One More Response to Sam Harris October 9, 2007

One More Response to Sam Harris

This one coming via email from Paul Kurtz, chair of the Council for Secular Humanism and the “father of the secular humanist movement”:

May I then disagree with [Harris’] subsequent “seditious proposal” that we should not call ourselves “secularists,” “humanists,” “secular humanists,” “naturalists,” “skeptics,” etc. “We should go under the radar for the rest of our lives,” he advises. We should be “responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.”

That sounds lofty but in my view it is counter-productive.

Why is that? Because, Kurtz says, we “need to organize with other like-minded individuals.”

Should we operate only as single individuals who may get published or speak on street corners with little influence or clout? Come on, Sam, that is unrealistic; for almost no one would be heard and we would be lone voices in the city canyons, unheard and drowned out by the powerful media. We say that democracy best functions when the citizens of a country unite under whatever label they choose to achieve what they deem to be worthy goals.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Harris ever suggested not banding together at all. The issue was with what we called ourselves.

Speaking of which, Kurtz also gives props to Margaret Downey who organized the Atheist Alliance International convention:

I note with interest that Margaret [Downey] organized a blockbuster atheist conference in the Washington, D.C. area to which she brought many of the “new atheists.” We congratulate her on her energy.

Despite his kudos, he doesn’t mention Margaret’s group’s name, “Atheist Alliance International,” at all in his message.

It just seems like a strange omission from the head of an organization notorious for not cooperating with other atheist/Humanist groups.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Mriana

    I agree with Paul Kurtz and he says what I’ve been trying to say, only far far better.

  • It just seems like a strange omission from the head of an organization notorious for not cooperating with other atheist/Humanist groups.

    On the contrary, if he’s head of an uncooperative organisation it makes perfect sense to give as little information about other organisations as possible.

    I would be interested to hear more about this though. Council for Secular Humanism is notorious for not cooperating? Never heard of this!

  • [quote]It just seems like a strange omission from the head of an organization notorious for not cooperating with other atheist/Humanist groups.[/quote]

    I agree. As a member of the CSH I wondered why they don’t join up with the SCA or get more involved with other groups. I wonder the same thing about American Atheists. It would be nice to see all these groups either disband individually and meld together, especially since they basically have all the same goals. Or at least pool some of their resources for a coalition like the SCA.

    I have a lot of respect for Paul Kurtz, but he won’t be around forever. And with him gone, what will be the driving force for CFI/CSH?

  • I agree with Sam Harris for the most part. I don’t go about calling myself an atheist or wearing atheist t-shirts. I don’t like labels, for the most part. But I am not shy about talking about what I (don’t) believe in and if it comes down to it, I’ll admit to being an atheist (or any of the other secularist labels that people might ask “does that mean you’re an ….?”) and I do have the scarlet A on my blog page.

  • DebGod

    A few responses:

    1) I also got the impression that Harris suggests we not band together, under any of those titles. Perhaps I’m off…

    2) I think Kurtz left out AAI’s name from the article without thinking. Margaret Downey is really the public face for that group now. If Michael Shermer’s group organized an event, I think most freethinkers and skeptics I know would say Shermer’s event, rather than a Skeptic Society or Skeptic Magazine event, because he the public face of the org.

    I think part of my perspective, however, is informed by the fact that I’ve worked with her for years in the Philadelphia freethought scene–she does so much for the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia that it’s basically known as “Margaret’s group.” Paul Kurtz and Margaret also have a long history–heck, she made the curtains in his office!–so his referring the conference as “her” event is a testament to her ability to be a pulic figure and to organize the best conference AAI has ever had. And damn, what a conference! Wish I were there.

    3) The Council for Secular Humanism has a history of cooperating with other national organizations, as in the Godless Americans March in 2002. But they generally don’t do “godless” or “atheism” events; they’re focused much more on the positive ideas of secular humanism (scientific naturalism, the “good life,” etc.). By the same token, they don’t generally do religious humanism events because they’re explicitly not a religious organzation. So, in the big picture, that does limit what atheist/Humanist groups and events they cooperate with/on.

    4) CFI, the umbrella organization under which the Council, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, formerly CSICOP), and several other organizations fall, is in a unique position when it comes to working with other orgs. For example, CFI shouldn’t willy-nilly sponsor an atheist event, because CSI isn’t an atheist organization. No other organization really does quite what CFI does–we got our skeptic people, the humanists too, a naturalism research project, the campus outreach program (which draws on the resources of all the others), scholarly examination of the historical Jesus, an Office of Public Poilicy that promotes science and secularism in DC, etc. I could go on…

    Debbie Goddard
    Field Organizer
    Center for Inquiry

  • This is a tough call (duh). Tradition tells us that “movements” work when there is a banner, a label. Harris seems to want to overstep that and just “get to the end result.” I’m not sure it’s that easy, but it is ideal.

    While I despise appeals to tradition, tradition does tell us that “movements” work when the collective is self-identified under a label. Conversely, labels cultivate stereotypes. So, maybe we need a new label?

    Well, wait, let me back up.

