Friday, 12 October 2007

Sam Harris responds to critics

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Sam Harris has responded to critics of the speech he delivered to last week's Atheist Alliance, clarifying his assertion that non-believers should stop describing themselves as "atheists". Writing on his website, Harris restates his point that "the use of a label invites a variety of misunderstandings that are harmful to our cause" and may put off non-believers who "have no interest whatsoever in joining a cult of such critics".

Expanding on his use of the word "cult", Harris makes an interesting point about the nature of the "New Atheism": "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".

It's a stark warning, unlikely to endear Harris further to his critics. But I think he's right. When we ran our recent poll asking whether Dawkins and Hitchens are good for humanism, some of the comments we received displayed a "thou shalt not criticise Dawkins" mentality. One of the favourite points used by critics of the "New Atheism" is that it is dogmatic, and at times it seems like some atheists are playing into their hands.

Don't forget to vote in our latest poll on whether Harris is right - see the top right of this page.


BlackSun said...

Sam Harris is dead wrong. Just when we're starting to gain traction, at the first sign of trouble he wants us to change our tactics. Then he suggests if we disagree with him, it's because we're cultish. I can't think of a more intellectually dishonest tactic from the man who popularized the phrase "intellectually dishonest."

I'll propose we do away with the label when atheists becomes a majority. Until then, it's like the movement to reclaim the epithet "queer" for the gay community. We need a strong identity as a rallying cry.

ATHEISM: wear it loud and proud!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Paul Kurtz from the US Council for Secular Humanism:
Harris 'had a best-seller which brought [him] to the public forum. But for most people the opportunity to affect the public debate is lost unless they work together with others to make their views heard, and unless they build institutions dedicated to their ideals and to the values they hope will endure.'

Hugh Caldwell said...

Quite right, Paul Kurz. Sam Harris is a celebrity atheist and he doesn't have to wear the badge to be recognized.

Andrew said...

But Sam Harris himself himself encouages the same cultish 'thou shalt not criticise' mentality which he is here criticising. At least Dawkins has an academic background which warrants the passionate encouragement of his fans. What does Sam Harris have? A big mouth and a BA in philosophy..... big deal!

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Steven said...

I watched the talk by Sam at the AAI on YouTube.

When the gentleman asked Sam Harris "What do you call yourself?", why does Sam have to choose one thing? He could have said "I am a liberal, I am a democrat, I am an atheist, a spiritualist, a humanist, a bright, a free thinker, an intellectually honest member of the human race"

Atheist isn't who you are. It describes one thing you are not. A theist.