Thursday, November 4, 2010

Atheists Debate How Pushy to Be


LOS ANGELES — Energized by a recent Pew Research Center poll showing that atheists are more educated about religion than religious people, 370 atheists, humanists and other skeptics packed a ballroom at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel last weekend to debate the future of their movement.

They agreed on two things: People can be good without religion, and religion has too much influence. But they disagreed about how stridently to make those claims.

The conference, sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism, drew members from all the major doubters' organizations, including American Atheists and the American Humanist Association. The largely white and male crowd — imagine a Star Trek convention, but older — came to hear panels that included several best-selling atheist pamphleteers, like Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," and Sam Harris, who wrote "The End of Faith" and is a rock star in the atheist world (he traveled with bodyguards because he receives death threats from both Christians and Muslims).

The conference came on the heels of a change in leadership at the council and a rumored rift there, which some described as a standoff between atheists, who focus on God's nonexistence, and humanists, who are also nonbelievers but seek an alternative ethical system, one that does not depend on any deity.

Some of the weekend's speakers alluded to the turmoil at the council, where several longtime employees have resigned or been laid off. But in general they emphasized unity: They shared common enemies, like religious fundamentalism and "Intelligent Design." And they believed morality was possible without God.

The presenters did differ on where a secular morality might come from. In his new best seller, "The Moral Landscape," Mr. Harris argues that morality is a product of neuroscience. (The good, he argues, is that which promotes happiness and well-being, and those states are ultimately dependent on brain chemistry.) Others believe morality is bequeathed by evolution, while still others would argue for ethics grounded in secular philosophy, like Immanuel Kant's or John Rawls's. But all agreed that nonbelievers are at least as moral as believers, and for better reasons.

The disagreement was not, then, between atheism and humanism. It was about making the atheist/humanist case in America. A central question was, "How publicly scornful of religion should we be?"

Here even the humanists got less humane, as each side stereotyped the other. Those trying to find common ground with religious people were called "accommodationists," while the more outspoken atheists were called "confrontationalists" and accused of alienating potential allies, like moderate Christians.

At the liveliest panel, on Friday night, the science writer Chris Mooney pointed to research that shows that many Christians "are rejecting science because of a perceived conflict with moral values." Atheists should be mindful of this perception, Mr. Mooney argued. For example, an atheist fighting to keep the theory of evolution in schools should reassure Christians that their faith is compatible with modern science.

"They resist evolution because they think everyone will lose morals," Mr. Mooney said. "Knowing this, why would you go directly at these deeply held beliefs?"

The panel must have been organized by someone mischievous, because the next speaker was the biologist and blogger PZ Myers — a confrontationalist, to put it mildly. In 2008, to make a stand for freedom of speech, he publicly desecrated a Communion wafer, a Koran and (for good measure) a copy of Mr. Dawkins's book "The God Delusion." He likes to say that he tries to commit blasphemy every day.

"I have been told that my position won't win the creationist court cases," Mr. Myers said. "Do you think I care? I didn't become a scientist because I want to impress lawyers.

"The word for people who are neutral about truth is 'liars,' " he added.

That seemed close to the view held by the physicist Victor Stenger, the last speaker. He accused those who live without God of cowardice: "It's time for secularists to stop sucking up to Christians" and other religious people, he said.

Afterward, Mr. Mooney and Mr. Myers quarreled about a figure frequently cited as living proof of accommodation between science and religion: Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. In the past, Mr. Myers has called Mr. Collins "a clown" because of his religious beliefs.

According to Mr. Mooney, Mr. Collins, who was not at the conference, is an important ally for atheists: a leading proponent of the theory of evolution and a supporter of embryonic stem cell research. "By what metric is that a clown?" he asked.

"When it comes to the way he's thinking about science, everything I've read that he's written has been complete garbage," Mr. Myers replied, adding later that he "will continue to call him a clown."

But for many in the audience, Mr. Collins's clown status was not the pertinent issue.

Rather, as atheists in a very religious country, they were looking for solidarity.

For example, I had lunch on Saturday with two young lovers who met earlier this year at "Generation Atheist," a meet-up for young people at a pub in Hollywood, where they had gone looking for like minds.

"I'm not 'out' at my workplace," said the woman, Claire, a 27-year-old arts administrator who asked that her last name not be used. "Because most people think atheists have no morals, I could damage the organization if I'm honest about where I stand on the issue," she said.

Mr. Myers and other "confrontationalists" surely do alienate some potential Christian allies. But they may also give comfort to people like Claire, who feel like an invisible minority. Mr. Myers is way out of the closet as an atheist — proudly, outrageously so. We're here, he's saying. And we don't believe. And we have science and reason on our side. Get used to it.

E-mail: mark.oppenheimer;


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