High Priest Epstein in Newsweek

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.”)


“Humanist chaplain.”

“Secular rabbi.”

“Atheist fundamentalist.”

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.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007

    Bonus points for using a word from PKD.

  2. #2 Dylan Stafne
    June 14, 2007

    What’s wrong with “humanist chaplain”?

    I think it takes all types for secularism to be successful. We need certainly need vocal critics presenting withering attacks on religion, but at the same time I think more moderate–non-radical, “appeaser” atheists–can be helpful. As long as they don’t hide the fact that they’re atheists, these atheists who aren’t outwardly hostile to all religion might help the “image” of atheists as regular people.

    I’m not criticizing Dawkins, etc… for blasting god-belief. We need them, and people like them. But moderates–again, as long as they’re not afraid to call themselves atheists openly–aren’t too bad.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007

    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.

    “The New Atheism” was coined by Gary Wolf in Wired Magazine, wasn’t it? November 2006, if I and Google are not mistaken. (All right, some god-botherer named Robert Morey wrote a book called The New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom back in 1994, but I don’t think anybody read it.)

    A while back, I suggested that the term “fundamentalist atheist” (and trivial grammatical variations thereupon) be made the target of a new Godwin-esque Law. I guess nobody listened. :-(

  4. #4 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007

    Oops, here’s a description of my proposal.

  5. #5 Brownian
    June 14, 2007

    Thank the Lords of Kobol for the militant fundamentalist atheists. I’d suggest the most important contribution Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens are making with their outspokenness is that they provide an example to all the closet atheists and agnostics who go to church and mouth along to the hymns because they think they’re the only ones for whom religion makes no sense. In effect, they say ‘Come on out of the darkness. It’ll be OK. Trust us.”

    How is that not a positive contribution?

    Try rereading the following with my edits:

    He accused the most outspoken activists–he now includes Susan B Anthony among them–of being more interested in polemics, in tearing down and waging war on sexism than in doing anything positive; his own responsibility, he says, is to speak out for the positive aspects of universal suffrage.

    Or this:

    He accused the most outspoken activists–he now includes Martin Luther King among them–of being more interested in polemics, in tearing down and waging war on segregation than in doing anything positive; his own responsibility, he says, is to speak out for the positive aspects of racial equality.

    Y’see, once them Negras and womenfolk get all uppity, there ain’t no way of keepin’ ’em down nohow. Jes’ best to keep quiet, an’ don’ go stirrin’ up no trouble. It’ll all work out on its own, God willing. (With my apologies to the Onion for the paraphrase.)

  6. #6 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007

    Nick (Matzke):

    If you (a) tar all religion with a broad brush, treat it all as not just something you disagree with but as actually evil, and lump reasonable moderates in with the wackos, and call anyone even sympathetic with the moderates as “appeasers”, then (b) unavoidably you will be portrayed — accurately — as harsh, dogmatic, intolerant, and, well, fundamentalist.

    (a) I, for one, don’t want to “tar all religion with a broad brush.” Speaking on scientific grounds, I think that religion is a complicated enough phenomenon that multiple natural causes are almost certainly responsible for its development (spandrels, selfish memes, etc.). I try to appreciate the full diversity of human mental processes which go under the label “religion,” but elementary ethics and an appraisal of the evidence force me to conclude that the strongest elements of Western religion, by both numbers and political influence, deserve some heavy helpings of tar indeed. And while individuals who take on the “appeaser” mantle can and have done good work for critical thought — bully for them! — the emergent properties of “moderate” religious organizations do not exactly fill me with confidence.

    (b) How does harshness segue automatically into fundamentalism? If I am intolerant of dishes building up in the kitchen sink, does that make me a fundamentalist dish-washer? The Book of the Universe is my only holy writ, and I know I’m fallible enough in reading it that I won’t insist on a word-for-word interpretation.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007


    Sorry! “PKD” is a reference to Philip K. Dick, a science-fiction author who is often known by his initials. He coined the word kipple in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was later made into the movie Blade Runner). He defines kipple in the following way:

    Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s home page. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you to go bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up there is twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.

    No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot.


  8. #8 Raging Braytard
    June 14, 2007

    Aha, the cat is out of the bag. I thought RB was just a silly troll, but now he standsdangles revealed as a sock puppet. Hi Ed!

    Just kidding. Ed writes well, RB does not.

    I could never write as well as Ed. He is the greatest writer ever to grace scienceblogs. He makes great, original jokes as well.

    Down with Dawkins, etc.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007

    PZ (#21):

    Thanks for linking back to that thread. I find it fascinating that by the end, it had turned into a conversation about Bayesian probability.

    The only moderately serious topic broached in that discussion was the possibility that the division between the “New Atheists” and the “New Humanists” (and the Humanist Popular People’s Front, etc.) is analogous to a schism between religious factions. I’ve already explained why I don’t think that’s the case, so that’s that.

