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.