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Much Ado About Tactics

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August E. Brunsman IV
This article appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 18 - It's Spring, We Think.
By August E. Brunsman IV
Executive Director
In a March 8th press release about The New Humanism conference, Greg Epstein-Humanist Chaplain at Harvard-suggested that the purpose of this conference was to "take on ... atheist 'fundamentalists'" ("atheist 'fundamentalists'" being a term Epstein used to describe Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others who have been in the public eye for their strident opposition to theism and faith). This release got picked up by the Associated Press late March 29th and by the 30th was in the New York Times, the Washington Post and dozens of other papers. The SSA sent out an e-mail asking our subscribers to promote the story. Austin Cline, Brian Flemming and others who have a great deal of respect for Dawkins and Harris took strong exception to the notion that fellow non-theists were "taking them on" and, I think, especially to the notion that such a thing as "atheists fundamentalists" even exist--let alone that anyone is accurately described as such.

In the last few days I've received emails from people saying "finally, atheists who are interested in building up, not only tearing down" and I've received emails from folks who feel betrayed by Epstein--they think he has joined the ranks of the faithful who dismiss atheists as bigots for suggesting that faith is not actually a road to knowledge. The label "hypocrite" is also being floated--the notion being that Epstein is calling out Dawkins and Harris for calling out theists--surely if it's not okay to call out theists, it can't be okay to call out fellow atheists?

Just as critics of Dawkins and Harris often don't give them the benefit of the doubt, I can't help but wonder if the same isn't happening with some of Epstein's critics. When Harris writes things like: "The very ideal of religious tolerance born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss," does Harris mean that we need to create atheist states where we send theists to reeducation camps? Hardly. When he uses the term "atheist fundamentalists," does Epstein mean that Dawkins and Harris are unthinking blowhards ruled by their dogmatic conviction that all people of faith are blithering idiots? No. Rather, I think Epstein is focusing on the fact that Harris and Dawkins come off as bombastic--just as stereotypical fundamentalists do. Of course, Harris and Dakwins base their bombastically expressed convictions on evidence and reason and are delighted to engage in civil discussions about both their positions and the effectiveness of their tactics--quite unlike the stereotypical fundamentalist. It seems to me that the phrase "atheist fundamentalist" is not calling out Harris' and Dawkins' core principles, the foundation of their epistemology, or the quality of their character, but is rather making a critique of some of their tactics.

The phrase that is somewhat more troublesome for me in Epstein's press release is "taking on an unlikely opponent." Although one can be quite civil with an opponent one is "taking on," to take on an opponent is to be engaged in a zero-sum game. Epstein, Harris, Dawkins and all the rest of us who reject faith are in this together. Epstein even makes it clear that he has great respect for Harris and Dawkins. Of course, one can have great respect for an opponent... but at the end of the day, you still want to win at the cost of your opponent losing. Interestingly, Harris (in the AP story about the conference) and Dawkins (in personal communication with Epstein) have both said that they don't think they are engaged in a win/lose competition with Epstein. If none of them thinks there's a zero-sum game involved, then it's a mistake to call them opponents.

While I do think "taking on opponents" overstates the case, there is a tactical struggle within the movement about how we should focus our efforts and our communication. We shouldn't hide from these disagreements. Instead, we should address them in a collegial manner. Epstein could have been more collegial. That being said, garnering major media attention by pointing out a minor difference in tactical approaches within our small movement is hardly a tragedy. Indeed, highlighting this disagreement on tactics may make it easier for people to come out as unequivocal atheists without being seen as the kind of folks who picket Easter church services (as a small group of activists at the 2006 Atheist Alliance International/Secular Student Alliance conference wanted to do).

To the extent that activists within our ranks feel alienated by Epstein's comments, that's a real loss. I think we are all working to advance the same principles: free, critical & scientific inquiry, and ethics based on consequences to thinking creatures rather than commands from a god we can "know" only by faith. Dawkins and Harris have chosen as of late to put the emphasis on critical inquiry targeting faith. Epstein would like to put his emphasis on a movement that, while offering a critique of faith, does more. Epstein is fond of talking about a movement that "builds and sings." Frankly, I'm a bit unsure about the singing part (perhaps because I'm a terrible singer). However, I do think that to the extent we provide for the needs historically met by religion, we will have an easier time showing people that they can live happy lives without faith. I want to see the god-free movement be one that becomes richer and fuller in all kinds of ways. We all agree that the core of the movement is unbounded critical inquiry. But if critical inquiry is the whole shebang, it's likely to lose my interest and, I suspect, that of many others.
This article appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 18 - It's Spring, We Think.
On 4/6/2007 Austin Cline sent the following response to this piece. He gave us permission to publish it.

August,

I wanted to write to you about your article "Much Ado About Tactics." In it, you state that I "took strong exception to the notion that fellow non-theists were "taking them on"."

The truth is that I did not take any exception to anyone "taking on" Harris or Dawkins. In comments responding to Epstein, for example, I specifically say "Just because someone is an atheist doesn't mean you have to like them, like how they behave, or approve of their clothing style. Criticize away - just do it in an accurate and justified manner."

What I do take "strong exception to" is your egregious misrepresentation of what I wrote. My criticisms were specific and clear: use of the label "fundamentalist" is incorrect and, even worse, provides fodder for anti-atheist bigots who seek to use ad hominems against atheists in order to discourage people from listening to their arguments.

I would appreciate it if you posted a correction to your article. I'm frankly at a loss at how you could have read my piece (and Flemming's) to such an extreme degree.

--
Regards,

Austin Cline
About Agnosticism / Atheism
On 4/6/2007 Brian Flemming sent the following response to this piece. He asked us to publish it.
August,

I'm afraid I have to agree with Austin Cline that your article contains an egregious misrepresentation of the dispute. By falsely
characterizing the nature of the opposition to Epstein's tactics, you make it sound as if his critics are opposed to any criticism at all
coming from Epstein, when that is obviously not the case.

Both Austin Cline and I have gone out of our way to make our points of view clear. You don't have to agree, but is a fair and accurate
representation really too much to ask?

I have responded with further thoughts here:


Brian Flemming
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