Epstein’s F-Bomb, Part 2

After yesterday’s posting, I wrote to Brian Flemming to call it to his attention and ask for his thoughts. With his permission, here is his reply:

One thing about your approach: It concentrates on the “harsh words” aspect, which is no big deal. And Epstein is trying hard to focus only on that aspect.

I’d rather force him to confront the fact that he is promoting what he knows is a FALSE characterization.

Harsh words can be defensible. False words can never be.

There is no way to maintain a civil dialogue with someone who knowingly and willingly introduces false ideas into the conversation, just to force you to defend yourself against those false charges.

In fact, if that person has no intention of ending such a dishonest tactic, it would be foolish to keep talking to him. (However, if his words were harsh but true, or even harsh but defensible, those would be far less serious situations. But neither is the case here, by Epstein’s own admission.)

In my opinion, “false” is the key concept here, not “harsh.”

Brian, your point is well-taken.

At first I thought that Epstein could be given a pass for using a term like “fundamentalism” as a purely harsh word without having to also take it as false, since it was not at all clear to me that “fundamentalism” has any logically-consistent definition when applied to atheists. If so, then his use of the word could simply be called “not even wrong—” and could therefore be judged as a purely rhetorical device intended to create emotion.

But in examining the context of his statements more closely, he appears to be fairly clear on what he actually means by his use of the word. The AP article gives context to the term just after it introduces it: (emphasis mine)

Epstein calls them ”atheist fundamentalists.” He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.

So here, dogmatism and intolerance seem to be the gist. And when he “clarified” his position in his blog, he appeared to be using the term in much the same way:

Richard [Dawkins] 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)

By “actual fundamentalists” I take it he means something akin to the dictionary definition, “strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology.” This is essentially a reprise of “dogmatism.”

So to determine the truth value of his statements, we need set aside the scary term “fundamentalist” and decide whether the “New Atheists” are dogmatic and intolerant.

• “Dogmatism” entails holding to beliefs in spite of strong evidence to the contrary. I see no evidence for this among the “New Atheists.” I myself have written about the sort of evidence I would need to become a theist, but I never see theists writing about what sort of evidence it would take for them to become atheists. I conclude that atheists are, in general, less dogmatic than theists.

• “Intolerance” entails the unwillingness to allow the existence of contrary beliefs. Again, I see no evidence that the “New Atheists” wish to exterminate theists. If anything, they hope that atheism/Humanism will eventually become dominant solely on their own merits— given a level intellectual playing field and perhaps several additional generations of debate and advancement of science and culture. At the same time, they allow that this may never happen.

I can’t escape the conclusion that, assuming Epstein intended his use of “fundamentalist” to have any meaning at all, it is indeed false when applied to people such as you, Dawkins, Harris, myself, and the overwhelming majority of outspoken atheists I am aware of.

So, I also call upon Epstein to apologize— not only for his hypocrisy in using tactics he decries (for which I have already criticized him) but also for his prominent, damaging, and most importantly false characterizations of the outspoken members of the atheist/humanist community.

Finally, may I suggest a civil alternative to the f-bomb? The phrase “evangelical atheist” has been used as a term of self-description by Harris and others, and I find the term “evangelical” appropriate and positive in its sense of “zealous in advocating something.” Whether it is possible to be overzealous in certain cases is a completely acceptable debate for our community to have— it’s just not quite as headline-grabbing.

UPDATE: Friendly Atheist points out that Richard Dawkins expressed his own feelings about being called “fundamentalist” back in 2004!

I don’t particularly mind being a bogeyman – I do mind being a fundamentalist. I think a fundamentalist is somebody who believes something unshakeably, and isn’t going to change their mind. Somebody who believes something because it’s written in their holy book. And even if all the evidence in the world points in the other direction, because it’s in the holy book they’re not going to change. I absolutely repudiate any suggestion that I am that. I would, like any other scientist, willingly change my mind if the evidence led me to do so. So I care about what’s true, I care about evidence, I care about evidence as the reason for knowing what is true. It is true that I come across rather passionate sometimes – and that’s because I am passionate about the truth. Passion is very different from fundamentalism.

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