Some Ask if Atheists Are the New Fundamentalists

In explaining why religion is bad, critics argue, atheists leave little room for explaining how a godless worldview can be good.

Despite its minority status, atheism has enjoyed the spotlight of late, with several books that feature vehement arguments against religion topping the bestseller lists.

But some now say secularists 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." By devoting so much space to explaining why religion is bad, these critics argue, atheists leave little room for explaining how a godless worldview can be good.

At a recent conference marking the 30th anniversary of Harvard's humanist chaplaincy, organizers sought to distance the "new humanism" from the "new atheism."

Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein went so far as to use the (other) f-word in describing his unbelieving brethren.

"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," he 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. The term "humanist" emerged with the "Humanist Manifesto" of 1933, a nonbinding document summarizing the movement's principles.

"Atheists are somewhat focused on the one issue of atheism, not looking at how to move forward," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

While he appreciates the way the new atheists have raised the profile of nonbelievers, Speckhardt said humanists differ by their willingness to collaborate with religious leaders on various issues. "Working with religion," he said, "is not what (atheists) are about."

The Harvard event linked up via video to a conference on global warming at the Baptist-affiliated Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

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