Pharyngula

Sam Harris responds to the reaction to his speech at the Atheist Alliance meeting.

Is it really possible that PZ Myers and Ellen Johnson think I was recommending that we stop publicly criticizing religion or that I am hiding my own atheism out of “shame and fear”? I would not have thought such a misreading was possible, given the contents of my speech and my rather incessant criticism of religion in my books, articles, and lectures.

It’s puzzling to be accused of misreading Harris when his misreading of PZ Myers is so far off base; perhaps my name was just tossed in as an afterthought, and he’s really trying to address Ellen Johnson’s comment. Even there, though, I think he’s mangling the point.

And it’s highly disappointing that he resorts to using a dishonest rhetorical tactic: rather than addressing the issues we brought up, he invents a hypothetical situation — a reporter asking the president a question about stem cells — and then contrives two hypothetical ways the question could be phrased, 1) a good way that emphasizes the rational, scientific reasons for supporting stem cell research, and 2) a bad way that has the reporter declaring his atheism multiple times in a question that has nothing to do with atheism. And then he declares that all of us atheists seem to be preferring the second, bad way of asking the question.

Victory! He doesn’t even have to catch us saying something foolish, he just writes stupid words into our mouths, and presto, our arguments are defeated!

Come on, Sam, at least have the courtesy to deal with what we actually said. I never said everyone must join the cult of atheism, nor do I think atheism is a cult. I even agreed that someday the word would be an anachronism; I agree that multiple strategies are good and necessary.

There was much that I thought was reasonable in Harris’s talk, and there was a fair amount that I disagreed with that I let slide. Even in his latest defense, I agree completely that his good answer #1 is preferable to bad answer #2, although he has intentionally rendered #2 as patently absurd to force that choice. What I chose to focus on in the talk was Harris’s claim that “We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar–for the rest of our lives.” I did not argue that a True Member of the Cult of Atheism is not allowed to do that — it’s fine with me if individuals prefer to do whatever. I did not say that every atheist must express his atheism in every situation at all times, which would be a painfully silly thing to do. What I found objectionable was his dismissal of the value of any kind of label or organizing point to rally around, and his specific snub of “atheism” as a word too negative to have any use.

The situation is simply ridiculous. Sam Harris has benefitted greatly from his aggressive, uncompromising attitude towards religion, and yet there he is, a featured speaker at an atheist’s conference, telling everyone else to go under the radar, and by the way, they should stop calling themselves atheists. I disagree completely. Everyone should feel free to flash the radar as much as they want, or hide away if they prefer, and I certainly think it has been a good thing for the cause of reason that more and more people are coming out and making their ideas known. Why oppose that?

If Sam Harris would rather not be known as an atheist, that’s fine; he can try to escape the label, somehow. I don’t know that he can, especially since he is an atheist, and a pretty loud one at that. As for other people, if they want to be known as atheists, who is Sam Harris to tell them they shouldn’t? As I said in my original reply, there are lots of different labels, people can use whatever they prefer. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Militant Pantheists of the World, unite and rise up. Happy Agnostics, go forth. Atheists, make a joyful noise unto the world. It’s all good. I’m not going to make a speech and tell the agnostics they’re harming the cause; why is Sam Harris, atheist, singling out an important and prominent element of the anti-religious contingent and telling them to be quiet?

My other point, one that Harris has so far completely ignored, is that these labels are useful for identifying people who share our values — they allow us to coalesce into larger groups and make our presence known in a culture that would otherwise completely ignore us if we stayed “under the radar”. Again, there’s no compulsion, anyone can do as they please, but having a simple rallying point for people of similar views is useful.

One last thing that made me laugh out loud with its lack of reality in his latest reaction is something from his two hypothetical questions — the good one, in fact. In it, he says, as an example of the best way to phrase a disagreement,

Your veto, frankly, seems insane to any educated person, and it is painfully obvious that it was the product of religious metaphysics and superstition–not science or morality.

And then he claims that this phrasing is superior, would not alienate 180 million Americans, and would have the support of those 180 million plus the 20 million overt atheists. Nonsense. This is completely contrary to my experience.

I give lots of talks on evolution, and I handle lots of questions. I rarely go out of my way to use the words “atheist” or “atheism” in them — I’m not reluctant to say what I am if asked, but it’s not central to the topic. However, I do not need to use the evil word “atheist” to get certain people angry: all I have to do is dismiss religious explanations for evolution as “the product of religious metaphysics and superstition”. A recent example was my talk in Stillwater, where I did not say I was an atheist or demand that others be atheists, but did plainly reject religion as a way to answer questions of our origins, and that was sufficient to trigger the usual foot-stomping and finger-pointing.

Sam Harris is living in a fantasy world if he thinks he can criticize religion and merely by leaving the A-word off, he will win everyone over to his point of view. It won’t. The theists aren’t stupid.

Comments

  1. #1 Reginald Selkirk
    October 8, 2007

    Harris is pulling a Nisbet. He is apparently telling us how to “frame” or public communications while proving that he is not the person we should be seeking out for advice. If you wanted someone to listen to take your criticism seriously, would you accuse them of being a cult?

    And criticizing “religious metaphysics and superstition” and “faith-based thinking,” even without the A-word, is his way of “flying under the radar”? Really.

    Harris should consider that perhaps people did not understand his message because 1) his message was not clear or not worthwhile or 2) he did a terrible job of communicating it.

  2. #2 Michael
    October 8, 2007

    I was actually just wondering if you’d read Sam’s piece. And here we are. By the way, having read Ellen Johnsons piece, I can see why he’d be a bit ticked. But when you make the case that:

    “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” how is he supposed to feel attacked and misread? It was a direct address of the issue at hand. Why include your piece?

    While, I’m quite put off by Ellen, I still am disappointed by Sam.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    October 8, 2007

    What Reginald Selkirk said.

  4. #4 Reginald Selkirk
    October 8, 2007

    1)

    Ellen Johnson: Blacks are still dealing with bigoted notions that they are lazy and on welfare… Yet, we don’t seriously suggest that they change, or not use, their names in order to stop having to refute certain bigoted ideas.

    I’d like to point out that “negros” did change their name – to “blacks.” Then “blacks” changed their name to “African-Americans.” It didn’t work. I’m not sure exactly what name most of them prefer today. The name change didn’t succeed in eliminating the bigotry. It wasn’t the name that was the source of the bigotry.
    2) Ellen Johnson is hot.

  5. #5 Christian Burnham
    October 8, 2007

    I’m not sure how Sam could have gotten it so wrong. Maybe I’m not getting the big picture here- but it certainly seems like he’s coming out with some very odd statements.

  6. #6 Reginald Selkirk
    October 8, 2007

    And another thing: Larry Moran posted some video from a CBC broadcast about atheism in which Sam Harris appears. I guess this is the first time I’ve heard his voice. Somehow I expected him to sound like Ben Stiller.

  7. #7 Jack Rawlinson
    October 8, 2007

    PZ: absolutely. It’s depressing me how Sam seems to have lost the plot on this one. I’ve been getting into this very heavily over on dawkins.net and it’s quite startling how many people don’t seem to see how inherently silly and unworkable Sam’s idea is.

    And that Bush press conference thing was an appalling exercise in “straw atheist” building. One is used to dealing with that when arguing with the religious. To see it coming from Harris is just… embarrassing.

  8. #8 Troff
    October 8, 2007

    Apologies, I thought Sam Harris was a smart guy. Why do people think the term “atheist” is such a NEGATIVE thing? Yes, on the surface, it does have that “rallying point” aspect; but it has “rallying point” for a different sense of the term as well.

    “Atheism” == no gods. It means there’s just us; and that we’re all we’ve got on this pale blue dust speck, nobody’s coming to save our asses but us; and that everything this whole species / planet’s occupants have ever done, (bad or) good, is down to US.

    To say that “atheism” is a negative term is a concept that sits perfectly in a religious person’s point of view. It’s only a religious person who thinks that the lack of their (non-existent) crutch is a bad thing. The rest (few) of us can take it as an affirmation. It’s just us.

    Crying out loud, Terry Pratchett worked that one out.

    … what, again, is the nature of Sam Harris’s “spirituality” again, please?

  9. #9 CalGeorge
    October 8, 2007

    And there is something cult-like about the culture of atheism. In fact, much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety.

    Cult-like? Atheist piety?

    Wow! It turns out this Harris guy is a real jerk.

    First he defends torture. Now he turns on atheists.

    I think he needs to do some serious thinking about what he is all about.

  10. #10 leandra
    October 8, 2007

    2) Ellen Johnson is hot.

    Wow, can’t possibly mention a nonobscure female with an opinion without commenting on her appearance, can you.

  11. #11 JJR
    October 8, 2007

    Thanks, PZ for articulating a lot of what I found wrong with Sam’s speech as well.

    Not only did he argue for dispensing with the label “atheist”, he also said we should toss out Freethinker, Brights (well, not fond of that one but whatev’), et. al. too.

    I got news for you, Sam. You’re going to get called an ATHEIST by the Theists anyway, and then what are you going to do–deny it? Not me. Damn right I’m atheist.

    Right now I’m reading _Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America_ (New Studies in American Intellectual and Cultural History) (Paperback)
    by James C. Turner (Author)

    The most interesting thing is how Turner points out the FEAR of Atheism actually preceded the appearance of bona fide Atheists in any great numbers in Europe.

    Even later, many Scientists in the 18th and 19th Centuries struggled to avoid being labeled atheist, many felt their research was necessary to ward off the bogey-man of atheism.

    For me personally, finally becoming comfortable with calling myself Atheist, instead of wallowing in wishy-washy agnosticism, but making the affirmation of myself as an Atheist, understanding why I was an atheist, knowing the arguments, and appreciating the probabilistic nature of the universe (a very powerful tool Dawkins uses masterfully in the GOD DELUSION)…all of that was very empowering for me, and like heck I’m gonna give that up.

    Nope, I am and remain a proud Atheist with a red capital “A”.

  12. #12 castletonsnob
    October 8, 2007

    Sorry, Reginald, Ellen is decidedly not hot, but she is absolutely right to criticize Harris.

    Ditch the term “atheist” because some find it offensive? Fly under the radar and become invisible? Be nameless, voiceless, and isolated? Harris is spectacularly wrong and needs to be told so as often as possible!

  13. #13 Jason
    October 8, 2007

    First he defends torture.

    Defends it pretty well, I’d say.

  14. #14 Infophile
    October 8, 2007

    The theists aren’t stupid.

    Are you sure you meant to say that?

  15. #15 Denoir
    October 8, 2007

    If you want to see why Sam is right, just look at the majority of the comments on the Dawkins site. While I would not go as far as calling it a cult it has certainly taken the ‘disgruntled minority interest group’ path. What should be in the focus is reason as the default choice for any situation. Instead it has degenerated into a childish us vs them situation.

    Reason is universal, atheism is just a special case. Emphasis on the atheism label will only isolate us and confine us. I’m aware that there are quite a few people in the atheism community that enjoy being part of a group whose main activity is congratulating itself on its intelligence compared to the rest of the world. I however do not fall into that category of people and it would seem neither does Sam Harris nor do a lot of other atheists.

    By all means, walk around with your “Out” t-shirts and write angry letters to news editors in the name of the oppressed atheist minority. Just don’t expect any understanding or support from people like me that think that advocating a rational methodology is more important than being a member of a self-righteous club with a label.

  16. #16 Chayanov
    October 8, 2007

    It doesn’t matter what you choose to call yourself, Sam. As soon as you start calling Christianity “religous superstition” you’re going to get labelled as an atheist, whether you like it or not. And what are you going to do then? Insist you’re not an atheist, even though you are? Or accept the label and make it your own?

  17. #17 PZ Myers
    October 8, 2007

    Yes, really. They’re deluded about one major part of the universe, but don’t underestimate them.

  18. #18 JJR
    October 8, 2007

    Just want to affirm, by the way, that I have read the transcript of Sam’s speech in full.

    Another rhetorical ploy Sam uses is that “well, people who oppose racism don’t call themselves non-racist”

    No, but if you’re involved in activist culture, you darn well know what an Anti-racist coalition is.

    Nobody would say Non-racist because everybody reasonably educated and honest with themselves knows that as tribal animals we humans are all racist at some level of our consciousness, and the more we raise our consciousness, become aware of our own prejudices and work on them, the better off we’ll be. It also helps to come to the recognition that “race” is a social construct superimposed on a very fluid human biology that recognizes no such firm borders.

    I also disagree with Sam about the “danger” of radical Islam…it IS a concern in Europe, yes; but here in the US of A, it’s still radical Xtians that are the biggest threat to our Liberties. However much I may despise Islam’s inflexible adherents, it doesn’t ipso facto turn me into a supporter of Bush’s war, as apparently it does for Hitchens & Harris, where I must break with both men.

