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THIS ENTRY:
Humanism wants us all to get along: Not all nonbelievers identify as humanists or atheists, with some calling themselves agnostics, freethinkers or skeptics. But humanists see the potential for unifying the groups under their banner, creating a large, powerful minority...


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March 31, 2007

Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein wants you to join him, asshole

Humanism wants us all to get along:

Not all nonbelievers identify as humanists or atheists, with some calling themselves agnostics, freethinkers or skeptics. But humanists see the potential for unifying the groups under their banner, creating a large, powerful minority that can't be ignored or disdained by mainstream political and social thinkers.

But certain humanists have a very weird strategy for bringing us all together. One prominent humanist apparently believes that the way to achieve this unity is to hurl brainless epithets at his allies:

Among the millions of Americans who don't believe God exists, there's a split between people such as Greg Epstein, who holds the partially endowed post of humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and so-called "New Atheists."

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.

So you want to unify freethinkers, but you refer to those who state obvious facts plainly as "fundamentalist"?

Good luck with that unity thing, Chaplain Epstein.

(Thanks to reader Mark for the link.)

UPDATE: Some new information sent in by readers:

Lest you think the term "fundamentalists" was blown into a bigger deal by the Associated Press writer than it should have been, turns out that is hardly the case. Epstein/The New Humanism actually used the term in the lead sentence of their recent press release that led to the Associated Press story:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A group of renowned Humanists, atheists and agnostics will gather at Harvard in April, to take on an unlikely opponent: atheist "fundamentalists."

The New Humanism organizers actively pitched a story to the media about a conflict within freethought, and suggested the use of the word "fundamentalists" to describe one side right from the start.

It's the story they asked for.

But the conference organizers apparently feel this press release somehow exonerates them from the use of the term "atheist fundamentalists" in the AP story. Read carefully, because you are about to encounter the tiniest of distinctions:

Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard, did not actually call bestselling authors Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris “atheist fundamentalists.” That part of the story was taken from the press release about our conference...in which Dawkins and Harris are referred to not as “atheist fundamentalists” but as atheist “fundamentalists,” scare quotes intending to denote that we know there is a major difference between Harris and Dawkins – whom we respect but also respectfully disagree on some issues about how to advance Humanism – and actual religious fundamentalists, who can be incalculably worse.

This is just pathetic. Obviously, the conference organizers are trying to pin blame on the Associated Press reporter for misrepresenting Epstein (and apparently for not understanding that ironic quotation marks render words invisible). And, yeah, there's a distinction there with the ironic quotes. But when it comes to evaluating culpability, it is pretty much a distinction without a difference:

1. Conference organizers pitched a story to the media highlighting a conflict between humanists on one side and "atheist fundamentalists" on the other.

2. Conference organizers pitched a story to the media highlighting a conflict between humanists on one side and atheist "fundamentalists" on the other.

I understand that Epstein has a desire for an argument about the bluntness of Dawkins and Harris. Fair enough. But if his idea of launching that argument is throwing the other side on the defensive by employing the term "fundamentalist" (ironically or otherwise), then he doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. It would be like Dawkins and Harris trying to open a dialogue with Epstein by calling him an "appeaser."

Ironic quotes or not, Epstein and the conference should apologize for using that word to frame this conflict and suggesting its use to the media.

UPDATE 4-2-07: Epstein refuses to apologize.





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