need to string together some thoughts in a logical, intelligible manner so that someone can follow your train of thought, and figure out why you think any given point has any relevance as a response.

  • Mriana

    Greg is a Religious Humanist. Nothing wrong with that. He’s still an atheist and a Humanist. Some of the people I admired are Religious Humanists- ie Spong, Don Cupitt, Anthony Freeman, shoot, I’d are say Bob Price is too (Given he loves the Bible, calls himself an atheist/Humanist, and attends the Episcopal Church), but he might disagree.

    … after delivering a homily that might have been heard on a Sunday morning, [Epstein] explains the contradictions of his role. “I have a religious personality, without a scintilla of religious belief,” he says. “If it’s an oxymoron to believe that people who have ceased to believe in God still need caring and community, then I’m proud to be a walking oxymoron.”

    No more of an oxymoron than Spong et al, only he’s Jewish. So he toes the line and fits profile in the research paper I wrote this weekend about some Religious Humanists still using the Humanist Manifesto II and the manifestos in general. I don’t know that he does for sure, but he sounds like he does. Regardless, I think his attitude will win more people over than the more radical atheists. JMO though.

    I think the difference (and the issue) is CSH v AHA. They take different views on such things and the AHA ordains Humanists ministers. I don’t see that on CSH. However, I also learned a little something from my research and how the CSH came about, but it wasn’t important to my paper. So, I discarded it.

  • Claire

    Its shocking to hear an atheist openly describe their position as fact.

    And that is exactly why we need to keep saying there is no god. Religious people need to hear it, not just from pundits and celebrities but from the people they meet every day, and they need to keep hearing it until it isn’t shocking any more. People will accustom themselves to anything they hear often enough (hence advertising), and when the day comes that Joe Public can hear “there is no god” and not have a hissy fit, we will be a lot closer to acceptance.

    It’s not about convincing anyone, it’s a way of becoming visible. As long as we are hidden, the religious types can say any horrible thing about us and never see an example to the contrary. That community that religious people share, that some of the unaffiliated envy so much, and wish they could have, the community that Epstein wants to provide, it’s not always a good thing. It’s also a way of insulating yourselves by spending most of your time surrounded by those who agree with you. I have seen it said here and elsewhere that people who think they don’t know any atheists are wrong, they just don’t know who they are, but I would be willing to bet that a lot of the very religious truly don’t, simply because their whole community is their church.

    Being visible is the first step. It worked for the gay community, another favorite target for the religious, and it can work for us. Get out there, be outrageous, take a risk or two, and the next thing you know maybe we’ll have a “Will and Grace” of our own and be popular and loved.

    Ok, not holding my breath for that one…. But still, the amount of acceptance they have gained in the last ten years is impressive, and they didn’t do it by being shy, self-effacing, and apologetic.

    And “I don’t believe” just isn’t strong enough to get the job done. It implies that it’s just me, it’s what I think, feel free to ignore it. “There is no god” puts it out there – there are people in this world who completely disagree with the centerpiece of your beliefs, and they are all around. Get used to it.

  • Jen

    And “I don’t believe” just isn’t strong enough to get the job done. It implies that it’s just me, it’s what I think, feel free to ignore it. “There is no god” puts it out there – there are people in this world who completely disagree with the centerpiece of your beliefs, and they are all around. Get used to it.

    And how is saying “there is no god” and making a fact out of it, any less dogmatic than saying “there is a god” and insisting that is fact?

  • Mriana

    :lol: Some people are still getting use to hearing, “God is a human concept.” That gets people riled down here.

  • http://paxnortona.notfrisco2.com Joel Sax

    I think Epstein has a good point: if you read many atheist blogs, there is a lot of talk about what is wrong about religion (and some of it just plain wrong such as the claim that religion is the root of all wars) and very little about the humanist vision.

    While it is important to address the misconceptions of Creationism, for example, it is key to express where you intend to take the world. If you don’t know, then you must think and venture ideas.

    Here’s a question: are atheists/agnostics necessarily humanists?

  • Mriana

    No, Joel, not all atheists are Humanists.

  • http://www.saintgasoline.com Saint Gasoline

    Why is it we should not say “There is no God”?

