Greg Epstein, Atheist Superstar

By ADAM REILLY  |  November 24, 2009

But today — chastened, perhaps, by the brouhaha of 2007 — the 32-year-old Epstein seems to be taking a more conciliatory stance. "I admire today's 'new atheists' because they seek to right the very real and very many religious wrongs of our time," he writes soothingly in Good Without God. "And I especially appreciate Messrs. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens when they liberate young people to feel good and be open about their lack of belief in God at a time when many still live in communities that shun those who will not produce at least an outward display of old allegiance to the old values."

Epstein's bigger point, though, is that simply criticizing religion isn't enough: rather than polemicizing against faith (or each other), nonbelievers everywhere should focus on formulating a positive conception of life that can inspire and guide the godless — faith without faith, if you will.

It's an enticing pitch — and for several reasons (including the ever-powerful Harvard brand) Epstein is an attractive, prolific messenger: he blogs for the Washington Post; has been referenced by (among others) New York magazine, the Daily Beast, NPR, and the BBC; and is slated for upcoming appearances on NPR's Fresh Air and ABC's World News with Charles Gibson. But given the internal tensions roiling atheism today, does Epstein have a prayer?

Smooth operator
The problem with the world's billion or so nonreligious men and women, Epstein contends in Good Without God, is that they've allowed themselves to become defined by what they don't think, not what they do — a problem implicit in the term "atheist" itself, which connotes a rejection of God, but not the embrace of any other source of meaning. The solution for "Humanists," as Epstein calls them — by which he means those who don't believe in God, or aren't sure, or don't care, but seek a cohesive, secular philosophy of life — is to strive for a condition he calls "dignity":

[T]here is a state in which you're aware of your own humanity, and you're also aware of others' humanity, and you're aware that all human beings are human. There's a state in which you're aware of your own vulnerability and mortality, and that awareness allows you to connect with others from a place of strength and empowerment. There's a state in which you don't have too much clingy connection or too much lonely disconnection, but where you combine self and other. Being in this state feels good in both the short term and long term — good enough to motivate us strongly. And so our goal is to get there and try to stay there.

If you reject the idea of a Big Guy Upstairs, but still crave a thoughtful, demanding framework for existence, that's a pretty attractive formulation. But selling it to Epstein's intended audience — which includes not just those billion Humanists-in-waiting, but progressive religious believers, as well — could be tricky. Atheists animated primarily by their opposition to organized religion may see Epstein's ideal as worrisomely religious itself. And even broad-minded believers might decide that Epstein's arguments aren't that different, in their core premises or long-term implications, from the New Atheism's harsher polemics.

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