Epstein and other humanists feel their movement is on the verge of explosive growth, but are concerned 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, who has called the God of the Old Testament "a psychotic delinquent," and Sam Harris, who foresees global catastrophe unless faith is renounced. They say religious belief is so harmful it must be defeated and replaced by science and reason.
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 share the most obvious differences.
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer
What justification does Greg Epstein have to label any atheists as "fundamentalist"? None, as far as I'm concerned — it's a false category created by religious theists who are trying to draw a false analogy between unapologetic atheists and fundamentalist religion. There is nothing in atheism to be "fundamentalist" about and religious theists use this label as little more than an ad hominem for the purpose of getting atheists to self-censor and/or to get others to ignore atheists.
Here, Greg Epstein is playing into their hands by using the same label himself — not because the people he is criticizing have anything "fundamentalist" about them, but simply because he disagrees with their tactics or manner. That's irresponsible and does serious harm to atheists in America by lending unjustified, unwarranted, and unnecessary credence to theists' as hominems against atheists.
I'd also like to know what he means by saying that certain atheists are "intolerant." As I explain elsewhere, disagreement and criticism are not intolerance — but it's precisely disagreement and criticism which are usually at issue. Moreover, much of what might be meant by "tolerance" cannot legitimately be expected from atheists. No one should expect or insists that atheists be "tolerant" of religious theism in the sense of lacking opposition or being indulgent, for example. Some people toss around labels like "intolerant" without explaining what they mean and, I fear, without really understanding what they are saying. If they have something important to communicate, then listeners should demand that they define these key terms and then we'll see if they really are saying something relevant. I won't hold my breath.
What's particularly ironic is that if atheism and humanism really are "on the verge of explosive growth," then one of the reasons for this is almost surely the books and arguments from people like Harris and Dawkins. It would be wrong to lay all of the credit at their feet, but it would also be wrong to pretend that it's merely a coincidence that they would occur together. There are many good reasons to think that it is precisely the forceful nature of their tactics which has been paying off so well for atheists. It's true that they attract a lot of negative attention, but it's not as though atheists were widely loved and respected a few years ago.
Writers like Harris and Dawkins may not be saying anything very new, but they are garnering a great deal of attention and publicity — far more than any humanist chaplaincy has managed. It's possible that Epstein has done a tremendous amount of important work at Harvard, but his name and position are not broadly know throughout the rest of America. Greg Epstein hasn't done anything that has been getting people talking about atheism and atheists in the same way that people like Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett have done. By refusing to play the expected roles of obsequious, submissive atheists, these writers have forced others to take notice of them and what they have to say.
Even more important, their willingness to be so public and unapologetic is encouraging others to do the same — to be open and public about their atheism, skepticism, and rejection of traditional religion. All of this has an impact — and if there is enough initial impact, it can become a self-perpetuating cycle that grows into something much, much larger. It's possible that Epstein is wrong about "explosive growth," of course, but if he's right then he shouldn't pretend that sort of rhetoric he mislabels as "fundamentalist" may be playing a significant role in that.
Epstein worries the attacks on religion by the New Atheists will keep converts away. "The philosophy of the future is not going to be one that tries to erase its enemies," he said. "The future is going to be people coming together from what motivates them."
No philosophy can effectively stand for something if it doesn't also stand against something. You can't effectively stand for justice if you don't forcefully condemn injustice. You can't effectively stand for equality if you don't forcefully condemn bigotry and discrimination. You can't effectively stand for peace if you don't forcefully condemn violence. Anyone who tries will only end up sounding mealy-mouthed for spreading little more than insipid platitudes.
The same is true for science, skepticism, and reason. You can't effectively stand for them if you aren't willing to reject gullibility, irrationality, and anti-intellectualism — including when those qualities are tolerated or even encouraged in other belief systems. It may be reasonable for some individuals to not want to focus all their time and attention on such criticisms, preferring instead to focus on what they believe in over what they disbelieve. What's not so reasonable, however, is to attack those who do think it's still useful, valuable, and necessary to focus on such critiques.
This, I believe, is the critical misstep which Greg Epstein makes: in his position as humanist chaplain, he may be completely justified in saying that it's more important for him to focus on promoting positive virtues of humanist philosophy rather than criticize their opposites. He is not justified, however, in acting like other atheists, humanists, and skeptics should adopt the same perspective. There can be no humanist philosophy with positive qualities that is worth promoting if there are no humanists willing to forcefully reject, criticize, and condemn things like injustice, violence, bigotry, irrationality, and anti-intellectualism.
Robert McNally explains his reaction to the offer to apologize, and I find it persuasive.
Update 2: For an example of how religious theists will abuse Epstein's comments for their own agenda, we need look no further than Frederick Clarkson:
Religious people get it that Harris, or anyone who thinks like him, consider them "delusional" so why would they ever see such people as trustworthy allies? By the same token, why would atheists, who considers themselves "rational," cooperate with people they consider "delusional?" Harris et al, are in the business, wittingly or unwittingly, of sewing distrust and wreaking havoc among people who ought to be allies. As I previously noted, if they did not exist, the religious right would have to invent them.
People who seek allies and coalition partners need to be able to come to the table, or indeed, to the blogosphere, with sufficient respect and tolerance of one another to earn a place at the table.
We already know that Clarkson egregiously misrepresents others, but this goes much further. Apparently, Clarkson can't understand how a person can make common political cause with a person on one issue if they believe that person has ridiculous beliefs in another area. So, since I think the Raelian beliefs about visits by aliens are ridiculous, I could never make common cause with them on something like taxes.
I think that Frederick Clarkson shouldn't give up his day job in favor of becoming a mind reader. Once again, though, it appears that a religious theist is sending the message that "respect and tolerance" can't mean merely allowing a person to believe things without suppression, discrimination, or penalty. Instead, "respect" somehow gets extended to include attitudes like esteem and deference — as if a person's religious beliefs automatically deserve deference, regardless of what they are.
When Frederick Clarkson advises readers not to "drink the New Atheist Kool Aid," I read him as saying not to accept growing realization that religious beliefs don't merit automatic deference — because if religious theists suspect that you don't esteem their religion, they won't work with you. If that's the case, then the problem is theirs, not atheists'. If someone needs me to validate their beliefs by treating those beliefs with deference, then they need to look inward to better understand why they aren't comfortable with those beliefs on their own.