Posted on Sun, Apr. 01, 2007
Atheists divided in their disbeliefs
Some humanists worry that “fundamentalists” will hurt the movement with their belligerence.
By JAY LINDSAY
The Associated Press
BOSTON | Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant — for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it.
Who is leveling these accusations? Other atheists.
Among the millions of Americans who don’t believe that God exists, there is a split between people such as Greg Epstein, who holds the partly endowed post of humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and “New Atheists.”
Epstein and other humanists think that their movement is on the verge of explosive growth, but they are concerned that 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 and Sam Harris.
Dawkins has called the God of the Old Testament “a psychotic delinquent.” Harris foresees global catastrophe unless faith is renounced. Religious belief is so harmful that it must be defeated and replaced by science and reason, they say.
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 have the most obvious differences.
Next month, as Harvard celebrates the 30th anniversary of its humanist chaplaincy — part of the school’s chaplaincy corps — Epstein will use the occasion to provide a counterpoint to the New Atheists.
“Humanism is not about erasing religion,” he said. “It’s an embracing philosophy.”
In general, humanism rejects supernaturalism, while stressing such principles as dignity of the individual, equality and social justice. Humanists believe that if there is no God to help humanity, people better do the work.
The celebration of a “New Humanism” will emphasize diversity within the movement. It will include E.O. Wilson, a humanist who has sought to team with evangelical Christians to fight global warming.
Part of the New Humanism, Wilson said, is “an invitation to a common search for morally based action in areas agreement can be reached in.”
Wilson said the tone of the New Atheists will only alienate important faith groups whose help is needed to solve the world’s problems.
“I would suggest possibly that while there is use in the critiques by Dawkins and Harris, that they’ve overdone it,” Wilson said.
Harris, the author of Letter to a Christian Nation, sees the disagreement as overblown. Harris said he thinks there is room for multiple arguments in the debate between scientific rationalism and religious dogmatism.
“I don’t think everyone needs to take as uncompromising a stance as I have against faith,” he said.
But, he added, an intellectual intolerance of people who strongly believe things on bad evidence is just “basic human sanity.”
“We do not jail people for being stupid, but we do stop listening to them after a while,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Harris also rejected the term “atheist fundamentalist.” He noted that, when it comes to the ancient Greek gods, everyone is an atheist and no one is asked to justify that to pagans who want to believe in Zeus.
“Likewise with the God of Abraham,” he said. “There is nothing ‘fundamentalist’ about finding the claims of religious demagogues implausible.”
Dawkins did not respond to requests for comment. He has questioned whether teaching children that they could go to hell is worse in the long term than sexually abusing them, and he compares the evidence of God with evidence for unicorns, fairies and a “flying spaghetti monster.”
Dawkins’ attempt to win converts is clear in The God Delusion, in which he writes of his hope that “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”
A 2006 Baylor University survey estimates about 15 million atheists in the United States.