Sam Harris’ Speech at the Atheist Alliance International Convention October 2, 2007

Sam Harris’ Speech at the Atheist Alliance International Convention

I had mentioned that Sam Harris‘ talk at the Atheist Alliance International convention had a divided response. Some people really appreciated it; others didn’t like it at all.

You can now read an edited transcript of his speech here.

Given the absence of evidence for God, and the stupidity and suffering that still thrives under the mantle of religion, declaring oneself an “atheist” would seem the only appropriate response. And it is the stance that many of us have proudly and publicly adopted. Tonight, I’d like to try to make the case, that our use of this label is a mistake—and a mistake of some consequence.

Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at moments like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment—with peaks and valleys and local attractors—and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.

I’m not at all suggesting that we leave people’s core religious beliefs, or faith itself, unscathed—I’m still the kind of person who writes articles with rather sweeping titles like “Science must destroy religion”—but it seems to me that we should never lose sight of useful and important distinctions.

[tags]atheist, atheism, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, Christian, Jesus, religion, Islam, Muslim[/tags]

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  • Mriana

    I think we need to get off proving or disproving there is [no] god. I don’t think that matters. Rather the problem is, as Harris has said in various words also, religious extremism, dogmatism, literalism, and alike. If liberal religious people and progressive religious people got on the bandwagon too, instead of caving to the extremists due to whatever fear, we might be able to reach at LEAST Bishop Spong’s desire concerning Christianity and something much less extreme with Islam and other religions.

    I do not believe we can put an end to religion and admittedly there is some social value to it, as well as, literary and human developmental history. If I sat and thought about it, there are some other things that give it as much value as studying Philosophy or mythology. It needs to be put in the perspective of the cultures of the time it was written, not modern times. It doesn’t fit into our modern era. Then again, I am also a Religious Humanist too, which probably makes a difference in my POV, but dogmatism and the ideas of a metaphysical being, innerrantcy, literalism, and “my god is better than yours” need to go. However, the idea of ending religion isn’t going to happen anytime soon. We’ll be lucky if anything I suggested happens in our lifetimes.

  • Mriana

    My latest comment under Ellen’s thread fits here too, but I’m not going to repeat it.

    I found it interesting that Harris mentioned Missouri in the Washington Post. Could it be he’s been to MO, used the word atheist, and then got scared out of using it due to the Religious Reich here? Jackson County is further north of me, but they are just as bad there as they are here. They are a Holy Horror sometimes. 🙁

    I suggest before contemplating what Harris says about not using the words atheist, Humanist, Freethinker, etc. Consider that he mentions Jackson County Missouri in this mess. It is my guess something happened to scare him into keeping quiet. I wonder if he would honestly and openly discuss that with us?

    Here it is:

    First, these differences make all religions look contingent, and therefore silly. Consider the unique features of Mormonism, which may have some relevance in the next Presidential election. Mormonism, it seems to me, is—objectively—just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas. For instance, the Mormons think Jesus is going to return to earth and administer his Thousand years of Peace, at least part of the time, from the state of Missouri. Why does this make Mormonism less likely to be true than Christianity? Because whatever probability you assign to Jesus’ coming back, you have to assign a lesser probability to his coming back and keeping a summer home in Jackson County, Missouri. If Mitt Romney wants to be the next President of the United States, he should be made to feel the burden of our incredulity. We can make common cause with our Christian brothers and sisters on this point. Just what does the man believe? The world should know. And it is almost guaranteed to be embarrassing even to most people who believe in the biblical God.

    With everything he said about Civil Rights, the KKK, Jackson County MO, and alike, I would consider his words suspect of something that could have happened in this area and he’s been scared out of using the word. It would not surprise me a bit. 🙁

  • Mriana

    One more thing that makes me think something bad happened, some where he mentioned something about Spong having 13 death threats (which he had to take seriously) all from Christians. I seriously think something scared Harris, which he is not openly saying, but I can’t prove it. (I’m still looking for where he mentioned Spong and death threats.)

  • Mriana

    It seems Sam Harris feels the need to explain himself now that he has received criticism for his speech:

    I still don’t agree with him. However, I do agree the first statement he mentions does sound better and I would not do the second one. The second one serves no purpose.

  • Darryl

    I agree with Harris.

  • PrimateInRepose

    Darryl for long long time atheists have been hiding, which is the same thing as refusing to be identified as an atheist. How do you feel that policy has worked out for 2,007 years.

    I think its gone rather badly.

  • Paul Van Esbroeck

    I found this encouraging that Sam Harris, nolonger sees all religions in the same light. Here there is at least the possilbity of co-operation with religions to address the greatest dangers.

    If the universe is likely to be “stranger than we can imagine”, then we shouldn’t get too worked up about “strange or silly” religious myths that are a record of the strangest things we have been able to imagine so far. As long we don’t claim that the myths should be taken as litteral truth.

    Rather than asking science to “destroy religion”, we should ask science to study it. For the more destructive and dangerous we claim religion is, the more difficult it is to explain its persistance, unless it also has significant points on the plus side. If religions have under evolutionary pressure evolved to be relatively harmless, then it is much easier to account for the prevalence of religion in the human species.

    While it may be popular wisdom, that religion causes most war, and senseless suffering, it is not a claim that has much science behind it. The four year war in Gombe, seems to indicate that our capacity for war and violence, predates religion. The focus must be in getting rid of stupidity where ever we find it, and not in proving that religion in every imaginable form is nothing but stupidity.

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