WASHINGTON (RNS)—Despite its minority status, atheism has enjoyed the spotlight recently, with several books that feature vehement arguments against religion topping bestseller lists.
But now even some secular humanists are saying they should embrace more than the strident rhetoric poured out in books like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.
At a recent conference marking the 30th anniversary of Harvard's humanist chaplaincy, organizers sought to distance the “new humanism” from the “new atheism.”
“At times, they've made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism,” humanist chaplain Greg Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. “What we need now is a voice that says, ‘That is not all there is to atheism.'”
Although the two can overlap, atheism represents a statement about the absence of belief and is thus defined by what it is not. Humanism, meanwhile, seeks to provide a positive, secular framework for leading ethical lives and contributing to the greater good, its advocates insist. The term “humanist” emerged with the “Humanist Manifesto” of 1933, a nonbinding document summarizing the movement's principles.
The Harvard event linked up via video to a conference on global warming at the Baptist-affiliated Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Addressing both meetings was biologist E.O. Wilson, whose book, The Creation, urges the faith community to join the environmental movement.
Even as he complimented the “military wing of secularism” for combating the intrusion of dogma into political and private life, Wilson told the Harvard audience that religious people “are more likely to pay attention to that hand of friendship offered to them … than to have suggested to them, let us say, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which sets out to carpet-bomb all religion.”
In his book, Dawkins likens philosopher Michael Ruse, a Florida State philosophy professor who has worked on the creationism/evolution debate in public schools, to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister best known for his appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany.
Ruse, in turn, accuses “militant atheism” of not extending the same professional and academic courtesy to religion that it demands from others. Atheism's new dogmatic streak is not that different from the religious extremists it calls to task, he said. Dawkins was traveling and unavailable for comment.
The suggestion that atheists may be fundamentalists in their own right has, unsurprisingly, ruffled feathers.
“We're not a unified group,” said Christopher Hitchens, author of the latest atheist bestseller, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. “But we're of one mind on this: The only thing that counts is free inquiry, science, research, the testing of evidence, the uses of reason, irony, humor and literature, things of this kind. Just because we hold these convictions rather strongly does not mean this attitude can be classified as fundamentalist.”
More than a kinder, gentler strain of atheism, humanists insist their philosophy seeks to propose a more expansive worldview.
“Atheists don't really ask the question, ‘What are the vital needs that religion meets?' They give you the sense that religion is the enemy, which is absurd,” said Ronald Aronson, professor of humanities at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“There are some questions we secularists have to answer: Who am I, what am I, what can I know? Unless we can answer these questions adequately for ourselves and for others, we can't expect people to even begin to be interested in living without God.”