In the past few months I’ve given two talks—one for the American Humanists and the other for the Freedom From Religion Foundation—on the relationship between atheism, humanism, and social good. I started both talks by asking the audience to raise their hands if they considered themselves humanists. Every hand went up. I then asked how many of those with their hands up also considered themselves atheists. I watched carefully, and not a hand went down. That makes sense: after all, humanists believe that we are in charge of our own and others’ welfare, and nearly everyone arrives at that view after rejecting gods. To me, then, it doesn’t make sense to seriously discuss humanism without at least mentioning its origins, and that involves rejecting any kind of theism.
Still, there are those who praise humanism but can’t resist the opportunity to have a whack at atheism. And that brings us to today’s article.
If you read “The evangelical scion who stopped believing,” an article about an “atheist preacher” in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, you might be a bit puzzled at some of the gratuitous atheist-bashing. After all, it’s about Bart Campolo, a 53-year-old former preacher who became an atheist after a bicycle accident, and who has taken up a new life as a humanist chaplain and head of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Southern California (USC). Yet the article is larded with snark—the usual cracks about atheism, not missing a few swipes at Richard Dawkins.
The explanation is that the author is Mark Oppenheimer, whom we’ve encountered before in posts about Larry Alex Taunton’s book claiming that Christopher Hitchens was flirting with Christianity at the end of his life. It turns out that Oppenheimer hasn’t missed a chance to go after New Atheism, writing a piece in BuzzFeed about the rampant misogyny afflicting the atheist “movement.” And so, when you read about Campolo’s life, and how he lost his faith and wound up as the USC humanist chaplain—a position in which he seems to be doing a lot of good—you also have to see Oppenheimer’s gratuitous take on atheism. A few snippets (my emphasis):
In the United States, since World War II, atheist activism has been located mainly in local skeptics’ clubs, whose members also gravitated toward science fiction and other walks of geek life. [JAC: !!] The clubs developed a culture of conferences: hotel-ballroom events with lots of men attending mostly-male panels, followed by book signings.
Over the last 30 years or so, these conferences have grown in tandem with the rise of the Christian right and megachurch evangelicalism, as atheists sought comfort in a parallel world. Best-selling authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens drew huge crowds at these “cons.” In their books, lectures and television appearances, these atheists preach an uncompromising scientism, exalt Darwin and barely conceal a sentiment that believers deserve mockery or, if one is feeling generous, pity.
To this day, atheist gatherings remain overwhelmingly male, and public perception of the movement has been tainted by a steady drip of misogynistic episodes: harassment of female attendees at the conventions; online trolling of those who have spoken out against the sexism; and the notorious tweets of Dawkins, the British biologist whose 2006 book, “The God Delusion,” has become the bible of many young atheists. (One example, from 2014: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”)
The energy now is not with the controversial author-celebrities but with start-up groups, many on college campuses, that have more gender balance and less strident rhetoric and are eager to do better than thumb their noses at believers. Crucially, these nonbelievers identify as humanist rather than atheist. That is, they’ve sided with a more welcoming version of nonbelief, focused on the joy and potential inherent in being human rather than on gainsaying others’ convictions. Their project is to talk about leading a good life without God.
Well pardon me, but I’m not aware of any Big Name Atheists who spend all their time simply going after religion—and really, do they all imply that believers deserve mockery and pity?—without also suggesting ways of living life without God. Hitchens, for instance, gave his moving final talk in Houston about not relying on scripture or authority, but learning to think for oneself. Sam Harris wrote a book on morality without God (yes, his latter-day utilitarianism has met with some pushback), Dan Dennett has never, to my knowledge, said that religion should be mocked or its adherents pitied, and even The God Delusion has a positive message about how one can be moral and fulfilled without relying on a God. While the main message of these books was indeed a rejection of theism, there is always a positive side about the advantages living a life without gods.
As for the “rampant misogyny” in atheism, I haven’t seen it. Yes, of course some male atheists are sexists, as are some males in any organization, but having gone to many meetings, scientific and otherwise, I simply can’t find myself able to label atheism as rotten with misogyny. Indeed, I see more positive attitudes about equality of women at atheist meetings than at other types of gatherings.
What Oppenheimer has done here, and which he didn’t have to do, is to undercut the philosophical basis of humanism by making gratuitous slurs against some well known atheists, and painting our gatherings as instantiations of rape culture. As for “exalting Darwin,” well, wasn’t it Darwin who struck a death blow at religion by showing that phenomena once explainable only by God had a purely naturalistic basis? The “scientism” accusation, of course, is just a canard.
I won’t go on, as this kind of atheist-bashing doesn’t deserve much consideration. It’s worth nothing, however, how it slips insidiously into articles where it doesn’t belong.