Thursday, 4 October 2007

"We should not call ourselves athiests" - Sam Harris

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... the plot thickens. Just as Dawkins' launches his campaign to reclaim atheism, Sam Harris, another of the so-called New Atheists, appalls the Atheist Alliance International Conference audience with the "seditious proposal" that labels like atheist, secularist, humanist and sceptic are counter-productive and should be scrapped: "We 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." Perhaps he's going to start an in" campaign? Also in the audience that night was Dawkins himself who reportedly said "I think he was making a very interesting point, and I'm still thinking about my reaction to it."

This comes courtesy of our friends at Humanist Network News. read Duncan Crary's report, and listen out for their next podcast which will features interviews with Harris, Hitch, Dennett and Dawkins. The Washington Post have published and edited extract of Harris' talk, which has received 333 comments so far. We love a good fight we... um... humans.


Hugh Caldwell said...

It's not a lifestyle. It's just a way of putting one's cards on the table. Christians are notably dodgy and devious. No wonder!

SilverTiger said...

I don't see anything particularly "seditious" about the proposal. Soon after I began to describe myself an "atheist" I began to dislike the word for the very reasons that Harris and others (e.g. A.C. Grayling in the essay "A Rectification of Names..." in his book Against All Gods) have set forth.

All names such as "humanist", "secularist", etc, have specific meanings and may carry baggage that the individual does not wish to take on. None are equivalent to any of the others and are therefore not simply synonyms with one meaning.

Logically, too, the term "atheist" exists only by virtue of that which it denies. We dearly need a positive name.

Where I disagree is in ducking under the radar. There is nothing shameful in being an atheist. If religious believers think so, then that is a failing on their part not on the part of the atheist.

I don't believe in shoving my atheism in the faces of religious believers (as long as they don't shove their beliefs in my face) but I don't hide my atheism, either. I state it where I think it appropriate to do so.

That is why I am in favour of wearing the Scarlet A as I think in time it will become a recognized symbol and as much a part of the scenery as crosses, stars of David and other symbols of affiliation.

RĂ©mon Sinnema said...

> We dearly need a positive name.

I agree. What about bright?

Hugh Caldwell said...

Religionists, naturally, see atheism as being a sort of religion, even a 'faith'. The idea of simply rejecting religion seems hard to grasp. If you are a non-golfer, it's not going to be assumed you have a set of non-golfing clubs with which you don't play golf.

Hugh Caldwell said...

Non-religious is the word. It's positive enough, considering what it means to be religious.

Jeremy said...

One of the reasons I normally say I'm a Humanist rather than simply atheist or non-religious is that it's a positive rather than a negative. On the other hand, we live in the real world in which the historical norm is to have a religion, and, like it or not, these negative terms help others place us.

Conclusion: best not to cling rigidly to one term or another, but select the most appropriate for the situation. If I were talking to a Southern Baptist in Texas I would probably use "non-religious" - "Atheist" is so demonised that he/she would probably simply stop listening. Maybe that is where Sam Harris is coming from.

Hugh Caldwell said...

Agreed, Jeremy

Why shouldn't we have a portfolio of calling cards. I'm only an atheist in apposition to some godhead. I'm really just a moderately sane human being. I'd still say that non-religious is a broad enough umbrella term. There are a billion of us, after all, far more than religious groups except Christianity and Islam (and maybe Hinduism). But these religious groups have sub-factions. The non-religious are no different in this respect.

Jelle said...

Scrap the label 'religious' and 'religion' too. And use the term 'worldview' instead.

Hugh Caldwell said...

Worldview, jelle?

For political reasons the non-religious need a banner. How many Muslim MPs are there in the House of Commons? How many Muslim peers in the Lords. The Muslim label is important because, in a democracy, it is perceived as delivering votes.

There are zero humanist, secular, atheist representatives in Parliament, although some may be there under a party label.

Anonymous said...

I think Heathen is to Atheist
as Queer is to Homosexual,
so lets add that to our list of 'positive' adjectives.

George said...

It's interesting to see how when Harris suggests we renounce all labels, the first response of many (if they're not simply denouncing him as a heretic) is to scrabble around looking for new labels. If that's your response then you've missed the point.

As the philosopher John Gray said, "Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers."

In this sense, 'atheism' relies upon the existence of theism for its very meaning. For every act of pure non-contingent reason which strikes at the foundations of religious belief there's an Atheist (or Humanist or Secularist or Bright) propping up the edifice of religion merely by their insistence on labeling themselves in such a way as to acknowledge the preeminence religious belief.

Dan said...

The question is, what do we call people who want to get rid of "labels"?

cprise said...

I believe "humanist" is the positive term, and the positive worldview, that more atheists should be using. Really Mr. Harris, its right under your nose.

That you would use "humanist" as a synonym for atheist is beyond me. Asserting the inherent worth, beauty, dignity and capacity for good of all human kind is not the definition of "atheism". Humanism (even in its religious form) says that the default attitude people have toward one another cannot be "sinner", "unworthy", "evil", etc.; that we always first acknowledge each others' potential for good even in the more dire of circumstances. We are each others' primary concern in this life, which is probably the only life we will have.

That, incidentally, is a kind of faith. One that rests with ourselves here in the real world.

Then again, some atheists do not share the humanistic outlook... are basically misanthropic and self-absorbed brats who pick up more and more Social Darwinist rhetoric as they get older. Of these people's worldviews I do not want any association.