Pharyngula

Letter to a non-atheist New Atheist

Dear Sam,

I read your presentation to the Atheist Alliance. You were eminently successful in being a controversial contrarian, so your intent was well executed. Good work!

However, I do have to disagree with your argument (oh, right — you were trying to stir up dissent. Again, good work!). You say that using the term “atheism” is a mistake, and that “Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities” … and that atheism is entirely negative. You say that accepting that label means we are agreeing to be “viewed as a cranky sub-culture”.

You say you never thought of yourself as an atheist before. And there, I think, is the major rebuttal to your own thesis. It doesn’t matter that you don’t call yourself an atheist. Sam, they’re going to call you an atheist anyway. Your friends might be willing to accede to your wishes and stop calling you an atheist, but your enemies won’t, and the media, which has promoted you as an atheist, probably won’t … and if they do, you’ll vanish from your influential position rather quickly. You don’t get to choose what other people will call you.

It’s true that labels can be used to marginalize a sub-culture, but they can also be used to unify a group, even the negative ones, sometimes especially the negative ones. Look at “Queer” and “Abolitionist”, to name two examples — they’re strange and negative, and using your metric of whether the name suggests something positive, the last is just unrelentingly against something; obviously, they didn’t get a good focus group to help them with their brand identity. At the same time, though, those are groups who have and had proud memberships, who unabashedly embraced their identity. I’m sorry, Sam, but complaining about your name and fishing about in a dictionary for happy words you can appropriate is such a Republican thing to do. I much prefer the forthrightness of an out & proud movement.

The other futile side to your argument is that it doesn’t matter: we live in a culture that has managed to turn “environmentalist” into a nasty epithet. Same for “feminist”. I guarantee you that if you managed to get the whole movement to adopt a brand new label — say, for example, “rationalist” — we’d be hearing that word uttered with the same contemptuous sneer, the same dismissal to a “cranky subculture”, and the preachers will still be fulminating from their pulpits with the same distaste for “rationalist” that they have for “secular,” “humanist,” “intelligentsia,” and “intellectual.”

Of course, you aren’t advocating a new name. You are suggesting no name at all.

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.

Well, Sam, you’re welcome to do that. Stop accepting speaking engagements, stop giving interviews, and stop writing books. I won’t respect you any less if you insist on doing good works with no fanfare — it’s your choice.

It seems to me, though, that there is no conflict at all between being decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them and also finding common cause with like-minded people and working together to promote that same decency, responsibility, and critical thinking publicly. In fact, I think such coordinated (and proudly labeled) action by a group would be more effective than similar action by modest individuals.

Like you, I look forward to a post-theist future when the term “atheist” is a quaint relic that lacks any contemporary context, as silly as saying that one is an a-Zeusist or an aleprechaunist. That time is not now, and you are ignoring reality to pretend that it is. We do have a context that makes atheism relevant and appropriate: we are immersed in a deeply irrational religious culture. Those labels you denigrate — “atheists,” “humanists,” “secular humanists,” “naturalists,” “skeptics,” “anti-theists,” “rationalists,” “freethinkers,” and “brights” — are useful rallying cries for the tiny, scattered bubbles of rationality drifting in the sea of superstition and ignorance. It’s how we find each other and grow. It’s how we build whole communities working for a common cause, rather than acting as isolated individuals.

I’d like to see more openly secular communities and institutions forming, and I think to do that we have to accept labels and banners and symbols, and we have to be open about expressing our ideas and encouraging others to join us. That’s how we’ll make a lasting difference. That’s also how we’ll undermine the unfortunate insinuations imposed on us by the way the label “atheist” is used. It doesn’t matter if you try to abandon the name, it’s going to stick to you and us for a good long time; what we need to do is build our own positive values beneath that tag and change its meaning from within.

Yours in godlessness,

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PZ Myers

Comments

  1. #1 Deepsix
    October 5, 2007

    /signed

  2. #2 Santiago
    October 5, 2007

    I’m was so disappointed by Sam Harris’ article, I worry all the time about the sheer number of agnostics and polite atheists, people who are almost there in seeing religiosity for what it really means, but who somehow get sidetracked and unwittingly help do religion’s job of censoring outspoken atheists.

    I’d honestly like to thank PZ for posting this, it lifted my despair of the future somewhat.

  3. #3 Dirkh
    October 5, 2007

    “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.”
    ———-

    That’s what decent, responsible believers do–they go under the radar.

    In the U.S., Centrist Christians, who support church/state separation, are just as appalled at the aggressive antics of Christians on the radical right as atheists are. Something for atheists to bear in mind as they battle (rightly) to transcend the legacy of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

  4. #4 Alexander
    October 5, 2007

    Well said PZ. I’m a big fan of Mr. Harris but in this case i’m with you. Many people think liberal is a negative label. But not to me. I’m proud to call myself a Liberal and i’m proud to call myself an Atheist.

  5. #5 True Bob
    October 5, 2007

    So “under the radar” is the atheist version of “in the closet”. Because that has worked out so well. /eyeroll

    Personally, I prefer to use a-theist as an adjective, just says I am without religion. But that’s only in my head. Out in the real world, that’s the term. Sam really needs to clue in.

  6. #6 ryan
    October 5, 2007

    I’m looking for a way to scream “atheist” at the top of my lungs – I’ll wear that one with pride.

    The nasty strains of racism tolerated by many in the modern left has made me a little reluctant to use that term for self-description despite being extremely left-wing.

  7. #7 Kevin Conway
    October 5, 2007

    Very well put, PZ. Particularly troubling, for me at least, was the first sentence of the last paragraph in Sam’s piece:

    We will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept.

    Sorry to say, but if one replaces religion with “capitalism” and atheism with “Marxism”–to pick one haphazardly invented example–there’s a good chance that Trotsky might have made the same remark to Stalin himself back in the day. As ever, Orwell never ceases to be relevant.

  8. #8 Brownian
    October 5, 2007

    Hmm. For some reason, I am reluctant to apply my usual smart-assery to Sam Harris, probably because I gained so much respect for him from reading his online debate with Andrew Sullivan.

    Instead, I’ll just say I disagree with his position on this one.

  9. #9 Steve LaBonne
    October 5, 2007

    In the U.S., Centrist Christians, who support church/state separation, are just as appalled at the aggressive antics of Christians on the radical right as atheists are.

    And with rare (and of course honorable and praiseworthy)honorable exceptions, they haven’t done a damn thing about it, or in most cases even spoken out all that strongly against it. So much for the effectiveness of being ‘under the radar”.

  10. #10 RamblinDude
    October 5, 2007

    I, for one, think we should change our name anyways–to “Rationalist Smack Down Counter Strike Squad”! There’s just no way to not make that sound cool!

  11. #11 Reginald Selkirk
    October 5, 2007

    Uh oh, now your signature belongs to the Interwebs.

  12. #12 BlockStacker
    October 5, 2007

    An example of the converse: “Gay” was chosen as a positive euphemism for homosexuality. Before this, gay was used commonly for “happy”. The over-30′s may not realize it, but “Gay” has become a generic (and almost ubiquitous) insult among adolescents and young adults who need to grow up. I’m not proud to admit that I used to say it all the time:

    “Gas is 3 dollars a gallon?! That’s so gay.”
    “Dude, don’t be gay, just break me offa piece a that Kit-Kat”

    It doesn’t necessarily even mean “homosexual”. It’s use is more similar to “suck”.

    The worst thing atheists could do would be to pick a monosyllabic word to identify ourselves (i.e. “Bright”). It just gives the people who hate us an easier word to use. It’s much better to just own the labels placed on us. After all, what are we ashamed of?

  13. #13 Pi Guy
    October 5, 2007

    I, too, was surprised and a little surprised when I read that he had said that.

    If anything, the fact that some people actually sneer as they say the word ‘atheist’ means that the movement is starting to have an impact.

  14. #14 Greg Peterson
    October 5, 2007

    Atheists who are decent, polite, and altruistic will be MISTAKEN for Christians, because such is the irrational bigotry of our culture. When I can, if I am helping someone, I try to find some subtle way of mentioning my lack of religious faith. And today when I received an email from the ONE campaign folks with the subject line “FAITH,” I wrote them a quick note to explain that I support them because they are, like me, secular, and if that changes substantially, they will lose my support. There is literally no reason why a good reputation should attach to the religious or a bad reputation to the atheist–we know this very well. But Harris’s tack here would allow Christians to claim any decent person as one of theirs, while pointing out the few rotten atheists as representative of the whole worldview. This won’t do.

  15. #15 Reginald Selkirk
    October 5, 2007

    Dirkh: In the U.S., Centrist Christians, who support church/state separation, are just as appalled at the aggressive antics of Christians on the radical right as atheists are.

    There must be a lot of them if you call them “Centrist,” huh? Is that why the God-bearing pledge is still in our schools, and an attempt to knock it down can’t even get a fair hearing in the highest court in the land? Is that why “In God We Trust” is still on our money? Is that why organizations which openly discriminate against atheists, such as the Boy Scouts and the American Legion hold prominent places in our society, rather than being ostracized like bigots should be?

  16. #16 Blake Stacey
    October 5, 2007

    What I said before, deep down in a thread on something else:

    Anybody who has witnessed Terrorism become the new Communism (to wax a little snowclonish) will recognize that new words can be given the emotional baggage of the old ones. Merely changing your label won’t win the rhetorical battle. . . and if you don’t give yourself a label, a person with less patience and tolerance for subtlety will stick one upon you. Consider that inane coinage of Wired, the appellation “New Atheist” itself. Do all the authors whose books are shelved together as “The New Atheism” agree with one another? No. Do the people who read those books follow their authors in all intellectual decisions of consequence? Nope. If I wrote a book, we’d have a “New Atheist” author who disagreed with Hitchens about the Iraq war, Dawkins about group selection, and Harris about “spirituality”. Better call me a “New Atheist” of the Sokal-Blackford-Avalos-Nanda-Myers Reformation!

    Yet, to the self-appointed professional pundit class, “New Atheists” we are, and “New Atheists” we shall always be — one equal temper of subversive heart. If you get any attention at all, that’s the treatment you will receive, whether you call yourself a Bright or a Skeptic or a Secular Humanist. And if you choose the hermetic path, if you forsake the limelight and walk the Earth (you know, like Kane in Kung Fu) to provoke the faculties of critical thought one mind at a time — well, we’ve tried that, and look where it got us.

    Harris’s defense of the whole “spirituality” thing also lacked punch. Not only did it seem like a distraction from the tactical and strategic case he was trying to make, but also it missed the point of the complaints directed at him. I won’t claim familiarity with the whole Satanic Talmud of commentary which has grown up around the Uppity Atheist Bookshelf, but I think it’s fair to say that people like Meera Nanda are concerned with the way Harris imputes empirical truth value to the claims of the mystics.

  17. #17 Blake Stacey
    October 5, 2007
  18. #18 Mike P
    October 5, 2007

    Pi Guy,

    But were you surprised?

  19. #19 The Ethical Atheist
    October 5, 2007

    Well written as always, PZ.

  20. #20 BlockStacker
    October 5, 2007

    if you forsake the limelight and walk the Earth (you know, like Kane in Kung Fu)

    A label has been assigned to people like that, as well: “Bums”

  21. #21 poke
    October 5, 2007

    I like “atheist.” Most people take it like a punch in the face. Here in the UK the normal response tends to be militant agnosticism and lots of spat out platitudes that atheism is unreasonable/just-as-bad-as-religion/etc. That’s fine by me. Under the radar is the last place we need to be.

  22. #22 Rieux
    October 5, 2007

    Brownian (#8):

    For some reason, I am reluctant to apply my usual smart-assery to Sam Harris, probably because I gained so much respect for him from reading his online debate with Andrew Sullivan.

    On that note, see if you can count how many times in that debate (which I, too, think is Sam’s finest hour to date) Harris refers to himself as an “atheist.” It’s at least four.

    Odd, no?

  23. #23 Caledonian
    October 5, 2007

    Harris has clearly been replaced with a forced-clone body duplicate by the hordes of ID scientists.

    What do you think they’ve been spending all that funding on?

  24. #24 NickM
    October 5, 2007

    Great writing and just dead on.

  25. #25 Reginald Selkirk
    October 5, 2007

    David Fuhs is happy to call himself an atheist, but then he’s still moral because of his exposure to the 10 commandments. Consider the source.

  26. #26 Sinbad
    October 5, 2007

    Bring back the League of the Militant Godless.

  27. #27 CJO
    October 5, 2007

    Harris just isn’t a “preach to the choir” kind of guy. He’s a contrarian first, and whatever else he is (what is this, “the doubt that dare not speak its name”?) second.

    Eschewing labels at this stage of the game seems futile. As many have noted, you can stop calling yourself an atheist, but a theist who understands your position will correctly identify it as “atheism.” Words don’t go away, much less when they’ve already been attached to a “cranky subculture.” Which, by the way, there are worse kinds of cultures to be, like calcified, myth-bound mutual-appreciation societies –er, I mean, “churches.”

  28. #28 caynazzo
    October 5, 2007

    Why I think Xians have reduced politicians to embarrassing appeals to the faithful is that they’re willing, in herds, to say what atheists will not: If you are running for office and are Christian my vote is yours.
    What atheist is willing to apply this litmus test to her politician?
    Politicians are instruments. Trade in a little quality for quantity. Settle on a title for godless-sake. Gather. Find cohesion. Those fickle politicians will play along.

  29. #29 windy
    October 5, 2007

    Blake: If I wrote a book, we’d have a “New Atheist” author who disagreed with Hitchens about the Iraq war, Dawkins about group selection…

    Sorry for stalking, but let me try to point you to this article again. ;)

  30. #30 foldedpath
    October 5, 2007

    I respect much of what Harris has done, but he lost me with this one too. The bit where he proselytizes for meditation didn’t help either. It was hard to un-glaze my eyes and get through that section.

  31. #31 Chris R.
    October 5, 2007

    Can’t I just call myself a superhero?

  32. #32 IanR
    October 5, 2007

    Sam Harris? Fly under the radar? Time to go door to door (incognito, of course) and try trading new lamps (or books) for old ones. He’s being sarcastic, right? (I don’t like him anyway, so it would be hypocritical of me to pretend that this had caused me to lost respect for him, but…)

  33. #33 Steve_C
    October 5, 2007

    He wrote “LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION”

    a bestseller… who is he fooling?

  34. #34 Reginald Selkirk
    October 5, 2007

    On that note, see if you can count how many times in that (Harris vs. Sullivan) debate (which I, too, think is Sam’s finest hour to date) Harris refers to himself as an “atheist.” It’s at least four.
    Odd, no?

    Cue the video of Bill “OxyContin” Buckingham in Dover, PA swearing that he never used the word “Creationism.”

  35. #35 drivel
    October 5, 2007

    Mr. Harris has convinced me. Instead of an atheist, I shall henceforth be a NULL (Not Using Lousy Labels).

    Watch out deists, nothing is going to take you on now!

  36. #36 Betsy
    October 5, 2007

    There will probably come a time (at least I hope so for the sake of the human race) when atheism will be the default assumption because so damn many of us have come to our senses. At that moment, I think he will have a point. But for right now, differentiating ourselves from the mindless hoard, to break free from the preconceptions that everyone believes in some worthless diety, some kind of label is absolutely necessary.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with thinking about this question–indeed, challenging our assumptions is how many of us managed to break away from childhood indoctrination into religion–but that hardly means that merely asking the question implies an answer.

    I listened to this speech live at the AAI convention, and many of the questioners made exactly the same points PZ does. If he’s really never called himself an atheist before, I an understand why he might be uncomfortable with the label. After all, many atheists transition through “agnosticism” just because the label “atheism” is perceived to be so pejorative. I think in time, he’ll come around and see “atheist” as many of us have come to, as a badge of honour.

  37. #37 Brian W.
    October 5, 2007

    I had similar thoughts when i read what Harris had to say.

    This is the first time in my life that i’ve really had a group of people that I consider friends and i met all of them through a local atheist group. Meeting with them regularly is what got me interested in reading non-fiction. And reading made me realize i needed to go back to school. I shudder to think of where i’d be right now if they hadn’t been willing to openly identify themselves as atheists.

  38. #38 BlockStacker
    October 5, 2007

    I feel like we’re fighting against dictionary.com in a lot of ways though.I think this has been called “strong” vs. “weak” atheism. I know at least one person who identifies himself as agnostic simply because he does not deny the possibility of a creator. I remember thinking the same thing in my “agnostic” period. It’s like the definition of “agnostic” has gotten too big and the def. of “atheist” has gotten too small.

    If people who are atheist by our definition are not identifying themselves as such, they’re not putting “atheist” on the census forms, and they’re not being encouraged to join the community. How many erstwhile agnostics have we seen on forums accusing atheism of “requiring just as much faith.”

    I think we need to promote our definition more, simplify it, and bring it to the forefront. Put it on those scarlet letter t-shirts. Put it at the top of PZ’s website. This way, the community grows and, if our definition becomes prominent enough, the dictionary definitions will be changed as well.

  39. #39 Bunjo
    October 5, 2007

    I’m with Sam Harris on this one – at least in the UK. I can see how it might be different in the USA.

    In the UK we (still) have a general tolerance of individual peculiarities, whether politics, hobbies or religions (or non-religious). Changes in our society tend to be carried on a groundswell of quiet opinion. We distrust organised groups, especially if they are weirder than usual.

    If you adopt the big red ‘Atheist’ as your badge, you become a club of like minded people – but as Sam says the boundaries of your club are defined by people outside it. Their definition will be negative, and it will be easy for them to dismiss any rational argument from ‘that bunch of nutters’. The debate becomes polarised and more difficult to change.

    I recognise that Sam’s view may not be so persuasive in the US, but over in the UK we have been becoming more secular for many years. Steady change works for us, but possibly not for you. One size does not fit all.

  40. #40 CalGeorge
    October 5, 2007

    Ugh.

    Atheism is GREAT word. Unambiguous. Uncomplicated. Direct.

    All the worry-warts can go form their own little sub-tribe and do conferences where Nisbet and Harris drone on endlessly about the anxiety of non-influence and endlessly discuss “what’s in a name”. I won’t be attending.