  10. #10 Sastra
    June 14, 2007

    3 common arguments that the “New Atheists” wish to label as myths:

    1.) “True religion is good.”
    People who do things religious moderates and atheists don’t like are “distorting” the real meaning of the religion. They just don’t understand their faith the way liberals and atheists do. The ‘best’ scholarship goes against them.

    And even if this is not strictly true, atheists ought to pretend it is, because it will encourage extremists to become moderate.

    2.) “Truth? They can’t handle the truth!”
    Unlike atheists, most people need supernatural beliefs to cling to in times of trouble. It inspires and brings people together. If atheists try to take away faith by publically explaining why there’s no God, they’re being cruel to sensitive people. And it’s pointless, because religious people don’t care about reason anyway.

    And even if this is not strictly true, atheists will gain respect if they show respect.

    3.) “Science has nothing to say about the existence of God, one way or the other.”
    Science examines how the world works, religion is morals and meaning. Claims about the supernatural are only testable if they’re ‘paranormal.’ There’s a huge, huge difference between the paranormal and the supernatural. Huge.

    And even if this isn’t strictly true, atheists should say it is or else the Creationists will use it to win rhetorical advantage.

    I think those are 3 common bromides that a lot of atheists — including secular humanists — do not think work. Not on the truth level, and maybe not on the pragmatic one either.

  11. #11 Scott Hatfield, OM
    June 15, 2007

    PZ, it seems to this observer that both you and Nick have valid points.

    For example, I agree that you and Nick don’t share the same goals. Well said! Nick seems more concerned with muzzling unpopular expressions of atheism which complicate the mission of evolution education than with advancing atheism, and it does seem a bit much that he would offer advice as to how atheism might prosper.

    And, with other others, I acknowledge that Dawkins, Harris, etc. are not fundamentalists in the sense that a Jerry Falwell or an Ayatollah Khomeini are fundamentalists. It’s rhetorical overkill, and it’s appropriate to complain when others misrepresent your views as not only radical, but extremist. So I don’t share Nick’s sense of frustration with the atheist community which dares to publicly complain when it is so smeared.

    OTOH, there really is some merit to Nick’s observation: there really are different goals being pursued by different folk within the ‘atheist community’, and that contributes to that community’s lack of cohesion and historical ineffectiveness.

    In that respect, atheists are no different from other groups which have multiple agendas relating to both short and long-term goals, with some being easy sells in the political arena and others being hard sells. If we substitute the word ‘scientific’ for the word ‘atheist’ in the previous paragraph, I suspect we could all of us, Nick included, nod ruefully as we consider how relatively ineffective at times the scientific community has been at promoting significant change in the political arena.

    Political effectiveness, for example, involves building a broad coalition of interests. Atheism does not, as yet, have a broad base of support. It therefore follows that Nick’s Goal #1 is a long-term, future goal which is unlikely to be achieved through a direct frontal assault on the existing power structure.

    His Goals #2 and #3, however, could plausibly be addressed by making common cause with non-atheists on things like religious liberty, academic freedom and the persecution of minority groups.

    Speaking purely for myself, I am sure that many folk here are aware that I make common cause with atheists with respect to something like Goals #2 and #3 already, and I think this is suggestive. It is not so much a case of muzzling dissent, which I would oppose, but of being effective. As your namesake once remarked, PZ, ‘all things are lawful but not all things are profitable’.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents, nothing more or less. I don’t presume to speak for non-believers like yourself. I’m thankful for the opportunity to ‘hear’ you and Nick debate the merits of this or that strategy that impinges upon the promotion of science education, and I hope that both of you will receive this comment in a gentle and receptive spirit.


  12. #12 bullfighter
    June 15, 2007

    It seems to me that Epstein is picking the fight in order to make a public name and a livelihood from a kind of career that is generally more likely to involve a vow of poverty. And there’s nothing unusual about Newsweek publishing garbage. The interesting question is why Newsweek chose to feature him rather than somebody else on the anti-Dawkins bandwagon, but I suppose that the Harvard name and Epstein’s self-promotion (marketing) skills can explain that enough.

  13. #13 Jason
    June 15, 2007

    Scott Hatfield,

    With respect to Jason’s quibble,…

    I hardly think the question of whether science has anything to say about the existence of God is a “quibble.” It seems to be a central point of dispute.

    I would say that the *philosophy of science* holds that ‘science is neutral on metaphysical questions’.

    Well, I would say you’re wrong. At the heart of the “philosophy of science” is reason. And I think belief in the omnipotent and benevolent creator God of Christianity clearly defies reason in light of the evidence we have from science about the nature of the world. Even Christianity itself sometimes recognizes the unreasonableness of its metaphysical claims, as when it describes the Problem of Evil, and when Christians appeal to God’s “mysterious ways” or to the need for faith when they are confronted with rational critiques of their beliefs.

    As Dawkins says, science doesn’t absolutely, categorically rule out the kind of God postulated by Christianity and other traditional religions. But it does make him look highly implausible.

