Monday, 8 October 2007

New Humanist poll: Is Sam Harris right to reject labels like "Atheist" and "Humanist"?

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Following Sam Harris's speech to last week's Atheist Alliance International Conference in Virginia, our new opinion poll asks whether he was right to suggest that non-believers should discard the word "atheist", along with other labels such as "humanist", "secular humanist", "rationalist", "naturalist", "sceptic" and so on.

Harris argued that there is no need for the godless to define themselves by something they don't believe in, saying: "atheist is a term we do not need, in the same way that we don't need a word for someone who rejects astrology". He even goes so far as to say that using the term "atheist" could be counter-productive, running the risk of "squander[ing] the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues." Instead of forming organised groups under these labels, Harris suggests non-believers "should not call ourselves anything. . . We should go under the radar - for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them."

This stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by Richard Dawkins, particularly his US-based "Out Campaign", which encourages non-believers to "come out" and express their lack of faith by wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a giant letter "A" for "Atheist".

Let us know what you think by voting in the poll in the top right corner of this page? Do you agree with Harris in his rejection of these labels, or is it essential that atheists unite under a common label in order to take on the might of organised religion?

Once you've voted, please feel free to expand on your views by commenting on this post. If you're new to our site and blog, stay and have a browse around the main New Humanist site. There's articles from the past 8 years, and you can also sign up for a FREE trial copy.

26 comments:

Chris Hughes said...

I prefer the Jonathan Miller approach -- I am atheist, but not 'an' atheist. In other words, it's an adjective, not a noun.

Paul Sims said...

Miller put this argument when he accepted the presidency of the Rationalist Association in 2006: "Personally I don't describe myself as a rationalist or humanist, or indeed an atheist. I don't define myself by my non-belief in a supernatural deity any more than I would by my non-belief in ghosts or witches." Read in full here: http://newhumanist.org.uk/401

Hugh Caldwell said...

'Personally' is the key word in 'Personally, I don't describe myself as an atheist, rationalist, humanist'. As individuals, we don't want to be labelled and to be presumed to be toeing some party line.

However political effectiveness demands some sacrifice. Marching behind the Non-religious banner, or any banner,is a bother for many of us, but let's just do it, to the extent, at least of standing together, rather than wobbling separately.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree with Harris here as most people will shutdown the moment you say you are an "Athiest". In fact, when I am asked if I am an "Athiest", I always respond with the question of what is the definition of an "Athiest" to the preson asking. You would be surprised at the responses. Try it.

Ray Weil said...

I have always, well not always, but for some time at least, liked the noun nullifidian which was coined by Ben Jonson in the 17th Century. It is the most fitting word for what we DO NOT believe. It's so descriptive - it means having no belief - no more or less than that. Not against anything nor in favor of any belief system.

Anonymous said...

Organised religion is unpopular with many decent intelligent people, so why copy it?

I am a human being and if I believe or don't believe (or fluctuate), t'aint nobody's business but mine.

There should be a universal divide between church and state but a united community of the world's people.

Anonymous said...

I call myself a humanist not as a label of lack of belief but as a positive statement in exactly what I DO believe in, specifically the prime importance of making the most of human potential and human answers to human problems without any deference to the supernatural.

Religion could very well not exist and the use of 'humanism' remains. I don't see it as a 'defined against' term at all. (and I DON'T think of myself as an atheist for precisely Sam Harris's reason that it implicitly accepts the prevailing framing of the question).

george1001 said...

Harris is very wrong on this. You have to own your labels and define them for yourself, not let others define them for you. It's like trademarks, you guard it or lose it.

The comparison with non-belief in ghosts or witches does not follow, because the vast majority of people do not expect you to believe in these, and are not forcing them on you.

