Pharyngula

I have to hammer on one more thing from Sam Harris’s reply. He objects to the label “atheism” because it will chase away people who do not want to … well, read what he says.

They have read the writings of the “new atheists,” sent us letters and emails of support, are quite fond of criticizing religion whenever the opportunity arises, but they have no interest whatsoever in joining a cult of such critics. 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.

Hmmm. Atheists have been getting called “fundamentalist” for some time to misrepresent them and simultaneously trivialize and demonize them. It’s complete nonsense. It does great violence to both the terms “fundamentalist” and “atheist” to conjoin them that way, and all it really does is expose the user as someone who has put zero thought into the subject … but knows he doesn’t like either fundamentalists or atheists, and that they don’t like each other, so he’s got a ready-made zinger he can plop into a conversation. Unless you’ve got an example of an atheist who cites chapter and verse from the Book of Dawkins and who believes every word that falls from his lips is true and infallible, don’t use the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” around me: I’ve got a little mental category labeled “CLUELESS” in which I will file you immediately.

Harris has upped the ante, though. No mere “fundamentalists”, we atheists — we’re a cult. Jebus. No, we’re not. This unpleasant usage wreaks bloody havoc on both the words “cult” and “atheist”, and is to be deplored.

We do not have a level of organization that approaches that of the Rotary Club, let alone any kind of cult. If you’re going to call atheists a “cult”, you might just as well move on and call the Society for Neuroscience a cult: look, they all label themselves the same thing, “neuroscientist”, and they have meetings, and they recruit unsuspecting young people to join them, and they have a national leadership, and they send money large sums of money to a central headquarters! SfN is better organized, more disciplined, more centralized, and has more political connections than atheists, members definitely take pride in their affiliation, and it’s an exceptionally diverse group that somehow manages to hide their individuality (not really) to reside under the umbrella term “neuroscience”. They are no more a cult than are atheists.

Do we have charismatic leaders to whom we pledge our obedience? Not really. We’ve got the Atheist Tetrarchy that the media always refer to, Dawkins-Dennett-Harris-Hitchens, and sure they’re charismatic and interesting … but we all argue with them all the time (case in point, right here). We do not tithe to them, nor do we send them our virgin daughters, nor do we regard them as official leaders of any kind — we only pay attention to them as the weight of their rational arguments appeal to us. Every one of them will be constantly criticized.

Although I also have to note that one of our leaders, Harris, tries to pull a little judo move there in the last bit of that quoted paragraph above. We are cult-like, and one of the signs of this is that we’ve been sending one of our leaders messages in which we disagree with him, out of “offended atheist piety.” Yes, that is very cultish, to disagree with one of the high priests.

Please desist, Sam. If you are really so concerned about the harm a label can do to a cause, you should realize that “cult” is far more damaging than “atheist”, and you seem to be tossing it around a little bit too casually. Using the word “cult” to refer to the bickering concatenation of godless people who like nothing better than to argue with each other over just about anything is absurd, and objecting to the fact that a substantial fraction of the mob call themselves “atheist” is pointless — you don’t have followers who are going to heed you. Besides, if anyone continues to play this word game of inappropriately calling atheists a “cult”, well, I’ve got a serious punishment for you: I’m going to have a mental category with a much more strongly worded title than “clueless.” You don’t belong in that pigeonhole, so don’t try to wedge yourself into it.

Comments

  1. #1 rob
    October 9, 2007

    You really are on the attack here, PZ, and it seems like there are better targets than Sam Harris.

    Personally I think Sam has some excellent points. Try to look for the value in what he says, rather than just get defensive about it. Isn’t that what you hope for religious people to do when presented with an opposing point of view?

  2. #2 Bryson Brown
    October 9, 2007

    Sorry to see this– I have to say, much as I’ve enjoyed some of Harris’s work, I was put off by his treatment of Noam Chomsky in The End of Faith. There was a lack of balance and insight there, noticeable particularly in the argument that ‘intentions’ make all the difference, and that therefore Israel’s bombing of civilians was morally acceptable. It may be true that if the Israelis had other means to attack the militants, they would use them. And this is a good thing. But it is not a justification for dropping cluster bombs in civilian areas– in general, intentions matter, but they are not decisive. When you show sufficient disregard for civilian casualties, the claim that the casualties are the other side’s fault becomes a feeble excuse. I’m sorry to see that this apparent failing of Harris’ is showing up in other places…

  3. #3 fakir
    October 9, 2007

    Sam Harris should quiet down and go back to his mumbo-jumbo eastern mysticism dualist meditation shit.