    I AM AN ATHEIST!

  41. #41 andy
    October 5, 2007

    Thanks for this, Prof. Myers. You did not disappoint.

  42. #42 Sastra
    October 5, 2007

    I attended the Atheist Alliance International convention last month, and heard Sam Harris’ talk. There were a couple interesting follow-up questions from the audience.

    One or two people wondered what he thinks they should tell people they are, if they’re asked directly. As I recall, Harris’ response was not to give a response to that question, but change the subject to something else, something specific having to do with reason and evidence.

    But of course, that’s simply not workable — and not particularly honest. I’m surprised that Harris even proposed it, because of course one of the major tactics of the religious is to respond to a clear, devastating, difficult question with “that’s not important: instead, let me ask you something…” It doesn’t fool us a moment, they simply look disingenuous.

    There was also a follow-up point made by Daniel Dennett, that he does not dismiss the value of studying mystical experiences for either understanding how our brains compose our sense of self, or for personally helping one to achieve a sense of peace and contentment. In fact, Dennett said, he himself meditates and finds it very beneficial. He just disagrees that it gives someone insight into the nature of how the entire universe works, vs. into the nature of how the mind works. People who have spent years and years meditating don’t come up with anything interesting beyond themselves … or something like that.

    Harris’ response was still a bit confusing. He still seemed to push the idea that no, spending years and years in meditation would indeed tell you something important you couldn’t learn any other way — but of course he wasn’t saying there was some sort of spiritual realm or that you learned about the universe. Then where is the disagreement?

  43. #43 Jason Failes
    October 5, 2007

    PZ,
    Great letter; I think you may actually change Harris’ stance with it.

    -JF

  44. #44 woozy (pro- Wizard of Oz; anti-ozmopolitan)
    October 5, 2007

    So … he’s against the label “athiest”, Right? Not the word “athiest”. It seems hard for me to believe he never thought of himself as an athiest. The word “athiest” means someone who doesn’t believe in god and seems pretty specific to me. For a person, who doesn’t believe in god to say he never thought of himself as an athiest, sounds a bit like saying I never thought of myself as a human, or (in my case) male, or (also in my case (caucasion), or (still in my case) heterosexual. They may not be labels I find pertinent or relevant to the …. oh, let’s call it “essence of being me” … but there is utterly no doubt that they are specific words that apply to me.

    I’ve got nothing against labels, per se. But I’m not sure I see their point other than to obfiscate or cast innuendo. The label “pro-choice” softens the blow that they are pro-abortion*. The label “pro-life” implies anyone against them are anti-life monsters. The obiquitous success of both these labels, though, seem to me to be the rare exceptions. If our “movement” is one of a disbelief in god, why make up a term when “athiest” and “athiesm” mean precisely that? To call ourselves “brights” or “free-thinkers” or what ever seems to my to imply we want to hide or obscure our disbelief. I can’t see us having any success if we appear to actually be ashamed of or dishonest in letting people know we don’t believe in god.

    Another example of a successful label, I suppose, is “gay” for “homosexual”. I believe the purpose of this label is simply that the word “homosexual” sounds clinical and technical and thus makes the concept of “homosexuality” seem pathelogical rather than personal. We don’t clinically refer to other humans as “humans” in a social context, so too, I imagine the argument goes, it would be clinically detaching to refer to homosexuals as “homosexuals” is a social context.

    Maybe it’s just me, but “athiest” has no such clinical conotation, at least no more so than “Christian”, or “Jewish”, or “Hindu”; perhaps a little more such conotation than “pagan” but less such conotation than “deist”, “pantheist”, “gnostic”, or “polytheist”.

    I just can’t object to simple word if it simply and accurately describes us. Do I believe in God? No. What’s the word for a person who doesn’t belive in God? “athiest.” So am I an athiest? Well…. yeah.

    Then I suppose, there’s labels like “feminism” which cover a span of ideas and philosophies about women but isn’t in itself simply “women”. “feminism” is not the same thing as “pro-woman”. If our “movement” isn’t simply about stating our disbelief in God, but rather some other related tenets (is it? is our “movement” pro-science? anti exceptions on religious grounds? pro-vivisection while we’re at it ’cause those PETA nuts irritate me?) then another label would be apropriate. Athiesm doesn’t mean pro-science or anything else; just not believing in God.

    [*]Although I still run up against the odd pro-lifer now and then who get offended when I say I’m “pro-abortion”. They usually give some “you can’t be ‘pro-abortion’; that means you think every woman should be made to have an abortion” to which I usually point out I’m also “pro-brain surgery” and “pro-appendectimy”. Others are deeply into acquiescing to the enemy mode and say “abortions a deep tragedy and in a perfect world would never occur; I could never have one myself but when someone finds themself in a tragic position of an unwanted pregnancy they should be given the choice; isn’t that what you mean” to which I have to answer no, that’s not what I mean at all; I mean abortion is a legitimate medicate procedure that can frequently be the best option and as such should always be available, and, no, I don’t think an abortion is a tragedy and were I female, pregnant, and sure I didn’t want kids (I’m none of the three) and have one with more or less the same trepidation I’d approach any-other equivalent medical procedure.

  45. #45 Tom Foss
    October 5, 2007

    Yes, let’s all lie low. Because that’s worked so well so far. We should all just turn the other cheek, sit at the back of the bus, keep our dirty dealings to the bathhouses, and whatnot. Silent, passive nonresistance works out so well for every minority group who wants to gain recognition, find pride, and change the system.

  46. #46 Bob L
    October 5, 2007

    People like Mr. Harris don’t get it; by merely existing we atheist are a direct threat to all these Mega-Church Evangelists and their fortunes. To protect their income source of the people they have duped they will resort to every trick in the book. He’s in a fight, he’s going to get hurt and showing pain like flinching when someone calls him an atheist isn’t going to work.

  47. #47 Sastra
    October 5, 2007

    Sweet and gentle woozy:
    The next time I see you misspell “athEIst” as “athIEst,” I will accuse you of overweening pride, to think you are so much more athy than the rest of us…

  48. #48 Dahan
    October 5, 2007

    Well put PZ. I got nothing to add but that.

  49. #49 Robert Thille
    October 5, 2007

    Query: “What’s your religion?” or “Do you believe in God?”

    Answer: “None, I’m rational.” or “Of course not, I’m rational.”

    I think Sam has a good point about defining ourselves as a negative, but I’ll still proudly call myself an Atheist.

  50. #50 Steve_C
    October 5, 2007

    You’re an atheist if your answer is “None”. Period.

    By denying the moniker you’re only making the rest of us upstanding atheists look less than desireable.

    The best thing an atheist can do is state they are with a smile and fearlessness.

    Sam’s being pretentious and unrealistic. Sure no one really wants to be labelled if the label is tainted by ignorance. But it’s cowardice to deny it.

  51. #51 MikeM
    October 5, 2007

    Athy, athier, athiest.

    “Jane is athy, but John is slightly athier. But that PZ guy is the athiest one of all.”

    (Sorry.)

    There are two kinds of people in the world; those who think there is no spirit world, and those who think there is one. By definition, if Sam thinks there are zero gods, that makes him an atheist.

    There’s really no other way to frame it. Sam’s essay is really all about framing, isn’t it?

  52. #52 Mike O'Risal
    October 5, 2007

    Personally… meh, don’t care. I don’t believe I ever started calling myself an atheist in the first place, so it’d be hard for me to stop now. I tend to let other people make up names for me apart from very definite things like my proper name or my role as a student or researcher. They can call me a post-9/11 modernist pan-negentrodeist with a slice of cheddar cheese and dipping sauce on the side if they like, whoever they are this week. It doesn’t change a thing. In my heart of hearts, I’ll know that I’m out of dipping sauce.

    Point is, people define everyone as “like me” or “unlike me.” The specific name they attach to mark the differences or similarities always have, and probably always will, change over time of their own accord. Disagreeing with a label is still giving it some degree of influence over oneself. If I have to argue with someone that “I am an atheist” or “I am not an atheist,” they’ve already made up their own mind. What I call myself hardly matters at all.

  53. #53 scatheist
    October 5, 2007

    #15 Reginald Selkirk: “Is that why the God-bearing pledge is still in our schools, and an attempt to knock it down can’t even get a fair hearing in the highest court in the land? Is that why “In God We Trust” is still on our money? Is that why organizations which openly discriminate against atheists, such as the Boy Scouts and the American Legion hold prominent places in our society, rather than being ostracized like bigots should be?”

    Let’s not forget that this is the country that imported then persecuted slaves, that conducted the Scopes Monkey Trial, that permitted McCarthyist hysteria, and that has twice allowed Dubaya into office. Your Founding Fathers must be rolling in their graves.

    From the outside, it is intriguing to speculate how a rich and, in so many other ways, able nation has nurtured such intolerance, bigotry, stupidity, and anti-intellectualism.

    Look beneath all those problems and you’ll probably find a large measure of conservative greed and obsessive fundamentalist religiosity.

  54. #54 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 5, 2007

    woozy: three syllables: a-the-ist.

    (Was that spelled with ´ in the 19th century?)

  55. #55 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 5, 2007

    woozy: three syllables: a-the-ist.

    (Was that spelled with ´ in the 19th century?)

  56. #56 Alison
    October 5, 2007

    If we all “flew under the radar,” what would Debbie Schlussel and Dinesh D’Souza have to talk about?

  57. #57 longstreet63
    October 5, 2007

    Thanks, PZ. The way to overcome the label is to embrace it, since the opposition will slap it on you anyway, and the more you squirm, the more they will apply it.

    As far as all of this meditation crap, I fail to see what the pursuit of subjective experiences is going to do for anyone beyond give them subjective experiences. You don’t get anything out that wasn’t there to begin with. What happens in ones’ head does not affect reality–no matter how much one might want it to.

    Otherwise,gods would exist.

    I’m an atheist and what goes on in my head is a simulation.

  58. #58 Midwestern Gent
    October 5, 2007

    I love me some Sam Harris, but I count myself squarely in PZ’s camp on this one. I get Sam’s point, but I also think that, without labels to identify groups of like-minded people, organizing people to promote the rational worldview becomes exponentially more difficult. Best use of the word Atheist I’ve seen in a while was on t-shirts worn by the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, which proudly stated, “Hi! I’m your friendly neighborhood Atheist.”

  59. #59 fupDuck
    October 5, 2007

    I have used “We are all atheists; I simply don’t believe in one more god than you don’t believe in”, which is correct and makes me smile inside, but does not amuse the bulk of the believers around me.

    I do think it’s funny that a man who is making a living writing books telling the world that their religions are wrong and dangerous is telling the rest of us to not do the same thing. Hypocritical, much?

  60. #60 BlockStacker
    October 5, 2007

    I do think it’s funny that a man who is making a living writing books telling the world that their religions are wrong and dangerous is telling the rest of us to not do the same thing. Hypocritical, much?

    Maybe he just wants to corner the market?

  61. #61 sinned34
    October 5, 2007

    “Atheist” is an okay term that I don’t mind being called. I much prefer another label that describes me as well: “Apostate”. Yeah!

  62. #62 Bad
    October 5, 2007

    Well, I think the point here has been a bit missed, and I think PZ, you have been very selective with what you mention and respond to in Harris’ article: you mostly make it sound as if he is merely another advocate of “shut up atheists” framing, advocating an entirely milquetoast downplaying of that embarrassing atheism (which many of the commenters seem to believe too, perhaps not having clicked the link and read further), when in fact he’s calling for some pretty balls-to-the-wall constant criticism of religious ideas. You then simply do not mention or respond to most of his actual arguments about why he thinks atheism is a distraction.

    Though I’m an atheist who’ll most likely go on using the term atheism despite Harris’ admonitions, I still think he makes a lot of worthwhile points about how an obsessive focus on one word or identity can be a problem and a distraction. I’d like even to add to what Harris said.

    Those who try to put forth their ideas as atheism, and use atheism interchangeably with their own anti-religious or rationalist opinions and commentary, are being counter-productively confusing. Understanding what atheism is, is often VERY difficult for believers, because they fall into the precise trap of thinking of atheism as a philosophy rather than a category of exclusion. This is why comparing atheism to “queer” or “abolitionist” is remarkably inapt and unhelpful (not to mention that both of those DID come with positive sets of values and goals). Atheism is fundamentally privative: it is a category of the outgroup. We really AREN’T a common people and we really DON’T have a common goal, or even necessarily similar opinions on virtually anything.

    Every time we act to convince people that we, in fact, are, especially by obsessing over and insisting we all march under a single banner, we only deepen the confusion. And we pretty much concede half the battle to religious nuts who are TRYING to confuse people in exactly this way.

    This is why I sort of feel like rolling my eyes a little at the idea of having “atheist” charities. It emulates what religious organizations do, when half the point is that they are wrong to do it, creating more artificial divisions between people and wasting time pushing ideology when all the focus should be the cause, not the providers.

    As Harris notes, in many cases, focusing on and obsessing over the word “atheism” is like an invitation to waste a TREMENDOUS amount of time and have confusing discursive and almost purely semantic discussions that lead us, ironically, very far afield from the actual criticisms of religious belief we are interested in focusing on.

    It’s also a little tiresome to see every attempt at introspection or self-criticism treated so suspiciously (and in this case a little sneeringly “controversial contrarian, so your intent was well executed. Good work!”). Maybe Harris was wrong: maybe all anyone really wants is a lot of back-patting and red meat 24/7. I dunno: I find that prospect a little boring, and I can’t quite imagine being the sort of person who’d pay hundreds of dollars to go to this conference to hear other people repeat what I already think and then cheer at it. I’m already arrogant enough to self-congratulate myself for free: if I’m going to pay money, I’m going to want to hear things that will make me think and challenge me.

  63. #63 arcanum
    October 5, 2007

    Thank you, PZ, for getting to the heart of the matter.

    I was not impressed by the transcript of Harris’ speech, partly because I wondered if he was not merely choosing the more controversial position for the sake of carving out a niche for himself.

    Harris seemed to be conveniently ignoring the fact that theists will label us ‘atheists’, ‘infidels’, or ‘godless’ regardless of what we call ourselves. Theists are in the habit, after all, of making highly emotional arguments and of resorting to ad hominem attacks. I suspect that this is because they either cannot make a good argument or because no good argument can be made for religious dogma — or both. I think that it would be political and intellectual suicide to submit to their name-calling tactics.

    If Harris wished to say that we should emphasize the more ridiculous and dangerous aspects of particular religious sects, then he should have said that. If he wished to point out that we need to emphasize the fact that atheism is the only rational position that fits all the physical evidence, then he should have said that.

    The inescapable fact is that we either believe in supernatural entities or we do not. Whether we nonbelievers waffle and say that it cannot-be-known or whether we say that anything that interacts with the physical is necessarily physical (goodbye special ‘supernatural’ category) we appear to be mostly united by our belonging to the nonbeliever camp. Why toss that away?

    As other atheist commenters have pointed out, rationality and factual information alone simply have not worked in the hundreds of years since the Enlightenment (which was confined, after all, to a smattering of attendees at fashionable salons) and the Scientific Revolution.

    I suspect that Harris may have inhabited circles in which others were both reasonably intelligent and reasonably well educated. I say this because he appears to be blissfully unaware of the intellectual capacity of the average man or woman in the street. The average sheep-person is not really capable of assessing the soundness of an argument purely on its logical merits. Not only is the average sheep-person not particularly suited for critical thinking, the average sheep-person in America seems to have adopted a highly emotional, anti-intellectual attitude and will not respond well to rationality or to the term ‘rational’. If you want to herd sheep, you need a sheepdog that will nip at their heels and not a shepherd who refuses to call himself a shepherd in case the sheep take offense.

    Woof!

  64. #64 inkadu
    October 5, 2007

    I never trusted Sam Harris, because he is a muslim-phobe first, and an atheist second. Nothing in this essay does anything to change my opinion on him.

  65. #65 RBH
    October 5, 2007

    I’ve begin using “assertive atheist” to describe myself (just last week for the first time), and I rather like that, as opposed, say, to “militant” atheist. It gets across the message more clearly and with fewer bullshit associations.

  66. #66 CalGeorge
    October 5, 2007

    Atheists manage to establish a tiny influence in the cultural landscape and, once again, someone just has to tell them to STFU.

    Very disappointing.

  67. #67 Bad
    October 5, 2007

    “As other atheist commenters have pointed out, rationality and factual information alone simply have not worked in the hundreds of years since the Enlightenment (which was confined, after all, to a smattering of attendees at fashionable salons) and the Scientific Revolution.”

    I also want to point out that these sorts of arguments the “well X hasn’t worked in the past, so why should they work now?,” which are common, are also to my ear pretty silly. The cultural, political, and intellectual environment today isn’t the same one as “for hundreds of years.” And as people seem to be convieniently forgetting, Harris is hardly advocating just milling around tamely asking people to be reasonable but not going after religious nuttery. I mean, have you READ “Letter to a Christian Nation” Or even the rest of his piece here?

    And frankly, hasn’t worked by what standard exactly? For most of human history, atheists have been hunted for sport. And now, suddenly, since that oh-so ineffective Enlightenment, we may not have a chance of getting nationally elected, but most of us can be out and even have some people represented in the media and so forth. Heck, an openly atheist superhero leads not one but two major comic book superteams. :) Also, women can vote, slavery is an anathema, and so on: all things that would have been utterly unthinkable for most of the several thousand year history of all human civilization. Doesn’t seem half bad to me, frankly.

  68. #68 Rolando Aguilera
    October 5, 2007

    How amazing, we haven’t define yet what the hell is the new atheism thing and we already have a schism. I don’t know, to me the Harris speech sounds some contradictory of his efforts of putting in the public arena the criticism of religion.

  69. #69 Bad
    October 5, 2007

    “Atheists manage to establish a tiny influence in the cultural landscape and, once again, someone just has to tell them to STFU.”

    See: perfect example of the sort of response I was talking about. If people get this idea of what Harris is saying from PZ’s response to him, then that response is not being very clear about what Harris is actually saying. Nowhere in his piece does he tell anyone to stop talking and stop criticizing religion.