  14. #14 Ichthyic
    June 15, 2007

    I’m curious as to what position Nick thought the AAAS was explicitly taking when they unanimously approved boycotting the Kansas Kangaroo Kourt.

    what message exactly, did that send in Nick’s opinion?

    oh, and since Nick appears to be paying more attention to this thread than his own on PT regarding creationists currently, I would ask him also to clarify why he thinks that people like those he created a special thread for on PT, are mere “months” away from “deconverting”.

    still awaiting the evidence to support that contention.

    if Nick could provide that, there might be some evidential support for his where he places himself on this issue.

    Is it all anecdotal, or did he actually read a published article suggesting that creating threads for creationists to expound their mental deficiencies somehow contributes to their “deconversion”?

    I don’t mean (necessarily) to pick specifically on Nick here, but I’ve seen this argument several times now, and have yet to see any supporting evidence for it.

  15. #15 Ichthyic
    June 15, 2007

    Clearly, individual atheists can be moral and successful, but can an atheist society be moral and successful?

    spoken like a true Leo Strauss fanboy.

    The subset of atheists who were Marxist-Leninists managed to create societies which where neither moral nor successful.

    one, that had nothing to do with atheism, but instead had far more to do with group control.

    two, the resulting “societies” had very little to do with actual communist philosophy and doctrine.

    Next, you’ll be telling us that Stallin was a marxist, instead of just a totalitarian dictator.


  16. #16 Aloysius
    June 15, 2007

    “But if you want a model for “gettin’ atheism some respect” in the U.S., again, I ask you, WHAT DO YOU GUYS WANT? You have several options:”

    Funnily, I thought we were going for option #4: convince a large segment of the population, through various means, that one’s privately-held religious beliefs are not an acceptable foundation for public decision-making in order to protect our society from the palpable and increasing harm done to it when religious dogma (like abstinence-only sex education, or creationism in schools, or opposition to stem-cell research, or…the list goes on and on) is given a free pass and our social norms are bent in such a way that religious pronouncements become immune to criticism and come to dominate our politics.

    This is what I, at least, want. I think this is what most atheists want. Sure, it’d be nice to see religion wither away and die out, but I’m hardly holding my breath. This one goal is enough to ensure we’ll preserve a civilisation worth living in for all of us. Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens all have contributions to make towards this goal. So do you. Everything else–particularly harping on so-called “atheist fundamentalists” because their tactics are different from yours–is irrelevant noise.

  17. #17 Transparent Eye
    June 15, 2007


    First, you start with an Ad Hominem attack on me as a Straussian, which is not true. I do think an atheist society can be moral and successful, but it is not automatic. One has to think about it carefully, rather than intimidate critics of your viewpoint.

    Second, I’ve read Stalin, and he certainly thought of himself as a Marxist. The Soviet Union treated Marx’s writing as Holy Scripture (reflecting a theological attitude that can hang on even after people have given up on the idea of God.)

    But Marx was not a Stalinist. I believe the circle around Marx and Engels were really closer to the democratic socialism of the German Social Democratic Party.

    Nevertheless, trying to claim that the Soviet Union was not an atheist state is Orwellian. The Soviet Union is not the only model for an atheist state, however. Sweden is another.

  18. #18 Ichthyic
    June 16, 2007

    I do think an atheist society can be moral and successful,

    funny, that’s not what you said. and it wasn’t an ad hominem attack if you think that society won’t work without a religious framework involved.

    Second, I’ve read Stalin, and he certainly thought of himself as a Marxist.

    and uncle Adolf though he was a christian, and wrote about that, too.

    if you think Stalinism is what Marx had in mind, you are one nutty buddy. I rather think whatever you have been reading should be dumped in favor of some actual history lessons, before you dig yourself in much deeper.

    The Soviet Union treated Marx’s writing as Holy Scripture

    like the xians have treated the bible and used it similarly for power grabs historically?

    or did you mean something different?

    you have a seriously delusional view of history. My guess is you might actually have a russian background.

    do you?

    Nevertheless, trying to claim that the Soviet Union was not an atheist state is Orwellian.

    you need to define the function of the state.

    was the function of stalinism to promote atheism for the purpose of promoting atheism?

    not hardly.

    so thus, it never was an “atheist” state, any more than the UK is a “christian” state.

    methinks you have bought into too much 1950’s historical revisionism.

  19. #19 Ichthyic
    June 16, 2007

    …I’ll tell you what though,

    if you have a place where you can create a thread, I’d be happy to walk through the history of the soviet union vs. the philosophy of Karl Marx with you, so you can see the vast gulf between them.

    then we can look at why Stalin failed in his attempt to control religion in Russia, why he tried to do it to begin with, and why Leo Strauss wrote what he wrote.

    I used to do this on every once in a while.

    fun for me.


  20. #20 Transparent Eye
    June 16, 2007


    I’ve created such a thread here:

    The religious mode of thinking is pretty ingrained in humans, and it can persist after one has given up formal belief in God. Besides Marx, Freud and Ayn Rand are two more examples of atheists who have attracted a cultlike following

  21. #21 Ichthyic
    June 16, 2007


    I’m there.

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