Live-blogging Reasonfest: Greg Epstein

The contents of this post represent the opinions of JT Eberhard, not the Secular Student Alliance.

And we’re off with Greg Epstein.

Starts off talking about how groups now are more defined by what they do and what they don’t believe than what they don’t.  But we’ve always been defined by that.  We support reason, therefore we must necessarily oppose the forces which produce unreason.  On this planet it’s the institution of religion that is reason’s most threatening foe.

Talking now about the necessity of producing a community for humanists.  What will it take, he asks us, to grow our numbers like never before.  Will let you know how he proposes to do it.

He’s talking about growing pre-existing community groups like those on  He wants a systematic approach.

This doesn’t seem like a terribly revolutionary thought.  Community groups can already affiliate with the Center for Inquiry, American Humanist Association, and American Atheists.

Oh boy!  He just said the question “Do you believe in god?” is a useless and irrelevant question.  No!  Absolutely not!  When you ask somebody opposing gay rights and you ask them why, you can bet the answer’s all-but-certainly about to come back: god.  We must know why people behave a certain way, so we must know what they believe that drives those actions so we can try and change those beliefs.

Epstein says, instead, that it’s more important what people believe about god.  For this I’ll let Greta Christina rebut.

Now he’s talking about being young and realizing the world was full of people of different traditions.  We have no problem with traditions, but we also realize that traditions can be tied to some very wonky beliefs about the operation of the universe.  We should not eschew the expectation that people be reasonable simply because irrationality is bound to a particular tradition.

He’s talking about how he went to the East to study Buddhism and learned that people were generally not terribly serious about their beliefs.  He says that those people generally view their religious documents as human opinion and myth.  He drops the point there, but it bears pointing out that lots of religious people really do believe what they profess to believe in and that it results in opposition to gay rights, planes flown into buildings, Rick Santorum/Rick Perry being taken seriously, and other injustices and travesties.

Brings up the negative version of the golden rule: Don’t do unto others what you would not have done to you.  He then notes that it’s not “Do unto others what god says.”  Well, yes.  If a very large group of people globally didn’t abide by the latter then noting the difference would be very reassuring.

When we say that we’re good without god, Epstein would like the focus to be on the good, not the without god.  Unfortunately this is not the problem.  The truth is that we’re not merely good without god, we’re better without god.  We’re better without god because we’re better without irrationality, and religion pulls people into irrationality like a whirlpool.  It’s not merely about whether people believe in god or not, it’s about whether or not they are abiding by their moral obligation to try and be reasonable.  Religious people typically fail that obligation.


About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Ani Sharmin

    Brings up the negative version of the golden rule: Don’t do unto others what you would not have done to you. He then notes that it’s not “Do unto others what god says.” Well, yes. If a very large group of people globally didn’t abide by the latter then noting the difference would be very reassuring.

    I can’t help noticing that, because lots of people have come up with something similar to the Golden Rule, it must be something we can all comprehend, regardless of religion. Unfortunately, when it is attached to religion, people use their belief in God to determine what exactly those things are which they should consider doing or not doing to others.

    Thanks very much for the live blogging!

  • Markita Lynda—-Happy Year of the Dragon

    The law of empathy: Do as you would be done by. Don’t do to others what hurts you.

    The law of justice: Be done by as you did.

  • iknklast

    I’m afraid he didn’t do too well on my question about people who actually experience the reality of living with people who really did believe their religion. It really isn’t about whether he considers my experience valid; I don’t care if he considers my experience valid or not. I think he short changes all the people who do in fact believe in their religion, and for whom religion is about God – and Jesus. These people aren’t going along thinking about community, they’re thinking about afterlife, sitting by the hand of God, and avoiding hell. That makes them dangerous, because it is much more than just getting together for a bit of comaraderie, share a cup of coffee, and ladle soup into bowls in the soup kitchen.

    in LA last year, I asked Robert Wright if someone “doing good” in the name of religion, such as working in a soup kitchen, would be an acceptable trade off if that same person went home and beat their kids black and blue in the name of the same god. Would that be net good? Wright said yes, the trade off would be worth it. I wonder if Epstein would have been able to see the ugly behind the community?

    My experience from a fundamentalist family is that the feeling my family got was one of being part of a community that could feel superior to other communities, and create great distress for those that didn’t conform.

    I would worry if we tried to emulate the community form of religion that in time we would emulate them in other ways – forced conformity, rigidity, and fear of dissent. I already see that in some places in nominally freethought communities, so I suspect the vision Epstein has would turn out to be a nightmare in the end. Far better we remain in the loose communities, without the ritual and the weekly meetings.

    • Persephone

      I was not satisfied with his answer either. It felt like he could not actually identify with the hellish situation you describe, so soft-pedaled out the bit about experiences being valid.

    • James Croft

      I recognize the fears you’ve articulated regarding the potential toxicity of these sorts of communities – it’s something we take very seriously at the Humanist Community Project. We think the best way to avoid the dangers you outline is to be conscious about the design of our communities, and research the conformity dynamics which produce undesirable outcomes. It is certainly true that most communities do not turn into the sorts of nightmare you describe, and that includes countless religious communities. It is also true that many secular aims will not be achieved through loose associations – just look at our current inability to defend secular government.

      We believe we have the capability to build communities dedicated to Humanist values – reason, compassion, hope – that do not degenerate, and that help us achieve movement goals. We rely on the evidence and, while we take legitimate fears like yours into consideration, we choose not to be ruled by them.