PZ Myers’ Response to Sam Harris October 5, 2007

PZ Myers’ Response to Sam Harris

Well done, sir:

I’m sorry, Sam, but complaining about your name and fishing about in a dictionary for happy words you can appropriate is such a Republican thing to do. I much prefer the forthrightness of an out & proud movement.

I’m now thinking that Sam Harris missed a golden opportunity to make a much more forceful condemnation of atheists (while still supporting what we all do) by calling out organizations who are not working together with other like-minded groups.

We can have our differences in opinions, but the truth is that we share similar beliefs in the general sense. We need to unite together against the irrationality of religion. If you’re not doing everything in your power to form a unified front for atheism (or what-have-you), then you deserve condemnation.

I think he would’ve earned the respect of damn near everyone at the convention had he done that. Not to mention one of the goals of the weekend was to showcase the cooperation that is emerging between many atheist groups. It was the perfect time to say how we need to forget the labels and work together.

Forgetting the labels, by itself, isn’t going to help us much at all.

[tags]atheist, atheism, PZ Myers, Pharyngula[/tags]

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • As much as some people seem to dislike labels, whether or not they have a negative connotation, they are immensely useful for unifying a group of people (such as atheists) that as individuals often feel isolated.

    Many people (myself included) feel the need to belong, especially if our philosophies don’t agree with those closest to us. What better way to have a sense of belonging than to have a label you can point to and say, yes that is what I am, this is where I belong? It is one area where religions have a built in system for this, people can call themselves Christian/Jewish/Muslim/etc. and we know what they are talking about, and, at least in general, what it means to them.

    By having a label of atheist it gives those who are without religion a way to say this is what I believe in (or don’t) and it is quite clear what it means. Unfortunately, so many people equate atheist with puppy kicking and baby seal clubbing, and that is what needs to change. Unfortunate as it might be for Sam Harris, but atheist is a word that cleanly explains what we believe. We believe in no deity. The only workaround is if we as a group can mobilize and successfully market a new label, or a new definition for the word atheist.

  • doughtfuldaughter,

    I totally disagree with: “but atheist is a word that cleanly explains what we believe. We believe in no deity.”

    That statement is simply not true and you bring up that point when you state: “Unfortunately, so many people equate atheist with puppy kicking and baby seal clubbing,….”

    I think I am an atheist, but many tell me I am agnostic, freethinker, etc. We must first define “God”, “god” “deity” and “believe”.

    It is not that clear cut. I do not believe in the personage of GOD, but am a spiritual person who believes in a “higher power”. Am I an atheist?

    I have an issue with people who behave in a separatist manner yet don’t want to be “isolated”. It a contradiction in it’s simplest form.

    One of the main problem I see with religion is that it separates people. One of the ways it does this is with labels. “I am this” “I am that”. Why would someone who disagrees with the way people of religion live and yet want to adopt their methods?

    The issue is not black and white. I agree with Sam Harris on some levels and disagree with him on others. One thing I am sure of is that “Atheism” is starting to sound like a religion and that can’t possibly be good.

  • Rev. Mark, I see your point and I think the problem is that there are so many shades of gray so to speak. I may not believe in a higher power, but you do, so a blanket label doesn’t work, and maybe that was the point and I missed it.

    And I don’t think behaving in a separatist manner and not wanting to be isolated is mutually exclusive or a contradiction. Yes, my thinking is separate from the mainstream, but I shouldn’t have to suffer isolation because of it, especially when there are others who share my way of thinking.

    Or maybe I have mislabeled myself and instead of thinking I’m atheist, I should think I’m humanist or freethinker which may have a broader interpretation. Once again, maybe this dialog is making me see the point to both arguments, since most if not all labels are imperfect, but not everyone rejects labels when they reject god.

    My point in saying that atheist explains our philosophy was in the literal sense (“without religion” or “without god”), not in the sense that it has come to be used (the puppy kicking way).

    As a sidenote, I want to say I welcome you challenging me. Too much of my life has been backing away at the first sign of conflict, it is something I’m trying not to do as much. I want to learn to find the courage to stand up for my opinions and convictions. It scares the everliving crap out of me to be debating with someone, even in the virtual anonymity of the internet. Yet I know that if my opinions aren’t challenged, there is no room for learning and understanding.

  • Mriana

    I’m proud to use the label Humanist because it is a label that pretty much sums up everything about me.

