In Memory of Kurt Vonnegut

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We’ve posted a modest tribute to Kurt Vonnegut over at thenewhumanism.org. Enjoy.

Farther Responses to Welcome Criticism

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I’ve been having an interesting exchange with Brian Flemming, who wrote a blog yesterday about the recent AP story on our conference. In yesterday’s piece, he asks me to apologize for the use of the word fundamentalist in the AP article. This presents an interesting dilemma. I’ve already put in hours of blogging and responding to blogs, where I’ve been clarifying that I don’t think Dawkins, Harris, etc. are fundamentalists. And I think apologizing is really a wonderful, necessary thing to do often. We human beings are so imperfect, we hurt each other and fail to live up to our own standards so often that learning to properly apologize is practically a survival tool. At least in my life it has been– I fail often to be as loving, or as smart, or just plain as right as I’d like to be. And I have seen how liberating, how Humanistic, it can be to simply apologize, admit I was wrong, and ask for forgiveness. The value of a good apology is one of those things that both religious people and secular people have done well to recognize the power of. Though it must be said I absolutely don’t consider apology a form of excusing bad behavior in the first place, as in what I think certain forms of Christian (or secular) confession can justify.

But on the other hand, I don’t think it is fair for “New Atheists” to be able to use language that is as harsh as they want, but a “New Humanist” like myself has to be nice and friendly back to them at all times. So here is my latest response to Flemming.

Brian, the delay in my response was to give me a chance to read the Newsweek debate between Sam Harris and Rick Warren. Have you seen it? I think Sam does a beautiful, heroic job. He is absolutely not in any way whatsoever a fundamentalist. Moreover, I think he is getting better and better with his message and I believe some of the prodding he has received from people urging him not to be so quick to offend has helped him find more effective language. I would be happy to praise him publicly again for this great work.

But at one point in the debate Sam is asked to defend his statement that it is a “ludicrous obscenity” when someone takes his children to Church. Sam does not apologize for this language. He says, “To some degree the stridence of my writing is an effort to get people’s attention.” He then justifies this attention getting by saying that it is okay because he thinks his cause is urgent. Well, some of the language I have used to criticize aspects of Sam’s approach has also been part of an effort to provoke thought. And I too believe I am justified by the urgency of the cause– if we don’t do more to emphasize and build the positive side of Humanism and atheism, I believe the powerful potential of this moment which you and Sam and Richard and countless others have built may go to waste, to the detriment of all humanity.

So the truth is, I would absolutely be willing to consider apologizing for using harsh words in order to make my point (I think apologies are one of the most important things we can offer in life)– but perhaps when Sam and others are willing to consider apologizing for doing the exact same thing. Until then, I am not going to allow them to call people stupid and ludicrous and obscene but accept the double standard that I have to be nice and friendly to them and I can’t use any words that might make them a little bit mad.

You can print what I’ve just written. A final note: even Richard Dawkins himself, after a bit of email discussion, wrote that he wishes us well with our conference. He hopes for our success. That was big of him, and I think it says a lot about his approach. Not for my sake but for the sake of hundreds of people involved, and thousands if not more who have been glad to see us promoting Humanism and non-theism so boldly at such a well-known place as Harvard, it would be great if we could have your well-wishes too.

Can I publish that you wish us success?

I’d like to conclude by inviting you to Harvard to speak. This conference’s program is full, unfortunately, but next semester and beyond we are interested in putting on some big programs and we’d be delighted if you would join us as a leading voice in one of them. Perhaps we could host a major Harvard-wide forum on “The New Atheism” to follow up on our conference in September, October, or November, giving you and others a chance to speak out, even against whatever you have a problem with? We will be hosting Rep. Pete Stark in the Fall as well– to my knowledge Harvard is the only place he’s agreed to speak publicly on his non-theism, at least so far– so with you on the schedule as well it would be a huge, wonderful semester.

Some Critical Blogs and Some of My Responses.