    While I loved LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION without reservation, I found THE END OF FAITH at times quite infuriatingly wrongheaded many many times. I pressed on to the end of that book because he did have a few gems amid all the dross.

    So for me to *gasp* disagree with Sam Harris on a point or two is nothing out of the ordinary. Some atheists have, I’m afraid, turned in to Harris’s groupies and are engaging in a little hero worship, at least judging by some of the gushingly approving freethought podcasts I’ve listened to since the speech.

    I understand the impulse to be contrarian and stir the pot & all; we’ve come to expect that from Sam. But sometimes he hits and sometimes he misses…this speech was a BIG miss, in my humble opinion.

  19. #19 ngong
    October 8, 2007

    #1…Yes, Nisbet comes to mind immediately on reading Harris. What Nisbet and Harris don’t seem to understand is that folks who have a particular agenda to push (e.g. stem cells) often do a good job of PR quite intuitively, without coaching or “techniques”. Harris’s second question to the president is ludicrous…if you’re single-mindedly focused on stem cell research, you’re not going to inform the audience that you’re also a Satan worshipper.

    I do like Harris. Of the big name atheists, he’s the only one who seems to acknowledge there’s an internal world that can/should be explored without religion.

  20. #20 Michael
    October 8, 2007

    I took Reginald’s comment as sarcasm.

    And I partially agree with Jason. Sam defends torture well when saying that if you’re ok with collateral damage, logically you’re ok with torture. After that, he muddles himself in describing how torture might be ok outside of relative terms.

  21. #21 Jason
    October 8, 2007

    …in describing how torture might be ok outside of relative terms.

    Huh?

  22. #22 Michael
    October 8, 2007

    Oh Denior… your assumptions speak louder than your words.

  23. #23 Michael
    October 8, 2007

    “Outside of relative terms”, meaning that it’s ok all by itself, not just when it’s compared to something worse.

  24. #24 Tatarize
    October 8, 2007

    What? Because ‘atheist’ is a fixer-upper we shouldn’t keep it. Certainly nobody has a ready argument to refute your claim to be a Siwksialwisksist, but I again don’t see why this is a helpful. If anything, this suggestion reminds me of agnosticism and we’re still suffering for that one. In fact, it’s one of the ready arguments against atheism is the suggested reason to switch away from atheism. *sigh*

  25. #25 Denoir
    October 8, 2007

    Sam defends torture well when saying that if you’re ok with collateral damage, logically you’re ok with torture. After that, he muddles himself in describing how torture might be ok outside of relative terms.

    His questionable position on torture has nothing to do with the current debate. A person can be wrong about one thing and right about another. I disagree with Sam on many things but I do think he is spot on about the problems with the current atheist community.

  26. #26 Overmann
    October 8, 2007

    “What I found objectionable was his dismissal of the value of any kind of label or organizing point to rally around, and his specific snub of “atheism” as a word too negative to have any use.”

    Somewhere, somehow, all of this went terribly wrong.

    I understand what Harris is saying. He’s saying that there need not be a label attached to those people who require proof to validate ideas: this should be the default. Just as non-believers in astrology do not have their own label, so too should atheists (and we all know who they are) not need a label. It makes it seem as though atheism is *not* the default and therefore more easily dismissed as a specific, separate group of people with their own nasty agenda. I think that in striving for honesty, PZ misses his mark by suggesting atheism does not carry a negative tone with the general public. It does and as such, we do. Our message would be infinitely more effective if we seemed more like ordinary people (sans label) who were speaking out not because we had an agenda, but because we hold values all people should hold. I think PZ could agree with me that public image, as long as we hold the same atheist values, is everything.

  27. #27 Tea
    October 8, 2007

    I thought Sam’s point was simply that by putting so much emphasis on our lack of religious faith, we may be misleading stupid people into thinking that our convictions are consequences of our atheism.

    I thought he was trying to say that we shouldn’t argue that the reason why we believe abortion or stem-cell research or whatever is OK is because we are atheists. The problem is that people then say: “Of course you’re pro choice, it’s because you’re an atheist!” We should make sure that people understand that these two things are not mutually causally related, but are rather both products of a single cause: rational thought. Most theists are too stupid to get that, and we often fail to spell it out for them because it’s just so obviously true in our eyes.

    I don’t think that we atheists are some sort of community with a distinct set of values. We may all value rational thought, but again, atheism is just one of the inevitable consequences of that fact.

    Maybe Sam wasn’t trying to say all this, but I am. This has nothing to do with framing (yuck!). It’s about making it clear that we want justice and fairness because we’re rational human beings, not simply because we don’t believe in god.

  28. #28 Michael
    October 8, 2007

    Denior, I was responding and adding to another comment about Sam’s views on torture.

  29. #29 Carlie
    October 8, 2007

    I was about to write something similar to Overmann’s first statement. Harris was trying to say that there shouldn’t need to be a term for the default of rationalism, and I agree with him there. There shouldn’t be, in an ideal world.
    However, I differ with him in his thinking that it’s not needed. Sure, that would be the ideal, but we’re certainly not in the ideal situation now. As it is, theistic thinking is the default, and we are therefore outsiders by definition. Until we get to be the norm, a term to describe us is needed for description, for cohesion, for being noticed, for making a difference in showing people that theistic thinking isn’t a universal truth.

  30. #30 PZ Myers
    October 8, 2007

    I agree completely that we need not use the label, and that people can work effectively as individuals without it. There are no label police.

    I have not said that atheist doesn’t carry a negative tone with the general public. I have said exactly that, that it does. But what I have also said is that we need to work to bring the positive values of atheism to the forefront and invert the negativity.

    Atheism does not have a negative tone to many atheists. It has definite utility in helping to bring together people of common interests and values, and I don’t think that should be belittled. It doesn’t matter if the word turns off some people — those people will be turned off by us no matter what we call ourselves.

  31. #31 castletonsnob
    October 8, 2007

    While this does seem to be veering slightly off topic here, I do think torture would be justifiable if it saved innocent lives, or prevented the attacks of September 11, for example. All the evidence, however, seems to indicate that information gained under torture is unreliable, so it really is indefensible in that regard.

  32. #32 Denoir
    October 8, 2007

    PZ: I think that there is a certain degree of misunderstanding here when it comes to labels. I would frame the point like this:

    If you get asked if you are religious, then of course you should say that you are an atheist. The label should however not be the ultimate defining characteristic. It’s way too narrow.

    What should define us is the demand for rational thinking when we encounter the irrational. And it doesn’t matter if we are talking about creationism or homeopathy. Reason is our ally and it is a strong one as most people see it as a positive thing. If we engage in very specific attacks against people’s pet beliefs then we need to descend to their level. Basing our arguments on a more general framework of reason gives us the high ground.

  33. #33 CalGeorge
    October 8, 2007

    Here’s an interesting story:

    Today I had Driver’s Ed. Our teacher is an old school country-boy about 70 or so years old, very conservative. Now for all you Yankees out there (thats right, I said it) you should know that these guys invented the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” cliche.

    Well everybody is out to lunch and I’m waiting for my mom to bring me food. (it did get there eventually, just so nobody worries) He starts talking about movies and how he wouldn’t “walk from here to the door” to see a Michael Moore movie. Apparently, they’d been talking about political celebrities. When talking about Moore, he mentions “He’s an Atheist you know.”
    [...]
    I’m caught in a predicament, do I state loud and proud that I, too, am an atheist?

    It may seem like a small thing to say in the safety of the internet, but that simple statement could do a lot of things. It could change my grade, keep me from a license, cause annoying tension in the room. None of which I want to deal with.

    Or could I sit there and say nothing and just live with my own guilty feelings.

    I did nothing. It didn’t feel good. I just let him say it and move on. I didn’t want to have to defend my thoughts, and I didn’t want to deal with what some of my classmates would say or do. Like I said, it didn’t feel good, I felt weak and overpowered, but when it comes to religion in small southern towns like mine, you learn to except opinions of those in positions of power and stay quiet about your own if they’re to controversial. If it hadn’t been a teacher I would’ve said something, but I prefer peace in my little baptist class (did I mention the class is in a church?).

    The whole thing really hit me. There is still so much stigma in the U.S. about atheism or agnosticism. Being called an atheist at this point is like someone saying you have some sort of strange STD. Either you are pitied and they try to save you or you’re told you will burn in hell and you deserve everything you get, or you are feared and treated like you personally assaulted the faith they hold so dear.

    I just don’t understand it.

    http://www.thejesusmyth.com/hes-an-atheist-you-know.htm

    Maybe Harris is right.

    Stay under the radar.

    Don’t make a big stink about your atheism.

    It’s safer.

  34. #34 The Ethical Atheist
    October 8, 2007

    From what I’ve gathered, it seemed like Sam was saying that we should not use the label ‘atheist’ as our defining characteristic. When it comes to a question of religion he should of course respond that he is an atheist.

    And your point about using the label as a rallying point is quite valid.

    However, many of the ‘new atheists’ (as we’ve been termed) who I choose to associate myself with these days do exactly what I think Sam is arguing against. It seems as if all of their convictions are derived based on their atheism. Almost everything is connected to that in some way. And it shouldn’t be. I think that is the point Sam was trying to make by accentuating the two different methods of asking the same question. I accept evolution based on the evidence, not because I’m an atheist. Some ‘new atheists’ make it seem the other way around.

  35. #35 Kevin
    October 8, 2007

    I am an atheist – but I would never lead with “I am an atheist” because lots of theists have very distorted views about what ‘atheist’ means. It’s a conversation closer.

    I think, when you are interpreting Harris or Hitchens, you have to adjust for hyperbole. It sounds like they are spouting noise – but that’s just because the volume is too high. If listen generously there is sometimes a little signal in there.

    In this case, what I think Harris wants to say is that if you use the word atheist, many otherwise reasonable people will hear “person who I should ignore”. When someone asks if I am an atheist, I do a little Socratic dance and won’t agree that “yes I am an atheist” until my interlocutor has agreed that ‘atheist’ means “someone with a rational worldview who doesn’t believe in nonsense” or something suitable positive. Without the legerdelangue they might interpret ‘atheist’ to mean ‘person without morals’ – which gets me nowhere.

    I wish The *Brights had chosen a less cringe-worthy moniker because the idea is sound. If you can reply to the question “what are you?” with something suitable obscure (but, hopefully, positive) that leads to an open ended discussion about worldviews without supernatural elements you can ‘pull in’ many a fence-sitter when ‘atheist’ would have pushed them away.

    It’s better to try to open people’s minds than close them. I think that’s what Harris was trying to say – clumsily – but it’s hard to tell when his dials are always at 11.

    * Naturalist’ would have been good if it didn’t make you thing of taking your clothes off (not that there is anything wrong with that). I might try ‘rationalist’ but it sounds a bit nerdy.

  36. #36 Michael Spear
    October 8, 2007

    Tea definitely seemed to sum up my thoughts on this matter rather well. I’m amazed at the amount of backlash Harris has received so far. If he hadn’t built up his speech with all the controversial business I wouldn’t have bothered to look twice.

    Sam knows he can’t escape the term Atheist and has no problems identifying with that particular group, he’s simply arguing that we should attempt to make a clear distinction that our views as a whole (especially Atheism) are representative of our stock in rational discourse and intellectual honesty.

    His hypothetical situation was a bit exaggerated as are most examples of that kind so as to more easily understand the point. He’s not advocating that Atheists lie down and let everyone walk over them while observing the same old religious taboo’s reign supreme once again, but to support Atheism while arguing on behalf of science, rationality, and the pursuit of truth.

  37. #37 hummus
    October 8, 2007

    I liked how harris challenged his audience though…especially to at least think about trying to *stress the more reasoned/evidence based approach to as a template to conversation, rather than the more dismissive “i’m an atheist, i value evidence, you’re a numbskull, this conversation is over” tack.

    Yes i know sometimes you have no choice but to take the latter, however I find myself all to often taking this route when the former would benefit the people i’m speaking with more…The latter is the easy way out.

    PZ as usual has great responses though…”the product of religious metaphysics and superstition” ~= “your book is wrong/crap” ~= “evertyhing/one you know is wrong/not_waiting_in_the_sky_for_you”

  38. #38 Ichthyic
    October 8, 2007

    The label should however not be the ultimate defining characteristic. It’s way too narrow.

    why?

    when pressed, every atheist I’ve ever spoken with reveals that they have spent time evaluating religious philosophies of various types, and simply rejecting them for logical flaws and lack of evidence.

    using the stamp collecting analogy, the difference, in my mind, between an a-stamp collector, and a “non collector of stamps”, is that the latter hasn’t necessarily even bothered to investigate the claims of the stamp collectors, while an a-stamp collector has made a positive position statement based on actually evaluation of what it means to be a stamp collector to begin with.

