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Atheists challenge the religious right

Growing religious influence in the US government has led some nontheists to take positions some describe as 'secular fundamentalism.'

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2007



For some time, the religious right has decried "secular humanism," a philosophy that rejects the supernatural or spiritual as a basis for moral decisionmaking. But now, nonbelievers are vigorously fighting back.

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Only a small percentage of Americans admit to being nontheists (between 2 and 9 percent, depending on the poll), but that equates to many millions. And religionists' role in debates over stem-cell research and evolution vs. intelligent design – as well as radical religion in world conflicts – have galvanized some atheists to mount a counteroffensive.

In bestselling books, on websites, and with a national lobbying effort, atheists and other nontheists are challenging the growing religious influence in government and public life. Some are attacking the foundations of religion itself.

Two particularly provocative books, in fact, hit the top of Publishers Weekly's religion bestseller list in December. No. 1, "The God Delusion," by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and No. 2, "Letter to a Christian Nation," by writer Sam Harris, are no-holds-barred, antireligion polemics that call for the eradication of all manifestations of faith.

"I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented," declares Dr. Dawkins, the famed Oxford professor who wrote "The Selfish Gene."

These offerings are so intolerant of religion of any kind – liberal, moderate, or fundamentalist – that some scientists and secularists have critiqued their peers for oversimplification and for a secular fundamentalism.

"They undermine their own case by writing in a language that suffers from many things they say are true of believers – intolerance, disrespect, extremism," says Alan Wolfe, a professor of religion at Boston College, who is a secularist and author of several books on American religious perspectives.

Yet the authors are anything but modest about their efforts to supplant faith with pure scientific rationality. While critics point out that religion is a genuine reflection of people's experience and will always exist, Mr. Harris suggests it could be equated with slavery, which once was widely acceptable, but eventually was looked upon with horror. He sees it as responsible for many of life's tragedies.

Harris first hit the bestseller bull's-eye in 2004 with "The End of Faith," and he says the responses to that book, particularly those from Christians, spurred his latest epistle.

A mere 96 pages, "Letter" may be dismissed by many for its condescending tone or overheated rhetoric. Yet its bold arguments offer a useful window into nontheist perspectives and could also startle some complacent religionists into a rethinking and refining of perceptions.

Many nontheists don't share this militant perspective, but have decided that keeping silent in religious America no longer makes sense. They are astonished that a majority of Americans question evolution and support teaching intelligent design in the science classroom. They are distressed over polls that show that at least half of Americans are unwilling to vote for an atheist despite the Constitution's requirement that there be no religious test for public office. And they contend that in recent years, Congress has passed bills and the president has issued executive orders that have privileged religion in inappropriate and unconstitutional ways.

As a result, seven organizations of nontheists – including atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and agnostics – began the Secular Coalition for America (SCA), a lobby seeking to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States.

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