  4. #4 Amenhotep
    October 9, 2007

    I actually read Sam’s original offering as being quite good in places, and worth airing. Not so sure about his comebacks on the responses, though. What he seems to be complaining about here is the fact that a lot of atheists are stupid folks who haven’t really thought about what it means not to believe in god – like Alister McGrath before his conversion – teenagers, in other words. Atheists who are angry about something, and giving the rest of us a bad press, or atheists who are just atheists because they think it’s cool or rebellious.

    But I’m not sure that I have a big problem with that. Sure, we’d like all atheists to be nice well-balanced thoughtful people like Sam, Richard, Christopher, Dan & PZ (surely it should be a pentarchy??), but it’s a broad “church”, and some atheists can’t spell, and fire off messages that would almost be worthy of a Christian fundamentalist. So what? Moral behaviour does not stem from a belief or non-belief in a deity – I thought we’d established that.

    My feeling? Sam: lighten up, dude. Accept the fact that we’re all different, and that the way to society accepting atheists as normal people is to see that atheists can be tossers just as much as theists. It’s just that they happen to be *right*.

  5. #5 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    I’m copying and pasting from the last thread on Harris, so forgive me. I’ll throw in a more pertinent comment in a second, but I typed for five minutes and I don’t want this to go to waste:

    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.

  6. #6 Reginald Selkirk
    October 9, 2007

    I would comment on Harris’ labeling of atheists as a cult, but I’ve got to go sacrifice a goat.

  7. #7 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    Yes, “cult” is hyperbole, but, to use the quotes I just used and their associated attitudes as a reference points, people are simply wrong about what “atheism” is, and what it implies. It’s perfectly worthy as a technical term re: one’s beliefs about nonexistent superbeings, but it’s absolute dreck for describing one’s attitudes about skepticism, dogmatism, and the importance of evidence.

    Frankly, the people who are imagining that “atheism” means anything but “I don’t believe in god(s)/I believe there are no god(s)”, are deluding themselves, and I blame a kind of groupthink for propagating this attitude. Atheism can mean whatever you want it to mean in your clubhouse (I think this is more accurate than “cult”), but so long as the rest of the world outvotes you where linguistics are concerned, it means what it always has, and it’s folly to brand it to your forehead for the reasons I outlined previously.

  8. #8 Dutch Vigilante
    October 9, 2007

    I don’t think he should quiet down, he has a right to his opinion and to say it. What I think he should stop doing is going after straw-men. To say “Much of the criticism” is something and then denounce that isn’t a mature way of debating.
    And to counter critics by claiming them to be one great undivided front (cult) seems more of a way to make people think you’re being persecuted.

    Quite a shame.

  9. #9 The Barefoot Bum
    October 9, 2007

    “I’m going to have a mental category with a much more strongly worded title than “clueless.” You don’t belong in that pigeonhole, so don’t try to wedge yourself into it.”

    I beg to differ. I think Harris definitely does belong in that pigeonhole. It’s only reason that that atheism is is so trivially obvious that he’s managed to make a few seemingly intelligent comments on the subject.

  10. #10 The Barefoot Bum
    October 9, 2007

    Wow. I mangled that completely.

    It’s only that atheism is so trivially obvious that he’s managed to make a few seemingly intelligent comments on the subject.

  11. #11 demallien
    October 9, 2007

    He’s being a bit disingenuous is our Sam… He gives a talk that, right off the bat, he acknowledges is going to be controversial, and then acts all shocked and surprised because there’s controversy. Ummm, it’s what you wanted isn’t it Sam?

  12. #12 literarydeadkittens
    October 9, 2007

    I have to agree with Myers. Harris can think that the term ‘atheist’ is inappropriate and even say it, but calling for us to go ‘under the radar’? I wrote my own reply http://pantsandboots.wordpress.com/2007/10/09/intermission-3/ to him.

    Atheists are atheists, what are we supposed to do, alter the English language? And every other language that translates to ‘atheist’? I was an atheist long before it became a collective term for theism’s ‘opposition’. If you like wearing purple and it become suddenly fashionable do you swap to another colour?

  13. #13 mothra
    October 9, 2007

    Harris is right, but for the wrong reason. Atheism is a poor term because it implies that theism is the ‘normal’ state of affairs. I have always described myself as a non-theist. I choose not to embrace superstitious nonsense.

  14. #14 Peterte
    October 9, 2007

    We’re not a cult? Where have my checks been going??

  15. #15 RickD
    October 9, 2007

    We’re not a cult? Damn. Now what am I going to do with my warehouse of life-size Dawkins posters?