    Not only is the atheist term unique from “not defined”, but a positive statement of non-acceptance from those who have spent time evaluating the rationality and logics and evidence involved is exactly what IS needed right now.

    Sam’s argument reminds me of the arguments Clarence Thomas made against affirmative action; that it was no longer needed in a “raceless” society. the problem being, of course, that we are a long way from a society where race really is meaningless to many. Similarly, someday it would be great to think that someones religious preference would be as “meaningless”, but that most certainly isn’t the case currently.

    Sam is jumping too far ahead, to a state where the default would indeed be the rational, evidence based position, and that picking a religion would be analagous to picking purple with pink highlights for a hair color. IOW, it’s kinda like a more wordy remake of Lennon’s classic: Imagine. However, to get to that point, a much more positive assertion needs be made than that there is an ideal “null state” based on rationality.

  39. #39 Ichthyic
    October 8, 2007

    2nd para:

    actually->actual

  40. #40 Caledonian
    October 8, 2007

    The theists aren’t stupid.

    Of course they are!

    But they’re also highly sensitive to social signalling and the degree to which the implications of arguments favor or denigrate their favorite causes.

    Putting out a position that doesn’t actually state they’re crazy, but inherently paints them as such, will enrage them completely.

  41. #41 Ichthyic
    October 8, 2007

    The theists aren’t stupid.

    Of course they are!

    not all of them, most assuredly.

    However, they are ALL dealing with a handicap to a greater or lesser extent, that inevitably appears in their speaking and writing.

    Collin’s isn’t stupid, for example, but he does have a handicap that reveals itself in some rather inane writings.

    btw, I’ve been finding the “handicap” argument to be very conducive to enraging the religious.

  42. #42 Ichthyic
    October 8, 2007

    now why on earth did I put an apostrophe on Collins’ name?

    *shudder*

  43. #43 Caledonian
    October 8, 2007

    not all of them, most assuredly.

    True – some of them are damned liars.

    But all of the sincere ones are idiots.

  44. #44 jdb
    October 9, 2007

    “Atheist” carries a negative connotation because people don’t like that WE DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD. Let’s give the theists a little credit; they’re not just blindly reacting to a word. They have a genuine theological disagreement with us, and some of them have a moral disagreement with us, in many cases due to an ignorance of what we’re really like and a lack of good examples. Pussy-footing around the fact that we’re atheists isn’t going to help that.

    Ethical Atheist:

    “From what I’ve gathered, it seemed like Sam was saying that we should not use the label ‘atheist’ as our defining characteristic. When it comes to a question of religion he should of course respond that he is an atheist.”

    Have you read the speech (it’s linked in PZ’s post)? I think Sam goes farther than that. If all he was saying was what you describe, I’d agree with it, too.

    “I accept evolution based on the evidence, not because I’m an atheist. Some ‘new atheists’ make it seem the other way around.”

    Can you name one? I get a strong whiff of straw from this.

  45. #45 CalGeorge
    October 9, 2007

    Imaginary conversation:

    A. So, you don’t believe in God?

    B. No.

    A. You’re an atheist?

    B. No. DON’T CALL ME THAT!

    A. Why not?

    B. It’s a mistake – of some consequence!

    A. What should I call you?

    B. [exploding] We should not call ourselves anything!

    A. [WTF?]

    Welcome to the wonderful world of atheist self-hatred.

  46. #46 Eric Davison
    October 9, 2007

    The theists aren’t stupid.

    Blasphemy! You will be excommunicated from the Cult of Atheism for that heresy!

  47. #47 Jason
    October 9, 2007

    castle,

    While this does seem to be veering slightly off topic here, I do think torture would be justifiable if it saved innocent lives, or prevented the attacks of September 11, for example. All the evidence, however, seems to indicate that information gained under torture is unreliable, so it really is indefensible in that regard.

    I don’t think “all the evidence” suggests that, but in any case torture does not have to be a reliable method of extracting true information for it to be useful and justifiable in “ticking time bomb” cases, just one that works sometimes. Broadly speaking, I would say torture of a prisoner may be justified under the following circumstances:

    1. We have credible intelligence of an imminent but avertable large-scale threat (e.g., a ticking time bomb in a major city).
    2. We have credible intelligence that the prisoner has verifiable information that would allow us to eliminate the threat (e.g., that he knows the location of the bomb).
    3. Conventional methods of interrogation have been tried and failed.

    I think this is basically Sam Harris’s position too.

  48. #48 Bad
    October 9, 2007

    PZ: “It’s puzzling to be accused of misreading Harris when his misreading of PZ Myers is so far off base;”

    I dunno: I really did get the impression in your last piece that you were portraying Harris as an appeaser who is just telling atheists to shut up, and you really did pretty much skip the vast bulk of his argument (about why specifically atheism as a term and a banner is a distraction and complication of, well, attacking religious nonsense) to do so. And then here you are saying the same thing again: you say that he is “telling them to be quiet.” I’d say that this is a pretty tortured interpretation of anything he’s said, and he’s quite legitimate in feeling that you misrepresented him.

    “But what I have also said is that we need to work to bring the positive values of atheism to the forefront and invert the negativity.”

    The problem that you keep fumbling here is that “atheism” itself IS purely negative in the definitional sense: it’s a group of people who aren’t theists, not a proper group. There are no “positive values” of atheists in the sense that there are no particular values at all. Particular atheists hold values, and THOSE can be positive.

    By running around declaring that atheism is this or that wonderful thing, you not only confuse most people, who have a hard enough time understanding what non-belief is through the haze of their own perspectives. I mean, they really do seem to think that we spend most of our time grimacing as we strain to NOT believe in God: that being an atheist is some sort of effort or thing in and of itself, as opposed to just being a human being who happens not to have a particular brand of superstition.

    This is one reason why atheism is really not comparable to other banners: it’s really very much NOT a natural group of people. There isn’t a single cause I can think of, political, scientific, or even arguments directly against religious claims… that are only of interest or appeal to atheists alone. Religious believers can share all those causes: even, if they are particularly fair-minded agree that particular claims for religion are lousy (heck, even AiG has a “list of lies we should stop using for the time being.”

    And in any case, why the heck do you think we all spend so much time arguing with each other? (Actually on that, most people’s guesses are probably right on: those most likely to reject religious belief are also likely to be highly critical and argumentative in general, instead of deferring to any particular someone’s claims or authority)

  49. #49 Janus
    October 9, 2007

    That was good, Bad.

    Bwahahahahaaa!!!

  50. #50 cm
    October 9, 2007

    JJR wrote:

    making the affirmation of myself as an Atheist, understanding why I was an atheist…all of that was very empowering for me, and like heck I’m gonna give that up….Nope, I am and remain a proud Atheist with a red capital “A”.

    Am I wrong to be suspicious when one’s beliefs give affirmation, pride, and a sense of empowerment?

  51. #51 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    There are no “positive values” of atheists in the sense that there are no particular values at all.

    I rather disagree with that, for the reasons I stated in #38. Namely that atheists are not the “default” position Sam is describing, they are typically people who have actually spent time investigating the claims of religion from a logical and evidentiary standpoint, and found them to be false.

    that’s wholly different than ignorant of religion in its entirety.

    In that sense it DOES represent a positive value of atheism; an atheist has spent time actively investigating the claims of the religious, and come to a conclusion about those claims based on the very values of reason and logic most consider of good, positive, value.

  52. #52 RamblinDude
    October 9, 2007

    Bad says:

    There are no “positive values” of atheists in the sense that there are no particular values at all.

    Perhaps not in the purely clinical sense, but aren’t the “New Atheists” trying to impart a different message? That atheists “value” investigation, rationality, reality over play pretend and mind control?

    I see the point your making, but it seems to me that atheists are more of a group than the pure interpretation of the term would imply.

    I also agree that the term has a very negative connotation with the fundies, but so what?
    Are we to adopt a strategy of not openly calling ourselves atheists so we can sneak in the back door and spread rationality on the sly. Isn’t that rather defeating the straightforward, fact facing, reality embracing mindset that we are trying to espouse? In fact, it sounds suspiciously like the tactics that the producers of “Expelled” used on the interviewees.

    How are we to lead the way, being fearlessly rational and truthful, when the first thing we do is let the superstitious crowd choose what we call ourselves?

    What is important is that we be the good guys, we are the honest ones. We do not quote mine, lie, distort facts, misinform. We embrace reality and shun living in a world of play pretend, so why pretend that we are not atheists? The label hits home, it gets to the heart of the matter, double quick time–and time’s a’wastin’

    We don’t throw out “Critical thinking” just because the uninformed think it’s about criticizing everything and being grumpy.

    On the other hand, maybe there is a more accurate term than “atheist”. That would be a valid reason for changing the label.

  53. #53 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    Hey PZ, I saw your post on Dawkins site. You do actually have a guy named philos on your banned page.

    And Ichthyic, I fully agree that there is quite a difference in the manner of “atheist”, between those who are ignorant, and those who are versed (pun intended) on the topic.

  54. #54 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    I also agree that the term has a very negative connotation with the fundies, but so what?

    exactly, and I believe this to essentially be the source of the negative reaction to the framing argument (a reaction i share, btw).

  55. #55 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    Are we to adopt a strategy of not openly calling ourselves atheists so we can sneak in the back door and spread rationality on the sly. Isn’t that rather defeating the straightforward, fact facing, reality embracing mindset that we are trying to espouse? In fact, it sounds suspiciously like the tactics that the producers of “Expelled” used on the interviewees.

    agreed, so long as we continue to make it clear that atheism is the RESULT of the application of logic and reason, and not that atheism was the pre-conclusion simply “justified” by post-hoc analysis (which appears to be the conception of most theists I have met, in any case).

    the fact that we must make this point clear, that atheism is the RESULT of the application of logic and reason, is exactly why I think Sam’s thinking in this specific instance is at the least a bit premature.

  56. #56 PZ Myers
    October 9, 2007

    Yikes, I forgot all about him! Now that I’ve looked him up, oh yeah…he’s a real piece of work. If he’s pretending to be a fellow atheist on RD’s site, he’s trolling hard. This was a guy who rushed over here after the 35W disaster to claim that atheists shouldn’t be upset at any loss of life — he’s a major scumbag.

  57. #57 Beau H McLendon
    October 9, 2007

    PZ Meyers comes across as whole heartedly disingenuous. Is it not obvious, whether one agrees with the Atheist terminology or not, that Meyers simply tries too hard to be iconoclastic and consequently falls flat, every time. To even criticize Sam Harris’ response at the AAI conference is to beg attention, to direct the spotlight right back onto himself while consciously aware that his banter will be read and nothing more. PZ Meyers’ every post is a memetic attempt at establishing some vacuous, personal longevity. This is all completely unrelated to what Sam Harris had actually said and PZ Meyers should honestly feel embarrassed by his inane response. Not to mention that he could ever consider himself at the same level as Harris intellectually. What’s the point of the whole “Dangerous Ideas” make-up other than to present something that may or may not be of substance? It just seems where Sam Harris takes an intellectual step forward, PZ Meyers takes an infantile step backward.

  58. #58 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    Yeah, I figured as much. You don’t often bring out the “demented fuckwit” for no good reason.

  59. #59 Christian Burnham
    October 9, 2007

    PZ Meyers takes an infantile step backward

    Beau: Can infants walk backwards? Please let me know.

    I suggest derailing this thread with the topic- how old are children before they can walk backwards.

  60. #60 Russell Blackford
    October 9, 2007

    What a jerk that “Meyers” must be! Does anyone have the url for his blog?

  61. #61 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    Wow Beau. You truly are a study in ad homenim. Well done, well done indeed.

    So now onto, that, uh, um, what’s it called? Oh, substance.

    Yeah, where is that again?

  62. #62 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    PZ Meyers comes across as whole heartedly disingenuous.

    nope.

    Is it not obvious, whether one agrees with the Atheist terminology or not, that Meyers simply tries too hard to be iconoclastic and consequently falls flat, every time.

    nope. In fact, he often generates interesting counters that go far beyond just being “iconoclastic”.

    To even criticize Sam Harris’ response at the AAI conference is to beg attention,

    have you considered that those who think an issue important will attempt to call attention to criticisms, regardless of who they are?

    Not to mention that he could ever consider himself at the same level as Harris intellectually.

    ever heard of the term “ad hominem”?

  63. #63 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    I’ve heard of one, Ichthyic. I just can’t spell it…

  64. #64 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    yeah, I think Bullshitter McLendon’s post was one of those “perfect definitions of the term” kinda things; one you point to when trying to describe to someone what the term means in practice.

    note the subtle use of ad hominem in the above.

