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.

BY: Benedicta Cipolla
Religion News Service


Continued from page 1

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."

Distinguishing between strong opinion and trying to impose atheism on others, Phil Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., also finds "fundamentalist" a misnomer. Instead, he faults the new atheists for preferring black-and-white simplicity to a more nuanced view of religion.

"Religion is a human construction, and as such it will exhibit the best and worst of humanity. They throw the baby out with the bath water in certain instances," he said.

The Humanists are taking advantage of renewed interest in atheism--in effect riding the coattails of Dawkins and Harris into the mainstream--to gain attention for their big-tent model. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, the share of American adults who do not subscribe to any religion increased from 8 percent in 1990 to more than 14 percent in 2001.

While only a small portion of the nearly 30 million "unaffiliateds" might describe themselves as atheist, Epstein, from Harvard, sees humanism appealing to skeptics, agnostics and those who maintain only cultural aspects of religion.

A common critique of the new atheism is that it conflates belief with religiosity. In his research, Zuckerman has found that people may be outwardly religious not simply because they believe, but also because they're looking for community, strength, and solace within congregations.

More than a kinder, gentler strain of atheism, humanism 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."

comments powered by Disqus