October 13, 2010
Atheists Split at Annual Conference
Turns out that atheists have fundamentalists and liberals too.
Fans of the Beatles celebrated John Lennon’s 70th birthday this week. Lennon was killed by a gunman in 1980 in New York City, and his violent death is often contrasted with the utopian dream Lennon composed in his song Imagine. The song is a favorite among secular humanists (a.k.a. atheists) because it dismisses the existence of heaven and hell, and portrays religion as a source of endless conflict and disunity. Without religion, Lennon wrote, we can “imagine all the people living life in peace.”
Ironically, while Lennon’s fans gathered in Central Park to celebrate his legacy the largest atheist organization in the country gathered in Los Angeles for a conference marked by schism and disunity. The Council for Secular Humanism met to pour out contempt upon Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Religious faith was called “nonsense,” “superstition,” and adherents were described as “ignorant” and “stupid.”
But what got the Los Angeles Times’ attention was the conflict that erupted between two camps within the atheist movement. On one side were the “new atheists.” These folks might be called the fundamentalists (although I’m sure they would object to such religious language). The new atheists believe in open confrontation with religious believers. Rather than a “live and let live” approach, they believe religion must be called out for the sham that it is.
On the other side are the “accommodationists.” These more moderate (dare we say “liberal”) atheists don’t believe direct confrontation with the religious is warranted. They even advocate partnering with religious people to advance issues of mutual concern.
The LA Times explains how the conflict between the new atheists and the accommodationists started:
That rift cracked open recently when Paul Kurtz, a founder of the secular humanist movement in America, was ousted as chairman of the Center for Inquiry, a sibling organization to the Council for Secular Humanism. One factor leading to his ouster was a perception that Kurtz was "on the mellower end of the spectrum.”
The conference of “rational” and “post-religious” leaders was hardly a utopian gathering marked by reason and thoughtful dialogue. The LA Times described the gathering as tense and noted that one new atheist’s response to an accommodationist’s comment was “nearly physical.”
While it may be unchristian of me to delight in anger and disunity within any community, I must confess a twisted amusement with this report. Change the names and it’s easy to imagine the article is describing a meeting of Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, or a pub brawl between 4-point and 5-point Calvinists.
John Lennon called us to imagine a world without heaven, hell, and God. Such a world, he sang, would allow for unity and peace. The gathering of atheists in Los Angeles this week has proved the opposite. Imagine that.