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This recent AP story which ran in the NY Times (online only as far as I know) as well as the Washington Post and at least couple of dozen if not more other newspapers has really drawn some interesting responses. Two of my favorite bashers are Brian Flemming and Austin Cline. Ralph Williams, my favorite all-time Prof a the University of Michigan where I went to college, once told me that if you’re going to do something worthwhile, you have to make some enemies. Ralph was right, but I don’t in any way consider Austin or Brian enemies. I found their critiques to be worthwhile reading, and thought-provoking.

I’ve also been making an effort to respond to these and other such critiques, starting at our conference website. But I’ve found that I wanted to make an even more detailed response to some questions that have been posed to me than what I thought would be appropriate for thenewhumanism.org. So I composed a long piece which I hope will be posted on Austin Cline’s site, but which in any case I’ll also post below. I hope at some point to find the time to post some of the very interesting email conversations I’ve had on all this over the weekend with people like Dawkins himself, as well as leaders at the Center for Inquiry, and elsewhere. Right now, though, I need at least a bit of sleep, and during the week I’m going to be bombarded with work.

So hopefully this response to Austin and Brian, which I also made an effort to post on Austin’s site as a comment, will suffice for at least a little while. I really believe we can’t afford to resent or run away from criticism, and I also believe there must be room in our big movement for a lot of little views, so I’m grateful of this chance to share my thoughts.

Dear Austin and others,

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. I like this Agnosticism/Atheism site a lot and I want to take this opportunity to say a bit more.

First of all, I do think highly in many ways of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, as well as others such as Brian Fleming who has also posted a thoughtful critique of the AP article. Brian’s site doesn’t accept comments, but this one fortunately does, otherwise I’d be happy to take the time to post on both.

Richard wrote to me in response to my clarification about the use of the word “Fundamentalism,” (in short, I used it, but in scare quotes, and no I absolutely do not think Dawkins, Harris, etc. are actual fundamentalists) and pointed out that it is “interesting” that our movement is suddenly doing so well now that he and Sam have been speaking out so strongly this past year, and he questioned whether this might not have something to do with why are in fact doing better now than we have been at any time over the past 30 years. I couldn’t agree more– actually it’s probably been 35 or 40 years since we’ve had it this good at least in American public life, and the “New Atheism” is to be credited with a lot of that.

I don’t have a problem with “rocking the boat.” I don’t have a problem with us speaking out and telling the world what we don’t believe in, and why. I encourage it. I don’t even have a problem with all the people who are blogging about me right now and slamming me as some kind of representative of “appeasement,” as Brian Fleming put it. Some religion and some religious people have produced a lot of terrible, mendacious, violent sentiment over the years, and they’ve caused enough pain and harm that people desperately need to be able to speak out about it. Some of those people are clearly under the impression that I’m denying them their right to do so right now, so why wouldn’t they bash me? They should go ahead. But the thing is I’m not denying them anything. And again, I actually find Richard, Sam, Brian (and of course you too, Austin, I like your stuff as well) to be not just right about a lot of arguments against theism but generally entertaining and really clever. As I told Brian Sapient the other day, don’t worry, I get pissed off at one or another aspect of traditional religion too sometimes and when I do I’m glad the New Atheists are out there to speak up so eloquently and forcefully on my behalf.

There are of course a few things that deeply concern me about all this, however. First, I don’t care how effective certain writers can seem to be, or how many copies of atheist books they are selling right now, I believe we have to do our best to be the change we want to see in the world. One of the changes I want to see is, I don’t expect religious people to change overnight and become like me, but I’d like to see them reach out to me in friendship and respect and work with me on that which we have in common, such as the desire not to see the environment go down the sewer. We atheists and Humanists can’t solve that problem alone. In fact, no one single group of human beings can solve any problem alone in the world we live in today. We have to find ways to work with one another, and to see the good in one another. I feel the general spirit of the “New Atheism” (which I admit is a sort of unfortunate name, but let’s work with what we’ve got for a bit here) has simply not done nearly enough to offer the kind of respect it would like to see. We want to be treated as equals? Let’s raise hell about it, fine, but perhaps think twice about slamming me so hard as some kind of Uncle Tom (I definitely heard that one on a few blogs) if I want to speak for myself, and for the millions of atheists and Humanists out there who actually *like* and care deeply about a lot of religious people and don’t feel the need to hurt their feelings in addition to disagreeing with them. Sam, in the AP article in question, had no problem implying pretty bluntly that religious people are all stupid. Richard was quoted as saying that teaching about hell might be worse than sexual abuse. These kinds of statements are not simply the height of rationality and science. They come off as extremely obnoxious to a lot of people. Is it as bad as violence? No, for goodness sake, no. Is it hate speech? No. But is that what I called it? Also, no. I figure if Sam is willing to imply that an entire several billion people who don’t agree with him on religious issues might not because they’re stupid, then he might also be okay with the fact that I can allude to the idea that this might sound at least slightly reminiscent of fundamentalism to a goodly number of people out there. Thus, my use of the f-word, albeit in scare quotes.

