‘Atheophobia’ Hysteria?

July 30, 2013

Readers of the magazine Humanist Perspectives (Canada) are getting the latest issue (Summer 2013) and opening it to read a most alarming report of treachery and sedition. 
This article is titled “Trouble With Humanists: How atheophobic attitudes among Humanists compromise the fight for freedom of conscience” by David Rand [presently online here].
People of every secular persuasion may take a passing interest in sparring among self-appointed nonbelieving ‘denominations’. (Remember the flare-up between confrontationists and accommodationists from a couple years ago?) Rand is worried about the relations between “Atheism” and “Humanism” and speaks about them as if they were doctrinal camps. Rand proudly stands up for the ‘Atheists’ and he evidently has been holding a grudge against Humanism for a long time. Every grudge match requires a participating opponent, of course. Rand expresses his long-standing distaste for Paul Kurtz, but he is no longer with us. Looking around for Kurtz’s proxy, he somehow settles on me, but not on my own ample writings about my atheist views — just a single thing I wrote, a book review in Free Inquiry magazine about Kurtz’s posthumous volume Meaning and Value in a Secular Age
Rand’s grand thesis is that Humanists scorn mere atheism and say mean and lowly things about atheists so that Humanism can appear superior. Maybe such things are heard out in the open fields of grassroot secular activism, or over in the wilds of internet blogging, but such things hardly ever reach my ears, I have to say. People simply enjoy their own preferred labels for themselves, and I’ve never chastized anyone for adopting one or another from the many options. But Rand must have someone to joust with, so he tears out a few phrases from my article describing Kurtz’s philosophy in order to misrepresent what I say and accuse me of openly castigating all of atheism and every single atheist. No such thing appears in my review, I can assure everyone (go read it yourself) nor does any blanket condemnation of all atheists stain the pages of anything Paul Kurtz published. What Rand manages to quote from my review is what Kurtz did say repeatedly, that mere disbelief in God isn’t a sufficient worldview for life. And that’s true. Saying over and over “there’s no god” cannot be equivalent to affirming worthy ideals for life. Nothing Rand throws out in his lurching diatribe manages to bridge that Is-Ought logical gap. 
The funny (sad?) thing is the way that Rand himself indicates in his article how atheists should be motivated by humanist ideals. If atheism per se should be so complete and self-sufficient, it wouldn’t need humanism. Everyone knows that. That’s why the petty little denominational games get started. Nonbelievers who just want “Atheism” headlined then argue that the ‘meaning’ of atheism necessarily includes the humanist basics. Nonbelievers who just want “Humanism” headlined up front instead argue that the ‘meaning’ of humanism necessarily includes disbelief in gods. Then atheists reply by saying that dropping god-belief automatically exposes a person’s moral soundness. Sounds like magical thinking, responds the humanists, since people are basically nice but not that intrinsically ethical. And this sort of bickering can be kept up ad nauseum. Petty games can keep small-minded people endlessly occupied, but thinkers of wider vision realize what is actually going on.
Kurtz did not play petty semantic word games, but he did suggest one unifying term that should have ended all this bickering long ago: Secular Humanism. Secular Humanism regards disbelief in gods and confidence in humans as co-dependent and cooperatively victorious. Neither mere disbelief in religion, nor mere idealism about humanity, could by themselves forge a reasoned and wise philosophy of life. And Kurtz really didn’t loose sleep over whether everyone adopted his label instead — his point was only that whatever you call that integrated worldview, no separate part of it could stand alone for long. Not anger at religion, not admiring science, not ethical principles, not seeking inner peace, not political activism — no individual part by itself fulfills the secular life, nor stands a chance at replacing religion. Of course each individual nonbeliever finds satisfaction in just one or another activity, and no one should fault them for doing what they feel they need to do. But a philosophical perspective over the entire nonreligious world is a quite different matter.
One gets the impression from Rand that he actually agrees in spirit with all this. Yet Rand must have some battle victory somewhere in the name of Atheism, so he insists that Kurtz (and myself) are spending careers denigrating atheism in general as worthless and dismissing all atheists as fools. Rand labels this antipathy against atheists as “atheophobia” — “fear of atheism”. It’s common enough among the religious, surely, but the nonreligious too? Rand needs to identify instigators provoking this deteriorating situation, and he thinks we serve that purpose. Really? Considering how both Kurtz and myself have been in the business of making careers out of publicly advocating atheism at the top of our lungs, this would be a bizarre and alarming situation indeed. And Rand declares that the main symptom of “atheophobia” among the secular is a reluctance to call oneself an atheist. But Rand confidently diagnoses how both Kurtz and I suffer from this “atheophobia” despite the way we have been proud to attract public attention for being prominent atheists. Perhaps this nefarious plot goes even deeper — Kurtz and I are cleverly disguising our fear of atheism by making sure everyone we meet sees how comfortable we are with being called atheists. Truly fascinating!
Has Rand uncovered a secret plot to treacherously divide and rot the secular world from within? Has Rand discerned a rare psychological neurosis behind the “self-hating” atheist? It would surely be astounding if all this were really true.
A fair-minded reader should instead be asking if this investigative “reporting” could pass simple skeptical tests. Isn’t it a little suspicious that Rand must first declare the existence of two antagonistic camps, one just for ‘atheists’ and the other just for ‘humanists’, so that he can then accuse some secular leaders of trying to divide us? One should ask whether that black-and-white depiction of the situation fairly corresponds to what they see in the secular world around them. And Rand’s cherry-picking reporting doesn’t arouse more confidence. Rand’s primary source consists of quotations from me about Kurtz’s views, composed in an eulogistic tone to express with regrettable brevity a handful of philosophical ideas. I don’t even supply quoted passages from Kurtz’s writings (no space for that), yet neither does Rand for his much longer piece. I do manage to convey how atheism and humanism should be co-dependent and cooperative. Yet Rand spends far more time in his piece trying to clumsily agree with that view, than he does trying to prove how Kurtz and I have been supposedly betraying it.
It’s apparently too much to ask a very expansive and diverse movement to stop imitating the religious impulse to raise up artificial sects and get fights started. But I don’t think that it is too much to ask would-be spokespeople for the movement to refrain from encouraging the worst in us, instead of the best in us. That’s a humanist ideal worth broadcasting.