    :p

  65. #65 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    I keep wondering if the conflict over terminology usage would be resolved by introducing the term: anti-theist as a subset of atheists. Not that this hasn’t been raised before.

    anti-theists would be those devoted to removing the handicap of religion from conscious thought. Dawkins being a perfect example of an anti-theist, or PZ, or myself, for that matter. it would be an honest representation, at least, IMO.

    and yes, it at least could more rationally be considered the “militant” position by theists.

    then atheism could return to what it really represents, which is the lack of theistic beliefs, and could be isolated, stepwise.

    Atheism being the result of a rational and logical analysis of theism, and anti-theism representing the course of action one might decide to take after making such a conclusion.

    maybe we would stop hearing the ridiculous “new atheist” or “militant atheist” bullshit being repeated over and over?

    they could then make their own new distinctions:

    “militant anti-theist”, which would make sense if applied to someone who took direct action against theist endeavors, for example (especially by force of arms – but are there any who actually fit this description?).

    “political anti-theist”, which would apply to those who decide to make a political issue of removing religion from politics (again, realizing that’s actually supposed to be the default at least in this country).

    “academic anti-theist”, etc.

    I like this, especially compared to the more aptly termed “militant theists”, and “political theists” which are all too common currently.

  66. #66 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    So I’m rereading Sam’s transcript from Athiest Alliance and I’m beginning to see where some philosophical differences are leading to confusion. First he’s taking the angle that atheism is not a thing. Much like non-racism is not a thing. But here, as some of us are pointing out, we begin our differences. Those who combat racism actually DO have a positve viewpoint. Not to simply stamp out racism but to promote equality. Equality is the very catch phrase of such a group. It becomes a worldview all it’s own focused on educating the masses about racial divides that still haunt us and it is distinctly different from simply not being a racist.

    Much the same for athieism. Those invloved in the current movement are not the same as those who are simply ignorant or apathetic towards religion, and reason and evidence are our watchwords. Atheism in this very practical sense is indeed a “thing”.

    We have in our midst the opportunity to redefine a word. To turn the idea of an atheist as not simply “one who lacks belief in a god” into the idea of one who lacks belief in anything that lacks evidence and atheism is simply the product of such a mind set. Thus taking us out of the appearance, as Sam argues himself, of seeming to only attack or focus on religion by th definition of our title. Sam, unwittingly, encourages us to drop that possibility altogether and “go under the radar”, meaning (I have to assume this is what he means) under the “groups with titles” radar.

    Lastly, nowhere does atheism dictate that I must be evenhanded. Those unconfirmed belief systems that do more harm will get more of my ire and attention than ones that do less. This is common sense. But in no sense does it mean that I’ll spend equal time on all faith claims even if I disagree with them all equally. So it’s just adding confusion to the table to bring it up.

    For someone who’s done so much to bring us closer to the atheist appearance that I’m talking about, I can only assume that it’s Sam’s lack of ever having had called himself “atheist”, that leads him to treat the subject with such disregard.

  67. #67 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    Beaten to the punch again.

    Anti-theist ain’t too bad, I remember hearing philosopher Colin McGinn use it on The Atheist Tapes, but it does seem to lend itself even more to that “only negative views” canard heard so often, seeming to make it an ever harder P.R. case. Even so, I can’t slight it for not ringing true.

  68. #68 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    but it does seem to lend itself even more to that “only negative views” canard heard so often,

    roll back to the “should we care?” response.

    I rather think the idea would be to have a term that is descriptive, and actually ATTRACTIVE of the very negative response some seem so fearful of.

    It would take inappropriate rhetorical “heat” off of the term atheism.

    so long as we continue to make it clear that “anti-theism” is not “anti-person”.

    it’s a positive effort at increasing the acceptance of rational and critical thinking, not targeted at the “removal” of the religious themselves from society, if that makes sense.

    How many times has PZ had to explain, for example, that he has no objection to someone who is religious and is also a scientist (had to even explain it to me more than once before it finally sank in some years ago). It’s more like pointing out such a person is working with an anchor attached to their ankle.

    so, the clarifications would still have to be made, but it at least would remove irrational pressure off of atheism in general.

  69. #69 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    To say that “atheism” is a negative term is a concept that sits perfectly in a religious person’s point of view.

    It’s a negative term because it indicates a lack of belief. It’s a negative term practically by definition. There’s obviously nothing wrong with being an atheist, but it’s a shitty rallying point, as it doesn’t promote reason, merely lack of one breed of unreason- and one need not even have good reasons for eschewing belief in gods.

    “Atheism” is a shitty rallying point because not all atheists are reasonable, skeptical people who abhor dogmatism.

  70. #70 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    I see your point. The main purpose of adding another moniker to our list would be mostly to take the heat off of many atheists who don’t like it and clarify the term “atheist”. The only thing to worry about then is that as we continue fissure into smaller and smaller groups we might be easier to marginalize, even by other atheists (Nisbet?).

    I suppose that in my case I prefer to focus on making atheism more palatable to the public in a redefinition of what it means to be an atheist and in a sense focusing on that term. Though, like I said, I do also like the term anti-theist, but I think I might be spreading myself to thin to use it.

    Does that make any sense at all? At this hour, ideas (and sentance structure) tend to dissolve into a fog. I look forward to reading any thoughts tommorow.

  71. #71 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    The only thing to worry about then is that as we continue fissure into smaller and smaller groups we might be easier to marginalize, even by other atheists (Nisbet?).

    true, but at 15% of the American population, we are in fact, starting from the margin to begin with. It’s a very tall order to reverse those numbers, and it ain’t gonna happen in our lifetimes. starting with a very clear set of goals and definitions that are consistent is very important, IMO.

    I wouldn’t worry about Nisbet too much, anyway. He’ll either get a much broader view on the issue and become a valuable asset, or become (most likely) a small flash in the pan.

    It’s pretty obvious just when you talk to the man, that he really has little practical experience in the matter of communication with the groups he intends to target. Once he starts trying to apply his ideas, he’ll get a lot of feedback from those groups that will quickly change his position, or he’ll simply be forgotten in the shuffle. such is life. It seems almost as if he did his thesis on “theoretical communications” instead of practical.

    also, because we start on the narrow margin, it’s still anybody’s guess as to who will define this issue at the larger perspective for the future. Right now, Dawkins is doing a fantastic job of widening the playing field. hard to say what the “winning strategy” will be in the long term at this point.

    who knows? anybody here could come up with what will end up being a workable, practical strategy for the future.

  72. #72 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    I’m in China. I always get to this site after everyone else has already said their piece.

    I disagree about trying to rebrand atheism. The worst examples of atheists run amok were legitimately atheistic, regardless of what other dogmas propelled them, such as Stalinism and Maoism. People can legitimately associate them with atheists. Not insofar as “atheism” caused them, but that they were indeed explicitly atheistic.

    It’s hilariously uphill. It’s not your atheism that propels you, it’s your skepticism and your antipathy towards dogmatism. Atheism is a terrible rallying point or label for a movement.

  73. #73 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    It’s hilariously uphill. It’s not your atheism that propels you, it’s your skepticism and your antipathy towards dogmatism. Atheism is a terrible rallying point or label for a movement.

    what this says is not that atheism is a terrible rallying point, but that atheists have let themselves be defined in the past by those who associate the process with dogmatism unfairly.

    in essence, you are making a similar argument to Harris, and for the same wrong reasons in my book.

    The worst examples of atheists run amok were legitimately atheistic, regardless of what other dogmas propelled them, such as Stalinism and Maoism.

    It’s often the case that the religious right in this country will attempt to associate evolutionary theory with the rise of fascism in Germany before WWII (Kennedy – the creationist, not the president – was famous for this before his recent demise). By your logic, we should abandon “evolution” as a “rallying point” in science because a bunch of complete idiots have falsely identified it with a horrible era in a particular country’s history.

    not only was it a false comparison, but say, even if it were correct, it has nothing to do with the validity of the theory of evolution itself.

    similarly, the comparisons of atheism to the history of russian political authoritarianism really has nothing to do with atheism itself.

    this is not hard to show, just like it wasn’t hard to show that evolutionary theory had nothing to do with naziism.

    If you abandon something because your enemies paint it with lies and deceit, then your enemies have won, yes?

  74. #74 Owlmirror
    October 9, 2007

    While “abolitionist” and “anti-racist” are negative terms, they are used to refer to those who are for equality, as noted above, and are more positively call(ed) egalitarians.

    I suppose that’s why I like “rationalist” and “freethinker” better than “atheist”, as positive terms. Also, “humanist”.

    Why, exactly, does Sam oppose those positive terms?

    Harris says we should “advocate reason and intellectual honesty”. If someone asks what church you go to, or which faith you follow, and you say “none”, what would be a reasonable and honest response to the followup question of “What are you, an atheist?”

    There was a comment a few threads ago which had an idea which I think has some merit: When asked which church you go to, respond with “I’m not superstitious.” This was suggested to be a clever example of framing, since the local Christian denomination used the word “superstition” to refer to all of the things that they rejected belief in.

    While it’s a bit long, I think “non-superstitious” or “anti-superstitious” might be a potentially useful term to use instead of “atheist”.

    It could also be useful for other rhetorical reasons. Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot might have been atheists, but they were also rather superstitious; each believed in destiny and nationalism and their political and/or racial dogma, and in their own place in shaping and leading the political destiny of their respective nations.

    It might also help highlight the “one less God than you believe in” argument (that is, if they assert that their religion isn’t a superstition, point out that that’s what they think of every other religion that they don’t follow; why should their religion be exempt?).

    Anyway, just some thoughts.

  75. #75 Don Quijote
    October 9, 2007

    It is interesting how many posts start with something like “I think what Sam wanted to say…” or “I think Sam’s point was…”.

    When I read the transcript of Sam’s speech I disagreed with him on his view on the A-word (and on a side note I did not really get his point in the second part). Interpretations like Tea’s (#27) or Kevin’s (#35) I can easily agree with. The question is, if Sam really meant to say something like that. If it is the case it is definitely not what I (and apparently many others) have heard. He could at least be accused of not having made his point clearly. I find this strange for someone who usually argues eloquently and precisely. The more I think about it the more I get the feeling that it was not really thought through and mainly done for the sake of the provocation (which seemed to have worked).

  76. #76 MartinC
    October 9, 2007

    I agree with Loren above. Atheism, as a term is fine for a secular non-believing society where faith-heads are in the minority but in a religious context such as the US or the middle east it doesnt translate well. I much prefer the terms secular humanist or rationalist (Stalin and Pol Pot may have been atheists but they surely were not rationalists).
    Come to think of it what the US needs is an atheistic version of Fred Phelps church – a group so extreme in their ‘fundamentalist atheism’ (I know, I know!) that Hitchen and Dawkins will look as complete moderate pussycats in comparison.

  77. #77 Caledonian
    October 9, 2007

    I much prefer the terms secular humanist or rationalist

    Those are distinctly different positions; they are not alternative synonyms for atheism.

  78. #78 Bad
    October 9, 2007

    Don Quijote:”He could at least be accused of not having made his point clearly.”

    Alternatively, others you read first could have misrepresented him and then you read and interpreted him in light of those misrepresentations.

    RamblinDude”I also agree that the term has a very negative connotation with the fundies, but so what?”

    You are using the wrong meaning of the word negative. Atheism is negatively defined, not in the sense of bad, but by being defined by what it isn’t. We are a group only in the sense that all non-professional baseball players are a group: which is to say, we aren’t really a natural group at all.

    “Are we to adopt a strategy of not openly calling ourselves atheists so we can sneak in the back door and spread rationality on the sly. Isn’t that rather defeating the straightforward, fact facing, reality embracing mindset that we are trying to espouse?”

    This quite misses the point entirely.

    My contention is that by putting the banner of “Atheism” at the forefront of attacking religious nonsense, we are primarily confusing the very people we are trying to be honest with and unconfuse. It makes them think more and more atheism is an ideology, when in fact it is. Rationalism and empiricism are ideologies. It’s not a matter of atheists shutting up or being unclear on the fact that they don’t believe in god. It’s about not letting category become a distraction or cedeing any time to the annoying and rambling debates over the meaning of atheism (on which atheists can’t even agree): all of which takes time away from directly confronting bad ideas.

  79. #79 castletonsnob
    October 9, 2007

    Jason: Point taken–I can’t really say that all the evidence says that torture isn’t effective, only what I’ve seen so far.
    Are you aware of any documented instances where torture has been used to extract reliable information?

  80. #80 Troff
    October 9, 2007

    Bad, Loren, MartinC,
    You’ve all missed the point. Yes, “Atheism” says “we don’t believe in gods” (or more accurately, “there are no gods”). What it says by direct implication is that it’s US. That is, PEOPLE.

    It means that we DON’T cower in fear from the imaginary (and there’s a key point). It means we support each other.