  16. #16 incunabulum
    October 9, 2007

    I am embarrassed by this exchange.

    Can’t we all just agree to agree?

  17. #17 T_U_T
    October 9, 2007

    Yeah. “atheism” is a cult and “naked” is a freakin’ extravagant costume.

    methinks concern trolls are on rampage nowadays

  18. #18 WTFWJD
    October 9, 2007

    Would Sam Harris consider the IEEE as a cult?

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    October 9, 2007

    We do not tithe to them, nor do we send them our virgin daughters,

    Damn. There goes my #1 reason to write a book.

  20. #20 Aris
    October 9, 2007

    Calling atheists a “cult” is hyperbole, no doubt, a throwaway line by Harris meant to mock some of his critics. However, in principle any organized movement can assume the trappings of a cult — and if we were to judge from several Pharyngula commenters who routinely dismiss Harris without engaging his comments, there are some who are flirting with a cult-like attitude when it comes to their atheism.

    That said, I’m particularly disapointed in PZ’s response to Harris’ rebuttal: he honed in on the “cult” snark, and has not bothered to address the far more interesting argument on how by labeling yourself, you can prejudice your audience. The example Harris offered — two versions of the same question on embryonic stem-cell research, identical in denotation but very different in connotation — was far more worthy of a response by PZ.
    ___________________________

  21. #21 Big DAve
    October 9, 2007

    I’m not embarrased by the exchange, I’m enjoying it. It’s a good demonstration that we “New Atheists” *shudder* can debate, and argue, over points.

    I’m leaning with Harris here more. Loren Michael pretty much hit the nail on the head with why.

    That said, I’m all up for people not going under the radar, the more lines of attack the better – some of the strategies will be better than others, and hopefully the message will get through to Great Deluded out there.

  22. #22 Eric Davison
    October 9, 2007

    I agree that, technically speaking, atheism does not espouse any particular ideology except the lack of belief or disbelief in a deity. But I think that in and of itself can be a good thing – I’ve been asked many times, “Well, then what do you believe?” As a Christian, my views weren’t necessarily mainstream, but after hearing that I was a Christian many people – even intelligent ones – felt they had a very good grasp of my beliefs, even though they were probably wrong on quite a few points. As an atheist (specifically, metaphysical naturalist and secular humanist), I’ve found that it’s only the unintelligent/ignorant people who assume that “atheist” describes me fully. Most people who are actually interested in me want to pursue it further and find out what that means. That is one reason (coupled with the complete lack of public knowledge about the meaning of metaphysical naturalism or secular humanism) that I describe myself as an atheist. Sure, it’s vague and can be used to describe people with a huge number of differing beliefs – but that can be a good thing.

  23. #23 viggen
    October 9, 2007

    I would actually strengthen the criticism, PZ.

    Of the people I know, genuine skeptical atheists are the least likely people to become involved in a cult. I’ve put a modifier there of “skeptical” because I’ve dealt with cult-like thinking and behavior before and I know of people who would claim to be atheists, but have bought into a belief system that is definitely cult-like. The reason for cults stems from people wanting to believe in SOMETHING and filling the vacuum with whatever happens to be available to them at the time. A rational, skeptical atheist (or a hard-agnostic) has, by definition, reserved judgment of belief pending the realization of physical evidence supporting a conclusion.

    If the nature of a cult stems from wanting to believe –which it does– a rational, atheistic mind-set is the least susceptible mentality to it. By its very nature, a skeptical thought process is counter to cult programming methods.

  24. #24 charley
    October 9, 2007

    From Wiki:

    “Cult roughly refers to a cohesive social group devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture considers outside the mainstream, with a notably positive or negative popular perception…A group’s populist cult status begins as rumors of its novel belief system, its great devotions, its idiosyncratic practices, its perceived harmful or beneficial effects on members, or its perceived opposition to the interests of mainstream cultures and governments…”

    I probably look like I’ve joined a cult to some of my Christian friends and family. Quit the church, joined a weird “Freethought” group, spend hours on the internet, took the kids out of Christian schools, basically traded the bedrock of everyone else’s beliefs for that of a small group. Sometimes it feels like it, too, since I’ve become much more obsessed with atheism and its implications than I ever was about religion. It has also led to isolation — not a good sign. Even my inner conviction that it’s not a cult is suspect, because cult members never admit to it.

    I know atheism is not a cult; in fact, the evangelical Christianity I left behind was a lot closer to one, but I think Sam is right when he says it can look like one to others, especially in highly religious communities. I try to minimize the impression that I’m wacko by being as low-key, but honest. The honest part still gets me in trouble.

