Saturday, May 26, 2007

Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion? -

Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion? -
"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 such books as 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins and 'The End of Faith' and 'Letter to a Christian Nation' by Sam Harris. 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,' 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 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."
There seem to be a lot of similar articles cropping up all over the place, all on this topic, and I hesitated to link to yet another treatment of a topic I visit on a fairly regular basis.

It seems that the terms used are a moving target, and something in the above quote regarding the origin of the term "humanist" triggered my "what were they thinking here?" reflex.

The concept of humanism actually arose in the Renaissance as a reaction to the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas and others. Both were an outgrowth of the rediscovery of the ancient Latin and Greek texts. The Scholastics tried to reconcile theology and the ancient philosophies, and the humanists wanted to deal a little more strictly what became known as the humanities subjects (grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, etc.) all seen from a Greek and Latin perspective viewed through a lens of reason

The Humanist Manifestos of 1933, 1973, and 2003 were examples of "religious humanism" (as opposed to secular humanism.) If I had to guess, Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, would probably not object to being characterized as a "religious humanist". He certainly seems more than willing to see himself as a colleague of more traditional religious leaders, if not in communion with them.

Edward O. Wilson, also of Harvard, is quoted in this article. His willingness to engage with the religious community has been well-known, and in his humorous way suggests that the approach of some atheists tends to "carpet-bomb all religion", thus driving off an entire community that does, in fact, share some ideals when it comes to care for the environment, global warming, hunger, and other issues. (I am making some strong inferences here, but having read a lot of Wilson's work, I think I am pretty close.)

It would seem to me that there is a polarization developing among atheists between those who see themselves are merely holding a different viewpoint, and those whose feelings about religion and its adherents compel them to attempt to eradicate religion. It's as if the very existence of organized religion is a personal affront. We have seem religious extremism in the world, and it is ugly. When these same attitudes are seen among the hard core of atheistic fundamentalists, it can be no less ugly.

Parenthetically, I have to point out that "extremism" is not a term to use lightly; it is not, for example, appropriate to thus characterize a quiet fundamentalist who is willing to let others alone, if they will leave him alone. Nor is is it appropriate to characterize Greg Epstein or Edward Wilson in this manner. Yet the "extremist" label appears with increasing frequency in the secular, religious, and political debates of our time. Let's save the loaded words for appropriate times, shall we?

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