    Yes, it’s similar to Humanism. But if there are no gods, then shouldn’t we be making that point instead of flying under the radar?

    … you can call it “negative” all you want. Your claim is invalid and I’m quite happy to call myself an “atheist”.

    On top of that, the non-religious of us know what “atheism” means. Why go using other words when it fits?

  81. #81 Don Quijote
    October 9, 2007

    @Bad: I read it when it was published on richarddawkins.net 2 October before reading any comments. If I was biased that was not the reason for for my bias.

    The fact that I read it the way I did does of course still not mean that it is Sam Harris’ fault. However, at least for me his reply did not help to clarify things and I observed that I am not the only one left with this impression. I wanted to point out that I find this puzzling because it contrasts with his usual writing. A style that I normally find very clear and succinct (which does not necessarily mean that I always agree).

  82. #82 Caledonian
    October 9, 2007

    You’ve all missed the point. Yes, “Atheism” says “we don’t believe in gods” (or more accurately, “there are no gods”). What it says by direct implication is that it’s US. That is, PEOPLE.

    It means that we DON’T cower in fear from the imaginary (and there’s a key point). It means we support each other.

    Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    ‘Atheism’ implies only a system of thought that doesn’t include deities. It doesn’t imply any particular concern for humans, it doesn’t imply social associations, it doesn’t imply rationality.

    It doesn’t even imply a lack of religion.

    Once again we see that there is no debate that will not attract fools to every side.

  83. #83 PuckishOne
    October 9, 2007

    Sam Harris’ speech was brass-cojones hypocritical blather at its finest. PZ’s original reply to him was spot on: Stop giving speeches, stop writing books, Sam, if that’s your choice, but for you to collect your royalty checks on your atheist best-sellers whilst entreating the hoi polloi atheists to go on quietly about our good lives is exactly the sort of pseudo-moral claptrap I’ve come to expect from the neoconservative Christians.

  84. #84 Bunjo
    October 9, 2007

    I have found the comments in this blog very helpful in clarifying my own thoughts. I was particularly impressed when Ichthyic brought up the term Anti-theist. It struck me that the labels Atheist and Anti-theist do not necessarily describe the same set of people or ideas, although there is considerable overlap.

    Atheism has previously been all people that don’t believe in god(s) and irrationality (I’ve oversimplified for debate, please don’t flame me), but there is *now* a proportion of those people who are also promoting a more active response to increasing theistic pressure – and might better be described as Anti-theists.

    I believe that various people debating the Sam Harris lecture have been talking at cross purposes to each other. Supporting reason and rational thought (and eschewing the term Atheist) does not have the same objective as the political Anti-theist (Atheist and proud) movement. Close, and related, but *not* the same.

    As long as we call the pro-rationality and anti-theocracy aims by the same term (Atheist) we confuse ourselves and others and dilute our effectiveness at both tasks. Which one you pick will probably depend on your personal circumstances, but as close relatives we should be supporting each other, not arguing.

  85. #85 Jason Failes
    October 9, 2007

    Did anyone see the “Go God Go” episodes of South Park?

    It seems Sam and PZ are about to ignite the unholy war between the Athiest United League and the We-shouldn’t-call-ourselves-Atheist Alliance…

  86. #86 Kseniya
    October 9, 2007

    I nominate the phrase “whole-heartedly disingenuous” for Oxymoron of the Week.

  87. #87 Infophile
    October 9, 2007

    Yes, really. They’re deluded about one major part of the universe, but don’t underestimate them.

    What I’m not underestimating is their quote-mining abilities. This seems exactly like the type of thing some troll is going to pick up on and completely forget about everything else you’ve said. Meh, at least quote-mines are easy to debunk; it’ll just make them look worse if they try it.

  88. #88 Coel
    October 9, 2007

    Owlmirror says: “Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot might have been atheists, but they were also rather superstitious”

    Why oh why do even atheists go around spreading the false meme that Hitler was an atheist? There is not the slightest shred of evidence that he was, and vast amounts that he wasn’t.

  89. #89 RamblinDude
    October 9, 2007

    RamblinDude” I also agree that the term has a very negative connotation with the fundies, but so what?”

    You are using the wrong meaning of the word negative.

    I used the term “negative” in the other sense on purpose, in response to your comment on how the superstitious –”seem to think that we spend most of our time grimacing as we strain to NOT believe in God:” They see this as a very negative, bad thing. You didn’t really imply that, though, I just read more into your sentence than was there.

    My contention is that by putting the banner of “Atheism” at the forefront of attacking religious nonsense, we are primarily confusing the very people we are trying to be honest with and unconfuse.

    So let’s un-confuse them. That’s the task before us. No matter what rational people call themselves, it will definitely be loathed by the superstitious, anyways. What they are going to hear is, “We blah, blah blah blah…don’t believe in God…blah blah blah..”

    Atheism, in the strict sense of the word, is simply the negation of belief–but it has become more than that. It is now tied in with rationality and critical thinking. Why throw that away?

  90. #90 J Myers
    October 9, 2007

    castletonsnob (#79), a person might lie when tortured (to get the torture to stop), but they certainly are not guaranteed to do so (they can get it to stop–if it isn’t being performed for sadistic reasons–by providing the desired information). Obviously, there would be no point in torturing someone if you knew whatever they said would be incorrect. Reliability is certainly an issue when the person under torture does not know the information being sought. Sam Harris addresses the reliability issue in TEOF, pages 98-99, if I recall. I’ve seen a lot of visceral rejection of Sam’s position on this matter, but I’ve yet to see any cogent argument against it. While I’m generally opposed to the practice, I agree with Sam that there are certain, unlikely (perhaps you would consider them contrived) scenarios in which torture is ethical.

  91. #91 J Myers
    October 9, 2007

    Kseniya (#86), I was going to say the same thing. Bizarre syntax, spelling and punctuation errors–going by presentation alone, I’d guess Beau was a creo. Here’s my nomination for most meaningless sentence:

    What’s the point of the whole “Dangerous Ideas” make-up other than to present something that may or may not be of substance?

    I don’t know, Beau; I can’t even guess as to what you’re attempting to ask.

  92. #92 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    This discussion has probably run its course, insofar as there’s almost certainly other discussions that have moved this one down, but if anyone’s still reading…

    Here’s a couple of sample comments that are the epitome of why this “we’re atheists, dammit!” line of thinking does a massive disservice to the debate:

    “Atheism has previously been all people that don’t believe in god(s) and irrationality”

    “It means that we DON’T cower in fear from the imaginary (and there’s a key point). It means we support each other.”

    Absolutely false. All, all “atheism” indicates in a lack of belief, or a positive disbelief, in the existence of those imaginary entities called gods. An atheist can believe in gnomes, faeries, and 9/11 conspiracies that say those planes were missiles. Atheism says nothing about reason, irrationality, dogmatism, or skepticism. It merely is a descriptor of one’s belief-attitude towards a very specific breed of fictional being.

    This is why “atheism” is entirely insufficient as an ideology. It doesn’t describe anything. I’m an atheist, yes. I don’t believe in god. But that hardly serves to convey the depth of my skepticism, it hardly serves to describe the myriad of other nonsensical propositions I disagree with. It says nothing of my attitudes towards dogmatic thought.

    If “atheism” is to be the rallying point, if you want to have any honesty about the term at all, you’re going to have to accept Buddhists, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, holocaust deniers, and people who believe in faeries, because a large number of them aren’t theists They’re atheists.

    I’m happy to not have a label. If anyone asks me, I’ll certainly tell them where I stand on the issue in question, but I’m not going to wear a shirt with a blazing red A on it to declare my loyalty to the tribe.

    Fuck bad ideas. I agree with Sam’s original speech. He obviously choked and strawmanned for his response, but whatever. I felt the same way before reading his original transcript and I feel the same way now.

    Atheism isn’t the ideology you want. It’s like having anti-racism as your ideology of choice. It’s perfectly laudable as a position on a single issue, but really, racism, religion, chiropractics, and insane conspiracy theories are on the same side of the coin, and I’m not about to define myself against only one of them.

  93. #93 CalGeorge
    October 9, 2007

    In a perfect world, theists would be called:

    Morons.

    Atheists would be called:

    Amorons.

    Everyone wants to end moronity, right?

    A. Are you an atheist?

    B. No. I’m an amoron.

    A. Me, too!

  94. #94 Owlmirror
    October 9, 2007

    Why oh why do even atheists go around spreading the false meme that Hitler was an atheist?

    Er, because of posting while tired?

    So, yes, Hitler did ban atheist organizations; Hitler was very comfortable allying the Nazi party with the Catholic church; Hitler was strongly influenced by the theologian Martin Luther, and so on and so forth.

    So not only was he enamored of the relatively new superstition of Aryan racism, and of the various occult superstitions, he was also enamored of the very old superstition that is religion.

    Is that better?

  95. #95 Tea
    October 9, 2007

    Loren,

    I partly agree and partly disagree.
    You see, I AM an atheist, and spending the last 5 years in the US has made it much more important for me to make this explicit almost every day. If Sam was trying to say that we should try to conceal the fact that we’re atheists (and parts of his text certainly imply that), then I strongly disagree with him.

    The problem is that too many among us seem to think that being an atheist is in itself a proof that one is rational and has good reasons to promote equality, justice, value of science, and so on. I think that one of Sam’s messages is that being rational should of course imply that you’re an atheist – but, unfortunately, it doesn’t go the other way around. I know plenty of atheists who believe in astrology, ghosts, reincarnation, etc. Some of them are racists, and many of them are homophobes.

    I suppose I chose to read Sam’s article in a way that takes in the important and reasonable stuff, and ignores statements that imply that we should be invisible. If we only accept the important lesson that we should make it clear that we don’t promote rationality in the name of atheism, then Sam has done a great service. We can then continue to criticize him for other problematic things he said, but we should not dismiss the good points he makes. They are truly important.

  96. #96 Anton Mates
    October 9, 2007

    Loren,

    If “atheism” is to be the rallying point, if you want to have any honesty about the term at all, you’re going to have to accept Buddhists, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, holocaust deniers, and people who believe in faeries, because a large number of them aren’t theists They’re atheists.

    I find that entirely acceptable. I don’t ID as an atheist to help rally people about an ideology, but to rally them against a social problem. When I want to plug my particular worldview, I identify as a skeptic/naturalist/liberal. But I also want to expose and combat social hostility toward atheists in general–even silly/stupid/racist atheists. They shouldn’t be attacked and marginalized based purely on their atheism, whether or not they happen to agree with my worldview in other areas. So I want to stand with them on that point. These two aims are largely independent of one another; even if not a single American believer could be persuaded to move past their faith, a more unbelief-tolerant country would be a better country.

    To use a well-worn analogy, it’s like being open about your homosexuality. You don’t do it to convince people that being gay is superior and they should try it; you do it to make the point that there’s lots of gay people, and they’re mostly nice normal folks like you, so you shouldn’t be treated like freaks. And you do it simply because you feel you have the right not to conceal that part of yourself. This will of course lump you in with other gay people you find stupid, evil, politically misguided, whatever. But you have other labels to separate yourself from them.

    You don’t find Christian liberals renouncing their religious identity because they want to differentiate themselves from the Religious Right. They just call themselves Christians and liberals.

  97. #97 Overmann
    October 9, 2007

    Carlie,

    I can be as outspoken with my atheist/rationalist values as I want to be and still needn’t call myself an atheist or accept an atheist label. I think what Sam was pushing for (and I think PZ understands this) was that we needn’t call ourselves atheists to have an effective argument, we need only consistently tear the religionists’ flawed arguments asunder and expose them for what they are.

    Dr. Myers,

    I didn’t quite expect you to respond to my post but I’m glad you did as I now see I had misread. You recognize that the label ‘atheist’ carries a negative connotation but reciprocate with focusing on the label’s merits. It is true that the word ‘atheist’ has some good power, but not in the minds of the general public and certainly not with the theists, though their opinion on that matter matters hardly at all, I think. We should let the public know we are primarily rationalists through our arguments (while not necessarily calling ourselves rationalists) all the while not turning them off to it by proclaiming to be atheists.

    As far as our community being able to unite under a single banner (or label), I don’t think regulars would stop coming if everyone ceased calling themselves atheist but still held the same values and their behavior didn’t otherwise change. In the end I suspect it’d be for the better.

  98. #98 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    hmm, why does your argument sound so familiar, Overmann?

    maybe if we substitute a word or two, it will ring some bells?