    In fact, the same article includes lines like “Mormonism, it seems to me, is–objectively–just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas.” and has titles like “Science must destroy religion” and is from the same guy who wrote “Nature” to bash Francis Collins’ skull in for thinking he saw Jesus in a waterfall.

  70. #70 fupDuck
    October 5, 2007

    I must say, however, that my personal preference (and the way I think of myself) is “heathen” (or “godless heathen”).

    A great Drive-By Truckers song, BTW.

  71. #71 Jake
    October 5, 2007

    I think you need to take it a step further PZ. You write that we should accept labels and banners, but your tone suggests that we can only tolerate it as a necessary evil. I think hip-hop culture provides an example of how a word that was once used only to demean and denigrate can be co-opted by the very people it was aimed at, put to fruitful (artistic!) purpose and spoken with pride, a word so famous and important I needn’t write it. It is important to demonstrate how one can make a happy and proud connection to the label ‘atheist.’

  72. #72 woozy (you know, someone who relies on id rather than intelligence or common sense? An idoist?)
    October 5, 2007

    Sweet and gentle woozy:
    The next time I see you misspell “athEIst” as “athIEst,” I will accuse you of overweening pride, to think you are so much more athy than the rest of us…

    God *DAMN* it!!! I went *out of my way* to spell atheist with the i before e because somewhere last week I saw some place somewhere it spelled that way and I took it as authoritative that despite common sense the suffix was not “ist” as I had always assumed but “est” for reasons unknown. Now I can’t remember whatever the site was and all authoritative places I look I see that of course it is -ist.

    Now I feel like a real idoist!

  73. #73 woozy (you know, someone who relies on id rather than intelligence or common sense? An idoist?)
    October 5, 2007

    Sweet and gentle woozy:
    The next time I see you misspell “athEIst” as “athIEst,” I will accuse you of overweening pride, to think you are so much more athy than the rest of us…

    God *DAMN* it!!! I went *out of my way* to spell atheist with the i before e because somewhere last week I saw some place somewhere it spelled that way and I took it as authoritative that despite common sense the suffix was not “ist” as I had always assumed but “est” for reasons unknown. Now I can’t remember whatever the site was and all authoritative places I look I see that of course it is -ist.

    Now I feel like a real idoist!

  74. #74 arcanum
    October 5, 2007

    #60 Bad: “Well, I think the point here has been a bit missed, and I think PZ, you have been very selective with what you mention and respond to in Harris’ article: you mostly make it sound as if he is merely another advocate of “shut up atheists” framing, advocating an entirely milquetoast downplaying of that embarrassing atheism (which many of the commenters seem to believe too, perhaps not having clicked the link and read further)”

    As I read Harris, on the question of the ‘atheist’ label, he appeared chiefly to be trying to avoid the plethora of fallacious theistic anti-atheist ad hominem slurs.

    . . . when in fact he’s calling for some pretty balls-to-the-wall constant criticism of religious ideas. You then simply do not mention or respond to most of his actual arguments about why he thinks atheism is a distraction.”

    I agree with Harris that some religious beliefs are even more ridiculous than other beliefs and that some sects are more dangerous than others. Theists have been attacking science and knowledge broadly, and specific fellow citizens narrowly, for a very long time. He’s advocating rationality, which has not worked and which I think will not work.

    Let’s look at why atheists have become more vocal and politically active, though. I’d be interested in knowing why others here are atheists. (Excuse me for asking this–I’m new here.) This is a self-selected population and I suspect that there are commonalities beyond being atheists.

    I have been a nonbeliever since early childhood first because I thought that I was being taught illogical and improbable stories. This logical bent also resulted in my preference for science. So, logic first, then agnosticism, then science, then atheism, then increasing awareness of the harm that religious belief has inflicted on rationality, on science, on morality, and on politics. My other self-labels include ‘liberal’, ‘secularist’, ‘humanist’, ‘empiricist-materialist’, ‘environmentalist’, etc – all the qualities that are despised, and probably feared, but the Religious Wrong.

    I have only recently sat up and paid any attention to atheism as a movement and this stems from my increasingly anti-religious feelings. More than ever, I see the controlling anti-intellectual ethos of the religious fundamentalist as dangerously subversive.

    Harris appears to want to take away what I suspect may motivate and unite us as frustrated pro-rationals. Later in this movement, his points might be useful, but I think he’s unhelpfully premature in his suggestion and, as I said in my earlier comment, I’m suspicious of his motivations. I certainly do not think that he is being politically astute.

  75. #75 Leni
    October 5, 2007

    Brownian in #8 wrote:

    Hmm. For some reason, I am reluctant to apply my usual smart-assery to Sam Harris, probably because I gained so much respect for him from reading his online debate with Andrew Sullivan.

    That was good debate. Harris mopped up the floor with that poor guy. They kept it really civil and polite, which I appreciate. And I genuinely like both of them. But Harris cleaned Sullivan’s clock.

    On the topic of the post, I don’t think I will fret about labels, but I won’t necessarily fly under the radar. I can see why that would appeal to someone though. Not everyone should feel the need to wear a badge and that’s ok by me too. I hope there are a lot of those people out there, because… they’re sleepers.

    I will admit though, I despise the “New Atheist” term. It’s a) stupid, b) inaccurate and c) meant to be insulting from the get-go. I will not use it, except to insult people who do. Well, I have, but I won’t again except to be sarcastic. Why dignify it? I simply say “atheist” (which is term I really like) and that’s it.

  76. #76 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    We should go under the radar

    Um, isn’t it a bit late for that, in the case of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens? For a bright guy, Sam Harris says some of the stupidest things (like that that the problems in the Middle East have nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy).

  77. #77 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    I will admit though, I despise the “New Atheist” term. It’s a) stupid, b) inaccurate

    Oh, so books by open atheists criticizing religion as a whole being at the top of the bestseller list is an old phenomenon? That’s all the journalistic term means — it isn’t a claim that these guys, or their beliefs, were born yesterday.

  78. #78 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    I think PZ, you have been very selective with what you mention and respond to in Harris’ article: you mostly make it sound as if he is merely another advocate of “shut up atheists” framing, advocating an entirely milquetoast downplaying of that embarrassing atheism (which many of the commenters seem to believe too, perhaps not having clicked the link and read further), when in fact he’s calling for some pretty balls-to-the-wall constant criticism of religious ideas. You then simply do not mention or respond to most of his actual arguments about why he thinks atheism is a distraction.

    I notice that you don’t actually address any of PZ’s points. The fact is that talking about atheists “going under the radar” is just dumb. Your argument boils down to pointing out that Harris isn’t going under the radar, which is true, and is a clear indicator of just how dumb it is. PZ critiqued the dumb things Harris said, not the smart things — that’s how critiques go; PZ’s letter isn’t a book review of Harris’s life.

  79. #79 Tattooed & Atheist
    October 5, 2007

    I found Sam’s stance on this issue troubling. While I can see his intention, it doesn’t reflect the reality of how things are, as you pointed out so well PZ. Thanks for the letter, I find it comforting.

  80. #80 Tattooed & Atheist
    October 5, 2007

    I found Sam’s stance on this issue troubling. While I can see his intention, it doesn’t reflect the reality of how things are, as you pointed out so well PZ. Thanks for the letter, I find it comforting.

  81. #81 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    Heck, an openly atheist superhero leads not one but two major comic book superteams. :)

    Harris says no one should be openly atheist. “under the radar” — get it? You just don’t seem to be able to grasp that Harris is inconsistent and his message is muddled, and PZ addressed the muddle.

  82. #82 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    And frankly, hasn’t worked by what standard exactly?

    Does “bad” refer to your reading comprehension? You certainly don’t seem to have comprehended anything arcanum wrote: “rationality and factual information alone simply have not worked”.

  83. #83 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    “I think Sam has a good point about defining ourselves as a negative”

    Then why does he oppose the term “humanist” or “bright”?

  84. #84 Sastra
    October 5, 2007

    Sam Harris wrote:

    Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview–and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

    This echoes Bad’s point, that

    Understanding what atheism is, is often VERY difficult for believers, because they fall into the precise trap of thinking of atheism as a philosophy rather than a category of exclusion…. We really AREN’T a common people and we really DON’T have a common goal, or even necessarily similar opinions on virtually anything.

    This is true. “Atheism” is a very broad, diverse category, and not all atheists are scientific humanists. In fact, at the convention I spoke to one atheist who tried to tell me she believed there was an “energy force” which gives people psychic powers. But the diversity of atheism isn’t really Harris’ point:

    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.

    So it’s not that “atheism” isn’t descriptive or specific enough. “I’m a rational-empirical metaphysical naturalist free-will compatibilist who follows a Rawlsian view of ethics” is right out, too (probably a good thing, there).

    No, he’s saying we should ‘go under the radar’ and not be specific about ourselves, in the hopes that it will take the focus off of us, and onto our criticisms of their views. This isn’t about what we think, it’s about the problems with religion and faith.

    It’s an interesting idea, and I have no problem with atheist self-criticism in general. It makes me reconsider an assumption, and I like that. But I don’t think it will work, and I suspect it would undermine some of the momentum we have for coming out of our closets and making our case — which is something Harris does support.

    By the way, I did not get the impression at the talk (and afterwards, when I spoke (briefly) to him), that Sam Harris was deeply committed to this idea, of throwing off the ‘atheist’ label. I think he wants to provoke discussion — not just so he can stir up his audience and give a good speech, but so he can make up his own mind on this.

    I also note that this seems to be the opposite of the “we need to stop attacking religion and just focus on what we are for” argument coming out right now from some of the humanists.

  85. #85 Mrs Tilton
    October 5, 2007

    I am non- (indeed anti-)religious, but not quite an atheist. Having less of a dog in this fight, then, perhaps it is easier for me to understand what Harris is saying. By urging atheists to fly under the radar, I don’t think he’s asking them to downplay (still less: deny) their atheism. Instead, I think he’s asking them to spend less time defining themselves by what they’re not. In other words, I think he wants atheists to live as though atheism is the default position. (And I would agree with him entirely that it should be.)

  86. #86 Marcus Ranum
    October 5, 2007

    Arguing with theists, and arguing with eachother about what to call ourselves: neither has worked in the past.

    Laughing at theists works. Seriously. Try it. We need to “frame” the debate in terms of “people with laughable superstitions” and “the people that snicker at them.”

  87. #87 mcow
    October 5, 2007

    He brings up some good points – at least in theory – but, no, the real world doesn’t quite work this way. The problem is that a language is always defined by the majority. Trying to enforce your own label makes you look petty (just look at the whole backlash against “political correctness”), and to attempt to evade any label at all is to ignore human nature.

    A good analogy is an aviator’s call sign. Traditionally, it’s considered bad form to choose your own call sign, and often the one you are given will be derogatory. You don’t whine about this; you try to earn the respect of your colleagues in spite of it. Having earned this respect, you might be given a new, more respectable call sign, or you might keep your existing one because its original derogatory meaning is no longer relevant. Now I’m not saying I necessarily agree with the indoctrination tactics of military institutions, but this is essentially how society at large deals with labels.

    People want things packed up nicely and placed in a box. If you just dump everything into a new box, it looks like you’re running from a name. If there’s but one prerequisite for atheism, it’s courage. We’re the one’s who truly look death in the eye. We aren’t cowards, and we should take care that we don’t appear as such.

  88. #88 Marcus Ranum
    October 5, 2007

    I’m not sure if Harris is actually an atheist. He seems to have considerable appreciation for generalized spiritual woo. For example, he admires the Jains – a useless bunch of buddhism-addled f*ckwits if there ever was one.

    It’s interesting – Harris and Hitchens both kind of gave Buddhism a nod. Hitchens did point out that buddhism gets a black eye because of its wacky support of Hirohito as a diety during WWII. But if you actually read the various buddhist books of woo it’s about as much bulls*it as Dianetics, Andrew Weil, or Deepak Chopra. Why are all the “new atheists” so friendly toward buddah-woo? Maybe it’s because the Buddhists don’t habitually wade through oceans of blood (merely rivers) – it’s still bulls*it, though.

  89. #89 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one.

    Harris is a rather bad philosopher. The set of non-theists and non-racists are not empty; therefore they are each “really a thing”, and not being a theist or not being a racist are “real” characteristics.

  90. #90 Ben Abbott
    October 5, 2007

    All I have for Sam’s commentary is ….

    If the absence of theism is not atheism, then is the absence of light not dark?

    I infer that Sam is concerned with the negative stigma of the majority … as if it were any surprise that the deluded majority might be defensive of their preconceived notions (do a wiki on “cognitive dissonance” if this is not clear to you).

    Change is hard. Changing the world is harder.

    Get use to it. Life will not survive us if we do not struggle to defeat our primitive preconceptions.

  91. #91 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    Instead, I think he’s asking them to spend less time defining themselves by what they’re not. In other words, I think he wants atheists to live as though atheism is the default position. (And I would agree with him entirely that it should be.)

    Yeah, it’s a big stupid strawman. As if any of us spends the majority of our time thinking about how we’re “not one of them”.

  92. #92 Owlmirror
    October 5, 2007

    I think it could be argued that if you remove the unnecessary (and late) accretions of gods and spirits, Buddhism can be seen as purely a mental discipline and ethical system.

    Although I’ve been reading about the feudal slaveocracy created by the Tibetan Buddhists. There’s something very wrong when a system that explicitly says “Don’t treat people like things” can, as part of its later history, develop an institutional system that treats people like things.

  93. #93 John Morales
    October 5, 2007

    Owlmirror, maybe some consider monotheism:buddhism is as heroin:methadone?

  94. #94 mcow
    October 5, 2007

    Why are all the “new atheists” so friendly toward buddah-woo?

    Well, a significant part of the speech is dedicated to the idea that some religions are worse than others. Like you said, Buddhism has had a much less generally bloody history. I think this is largely a matter of priorities; all religions will have their time, but personally, I don’t think Buddhism can be called a “primary target” at the moment – unless there’s a real strategic opportunity here that I’m missing.

    There’s also the fact that most Buddhists don’t believe in God, which I think technically makes them atheists.

  95. #95 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    So too with the “greatest crimes of the 20th century” argument. How many times are we going to have to counter the charge that Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot represent the endgame of atheism? … I can assure you that this bogus argument will be with us for as long as people label themselves “atheists.”

    This highlights the absurdity and intellectual dishonesty of Harris’s argument. The bogus argument will be with us as long as there are theists who employ the argument in favor of theism. The critical fact about Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot isn’t that they called themselves atheists — Hitler certainly didn’t call himself that, nor was he one. It’s that there are theists who call these people atheists as a means of tarring “non-belief” as immoral, largely as a response to those who point out the great amount of immorality carried out in the name of religion (esp. Christianity), including Hitler. The SS had “God is with us” on their belt buckles. Did Stalin’s and Pol Pot’s troups have “no God on our side” on theirs?

    If Sam Harris doesn’t want to be a standard bearer for atheists, that’s fine with me — we’re better off without his racism and dishonesty.

  96. #96 Jason
    October 5, 2007

    truth machine,

    Before you work yourself up into even more of a lather over Harris, try reading Sastra’s post of 8:10pm. Chill, dude, chill.

  97. #97 Rieux
    October 5, 2007

    Moi (#22):

    [S]ee if you can count how many times in [the Harris-Sullivan beliefnet.com] debate (which I, too, think is Sam’s finest hour to date) Harris refers to himself as an “atheist.” It’s at least four.
    Odd, no?

    Then there’s this essay, in which Harris calls himself an “atheist” three times, not counting his half-sarcastic references to the “New Atheist” label.

    I think I’m going to continue this research project….

  98. #98 Sastra
    October 5, 2007

    Buddhism comes in different forms, and I think there is an American variation of Zen (which claims to be based on the original) which really is what we’d probably categorize as a life philosophy, not a religion. One could consistently practice it and be an atheist, even a materialist naturalist. My brother is Zen, and says they don’t care if God exists or not, and it has little to no woo.

    Harris seems to be talking about a mysticism without metaphysics, one which he claims has nothing to do with dualism or monistic idealism (everything is consciousness); one which is even consistent with mind/brain physicalism. I find it hard to understand, but I’m not sure if that’s because I have trouble letting go of the baggage unnecessarily included in some of the terms, or if it’s because Harris himself is being unclear and contradictory.

    Or maybe it’s because I haven’t gone off to a cave for 10 years and meditated till I fried my brain into a permanent state of stoned bliss.

  99. #99 John Morales
    October 5, 2007

    Just as well all protagonists in these internecine disputes are atheistic, or blood would have been shed by now.

  100. #100 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

    This question, I think, lies at the periphery of everyone’s consciousness. We are all, in some sense, living our answer to it–and many of us are living as though the answer is “no.” No, there is nothing more profound that repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; there is nothing more profound that seeking satisfaction, both sensory and intellectual.

    If Harris is so focused on being “utterly happy”, why is he giving speeches? Why doesn’t he just smoke some meth while taking a suicide pill, which would guarantee that he would be utterly happy for the rest of his life? If the ultimate goal is to avoid pain, why do people work out or go rock climbing? Harris has a very childish and limited view of what motivates human behavior — to the degree that he believes what he says here.

  101. #101 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    truth machine,

    Before you work yourself up into even more of a lather over Harris, try reading Sastra’s post of 8:10pm. Chill, dude, chill.

    There’s nothing lower on the internet than those ad hominemizing fucks who have nothing better to do than tell other commenters how to behave. But I’ll descend to your level on this occasion — fuck yourself in the ass, dude, fuck yourself in the ass.

    And by the way, moron, I had already quoted from and responded to part of Sastra’s post, so of course I read it.

  102. #102 Balaji
    October 5, 2007

    I think Sam Harris is spot on. In a society worshiping ludicrously funny gods like Yahweh, The Father, Allah, Ishwar etc, words like Atheism and Atheist might be cool. But when you are past that stage and are taking on concepts like Brahman (as explained by Hindu works Bhagwad Gita, Advaita), Sunyatha (zeroness as proposed by Buddha) or Nirwana (as proposed by Mahavira) etc, Atheism is utterly ridiculous. At this stage even God is atheist!

    In simple terms…God is a joke. Don’t try to prove he doesn’t exist or otherwise. Its simply not worth our time. We are, what we are! We don’t give a damn about God.

