Sam Harris Responds to Sam Harris Responders October 8, 2007

Sam Harris Responds to Sam Harris Responders

After many atheists commented on Sam Harris‘ speech at the Atheist Alliance International convention where he talked about shedding the “atheist” label, Harris is responding back.

And he names names:

Is it really possible that PZ Myers and Ellen Johnson think I was recommending that we stop publicly criticizing religion or that I am hiding my own atheism out of “shame and fear”? I would not have thought such a misreading was possible, given the contents of my speech and my rather incessant criticism of religion in my books, articles, and lectures.

Here’s his point, he says:

There are many people in this country who do not believe in God and who understand that there is conflict between science and religion, but who do not feel the slightest inclination to join an atheist group or to label themselves in opposition to religion. These people are “atheists” by any measure, but you will never meet them at one of our conventions. They have read the writings of the “new atheists,” sent us letters and emails of support, are quite fond of criticizing religion whenever the opportunity arises, but they have no interest whatsoever in joining a cult of such critics. And there is something cult-like about the culture of atheism. In fact, much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety.

He gives the example of a press conference where we attack Bush’s embryonic stem-cell research veto on the basis of rationality and education versus attacking him on the basis of our atheism. Harris says that the former attack is much more powerful, and I’d agree with him there.

Still, the sides are arguing completely different things.

The pro-atheist side says that we need the “atheist” (or Humanist, Bright, etc.) label to rally people under some sort of umbrella. It helps organize people who are like-minded even if it does alienate some who attach a negative connotation to the words.

I haven’t heard anyone saying we should abandon specific arguments (like in the example above) that are based on logic and reason alone.

To give attention to our collective views, it helps to have a concrete label that others can use to identify us.

I do hope there comes a day when atheism is just the obvious stance, there’s no need for the label, and we do just rely on evidence and reason to make decisions. We should advocate for that and stress that point (I think that’s what Harris is trying to say).

But in the process, there’s no getting around the fact that to think in that way means shedding the superstitious beliefs that religious people hold. That’s atheism. It’s blunt and honest and gets attention. And the more of us who come out and say we are non-religious, the better chance we have of inviting others to think using similar methods.

(Thanks to Mriana for the link!)

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • I’ve been following this a bit and I do agree that there is a somewhat cult-like feel in some atheist groups. I think it’s sometimes I throwback to what people have broken away from. Religious fervor is transformed into anti-religious fervor and there is sometimes a feeling of “You’re either with us or against us!”

    I don’t have the definitive answer to this. I have been an atheist for more than half of my 29 yrs on this planet and it’s now just a very matter-of-fact thing. A while back I went to an atheist group meeting and encountered this passion that was both refreshing and off-putting. I didn’t go back because I didn’t feel like I could identify with them. At the same time, I am someone who speaks for atheism to friends and family who are curious, never hiding and seeking secularism where it is needed and appropriate.

  • PrimateInRepose

    Harris thinks he can wag the dog with language. We are the minority.

    But I guess his position is mute anyway now that he is no longer an “atheist”

  • Mriana

    I still don’t agree with him entirely, but I wouldn’t use example #2. There is no reason to do that, but if someone were to ask me and I felt comfortable telling them I would.

  • I think Sam Harris is still missing the point, and I’m a bit disappointed in him for that. His sole point in this reply seems to be that we shouldn’t try to wedge the word “atheist” into everything we say in public. That’s undoubtedly good advice, but it’s a far cry from saying we shouldn’t use the word at all, and he’s done nothing to respond to the critics who’ve given reasons why it is a useful and appropriate descriptive term.

  • Hoo, boy.

    I won’t touch stuff like this with an eleven-and-a-half foot pole. It reminds me too much of the South Park episode where the Unified Atheist League, the United Atheist Alliance, and the Allied Atheist Allegiance are all at war with each other, presumably over who has the best name. Don’t we all have better things to do?

  • How about this for a label:

    “Someone who doesn’t believe in your god.”

    Cool! Straight to the point and we don’t have to worry about a euphemism for the meaning.