"Humanist" and "atheist" work fine for me, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I call myself an atheist because, in my view, being "without belief in god(s)" is truly a positive statement. If I want to say more I will call myself an atheist-humanist, which is doubly positive. I belong to "Pennsylvania Nonbelievers" here in the USA. We call ourselves nonbelievers simply to be able to attract members who are too shy to publicly be labeled atheists, NOT because we, as an organization, are afraid to call ourselves Pennsylvania Atheists. In fact our banner says "Pennyslvania Nonbelievers: Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists. Embracing Reality."

People still come up to our booth at festivals and say "What don't you believe in?" Or they say, "What's a humanist?" It's always Christians who ask these questions, usually snidely, and it gets tiring addressing these questions.

If we only label ourselves as "humanists" or "rationalists" inevitably the question about belief in God will come up, and we will have to admit we are atheists, so why beat around the bush?

We have two main purposes when we go to such festivals:

1. To let the local population know that not everyone in the area is a Christian or Jew.
2. To let other atheists (etc.) know that they are not alone.

After 7 years of these festivals, the hatred of us has diminished substantially. Most of those who hate us simply ignore us and walk on. But there are still jerks who feel obligated to say, "Jesus loves you" or "We will pray for you." To which we reply, "Have a nice day."
If they don't walk away, but insist on engaging us further, we ream them new anal sphincters.

Then again, some of them, from the outset, engage us in interesting and civil conversations that end in friendly handshakes.

Understand that James Carville, the Democrat strategist, once called Pennsylvania, "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with Alabama in between." Pennsylvania Nonbelievers is based in the Alabama of Pennsylvania--the red area of a blue state. But even here, some people will come up, buy some of our "offensive" bumper stickers, and thank us for being at the festival. They are happy to know we exist.

I hope the day comes when there won't be a need to label us, because all or most of us will be atheists. But that day is a long way off, and I think Sam is too bright (no pun) to NOT understand this.

Will said...

If we think a word or label as a unit of language, and we think of language as a system of communication, I think we can judge the use or non-use of a term or word based on weather its presence or absense increase the ease, and efficiency of communication. I dont think the ground gained by not using the term or label makes up for the problems that would arrise from their discontinued usage.

Lew said...

Labels like "atheist" have become associated with "a cranky subculture" because of the complaining, angry, and defensive behavior exhibited by adherents. Whether labels are used or not, it's behavior that communicates your values to others. As Harris says, you "should be decent responsible people". To those adjectives I would add "compassionate", "respectful", and "fair". Would that the lable "humanist" were associated with these.

Anonymous said...

I strongly agree with Richard Dawkins in that we non beleivers should "come out" and make a stand against organised religion but I also agree with Sam Harris that we don't necessarily need a label, after all we don't label ourselves in respect to the other things we don't beleive in, for example father christmas!

Hugh Caldwell said...

It's all about the difference between your personal, nuanced, individualistic take on the world and the position you take as a supporter of concerted action against the evils of organized religion. It's no different from support of political organizations. As somebody who is a member of a political party, or a voter, it's very unlikely that you agree with each and every policy in an exactly uniform manner with others of the same tendency.

However, if you stand outside the political process, except as a very extraordinary individual, you will have no influence. For the same reason, individuality has to be sunk, at times, in the common cause and 'atheist' a badge you are proud to wear when the occasion demands. Standing up to be counted, that is.

Judy said...

Sam Harris is right that we don't require labels, but until organised religion no longer has such a huge presence in the public arena, I shall follow Dawkins lead.

Anonymous said...

You say: "Some will even take offence at any attempt to question their writings...". I thought the habit of taking offence at other people's ideas and opinions was a vice confined to the religiously devout. But perhaps you are right. Many of us are becoming like that.

Perlo said...

Let's use a positive name instead of stating what we oppose: how about "naturalist"?

Hugh Caldwell said...

"Perlo said...
Let's use a positive name instead of stating what we oppose: how about "naturalist"?"

Bill Oddie is a naturalist. Naturalists are people who take an interest in the birds and the bees.

Paul Sims said...