  103. #103 Russell Blackford
    October 5, 2007

    I do think that Harris gets himself sidetracked at times, but his contributions are valuable. If we disagree with him, let’s do so respectfully. He’s a valued comrade in the struggle against theocracy, and his ideas are worth considering.

    That said, I disagree with him, not because I a core “atheist” identity (I don’t; I live in a post-theist milieu, in a secular country, hanging out with secular people), but because I think that labels are inevitable. Even if atheist is not the best label, he rejects other labels, too, such a “rationalist”, “humanist”, and so on. I just don’t think that’s realistic.

    What would be more realistic would be to try to shape a broad coalition opposed to theocracy. Some people within that coalition might call themselves atheists, but many might not. All of them would probably want to label themselves in some way (“humanist”, “rationalist”, “deist”, depending on their philosophical emphases) but the movement would be built around opposition to theocratic control of our lives and the lives of others, and genuinely moderate religionists would be welcome to sign up. Conferences, choices of speakers, and so on, could be organised that way, and internal debate would be welcomed as a sign of a healthy social movement.

    I have a “big tent” approach to opposition to theocracy, though not a “framing” approach in the pejorative sense: i.e., I don’t want to hide what I think from Christian conservatives, or to frame my message to please them. I do, however, want to work with anyone who joins me in opposing them.

    My tent would admit the most moderate Christians, Jews, etc. There would be some atheist that it would not admit, because I do encounter atheists who have absorbed so much religious morality that they are not really enemies of theocracy. If atheism is just a metaphysical claim with no political implications, I have no use for it.

  104. #104 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    I think Sam Harris is spot on.

    And yet you show no signs of having any clue what he is saying.

  105. #105 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    If we disagree with him, let’s do so respectfully.

    What’s with you moralizing pukes?

  106. #106 mcow
    October 5, 2007

    truth machine said:

    If the ultimate goal is to avoid pain, why do people work out or go rock climbing? Harris has a very childish and limited view of what motivates human behavior — to the degree that he believes what he says here.

    Wow, talk about intellectual dishonesty. Harris is talking about being happy in spite of pain. Finding fulfillment in life beyond what makes you feel good at this particular moment.

    Note that Harris says “most”.

    Do you really think that most people are actually working out or going rock climbing or doing anything besides the seeking of pleasurable stimuli on a regular basis? If you do, then I would say you are the one with a childish view of humanity.

    Maybe you don’t agree with Harris on what might lead one to happiness, and that’s fine. You won’t see me trotting off to a cave any time soon, either. But I cannot see how you would look at the average American, for example, and imagine that girth being hoisted up a rock wall.

  107. #107 Michael
    October 5, 2007

    “What happens in ones’ head does not affect reality”

    So what is the point of sexual fantasies ?

    “Otherwise,gods would exist.”

    Doesn’t logically follow.

    Michael

  108. #108 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    Wow, talk about intellectual dishonesty. Harris is talking about being happy in spite of pain.

    Well, I might have been mistaken. But I wasn’t: “No, there is nothing more profound that repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains”.

    So fuck you asshole.

  109. #109 Owlmirror
    October 5, 2007

    Of course what is in one’s head affects reality, inasmuch as one’s head is part of reality. However, what happens in one’s head does not affect what happens outside of one’s head (other than thoughts that lead to actions, of course).

    So sexual fantasies will not, by themselves, get you laid.

    And fantasizing about God will not make God exist.

  110. #110 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    Do you really think that most people are actually working out or going rock climbing or doing anything besides the seeking of pleasurable stimuli on a regular basis?

    Yes.

    If you do, then I would say you are the one with a childish view of humanity.

    Well then you’re an ignorant idiot.

    How much pleasurable stimuli are you getting from me?

    Like I said, “very childish and limited view of what motivates human behavior“. It isn’t just pleasure seeking, moron. Do try to keep in mind that this is a biology blog.

  111. #111 John Morales
    October 5, 2007

    #105, you missed a comma at the end.

    Perhaps the TM needs a reboot.

  112. #112 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    But I cannot see how you would look at the average American, for example, and imagine that girth being hoisted up a rock wall.

    Ah, right, the explanation for increasing obesity in Americans is simply an increase in their drive to obtain pleasure — a modern mutation, I suppose.

    Might fucking stupid, you are.

  113. #113 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    “you missed a comma at the end.”

    Actually it’s a semicolon, which I had included in my previous quotation, but wasn’t relevant to my point of rebuttal, twit.

  114. #114 arcanum
    October 5, 2007

    #66 Bad: “I also want to point out that these sorts of arguments the “well X hasn’t worked in the past, so why should they work now?,” which are common, are also to my ear pretty silly.”

    Conversely, there is the old adage that the definition of a fool is someone who expects to get a different result by acting as they always have.

    I’m not calling you a fool, Bad. Politico-religious issues are complex, so I’ll confine my remarks to theistic anti-intellectualism. I am referring of the lack of impact that explaining science has made on the proliferation of creationist pseudoscience and on the debate that should never have happened (C vs E). I was, too briefly perhaps, suggesting that new tactics are called for because the old tactics have not worked sufficiently. Part of the old tactic has included a lack of rationalist solidarity. What I did not explain was that I was thinking more of the recent upsurge of creationist attacks on science–the manipulative resurrection of so-called intelligent design as part of the wedge campaign is a case in point.

    “The cultural, political, and intellectual environment today isn’t the same one as “for hundreds of years.”
    I agree. The improvements that you listed resulted from education and political activism. I am not suggesting that those cease. I think that the effort needs to be heightened because religious recipients of theists’ donations have money to burn on their political agendas. I think that it is na´ve to think that the average sheep-person really cares about knowledge and truth, though. They care about being perceived as belonging to their community and about accumulating Brownie points for heaven. The Religious Wrong have used the Internet, the media, and billboards to their advantage. Because most sheep-persons seem to be unable to comprehend science, religious polemicists have a great advantage in that they are not selling knowledge, rather they are selling fallacious appeals to emotion to people who lack the cognitive capacity to tell the difference.

    “And as people seem to be convieniently forgetting, Harris is hardly advocating just milling around tamely asking people to be reasonable but not going after religious nuttery.”

    I think that it would have been politically less divisive for Harris to emphasize those points rather than fussing over labels.

    “I mean, have you READ “Letter to a Christian Nation” Or even the rest of his piece here?”

    No. I read the transcript of Harris’ speech at the AAC and I had previously read Harris’ response to Haidt’s criticism of the New Atheism. Since we aren’t discussing “Letter to a Christian Nation”, I don’t see how your question is germane to the discussion at hand. While we are on the topic of what I have read, it does strike me that Harris is doing a bit of an about face if he is defending atheism in one response and then advocating dropping the label in another.

    “And frankly, hasn’t worked by what standard exactly?”
    By the standard that creationism and religionism is spreading. I’m Canadian and many fellow Ontarians are alarmed by the attempt of a conservative candidate to extend public funding to currently private religious schools and to introduce the teaching of creationism into science classrooms. I have watched American ideology become more aggressively religious and I am alarmed to see it spreading to Canada, England, and Australia.

    “For most of human history, atheists have been hunted for sport.”

    For most of Christian history, believers with different philosophies, supposed witches, and people of different faiths were hunted for sport. Censoring scientific knowledge came later because the church had effectively stifled enquiry until relatively recently. Atheists mostly have not dared to proclaim their lack of belief because they knew what happened even to believers who differed.
    Now that it is safe to declare oneself an atheist and not risk being burned at the stake, why should we listen to Harris’ apparent about-turn and deny being atheists? Why throw away the gains and deny the point?
    If we declare against dangerous religious views while pretending to be believers or being silent about the deeper reason for despairing of the illogic of all religious thinking, are we not being cowardly or missing the point? Admittedly some religious dogmas are sillier or more dangerous than others, but is not the point also that all religious belief in the supposed supernatural is mere conformist magic thinking?

    “And now, suddenly, since that oh-so ineffective Enlightenment”

    I did not say it was ineffective, I said its impact was initially limited to the educated. Ideas disseminate just as stone tool technology disseminated. I did say that intellectual messages alone have not worked. Part of the reason that the advances that began in the Enlightenment have not spread throughout society can be blamed directly on unopposed religious propagandizing. The anti-enlightenment has gone unopposed. Voltaire did not rely on explication to get his point across–he used satire. He ridiculed the unwanted attitudes and his clever strategy worked.

    “. . . things that would have been utterly unthinkable for most of the several thousand year history of all human civilization. Doesn’t seem half bad to me, frankly.”

    So, why stop there?

  115. #115 John Morales
    October 5, 2007

    Now the truth-value emerges: a missed semicolon, and that the (end?|missing semicolon) wasn’t relevant to the point of rebuttal.

    Possibly indicative of a memory leak.

  116. #116 mcow
    October 5, 2007

    truth machine said:

    Well, I might have been mistaken. But I wasn’t: “No, there is nothing more profound that repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains”.

    Harris is obviously speaking in very general terms. The context he gives makes it very clear that he’s not simply talking about physical pain. Anyway, both of your examples are activities that many people find pleasurable, so I don’t really see how they’re even relevant.

    He also is talking about most people. Maybe I was too quick to judge you as dishonest. Maybe you really do think that most people are enjoying a level of fulfillment beyond their basic quest for pleasurable experiences.

    If I shared your optimism, I would have less trouble sleeping at night.

  117. #117 truth machine
    October 5, 2007

    Anyway, both of your examples are activities that many people find pleasurable, so I don’t really see how they’re even relevant.

    That’s because you’re both incredibly stupid and incredibly dishonest. Both involve repeating painful behavior (as does all that binge eating that many Americans indulge in), not avoiding it.

    Maybe you really do think that most people are enjoying a level of fulfillment beyond their basic quest for pleasurable experiences.

    I’m simply not stupid, ignorant, and dishonest like you are — I know something about the psychology of human motivation and I don’t ignore the evidence in front of me.

    If I shared your optimism, I would have less trouble sleeping at night.

    My optimism? That people are not primarily motivated by pleasure seeking? Your stupidity is beyond my fathoming, but I leave you to it. G’night.

  118. #118 Timothy
    October 5, 2007

    Thank you, PZ. I’ve been trying to write something to explain just this issue with Sam Harris for someone for about two days. Now I’m just going to direct them to this page.

    And I’ve got to say, that’s one sweet signature you’ve got there. I wish my PZ Myers looked that good!

  119. #119 mcow
    October 5, 2007

    How much pleasurable stimuli are you getting from me?”

    I find debate to be enjoyable from time to time. So some?

    Like I said, “very childish and limited view of what motivates human behavior”. It isn’t just pleasure seeking, moron. Do try to keep in mind that this is a biology blog.

    And where, exactly, does he make any claims about human behavior? Where does he say that human behavior is dictated by pleasure seeking and pain avoidance? He’s talking about happiness, not behavior. Nobody is claiming that humans don’t do anything besides pleasure seeking. (You could interpret my words as meaning that… I didn’t anticipate quote-mining, so let me just say outright that that is not what I meant)

  120. #120 J Green
    October 5, 2007

    Unless you believe in God, worship him in the right way then you’ll always be an atheist, that’s what christians invented the term for. To the Muslims we will always be kafir. It’s quite telling that even most atheists and especially agnostics don’t fully comprehend this basic fact. Preferring to call oneself the more religiously acceptable term of agnostic doesn’t make one any less an atheist or kafir.

    In the mean time, we should obviously combat the demonisation of the labels by showing people that religious inspired sectarian language for the dangerous and subversive nature that it is. We have to take ownership of the labels and fight back. Showing the weakness of there attempts both in a logically and rational way but also by using all the skills of debate that are used against us; so yes, even the more affective forms of argument need to be addressed. Running for cover will not help us and it certainly hasn’t worked over the past couple of hundred years. Religion has prayed on subjective emotions to subvert the will of people, and they aren’t adverse to using relativism and our liberal principles against us in order to reaffirm dominance once more.

    I have some pity for those ‘believers’ who the established churches use as pawns in their battles for political privilege. Challenging religion becomes akin to robbing people of their beliefs, how could those mean atheists hurt so many people feelings? Well take a glance to those that are acting in the name of those believers and see who it is that is using them as a shield for their own self righteous and egotistical ends!

  121. #121 ngong
    October 5, 2007

    I’d be curious to hear Nisbet on this. Harris is not asking atheists to be nice (framing), he’s asking them to stop identifying as atheists.

    I get the feeling that Harris is more informed by Buddhism than he lets on. This notion of “non self-labeling” smacks of it. One imagines a Tibetan lama whispering in his ear prior to a talk.

    At the same time, the hardcore atheist objection to meditation as a possible means of self-knowledge does seem odd. Exactly why do some find meditation, in its myriad forms, objectionable? Based on the some of the uninformed comments above (e.g. it’s something like heroin), some folks aren’t really in a position to dismiss it.

  122. #122 arcanum
    October 5, 2007

    #81 Sastra: Sam Harris wrote: “And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview–and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.”

    I disagree with him. I think that we can all agree that atheism is chiefly formulated in opposition to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions. (I have never heard, for example of an anti-Buddhist atheistic movement.) Even the theists would probably concede that this is the case for atheism. Anti-Abrahamic atheism would not exist as a belief system if other humans had not invented rituals, moralistics, and power-mongering institutions based on the supposed existence of a miracle-performing, punitive Creator. So, it is a negative position in that sense, which arises out of a positive sense. Individually, the positive sense might be love of understanding, of peace, of humanistic values, of science, etc, but religiosity-propagated problems invite these positive philosophies to turn against the underlying culprit. I’d sum up the culprit this way: one stupid idea necessitates another.

    When I was a nonbeliever as a kid, I was not opposed to religion per se. I merely considered it rather ridiculous, but not harmful. My atheism has moved from nonbelief to being anti-stupidity and anti-religion because I have become increasingly aware of the increasingly pernicious impacts of the Abrahamic religions.

    If I had bought into theistic concepts, then in the current political climate I’d probably belong to the United church and describe my irritation as anti-evangelical and anti-Islamic. However, I am convinced that there is no God, so my atheism is a worldview about the inaccuracy of supernatural mythologies and the danger of fundamentalist activism.

    If Harris wants to come up with a different term than atheism to describe a very real philosophy, then I don’t much care what that term is. However, I utterly disagree with him that atheism is not a worldview. I collaborate in being called a Canadian or an evolutionist, etc, so what is wrong with being immediately clear with theists that I am philosophically included in that group that considers supernatural inventions to be empirically unfounded? I may not consider most theists to be particularly logical, but I do credit them with the ability to discern *that* for themselves.

    Reading all your comments, I can assure you that I feel much more intellectual affinity with your worldviews than I ever have with those of any committed theist. I’m not quite sure why Harris wants to be a splitter rather than seeking some commonality of purpose. I think that if we listen to Harris, then we are at risk of being deluded into accepting theistic misrepresentations of us.

    “No, he’s saying we should ‘go under the radar’ and not be specific about ourselves, in the hopes that it will take the focus off of us, and onto our criticisms of their views. This isn’t about what we think, it’s about the problems with religion and faith.”

    Which begins and ends with what we think. I doubt that our dogs or cats have an opinion on the fact of problems with religion and faith. Besides, Harris’ ploy won’t work. If you spend much time debating theists, you will find that most of them take highly personalized positions against anyone who does not toe the party line to the letter, regardless of what the opponent calls themself. This is why they attack Richard Dawkins rather than his ideas.

    “By the way, I did not get the impression at the talk (and afterwards, when I spoke (briefly) to him), that Sam Harris was deeply committed to this idea, of throwing off the ‘atheist’ label. I think he wants to provoke discussion — not just so he can stir up his audience and give a good speech, but so he can make up his own mind on this.”

    Fine and good, but I think that to raise this in a speech was a politically divisive method of achieving that. If Sam Harris did wish to work out his own viewpoint through discussion, which I doubt, then he would have been better advised to engage in private discussion with fellow activists.

  123. #123 arcanum
    October 5, 2007

    #100 Russell Blackford: “What would be more realistic would be to try to shape a broad coalition opposed to theocracy.”

    I like your ideas, Russell, particularly the point that you make above.

  124. #124 divalent
    October 5, 2007

    I think Sam is making a very important distinction between 1) what is believed (or not believed) and 2) the mode of thinking that gave rise to those beliefs.

    The term “atheist” (or christian, etc) relates to the former, whereas most of the important concerns of “atheists” revolve around the latter.

  125. #125 J Green
    October 5, 2007

    On the other hand, I can fully understand where Sam is coming from. I use the tactic on a daily basis, to purpose arguments, you should see how disarmed a theist is when they don’t know what they think they know about you. I can even pretend to accept certain points in order to make different points. It’s just about being smart with the situation at hand. But then again not everyone can do this or wants to, I’m certainly not that good at it, I’ve never been taught it, it is something I think I’m learning with experience, from reading others and thinking beyond what I already think I know. But in the mean time why deprive them of a supportive network of like-minded people. Society should probably be enough but I sense we have a lot to do in that area as well.

    Although I think Sam is somewhat still in awe of the experiences that can be achieved through meditation as I know that for some it certainly doesn’t take a lifetime of isolation and 15 to 18 hour a day to achieve. Can it open you to new insights, erm, well yes and no, I suppose it depends on the state of awareness one already has; but these insights, they are more about an understanding of interactions between things which I think Sam highlights when he say they speak of the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness. It can be turned on more than just subjective expression, it can be used to analyse the objective.

    As for Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot being atheists! If someone wants to believe they are atheists then they are. They certainly didn’t believe in the same gods that the person you’re speaking with did. But each managed to construct gods in a different image. So in a strict sense to us accepting atheist then they are examples of belief in a set of ideals much akin to the middle eastern tribal religions; the monotheist ones.

    I once managed to debate a theist on just the meaning of the term atheist. He managed to change the meaning several time during the conversion to suit his argument at that moment. The inconsistencies didn’t both him in the slightest. Atheist is a term that effectively becomes ‘that which I and my god are not’. And that’s the problem not just with the label atheist but all our language and the lack of a good education. Until we can in some small way work on all those and much more besides, we never have a chance of removing the slur that is atheism.