    I have never called myself an atheist. Just someone who doesn’t believe in religion, church, magic, mystic, or god. Call it what you will, and label me as you would like, but I just don’t like associating myself in any group. Now, if there was some kind of atheist rally in my neighborhood, I would be right there.

    What I am looking for is a way to belittle someone. I don’t want some soft label. I want something to poke fun at things I am against, and do it in a mean spirited way. Why? Because I get the same crap done to me every single day. I have it on billboards, and on bumper stickers, and people who don’t know that I am a non-believer.

    So, who is with me?

    “What are you?”
    “Someone who doesn’t believe in your god.”

    Cause really, when you call yourself an atheist, baptist, catholic, muslim, jew, etc. that is what you are really telling people.

  • Siamang

    You can’t herd the iconoclasts.

    But we can speak up for reason, for openmindedness, for inclusion, for tentativeness, for doubt, for scrupulous skepticism and make them more commonplace.

    Harris can push the conversation far more than any of us can. What does it matter what we think? He’s the one with the media’s attention, not us. He’ll do whatever he wants and we’ll get the blame or credit anyway.

  • I disagree with Harris’ conclusion that we should not use the atheist label, but I strongly agree with the particular excerpt that Hemant took out. There are atheists, and then there’s the atheist movement. Most atheists will agree on many issues, secularization in particular, but it is deadly common to think that the atheist movement has in some way or other gone too far. As apathetic as I am, I have been surprised to find that simply reading this blog puts me ahead of most.

    This is a difficult problem with no easy answers. I’m not I sure I really understand Harris’ proposed solution, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Now the Out campaign, that sounds like the start of a potential solution.

  • Andrew

    Andy, I had the same thought! How do Matt Stone and Trey Parker get it right every time? They have their fingers on the pulse of American society, no doubt about it.

    I have to agree with Sam here. If there was no religion, there would be no atheists either. The word simply wouldn’t have any meaning.

    I think Sam has a deeper point here that he REALLY didn’t want to come out and say. He has found himself at the center of an atheist publicity storm, and Harris is clearly one of those types of atheists who thinks “organized atheism” is the wrong direction for an atheist movement.

    I am one of those atheists as well, and I tell you why:

    I attended a few gatherings of a local atheist group. From what I can tell, a lot of people have filtered in and out of that organization (including its founders) over the last decade, but there are a few stalwarts who stick around for years before getting the picture. Of those stalwarts currently running the organization, only one was not originally a fundamentalist Christian. I think that those people (for better or worse?) have simply traded one fanaticism for another. But eventually the majority realize that organized atheism is mostly a zero-sum activity.

    This atheist-cult, what Sam sees forming around him, would make our movement very vulnerable to the “just another religion” argument.

    The character House said something interesting about his atheism on last weeks show. He said, “I’m an atheist on Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time, IT DOESN’T MATTER!” And he is completely right.

    I think the best way to fight religion in our nation is to not give any ground on science, and this will inevitably let education weed out religion one generation at a time (as it has been doing for the last 50 years).

  • Darryl

    If there was no encroaching fundamentalism to object to and push back against, would any of us organize for any reason? No. We’d just do what we mostly do now–just live normal lives. We are identifying ourselves out of necessity not choice. If we are correct, then humans can simply live their lives and never think about gods or spirits or demons. We have to admit that we’re reactionary in our posture. If we think there is little chance to overcome dangerous religion by our activism, we have to ask ourselves whether uniting under any banner is a worthwhile endeavor.

  • Maria

    Hoo, boy.

    I won’t touch stuff like this with an eleven-and-a-half foot pole. It reminds me too much of the South Park episode where the Unified Atheist League, the United Atheist Alliance, and the Allied Atheist Allegiance are all at war with each other, presumably over who has the best name. Don’t we all have better things to do?

    I agree Andy

  • Tao Jones

    What Harris is trying to do is raise consciousness by reframing the discussion.