    It is true that the word ‘atheist’ liberal has some good power, but not in the minds of the general public and certainly not with the theists conservatives, though their opinion on that matter matters hardly at all, I think. We should let the public know we are primarily rationalists through our arguments (while not necessarily calling ourselves rationalists) all the while not turning them off to it by proclaiming to be atheists liberals.

    like I said above, don’t fall to the tunes of the framers in thinking that responding to the slander of a word should define how the word is used in context.

    the neocons did an excellent job over the last 30 years of turning the word “liberal” in the US into a dirty word.

    why should we let the moral majority define the value or usage of the word?

    in the end, I suspect it will be fighting an endless retreat.

  99. #99 Roinis?
    October 9, 2007

    Oh, no! The atheist schism that I’ve always feared has come. Anyway, Sam Harris needs a blog (the year is something around 2007 or 2008, isn’t it) so I could go and relegate him to being an “athiest”. Perhaps he could be allowed to host it here on ScienceBlogs? Since he was studying neuroscience last I heard, I think he’d qualify.

  100. #100 longstreet63
    October 9, 2007

    The problem with Sam’s rather bizarre “Which question sounds better” example is that both questions will sound exactly alike to those opposed to their content. In other words, the other side will and does add in the ‘apeaking as an atheist’ clauses whether we say them or not–and whther they are true or not–because this validates their opposition on grounds they do not have to defend.

    I’d rather be hung as a goat, as the saying references.

  101. #101 Overmann
    October 9, 2007

    “maybe if we substitute a word or two, it will ring some bells?…”

    Except that I don’t agree liberals should become or are the default; same goes for conservatives. Atheism isn’t trying to be political, it’s advocating the assumption that a deity does not exist based off a distinct lack of evidence. Your substitution is ill-fated because you still want to classify people with atheistic values under a generic label when there shouldn’t be one to begin with.

    I can agree, to an extent, that not having a designation doesn’t slide well with the general public. Really the public cannot be trusted or bothered to understand or investigate that which isn’t immediately recognizable or comes with a slogan and a thirty second advertisement, but if you want me to acknowledge that what Harris is advocating is a subtle, slow approach, then I do so heartily. Its’ end result is also infinitely more effective.

    “…why should we let the moral majority define the value or usage of the word?”

    I’m not saying (and I doubt Harris is neither) that the term ‘atheism’ isn’t worth fighting for: I’m always anxious to get into particularly nasty yet envigorating rows with religionists. I just don’t think the end result would be as effective as if we had the values of atheism established as the default for society as opposed to viewing the values of atheism as an imposed agenda from a seemingly select group of people.

  102. #102 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    I just don’t think the end result would be as effective as if we had the values of atheism established as the default for society as opposed to viewing the values of atheism as an imposed agenda from a seemingly select group of people.

    IOW, like i said, we shouldn’t allow the projections of a “seemingly select group of people” to define the usage or value of a word.

    I guess I should clarify and say: on either side of the issue.

    Really the public cannot be trusted or bothered to understand or investigate that which isn’t immediately recognizable or comes with a slogan and a thirty second advertisement, but if you want me to acknowledge that what Harris is advocating is a subtle, slow approach, then I do so heartily. Its’ end result is also infinitely more effective.

    not so, say the xians.

  103. #103 castletonsnob
    October 9, 2007

    J Myers (#90) I am not opposed to torture as long as it can be demonstrated to be an effective means of gathering information that will save lives. So far, I have yet to see any hard evidence that it is, but I am willing to admit the possibility.

  104. #104 John Morales
    October 9, 2007

    #101

    I just don’t think the end result would be as effective as if we had the values of atheism established as the default for society

    My bold.

  105. #105 Pierce R. Butler
    October 9, 2007

    Owlmirror: If someone asks what church you go to…

    Living in Mississippi, I found that “I’m not the church-going type” usually got me past such discussions with minimal friction. Of course, this may not work as well in an environment lacking enough rowdy rednecks for the bible-wallopers to have learned that pushing unrepentant sinners can be, ahem, socially unwise.

    In such cases, alas, one (with the social wisdom to prefer evading an inaccurate but harmful and persistent stigma) must either change the subject or teach the questioners the lesson they’ve missed. The simplest way to do the latter is to emphasize the distinction between said questioner and Jesus, and to make it clear that it ain’t Jesus who’s bothering you while you try to mind your own business.

    In the American South, a reputation as an atheist can cause endless trouble. A reputation as a surly sumbitch is much less so – you just blend in with the crowd.

  106. #106 Anton Mates
    October 9, 2007

    Overmann,

    I just don’t think the end result would be as effective as if we had the values of atheism established as the default for society as opposed to viewing the values of atheism as an imposed agenda from a seemingly select group of people.

    Any values claimed to accompany atheism would necessarily be an imposed agenda from a select group of people. If you just poll every person who doesn’t believe in a God, you don’t get much in the way of common values.

    And I don’t see how you can get a set of values established throughout society without first presenting them as an agenda from a group of people including, at least, you. Barring mass hypnosis, you can’t convince the world that it was already secularist/humanist/rationalist all along, and just didn’t know it…you’re going to have to consciously change some minds.

  107. #107 Overmann
    October 9, 2007

    Ichthyic,

    “like i said, we shouldn’t allow the projections of a ‘seemingly select group of people’ to define the usage or value of a word.”

    The ‘seemingly select group of people’ I was referring to was the atheist community, not the religious community. In lieu of that you seem to say not even the atheist community should be enabled to define the usage or value of a word.

    “not so, say the xians.”

    Of course they’d say that, wouldn’t they? I wouldn’t aspire to convince Christians, I’d aspire to convince those who only half-heartedly believe or don’t believe at all but are turned off by the more influential negative connotations of ‘atheism’.

    Anton Mates,

    “Any values claimed to accompany atheism would necessarily be an imposed agenda from a select group of people.”

    I’m not saying what we’re doing is not imposing our values on society, I arguing specifically about the approach, as is Harris.

    “And I don’t see how you can get a set of values established throughout society without first presenting them as an agenda from a group of people including, at least, you.”

    I don’t think Sam Harris is advocating giving up on trying to push atheistic values on the whole of society. Indeed that is what we are trying to do. But so long as we can give the appearance of it being otherwise, society won’t receive our advocation as agenda-pushing but rather a norm that should be followed. Subtlety, again, is necessary for this approach, and so the labels, as far as publicly assigning them to ourselves, has got to go.

    John Morales,

    I’d greatly appreciate a little elaboration. I don’t care for quick quips or internet rhetoric. If you’re not going to post articulately, please don’t bother posting anything at all.

  108. #108 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    The ‘seemingly select group of people’ I was referring to was the atheist community, not the religious community.

    i not only knew that, I figured you would catch the not so subtle reference to Harris when I mentioned:

    “on both sides”.

  109. #109 John Morales
    October 10, 2007

    Overmann (#107), specifically, any atheist values are held by individuals.

    To define a group by the one thing they all lack is to imply that otherwise they are representative of the population at large.

    Whilst you may not appreciate internet rhetoric, you also seem not to appreciate that I dislike elaborating the obvious.

  110. #110 Overmann
    October 10, 2007

    Icythyic,

    “i not only knew that, I figured you would catch the not so subtle reference to Harris when I mentioned”

    I don’t much care for sarcasm, either. It doesn’t reflect well on your personality and hence your points.

    John Morales,

    “To define a group by the one thing they all lack is to imply that otherwise they are representative of the population at large.”

    Incidentally I don’t define an atheist solely based on what their views toward the divine are. An atheist, to me, represents someone who relies on evidence, a natural view of existence, and rationality in decisions and through all that, rejects the notion of a deity. My definition of atheism is not a negative definition (defining something as the exception or absence) but a positive one. As such, there is no implication atheist values are otherwise representative of the population at large.

    “Whilst you may not appreciate internet rhetoric, you also seem not to appreciate that I dislike elaborating the obvious.”

    Not given any evidence either way, naturally I didn’t recognize let alone appreciate that you dislike elaborating on what you feel is obvious. Providing elaboration or supporting evidence is always necessary, however painstaking.

  111. #111 Timothy
    October 10, 2007

    PZed: Are you really saying that you’re “OK” with agnostics and their cowardly fence-sitting, now? Man! I thought you were cool.

  112. #112 John Morales
    October 10, 2007

    Overmann:

    My definition of atheism is not a negative definition (defining something as the exception or absence) but a positive one.

    That’s fine.

    But I personally know someone who was a Wiccan atheist. And an atheist Buddhist.
    I think plenty of atheists who have supernatural, supersticious and spiritual beliefs.

    So, are you claiming your atheist values are or should be canonical in some sense? Good luck.

  113. #113 Ichthyic
    October 10, 2007

    I don’t much care for sarcasm, either. It doesn’t reflect well on your personality and hence your points.

    oh, my.

    now I’m a gettin’ the vapors!

    …now THAT’S sarcasm.

    I’m sorry you were unable to grasp the point I was trying to make, I made it even clearer, and you took it as sarcasm, and in your lame bit of “chiding” still refused to recognize the point I was making.

    ever think maybe the problem is not me?

    *shrug*

  114. #114 Lurchgs
    October 10, 2007

    Obviously, asking somebody if he’s an athiest is like asking a theist if he’s a Christian. There all manner of flavors on both sides of the counter. Some people define themselves by the larger lable, others by more restrictive labels (FSM, *Bright, Baptist, Caholic… )

    I tend to agree with those who suggest that Mr. Harris was actually *trying* to say “Don’t couch everything you say in athiestic terms”. In other words, unless specifically asked, simply let your athiesm stand on its own. Let the *label* fly under the radar, if possible.

    For myself, if pressed, I call myself an Objectivist sympathizer.

    I do have a strong reaction to the suggestion that athiesm is a cult. A [rather thin] case might be made that it’s a religion in and of itself, but the word *cult* has a specific meaning… actually, let me re-word that. And, perhaps, back up and re-consider what Mr. Harris is about. It seems to me, now, that it’s quite possible that Mr. Harris is attacking the *Cult* of athiesm, not atheism itself. He’s not worried about those of us Rational Thinkers who go about picking holes in the irrationality – but the “Born Again Rabid Fire and Brimstone it’s By God Good to be an Athiest” cult.. these people are not helping the.. um.. cause. Instead of focusing on the issue to be resolved, they inject a further issue – one which, rightly or wrongly, gets them branded as a kook.

    And, finally, I really.. REALLY take issue with anybody who brands a theist as “stupid”, just becuase he IS a theist. All being a theist does, in and of itself, is make the person *wrong*. Some of the brightest people I know are deeply religious. Fortunately, they rarely make the mistake of confusing their expertise with their religion (I can’t speak for the ones I don’t know – this just applies to my circle of friends).

    Yah – imagine that. An athiest hanging out and getting along with a bunch of theists. “Cats and dogs playing together. Old Testament stuff!”

  115. #115 Overmann
    October 10, 2007

    John Morales,

    That would depend on what I’m referring to when I say ‘atheist values’. In my view one isn’t an atheist simply because they do not believe in a god; an atheist in my book is one who relies on evidence and rationality, and as a consequence of both has no belief in a deity. Those are indeed what I call ‘atheist values’ and while I wouldn’t want them to become ‘canon’ (what I repulsive word), it’d be appropriate if society held those views by default. I’m interested in why you define your Wiccan and Buudhist friends as atheists.

    Icythyic,

    “I’m sorry you were unable to grasp the point I was trying to make, I made it even clearer, and you took it as sarcasm, and in your lame bit of ‘chiding’ still refused to recognize the point I was making.”

    Were you referring to something Harris himself had stated? Then you should have supplied a quote. I can’t accept you’re trying to interpret my view or his accurately and objectively when you half-heartily jest about either. I may be chiding though only because the method you chose with which to make your point wasn’t what I consider professional.

  116. #116 Anton Mates
    October 10, 2007

    Anton Mates,

    I don’t think Sam Harris is advocating giving up on trying to push atheistic values on the whole of society. Indeed that is what we are trying to do.

    I’m not. Like John and others, I don’t believe there are atheistic values–only skeptical ones, or rationalist ones. I’m all in favor of plugging those, but I also want to encourage tolerance for atheists. Not just rational materialist atheists, but atheists in general. That’s why I like the “atheist” label. It’s not to say, “Be like me, be an atheist,” it’s to say, “You accept me, so accept other atheists.”

    But so long as we can give the appearance of it being otherwise, society won’t receive our advocation as agenda-pushing but rather a norm that should be followed.

    But a minority group can’t generate new norms for society. Norms, by definition, are backed by social sanctions. If a few people come up to society and say, “Everybody knows you shouldn’t believe anything unless you’ve carefully confirmed it via evidence,” society will say, “You’re weird. Everybody knows faith is a good thing.”

    If you want to make rationalism/skepticism into a norm, you have to

    a) demonstrate that it’s already accepted by a significant portion of society, which requires labels and groups so people can see the size and status of that portion, and/or

    b) argue that it’s not yet accepted by society, but should be, because it’s a great idea.

    b) doesn’t require labels, but it certainly doesn’t hurt–it means that there’s a bunch of people going around with the equivalent of a sign saying “Ask me why rationalist values should become a social norm.”