  126. #126 J Green
    October 5, 2007

    oh and one more thing, where did Sam come up with the idea that one must treat all religion the same and equally if you call yourself an atheist. I’ve never in my life treated religions as equal on any level except one: That is; that all their claims should be as thoroughly questioned as the next. Obviously some ideas are more stupid or dangerous than others.

    Is Sam starting to believe the simplistic propaganda being waged against the atheist, after all some of it does indeed fit the evidence in some small way. But upon a more through examination then other, better explanations usually present themselves. I would have thought with a Masters in Philosophy he would be used to exploring ideas without the usual enticement of belief? Maybe he is just playing the devils advocate!

  127. #127 arcanum
    October 6, 2007

    #121 divalent: “I think Sam is making a very important distinction between 1) what is believed (or not believed) and 2) the mode of thinking that gave rise to those beliefs.”

    He may well be doing exactly that, but what part of what he said made you think so?

  128. #128 J Green
    October 6, 2007

    Hmm. For some reason, I am reluctant to apply my usual smart-assery to Sam Harris, probably because I gained so much respect for him from reading his online debate with Andrew Sullivan.

    Instead, I’ll just say I disagree with his position on this one.

    Posted by: Brownian | October 5, 2007 2:15 PM

    Well at least Sam has made you think.

  129. #129 Jason
    October 6, 2007

    arcanum,

    However, I utterly disagree with him that atheism is not a worldview.

    I don’t think it makes much sense to call atheism a “worldview.” The word refers to an absence of belief in a god or gods. That’s it. Nothing more. Atheism is consistent with a huge diversity of beliefs about origins, purpose, morality, politics, etc.

    I collaborate in being called a Canadian or an evolutionist, etc, so what is wrong with being immediately clear with theists that I am philosophically included in that group that considers supernatural inventions to be empirically unfounded?

    Nothing. But being “philosophically included in that group that considers supernatural inventions to be empirically unfounded” is not the same thing as being an atheist, so I’m not sure what relevance you think this statement has to your claim that atheism is a “worldview.”

  130. #130 Dahan
    October 6, 2007

    “new atheist”? So what’s new about it. Not believing in something is not new. Being outspoken, perhaps is. OK…

  131. #131 jfatz
    October 6, 2007

    I worry all the time about the sheer number of agnostics and polite atheists…

    Well, I find there are plenty of atheists who also consider atheism and agnosticism to be completely and utterly separate concepts at even a basic level, so it’s no wonder there are people who choose “agnostic” as the easier and more non-confrontational label, even if by they are completely atheistic.

    As well, I’m not sure what you define as “polite atheists,” but I find no conflict between being perfectly polite while also tearing “arguments against atheism” and “theistic logic/science” positions asunder with… you know… actual logic. I suppose if by that you mean “completely non-confrontational and not wanting to potentially hurt anyone’s fragile ego” then I don’t qualify, but to me “polite” more means “not being a dickhole and levelling personal insults,” which comes far more often from the other direction.

    “Love the sinner, hate the sin?” Well, at the same time, you can always “tear someone’s arguments asunder in a debate without biting their head off.”

    …of course I make no bones about anyone who’s proven themselves to be a complete and utterly unthinking creationist in every word and deed, has no desire to actually debate anything, and simply repeats the same illogical talking points in each and every conversation, despite being corrected every time (and never replying in return). They deserve the venom.

  132. #132 jfatz
    October 6, 2007

    The word “athiest” means someone who doesn’t believe in god and seems pretty specific to me. For a person, who doesn’t believe in god to say he never thought of himself as an athiest, sounds a bit like saying I never thought of myself as a human, or (in my case) male, or (also in my case (caucasion), or (still in my case) heterosexual.

    A white, male heterosexual…? So it’s your fault!!

  133. #133 Colugo
    October 6, 2007

    There is no getting away from “atheist.” Why bother? It’s simple and to the point: a-theist.

    I discern four major overlapping groups of godless:

    1. Atheist (anti-theist) focus
    AA, Brights, RDF, “New Atheists”
    New Atheism is distinguished by the claims to the effect that science = ontological naturalism; Victor Stenger, Shalini Sehkar

    2. Political advocacy focus
    left tendency: secular humanists (The Humanist, Free Inquiry), right tendency: Randians
    (Another recent political schism among the godless: anti-jihadist {Sam Harris, Hitchens} vs anti-”War On Terror”)

    3. Skeptic
    Center for Skeptical Inquiry and international affiliates; emphasis on debunking; broad enough to include even quasi-theists like Martin Gardner; Dawkins attempted to enlist skepticism against faith in the 90s; Frank Miele of Skeptic Magazine (no affiliation with CSI) is linked to the “race differences” movement

    4. Transhumanists
    The New Agers of non-theism; Extropians are the Randian variant; Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil

  134. #134 Jason
    October 6, 2007

    Colugo,

    Could you actually quote a “New Atheist” claiming that “science=ontological naturalism?” Or even making the weaker claim that science requires ontological naturalism? I assume that by “ontological naturalism” you mean the belief that nothing exists except the world we can study, at least in principle, through science.

    I also think it’s pretty stupid to call Transhumanists the “New Agers of non-theism.”

  135. #135 Anton Mates
    October 6, 2007

    Marcus,

    I’m not sure if Harris is actually an atheist. He seems to have considerable appreciation for generalized spiritual woo.

    Well, he’s definitely an atheist in the sense that he literally doesn’t believe in a God. At the same time, yeah, he’s much more supportive of psychic powers and reincarnation than your average self-labeled atheist.

    Basically, he’s a Buddhist. He doesn’t like that label either because it smacks of worshipping the Buddha like unto a god, but he’s a Buddhist. He thinks the Eastern mystics are unparalleled masters of a spiritual reality–”Buddha, Shankara, Padmasambhava, Nagarjuna, Longchenpa, and countless others down to the present have no equivalents in the West. In spiritual terms, we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs.” He strongly supports a number of paranormal phenomena which feature highly in Buddhist belief (while treating them, as many Buddhists do, as natural but not yet understood by science.) Dude’s a Buddhist.

    Which is not a problem, of course. Harris has a right to his beliefs, and he often ends up “on our side” because he finds theistic religions as problematic as atheists do. But it’s hardly surprising that he thinks “atheist” is an inappropriate label–in many ways, it is an inappropriate label for him. He’s much closer to non-dogmatic, non-theist religion (think Raelians and New Agers) than he is to Dawkins-style hard materalist naturalism.

    I, personally, will continue to label myself as an atheist, for exactly the reasons PZ gives. Religious conservatives would continue to call me an atheist and use that label to justify attacking me even if I repudiated it, as they would do to many people I respect. Therefore our most rational move is to embrace the label and demonstrate the size and (hopefully) collective virtues of the group of people so attacked. There’s strength in numbers and visibility.

  136. #136 Fatmop
    October 6, 2007

    “It’s true that labels can be used to marginalize a sub-culture, but they can also be used to unify a group, even the negative ones, sometimes especially the negative ones. Look at “Queer” and “Abolitionist”, to name two examples”

    QFT.

  137. #137 Colugo
    October 6, 2007

    “Could you actually quote a “New Atheist” claiming that “science=ontological naturalism?”

    Larry Moran: “[Frederick] Crews … argues that metaphysical naturalism is a valid and rational extension of methodological naturalism. This is contrary to Ruse and to the people at NCSE (e.g., Eugenie Scott). … Personally I agree with him”
    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2007/04/recourse-to-miraculous-is-always.html

    If the scientific method is founded on methodological naturalism, the valid and rational extension of which is metaphysical naturalism, then…

    Admittedly this is more watered down than my formulation. And I see that Stenger himself has upheld the metaphysical-methodological distinction. OK, how about “science -> atheism”? (And I predict that in a few years time many more will be comfortable asserting that there is no real difference between methodological and ontological naturalism, and all of that talk about there being a clear distinction between them will be written off as NOMA-esque appeasement.)

    Jason: “it’s pretty stupid to call Transhumanists the “New Agers of non-theism.”"

    Well, I think it fits. Transhumanism already reeks of 90s Mondo 2000-style cyber-faddism; pomo performance art combined with science fiction geekdom.

  138. #138 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    Could you actually quote a “New Atheist” claiming that “science=ontological naturalism?”

    From http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Quantum/00Preface.pdf: “according to our best knowledge, the world of matter is all that exists”

    Presumably by “best knowledge” he’s referring to the fruits of science; if not, then I have trouble imagining what he is referring to. But then, I also have trouble imagining how he can derive a metaphysical consequence from empirical epistemology.

    However, I don’t agree with Colugo’s definition of “New Atheist”, and Stenger’s peculiar views aren’t representative of the views of those to whom that label is often attached.

  139. #139 Bad
    October 6, 2007

    arcanum, it’s a little hard to follow you: your response treats what I said as if they were unrelated statements instead of an argument, half the time you seem to be forgetting that my point is that a) there is no good evidence that anything “hasn’t worked” (because the current situation hasn’t been around anywhere near long enough to judge) and in fact, in context, whatever has been done in the last century or so has worked unbelievably well compared to the vast majority of human civilization. Saying that we’ve been doing the same thing and it hasn’t been working is just nonsense: no one has been doing the same thing in any specific sense, and it’s far far from clear that ANY of the things ANYONE is proposing constitute the “same thing” in any case.

    I also think it’s very a important point to realize how distracting and how much confusion bickering around about atheism tosses into the public debate. Again, anyone who thinks that what Harris is saying is that atheism as practiced should go away is clearly dead wrong. And retorts about how others will label you an atheist anyway are sort of irrelevant. I don’t think Harris would disagree. But that’s not the point: the point if you have a message, and the message is “these ideas are bad and dangerous and unsupported and religion is getting in the way of good science” then this is the message. And that’s what you keep turning the debate back to. Yes, of course the religious will want to spend as much time talking and labeling atheists in order to easily dismiss us. So the response is, what, to help them spend all our time on that subject?

    Yammering back at them about atheism and whose and atheist and what precisely atheism means and on and on and on is a large investment of time away from that, with a lot of liabilities.

    Again, I’ve never had much problem calling myself an atheist (which I use interchangeably with “non-theist,” which is sometimes clearer), but after like more than a decade bickering about atheism (and if anything is the “same thing” then atheists arguing with theists on the internet is truly old hat), I do sort of feel like it’s time to tell people that it’s none of their business what I believe or I don’t: I’m an atheist, but that’s not an invitation to debate me over the subject. Instead, I have concerns X,Y & Z and we are going to discuss them, and you guys aren’t going to change the subject back to whatever idiotic ideas you have about what atheism is.

  140. #140 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    If the scientific method is founded on methodological naturalism, the valid and rational extension of which is metaphysical naturalism, then…

    Then nothing, especially without your cheat of replacing “a … extension” with “the … extension”.

    OK, how about “science -> atheism”?

    There’s nothing “new” about that, but neither Stenger nor Dawkins claim it. In “The Failed Hypothesis”, Stenger says that science only refutes the Abrahamic god, not gods generally. And in “The God Delusion”, Dawkins says that he’s technically an agnostic, but it’s the sort of agnosticism he has about fairies in the garden. He argues that god is unlikely, but that there’s no logical inference to be had.

    asserting that there is no real difference between methodological and ontological naturalism

    No one who has any idea what they are talking about asserts that there’s no real difference. And the people who are known for making that claim are DI “fellows” and other creationists.

  141. #141 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    BTW, I’m an ontological naturalist, because I think that “supernatural” is incoherent. But this is an argument about language and meaning, it has nothing to do with science.

  142. #142 bernarda
    October 6, 2007

    I would describe myself as a MFAWA: MF’er Atheist with Attitude.

  143. #143 Shay
    October 6, 2007

    Those who carry the label of Atheist do great good in pushing our culture in the right direction. Harris, in the last part of his talk, was obviously speaking about the value of many Buddhist practices (and Hindus and some other mystics) . I agree that “atheist” carries the connotation of “a-religious” or “a-spiritual” or, worse, “a-ethical”. Therein lies a problem. Because of these connotations I too, a cafeteria Buddhist, don’t call myself an “Atheist” to my Christian friends right off. But of course I am Atheist. If it is important, I first try to get them to see that I am ethical an believe in love, forgiveness and altruism. Then I show them that I am not Christian. Then I will tell them I am a cafeteria Buddhist (pick a choose from Buddhist ideas — i.e. I don’t buy re-incarnation). Then I show them that Buddhists are not theists. Thus, I must be an ATHEIST. This helps change my friends views toward Buddhist and Atheist. But this is a laborious effort.

    I applaud everyone who attacks religious dominance, no matter what they call themselves.

  144. #144 C. L. Hanson
    October 6, 2007

    Hear, hear. Atheism does not require a euphemism because it is not something to be ashamed of. It is something to be proud of. Suggesting we need a nicer word is like suggesting there’s something wrong with being an atheist, which I absolutely refuse to do.

    I am an atheist and proud to be one.

  145. #145 fcaccin
    October 6, 2007

    [QUOTE]You don’t get to choose what other people will call you.
    [I]P.Z. Myers[/I][/QUOTE]
    It should be made into an aphorism.

  146. #146 fcaccin
    October 6, 2007

    Default formatting.Sorry.

  147. #147 John B
    October 6, 2007

    I started checking your site after I saw a post on this topic over on metafilter. As soon as I read “under the radar” in the original speech, I thought of your site, and the framing/appeaser arguments I had read here in the past.

    Anyway, thank you for providing your response.

  148. #148 Karen James
    October 6, 2007

    I prefer “godfree”, “childfree”, etc. The suffix “-less” says you’re missing something. “-free” says you’re quite happy to live without it thank you very much. Perhaps we can call the creationists “cluefree”.

  149. #149 Sastra
    October 6, 2007

    I have a few disagreements, but on the whole, I think Colugo makes some fair distinctions between the “groups of godless” (#134). If the term “New Atheists” means anything, it seems to point to a popular new tendency to stop pandering to religious sensibilities by agreeing that yes, religious people who do bad things aren’t “really” religious; yes, other people need to believe so we shouldn’t try to “take away” their faith; yes, faith is good and its attitude and approach should be encouraged as long as people don’t do it to “extremes”; and yes, science could never have anything to say one way or the other about the existence of God.

    As Vic Stenger put it in the heading of one of his articles, “No More Free Ride.” You could say that was the so-called New Atheist motto. Or, as Richard Dawkins once put it, “the gloves are off.”

  150. #150 Caledonian
    October 6, 2007

    BTW, I’m an ontological naturalist, because I think that “supernatural” is incoherent. But this is an argument about language and meaning, it has nothing to do with science.

    Science needs clear meaning and rigorous language to survive – it has everything to do with science.

  151. #151 Michael
    October 6, 2007

    Of course what is in one’s head affects reality, inasmuch as one’s head is part of reality. However, what happens in one’s head does not affect what happens outside of one’s head (other than thoughts that lead to actions, of course).

    Of course. But I don’t see anything to make me think Sam Harris thinks that meditation can affect what is outside your head in the sense you mean above.

    Michael

  152. #152 klien4g
    October 6, 2007

    Since i’m new to this blog, perhaps, the point i’ll be making has already been made before. But i think its relevant and has not been discussed in these comments, yet.
    I think there are two kinds of atheists. The difference is in their attitudes towards the idea of God (Lets assume here it means the deity of Abrahamic faiths). I offer this analysis. Forgive the half-hearted attempt at rigour that follows:
    Let G : = {x : x bears typical properties of a deity according to Abrahamic faiths}
    Let BELIEVE be a two-valued function over a set of propositions and people.
    The two kinds of atheists can be characterised as:
    (1) Those who BELIEVES in the non-existence of God.
    I.e. P1: Y BELIEVES (For every x, x does not belong to G)
    And (2) The sort who do not have any belief-attitude towards the set G:
    P2: Y Not-BELIEVE (There exists x, such that x belongs to G)
    In a clear sense P2 is similar to ‘Y Not-BELIEVE (Close the Door!)’..as in, Y cannot have a belief-attitude towards the imperative ‘Close the Door!’
    For those of the type P2, the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ is similar to ‘What was before the Big Bang?’ or ‘When did you stop beating your spouse?’. There is no way the question can be answered properly.
    However, there are many of the P2-type who would not be considered an atheist, for example, the sage Yajnyavalkya in the Indian philosophical/religious text Brhadaranyaka Upanishad or for that matter Christian De Duve (given the conclusions of his book: Life Evolving). [ The point here is not about the new-age term 'spirituality'... Hindu sages are all for objective, third-person accessible evidence, putting it crudely, they claim that 'This meditation thingy is our telescope, so if you want evidence that reality is how we say it is (a non-dualist substrate called Brahman. Anachronistically analogous to, for example, a Rule-110 universe) then you've got to meditate just like we have to use a spectroscope to find out about the chemical composition of the sun.' However woolly it sounds, one has to admit that we haven't really done that]
    In that sense, i cannot really say, ‘I am an atheist’ even though I find the idea of the Abrahamic HIM embarrassing.

  153. #153 windy
    October 6, 2007

    Do you really think that most people are actually working out or going rock climbing or doing anything besides the seeking of pleasurable stimuli on a regular basis?

    Yes, the most obvious evidence being that most people work for a living. If you define that simply as delayed gratification, then that goes for the 10 year cave stint Harris recommends, too. I think he needs to make a better case for why his kind of delayed gratification is better than the usual everyday kind, instead of this “we need to liberate you stimulus-seeking earthworms from the karmic wheel” thing.

  154. #154 Leni
    October 6, 2007

    truth machine (#75)wrote:

    Oh, so books by open atheists criticizing religion as a whole being at the top of the bestseller list is an old phenomenon? That’s all the journalistic term means — it isn’t a claim that these guys, or their beliefs, were born yesterday.

    No it isn’t all that new.

    Ever heard of Freud? Nietzsche? Marx? Bertrand Russell? These authors have published criticisms no different than more recent publications and are, at the very least, decades old.

    Basically, I think new is just a euphemism for “Dawkins” (primarily- I don’t want to neglect others.) But since Dawkins isn’t actually saying anything that hasn’t been out there in the public sphere for decades and sometimes centuries, it seems to me that what has changed is our culture, not atheism or even atheists. The taboo about being an atheist is fading, that’s what’s changing.

