Humanist chaplain talking nonsense

Hey guess what! News flash! Red hot item fresh off the presses that no one knew before – sit down before you read it, or the shock and surprise might kill you.

Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant, for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who’s leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out.

Oh, gee, really? I had no idea, and neither did anyone else. Sharp reporting; well done.

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 verge of explosive growth, but are concerned it will be dragged down by what they see as the militancy of New Atheism.

‘Militancy,’ of course, in the very special terms of this particular endlessly-recycled talking point, means ‘actually disagreeing with the truth claims of religion.’ Kind of a funny way to use the word, as if actually disagreeing with the truth claims of religion were much the same thing as bomb-throwing or at least a bit of window-breaking; but there you go; that’s how talking points are.

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.

Does he? Really? If so, he’s not paying attention to either group. But he probably doesn’t really see the matter that way, he probably just says he does because it sounds emphatic (or something), and because it’s such a cliché that he can’t resist it. (Compare, for just one instance, the scene in ‘The Root of all Evil’ in which Dawkins asks the gay-obsessed minister why it matters so much, what is the harm in homosexuality, why is it a problem? And the minister says because it’s a sin. And Dawkins doesn’t even retort; he lets it go at that. Are the two of them really equally rigid in their dogma? I don’t think so.)

Some of the participants in Harvard’s celebration of its humanist chaplaincy have no problem with the New Atheists’ tone. Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker said the forcefulness of their criticism is standard in scientific and political debate, and “far milder than what we accept in book and movie reviews.”

Just so – but have the effrontery to apply it to religion, and notice how the rules change.

But 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.”

There it is again – that chronic hyperbole about atheists. Do the ‘New’ atheists try to erase their enemies? Please. And as for people coming together from what motivates them – well some of us are motivated by, for instance, a preference for open discussion, free inquiry, rational argument, caution about belief-formation, curiosity, and respect for evidence. That kind of preference causes us not to want to ‘come together’ with people who have no such preference. Unity isn’t everything, mass agreement isn’t everything, groupthink isn’t everything, conformity isn’t everything. So have fun with the humanist chaplain thing, Mr Epstein, but knock it off with the straw man stuff.

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