Well, you know it’s not going to be a good article when it’s found on Newsweek’s goofy “Beliefwatch” section, and it has this kind of inauspicious beginning:
It may not be fair to call what’s happening in the atheist community a backlash, since atheists have always been and continue to be one of the smallest, most derided groups in the country.
Right. And since we’re a minority and we’re derided, why, we must be wrong! Of course, the facts are on the author’s side—we are a minority. We need to grow. I think we’d all admit to that. What’s weird right now is how journalists report it.
In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, only 3 percent of respondents called themselves atheists and only 30 percent said they’d ever vote for an atheist.
Lots of polls have consistently reported that a significant fraction of Christian Americans would never vote for an atheist. That’s interesting, but what’s even more interesting to me is that journalists always bring this matter up in articles about atheism. It fits their stereotype of the untrustworthy atheist. But that’s the wrong place to discuss it! It’s a much more useful factoid to drag out in a discussion of theists—when they’re writing a fluff piece about a church’s piety and purported tolerance, it would be much more interesting to casually mention that “oh, by the way, 30% of this religious community is so intolerant that they wouldn’t vote for an atheist, or a gay man, or any other minority.” When writing about the atheist community, it would be more relevant to quote statistics about atheist representation in politics — a number that hovers somewhere near zero — and how nearly all of them vote for theists.
But no, the point of this article is to portray atheists as weak, untrustworthy, and riven with internal dissension, all the better to dismiss us.
No, 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.
No, this is incorrect. The appeasers have always been with us, and have been dominant for a long, long time. The atheist community has been a splintered mess, mostly ineffective, and the “folks who want to just get along” have pretty much been the majority. What’s happening now is different. The internal conflicts are a side effect of a growing recognition that “just getting along” hasn’t worked at all, and in fact has allowed the country to proceed down a path towards insanity. The writer, Lisa Miller, has it all backwards. This isn’t an old movement splitting in its age. It’s a new movement growing within an old and relatively moribund framework.
Those cracks are what you see when an egg is about to hatch and discard its shell. Complacency is going to be thrown away and replaced with activism.
But of course Miller wouldn’t get this message from the subject of her article: it’s Greg Epstein, who thinks he is the “center” of the controversy when he’s really just those clingy bits of leftover membrane and slime that we have to clean off after our emergence.
At the center of this controversy is the humanist chaplain of Harvard University, a 30-year-old “secular rabbi” named Greg Epstein. In March, in remarks to the Associated Press, Epstein called the popular writers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins “atheist fundamentalists.” He accused the best-selling authors–he now includes Christopher Hitchens among them–of being more interested in polemics, in tearing down and waging war on religion than in doing anything positive; his own responsibility, he says, is to speak out for the positive aspects of disbelief. “My problem with the atheists,” he told NEWSWEEK, “is not that they’re saying God doesn’t exist. What I’m saying is we’ve got to build something.” (Harris calls the term atheist fundamentalist “an empty play on words.”)
Notice a trend here? Epstein is one of those fellows who thinks inventing terse little contradictions is an exercise in profundity. He has turned being an oxymoron into a career.
That last term, “atheist fundamentalist”, is revealing. I’ve never heard anyone use it who wasn’t also exposing themselves as someone who wants atheists to sit down and shut up and “just get along”—people who want atheism to be dead ineffective and irrelevant. Harris and Dawkins are not fundamentalist in any rational sense of the word, and definitely not in the pejorative sense that Epstein uses. The “new atheism” (I don’t like that phrase, either) is about taking a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world — you’ve probably noticed that many of these uppity atheists are coming out of a scientific background — and insisting that they also apply to everything else people do. These principles are a reliance on natural causes and demanding explanations in terms of the real world, with a documentary chain of evidence, that anyone can examine. The virtues are critical thinking, flexibility, openness, verification, and evidence. The sins are dogma, faith, tradition, revelation, superstition, and the supernatural. There is no holy writ, and a central idea is that everything must be open to rational, evidence-based criticism — it’s the opposite of fundamentalism.
Here’s another oxymoron: Epstein claims his role is to “build something.” What has he built lately? The only way he gets any press is by his efforts to tear down the atheists who are trying to build and inspire a coherent community! I think that’s really the point here: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al. aren’t being destructive of anything of value — their goal is to clear away the useless detritus of the supernatural and see human society redirect its efforts productively, towards some genuine progress. The people who fling around terms like “fundamentalist atheists” are defenders of kipple and trash, who uncritically demand protection for the unlovely excrescences of religion because they’re still hobbled by the fear that the priests have inculcated in us — that they are the guardians of morality and goodness, and exposing transubstantiation (or any of their other hallowed myths) as nonsense means we’ll all be turned into murderers and rapists.
Don’t be fooled. Epstein and his ilk are just frightened little fellows trying to find a calm dark safe spot in the shadow of religion. Of course they are worried about anyone who wants to reignite the enlightenment.