BeliefWatch: An Atheist Uproar

It may not be fair to call what's happening in the atheist community a backlash, since atheists have always been and continue to be one of the smallest, most derided groups in the country. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, only 3 percent of respondents called themselves atheists and only 30 percent said they'd ever vote for an atheist. No, what's happening in the "atheist, humanist, freethinkers" community is more like what happens to any ideological or political group as it matures: the hard-liners knock heads with the folks who want to just get along, and the cracks are beginning to show.

At the center of this controversy is the humanist chaplain of Harvard University, a 30-year-old "secular rabbi" named Greg Epstein. In March, in remarks to the Associated Press, Epstein called the popular writers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins "atheist fundamentalists." He accused the best-selling authors—he now includes Christopher Hitchens among them—of being more interested in polemics, in tearing down and waging war on religion than in doing anything positive; his own responsibility, he says, is to speak out for the positive aspects of disbelief. "My problem with the atheists," he told NEWSWEEK, "is not that they're saying God doesn't exist. What I'm saying is we've got to build something." (Harris calls the term atheist fundamentalist "an empty play on words.")

In the blogosphere, where the atheist community is very active, some people aligned with Epstein, condemning the marquee-name atheists for their mercenary and destructive impulses. "The polemicists are interested in nothing more than selling," says Jeff Nall, a peace activist and grad student in Brevard County, Fla., who wrote a piece on this issue for The Humanist magazine. "The danger is in this ridiculous star status—they're seen as representative of the broader atheist community."

R. Joseph Hoffmann, senior vice president at the prestigious Center for Inquiry, lashed out at Epstein in a letter he posted online. He accused Epstein of mushy thinking ("Gen-X humanism for the passionately confused") and of using the Harvard imprimatur to stake out a divisive position. Epstein is the destructive force, Hoffmann says, not Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins. "His heresy," Hoffmann told NEWSWEEK, "is that he has an obligation to be embracing." In other words, Epstein isn't wrong, he's right: the name-brand atheists aren't friendly, at least not in print. But maybe being friendly isn't their job—it's his.