June 10, 2007

Freethought Community Still United

Writing in Newsweek's BeliefWatch column, Lisa Miller describes conflict within the freethought community, noting "the cracks are beginning to show." I commend Miller for covering issues of relevance to atheists, humanists, and other freethinkers, especially since her magazine so regularly panders to Christian readers. However, it seems that she is seeing conflict where little exists.

Miller suggests that the freethought movement (i.e., atheists, secular humanists, and other nonbelievers) is currently experiencing what most political or ideological groups go through as they develop - "the hard-liners knock heads with the folks who just get along." This is an intriguing possibility and has certainly been a point of discussion among freethinkers. But do our discussions about tactics for accomplishing our goals really resemble head knocking?

The "controversy" regarding Greg Epstein, Harvard's humanist chaplain, appears to be the primary piece of evidence used to support Miller's thesis. This is this old news and can hardly be considered a source of continued conflict in the freethought community. Certainly, many atheists thought it was inappropriate for Epstein to mistake passionate atheism for fundamentalism. I count myself among them. But I am not sure why disagreeing with Epstein must be equated with conflict or interpreted as reflecting deep divides among freethinkers. Miller's description of freethinkers taking sides against each other over this issue is way off base. Our community benefits from diversity, and we come together despite some occasional differences of opinion.

While Miller referred to the vibrant atheist blogosphere, I'm not sure she spent enough time there or visited enough blogs to obtain the big picture. Disagreements are inevitable, as are the occasional bad seeds, but I see little evidence of real conflict dividing our community. What I do see is a group of people with a variety of distinct yet complementary approaches for supporting the rights of American nonbelievers, opposing Christian extremism, and promoting secular humanism as a nondestructive alternative to religion.

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