  25. #25 Steve_C
    October 9, 2007

    Crap.

    No I have to dismantle the altar I don’t have.

    Sell the cult track suit and sneakers I don’t own.

    Grow out the funny shaven head I don’t have.

    Leave the commune I don’t live in.

    Pour out the kool-aid I had no intention of drinking.

    It’s all so depressing.

  26. #26 Philboid Studge
    October 9, 2007

    “Do we have charismatic leaders to whom we pledge our obedience? ”

    What about the Squid Overlords? We’re but plankton to them!

  27. #27 RamblinDude
    October 9, 2007

    Saying atheism is a cult is oxymoronish. Sure, ANYTHING can be turned into a fad, but aren’t we promoting critical thinking to prevent that very thing from happening?

    No one is insisting that atheism is the sum total of all that we are, just that we shouldn’t hide from it or be ashamed of it. If it is the truth and we mustn’t speak it aloud for fear of offending people or being misjudged (for whatever reason) then something is wrong and it needs to be righted. And I, for one, am pissed off that I feel backed into a corner by superstitious fundamentalism–play pretend mentality taken WAY too seriously.

    So how are rational people–who oppose all the religious-superstitious nonsense in the world–going to refer to themselves? It would be nice to do entirely without labels and simply be intelligent human beings spreading rationality like sunshine wherever we go, but we have to communicate with one another, don’t we?

  28. #28 Jack Rawlinson
    October 9, 2007

    Once again you’re right on target here, PZ. That sneaky little “cult-like” jibe shows that Harris is now reduced to the tactics we’re more accustomed to seeing from the religious, and it’s a damned pity to see it. Harris is coming across more and more as the sort of remote, solitary thinker who likes it best when he’s pontificating (cool! I can do it too!) by himself rather than indulging in anything as vulgar as organising with broadly like-minded people. I understand that. As as often been observed, atheists/rationalists/whatever we want to call ourselves tend to be independently-minded and instinctively resistant to groupthink.

    But that doesn’t mean we can’t work together, support each other and pursue shared aims. Honestly, it’s beyond ridiculous to suggest we’re a cult. Cults don’t tend to indulge in such free and open infighting, for one thing!

  29. #29 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    What’s going on with Sam these days?

    My atheism is the product, rather than the cause of, my rationalist view of the universe. Atheism is the only conclusion one can reach by evaluating the evidence for and against the existence of god. In fact, I’ve argued in the past that there is no a priori to believe in god at all; the whole thing is one huge non sequitur.

    Perhaps this is what Sam is getting at; atheism is a perfectly valid position to hold, based on reason and evidence, while theism has absolutely no basis for even existing. In order to believe something (that all living organisms have descended from a single common ancestor, for instance), there must be evidence for that something (from fossil records, molecular biology, comparative anatomy, for example). Without that evidence, the belief is, as others have put it, not even wrong; there simply is no reason for the belief to even exist. Thus, there is no good reason for atheists to exist.

    However, we must also recognize that, for whatever reasons, theism does exist. I agree that the necessity of the existence of atheism is silly; why do we need a label to identify the fact that we simply follow the evidence in the same way we do with every other instance? But with things the way they are, abandoning that label seems to have no real purpose.

    I will continue to be vocal against theist nonsense, taking the ‘what is the evidence?’ (Dawkins/Harris/Dennett/Myers) tact, rather than the religion-is-horrible (Hitchens) approach, which is valid, but irrelevant to the question of god’s existence. I will continue to proudly label myself an atheist until such time as the label is no longer necessary. I will also continue to read Sam Harris, since, this episode notwithstanding, he remains one of the most lucid voices for the cause.

  30. #30 N.Wells
    October 9, 2007

    [quote]We do not tithe to them, nor do we send them our virgin daughters[/quote]
    Well shoot, the only reason* I stuck with this whole godless thing was in the hope that I could work my way up to high priest, and get myself on the receiving end of all those tithes and sacrificial virgins.

    *Other than not happening to see the need for gods, or evidence for them, of course.

  31. #31 Aris
    October 9, 2007

    “Crap…No I have to dismantle the altar I don’t have.”

    You’re focusing on the aesthetic trappings of a “cult.” There are far more substantial — and far more dangerous — manifestations of cult-like behavior, such as dismissing dissenting opinions without actually addressing them.

