New Humanists: Sincere or Just the Good Cops?

Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and is supposed to represent an atheist who is critical of New Atheism. Clearly, he and his followers want to distance themselves from New Atheism and its hate, but is this rooted in sincerity and principle or is it just an expression of the “Good Cop, Bad Cop” tactic that Epstein and others play with the New Atheists?

One thing is clear. He embraces the closed-mind certainty of the New Atheists and even considers both Dawkins and Harris to be heroes:

It is also important to note that the New Humanism and the New Atheism absolutely share the same views on questions such as whether God exists (almost certainly not), or how best to understand the nature of the world around us (science and empiricism). And as to whether we ought to fight for such causes as the separation of Church and State, the teaching of evolution, and the promotion of atheism and Humanism as valid, patriotically American ways of life, our answers are also the same as those of the New Atheists — you bet your life we ought to. To the extent that writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have taken a national and international lead in discussing such questions boldly, they should be regarded as heroes.

But he does try to explain how he and his fellow humanists are different:

Another goal of the conference was to show that Humanism can relate to non-Humanists in an inclusive manner. The New Humanism does not spend all its energy blasting belief in God in all its forms and certainly avoids ad hominem attacks on those who identify themselves as religious. In other words, we know that not everyone who disagrees with us is an idiot.

It’s nice to know that New Humanism does not spend all its energy blasting belief in God in all its forms and they won’t engage in name-calling, but these are two traits we might expect from people who play the Good Cop role.

We don’t kid ourselves about the deleterious effects of some religion, and we don’t have to agree with any form of theism, but we don’t consider religion to be child abuse. (Some religious people may indeed abuse their children by excessive indoctrination, but in those cases the crime of which they are guilty is…child abuse, not religion.)

“We don’t consider religion to be child abuse” again seems more like something the Good Cop would say. Instead of making such a passive distinction designed to highlight a supposed difference, why not express a more strongly-worded criticism of the notion that religion is child abuse? After all, even the Good Cops believe “some religious people may indeed abuse their children by excessive indoctrination.” What the heck is “excessive indoctrination?” Epstein postures as if he is guided by “science and empiricism,” but in reality, he seems willing to label other human beings as child abusers based on his own wishy-washy subjectivism.

Epstein claims, “We are Humanists because for us, Humanism is part of being the best, most honest, most thoughtful human beings we are capable of being.” But playing the role of Good Cop hardly qualifies as being “the most honest” human being you are capable of being. So it would seem the New Humanists have to provide much more clarification. For starters, we can ask them some simple questions. I’ll start with just one:

Richard Dawkins routinely refers to religious people as “faith-heads.” Is this an example of bigotry?

A sincere person who is trying to be the best, most honest, most thoughtful human beings we are capable of being will acknowledge this is bigotry. A good cop won’t answer that question, and if they try, it will come with all sorts of hand-waving. After all, a good cop, housed within academia, won’t want to admit one of his heroes is a bigot.

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8 Responses to New Humanists: Sincere or Just the Good Cops?

  1. Crude says:

    The ‘good cop’ role is important to realize. I think there are some legitimately sincere atheists and irreligious out there who have no patience for Dawkins, etc. But I also think there are a sizable number who support and endorse the name-calling, the slander, the hate, etc – but who don’t want to have that reputation associated with them. So they attempt to distance themselves from that behavior, without condemning it and speaking out against it, and try to be ‘the atheist who can hold a conversation and be nice for a moment. See? Atheists aren’t jerks!’ alternatives.

  2. Meh. The idea that there is some sort of good-cop, bad-cop agreed strategy here is ludicrous. Epstein has been a known entity and publicly advocating for humanism for a long time. And critical of Dawkins et al. IIRC. The only thing going on here is that he’s trying to get a little attention for his view of humanism by labeling it “New Humanism” and contrasting it with the much-better-known “New Atheism” — although, honestly, the term “New Atheism” seems to have dropped off the map in the last year or two, I’ve got probably 100 science-y/religion-y blogs in my reader and Mike’s is the only one where I’ve seen the term used.

    Speaking of history — what happened to Telic Thoughts?

  3. Michael says:

    Meh. The idea that there is some sort of good-cop, bad-cop agreed strategy here is ludicrous.

    Maybe. Maybe not. That’s why I wrote:

    So it would seem the New Humanists have to provide much more clarification. For starters, we can ask them some simple questions. I’ll start with just one:

    Richard Dawkins routinely refers to religious people as “faith-heads.” Is this an example of bigotry?

  4. TFBW says:

    The idea that there is some sort of good-cop, bad-cop agreed strategy here is ludicrous.

    The idea that the two factions are conspiring to play “good cop, bad cop” is not credible. The idea that the New Humanists are opportunistically playing “good cop” to the New Atheists “bad cop” is entirely credible. Michael’s question seems like a good first-pass test for how deep the Humanists’ professed creed of “inclusiveness” runs.

  5. Crude says:

    We are Humanists because for us, Humanism is part of being the best, most honest, most thoughtful human beings we are capable of being.

    I don’t really have much to add to the current conversation, other than to point out that this is some exceptionally twerpy quote. Even the most self-righteous religious tend to talk about honesty and virtue as things they strive to be or live up to as standards. They don’t say describe themselves as being ‘the best, most honest, most thoughtful human beings we are capable of being’. To say nothing of how extraordinarily difficult it would be to justify humanism as an essential component to that anyway.

  6. “Richard Dawkins routinely refers to religious people as “faith-heads.” Is this an example of bigotry?”

    The behavior you describe is bigotry (whether or not Dawkins applies it to all religious people and does it routinely, I don’t know). But you won’t accomplish anything by asking the question in a random blog. Email him.

  7. Crude says:

    What will emailing him accomplish? We’re dealing with someone who presents themselves as a leader and representative of the humanist community. Privately, in an email, distancing himself from Dawkins’ words wouldn’t accomplish much of anything.

    Dawkins has been on record, encouraging his cultists to belittle, attack and degrade religious believers, to scare people out of religious beliefs because ‘no one likes to be the butt of contempt’. That’s not just bigotry, that’s hate. Can you point to the humanist who calls Dawkins out on that and condemns it? Or are we going to pretend that, gosh, maybe they just don’t know he’s done such things – rather like how it took a very, very long time for atheists and humanists to have anything public to say about Dawkins’ religious upbringing/child abuse claims, and even then they cut and ran the moment they thought he kinda-sorta made an apology, even after he straightaway said he didn’t apologize?

  8. cl says:

    Well for me it’s pretty easy. Anybody who says,

    To the extent that writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have taken a national and international lead in discussing such questions boldly, they should be regarded as heroes.

    …is kooky. That simple. Being an obnoxious, rhetoric-filled loudmouth is in no way heroic.

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