    Thing is, I still have this feeling that Sam Harris isn’t telling us everything and given what I know about this area, if he was down here, he may have received some serious flack. Then again, I maybe over-analyzing what he said too. It would not surprise me though.

    My English prof praised Harris for being able to influence others because he organizes his thoughts. I said, “No, not with his lastest.” Regardless, his latest tells me something is wrong and he’s not telling us. “We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives”? Sounds like a man who’s frighten for some reason. This makes me ask, “What happened?”

  • Darryl

    Adopting a single label confuses those we want to convince and misleads them into thinking there is no great diversity among us when the opposite is true. Simplistic, pigeon-hole thinking is one of the problems we are confronting, and we can’t very well do it by fostering it ourselves. I dare say that none of you reading this post holds the same set of views that I do; and I don’t expect or want you to. Having a diversity of labels is okay. People can organize and network without labels. They can vote their convictions and work together for progress without marching under a single banner; in other arenas we do it all the time. Furthermore, working “under the radar” is less threatening. We do not need more strong-arm politics right now.

  • Mriana

    Maybe not, but I am a bit tired of hiding and isn’t working under the radar a bit like hiding? I see nothing wrong or threatening about saying I’m a Humanist or even a non-theist. If the other person takes it as a potential threat then they need to learn to ask questions or do some research. I really don’t want to pound theism out of anyone and that is not what Humanism is about anyway. Nor is atheism without being a Humanist or any other added title, even though there are some atheists that do take a militant stance. Now those are the people that need to chill out a little, because they do give others a bad rap just as religious extremists give the religious a bad rap.

    I’m not talking about strong-arm politics either. I’m just saying we shouldn’t hide and it really doesn’t matter what title we choose. Or it shouldn’t at least. Does a bi-racial person need to hide under the radar anymore? There was a time when a bi-racial person who could pass for White did just that and kept their mouth shut about their identity. I don’t think it was very fair to them that they had to hide their genetic origin.

    Yes, I know. We’re not talking genetics, but since Harris did bring it up racism in his article it seems to me it’s fair game. The last thing I want my older son, who takes after me, to do is hide his background. He is both Black and White. Both my sons are, but my older son could “pass for White” esp if one did not know what they were looking at when they looked at him and it’s happened a time or two in his life. When he was in middle school, the students for some reason segregated themselves. My older son happened to sit with the Black kids without giving it a second thought and one of them said, “What are you doing here? You’re White.” He proudly, though a bit defiant, said, “My daddy is as Black as you!” The students looked him over and finally let him stay with no more attitude.

    He gets it from both sides, but the point is, if people of colour can stand up and proudly say, “Black is beautiful” or say like my son did that his daddy is Black (and remember there was a time he still would have been ousted by either side) why can’t we be proud of who we are? I think I would be a hypocrit if I refused to say, “I’m a Humanist” and revert to keeping my mouth shut or say I’m something I’m not out of fear of what Christians would do to me. My son doesn’t have to have fear of others because he is not all Black or all White. Neither one of my sons do for that matter, even though my younger son gets it more from some White people. So, I’m a Humanist with a “Christian cultural background”, but only because I was born into Christianity. Big deal.

    I didn’t choose to be born into Christianity anymore than a child born into Judaism or Islam did (or a child who is other than White), but I did choose to be a Humanist.

  • Maria

    Rev. Mark, Daryll, and Mriana, you guys all make some very good points.

  • My view is that I’m going to continue to call myself a skeptic and an atheist and a freethinker, and I’m going to suggest that everyone else continue to call themselves whatever labels they think best describe their views. And I’m going to work cooperatively with everybody who fits into the broadest class of freethinker, whatever they happen to call themselves, as long as they act with integrity and honesty. And if they don’t, I’m going to call them on it. And I encourage everyone to do the same.

    I disagree with Harris when he says that people should stop using any of those labels and fly under the radar. I agree with him when he says that atheism is not a worldview–it’s a small but significant component of a large set of possible worldviews.

    I’ve written more about this at my blog.

  • Bad

    I’m now thinking that Sam Harris missed a golden opportunity to

    …. just suck up to conference goers and throw them more thoughtless red meat.

    We need to unite together against the irrationality of religion. If you’re not doing everything in your power to form a unified front for atheism (or what-have-you), then you deserve condemnation.

    This isn’t quite the view I expected from you Hemant. Are you really in the “if you’re not with us you’re against us, APPEASERS!!!!!!” crowd?

