Monday, April 21, 2008

An Atheist with whom We Might Talk

Last week I posted the following at Faithfully Liberal. It's a discussion of an interesting conversation heard on Krista Tippett's Speaking of Faith. A respondent to my post as originally p0sted raised an issue with my use of the word militant to describe the "New Atheist" movement. That word could be a bit too strong, but considering that George Marsden has described Protestant Fundamentalism as a militant version of evangelicalism, I think the word might be apt. I'm not suggesting here that Richard Dawkins is taking up arms against religion, but he seems to see himself in the midst of a war against the forces of religion, and at times the rhetoric is a kind of "take no prisoners" view.

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We are very aware of the hard line, even militant atheist rants by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others. They have made conversation between religious and nonreligious extremely difficult, because they won’t extend to the religious, especially those of us who are moderate to liberal any sense of respect. As Richard Dawkins is fond of saying that he needn’t extend any more respect to the academic study of theology than that of leprechauns. We who are religious find this not only disrespectful but an end to any fruitful conversation.
We religious have contributed to this problem, of course, for we have treated the atheist with the same sort of disrespect now being extended to us. The fact that the majority of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist, or that say that to be an atheist precludes one from having any moral bearing, are good examples of this attitude. That being said, it is also important to note that the ranks of the unbeliever and the unaffiliated are the fasted growing categories among America’s religious community (in this I extend the label to include the nonreligious). About 16% of Americans are unaffiliated/agnostic/atheist.
It was, therefore, refreshing to listen as Krista Tippett interviewed Harvard’s Humanist chaplain. Yes, Harvard has a Humanist chaplain. If this comes as news to you, it certainly did for me as well. Harvard’s chaplain is Greg Epstein, an atheist, a Humanist, and by ethnicity and tradition, Jewish. As Krista interviewed him, I heard a very different voice from that of Harris, et. al. He seeks conversation with the religious; indeed he has been a regular participant in interfaith conversations.
Epstein laments that some of the new atheists treat religious people in much the same way they have been treated, which is too bad. He, on the other hand seeks to model a different way of being Humanist. He’s an atheist, but chooses to see himself as a Humanist. He shares with Krista:

Mr. Epstein: Well, Godless communism was a canard that was exploited, I mean, to divide Americans and it’s carried over again, because one of the things that I’ve seen is that with this sort of resurgence of popular expressions of atheism, there’s this conflict that has been stirred up between let’s say progressive humanists and atheists and progressive people of other faiths,
Christianity, Judaism, et cetera. Right, so that some atheist authors have done a lot to sort of say, you know, ‘If you are a progressive believer in God —’

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Epstein: ‘— you’re the enemy.’ But most nonreligious people are not anti-religious and this is a key. Most nonreligious people are not anti-religious. All we ask is that we be treated just like anyone else and that our views be taken just as seriously in society and in culture as anyone else
and in politics as well in that it’s when we feel that this is not the case, that we’re still living, in terms of the treatment of atheists in this country, the way that we were living back in the times of McCarthyism and, you know, McCarthy parading around and insulting Godless communists as a way of sort of rallying support to his cause. It’s that point at which we say, you know, many
of us are angry.

However, I want to keep the focus, though, on the positive fact that there are most likely around a billion nonreligious people in the world, depending on how you count, between 30 and 40 or 50 million nonreligious people in this country. And the statistic is probably one in five young people in America, 18- to 25-year-olds, one in five of them in America is nonreligious. And what we’re saying is that we want to build the best possible world for all human beings and that the only thing that can make this world a better place is human effort, human caring, compassion, creativity, and human reason.

People don’t realize that there’s an organization like the Secular Student Alliance, which puts together groups of humanist and secular and atheist and agnostic students around the country and sponsors and supports them in doing community service, you know, in doing all kinds of wonderful activities. And so


Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Epstein: — these are some of the voices that I think we need to hear from now. You know, religion doesn’t poison everything, and not everyone who believes in God is some kind of deluded fool.

The spirit that Epstein has (if I might say that) is one that allows for real conversation. It is a conversation that we must be willing to share in – if we’re to speak with a growing number of young Americans.

Although this is just a snippet of the conversation, it is one to which it is worth attending.

2 comments:

Timothy Mills said...

I take folks like Epstein (and Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein) as models for the sort of Humanism I seek to live - a thoughtful, open worldview that acknowledges our common humanity.

It's good to see that he is noticed and appreciated by religious people. It gives me hope that my own efforts as part of the Edinburgh University Humanist Society to forge constructive connections with the chaplaincy will not be in vain.

Thanks for giving me some hope.

Simon said...

I'm not anti-religious but I have yet to hear any reason why religion should be taken more seriously than unicorns, fairies or goblins. The only reason Christianity is taken more seriously than fairies is because fairies do not have huge churches built in their name, as far as I can see.

Of course, there's a moral instruction side to religion, but even this I find simplistic.

I'm not trying to insult, I'm just saying what I think and feel. I'm being honest.