As a political strategy, however, that may be shortsighted. Greg Epstein, who like Schweitzer is a student of Humanistic Judaism, is perhaps the most outspoken voice for humanism in the United States and has made waves among atheists by arguing that the militancy of the Four Horsemen could derail an otherwise powerful movement. When I met the 31-year-old Epstein for breakfast in a Soho restaurant last month, he told me he’s writing a book called Good Without God, due out next year. “Most nonreligious people are not anti-religious,” he says, and he’s got the numbers to prove it. Epstein says that when he arrived at Harvard as the assistant humanist chaplain in 2004, there were just a handful of organized nonbelievers and no Website. Now he has a mailing list of over 3,000 and sponsors popular conferences featuring big-ticket atheists like Salman Rushdie, E. O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker. This month, he’s presenting Greg Graffin, co-founder of the punk band Bad Religion, who is also a lecturer on life sciences at UCLA, with a lifetime achievement award in humanism. I asked Epstein whether atheists need a church. “I’m saying we need to get organized,” he responds. “But what I view as organization still has pleasant disorganization. No humanist will accept authority for authority’s sake. It’s not in our makeup. If anyone came up and said, ‘This is the rule, this is the humanist dogma, and I can tell you based on my authority what the creed is,’ we’d throw them out with the trash. There’s a difference between building a community and building an atheist regime.”
In February, Epstein spoke to members of the Society for Ethical Culture to try to light a fire under an assembly whose numbers have been dwindling for decades. Founded by Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi, to drive social-justice initiatives and promote good without God, Ethical Culture walks like a church and talks like a church—congregants sit in pews, rise to sing hymns, and pass around a collection plate. But at one of their Sunday-morning meetings in January, their Senior Leader, in a very unchurchlike fashion, cited agnosticism as the only intellectually defensible religious position. More to the point, Epstein is eyeing the group’s building as a prototype for the church of New Humanism. Modeled on a Greco-Roman coliseum, Ethical Culture has semi-circular pews to promote conversation and a low stage designed to minimize the distance between leader and congregation. “I want to build big, beautiful buildings like Ethical Culture in every big city in America,” says Epstein. Unfortunately, his organization only brings in $200,000 a year. And while that’s up from $28,000 four years ago, it’s not enough to build a New Humanist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, let alone Central Park West.
The Four Horsemen haven’t completely turned their back on the movement they’ve helped to ignite. In addition to working on a children’s book about evolution to be published in 2009, the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth, Richard Dawkins has launched his Web-based out campaign to encourage atheists to come out of the closet. In lieu of a rainbow flag, he sells T-shirts with the scarlet letter A. Sam Harris, who says playing the victim is the wrong approach, is starting something called the Reason Project, bringing entertainers into the movement to further atheism’s passage into the mainstream. Celebrity atheists like Bill Maher, Ian McKellen, and Julia Sweeney, whose one-woman show Letting Go of God, is a big hit at atheist conferences, have been vital to the renewed energy behind the movement. “Nobody is satisfied with the profusion of groups and meetings,” says Harris. “My starting yet another organization is unhelpful on that front.”
At this point, the movement can’t even agree on a name. Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, prefers the term anti-theist because he’s entertained the possibility that God exists and finds the prospect frightening, the spiritual equivalent of living in North Korea. Daniel Dennett continues to promote the term bright, which, he has said, is “modeled very deliberately and very consciously on the homosexual adoption of the word gay.” (In the first chapter of God Is Not Great, Hitchens dismisses the term as conceited.) And Sam Harris, brash young scientist that he is, triggered a minor revolt last fall at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, when he lashed out against the term atheist, disparaging those who identify with a negation. “It reverberated in atheist circles as a sacrilege,” Harris told me. “But what’s worse is adopting language that was placed on us by religious people. We don’t feel the need to brand ourselves non-astrologers or non-racists.”
Dennett sees value in atheism’s great awakening, in the energy and money that come from organizing, but he counsels caution. “The last thing atheists want to see is their rational set of ideas yoked up with the trappings of a religion,” he says. “We think we can do without that.” Even Richard Dawkins is not one to reject certain memes based on their churchly pedigree. He calls himself a “cultural Christian,” admitting that he likes to sing Christmas carols as much as the next guy. But there’s a limit to his tolerance of religion. He can see the tactical virtues of making temporary alliances with religion—to “hold hands with religious people” when it comes to making the case for important causes like teaching evolution in the classroom. But there are definite limits. “In the larger war against supernaturalism, frankly, it doesn’t help to fraternize with the enemy,” he says.