    Atheism isn’t and can’t ever be a united front qua atheism. And to some extent the more we try to make it one, the more we confuse the issue of what atheism even is: in fact, we basically do exactly what Harris said: compliantly jump into the chalk outline theists have drawn. We aren’t a group like other groups: we’re defined backwards. Uniting against irrationality is a goal, a value, a cause, not a category.

  • batyah harris

    This is a bit off topic, but it relates to all the entries of the past couple of weeks that I have read here on this site. I would like to ask readers, and also Friendly Athiest: Why the hostility toward “believers.”

    On any given day, if you ask me if I believe in God, I might say “I’m agnostic” or I might say “I’m an atheist.” Such is my personal status on faith right now. But I have NO hostility toward believers, nor do I feel that I have any responsibility or need to persuade them to see things my way. Religion seems to help some people to cope better with life, and it also seems to help some people to be more charitable, patient, or whatever. To the extent that religious beliefs create problems in the world or for you personally, why not just tackle those specific issues? Because not ALL believers cause problems for atheists, therefore you really cannot argue that religion is an evil that must be stamped out. That is wholly untrue. For most people, religious belief is benign and in most cases, another’s religious beliefs do not intersect with your life. What business is it of yours what others believe?

    When I first visited this blog, there was an interesting discussion going on and I thought I might hang out here to learn more about my own feelings and about the feelings of other atheists/agnostics. But what I see going on here seems an awful lot like what Christian and Muslim zealots do when they try to “convert” the world. Why are you trying to convert the world to your belief system? Why not just live and let live?

    Seeking serious and genuine responses. Thanks.

  • HappyNat


    For most people, religious belief is benign and in most cases, another’s religious beliefs do not intersect with your life. What business is it of yours what others believe?

    Have you met the current president of the United States? His favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ, he talks to God everyday, he is against gay marriage, and has started a war based on nothing but misunderstanding and fear tactics. This is just one example of how someone’s religious beliefs intersect with my life and he gets the “OK” from the American public who believe the same things he does.

    There are religious groups that spend millions of dollars on creation museums, to fight gay marriage, and to make sure strippers stay 6 feet away while giving a lap dance, while millions of people in our own country are hungry and don’t have the shelter they need. I don’t know about you but I consider this an intersect with my life. These are just a few examples of religious people in the United States that are wasting time, money, energy, and human life because of their belief in god. This pisses me (and many on here) off and we come here to vent.

    Where have you seen us trying to convert people? I’ve been here quite a while and haven’t seen any concentrated effort of conversion. “We” state our point of view and will back up our assertions with facts when challenged by believers, but that is when they come to a site called “the friendly atheist”. What else could they expect when they come here?

  • batyah harris

    Happy Nat, why shouldn’t people be able to put their money toward the things they believe in? Are you putting money toward promotion of gay marriage? Are you putting money toward the protection of the environment? It’s a free country; you promote your own interests and everyone else promotes theirs. I don’t see the problem here.

    As for people going hungry and needing shelter — well, there are some very valid philosophical viewpoints in favor of personal responsibility, so you can’t blame people for not wanting to sink even more resources into the welfare system. This is a real hot button for me. I grew up in an extremely poor home, was taught that welfare is a disgrace (consequently we went hungry a lot — something I do not agree should have happened just so my mother could teach us this principle), and I was independent by the age of 16, declared an emancipated minor in a court of law. I had to drop out of highschool to get a job to support myself, which I did. I worked for two years as a waitress and then as an office worker. I petitioned to go to college (having no highschool diploma and low SAT scores as I’d never heard of SAT preparation classes and had never taken such an exam in my entire life) and received government grants for tuition. My GPA my first semester in college was a 3.4. Not bad for a 10th grade dropout. I wanted to major in English, my first love, but knew it would be hard to make a living so I responsibly opted for a degree in Nursing instead. I kept my legs closed, thanks to my religious upbringing, so no illegitimate children to support (or to allow the government to support). I didn’t turn to drugs, prostitution, or crime, nor did I assume that the world or various rich people should take care of me. I did, however, harbor a lot of resentment toward my parents, who were the only people I felt had shirked their responsibility toward me. I didn’t try to trick a man into marrying me so I could get a meal ticket. In short, I relied upon myself. My siblings had a similar story (of course, as we all came from the same family). We were the first in our ENTIRE extended family to get a college degree. We saw our cousins going on welfare, getting knocked up by ex cons, and becoming drug addicts. Such is the family *I* came from. I did better. All that to explain why I have NO sympathy for people who cannot feed and shelter themselves in America. Sorry. (Unless they are under age 16, but even children are capable of making wise choices if they have the right bent). I am simply not convinced that a religious person should refrain from building creation museums (as silly as I think those are, by the way) and instead fund more welfare for the character-challenged among us. If you feel that the hungry and unsheltered are complete victims of a selfish or hypocritical society, then you should work another job and hand over all your paychecks to the victim of your choice. As I see it, we already pay an EXORBITANT amount of money into the welfare system. Don’t ask taxpayers or Christians or anyone else to pay more; instead, make that YOUR pet project, and YOU should pay more. Unless you’re a hypocrite too . . .