    Subtlety, again, is necessary for this approach, and so the labels, as far as publicly assigning them to ourselves, has got to go.

    Labels are very good for the propagation and preservation of norms. “Spiritual,” “patriot,” “moderate,” “values-oriented”…you’re throwing away a valuable tool if you refuse to link ideas to buzzwords.

  117. #117 Overmann
    October 11, 2007

    “I don’t believe there are atheistic values–only skeptical ones, or rationalist ones.”

    In case you haven’t read it above, atheist values to me are synonymous with skeptical and rationalist values. I don’t consider myself an atheist so much as a person who values skepticism and rationalism.

    “…demonstrate that it’s already accepted by a significant portion of society, which requires labels and groups so people can see the size and status of that portion…”

    I don’t see how organizing people based on what values they hold requires that they be labeled accordingly. Surveys can just as effectively measure what values people hold by restructuring the questions from “Are you an atheist?” to “Do you require that evidence be supportive of conclusions before you accept them as truthful?” or something similar.

    “…argue that it’s not yet accepted by society, but should be, because it’s a great idea. b) doesn’t require labels, but it certainly doesn’t hurt–it means that there’s a bunch of people going around with the equivalent of a sign saying ‘Ask me why rationalist values should become a social norm.’”

    Imagine, if you would, a scenario in which every self-proclaimed or otherwise acknowledged atheist in the world were asked by a widely broadcasted news show what values they held, and each made a point of emphasizing rationalism and skepticism. Further imagine that all of them, when asked whether they considered themselves atheist, expressed disgust and repulsion of the term, of any term. The religionists would still consider them atheist, but I suspect the average person would at the very least question why someone who holds atheist values (skepticism and rationality) wouldn’t want oneself to be called an atheist. Society would gradually question why theists are so adamant on attacking the generalized atheist label (seeing how the group doesn’t embrace the term itself) as opposed to the actual values this group so expressively illustrates it holds. Theists would then be burden to actually address the values, a burden they inherently can’t overcome.

    I realize my scenario represents the ideal and likely won’t happen, but so too does your scenario in that it doesn’t acknowledge how negative ideas, whether fabricated or not, can just as easily be associated with labels, resulting in a significant portion of the positive being canceled out by the negative.

    “…buzzwords…”

    I don’t feel ‘buzzwords’ adequately raise the consciousness of the general public and inspire a deep want for understanding beyond any superficial conformation. I don’t want people dogmatically obeying atheist values; I want people to be intelligently informed about the values at hand, which can only be achieved without meta-criticizing the label instead of the values directly. My and Harris’ approach would more directly, albeit gradually, bring us to that level of discussion.

  118. #118 Anton Mates
    October 11, 2007

    In case you haven’t read it above, atheist values to me are synonymous with skeptical and rationalist values. I don’t consider myself an atheist so much as a person who values skepticism and rationalism.

    Then why speak of “atheist values” at all? By dictionary and common usage, an atheist is a guy who doesn’t believe in God, no particular values required. And you already have perfectly good words like “skeptical” and “rationalist” for your values. Why not use “atheist” simply for the fact of your nonbelief?

    I don’t see how organizing people based on what values they hold requires that they be labeled accordingly. Surveys can just as effectively measure what values people hold by restructuring the questions from “Are you an atheist?” to “Do you require that evidence be supportive of conclusions before you accept them as truthful?” or something similar.

    Again, you’re assuming that the only reason to identify as an atheist is to express your values. That’s not why I do it. I do it because many people think that atheists–people who don’t believe in God–are a) rare and b) bad. I’d like to present a counterexample to both claims.

    So, assuming we’re talking about “skeptic” or “rationalist” rather than “atheist” as a values-related label: It’s quite true that you could survey people about rational/skeptical values without asking them whether they’re a skeptic or a rationalist. But most people don’t pay very much attention to survey results, particularly when the questions have more than ten words in them. “20 million Americans are open skeptics” is vastly easier to embed in the public consciousness than “20 million Americans require that evidence be supportive of conclusions before they accept them as truthful.”

    Moreover, what if the survey results are unfavorable? In fact, so far as I know, the vast majority–of Americans at least–don’t require evidence for the conclusions they support. (We had that recent poll, for instance, showing that the majority of Americans would reject an established scientific theory supported by pretty much all scientists, if it conflicted with their religious beliefs.) Confirming this through a survey would, if anything, make it clearer that skepticism is not a social norm.

    In contrast, if I tell you I’m a skeptic, and so does your brother, and your coworker, and several hundred members of the local League of Skeptics are visibly meeting at a hotel in your town, and somebody famous on TV just said they were a skeptic, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to raise your estimate of how popular and socially relevant skepticism is. Which is an essential step in turning it into a social norm, and in making people more curious about it.

    Imagine, if you would, a scenario in which every self-proclaimed or otherwise acknowledged atheist in the world were asked by a widely broadcasted news show what values they held, and each made a point of emphasizing rationalism and skepticism.

    They wouldn’t. Ever. Because many self-proclaimed atheists are not primarily driven, even in their own estimation, by rationalism and skepticism. Many other rationalists and skeptics are atheist, but are uncomfortable saying so because it’s still a “dirty word” in large parts of the world, and so they wouldn’t even be on the show.

    Further imagine that all of them, when asked whether they considered themselves atheist, expressed disgust and repulsion of the term, of any term. The religionists would still consider them atheist, but I suspect the average person would at the very least question why someone who holds atheist values (skepticism and rationality) wouldn’t want oneself to be called an atheist. Society would gradually question why theists are so adamant on attacking the generalized atheist label (seeing how the group doesn’t embrace the term itself) as opposed to the actual values this group so expressively illustrates it holds. Theists would then be burden to actually address the values, a burden they inherently can’t overcome.

    No, they wouldn’t. Theists would simply point out, as they already do, that they’re attacking atheism because disbelief in God is wicked, foolish and dangerous. Atheists would simply be accused of trying to evade or cover up the fact of their atheism–why else would they be repulsed by the term when it’s an accurate description of their beliefs? And everyone else would continue to call them atheists, because disbelief in a God is still noteworthy in our society, and you need a name for the people who do it. And “atheist” would now have only the connotations which theists put on it, mostly negative, because they’d be the only ones using the word.

    More tomorrow, when I regain consciousness.

  119. #119 John Morales
    October 11, 2007

    Overmann #115,

    What Anton Mates said. But, since you said “supporting evidence is always necessary” I’ll provide some (yes, it’s anecdotal evidence and I could be bullshitting you).

    There are three people I know personally who are functional atheists, though only one so describes himself.

    * an ex-Wiccan, believes in a spiritual dimension and magic. But the Wiccan “god & goddess” to him were metaphors only.
    * a Buddhist who spent a year in Tibet in a monastery. Doesn’t believe in gods, but accepts reincarnation.
    * a math ex-professor (now runs a programming consulting firm) who is atheistic, but a dualist who believes in ghosts and psychic powers.

    In other threads, the Jains were mentioned as atheists (though religious). I believe the Raelians don’t worship deities – they worship advanced extraterrestrials. So, atheistic too. And there are people who just couldn’t be bothered with the issue at all (but are therefore de-facto atheists).

    Which illustrates the point that not all atheists are rationalists. Their shared characteristic is a disbelief in gods.

    Finally, yes, there are others such as you and I who are consciously atheistic after having rationalised it. But I suspect we are in the minority.

  120. #120 John Morales
    October 11, 2007

    Addendum to #119, from wikipedia

    Vorilhon, other RaŰlians, and their critics have characterized RaŰlian Church as an atheist religion that believes not in God, but in extraterrestrials.

  121. #121 truth machine
    October 11, 2007

    First he defends torture.

    Defends it pretty well, I’d say.

    Any fool can create scenarios in which torture is conceivably morally justifiable. But the inference from that to “torture is justifiable” has to pass through a deeply immoral mind.

  122. #122 Overmann
    October 11, 2007

    Anton Mates,

    “Why not use ‘atheist’ simply for the fact of your nonbelief?”

    Most people have a common definition of atheism they can agree on, though I don’t feel an atheist, being an atheist for any other reason than skepticism and rationalism, quite specifies the essence of what leading atheists are saying. Non-belief is used for someone who doesn’t believe in religion, for whatever reason, while, to me, atheist is used for someone who doesn’t believe in religion for a specific set of reasons. That’s more appropriate, I think.

    “I’d like to present a counterexample to both claims.”

    Admirable.

    “’20 million Americans are open skeptics’ is vastly easier to embed in the public consciousness than ’20 million Americans require that evidence be supportive of conclusions before they accept them as truthful.’”

    But it doesn’t nearly convey the same meaning. Certainly if atheistic values (call them as you will) were to be embedded into society, I’d rather it be because people had a genuine understanding of what it means to be skeptical than because it’s the latest trend or they desire to be rebellious and now have a group label to assume as their own. The latter option doesn’t carry as much merit in my view.

    “Confirming this through a survey would, if anything, make it clearer that skepticism is not a social norm.”

    The purpose of my example was to illustrate how the numbers behind atheism can be expressed without the use of the term atheist. Whether those numbers would be in the minority or majority wasn’t of concern in the example.

    “In contrast, if I tell you I’m a skeptic, and so does your brother, and your coworker, and several hundred members of the local League of Skeptics are visibly meeting at a hotel in your town, and somebody famous on TV just said they were a skeptic, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to raise your estimate of how popular and socially relevant skepticism is.”

    Again, just the same could be achieved if those same people didn’t call themselves skeptics but rather just pushed only skeptic principles.

    “They wouldn’t. Ever. Because many self-proclaimed atheists are not primarily driven, even in their own estimation, by rationalism and skepticism.”

    As I said my scenario is the ideal and any self-proclaimed ‘atheist’ who is not primarily driven by rationalism and skepticism is not an atheist in my book. I certainly wouldn’t want them representing the view of atheism as a whole, which they may already.

    “Atheists would simply be accused of trying to evade or cover up the fact of their atheism.”

    I’m not sure how they could be sufficiently accused of such when they would hypothetically make every attempt to express their ideas. It’s entirely possible to be functionally atheist and yet not ascribe that label to oneself, provided one emphasizes not their lack of belief in a deity but rather the reasons why, namely why skepticism and rationality are more appropriate initial mindsets. One needn’t even come right out and say they don’t believe in God, but assuredly if they were asked.

    “And ‘atheist’ would now have only the connotations which theists put on it, mostly negative, because they’d be the only ones using the word.”

    They can have it. I for one would prefer to have the rationalism and skepticism aspect of atheism discussed and targeted than the notion of being godless, as the former is much more difficult to confront than the latter, which can be and is already readily dismissed.

    John Morales,

    Honestly I don’t consider either three of your friends as being atheist if they are not fore-most rationalists. To me, atheism implies a very specific set of reasons – those I’ve mentioned – for one’s disbelief in a deity. For example, someone who disbeliefs in a deity out of resentment for the strict upbringing of one’s family or to be accepted by would-be friends wouldn’t be an atheist, only a non-believer.

  123. #123 Anton Mates
    October 11, 2007

    I realize my scenario represents the ideal and likely won’t happen, but so too does your scenario in that it doesn’t acknowledge how negative ideas, whether fabricated or not, can just as easily be associated with labels, resulting in a significant portion of the positive being canceled out by the negative.

    Certainly it acknowledges that fact. But it is not in our power to prevent labels from being associated with the ideas we defend. People like labels; just look at “New Atheist.” If we repudiate existing labels and refuse to create new ones, then people will simply use whatever labels are favored by our opponents–with whatever negative associations our opponents choose to put on them.

    I don’t feel ‘buzzwords’ adequately raise the consciousness of the general public and inspire a deep want for understanding beyond any superficial conformation. I don’t want people dogmatically obeying atheist values; I want people to be intelligently informed about the values at hand, which can only be achieved without meta-criticizing the label instead of the values directly.

    This goes against what little I know of education, on both the giving and receiving ends. If you want people to understand your ideas, you give your concepts snappy labels, you give your lists acronyms and mnemonics. This doesn’t conflict with deeper understanding; it enables it. People, intellectuals and academics included, are lousy at recalling detailed information when they don’t have a simpler peg to hang it on in their memory.

    Raising consciousness can’t end with buzzwords, but it has to start there. And again, if you don’t invent buzzwords for your position, your opponents will.

  124. #124 Anton Mates
    October 11, 2007

    Most people have a common definition of atheism they can agree on, though I don’t feel an atheist, being an atheist for any other reason than skepticism and rationalism, quite specifies the essence of what leading atheists are saying.