    When I see no evidence of food in my fridge (unfortunately), I often remark, “There is no food.” Should I not say this for some reason? Is it because I cannot prove a negative? Well, if you want to get technical, you can’t prove a positive, either–so long as you are utilizing empirical facts as your premises, there is always room for doubt. Or is it because this is somehow offensive to people who really, really want there to be food in there? I’m confused.

  • http://www.saintgasoline.com Saint Gasoline

    I don’t like the idea of making atheism into a quasi-religious construct. I also don’t believe in unicorns, but that doesn’t mean I feel the need to create “caring and community” to unite others who disbelieve in unicorns.

    Here’s the problem with Greg’s stance–he wants to create a “union” between theists and nontheists, but he is apparently ignorant to the cause of the schism. It makes absolutely no sense to identify as an atheist if one is not making a stand against a particular brand of theism. This is why, obviousl, there are no people identifying themselves as “a-unicornists”. Frankly, it isn’t necessary, because people who DO believe in unicorns are not a threat to the way of life of those who do not.

    Atheism is ultimately a retaliation against various sorts of theism. Granted, there is a big distinction between a liberal christian and a fundamentalist–but the strongest weapon against fundamentalism is to simply show that their “God” most likely does not exist. The fact that this criticism also applies to religious moderates is a shame, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. In the end, what distinguishes moderates from fundamentalists is their moral sentiments, and it simply will not do to have atheists bickering over morality, which is a pretty huge leap away from the very issue that made us atheists in the first place–the lacking evidence of God’s existence! So let’s all stop arguing about which brand of religion is the most “evil” or “bad”. Something can be evil and true. We need to focus on the simple fact that it is NOT TRUE. Whether it is good or bad hardly matters after that.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    It’s not about convincing anyone, it’s a way of becoming visible.

    I’m already plenty visible. And I don’t need to make myself into a liar to remain so. In my case, that’s what I would be if I ran around yelling that there is no God. That’s intellectually sloppy and misleading.

    It’s also a way of insulating yourselves by spending most of your time surrounded by those who agree with you.

    That might make for good therapy, but it’s not very healthy in the long run.

    But still, the amount of acceptance they have gained in the last ten years is impressive, and they didn’t do it by being shy, self-effacing, and apologetic.

    Again, this is a complete false dilemma. Nothing about being blunt and outspoken and provocative requires one to claims things that aren’t so.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Why is it we should not say “There is no God”?

    If you think there is no God, then you are going to end up having to prove it, which is not only going to be near impossible, but also completely unnecessary. If you merely reject the claims about there being a God, no burden of proof falls on you in the first place.

    When I see no evidence of food in my fridge (unfortunately), I often remark, “There is no food.” Should I not say this for some reason?

    Comparing the existence truth value of a discrete object in a known space to god claims is ridiculously inapt. God claims are “cleverly” different from situations like the one you describe: that doesn’t, as theists think, make them stronger, but it does mean that you have to deal with them in a different way.

    Is it because I cannot prove a negative?

    If you couldn’t prove a negative, then you couldn’t prove that you couldn’t. :)

    Well, if you want to get technical, you can’t prove a positive, either–so long as you are utilizing empirical facts as your premises, there is always room for doubt.

    So… isn’t empiricism great? Why just throw it out the window then?

    Or is it because this is somehow offensive to people who really, really want there to be food in there? I’m confused.

    No, it’s because of what’s intellectually supportable, and what’s overreaching. God claims aren’t like refrigerator claims: they are ultimately more like brain in jar claims. Their absurdity is in their untestability and, ironically, in their lack of imagination.

  • Mriana

    What he is doing doesn’t bother me. I’ve gotten use to it, esp coming from Religious Humanists. I really don’t see what the problem is, esp if makes for better relations. I see those like Epstein and Spong the bridge between the secular and the religious.

    BTW, if you study the Humanist Manifesto, you will find that the Religious Humanists have been involved in all 3 of them (excluding the 2000, which is exclusively Secular). Religious Humanists ministers signed all 3 of them and while they are non-theists they still have cultural ties and what have you to religion, yet they are atheists.

  • ash

    boss…? BOSS!!! those damn cats are refusing to stand still in a group again!

  • Maria

    I liked the article and Epstein’s approach


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