    (And it probably has something to do with technology, mass production and marketing but that’s for another discussion.)

  155. #155 Jim Lippard
    October 6, 2007

    My first reaction to Harris was negative–and I agree with those who protest his suggestion that we shouldn’t use the term atheist and should all fly under the radar–but I think he’s right about atheism not being a worldview (it’s a small but significant component of a large set of possible worldviews). I’ve written a bit more at my blog and the oddity of trying to form a unified group around that component.

  156. #156 Jim Lippard
    October 6, 2007

    Leni: I don’t think you’re going back far enough. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s _Doubt: A History_ goes back a few thousand years, to the Carvaka and Epicureans…

  157. #157 Leni
    October 6, 2007

    Thank you for that suggestion, Jim.

    I’m not terribly good with history and felt more comfortable mentioning authors I had actually read. I am sure if I looked more carefully I would find much older examples.

  158. #158 udo schuklenk
    October 6, 2007

    I have chosen the label ‘agnostic’ for myself. It’s less confrontational, and arguably intellectually more honest. The traditional understanding of ‘atheism’ is that it claims to be able to show that ‘God’ doesn’t exist. I can’t see how anyone could seriously claim to be able to demonstrate that. So while I am emotionally an atheist, it seems more reasonable to settle for the more realistic position of ‘I dunno whether there’s a God or Gods’. Arguably in terms of public policy matters this position would translate into stances identical to those espoused by atheists.

  159. #159 Caledonian
    October 6, 2007

    The traditional understanding of ‘atheism’ is that it claims to be able to show that ‘God’ doesn’t exist. I can’t see how anyone could seriously claim to be able to demonstrate that.

    How many times do we have to repeat the argument before you accept that it exists, much less acknowledge that it’s correct?

  160. #160 Stublore
    October 6, 2007

    Udo, “The traditional understanding of ‘atheism’ is that it claims to be able to show that ‘God’ doesn’t exist.” is obviously wrong, Atheists believe that god does not exist, we do not say we can prove it, thats another theistic misrepresentation. Agnostics can only exsit where they believe the odds of god/s existing or not existing is somewhere close to 50% on each side of the discussion. This is not the case. What we can say is that on the balance of probalities, the odds of a god/s existing is so small as to be non-existent.

  161. #161 PZ Myers
    October 6, 2007

    I think he’s right about atheism not being a worldview

    Let’s deemphasize the negative. The important part of that phrase is the word “a”: atheism not being a worldview. It’s many worldviews.

    The key thing, though, is that atheism is one common element among the many, and can be a useful tool for tying us together in a loose (very loose) union. I like your idea of making the method, skepticism, the focus — the only difficulty with it is that there are many theists who claim to be good skeptics, who arrived at their conclusion that Jesus is Lord by reason and evaluation of the evidence, which is patent nonsense. We need a handle that would exclude C.S. Lewis from our company, for instance.

  162. #162 Orac
    October 6, 2007

    The over-30′s may not realize it, but “Gay” has become a generic (and almost ubiquitous) insult among adolescents and young adults who need to grow up.

    I have news for you. The use of “gay” as a generic insult dates back at least to the late 1970s, which is when I was in high school and the term was thrown about by teens at least as much as it is today. It’s not a new thing that an “over-30″ person would not be aware of. Hell, for all I know, the use of “gay” as a generic insult dates back considerably further than that.

  163. #163 Marcus Ranum
    October 6, 2007

    PZ writes:
    The important part of that phrase is the word “a”: atheism not being a worldview. It’s many worldviews.

    No, it’s not. It’s lack of a specific brain-addled superstitious worldview. Atheism is, by definition, a “big tent” because it’s basically anyone who hasn’t accepted woo-woo as a central part of their worldview.

    Atheists are rationalists. Pure and simple. When someone asks me what I am, I say “I am a rationalist” which usually prompts a request for more information, yielding something like: “I am a skeptic and a scientist. I try to understand things, rather than merely believe them. I eat evidence and I read libraries. I dream logic. I don’t believe in god, the tooth fairy, crystal healing, or that George Bush gets personal advice from some higher power that created the universe. I live in the real world What about you?”

    Hmm… Maybe I should offer that as a Tshirt.

  164. #164 Marcus Ranum
    October 6, 2007

    The traditional understanding of ‘atheism’ is that it claims to be able to show that ‘God’ doesn’t exist.

    No. Atheists simply say, “Show us that your ‘God’ exists and then we’ll let you sit at the adult table. We need evidence, not simply your strongly-held beliefs.”

  165. #165 PZ Myers
    October 6, 2007

    Atheism qua atheism fits your definition, but different atheists attach different kinds of baggage to it. There are atheists who say that the nonexistence of god removes all purpose from the world. Then there are atheists like me who argue that the nonexistence of god gives us the liberty to select and shape our own purpose. There are angry atheists and happy atheists. There are live-and-let-live atheists and evangelical atheists.

    Disbelief in god is the common thread, but it’s not the All of Atheism, and it shouldn’t be. I agree with Harris that we can’t build an enduring institution on something as trivial as “there is no god”, although I agree with you that that is one of the building blocks of the movement, as is rationalism, as is skepticism, as is science. But just “no god” isn’t enough. Atheism is shorthand — we need to work to associate it with all of those positive values you and I want to promote. There is a kind of “worldview package” there that I think we should make more explicit.

  166. #166 Timothy
    October 6, 2007

    Marcus Ranum: If you don’t think there is a common thread among atheists, or at least a handful of such threads, then I don’t think you’ve met many atheists. We definitely seem to have a whole lot more in common than sects of any one religion (I have yet to see an atheist killing another atheist for a disagreement about atheism).

    Even where we might violently disagree (like me and Hitchens on the war) there is a commonality in how those views were reached.

    Atheism is a life philosophy, even if it doesn’t have a written book of rules. It’s about rationality, critical thinking , not being a dick (usually), having fun (because atheists are sweet), and in general being fucking awesome. That’s what sets us “Lifestyle Atheists” apart from the indifferent atheists (atheist by lack of association?) or the “agnostics,” who kind of turn my stomach with their fence-sitting cowardice.

    If you don’t believe in a god and don’t want to be an “atheist,” that’s really your problem. But you’re missing out on the best party in town.

  167. #167 eewolf
    October 6, 2007

    “Bad” quotes Harris way back at #68:

    “Mormonism, it seems to me, is–objectively–just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas.”

    I disagree and I think it leads to giving some theists (in this case, Christians) a false sense of security. They will gladly line up and shoot arrows at the other theists with you, but you have gained no respect from them.

    As I see it, the quote above is like saying that one basket is emptier than another.

  168. #168 Caledonian
    October 6, 2007

    Orac:

    I have news for you. The use of “gay” as a generic insult dates back at least to the late 1970s, which is when I was in high school and the term was thrown about by teens at least as much as it is today. It’s not a new thing that an “over-30″ person would not be aware of. Hell, for all I know, the use of “gay” as a generic insult dates back considerably further than that.

    Oh, it’s worse than that. Ever look up the etymology of the word ‘bad’?

    ‘Bad’ seems to have been derived from other words meaning “effeminiate man, pederast”, and slowly shifted from indicating defectiveness to moral evil and corruption. ‘Gay’ is undergoing exactly the same process.

  169. #169 John B
    October 6, 2007

    @ #157

    Agnostics can only exsit where they believe the odds of god/s existing or not existing is somewhere close to 50% on each side of the discussion. This is not the case.

    I’ve never heard these numbers tossed around before, are they widely accepted? I won’t quote dictionaries at you but, as far as I know, an agnostic (re: gods) is someone who believes he/she can’t know whether gods exist, what they are like if they do exist, etc…

    ‘can’t know’ is pretty different from ‘don’t know’.

    Sorry, if this is a derail from the Harris discussion.

    JB

  170. #170 Sastra
    October 6, 2007

    Atheism is, by definition, a “big tent” because it’s basically anyone who hasn’t accepted woo-woo as a central part of their worldview.

    Except, of course, for those atheists who have accepted woo-woo as a central part of their world view.

    Yes, they are out there. There are far more of them than we who read science and skeptic blogs might think. Many of these atheists self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” For them there is no God, but they expect new discoveries will re-enchant the universe, and believe one’s own personal experience is the most reliable Way of Knowing, much better than science, because you can trust it.

    While I agree with PZ that “disbelief in God is the common thread, but it’s not the All of Atheism, and it shouldn’t be,” by bringing in rationality, science, reason, honesty, and skepticism as prime values for atheists he’s getting into the philosophy of secular or scientific humanism. “Theism” has the same problem — the term by itself includes so many different views of what “God” is and wants or doesn’t want that it’s pretty much worthless in identifying people who have much in common.

  171. #171 arcanum
    October 6, 2007

    #126 Jason: “I don’t think it makes much sense to call atheism a “worldview.” The word refers to an absence of belief in a god or gods. That’s it. Nothing more.”

    You are referring to the simple belief-no belief dichotomy. It think that you are classifying worldview as a complete, all-encompassing belief system, so I looked up some definitions:

    “A set of commonly held values, ideas, and images concerning the nature of reality and the role of humanity within it; largely unconscious but generally coherent set of beliefs about how the world operates; at the level of day-to-day practice, approximately synonymous with paradigm.”

    I see your point, which hinges on the narrowest, dictionary definition of atheism. I would say that nonbelief in Flying Teapots would not qualify as a worldview because it is unlikely to be associated with other beliefs about the nature of reality (beyond the fact that the transparency of Russell’s purpose indicates that it is pure fantasy). Atheist and theists would be equally likely to categorize Flying Teapots as deliberate fantasy. Not only is ateapotism not a worldview, but it has not found its way into the language.

    On the other hand, I think that refusal to accept inculcated mythologies that require us to believe in supernatural entities is associated with a worldview of how the world really operates and an unbiased assessment of the impact of religious dogmas.

    So, I think that the operational definition of atheism, at least for those who have thought this through rather than emotionally rejecting God because of His Indifference, is that we consider claims for supernatural inventions to be empirically unfounded. Because cognitively functional humans demonstrably seek explanations for the nature of reality, we fall into supernatural or nonsupernatural camps regarding worldview explanations.

    Do you consider theism, which is unfounded belief in something that does not exist, has better claim to being a worldview? There are many religious flavors from which to choose, yet the commonality is a willingness to accept emotion-laden claims that run counter to evidence. As atheists we don’t also require that a theist follow a particular sect in order for us to consider their basic worldview theistic. (I’d consider deists to be in a somewhat different category.)

    I think that there is a vast chasm between those two ways of viewing the operation of the world. Whether agnostic atheists or athiestic atheists differ according to other parameters of belief is immaterial to the question of whether supernaturalist or nonsupernaturalist explanations are deemed acceptable.

    It could well be that the problem lies with the word ‘atheist’ per se and that we need a different word to describe our actual worldview. However, the history of language suggests that our words remain the same while meanings gradually evolve according to usage. I still disagree with Harris that we should abandon the term under theistic pressure. Politically, that is largely why we should not abandon the label.

    I suspect that he meant to say that we should focus less on how to identify our position during argumentation. If this is what he meant, then I think that he expressed it poorly.

    I don’t see it as an either-or situation, and declaring for atheism avoids being drawn into theistic scriptural irrelevances. Besides, theists weaken their own arguments by repeatedly resorting to predictable fallacies of logic, so why stop them from defeating their own purpose?

  172. #172 arcanum
    October 6, 2007

    #136 Bad: “arcanum, it’s a little hard to follow you”
    So it appears.

    “: your response treats what I said as if they were unrelated statements instead of an argument, half the time you seem to be forgetting that my point is that a) there is no good evidence that anything “hasn’t worked” ”

    I disagree. Do you deny that there are concerted efforts afoot to inveigle the teaching of creationism into science classrooms and that these efforts are spreading beyond their USian birthplace? Do you deny that these efforts began a decade ago? Do you deny that Ham’s “Lies in Genesis” group wasted $27 million on a museum devoted to Lie-oramas depicting humans and dinosaurs as contemporaneous?

    “Saying that we’ve been doing the same thing and it hasn’t been working is just nonsense: ”

    No, Bad, saying that “there is no good evidence” is nonsense. Such categorical statements smack of hysteria and are easily refuted with a single piece of evidence.

    “I also think it’s very a important point to realize how distracting and how much confusion bickering around about atheism tosses into the public debate.”

    Then, you should agree that it was politically ill-advised for Harris to bring the topic up in a public forum.

    “Again, anyone who thinks that what Harris is saying is that atheism as practiced should go away is clearly dead wrong.”

    I have not seen anyone argue that here.

    “the point if you have a message, and the message is “these ideas are bad and dangerous and unsupported and religion is getting in the way of good science” then this is the message.”

    Where exactly did Harris say that? Perhaps he simply did not express himself well.

    “Yes, of course the religious will want to spend as much time talking and labeling atheists in order to easily dismiss us. So the response is, what, to help them spend all our time on that subject?”

    Regurgiquoting back at them requires less time than formulating new arguments for new fallacies.

    “Yammering back at them about atheism and whose and atheist and what precisely atheism means and on and on and on is a large investment of time away from that, with a lot of liabilities.”

    It strikes me that there is a great deal of yammering on that topic here amongst atheists, and we this time investment arose because of Sam’s remarks.

    “but after like more than a decade bickering about atheism (and if anything is the “same thing” then atheists arguing with theists on the internet is truly old hat), I do sort of feel like it’s time to tell people that it’s none of their business what I believe or I don’t:”

    Fine. Nobody is making you do anything you don’t want to do.

    “I’m an atheist, but that’s not an invitation to debate me over the subject.”

    Fine. Nobody is making you do anything you don’t want to do.

    “Instead, I have concerns X,Y & Z and we are going to discuss them, and you guys aren’t going to change the subject back to whatever idiotic ideas you have about what atheism is.”

    No, you appear to merely be upset that your replete-with-shouting post was not accepted as gospel. Your style of argumentation makes me think that you missed your true calling as a theist.

  173. #173 Jason
    October 6, 2007

    Colugo,

    Admittedly this is more watered down than my formulation.

    It’s not just “watered down,” it’s a completely different statement.

    And I see that Stenger himself has upheld the metaphysical-methodological distinction. OK, how about “science -> atheism”?

    Assuming that is supposed to mean something like “Science implies atheism” or “Science tends to support atheism,” it is again a completely different assertion than “science=ontological naturalism.” I agree with the first statement and disagree with the second. I suspect most of the people you refer to as “New Atheists” would share my view.

    But I think the defining feature of “New Atheists,” if there is one, is not some arcane philosophical position, but the refusal to appease. The refusal to pretend that we think theism, especially as embodied in religion, including the more moderate forms of Christianity that are popular among some of our political or social allies, is a reasonable or plausible or respectable belief.

  174. #174 arcanum
    October 6, 2007

    #149 klien4g: ” . . . ”

    My goodness, and to think that I once considered taking a course in formal logic!

    Are you saying that some atheists consider that all the evidence taken together indicates that there is no God, whereas other atheists consider that all the evidence taken together makes belief in God untenable?

  175. #175 arcanum
    October 6, 2007

    “The use of “gay” as a generic insult . . .”

    The germane point may be that “gay” is no longer used in the sense of its earlier meaning of “cheerful”. I have always wondered how its modern usage came about — through “gay bachelor” perhaps.

  176. #176 Anton Mates
    October 6, 2007

    PZ,

    The key thing, though, is that atheism is one common element among the many, and can be a useful tool for tying us together in a loose (very loose) union. I like your idea of making the method, skepticism, the focus — the only difficulty with it is that there are many theists who claim to be good skeptics, who arrived at their conclusion that Jesus is Lord by reason and evaluation of the evidence, which is patent nonsense. We need a handle that would exclude C.S. Lewis from our company, for instance.

    Don’t see why. We can be self-policing–when a Christian claims to have skepticized their way to faith in Jesus, skeptics are quite capable of calling bullshit on that. In any case, most such Christians wouldn’t call themselves skeptics, even if they honestly believe they’re applying skeptical principles, because they don’t want to suggest any kinship to James Randi.

    I consider “skeptic” a label which is much more informative of my worldview than “atheist.” But “atheist” is more relevant in many political contexts, because it’s our dissent which draws fire from the religious establishment.

    Both labels are useful at various times. If I want to hang out with like-minded people, I’ll call myself a skeptic and look for others who do the same. If I want to object to religious domination of the culture and marginalization of dissenters, I’ll call myself an atheist. It’s rational to be maximally inclusive in the latter case, less so in the former.

    I would say Harris is formally an atheist, but not a skeptic.

  177. #177 Colugo
    October 6, 2007

    Jason and truth machine:

    I’ve replaced my earlier formulation with the New Atheist position being something like “Science implies atheism” or its functional equivalent. (And if Dawkins is an agnostic then nearly all atheists are as well, rendering Dawkins “agnosticism” meaningless.)

    Massimo Pigliucci wrote in 1998 that the methological-metaphysical distinction is “technically correct” but lacking in “philosophical courage.” (He changed his tune a few years later.)

    http://www.rationalists.org/rc/1998_spring/provine-scott.htm

    And Joe Kay thinks that the methodological-metaphysical distinction is untenable.

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2007/mar2007/dawk-m15.shtml

    Sure, Kay is a Trotskyist and not a New Atheist, but cut him some slack. It can’t be easy; Trotskyists are the furries of politics.

  178. #178 Jason
    October 6, 2007

    when a Christian claims to have skepticized their way to faith in Jesus…

    Do they claim that? I think it’s a contradiction in terms.

    Faith, in the religious sense, is what is really at the heart of all this. Atheism is an expression of a broader approach to claims of truth–skepticism or doubt. And doubt is the rejection of faith. I think many of the appeasers genuinely believe that faith itself is a good thing, or at least harmless, and that it is only certain expressions of faith–creationism, fundamentalism, hijacking airliners–that are bad.

    One of the great things about Sam Harris’s debate with Andrew Sullivan a while back was the way it exposed the utter incoherence of the kind of moderate, intellectualized religiosity that Sullivan defends (his “doubt-filled faith”).

  179. #179 arcanum
    October 6, 2007

    #162 PZ: “There are atheists who say that the nonexistence of god removes all purpose from the world.”