    Belonging to any group is fraught with danger. It appeals to our tribal instincts, and can make us feel special and it can make us insular and less empathic to those who are different than us. Not every group is a cult, but every group can potentially become one, and that includes atheists.
    ___________________________

  32. #32 Interrobang
    October 9, 2007

    Sam, Sam, Sam…as long as you use the language of religion to talk about atheism, the side in this debate (inasmuch as there are clear-cut sides) that favours the idea that atheism is “just another religion” has a perfectly valid reason to keep saying that. Unfortunately, it’s complete twaddle. Isn’t there some, uh, better metaphor you could pick?

    Seriously, the source and target domains (to get all technical about metaphorics for a moment) really don’t overlap all that well. I do rather like the idea of atheism-as-professional-society, where we may all have different notions of practice (in the end) and different methods of being atheist and expressing atheism, but our common ground is we’re all atheists. (I used to belong to the ACM’s Special Interest Group on Design of Communication, and, as they say about just about every other group out there, two technical writers, three opinions — so why not atheists?) If the professional society (or amateur hobbyist society) metaphor doesn’t cut it, there are lots more out there.

    Don’t make the same damn mistake and use “fandom,” though, okay? We really don’t have heroes and superstars that way, and if anyone writes slash fiction with Richard Dawkins in it, I don’t wanna know about it.

  33. #33 SEF
    October 9, 2007

    Unless you’ve got an example of an atheist who cites chapter and verse from the Book of Dawkins and who believes every word that falls from his lips is true and infallible

    I think there are a few of those turning up on the BBC religion MB from time to time. As with religious fundies though, they tend not to have read or comprehended much of Dawkins’ work properly! So they do rather stick out as distinct from the intelligent and well-educated atheists. They also don’t really appear to have a cult as such.

  34. #34 daenku32
    October 9, 2007

    So we are no longer “militant atheists”, strapping on ourselves the proverbial explosives in hopes to killing bunches of innocent people?

    We must be getting soft.

  35. #35 Jack Rawlinson
    October 9, 2007

    “Atheism is a poor term because it implies that theism is the ‘normal’ state of affairs.”

    I never understand this argument yet it gets trotted out over and over again. Yet if you actually stop and think about it you soon see it makes no sense at all. Does describing myself as a non-smokers imply that smoking is the normal state of affairs?

    I absolutely reject the idea that describing oneself as being NOT something automatically suggests that the “something” is more normal.

  36. #36 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    I will proudly not label myself. I will acquiesce to the label being applied to me, as it describes my lack of belief, but it doesn’t describe it adequately. It says nothing of why, it says nothing about the other problems I work against. “Atheist” says close to nothing.

    I want people to see that the same attitude that is responsible for my disbelief in god is the same attitude that is responsible for my eschewing of racist thought, conspiracy theories, aberrant and unhinged economic theories, and chiropractics, and “atheism” doesn’t do that.

  37. #37 RamblinDude
    October 9, 2007

    “I want people to see that the same attitude that is responsible for my disbelief in god is the same attitude that is responsible for my eschewing of racist thought, conspiracy theories, aberrant and unhinged economic theories, and chiropractics, and “atheism” doesn’t do that.”

    But no one is saying that “atheism” is an all inclusive term, or is supposed to be. That’s why we keep promoting critical thinking. Otherwise atheism becomes a mindless fad-cult-flavor-of-the-day-belief-system.

    We’re just saying that superstitous-religious mentality is a big problem in the world and needs to be countered directly–not indirectly.

  38. #38 True Bob
    October 9, 2007

    I disagree with your Wiki definition of cult. Here’s how I understand it, from dictionary.com:

    cult /k?lt/ -noun 1. a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies. 2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult. 3. the object of such devotion. 4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc. 5. Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols. 6. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader. 7. the members of such a religion or sect. 8. any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.

    -adjective 9. of or pertaining to a cult. 10. of, for, or attracting a small group of devotees: a cult movie.

    [Origin: 1610-20; L cultus habitation, tilling, refinement, worship, equiv. to cul-, var. s. of colere to inhabit, till, worship + -tus suffix of v. action]

    See? By definition, all religions are cults. Atheist people are the only ones NOT cultrific. Well, unless you consider the understanding that there is no god to be an “ideal” for definition 2.

  39. #39 B. Dewhirst
    October 9, 2007

    The most charitable reading of the quoted passage I can come up with was that he meant some fraction of nontheists will agree with those who hold “Atheists like Dawkins are just as fundamentalist as those he opposes,” regardless of whether or not it is true.

    I think you’ve got the right of it here, though.

  40. #40 RamblinDude
    October 9, 2007

    “Does describing myself as a non-smokers imply that smoking is the normal state of affairs?”

    Actually, smoking used to be the normal state of affairs.

