This recent AP story which ran in the NY Times (online only as far as I know) as well as the Washington Post and at least couple of dozen if not more other newspapers has really drawn some interesting responses. Two of my favorite bashers are Brian Flemming and Austin Cline. Ralph Williams, my favorite all-time Prof a the University of Michigan where I went to college, once told me that if you’re going to do something worthwhile, you have to make some enemies. Ralph was right, but I don’t in any way consider Austin or Brian enemies. I found their critiques to be worthwhile reading, and thought-provoking.
I’ve also been making an effort to respond to these and other such critiques, starting at our conference website. But I’ve found that I wanted to make an even more detailed response to some questions that have been posed to me than what I thought would be appropriate for thenewhumanism.org. So I composed a long piece which I hope will be posted on Austin Cline’s site, but which in any case I’ll also post below. I hope at some point to find the time to post some of the very interesting email conversations I’ve had on all this over the weekend with people like Dawkins himself, as well as leaders at the Center for Inquiry, and elsewhere. Right now, though, I need at least a bit of sleep, and during the week I’m going to be bombarded with work.
So hopefully this response to Austin and Brian, which I also made an effort to post on Austin’s site as a comment, will suffice for at least a little while. I really believe we can’t afford to resent or run away from criticism, and I also believe there must be room in our big movement for a lot of little views, so I’m grateful of this chance to share my thoughts.
Dear Austin and others,
Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. I like this Agnosticism/Atheism site a lot and I want to take this opportunity to say a bit more.
First of all, I do think highly in many ways of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, as well as others such as Brian Fleming who has also posted a thoughtful critique of the AP article. Brian’s site doesn’t accept comments, but this one fortunately does, otherwise I’d be happy to take the time to post on both.
Richard wrote to me in response to my clarification about the use of the word “Fundamentalism,” (in short, I used it, but in scare quotes, and no I absolutely do not think Dawkins, Harris, etc. are actual fundamentalists) and pointed out that it is “interesting” that our movement is suddenly doing so well now that he and Sam have been speaking out so strongly this past year, and he questioned whether this might not have something to do with why are in fact doing better now than we have been at any time over the past 30 years. I couldn’t agree more– actually it’s probably been 35 or 40 years since we’ve had it this good at least in American public life, and the “New Atheism” is to be credited with a lot of that.
I don’t have a problem with “rocking the boat.” I don’t have a problem with us speaking out and telling the world what we don’t believe in, and why. I encourage it. I don’t even have a problem with all the people who are blogging about me right now and slamming me as some kind of representative of “appeasement,” as Brian Fleming put it. Some religion and some religious people have produced a lot of terrible, mendacious, violent sentiment over the years, and they’ve caused enough pain and harm that people desperately need to be able to speak out about it. Some of those people are clearly under the impression that I’m denying them their right to do so right now, so why wouldn’t they bash me? They should go ahead. But the thing is I’m not denying them anything. And again, I actually find Richard, Sam, Brian (and of course you too, Austin, I like your stuff as well) to be not just right about a lot of arguments against theism but generally entertaining and really clever. As I told Brian Sapient the other day, don’t worry, I get pissed off at one or another aspect of traditional religion too sometimes and when I do I’m glad the New Atheists are out there to speak up so eloquently and forcefully on my behalf.
There are of course a few things that deeply concern me about all this, however. First, I don’t care how effective certain writers can seem to be, or how many copies of atheist books they are selling right now, I believe we have to do our best to be the change we want to see in the world. One of the changes I want to see is, I don’t expect religious people to change overnight and become like me, but I’d like to see them reach out to me in friendship and respect and work with me on that which we have in common, such as the desire not to see the environment go down the sewer. We atheists and Humanists can’t solve that problem alone. In fact, no one single group of human beings can solve any problem alone in the world we live in today. We have to find ways to work with one another, and to see the good in one another. I feel the general spirit of the “New Atheism” (which I admit is a sort of unfortunate name, but let’s work with what we’ve got for a bit here) has simply not done nearly enough to offer the kind of respect it would like to see. We want to be treated as equals? Let’s raise hell about it, fine, but perhaps think twice about slamming me so hard as some kind of Uncle Tom (I definitely heard that one on a few blogs) if I want to speak for myself, and for the millions of atheists and Humanists out there who actually *like* and care deeply about a lot of religious people and don’t feel the need to hurt their feelings in addition to disagreeing with them. Sam, in the AP article in question, had no problem implying pretty bluntly that religious people are all stupid. Richard was quoted as saying that teaching about hell might be worse than sexual abuse. These kinds of statements are not simply the height of rationality and science. They come off as extremely obnoxious to a lot of people. Is it as bad as violence? No, for goodness sake, no. Is it hate speech? No. But is that what I called it? Also, no. I figure if Sam is willing to imply that an entire several billion people who don’t agree with him on religious issues might not because they’re stupid, then he might also be okay with the fact that I can allude to the idea that this might sound at least slightly reminiscent of fundamentalism to a goodly number of people out there. Thus, my use of the f-word, albeit in scare quotes.