    A theist I know wrote an entry about “The New Atheism” here. While I disagree with him in almost every way (and he’s since refused to post my comments after calling me arrogant and a plethora of other names), we have to take into consideration that perhaps we are being viewed as arrogant and what we can do to stop it (if anything). Is this coming from the label? Or is it nothing more than a defense used by many people to construct a straw man to fight said stereotypes because they’re threatened or feel disrespected? (The term “atheist” seems to carry the most horrifying of stereotypes. Oh well, at least I don’t have horns anymore.)

    I really disliked the demeanor of the crowd after Harris’s speech. I found Harris’s speech to be something to challenge us, not something we already knew. I found Dawkins’ speech, although what he said was excellent, lacking any new content. So why did Dawkins get the standing ovation while Harris got polite applause? Harris certainly got applause from my living room.

    Put simply: faith and reason are mutually exclusive; the former needs to be eradicated, and the latter needs to be utilized more. What label can be drawn from that premise? What can we do to change this? I think Harris is really struggling with that. I am, too. We all are.

  • I don’t know. Maybe a label is a necessary evil.

  • Jack

    Well I see that you covered up for Kurtz who mistakenly referred to Margaret Downey as Margaret Downing. As he doesn’t even know Margaret’s correct name, why draw some idiotic conclusion for yourself as to why he didn’t name her organization — Kurtz probably doesn’t even know the name of her organization either!

    Kurtz agrees with Harris that we not call ourselves “atheists”, but then strongly disagrees with Harris that we also not call ourselves Humanists, etc. Kurtz is obviously a hypocritical jerk!!!

    And you state:

    “For what it’s worth, I don’t think Harris ever suggested not banding together at all. The issue was with what we called ourselves.”

    Well Harris suggests we not call ourselves anything. And I do indeed take away from his speech that he thinks we not band together (“cult-like” as he calls it), but yet somehow work as individuals toward a common goal. That’s plain unrealistic stupidity!!

    But just how would people of particular like minds come together without some identifying label? Get real! You and Harris may dislike labels all you want, but you’re both being totally nonsensical in this regard.

  • Debbie– Thanks for responding and clarifying some of those thoughts.

    Jack– Yes, in the original press release, Margaret Downey’s last name was misspelled. However, CSH sent out another release shortly after correcting that mistake. I wasn’t trying to cover anything up. Just wanted to get to the heart of what Kurtz was saying with the error being a distraction.

  • Mriana

    By the same token, they don’t generally do religious humanism events because they’re explicitly not a religious organzation.

    I don’t know, Deb, I think the Jesus Seminar and the Jesus Project are some what Religious Humanism. I’m not so sure I would consider Robert Price a Secular Humanist either because he is not only a part of CFI, but also Weststar, The Jesus Seminar and the Jesus Project. Not only that he attends the Episcopal Church. I would consider him more of Religious Humanist, then a Secular Humanist, but like me (most of the time), he just drops all the adjectives. Just a thought, but I really don’t see that it matters, just something to make note of for CFI does cover Biblical Criticism too.

  • DebGod

    I don’t think that a historical scientific examination of Jesus’s existence as “religious humanism,” just as Koranic criticism isn’t religious humanism. There are religious and non-reliigous people of all stripes involved with the Jesus Project; the same was true of the Jesus Seminar. Something like Ethical Culture would count as religious humanism. And the American Humanist Association had its tax exemption as a religious organization, so they counted too. That’s the kind of thing I was referring to.

    Council for Secular Humanism argues that secular humanism is not a religion, while groups like David Noebel’s (the name of which I’ve forgotten 🙂 ) insist that it is. They say that secular humanism is the official religion of, say, public schools, and so other religions should be given time, blah blah blah. It’s because of such assertions and attacks that Council is really cautious about allying with religious organizations and religious humanists, I think.

  • Mriana

    No, scientific examination of religious texts isn’t religious humanism, but it does help to have people like Robert Price and Joseph Hoffmann on such projects. I do think Hoffmann is approaching the Jesus Project in a better manner than the Jesus Seminar was approached. Then again, I could be wrong. I approached it the way he wants to do it and look at me… I’m a Humanist who talks like Bob about the historical Jesus, “If there ever was a historical Jesus, he’s too buried in myth to find him”. 😆 I’m terrible.

    Back on topic sort of… There is also a lot of misunderstanding about Humanism too. I did a paper on the Humanist Manifestos recently. The good thing is, I got flack from only a few people, which isn’t too bad. If we don’t use these words and try to explain them, there will be continued misunderstanding and misconception about them. To me, saying “I’m nothing”, when asked what we are religiously, is like saying, “I’m nobody and I stand for nothing.” But to say, “I’m a Humanist” (or atheist, agnostic, Secularist, Skeptic, Freethinker, etc) says something even if we do have to explain ourselves.

    Kurtz agrees with Harris that we not call ourselves “atheists”, but then strongly disagrees with Harris that we also not call ourselves Humanists, etc. Kurtz is obviously a hypocritical jerk!!!

    I don’t think he is being hypocritical, Jack. It may mean something like Bob said in his book, “The Reason Driven Life”. I would have to get my book for an exact quote. Basically he said something like atheist, to him, only said what he does not believe, but Humanist says a lot more about him. It maybe that “atheist” does not have as much meaning to Paul, as to who he is or what he is like the word, as the word “Humanist” does. Humanism isn’t JUST about being an atheist, but it’s a whole lot more. It’s a philosophy of life to some, a way of life to others- different things to different people.

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