    :- P

  41. #41 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    Counter religious ascendancy directly by showing and explaining how the people and the assertions they make are full of shit. You don’t need to identify yourself as an atheist to do that, and it’s both easy and (in my experience) exhilarating.

    Forgive the overuse of anecdotal examples, but the two comments that I quoted in my first post in this thread were taken from here. I’ve seen the sentiment again and again, those were just the easiest and most immediately relevant. People are attaching themselves to “atheist” as a new fad, a new club, a new tribe. Shirts with big red “A”s on them don’t help. If you’re into promoting critical thinking, there’s no need to preface it with atheism. That should come naturally.

  42. #42 Steve_C
    October 9, 2007

    Give it a rest.

    We ARE the ones voicing descent. To say this bickering is somehow cult like behaviour is complete bullshit. Some of us don’t like Sam’s implications or pretention. He should thicken his skin.

    There’s a myriad of different kind of atheists. Isn’t that obvious? Lumping the outspoken and strident ones as cult-like is heading into the realm of “I’m Sam Harris… no one can tell me I’m wrong.”

  43. #43 C. L. Hanson
    October 9, 2007

    I keep reading about how atheist orgainzations are growing rapidly, and with that kind of enthusiasm, it’s very possible that some local chapters are displaying cult-like behaviors (especially proselytizing and acting as the sole social group for certain individuals).

    That said, to suggest that atheists as a group are acting as a cult is laughable for the reasons P.Z. explains here. As soon as I read Harris’ suggestion that atheists were acting like a cult, my first reaction was “Um, is that a joke? Have you ever seen anything that even resembles a cult???”

  44. #44 David Harmon
    October 9, 2007

    PZ: nor do we send them our virgin daughters,

    ?! @#32: …if anyone writes slash fiction with Richard Dawkins in it, I don’t wanna know about it.

    Um, isn’t Dawkins married? Even, happily married?

    Amenhotep: PZ doesn’t get full membership in the “atheist pantheon” until he publishes his frikken’ book, already! ;-)

    General: I’m wondering if Sam Harris might simply be “jumping the shark”.

  45. #45 Mrs Tilton
    October 9, 2007

    you might just as well move on and call the Society for Neuroscience a cult: look, they all label themselves the same thing, “neuroscientist”, and they have meetings, and they recruit unsuspecting young people to join them…

    Mawkish liberal nonsense. Those young people who join the Society for Neuroscience know exactly what they are getting into, and deserve everything they get.

  46. #46 RamblinDude
    October 9, 2007

    “If you’re into promoting critical thinking, there’s no need to preface it with atheism. That should come naturally.”

    Now that I agree with.

    However…(LOL), although I feel the same reluctance as you to attach myself to a group, I like seeing those big red A’s. They let me know that rationalism is spreading. They let me know that I can identify with the owner, and probably on several topics. Of course, the meeting would most likely have to be kept short as any serious discussion would probably end in a vociferous brawl…

  47. #47 RamblinDude
    October 9, 2007

    “If Atheists are only gonna fight religions and not the concept of God,…”

    You haven’t been paying attention, have you?

  48. #48 ckerst
    October 9, 2007

    What he seems to be complaining about here is the fact that a lot of atheists are stupid folks who haven’t really thought about what it means not to believe in god
    *************************************************************
    I don’t believe in god, santa or the easter bunny and spend very little time thinking about why. Spending time thinking about why you don’t believe in a fantasy is a waste.

  49. #49 mark
    October 9, 2007

    “the Richard Stallman of Atheism”??!!

    You mean if I quote Myers, I’m going to lose the copyright on all my anti-religion stuff? Damn, that’s some powerful mojo.

    “I see nothing wrong with an ‘ideal’ religion.”

    And unicorns are cool, too.

  50. #50 Glen Davidson
    October 9, 2007

    It’s kind of hard to know what atheism is as a “movement”. In some respects it has to adopt advocacy akin to that which theism uses, which no doubt is to what Harris is referring. But cult or “cult-like”? It’s a major confusion even as an analogy. Presumably the advocacy can get weird in atheism like in other ideas or anti-ideas, only it’d be hard to make any anti-something into a cult. Herding cats and all that.

    Of course he’s offended and reacting, making a kind of hyperbolic retort. That he’s blowing off steam should be recognized, and I suspect some slack would be in order.

    On more substantive matters, I always find advocacy of atheism, or earnest criticisms of religion in the abstract (vs. criticisms of real threats like ID–still an ideological threat at least), to be too dull, mostly uninteresting, and sort of obsessive in a way that makes atheistic advocates appear to be oddly irrelevant.