    When Stephen Colbert turns the tables on a guest by saying, “So why do you hate America?” It is funny because this is how many people actually think. This is also how many politicians (and others) can manipulate a debate.

    What Harris is trying to say is that we need to change the way this discussion is being framed. It isn’t God vs No God. That hasn’t gotten anyone anywhere in thousands of years. To many theists even the idea of atheism is repulsive. My own dad last week said something like proportional representation was “a way to get atheists, Muslims and Islams (sic) the vote.” Sure, you might dismiss him as a senile old man, but we all know that for many people, atheists are evil and going to hell. For many people, atheism is a discussion ender. We all know this.

    What Harris is suggesting is that we pick our battles, and pick them strategically. Fighting for something called “atheism” is a losing preposition. Invisible Pink Unicorn and all, we’re still on the defensive. But, fight for rational and critical thinking, and we’ll find many more opportunities open to us.

    To put it another way, when faced with a religious moderate who is seemingly open to conversation, do you lead with the conclusion that there is no god, or the evidence of a naturalistic world?

    I have found I have much more interesting conversations with people when I describe myself as an Animist instead of an atheist. They want to know what an Animist is, so I explain them my worldview, define some terms, etc. They are, more often than not, fascinated. What I have essentially described to them is a naturalistic world without god that any atheist could accept. Why this works and I get positive results with it is that I lead with our similarities and my values. I describe a world without god, without necessarily referring to god, or the lack of god.

    Learning how to frame a debate is key to establishing a framework where we can actually accomplish something worthwhile.

  • It’s possible that there’s something about people that makes them sometimes form tightly-knit ideology-based clubs that have the attributes of cults. They’re not always religions (when I was a student, I had some dealings with a communist club that had some disturbingly cult-like attributes). Also, we need to be wary of group-think, as I discussed in my post about my passionate secularism.

    However, if some atheist organizations behave that way, that is an entirely different debate from whether we should embrace the term “atheist.” I know plenty of people who openly self-identify as atheist and who have never joined an atheist-interest organization (and don’t even bother to read atheist blogs, if you can believe it! 😉 ). Harris is just grasping at random straws to justify his stance against using this label.

  • Poor Sam Harris. What ever made him think he could teach atheists anything?

  • Vincent

    Sam Harris has lost some of my respect.
    He did not defend his prior position, but rather backpedaled and gave a “what I meant was” reply, while attacking his critics with a straw man.
    Honestly, when has anyone used atheism as a grounds for attacking or promoting a political cause? Never that I am aware of.

  • Aj

    He calls Atheist groups cult-like and accuses them of rejecting the rational commitment they have made in favour of group-think. It’s absurd, is he really calling the people who he gave the initial speech to these things? I don’t accept that, and I don’t think he could justify it. It’s convenient for his position of not wanting atheists to form groups or call themselves atheists. It’s inconvenient for him that it isn’t true. This only comes after he failed to persuade people by other means in his original speech.

    We already considered the arguments against the label Atheist, and while there still isn’t complete agreement, it’s clear that many Atheists have decided for themselves that this is the best course of action. We’re still willing to hear arguments against it, but after the initial failure this is an embarrassment from someone who was doing so well.

    I don’t think Harris, given his recent actions, can ask people not to be involved in a community of ‘whatever he wants to call us’. That’s the only way we can get something done. United we stand etc… etc… don’t get mad, get organised.

    People who don’t agree come up with bullshit like that South Park episode. People fall for it, because they’re cynical fools, loners, or believe in belief agnostics. It’s something to be wary of, cultishness, but there’s going to be a lot of wolf-crying aswell. Fine, if you don’t want or care to join a group of secularists, but don’t throw accusations about that you can’t back up.

  • Rebecca

    I know this an old post/thread, but I thought I would comment anyway. I understand the point that if atheist group together can seem to look like a religous group. However, Harris is around other atheists frequently. He gets to have wonderful like-minded conversation with them, perhaps even joking around, camaraderie-building, etc. How am I supposed to enjoy this as well without seeking out atheist groups or others to meet? Am I supposed to remain proudly isolated?

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