And as for the fact that you can’t effectively stand for something unless you stand against something as well? Well said, Austin. Again, I really agree with you here. This is another example of the AP using language that just isn’t my own to make their point. As I’ve commented on other blogs (I am forcing myself to stay very short on sleep these few days in order to be able to say to myself– and others– that I did what I could to rectify as many misunderstandings as I could about this piece, and as I admit I am a sensitive person I hope some will consider appreciating that a bit) AP writers make a living by writing the most controversial stories possible– controversies sell, and AP stories need to be bought or “picked up” by newspapers in order to make money. Well, Jay Lindsay took one controversial thing that I said– that Dawkins et al are “fundamentalists,” again, with the scare quote marks– and he also took some of the most controversial statements possible out of Harris & Dawkins’ repertoires, so that should show you what he was looking to do– but the rest of the things that have been most strenuously objected to are not in quote marks, because I did not say them. I understand that to Jay it probably seemed that there wasn’t much difference between what I believe and the idea that the “attacks on religion will keep converts away.” But that’s not what I said and it isn’t what I meant.

The truth is attacks on religion probably will win some converts to atheism. But I’m actually not even interested in “converting” people, in the sense that I believe in allowing all people the dignity of independent choice, so while I can inform them of my beliefs and I can loudly and proudly reach out to them in the name of my beliefs, I will not try to force my beliefs on others. And when my outreach does work, I’m just as worried about quality as I am about quantity. What are we going to do with these “converts” once we’ve got them? Are we going to lie to them and tell them that if everyone were just to be like us, the world’s problems would disappear? Would that things were so simple. The truth is there are good, decent people, and sick criminals on both sides of the theistic fence, and it will always be so. I hope what we will do is organize ourselves into a movement that actually does some real, concrete good in this world and in our local communities, explicitly in the name of Humanism and Atheism. Because with the notable and commendable exception of defending science, I haven’t seen nearly enough of that from the “New Atheism.” What institutions has it built so far? What hungry children has it fed? What human rights violation has it sent a team of protesters to intervene in? I am looking forward to the day when we spend less energy bashing religion (not to mention each other) and more on doing some of these positive things and others as a movement, as an organization, as a force for good. And Austin, you might rightly say, well, give it some time, these guys haven’t had enough time yet to do that sort of thing. But what about giving me and others like me some time, then? You brought up that I haven’t done as much for the atheist cause as Dawkins or whomever, but I too am just 30 and am part of a whole generation that is just getting started. I know we are going to do amazing things together. If it’s fair to criticize us for not having done enough yet for argumentative atheism then it’s fair to criticize others for not having done enough over their long careers for positive Humanism. I envision a world in which we can criticize and lecture about religion to our heart’s content– I call this “speaking and debating” in a recent interview with the Humanist Magazine, which I think had some really important points in it, points that I didn’t necessarily come up with myself but that I believe in the need to highlight (though maybe if the word fundamentalism had just been thrown in there somewhere it would have received half this much attention) — but if that is ALL we do we are not worth our salt. We’d be like the religious folks who just bash atheism all day but are totally hypocritical when it comes to good works. Let’s put more energy into creating a Humanism that speaks and debates but also sings and builds. Once we’ve torn down, I want to know, how can we build back up together?

