Greg Epstein, Atheist Superstar

By ADAM REILLY  |  November 24, 2009

All together now
This memory of isolation may explain why, for Epstein, Humanism can't just be an intellectual stance embraced by isolated individuals. Instead, it needs to happen in communities that share the basic trappings — congregations, meeting spaces, clergy, rituals — of traditional faiths. These accouterments, Epstein argues, "don't exist because God said so; they evolved because people needed them. Even if we're honest about religion, we're still going to need those human inventions."

Will we, though? Or does Epstein's determination to wed nonbelief to traditional religious forms suggest a fundamental failure of nerve? That's the explanation favored by Myers, the aforementioned Great Desecrator.

"I think it is very, very nice of Greg Epstein to want to ape religion, and maybe there will even be some people who find his ideas appealing," Myers tells the Phoenix via e-mail. "However, I'd remind him that just as we can be good without god, we can also be good without rituals, good without sacraments, [and] good without priests and chaplains. . . . I can appreciate that he's offering a small step away from the old superstitions, but we can go so much further."

Myers isn't the only nonbeliever with reservations about Epstein's vision of atheism's future. Tom Flynn, editor of the Center for Inquiry's Free Inquiry magazine, seems genuinely impressed by Epstein's energy and media savvy. He balks, though, at Epstein's assiduous courtship of organized religion, his suggestion that Humanism can be a sort of faith itself, and his eagerness to build new, nonbelieving communities along congregational lines.

The problem, Flynn contends, is that Humanism today is actually divided into two camps with radically different priorities — and Epstein only speaks to one of them. (Flynn speaks of "religious humanists" and "secular humanists," and situates Epstein in the former group; in Good Without God, Epstein makes no such distinction.)

"Greg lays a strong emphasis on denominational life, but a lot of folks on the other side of the tracks are strong individualists," Flynn explains. "They moved out of traditional religious backgrounds to move away from supernatural belief, but also as a way of emancipating themselves from a web of tight community control — and they're not eager to step back into a local community."

For Epstein to help keep atheism's internecine feud from boiling over, though, he doesn't have to convince every nonreligious man, woman, and child that his vision is the right one. It would be enough, instead, to disrupt the vicious circle of charge and counter-charge that's currently ensnaring both the New Atheists and their milder-mannered compatriots. After all, if Epstein's vision takes hold, the latter can throw themselves into building his still-hypothetical Vast Humanist Community. The former, in turn, can go back to bashing God and the godly, rather than their fellow nonbelievers. And Voila! For the atheists, at least, it's peace on Earth, good will to men.

Adam Reilly can be reached

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