    I watched some of the episodes of the PBS program about unbelief, and I just couldn’t get past the trivial-seeming “atheistic greats” who managed to say the obvious, ‘there is no god’. It’s sort of like saying there’s actually no monsters under the bed. Even those who fear the monsters under the bed rather suspect they’re not there, and react badly because you’re pointing out their apparent irrational thinking about it (more reasons than that, but surely that’s part of it).

    Nietzsche succeeded as well as he because his criticisms of theism were coupled with equal denunciations of metaphysics and of naive realism. Furthermore, he intended to move beyond the abstractions and nihilism of religion to a more immediate empiricism (it wasn’t much good for science, which needs abstractions, yet it was closer to earlier states of mind). It can be attractive to those who get it, though I suppose it’s only fair to say that Nietzsche (although not at all the proto-Nazi that he was proclaimed to be) can be dangerous, particularly in the hands of those who don’t recognize that he’s largely talking about a kind of Romantic intellectual “evil” and “will to power” when he praises these (he doesn’t pointedly limit it, however, which is why he’s easy to misread).

    In the end, Nietzsche won’t really do for the masses, then. But he had the right idea, that losing God is troubling to people, and something more is needed than getting rid of cherished fantasies in most people. Science will be it for some, almost certainly not for most.

    What I am saying is that Harris almost certainly is fingering the problem of the negativity of atheism, and how it seems absurd to many that strongly worded statements equivalent to “there is no monster under the bed” are made. That’s fine, no doubt it needs saying often enough, but people believe in monsters under the bed due to certain psychological and cognitive needs. There is, I think, no simple solution like ‘Nietzsche for the masses,’ however the various real gains possible from non-theism need to be presented in better ways, with religion more properly fading out than being overturned (either is fine with me, it’s just that most theists will resist overturning religion to the bitter end).

    Of course, not everybody needs to do the same things, so Harris misreads the situation when he thinks to trouble the ones who are saying what does, after all, need saying, which is that the monster under the bed is so much bad psychology and a lucrative exploitation of that psychology. He’d do better to let the faint ridiculousness of mere denial of monsters and gods do whatever it can do, and to concentrate on “framing” (if we can use such an ugly word) the very real gains to be made through secularism.

    What’s he (and others) trying to do, make atheism into a cult, complete with power struggles? Let the whole thing work out via relative anarchy, for anyone who is just spinning his wheels will just run out of gas. It might also be best to mostly leave Harris alone, and vice versa, and watch to see how it all goes. Generally, people will do thinge that work (if these don’t work in isolation, they work as part of the whole), if they just don’t spend all of their time blasting away at each other.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  51. #51 mandrake
    October 9, 2007

    Perhaps it’s naive of me, but having atheists on both sides of this discussion seems a useful thing. To draw a vague analogy, it is useful and possibly even *necessary* to have gay couples who just want to be left alone to cultivate their 401(k)s – “you wouldn’t even *know* they were… well…like *that*” – as well as guys in tutus having parades & shouting “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”
    Personally I think the guys in tutus have more fun, but to each his own, y’know.

  52. #52 miller
    October 9, 2007

    I think you have misrepresented Harris slightly. He is not saying atheists form a cult. He is saying that it appears to be cult-like to outsiders.

    My first impression of this blog was that it was filled with yes-men. Everyone here, despite being alleged independent thinkers, seems to agree with you and Dawkins all the time. First impressions are not always correct, but you cannot deny that they have consequences. There are a lot of atheists out there who are persuaded by the “there’s no reason to care THAT much about things that don’t exist” argument, and they may never give you a second glance.

    Of course, I think Sam’s solution to this problem just sounds like giving up. It sounds like he wants us to say, “We’re just a group of extremely reasonable people–No, we don’t have anything else in common!”

  53. #53 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    The big red “A”s do not in any way shape or form show that “rationalism is spreading”. They show that shirts with big red “A”s on them are spreading, and I hate to break it to you, not everyone who has a degree of antipathy towards religion is entirely reasonable about it.

  54. #54 Greg Peterson
    October 9, 2007

    The word “cult” is unfortunate, but I found Harris’s piece provocative, and the idea of a knee-jerk atheist orthodoxy of any kind is something we SHOULD critique.

    And while I agree completely that god-belief is delusional, the comparison with children’s fantasy characters is facile. Something that most people, including most functioning adults, have believed in for most of history can’t be so easily snooked. That sort of language just makes it appear that we are incapable of metaphysical thought, not that we are superior to it.