I agree Hugh. Plus I wouldn't fancy going round describing myself as a "naturalist". People might get the wrong idea and direct me to a discreet beach...

ordinarygirl said...

It's a label. A label in and of itself doesn't define anyone. If anything, it is only part of who a person is.

Consider these labels I could attribute to myself: American, female, blond, bookworm. Any of those on their own could conjure up negative and positive thoughts on me. But I can't claim they don't describe me because they do.

Just as the label "atheist" does. If someone else attaches a bad connotation to any of those labels, there's little I can do except interact with them in a way that might change their mind.

People are going to attach labels to other people. Whether it's good or bad, it's something we naturally do. If I were to disavow all labels it would make it difficult for us to communicate with anyone.

I respect Sam Harris, but I don't get this one. In the scheme of things I don't think a label is all that important.

CJ said...

There should be a third choice in the poll. No, Sam Harris is not right in his strident opposition of the utilization of atheist and yes, the necessity of a word to describe those who don't believe in the existence of a nonentity is ridiculous, however, atheist is more concise than secular humanist, so let's stick with it.

Hugh Caldwell said...

And, besides, Sam Harris is a celebrity atheist and has the luxury of just being his very well-known self, whereas we ordinary folk have to huddle together under a common banner to get ourselves noticed.

teddyrodo said...

I recall Orwell's insights about labels in his "Animal Farm" ...
When it comes to religionists, I personally make no bones about being an anti-theist! I believe in taking delusion right smacko on ...

Seb said...

This is not a fight I choose to wage in the political arena, which here in the US panders shamelessly to the non-thinkers.

I prefer to take people one-on-one. I have the luxury of doing that; I am a non-celebrity atheist. With theists, I want to understand and point out logical failings IF such a thing seems likely to produce positive results. I try not to offer a lot of opinions, but rather to ask questions.

The same goes for atheists. I dislike bigotry in any form.

I choose to call myself 'atheist' when anyone bothers to ask, which they usually don't. I delight in telling people that atheism is at least 2500 years old, when they ask...which they usually don't.

So don't you go calling me atheist, or, um, Jove will strike you down.

Richard said...

Your poll is not an accurate reflection of what Sam was saying. Your 2 questions should be:

1. We should challenge supernatural and superstitious beliefs where ever we find them because they are not based on reason or evidence?

2. We should challenge supernatural and superstitious beliefs because they are not consistent with our worldview as atheists.

Re-read his document and read his response to his critics on his website where is re-iterates this point.

Anonymous said...

Harris is completely right to reject any label he feels to be constraining, especially when one considers the religious fervor of the New Atheist. I recently met a your Israeli who was so completely devout in his dawkinsonian view of atheism that he completely ignored any of the more humanist arguments I made for any belief system or rationalist system. The effect of his argument was to make me feel like I was talking to a religious zealot and not a rational humanist being.

Harris makes a valuable point when he refuses the labels because anytime a person takes an Identity upon themselves without really thinking about it FOR THEMSELVES, they are simply swallowing the same fairy-tales which most Rationalists condemn religion for.

Additionally, I would submit that any label does inherent damage to its members by the very act of defining that label. It creates limits which exclude variation. One can be a Humanist without being a staunch atheist in the dawkinsonian sense, but by creation and adherence to the label, it lumps all rational humanists with the Book toting, Dawkins thumping vociferous atheists and does not look at them for their own content.

Again, Harris is completely right, this is what happens whenever fanatic get a hold of an idea and follow it blindly without due consideration.

Thanks for your time

Andy - Seattle

Hugh Caldwell said...

"it lumps all rational humanists with the Book toting, Dawkins thumping vociferous atheists" Andy

That's the trouble with all labels. All Republicans are not Bible-thumping End Times loonies, but that's for individuals to sort out among themselves. Initial suspicions and snap judgments should give way to more nuanced and rational appreciations of the person behind the label.