Monday, April 9, 2007

The fundamentalist atheist flap

If you missed it, a story a couple weeks ago that went out with the AP news wire quoted the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, Greg Epstein, as suggesting that the leaders of what are becoming known as the New Atheists were akin to atheist fundamentalists. His basic premise is one that has been debated by many, including other humanists, specifically the tone and language directed towards religion in the books, columns and interviews given by folks like Sam Harris sounds a little too much like the righteous indignation spouted by their fundamentalist counterparts on the "religious side". To take the analogy a little further, the message of the New Atheists can appear at first glance like the same kind prophetic ideology to which Dawkins, Dennet and others are objecting, with Reason as the almighty. (And how many of you just skipped right past the hedge-words I so carefully inserted?)

One objection to this label is that fundamentalists are supposed to be intolerant and close-minded, and dang it, by default, if you are an atheist you are not closed-minded. You are concerned only with reason and evidence, so you must be fair and impartial. (That is an interesting discussion, but basically yes, you can be a close-minded atheist who purports to be otherwise but whose criteria for changing one's view is set in such limited and unlikely terms as to make any open and honest inquiry impossible.) Now, I have personally run into (and have been previously labeled as one among many) truly open-minded atheists and those atheists who, quite honestly, really and truly do resemble their extremist religious counterparts in as much as they are all too happy to see other points of views as threats and those who hold them as enemies. They show contempt and intolerance for those who don't share their convictions. Fortunately the number of this latter type of atheist I have encountered so far are extremely rare, and even in these instances their view of religious people is one of political enemies, not a call for violence. Far more often, the rude kind are generally annoyed at the violence and anti-progressive attitudes perpetuated in the name of religion, or they were personally involved at some point in some fundamentalist church, or, for some (and again a tiny minority), they just enjoy being elitist and arrogant. Naturally, those three categories are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. And then, of course, there are the millions of non-theists (atheists, agnostics, etc) who are not really bitter or rude about religion, but who are nonetheless concerned with all forms of political and religious extremism and the effects of such dangers for *all* of humanity, including those inciting anger and division.

So, then, what about the "big three" of New Atheism? Are they really akin to fundamentalist atheists? Epstein has apparently decided they are not, and has since explained his choice of words in describing his frustration with their rude attitude (and perhaps lack of context and background for any meaningful comparative religious critique). But that hasn't stopped the angry emails and blog replies, which according to Epstein have included referring to him as an Uncle Tom because he does not decry the existence of or people's participation in religion while simultaneously speaking out against the tone of others who "lack belief" in a God. I seem to also recall one blog which summed up the incident by saying that Epstein is a moron, end of story.

There seems to be a lot of talking past one another in this flap, but that isn't surprising since that has been going on for years in such debates. The fact remains, though, that if you are an atheist writing about the faults you perceive in religion, there is going to be a suspicion among many (including your potential audience, unless you are satisfied simply turning a profit while preaching to the choir) that you just "hate" God, or have some personal hang-up over religion, which is going to harm the credibility of your critique. To actually come out and make blanket assertions in an acerbic tone against people of faith may get you in the news and sell books, but what does it do for the message? Why should those already skeptical of your motives look past those remarks to see if there is something of substance in your work?

I am not suggesting one has to be timid, but there is more to this issue than has been trivialized in the media and the blogosphere. By all means, stand up against ignorance and intolerance, but always be careful to mind your own faults. I cannot tell you how often I have run across people online who are proud to declare their atheism, but they themselves are ignorant and to some degree intolerant! I am reminded of the saying that before you criticize someone else's position, you should be able to state it to their satisfaction. And yet how many people who want to defend the intellectual heritage of atheism simply say (likely a less sophisticated version of the following) - "Religion is just fairy tails and wishful thinking, unfounded in reason and unsupported by evidence, hence as a rational person I simply dismiss all religion and anything invoking or celebrating sacred traditions." And that's it.

But that isn't it. At least not if you want to have a meaningful part in the discussion. Ideas about the nature of existence are not limited to simple dichotomies. Theology, religion, and spirituality don't fit neatly in the lines. The issue of whether there is an anthropomorphic Creator Being who engages in miraculous interventions, has a political agenda, and judges whether our consciousness persist or not after death (and if so in either in paradise or damnation), is not the sum of religion. As I've previously written:

Religion is the mediation of cultural knowledge and spiritual awareness, but it is typically identified by association with certain descriptive features, such as:

  • involves ceremonies commemorating/sanctioning events like birth, marriage, death
  • involves belief in supernaturalism
  • involves a code of conduct
  • involves a belief about what happens when our bodies die
  • involves belief in a God
  • involves a meatphysical explanation of the universe
  • involves a set of beliefs about the purpose or meaning of life
  • involves a set of beliefs that are poorly supported by generally accepted factual knowledge
  • involves a set of beliefs that are strongly supported by generally accepted factual knowledge

Depending on who you ask, some combination of these features are either necessary or sufficient to deem a particular institution or group a religion. Part of the rejection of religion from certain atheists comes from bias towards one or more of these features, which are often taken to be representative of virtually all religions. This includes a need to try to malign or discredit practices associated with religion, such as meditation, prayer, use of religious symbols, etc.

This list was not meant to be exhaustive, but I think it does help to illustrate a fraction of the complexity of what is often put together under the umbrella term "religion". The point isn't to try to get atheists to be religious (but that wouldn't hurt either). Rather, it is to ask that if one is going to engage in such dialog, one should be as informed and open-minded as possible in order to make useful and productive contributions, not just more haughty dismissiveness. Those who continue to produce more heat and smoke than actual light are culpable in perpetuating harmful stereotypes about nontheists, not just those who deliberately malign them.


  1. Very interesting post I think you have hit on several key issues with it and I myself seem to be thinking along the same lines these days.



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