  • batyah harris

    By the way Happy Nat, are you aware that Jews give the most charity of all groups in the United States? I suspect that Christians are also big givers to charity. Who runs the soup kitchens and the food banks? I don’t have the stats to back me up on this, but I’m willing to bet that if we took a look into this situation, we’d find that religious people actually give a LOT more money to humanitarian charities than secular humanists. I used to hang out with the libs in college and even was married to one for a while. The charities of choice among my pals were Sierra Club, PETA, AIDS research and GreenPeace.

  • batyah harris
  • Mriana

    I don’t know if I trust the stats or not. I give to WWF (we’ve even adopted a wolf), ASPCA, and The Breast Cancer Assoc. Now that isn’t including the AHA, CSH, other Humanist organizations, ACLU, AU, Concerned Scientists, MoveOn, or Obama. I don’t donate blood though because I’m 4′ 11″ and 100 lbs. (not liking needles is the very least of my excuses).

    My point? I don’t think it’s fair to stereotype people or be all inclusive. I do know some Christians who do not donate a single dime to charity OR their church, but I can actually say it’s not fair to judge them because of that. They are on disability and SSI. In other words, they have no money.

    Yeah, I just said that and about Christians too. I can be nice to Christians sometimes. I only criticize when it’s deserved and there have been times I’ve criticized atheists too.

  • Karen

    batyah, I’m very glad that you were so resourceful, and responsible and smart enough to achieve what you did. Congratulations.

    However, it’s not very useful to look to one or two – or even two dozen – examples of extraordinary people overcoming the odds and becoming successful, because the truth is that most people simply can’t do that. They don’t have the brains, they don’t have the drive, they don’t have the optimism, or the luck, or whatever it takes to overcome as you did.

    So, what are we as a society supposed to do with the vast numbers of people who don’t fit your mold? Have you no empathy toward them whatsoever? Even you admit that your parents were irresponsible to let you go hungry in order to teach you a lesson or stick to their principles. Are we supposed to kick hungry children to the curb?

    I for one do not want to live in a society where children beg on the streets and pregnant women have no access to supplemental food or income. Do you?

  • Re: Stossel: I don’t give money to Salvation Army because they proselytize Christianity. I don’t give money to United Way because they take a cut before passing it on and the branches in Arizona support organizations that violate their own (United Way’s) nondiscrimination policy, such as the Boy Scouts of America, which discriminates against gays and atheists. I don’t think his test means much.

    But there is evidence that conservatives and the religious are more generous with their own money than liberals and the non-religious, unfortunately, even if you don’t count church donations:

  • batyah harris

    Karen, I agree with you that children should not be made to suffer. But my solutions would be regarded as too extreme and harsh: I believe that if you are old enough to make a baby, you are old enough to deal with consequences, period. That means that if you make a baby and cannot or will not take care of it, then the child should be seized immediately (no second chances; you were warned) and placed with people who will love it and nurture it. Too bad if you feel bummed that your child was taken away. And if you dare to get yourself pregnant again, you face stiffer penalties — I don’t know, maybe forced sterilization. At some point, the message has to be conveyed that children are precious and if you are unworthy of having them, we will take them away from you and give them to someone else.

    Handing out money to these kind of people does not help the situation at all. Many times these people do not use the money to feed or care for their children anyway — instead I’ve seen women support any number of able-bodied shiftless male sperm inseminators while their children continue to go neglected and hungry.