Finally, I want to conclude with a response to Brian Fleming’s really witty blog entry title, “Greg Epstein wants you to join him, asshole.” I seriously mean it when I say Brian has an awesome sense of humor, as do Sam and Richard, and that line made me laugh out loud, –at myself, not at Brian. He makes some interesting and good points, as do you. And I really wouldn’t ever, ever want to see a world without voices like his in it. I understand he grew up around some real fundamentalist types. I admit I grew up around much more liberally religious and New-Agey types, so maybe I’m just more naturally predisposed to have some degree of sympathy for the “other side.” In any case, I am not suggesting we New Atheists and New Humanists or for that matter New Christians or New Buddhists or New Jew-bu’s or just plain old fashioned people should “all just get along.” I like to sing but I’m not into Kuumbaya. To the contrary. I believe Humanism will become a true force to be reckoned with when we all begin to understand that we are a diverse movement with real disagreements and even some real dislikes, and yet it doesn’t stop us from being considered united on an important level. Think about, for example, Conservative Christians and Liberal Episcopalians. When it comes to so many things, they don’t just disagree–they flat out hate each other! And yet the very social power of Christianity (I don’t necessarily admire that Christianity has so much social power, I’m just trying to consider it realistically here) is that these two groups can co-exist in their differences and resentments and yet almost no one would ever think to suggest that either group was not Christian. That’s what we need! We need for there to be the New Humanists and the New Atheists, the Greg Epsteins and the Brian Flemings and the Richard Dawkins’s and the EO Wilsons and all the rest, and despite our obvious differences, no one in the world would think to question the obvious fact that we are all part of one diverse but united Humanist/Atheist (or if you prefer I personally have no issue with your calling it Atheist/Humanist) movement! *That* would be progress. I can’t wait to make progress along side you.

Thanks again for this wonderful opportunity to respond to your eloquent criticism! All the very best!


Greg M. Epstein
Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University

Thanks for Visiting

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You may have discovered this blog because of the recent Associated Press story that has run in the New York Times, Washington Post, and quite a few other papers, featuring my work as the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard. If so, a warm welcome!

I haven’t been maintaining my blog much because of all the hard work we are doing right now putting together the conference featured in the article, so please be sure to visit the conference website, which will also provide some insight as to how I feel about the story and whether it accurately reflected some of my opinions: http://thenewhumanism.org.

Thanks again for visiting, please register and attend the conference if you can, or please consider making a donation in support of our hard work, or just leave a comment!

Happy Birthday Richard!

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Some of Richard Dawkins’ colleagues have let me know that they feel he’d enjoy hearing surprise happy birthday wishes from the Harvard Humanist community early next week.

Some of you know I have been ‘taking on’ Richard lately in the media, critiquing the idea that we Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and non-religious are best represented by the attacking, anti-religious tone of The God Delusion.
I feel we can afford to be more generous, given the diverse, inclusive, and inspiring community we are.

But one of the many things I do appreciate about Richard is that he does genuinely listen to opposing views, and genuinely wants to represent us well, even if I don’t always agree with every word he says in doing so. And clearly he’s a brilliant man who has contributed much to science and human thought in recent years. I am proud to know him, even a little bit, and whatever my disagreements, I sure am glad we have him on ‘our’ side!

So, if you want to wish him a happy birthday with me, please post your birthday wishes here as a comment to this post, by the end of Saturday March 24.

And don’t post anything about this on any of the Dawkins Foundation’s websites or forums– we’re trying to keep it a surprise.

Darwin Day Tonight, Redline, 7pm

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New Conference Website!

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Well, it is finally here: our new conference website! Registration for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard’s 30th Anniversary conference begins today, so without farther ado, check it out.

The site is set up as a blog, and we hope to be updating it regularly with new information about the conference. That means in all honesty we may not get around to updating this page too often over the coming 2-3 months. We’ll see: obviously there haven’t been many updates in the last couple of months, though much has been happening that I could have been blogging about. Oh, well, my laptop was stolen while traveling abroad over the December holidays and that was the end of things for awhile.

But again, now we are very much back online with the conference website, and there may be things we put up here instead in the coming weeks, so check back occasionally. Certainly once the conference is done I am hoping to get back to this blog regularly.