    (I wish that I’d read your description before I did all that typing!)

    I suspect that those atheists have lost belief in God because they first *felt* that there is no purpose to life. This is a psychological rather than a rational motivation. (I think it’s analogous to the common “she fell and broke her hip” statement that would be more accurately expressed as “she fell because her femoral neck snapped”.) I don’t think that the existence of such atheism reflects on the rational/philosophical position.

    Jason: “But I think the defining feature of “New Atheists,” if there is one, is not some arcane philosophical position, but the refusal to appease. The refusal to pretend that we think theism, especially as embodied in religion, including the more moderate forms of Christianity that are popular among some of our political or social allies, is a reasonable or plausible or respectable belief.”

    That strikes me as an accurate description. I call it vocal atheism or political atheism, but the we appear to agree that the new element is that of deliberately overt atheism organized against the impacts of unfounded beliefs.

  180. #180 Jason
    October 6, 2007

    Colugo,

    And Joe Kay thinks that the methodological-metaphysical distinction is untenable.

    I don’t think that’s clear at all from the piece you link to. What Kay seems to be saying is not that the distinction is “untenable” in a philosophical or ontological sense, but that it tends to erode the usefulness of science as means of understanding the world.

    So, you have identified one obscure Marxist atheist who might believe that there is no meaningful difference between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism. I’m not sure how you think that supports the claim you made about the “New Atheists,” especially the views of the people most often cited as members of that group–Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Stenger, Hitchens, etc.

  181. #181 windy
    October 6, 2007

    I’ve replaced my earlier formulation with the New Atheist position being something like “Science implies atheism” or its functional equivalent.

    Here’s another one, then.

  182. #182 Colugo
    October 6, 2007

    Jason:

    I concede that it does not support my claim – which is why I replaced my original formulation of the New Atheist position.

  183. #183 Caledonian
    October 6, 2007

    Jason:

    when a Christian claims to have skepticized their way to faith in Jesus…

    Do they claim that? I think it’s a contradiction in terms.

    Wait until Scott Hatfield shows up, then ask him about it, because he claims to be both a skeptic and a Christian.

  184. #184 arcanum
    October 6, 2007

    #180 Caledonian: “he claims to be both a skeptic and a Christian.”

    I notice that you said “claims”. When Descartes’ supposedly tossed out all that he had been taught (while retaining the ridiculous belief that he was trying to prove) he could have claimed to be both a skeptic and a Christian.

  185. #185 Jason
    October 6, 2007

    Wait until Scott Hatfield shows up, then ask him about it, because he claims to be both a skeptic and a Christian.

    I gave up trying to get a clear argument in support of his views from Scott Hatfield a long time ago. He’s a nice guy, but his responses to my questions were mainly an exercise in evasion and obfuscation.

  186. #186 Sastra
    October 6, 2007

    Oh fer crying out loud, here’s the same damn thing now in this month’s Discover magazine which I just opened this morning — only this time it’s not getting rid of the term “atheism” — it’s getting rid of the term “science.”

    From Bruno Maddox’s article “Blinded by Science: A modest proposal for science: End it, don’t mend it.” –

    “Science’s perpetual image problem has blossomed into an urgent image crisis … The bigger problem with rebranding efforts, though, is that they often fail. By this point, Science may simply be carrying too much cultural baggage to be convincingly reintroduced to the public.

    In which case — in fact, in any case — the second and superior solution is to just get rid of Science. Let physicists be physicists and geologists be geologists, and forensic scientists be … well, they can be crime-scene investigators. The word “science” would never be spoken, at least not by anyone who cares about it. Just deny all knowledge… The magazine Science would have to change its name or fold, as would Scientific American, and institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Council, et cetera.”

    Instead of talking about Science, just refer only to its specific self-contained pursuits, and woo back the public without bothering to overhaul its image. Get “rid” of it.

    Okay, I suspect this article is written tongue-in-cheek, and Maddox’s final point seems to be that science is not in crisis, it has won, and can “go home” (so that’s why we don’t need the word anymore) — but I was struck with the similarities here with Harris’ argument. I wonder if he read this before he wrote his speech.

  187. #187 delphi_ote
    October 6, 2007

    You missed another glaring hypocrisy, PZ:

    “There is no religion in general… we should be quick to point out the differences among religions.”
    Alright. We shouldn’t generalize. We should be very specific and careful and talk about specific beliefs.

    “…[T]he truth is that Islam is quite a bit scarier and more culpable for needless human misery, than Christianity has been for a very, very long time.”
    Or maybe not.

  188. #188 Sastra
    October 6, 2007

    Oh, and this is pretty funny. Here’s what Maddox says about Richard Dawkins and his promotion of atheism:

    I don’t know. The fact is, an effective rebranding of Science would require an official committee of scientists and style gurus making these sorts of decisions — and I will only add that evolutionary bologist Richard Dawkins should not be allowed anywhere near the thing. Marketing is clearly not the man’s strong suit. His endorsement of a proposal that rational atheists start calling themselves “brights” still induces a squirm four years later. And now he’s gone and founded a teen-friendly OUT Campaign, intentionally modeled after the gay liberation movement. Because of course, there’s no surer way of persuading Middle Americans to your cause than to stand on a chair in a cafeteria at lunchtime and publicly liken yourself to a homosexual. Good thinking there, Richard.

    Definitely a humorous piece, but with a few sharp jabs. And the refurbish an unpopular concept vs. stop using an unnecessary term counterpoint makes me think Harris did indeed read this piece. Interesting.

  189. #189 arcanum
    October 6, 2007

    #183 Sastra: “Okay, I suspect this article is written tongue-in-cheek . . .”

    Let’s hope so! Theists often seem oblivious to such subtleties, however. What’s the bet that some theist won’t quote it out of context as “proof” that they were right all along?

    It’s interesting that you think that Harris may have read the piece before making his speech. Meme mutation at work?

  190. #190 John Morales
    October 6, 2007

    Not to muddy the waters, but I believe that (most?) wiccans consider themselves atheists.

  191. #191 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    I’ve replaced my earlier formulation with the New Atheist position being something like “Science implies atheism” or its functional equivalent. (And if Dawkins is an agnostic then nearly all atheists are as well, rendering Dawkins “agnosticism” meaningless.)

    Yes, of course it means that nearly all atheists are as well, but it doesn’t render Dawkins’ agnosticism meaningless — apparently you are utterly incapable of comprehending what logical entailment is. Dawkins’ point about agnosticism goes directly against the claim that science implies atheism, as I already noted. Science does not imply atheism, it only makes it easier for people to see that theism isn’t rational. The thing is, few people, including scientists, are philosophically sophisticated enough to understand why theism is irrational independent of science.

    As for methodological naturalism implying philosophical naturalism, it’s an absurd category mistake; a procedural framework isn’t at all the sort of thing that can imply a metaphysical stance.

    But none of this has the slightest to do with “new Atheism”, which, as some have noted, is political, resulting in a number anti-religious books reaching the top of the best seller lists.

  192. #192 Jim Lippard
    October 6, 2007

    Marcus Ranum: The philosopher in me doesn’t like the label “rationalist” because I prefer the empiricists to the rationalists… I prefer Hume’s philosophy to Descartes’.

  193. #193 Leni
    October 6, 2007

    As opposed to the “Old Atheism” which was not at all political.

  194. #194 John Morales
    October 6, 2007

    I suspect there is a linkage between the “new atheism” and the increasing ubiquity of the internet.

    The rise of global media and the internet is having a cultural effect, as the printing press did in its day.

  195. #195 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    And Joe Kay thinks that the methodological-metaphysical distinction is untenable.

    As I said before, anyone who claims that doesn’t know what they are talking about. And Kay gets the definition of methodological naturalism quite wrong in a way that erroneously erases the distinction: “the assumption during scientific experimentation that there exists nothing outside the material world of cause and effect”. No, that’s tantamount to saying that methodological naturalism is simply “philosophical naturalism while doing science”, which is absurd. MN is a methodology, not a metaphysical stance, and does not require any assumption at all, let alone a metaphysical one. MN is about only considering natural causes in formulating scientific hypotheses. Methodological naturalism only becomes equivalent to philosophical naturalism when one realizes — independent of science but often enlightened by the practice of science — that the very notion of non-natural causes is incoherent — that “natural” and “causal” and “physical” and “real” are all different ways of expressing the same underlying concept.

  196. #196 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    “As opposed to the “Old Atheism” which was not at all political.”

    There are in fact plenty of atheists who are not at all political or are not political in such a way as to write or want to write anti-religious books that end up on the top of best seller lists, as anyone who has spent any time reading this blog and isn’t going out of their way to be dense is aware of.

  197. #197 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    Ever heard of Freud? Nietzsche? Marx? Bertrand Russell? These authors have published criticisms no different than more recent publications and are at the very least, decades old

    Yes, enough decades to make the appearance of the books by Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Stenger, et. al. at the top of the NYT best seller list “new”.

  198. #198 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    You missed another glaring hypocrisy, PZ:

    “There is no religion in general… we should be quick to point out the differences among religions.”
    Alright. We shouldn’t generalize. We should be very specific and careful and talk about specific beliefs.

    “…[T]he truth is that Islam is quite a bit scarier and more culpable for needless human misery, than Christianity has been for a very, very long time.”
    Or maybe not.

    There’s clearly no hypocrisy there — Harris said “differences among religions” and then points out differences between two religions. “We shouldn’t generalize … specific beliefs” are your words, not his. If you want to complain about his overgeneralizing about Islam and overgeneralizing about Christianity, I tend to agree, but that’s a different charge.

  199. #199 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    Massimo Pigliucci wrote in 1998 that the methological-metaphysical distinction is “technically correct” but lacking in “philosophical courage.” (He changed his tune a few years later.)

    http://www.rationalists.org/rc/1998_spring/provine-scott.htm

    I think Pigliucci makes a good point in this article — the same considerations that justify methodological naturalism also justify philosophical naturalism. Perhaps the IDists will even push more scientists to examine carefully why MN in science is justified, rather than just claiming it by rote. It’s not the distinction between the two that is untenable, it’s the adherence to one but not the other that is untenable. That may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s actually a lot less subtle than the concepts themselves.

    One path to PN is to accept the ID challenge — try to do science without MN. You just can’t — which is a goodly part of why the IDists don’t.

  200. #200 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    BTW, I’m an ontological naturalist, because I think that “supernatural” is incoherent. But this is an argument about language and meaning, it has nothing to do with science.

    Science needs clear meaning and rigorous language to survive – it has everything to do with science.

    My point was that the logical justification for ontological naturalism does not come from science — but indeed you are right that they have something to do with each other, and certainly the practice of science would benefit from recognizing the meaninglessness of “supernatural” and the recognition that the linguistic fact of ontological naturalism entails methodological naturalism — the practice of science rests on methodological naturalism because science seeks causes and causes are always, of necessity, natural.

  201. #201 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    It’s less confrontational, and arguably intellectually more honest.

    There’s a contradiction right there.

  202. #202 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    Leni: I don’t think you’re going back far enough. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s _Doubt: A History_ goes back a few thousand years, to the Carvaka and Epicureans…

    Does she mention a time when half a dozen or so of them, including herself, had books on the NYT best seller list simultaneously?

    In any case, “new atheists” distinguishes something that’s going on from what was going on previously, not from the entirety of history.

  203. #203 truth machine
    October 6, 2007

    The traditional understanding of ‘atheism’ is that it claims to be able to show that ‘God’ doesn’t exist.

    How can an “ism” claim to be able to show something? Your sloppy language is a symptom. Some atheists claim to be able to show that, and some — most, in fact — don’t. What’s your reference for this claim about “traditional understanding”?

    I can’t see how anyone could seriously claim to be able to demonstrate that.

    Have you “seriously” read any of the literature in which people present their arguments? If you aren’t able to demonstrate it, and you think that’s what the label demands of you, that’s one thing, but why go slamming everyone else?

    So while I am emotionally an atheist, it seems more reasonable to settle for the more realistic position of ‘I dunno whether there’s a God or Gods’.

    So are you also agnostic as to whether there are fairies in your garden, or china teapots circling the sun? Do you think it’s “more reasonable” to shrug your shoulders and say “I dunno”?

    Arguably in terms of public policy matters this position would translate into stances identical to those espoused by atheists.

    What stances are espoused by every single person who claims to be able to show that ‘God’ doesn’t exist? Have you already forgotten your “traditional understanding” of what “atheism” means?

  204. #204 poke
    October 6, 2007

    I predict that in a few years time many more will be comfortable asserting that there is no real difference between methodological and ontological naturalism, and all of that talk about there being a clear distinction between them will be written off as NOMA-esque appeasement.

    Hopefully people will at least realise that methodological naturalism is a philosophical interpretation of science and not part of science itself.

  205. #205 Dark Matter
    October 7, 2007

    Yes, that’s right, atheists should be respectful and
    silent, while the agents of creeping theocracy on the
    TV, in print and on the airwaves continue on unabated.

    If you have a shortwave radio, (and you should have
    one), turn to 5810 Mhz. there’s a full-on rant
    against Phillip Pullman, Dawkins and atheism going
    on right now.

    The theos are *all over* shortwave radio, but
    Harris wants us to be quiet ‘n respectful.

  206. #206 Dark Matter
    October 7, 2007

    Sorry, that should read 5810 Khz.

  207. #207 Russell Blackford
    October 7, 2007

    Methodological naturalism is just a rule of thumb. It has no particular status, save for its pragmatic usefulness. Philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalism is a philosophical meta-inference – a highly plausible one.

  208. #208 98% of the World
    October 7, 2007

    The theos are *all over* shortwave radio, but
    Harris wants us to be quiet ‘n respectful.

    Yes, please do not be respectful lest you confuse everyone when they find out that you are an atheist.

  209. #209 melior
    October 7, 2007

    Yes, please do not be respectful lest you confuse everyone when they find out that you are an atheist.

    I’m quite certain the ones who might be confused already are — they can’t seem to see anything disrespectful in telling nonbelievers they are going to burn in hell.

  210. #210 klien4g
    October 7, 2007

    #171 Arcanum

    No. Both your examples belong to the first type of atheism in my post. Both are instances of belief. The confusion arises because we conflate BELIEVE {Not-p} with Not-BELIEVE p. Atheists of the second type will include those who find the notion of ‘God’ incomprehensible so that whatever attitude they ‘can’ have towards ‘God’, it wont be one of belief.
    Consider: Can one be said to believe that colourless green ideas sleep furiously or believe that colourless green ideas do not sleep furiously?
    The underlying idea is that atheists of the second-type think no kind or quantity of evidence can swing the question of existence of God either ways because the notion of God is ill-founded. That is, for example, even if certain important principles of evolutionary theory fails it would have no bearing on the question of God. Or, imagine meeting a bearded fellow who could cure the the blind, walk on water, chit-chat with a burning bush, raise the dead etc, would you believe he was the REDEEMER or someone with hitherto unknown abilities which needs scientific examination?
    So, one type of atheists think the notion of evidence is applicable to the question of existence of God but is vanishingly small, while the other thinks the notion of evidence is inapplicable because a creator-God was an explanatory framework deviced during the childhood of mankind and is hopelessly anachronistic and ill-founded (like elan vital or wind-gods).

  211. #211 ctw
    October 7, 2007

    “are you also agnostic as to whether there are fairies in your garden?”

    Well, I don’t mean to quibble, but I will anyway.

    The existence of god and the existence of fairies don’t seem to be on the same epistemological level. The dictionary.com definitions of “fairy” seem relatively precise and in one case includes “supernatural” as a characteristic. So afairyism seems an arguably reasonable posture.

    On the other hand, “god” is pretty ill-defined. Unless one clearly specifies a concept of “god”, what meaningful can be said about the existence of that “god”? For some reasonably well-defined concepts (eg, Zeus), atheism is the only reasonable posture. But for others (eg, the “Supreme Identity”) agnosticism might be more appropriate. (Ignoring, of course, the even more appropriate posture of calling “BS”.)

    OTOH, the essence of agnosticism seems to be the ultimate unknowability of certain things, so given science’s habit of explaining what was once considered unknowable, it might be wise to be agnostic about agnoticism in general.

    - Charles

  212. #212 Nancy
    October 7, 2007

    I’m very disappointed in Sam Harris.

  213. #213 Caledonian
    October 7, 2007

    The existence of god and the existence of fairies don’t seem to be on the same epistemological level. The dictionary.com definitions of “fairy” seem relatively precise and in one case includes “supernatural” as a characteristic. So afairyism seems an arguably reasonable posture.

    On the other hand, “god” is pretty ill-defined.

    That doesn’t make ‘god’ more plausible – it makes it less!

    Do you also maintain agnosticism over Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny?

  214. #214 arcanum
    October 7, 2007

    klien4g #207

    Thank you, klein, I understand what you are saying when you say it in English. I am a BELIEVE {Not-p} in that I believe that the supernatural is a meaningless category invented by man in his superstitious ignorance.

  215. #215 Brian
    October 7, 2007

    I think Sam Harris has a deeper problem. He rails against religion, but is havppy to promote mystical Eastern-based woowoo. I’m not sure I see him as much of an ally for freethinkers anymore. After all, seeing colored lights after you meditate does not mean you understand any profound truths.

  216. #216 kynefski
    October 7, 2007

    I support Harris. Believers love the term because it provides one of two poles (the other being fundamentalist) between which they may sanctimoniously stand, secure that they are being reasonable. Read the commentary on Harris and others, and see how useful the concept of atheism, as against rationality, is to the irrational.

  217. #217 Pierce R. Butler
    October 7, 2007

    Marcus Ranum, # 85: … the Jains – a useless bunch of buddhism-addled f*ckwits if there ever was one.

    Stereotypical “Western” arrogance, if there ever was such.

    The Jains have at the least shown that a viable society can be achieved with pretty high adherence to the greatest possible compassion/gentleness: an important edge of ethics space. Should anyone compile a comprehensive inventory of harms-caused-by-groups, the Jains might well earn pride of place at the bottom of the list. (Care to guesstimate where sneering American go-getters would place?)

    And I suspect they can cook some truly tasty veggie stews…

    Anybody who, er, actually knows something about the Jains care to comment?