    Do not paint me as an uncaring, unsympathetic person. Nothing could be further from the truth. I get angry when I see children mistreated and neglected — I do not care one whit if their parents were also mistreated and neglected.Once you reach a certain age, you should make the necessary changes in your life. At the very least, stop breeding. It doesn’t take much brainpower to look around you and figure out that you need to start doing things differently in order to change your life. It isn’t as if the US isn’t chock full of incredible role models. There are MANY resources in America already, and many wonderful and generous people. I know, because I took advantage of their offers of help. It is not as though I did it all on my own, so I am not asking anyone else to do it all either. What I’m asking is for everyone to BE RESPONSIBLE and put out even the tiniest of efforts. MOST people you see in dire straits are there not because of discrimination or lack of brain power; they are there because they have no moral character. This is where the religious right is correct 100%. Instead of giving handouts, start giving instructions (I agree that these people need to be led by the hand). Have penalties for failure to follow instructions. Start taking the children away — there are more than enough childless couples looking to adopt.

    There is an old adage that is so, so true: Unrewarded behavior does not get repeated. This is a psychological fact. When public assistance is reduced for every additional child born, the birth rate in that region goes down. DUH! When men are chased down and forced to pay child support, they do. Many of these people live in circumstances that we consider horrific, but by THEIR standards, it’s not so bad, so they are not motivated to change. THEREIN LIES THE PROBLEM. Where you see a problem and think the solution lies in easing suffering, I see a problem and think the solution lies in allowing the person to feel even more suffering. Clearly, they are not at their tipping point yet, that point at which they are motivated to say to themselves “this isn’t working for me; I need to do something different.” Obviously, as I have said before, the children should be removed from the home as they should not be made to suffer for their parents’ stupidity. If mass orphanages need to be built, so be it. The breeding has got to stop, and the perpetuation of one welfare generation after the next must be broken.

    Liberals think they are so open hearted to want to give and give and give. But all that has done is create generations who have expectations that someone else will take care of them. It is wrong to hobble a person by making them believe that they are not capable of changing their lives for the better. Instead of sending victim creating messages like “Life is so unfair; the rich get everything; discrimination is the big boogey man” we should be sending messages of “You can do it; you can be anything you want; others before you have done it and are waiting to help you and show you how.”

  • Karen

    Batyah, I regard your solutions as abhorrent. There’s no other word for removing children from their families, forcibly sterilizing the poor and heaping additional suffering on the disenfranchised in society. Those are the nightmare scenarios of totalitarianism.

    I’m afraid we are too far apart in our thinking to have any viable discussion here.

  • Mriana

    How did we go from titles to taking children from their mothers? I don’t think totalitarianism is the answer either. I agree with Karen, you ideas Batyah are abhorrent. 🙁 Frightening also. Why don’t you just slaughter these people too while you are ate it, but make it a slow painful death? That’s basically what you are suggesting and some people just might even commit suicide with your ideas, but what do you care.

  • HappyNat

    Batyah, Sorry I’ve been away.

    Happy Nat, why shouldn’t people be able to put their money toward the things they believe in? .

    I never said they should be able to spend their money on these things. You asked why we have ‘hostility’ towards believers. They spending money on what I consider a waste pisses me off, I didn’t say they should not be allowed.

    Are you putting money toward promotion of gay marriage?


    Are you putting money toward the protection of the environment?


    It’s a free country; you promote your own interests and everyone else promotes theirs. I don’t see the problem here.

    I don’t see a problem here either, not sure why you think I do. Part of it being a free country is that I can be hostile when I see people doing stupid things.

    It is great you were able to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, this shows a lot of determination, desire, hard work, and luck. Coming from that situation it seems you would realize that some people need help to overcome a difficult starting point in life.

    I never said the money should go towards welfare or money should be handed out to these people. You seem to take what I wrote and fill in whatever details you see fit.

    Many of the problems you mention could be helped through educatuion of how to get a job, manage money, stay away from addictions, use birth contol, and run a family/household. This is where I think money should be spent and where I give money in my local community. This would seem a better solution than to hope the “stop breeding”.

  • Vincent

    Re: Stossel:
    The problem with trying to import that study into this discussion is that the distinction was made between “religious” and “non-religious”.
    I can’t remember the exact stats, but don’t something like 20% of Americans consider themselves “non-religious” but believe in god/the supernatural?
    I’m not saying a more nuanced study will produce different results, just that to consider it a characteristic of atheists you first have to separate atheists from other non-religious folk.

error: Content is protected !!