African American Humanism Flyer & Poem

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This blog entry contains the flyer for our exciting event next monday, and a controversial poem by Langston Hughes. Please note the poem is not to be taken as a statement of the values of contemporary Humanism, but rather, as evidence that Hughes (along with many famous African American Intellectuals) engaged in a serious critique and ultimately a rejection of traditional religion, in favor of a more human-centered philosophy of life. For a detailed description of the upcoming event, see the entry below.
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Goodbye Christ
by Langston Hughes
Published in Negro Worker (Nov.-Dec. 1932)
***
Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day, I reckon—
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible—
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too manyKings, generals, robbers, and killers—
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s Church,
Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
You ain’t no good no more.
They’ve pawned you
Till you’ve done wore out.

Goodbye,
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all—
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME—
I said, ME!

Go ahead on now,
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Ghandi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson,
And big black Saint Becton
Of the Consecrated Dime.
And step on the gas, Christ!
Move!

Don’t be so slow about movin?
The world is mine from now on—
And nobody’s gonna sell ME
To a king, or a general,
Or a millionaire.

African American Humanism

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This week we turn our attention to the annual “Lincoln Lecture” on Humanism for 2006. I’m particularly excited about it, because the topic is dear to my heart and this year’s lecturer is one of the Humanist scholars & thinkers I personally admire most, anywhere in the world today. Here is the official announcement:

African American Culture and Religion: Do They Always Go Hand in Hand?
The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University (with the Harvard Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research) proudly presents the 13th Annual Alexander Lincoln Memorial Lecture:
Dr. Anthony Pinn
“Doing Humanism: reflections on the Nature and Practice of African American Humanism.”
MONDAY, DECEMBER 4, 7:00pm
Harvard Science Center Hall E
Free & Public
African Americans tend to be thought of as among the most “religious” groups in American society. But especially given recent debates on religion’s role in science, politics, terror, and more, the time may have come to ask: is there room for a Humanistic, agnostic or atheistic form of spirituality in African American life and culture? One of the nation’s leading young scholars of African American Religion, Dr. Anthony Pinn, passionately argues not only that African American Humanism can thrive today, but that it has been developing for well over a century. Pinn, a Harvard and Columbia-trained professor at Rice University, in his mid-forties, is the author/editor of seventeen books, on subjects such as African American religion and spirituality, hip hop, and African American Humanism; he is currently editing an Encyclopedia of African American Religious Culture.

Pinn points out that, since the time of slavery, American Blacks have been critiquing the Christian narrative that suffering is redemptive and should therefore be accepted and not struggled against. Many have even left behind belief in God altogether in favor of a focus on earthly reason and compassion. This Humanist alternative in African American spiritual life traces its roots to the religious questioning of thinkers such as Frederick Douglas and W.E.B. Du Bois, the agnosticism of James Baldwin, the socialist-influenced irreligion of Huey Newton and Langston Hughes, and the full-fledged modern Humanism of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker (Walker was even the recipient of the prestigious American Humanist of the Year award in 1997).

Invited by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University (and co-sponsored by the Harvard Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research), Pinn will deliver the 13th Annual Alexander Lincoln Lecture, entitled, “Doing Humanism: reflections on the Nature and Practice of African American Humanism.” He will reflect on questions such as, what should African American Humanism “look like” on a practical level? And how can 21st-century African Americans look to provide meaningful concrete alternatives to the liturgy, community, ritual, and social identity of the Black Church and other traditionally religious groups?

The Lincoln Lectureship has been an informal ‘Harvard Humanist of the Year’ award, given in previous years to notable figures ranging from the great scientist E.O. Wilson, to Human Rights heroes Taslima Nasreen and General Romeo Dallaire.


Yet Some More Upcoming Events

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Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, Memorial Church, Wednesday 11/15, 5:30pm

The event below is co-sponsored by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and the Harvard Secular Society. In addition, as advisor to the Harvard College Interfaith Council I’ve been working closely with the organizers, and the Humanist Chaplaincy has provided both funding for publicity (I believe we are the only individual chaplaincy to have done so) and access to our graphic designer, who created the flyer. Hope to see you at the event!
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“The Neuroscience of Moral Decision-Making”, Thursday, November 16th, 2006, 7:00 pm
Professor Joshua Greene
Science Center Hall D
Free & Open to the public

For more info see http://masshumanists.org

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