  218. #218 Owlmirror
    October 7, 2007

    Well, Hecht’s Doubt: a History has a page or two (pg 101 & 102 of ch 3) on the Jains. Let’s see…

    The great leaders of Jainism and Buddhism both lived in the sixth century BCE. Both movements began, in a sense, as Hindu reforms that explicitly rejected much of the Vedas—especially their supernaturalism. Both seem to have been influenced by the materialism of the Carvaka, and the dates would fit such a hypothesis, although we are not really sure.

    Jainism supposedly existed deep in prehistory. Mahavira, the great founding figure who created the Jainism that we know, was, it seems, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara, or Jain leader. [...] Mahavira taught that the gods and goddesses, sacrifices and rituals of Hinduism were all nonexistent and/or irrelevant. What the religion of the Vedas had right was samsara and moksa—and that was about it. Jains understand the universe to have no end; it merely cycles in and out of existence over the course of eons. [...] Through most of the cycle of millions of years, jiva, spirit, and ajiva, worldly stuff, are pristinely separate and the universe is a paragon of harmony and peace, but in periods of decay jiva and ajiva start collapsing into each other and that is the reason for struggle and pain.

    Jains believe in karma, but as an actual substance—they spoke of vapor and in modern times often speak of a fine dust of atoms—that gets on your jiva in the course of living in the world. Any interaction might cause a bit of this karma to adhere to your spirit, but when you do harm to any other living thing, the karmic burden is very high. And it is karma that keeps the wheel turning, causes the endless births and deaths to keep repeating. If you want release, the thing to do is to minimize the amount of this stuff that you accrue over a lifetime. Jain monks and nuns [...] thus live very carefully in all of their actions. They are vegetarian, first of all, and are also known to place a cloth over their water as they drink in order to be sure they do not accidentally ingest a living creature.[...]

    Jainism is generally understood as an atheist religion. The Hindu gods were rejected and were not replaced by any supernatural force. Its great leaders, especially Mahavira, were adored, and their images adorn the Jain temples, but for the most part these great leaders have been remembered as such, and not transformed into supernatural saints or gods. In fact, the temples were and are more for the laity than for the monks and nuns. Lay Jains keep up a number of rules and prohibitions [e.g., vegetarianism], but are on a less rigorous program than the monks and nuns, whom they hope to emulate in future lives. The most important Jain prayer, to be said once a day, is a statement of respect for those who have made headway in their travel down the path of release.

    There is also The Jain’s Death, by Patrick Farley, which is an interesting story. Perhaps a bit overwrought at times, but nonetheless.

  219. #219 Mark Fournier
    October 7, 2007

    In a way, this reminds me of Michael Ruse’s claim that if a scientific theory contradicts belief in God, it should not be taught in the classroom. But Michael Ruse doesn’t get to define God–and there is some definition of God for every scientific theory such that that theory contradicts that belief. Likewise, Sam Harris doesn’t get to decide what we are called, because we will not be the only ones pinning a label on ourselves. Harris said that honesty required him to come out and admit that he was an atheist. He did not choose to be under the heading of ‘New Atheism’–that was done by his opponents.

    We do not get to choose the tactics of those we oppose. We do not get to tell them what they can and cannot say. So long as atheism remains stigmatized, that is the term they will use, and so we have to face that term head on. Harris is right that it’s a lousy label–many defacto atheists don’t give a damn about atheism per se, most of us have little interest in deconverting moderate theists, and the very word atheist is irrelevant beyond the context of a theistic majority. But only when the term has lost its stigma can we ignore it and move beyond it.

  220. #220 John Scanlon, FCD
    October 8, 2007

    Jains believe in karma, but as an actual substance–they spoke of vapor and in modern times often speak of a fine dust of atoms–that gets on your jiva in the course of living in the world. Any interaction might cause a bit of this karma to adhere to your spirit,…

    Ah, is that where Phillip Pullman got his ‘Dust’ idea? I only just got round to reading the His Dark Materials books… in which angels and ‘gods’ are physically real, not supernatural.

    i iz in ur jiva, messing wit ur karma
    /LOL

  221. #221 ctw
    October 8, 2007

    klien 4g:

    I’m sorry that in skimming thru the comments I missed your comment #149 (with which, BTW, I agree in toto).. To the (limited) extent that my post #208 was serious, it of course relates.

    Having thought about the nature of “belief” quite a bit recently, I’d like to build on your formal approach.

    Let G be the set of all concepts of “god” Let H be the set of living humans. Let B be a function with domain {H,G} and range [0,1] (think probability of being “true”).

    Now we can more precisely define subsets of “believers” and “non-believers”. Eg, let A be the set of Abrahamic concepts of god. Then the set HA of believers in one of the Abrahamic gods can be defined as:

    HA = {h: for some a in A, B(h,a) = 1}. This is equivalent to the set {HC U HJ U HM}, where “U” is “union” and the set definitions should be obvious.

    Now consider the set HAnot = {h: for all a in A, B(h,a) = 0}. I contend that this is the definition of “atheists” as the term is commonly used (at least in the US), which is one reason I agree with Harris et al re self-identifying as such. The set that corresponds to the literal definition is actually:

    HAth = {h: for all theistic g in G, B(h,g) &lt 1}. B is now essentially a confidence metric, eg, for most thoughtful “atheists” (eg, Dawkins), the value for B(h,g) is not only less than 1 it is close to, but not equal to, 0.

    The other major misunderstanding (IMO) is that the set of agnostics re some concept g in G is often thought of as being defined as:

    HDf(g) = {h: 0 &lt B(h,g) &lt 1}

    whereas it should be:

    HDt = (h: B(h,g) is undefinable}, ie, your atheist type 2.

    Which, finally, leads to the point of my previous comment, viz, for t = Thor, B(h,t) should be approximately 0 so that “atheist wrt Thor” makes sense. However, for s = “Supreme Identity”, B(h,s) should be considered undefined and possibly undefinable, depending on the characteristics of s, but there is no basis for B(h,s) = 0 without further information.

    - Charles

  222. #222 LanceThruster
    October 8, 2007

    I was for a time the advisor to a student atheist group on our campus. Some were hesitant to use the word atheist because they felt it had too many negative connotations or displayed an unjustified air of certainty (without understanding the difference between “weak” and “strong” atheism).

    I told them that my view was that it was a perfectly acceptable term and that we needed to not shy away from it in order to diffuse the negative perceptions. Despite Mr. Harris claiming that those who took exception did not follow his argument, I feel it is important that the stigma associated with the term be challenged.

    While it is true that many of us do not see a need for the label of non-astrologist or non-unicornist, the nature and prevalence of theistic irrationality is such that to side with the rejection theistic belief is a wholly defensible position.

  223. #223 alan
    October 8, 2007

    @ctw #208 and 218,

    The (few) philosophers of religion that I’ve studied define “god” to be a title for “an entity that deserves worship.” (This is also substantially Dawkins definition in Delusion.) Before your undefined Supreme Being can be considered a god, you must show that it merits worship. Unless you rest on a bald assertion about the Supreme Being, you will need to define at least some aspect of it. At that point, evidence can weigh in regarding that aspect, moving the probablities away from the agnostic “don’t know and can’t know.”

  224. #224 Richard
    October 8, 2007

    Stir up dissent?

    How quickly the wolves close in for the kill once a member of the pack voices even the smallest bit of reason. You people are no better than the other side of the pendulum; you jump to conclusions and lambaste anyone who attempts to think outside your little circle of “reason”. THIS is what Sam meant when he described atheists as “a cranky sub-culture”.

  225. #225 Steve_C
    October 8, 2007

    Close in for the kill?

    What? Sam can’t take a little criticism?

    We arguing about the “reason” he’s proposing.

    That’s what we do.

  226. #226 Michael
    October 8, 2007

    Yes, the only rational ones are the ones who disagree FIRST. Those who continue the debate are cranky, and lack reason. Anyways…

    I wonder what PZ’s thougts are on Sam’s response? It’s over at RD’s website by the way.

  227. #227 dswift
    October 8, 2007

    For a supposedly rational lot, there’s a lot of emotional reaction here.

    Sam Harris is right. Embracing the term “atheism” implies that “theism” is a plausible concept. You’re playing by rules written by the endarkened. Staking your position relative to theism is like adopting a passive voice.

    I think it was Harris who noted, “We don’t have names for people who don’t collect stamps.”

    I’ve been superstition-free since the seventh grade (knock on wood). It’s fun to tell people “C’mon, grow up, there’s no magic god-things, use your imagination when you ponder the universe” — and then deny I’m an atheist because it’s impossible to disbelieve the incomprehensible.

  228. #228 PZ Myers
    October 8, 2007

    and then deny I’m an atheist because it’s impossible to disbelieve the incomprehensible.

    …and immediately lose all credibility with your audience. I’m sorry, but you are an atheist — you don’t believe in any gods, you don’t practice their rituals, you don’t concede any faith in the supernatural. I can tell you exactly what any theist will think upon hearing your clever rhetorical game: that you are engaged in sophistry and are essentially trying to lie to your listeners.

    That is not a good tactic. It relies on assuming the person you are arguing with is an idiot.

    It might work some of the time, actually.

  229. #229 Paula the Psychologist
    October 8, 2007

    It seems to me that Sam is alluding to a paradoxical effect of provoking theists with a packaged labelled hostile enemy (atheism) that will crystalize into a even more convenient demonized projection for the faithful to target. I understand his stance, however as a choice for long term strategy I think an effort by atheists to neutralize the term is the answer, as well as work toward combining all the alternative terms into using atheist, as the “queer” movement did by purposely using arguably the worst pejorative term and paradoxically changing it to an embraced and honored status. As the astute observer of human nature Lennie Bruce pointed out, words have no power other than what is ascribed to them due to fear and lack of use. Repetition can desensitize the reaction to the word atheist and what is projected as the meaning of the word (which varies according to person processing their associations with the word and usually has little to do with the actual meaning).

    Secondly, I agree with Sam Harris is that atheists avoid becoming a cult. To me, this involves atheists making a concerted effort to NOT succumb to the evolutionary primitive stance of rigid ideology. The groupthink of theists can just as easily corrupt atheists in denial about their own fragility to the irrational. As I have experienced in the world of psychology, we study the behavior of groups yet gleefully forget what we discovered about human behavior when it comes to our own factions and egos within the field of psychology. We do not apply our hard won knowledge to ourselves. Why does this happen? Because we are all susceptible to the same patterns of behaviors, particularly in packs where there is some perceived power gain. Can we override this embarrassing hypocrisy? Yes, if there is deliberate open acknowledgement of the pitfalls of this potential ultimate irony: A war of egos hiding behind ideas, conveniently repressed by the well-meaning soldiers of atheism.

    Finally, I have idea that would take advantage of the upcoming major yearly holiday theist takeover. With the imminent theistic binge rapidly approaching, I think atheist groups would be providing a much needed service by publicizing ways that help atheists inundated with theism find like-minded people and obtain support and validation in weathering the yearly 2-3 month long theistic intrusion. A sanctuary, of sorts. How about Christmas free zones? It would be a pragmatic way to welcome people too shy to ask for help with their struggles with family, work and cultural demands to conform to theist beliefs, or at the least pay lip service to them. Let’s help each other
    as individuals first, instead of quibble over semantics.
    As atheists, we all know that no one ever really wins.

  230. #230 Brian Macker
    October 8, 2007

    I read his speech. Sam’s suggestion to me is that I shut up, move into a cave, and contemplate my navel? Well then how can I communicate the fact that Islam is far worse than other religions at this point like he wants?

    This whole meditation thing is something I didn’t buy from his book. Why should trance induced happiness be my main goal in life? He never says. He only assumes that I want that kind of happiness. I’ve got news for him. I don’t. If I did I’d be a heroin addict.

  231. #231 Brian Macker
    October 8, 2007

    Richard,

    “How quickly the wolves close in for the kill once a member of the pack voices even the smallest bit of reason. ”

    Oh, grow a brain. I don’t belong to any pack.

  232. #232 Brian Macker
    October 9, 2007

    “The other futile side to your argument is that it doesn’t matter: we live in a culture that has managed to turn environmentalist into a nasty epithet. Same for feminist.”

    Oh, they did that on their own, just like the crazy animal rights groups. I’m sympathetic to all three ideas but when you stir in a bit of extremism and some Marxist ideology is it really the same thing. Why should the crazys in these groups get a break just because their brand name sounds reasonable?

    When these groups became infiltrated with post-modernists and Marxist theorists is when they lost their credibility.

  233. #233 Trevor Clements
    October 10, 2007

    Hmmm, I have just finished reading the entire thing here, up the the point of my comment of course. Well I found Harris’ argument interesting and something to think about. But in the end I do think what we need to do is own the word atheist and try to promote it in a positive way. I think we have all observed the tendency of the religious, or at least the card carrying, church attending, group worshipping kind, to do just those things, carry cards and look for groups to flock to. I admit that not every religious person falls into that camp, but an awful lot do. Some religious people are also intelligent people, but do seem to let dogma and groupthink dominate their ability to use reason when it comes to that particular emotional and faith juiced box in their brain that they quarentine from reason. Then there are also the abundant sheepy looney’s who mindlessly follow superstition, emotion and most importantly the herd. I think that lots of those folks who are most controlled by the herd mentality might actually herd behind science and rationality if the proportions of believers to atheists and those who understand and promote at least something about science. Many people just can’t seem to move beyond the belief that the majority must be right. It reminds me of this Elvis record my aunt had when I was young. On the back it said something like “one million Elvis fans can’t all be wrong”. Back then I didn’t particulary like Elvis that much. Now I do like some of his tunes. But my liking or not liking has more to do with my changing tastes than with how many others like or dislike Elvis. So what point am I driving at. Well I think that there are alot more atheists out there than is commonly realized. When I say this I mean more than is commonly realized by society as a whole, not by people who read blogs like this, who educate themselves somewhat about science, and have already put alot of thought and exploration into it. If we were more visible, and it would help if alot of us were friendly (though not to the point of ridiculousness) or at least honest or in some way role models. Or at least if we show that as a group we are no less likely to be capable of morality and caring. I say this because according to the surveys we all know that we are not percieved as we truly are, either in numbers or in reality, a diverse group of people, many of whom are thoughtful, intelligent, caring people. Yes people with flaws, and some of us can also waste time with ad hominem attacks rather than debating concepts. But I think the ad hominem attackers are a minority. I’ve seen a few dumb attack posts on this thread, but not that many. All I’m saying is the larger we are, and the more visible we are in all our variety, the more chance that people out there may choose our numbers to join rather than the numbers of superstitious religious groups. I think most humans are capable of reasoned thinking. So even if some join for less than completely reason based motivations, there is a chance that they become more and more evolved. I think it is both an exciting time and a scary time as both athiest groups as well as fundamental groups are getting bigger and bigger. The larger we are and the more visible we are the more capable we will be of attracting people, like a snowball running downhill. It will also get easier for people who might like to stand up to religion but don’t for fear of being ostrasized. I think the last thing we need to do is hide. But I also agree that we need to do more than define ourselves as in the negative. The meaning of words evolve. Our actions of being verbal as well as active in other positive pursuits of truth, progress, and happiness can help to expand the meaning of the word athiest to be more than simply not theist, or at least to be associated with more than just that.

    On a more personal note, I have a dilemma in my own personal life. My brother is going to a divinity college to become a pastor or something like that. I love him and he is a pretty open minded guy, but when I first learned about this about a year ago I was saddened. I am afraid that he will change and become not him. I am afraid he will be brainwashed. We’ve talked a bit, and I’ve always been a fairly verbal atheist, so it’s no secret. Still I wonder sometimes how to balance the respect for family and someone I am close to, with my non respect for religion, actually my contempt of religion, though not all religious people. I only hope it’s a phase he’s going through and comes out of it. But if I become too antagonistic and like the so called “dogmatic atheist” (a term that is a bit of an oxymoron) may I actually drive him deeper into it? I wonder about things like this. Anybody have some personal experience in dealing with friends and familiy that you love, and how being an increasingly vocal but respectful athiest can be best juggled, because I think in our strategy we can’t be blind to human nature and sometimes need to carefully think about how we approach any given situation. One thing I think is that there is no one foolproof strategy and that different strategies will be better for different times and spots. Maybe in one case being very blunt is best, even if it ruffles feathers. Other times more finesse would be best. One of my ideas that I have spoken to him about is a book exchange where I’ll agree to read some of his “propaganda” if he’ll read some of my “propaganda”. Ok, I’m using the word propaganda tongue in cheek just in case there is any second thought. He has expressed some willingness, but I don’t wanna be pushy. At the same time I wonder if I wait too long if he will be too brainwashed to benifit. Regardless he’s my brother, and it’s his life and his decisions. It’s really difficult in a situation like this because emotions and relationships are mixed in a pot with questions of reason and respect and a dozen other elements.

  234. #234 Colin
    October 11, 2007

    Yeah lets all go under the radar and write books with such soft non-atheist titles such as “End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”

    Harris makes a good point here and there, but he’s at is lamest when he’s riding his contrarian horse.

  235. #235 Ed Zwart
    October 11, 2007

    Yes, well, Sam’s right to remind us of the “us versus them” trap of labels. And much of the fanfare these days does remind me of cult-ish thinking.

    If we’re such rationalists, we should probably look at his words and be a little less huffy. Criticizing him for being a contrarian or for stirring up dissent seems downright silly when you think about it, doesn’t it?

  236. #236 Mark Molen
    October 15, 2007

    It’s a fact that “atheist” is an easy target for the unthinking religious. I do agree with Mr. Harris in that a better term should be used, like rationalist or humanist. To my way of thinking I do not wish to be defined in anyway by religion or theism. In the future after the end of religion people may look back and wonder why we as those who understood this poisonous, dangerous thing called religion would have chosen to define ourselves by it at all. Athiesm is a narrow backward looking term and not very forward thinking. I remain hopeful we can unify under a more rational and forward thinking label that has nothing to do with religion.

  237. #237 holyfather
    October 30, 2007

    I thought Sam Harris was bang on.

    To say, “they’re going to call you an atheist anyway. Your friends might…but your enemies won’t” is preposterous. Move this exact same argument into another forum like racism or sexuality and you will see why.