Sam Harris vs the “Atheist” Movement?

One of the highlights of last weekend’s “Crystal Clear Atheism” conference was a presentation by Sam Harris entitled “The Problem with Atheism” (reprinted here at the Washington Post). Here is, I think, the crux of his argument:

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I’m not saying that meetings like this aren’t important. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet… 

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” 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.

I generally agree with Mr. Harris that the word “atheist” has primarily a negative connotation–and not just because it’s commonly used as a pejorative by religionists. Semantically, to identify as an atheist is to say only one thing: that you do not believe in god(s).

Unsurprisingly, members of activist organizations with the word “Atheist” in the title are going to object to Harris’s suggestion. Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, was quick to post a response:

…behind the call to change our name is always the desire for respectability by the Atheists. Atheists want the approval of others and so they try to hide who they are and the face they present to the world is one of shame and fear. When you act like you are ashamed of who you are, people will treat you like you should be. It is not the answer.

Johnson also makes a point that the struggle between religionists and non-religionists will not subside, not matter the terminology:

In the end, the Theist doesn’t give a damn what we call ourselves. You can call yourselves “sugar” and they will still hate you and lie about you if you are an activist or if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.

Nonetheless, the defenders of the word “atheist” should be reminded that words have meanings, and if we can avoid misleading inferences, all the better. I think it was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Those who wield the term “atheist” should not be surprised or frustrated at the all-too-predictable reaction they will receive from an ignorant and thoroughly indoctrinated public.

Of course, any one word or phrase is going to give an incomplete picture, or be subject to twisting at the hands of intellectual opponents. We’ve all seen the arguments for and against the term “bright” (as if all others are “dulls,” etc.).

As for myself, I prefer the term “rationalist,” or even “rational humanist”. “Rationalist” positively identifies me as one who relies on reasoned discourse (as opposed to superstition, emotionalism, or gut feelings. “Humanist” identifies me as one who places his concerns with his fellow human beings (as opposed to, say, radical environmentalists or fringe groups like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement). All this said, I believe there are still times when self-identifying as an “atheist” can be useful, and I certainly won’t stop interacting with friends and colleagues who identify themselves as such. I would simply ask them to keep a tolerant and open mind on this subject.

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