Saturday, March 31, 2007

“New Atheism”

Harvard’s “humanist chaplain” Greg Epstein disapproves of the atheist “fundamentalism” of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, according to the Associated Press:

Epstein and other humanists feel their movement is on the verge of explosive growth, but they are concerned that it will be dragged down by what they see as the militancy of New Atheism. "Humanism is not about erasing religion,” he said. It’s an embracing philosophy."

Yes, but humanists should not uncritically embrace any belief anyone cares to entertain under the guise of religion, or automatically extend benign respect and deference. Steven Pinker is right: “It’s only the sense that religion deserves special respect – the exact taboo that Dawkins and Harris are arguing against – that makes people feel that those guys are being meanies when applying ordinary standards of evaluation to religion.”

On the other hand, Epstein is right to worry about tarnishing humanism as mean-spirited. (Remember Madalyn Murray O’Hare?) The times we live in will be far better served by friendly atheists like E.O. Wilson, reaching out to religionists for common ground in hopes of preserving the earth (The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth -- Norton '06; scroll to the bottom of this page to see YouTube video of Pinker, Dawkins, Harris, and Wilson)

But on the other other hand, I’m with Dawkins when he bemoans the abuse of children in the name of religious education. Children have a right to their native agnosticism, free of indoctrination. Philosophy can help with this, I am convinced. We need to be philosophizing with all our children from the beginning, arming them with the critical tools to think freely and creatively about their world and its future. More on this in future posts.

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