And as for the fact that you can’t effectively stand for something unless you stand against something as well? Well said, Austin. Again, I really agree with you here. This is another example of the AP using language that just isn’t my own to make their point. As I’ve commented on other blogs (I am forcing myself to stay very short on sleep these few days in order to be able to say to myself– and others– that I did what I could to rectify as many misunderstandings as I could about this piece, and as I admit I am a sensitive person I hope some will consider appreciating that a bit) AP writers make a living by writing the most controversial stories possible– controversies sell, and AP stories need to be bought or “picked up” by newspapers in order to make money. Well, Jay Lindsay took one controversial thing that I said– that Dawkins et al are “fundamentalists,” again, with the scare quote marks– and he also took some of the most controversial statements possible out of Harris & Dawkins’ repertoires, so that should show you what he was looking to do– but the rest of the things that have been most strenuously objected to are not in quote marks, because I did not say them. I understand that to Jay it probably seemed that there wasn’t much difference between what I believe and the idea that the “attacks on religion will keep converts away.” But that’s not what I said and it isn’t what I meant.
The truth is attacks on religion probably will win some converts to atheism. But I’m actually not even interested in “converting” people, in the sense that I believe in allowing all people the dignity of independent choice, so while I can inform them of my beliefs and I can loudly and proudly reach out to them in the name of my beliefs, I will not try to force my beliefs on others. And when my outreach does work, I’m just as worried about quality as I am about quantity. What are we going to do with these “converts” once we’ve got them? Are we going to lie to them and tell them that if everyone were just to be like us, the world’s problems would disappear? Would that things were so simple. The truth is there are good, decent people, and sick criminals on both sides of the theistic fence, and it will always be so. I hope what we will do is organize ourselves into a movement that actually does some real, concrete good in this world and in our local communities, explicitly in the name of Humanism and Atheism. Because with the notable and commendable exception of defending science, I haven’t seen nearly enough of that from the “New Atheism.” What institutions has it built so far? What hungry children has it fed? What human rights violation has it sent a team of protesters to intervene in? I am looking forward to the day when we spend less energy bashing religion (not to mention each other) and more on doing some of these positive things and others as a movement, as an organization, as a force for good. And Austin, you might rightly say, well, give it some time, these guys haven’t had enough time yet to do that sort of thing. But what about giving me and others like me some time, then? You brought up that I haven’t done as much for the atheist cause as Dawkins or whomever, but I too am just 30 and am part of a whole generation that is just getting started. I know we are going to do amazing things together. If it’s fair to criticize us for not having done enough yet for argumentative atheism then it’s fair to criticize others for not having done enough over their long careers for positive Humanism. I envision a world in which we can criticize and lecture about religion to our heart’s content– I call this “speaking and debating” in a recent interview with the Humanist Magazine, which I think had some really important points in it, points that I didn’t necessarily come up with myself but that I believe in the need to highlight (though maybe if the word fundamentalism had just been thrown in there somewhere it would have received half this much attention) — but if that is ALL we do we are not worth our salt. We’d be like the religious folks who just bash atheism all day but are totally hypocritical when it comes to good works. Let’s put more energy into creating a Humanism that speaks and debates but also sings and builds. Once we’ve torn down, I want to know, how can we build back up together?
Finally, I want to conclude with a response to Brian Fleming’s really witty blog entry title, “Greg Epstein wants you to join him, asshole.” I seriously mean it when I say Brian has an awesome sense of humor, as do Sam and Richard, and that line made me laugh out loud, –at myself, not at Brian. He makes some interesting and good points, as do you. And I really wouldn’t ever, ever want to see a world without voices like his in it. I understand he grew up around some real fundamentalist types. I admit I grew up around much more liberally religious and New-Agey types, so maybe I’m just more naturally predisposed to have some degree of sympathy for the “other side.” In any case, I am not suggesting we New Atheists and New Humanists or for that matter New Christians or New Buddhists or New Jew-bu’s or just plain old fashioned people should “all just get along.” I like to sing but I’m not into Kuumbaya. To the contrary. I believe Humanism will become a true force to be reckoned with when we all begin to understand that we are a diverse movement with real disagreements and even some real dislikes, and yet it doesn’t stop us from being considered united on an important level. Think about, for example, Conservative Christians and Liberal Episcopalians. When it comes to so many things, they don’t just disagree–they flat out hate each other! And yet the very social power of Christianity (I don’t necessarily admire that Christianity has so much social power, I’m just trying to consider it realistically here) is that these two groups can co-exist in their differences and resentments and yet almost no one would ever think to suggest that either group was not Christian. That’s what we need! We need for there to be the New Humanists and the New Atheists, the Greg Epsteins and the Brian Flemings and the Richard Dawkins’s and the EO Wilsons and all the rest, and despite our obvious differences, no one in the world would think to question the obvious fact that we are all part of one diverse but united Humanist/Atheist (or if you prefer I personally have no issue with your calling it Atheist/Humanist) movement! *That* would be progress. I can’t wait to make progress along side you.
Thanks again for this wonderful opportunity to respond to your eloquent criticism! All the very best!
Greg M. Epstein
Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University