    If I restricted the definition of “atheist” in such a fashion, I would have to exclude some leading atheists. I’m not sure either Harris or Hitchens are atheists primarily for reasons of skepticism and rationalism.

    Non-belief is used for someone who doesn’t believe in religion, for whatever reason, while, to me, atheist is used for someone who doesn’t believe in religion for a specific set of reasons. That’s more appropriate, I think.

    But “non-belief” doesn’t specify what you don’t believe in. When about half of Americans say they’d choose almost any minority candidate for President over an atheist, they don’t mean a non-believer in the Holy Trinity, or in transubstantiation, or in fairies–they mean a non-believer in God.

    “’20 million Americans are open skeptics’ is vastly easier to embed in the public consciousness than ’20 million Americans require that evidence be supportive of conclusions before they accept them as truthful.’”

    But it doesn’t nearly convey the same meaning.

    Not in itself. But now the public’s primed to be told more about what “skeptic” means, and then they get the same meaning and retain it better.

    “Confirming this through a survey would, if anything, make it clearer that skepticism is not a social norm.”

    The purpose of my example was to illustrate how the numbers behind atheism can be expressed without the use of the term atheist. Whether those numbers would be in the minority or majority wasn’t of concern in the example.

    But it is of concern if you wish to establish a new social norm. You’re not just trying to express the numbers, you’re trying to give the impression that those numbers are large.

    “In contrast, if I tell you I’m a skeptic, and so does your brother, and your coworker, and several hundred members of the local League of Skeptics are visibly meeting at a hotel in your town, and somebody famous on TV just said they were a skeptic, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to raise your estimate of how popular and socially relevant skepticism is.”

    Again, just the same could be achieved if those same people didn’t call themselves skeptics but rather just pushed only skeptic principles.

    No, it couldn’t, because there wouldn’t be a League of Skeptics to impress people with their numbers. And it wouldn’t be as clear to you that your brother and your coworker and that famous guy on TV are all actually advocating the same thing.

    As I said my scenario is the ideal and any self-proclaimed ‘atheist’ who is not primarily driven by rationalism and skepticism is not an atheist in my book. I certainly wouldn’t want them representing the view of atheism as a whole, which they may already.

    Ah. Well, if every self-proclaimed and socially-labeled atheist was a Randi-style skeptic, it’s true, this wouldn’t be a problem. :-)

    It’s entirely possible to be functionally atheist and yet not ascribe that label to oneself, provided one emphasizes not their lack of belief in a deity but rather the reasons why, namely why skepticism and rationality are more appropriate initial mindsets.

    Yes, but everybody else will emphasize your lack of belief in a deity. There’s nothing wrong with preferring to label yourself based on other attributes, but if you explicitly reject the “atheism” label as inappropriate, people will immediately ask why. What’s wrong with atheists, that you don’t want to lump yourself in with them?

    In Harris’ case, he’s said what he thinks is generally wrong with atheists–they don’t focus on attacking the right religions, they’re not open to spirituality, they’re “cultish” and so forth. But it doesn’t seem like you have a similar list of complaints.

    They can have it. I for one would prefer to have the rationalism and skepticism aspect of atheism discussed and targeted than the notion of being godless, as the former is much more difficult to confront than the latter, which can be and is already readily dismissed.

    But the godless part will be discussed whether you like it or not, and will probably be mentioned before the rationalism/skepticism part, since it’s what our society finds most troubling and controversial.

  125. #125 John Morales
    October 12, 2007

    Overmann #122:

    Honestly I don’t consider either three of your friends as being atheist if they are not fore-most rationalists.

    Fine. So, what would you call them? They don’t believe in gods, remember.

  126. #126 John Morales
    October 12, 2007

    Overmann, you responded to Anton with

    Non-belief is used for someone who doesn’t believe in religion, for whatever reason, while, to me, atheist is used for someone who doesn’t believe in religion for a specific set of reasons. That’s more appropriate, I think.

    Note though the concept of a religious/spiritualist/pseudo-scientific non-god-believer. Same question as #125, of course: they surely are not non-believers, so, what is your appellation for them?

    You don’t consider your usage of the term “atheist” as rather, um, restrictive? Because I do.

  127. #127 John Morales
    October 12, 2007

    This from an atheist sympathetic to religion.

  128. #128 Overmann
    October 12, 2007

    Anton Mates,

    “People like labels; just look at ‘New Atheist.’ If we repudiate existing labels and refuse to create new ones, then people will simply use whatever labels are favored by our opponents–with whatever negative associations our opponents choose to put on them.”

    People will continue to use labels, but that doesn’t mean those labels would continue to have any inherent meaning or illicit the same response in the general public. A theist wants to call someone an atheist and that atheist acknowledges yes, he is an atheist, that doesn’t grab any attention. Were a theist to call someone an atheist who fervently protested against the term for such and such reasons, the publics’ attention would assuredly be provoked. Under my definition of ‘atheist’, the lack of belief in a deity receives far too much attention than do the reasons why when, were one to investigate further, there are numerous other things atheists choose not to believe in. That is why atheists should stress first and foremost not that they disbelieve in a deity, but rather act more as advocates of reason and skepticism, in other words an undying pursuit of truth. The different approach would achieve the same result.

    “If you want people to understand your ideas, you give your concepts snappy labels, you give your lists acronyms and mnemonics. …Raising consciousness can’t end with buzzwords, but it has to start there.”

    Not true. What cements a person’s opinion into public consciousness is ubiquitous (not necessarily substantive) media coverage. Network executives may think the term ‘atheist’ sounds too negative with the general public (which it does) and won’t allow interviews with atheists because they’d lose viewership. Fighting for the term is admirable but it’s a long and hard fight relative to trying a different approach that advocates the same values.

    “If I restricted the definition of ‘atheist’ in such a fashion, I would have to exclude some leading atheists. I’m not sure either Harris or Hitchens are atheists primarily for reasons of skepticism and rationalism.”

    Then indeed they are not atheists in my definition. Hitchens I think would define himself more as anti-theist anyway, not that it much matters. Rather, they are people who advocate some of the same values as I do and I relate to them in that respect.

    “But ‘non-belief’ doesn’t specify what you don’t believe in.”

    You’re right, it doesn’t, but just as ‘skeptic’ doesn’t imply what one is skeptical of. I should have substituted ‘religion’ with ‘the supernatural’ and that given the context in which I was using it, I didn’t need specify what else would could be a non-believer in.

    “Not in itself. But now the public’s primed to be told more about what “skeptic” means, and then they get the same meaning and retain it better.”

    Why would the mere mention of ‘skeptic’ prime the public to learn more about when they have not been sufficiently acquainted with the principles a skeptic advocates? The impact of the word itself is negligible when people are focused on the impact of the message itself. Whether they retain and understand it depends on ubiquitous media attention and need no word introduction. The absence of the label may even have more potential to raise the public consciousness because it is not as readily dismissed, being that it is negative.

    “But it is of concern if you wish to establish a new social norm. You’re not just trying to express the numbers, you’re trying to give the impression that those numbers are large.”

    Of course but the survey example was *not* of me trying to explicate the numbers of those who adhere to skepticism, but rather that they can hold the same values as atheists (again my definition) without needing the term. I’ve given you an example, though not explicitly, of how I would try to implement the principles of atheism into public culture. I didn’t give you the survey example for the reasons you seem to think.

    “No, it couldn’t, because there wouldn’t be a League of Skeptics to impress people with their numbers. And it wouldn’t be as clear to you that your brother and your coworker and that famous guy on TV are all actually advocating the same thing.”

    I admit gathering into a group will impress people with that group’s size (that they are impressed it is large or disappointed it is small, or disinterested either way), but that doesn’t mean everyone in that group thinks the same way. Personally I feel it would be more beneficial if they *didn’t* and that this difference of opinion, still with adherence to the founding principle, were it given wide media coverage, would demonstrate how ordinary people can be different, as we all are, and yet still feel rather strongly about an issue. Lumping everyone into the ‘atheist’ label (and having atheists comfortable with this notion) would only succeed in the lot of them being dismissed (because of the negative connotation) without consideration given to their reasonableness or differences of opinion.

    “Ah. Well, if every self-proclaimed and socially-labeled atheist was a Randi-style skeptic, it’s true, this wouldn’t be a problem. :-)”

    I already said my scenario was an ideal so your statement is redundant in addition to being sarcastic.

    “Yes, but everybody else will emphasize your lack of belief in a deity.”

    I wouldn’t emphasize that aspect as much as I would emphasize the importance of rationality and skepticism. If I were asked if I believed in a deity, I would acknowledge I don’t but immediately specify the reasons and that my disbelief in a deity is not due to malice or contempt but because I feel it is more appropriate to commit oneself to an undying pursuit of truth, which has a more positive connotation. They can emphasize my lack of belief in a deity, but so long as I sufficiently attribute it to the proper reasons, the effect is negated. This is not the case with self-proclaimed atheists because whatever reasons they have do not often or adequately make it over the barrier of being rejected from the start, again due to the negative connotation of the term ‘atheist’.

    “…but if you explicitly reject the ‘atheism’ label as inappropriate, people will immediately ask why. What’s wrong with atheists, that you don’t want to lump yourself in with them?”

    And why would I be reluctant to tell them?

    “But the godless part will be discussed whether you like it or not, and will probably be mentioned before the rationalism/skepticism part, since it’s what our society finds most troubling and controversial.”

    The godless part will *assuredly* be discussed first if I go on the air proclaiming to be an atheist, because that’s immediately what people associate the term ‘atheist’ with. My goal would be to emphasize skepticism and rationalism *first* which would then justify the latter. Of course I don’t want to present myself as “an atheist”, and that is why.

    John Morales,

    “So, what would you call them?”

    People.

    “You don’t consider your usage of the term ‘atheist’ as rather, um, restrictive?”

    No, I don’t. The more prominent atheists (who are also scientists) that I know of are foremost rational and skeptical and, as a consequence of both, also don’t believe in the supernatural. Therefore I associate the term with their views.

    “Because I do.”

    Duly noted.

  129. #129 John Morales
    October 12, 2007
  130. #130 salient
    October 13, 2007

    Sam Harris’ AAC remarks sure provoked discussion! I feel confident that someone will correct me if I am wrong on the topic of labels, worldviews, and approaches to message promotion. I’m trying to sum up what I have read beneath comments.

    Jason convinced me that atheism does not inhere a single worldview, though I do think that statistical clusters of approaches to thinking about the world are implied.

    Conflating philosophical terms, I’ll call the most frequently associated cognitive style ‘rational empiricism’. That is, ‘rational empiricists’ formulate their worldview by emphasizing a combinination of logic and evidence. This is not to say that all agnostics or atheists arrive at doubt about supernatural claims through cognition, but it does seem likely that a greater proportion of those who approach the world this way will also be atheistic. The data supports this view.

    Linguistically speaking, people use labels positively, negatively, or neutrally as simplification tools (jargon), as membership signals, and/or as position indicators. Labels are not only useful but highly likely to be applied by others. A label will be applied with negative connotations whenever we leave the choice solely up to our opponents.

    If I say that I am an atheist, you quickly know that I am not a theist and more likely to be a rational empiricist who is also against religious violence, pseudoscientientific mumbo-jumbo, and creationism in science classrooms.

    Whenever I have debated such topics with a theist, they usually detect that I am atheistic from my position and I don’t need to spell out that I am an atheist, or liberal, or pro-choice, or whatever is under discussion. Particularly in a written medium where tone is not a clue, we do assess the writer’s philosophical position if we are not sure whether they are being serious or satirical.

    A religionist might decide that my being an atheist necessarily indicates that I am also guilty of a variety of religionistically-labelled sins, presenting me with the opportunity to directly address the fallacious thinking beneath those religionist-labels.

    I think that much of the reaction to Sam Harris’ remarks related to the fact that he suggested that we hide from all labels, particularly the atheist label–”go under the radar”–which seems simultaneously a cop-out, a concession to theistic manipulation, and a loss of the rally to membership.

    I really think that his message was superfluous.I think that Sam, and some other people, are missing the point that atheists always had the right to choose not to join a group of fellow atheists, not to come ‘out’ as atheists either socially or in debate, and not to emphasize atheism in lieu of rationality when debating about religion or creationism.

  131. #131 Overmann
    October 14, 2007

    John Morales,

    You can choose to defend as many definitions of atheism as you wish, but note that in doing so you will inevitably be confronted with just as much variety in how the term ‘atheism’ is received.

    salient,

    “I think that Sam, and some other people, are missing the point that atheists always had the right to choose not to join a group of fellow atheists, not to come ‘out’ as atheists either socially or in debate, and not to emphasize atheism in lieu of rationality when debating about religion or creationism.”

    I don’t think Sam Harris is trying to state that we had the choice but rather that we *should* choose one way as opposed to the other.

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