  55. #55 sailor
    October 9, 2007

    I do rather like the approach:
    Atheist, why should I call myself and atheist? Do you have a special word for people that don’t believe in fairies?

    But let people call themselves what they wish.

  56. #56 Michael (the other one)
    October 9, 2007

    Oh goodness, Loren Michael, you seem to be in quite a tizzy about a group of people you’re not interested in working with, using a label you would never use, aiming at a cause you’ve said nothing about.

    Here’s the main point of atheism as a banner and a movement that is more than the sum or it’s terse defenition: It’s Political. And as any student of history can attest to, you do better politically to reshape the landscape in a group, and not as a completely unorganized group of individuals. If you think that taking a negative term and revamping it is a bad idea, but wouldn’t take part in it even if it were a good idea, I won’t argue with you. The wonderful thing is you have no need whatsoever to associate yourself with any particular group or ideal against your will. So, don’t. But you’re doing quite a job of spinning your wheels at those of us who are interested.

  57. #57 Erik Kruger
    October 9, 2007

    I don’t think you’re over-reacting, PZ–in fact, I think Sam Harris is a bit problematic all around. Ever since he took the time to demonize Noam Chomsky in The End of Faith (Chomsky being a much more interesting and consistent skeptic, atheist, and all-around thinker than Harris will ever be), I have always wondered about his specific agenda. Now he’s attacking–in an odd sort of politically correct fashion–Dawkins and the “atheist cult.” In his books, he also seems to validate and valorize a kooky form of Pyrrhonian Buddhism (cf. the book I Am That, which Harris praises). Who is the cultist, here? More importantly, who seems to want to be the cult leader?

  58. #58 cm
    October 9, 2007

    Oh, come on, the Society for Neuroscience is totally a cult.

  59. #59 Despard
    October 9, 2007

    While this discussion is very interesting, I’m only commenting to trumpet the fact that I am actually a member of the Society for Neuroscience. You get a badge and everything.

  60. #60 Dahan
    October 9, 2007

    I tend to go along with the old saying that states (sorry, not sure who said it first) “A religeon is something you’re born into. A cult is something you join.” I didn’t JOIN the atheists. I AM an atheist, by definition, because I am not a theist. Doesn’t seem like it should be that complicated.

  61. #61 Michael
    October 9, 2007

    I don’t think that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, with regards to SH. I, too, have disagreed with much of what he has said with regards to the ethics of torture and (especially) with regards to his allowing Eastern cultures a pass from his otherwise spot-on critique. Similarly, I disagree with Hitchens regarding the Iraq War and other points.

    But I will continue to read Sam’s work because the bulk of what he writes about is true, and he says it with a style that I could not hope to match. While I, as a professional scientist, find myself far more aligned with the style and substance proffered by RD, Sam brings (or at least used to bring) a more stident, unrelenting tone to the table which spoke to me in a different way.

    I hope that if Sam’s real motive is to push for the uptake of Eastern philosophy (with its share of woo-woo) that he will make this clear and defend his position.

  62. #62 Jsn
    October 9, 2007

    I get it. Proclaiming that one is an atheist to many Xians, observant jews, muslims is like firing a gun amidst a herd of cattle. It is a perjorative to most people. WE know that atheism, in and of itself, has nothing to do with being evil but THEY don’t.

    Evidently Harris believes not using the A word will somehow keep the cattle from stampeding and that he alone can lull them with his carefully chosen dulcet wording into reason and logical lucidity.

    “Hush up, PZ, yer a spookin’ the herd! Hey Dawkins! Hitchins! – them cud chewers are a gettin’ riled, cuz usin’ the A word is like wavin’ a red flag. Lemme do all the talkin’ and you boys jes’ foller my lead and keep yer head down and yer noses clean; I’LL get these dogeys to come around and think proper…”
    The Great Leader of the NonCult (shhhhhhh) – Sam Harris!

    Is it overwhelming arrogance or just vanity that I sense?

  63. #63 NoAstronomer
    October 9, 2007

    PZ: ‘one of our leaders, Harris’

    Not one of my leaders. I don’t have any ‘leaders’. That is one of the advantages of being an atheist.

  64. #64 Bob
    October 9, 2007

    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.[#5]

    Huh? Doesn’t say anything about reason or irrationality? Really?

    Unless I’m missing something, I’m pretty sure the reason(s) why people become atheists are kind of important here.

  65. #65 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    Oh dear me, I *am* in quite a tizzy, though I’d prefer it that you not use such charmingly belittling terms to frame me.

    I’m irate about a group of people whom I feel have good intentions who are going about it all wrong, undercut by an unfortunately strong (at least for my tastes) current of people who really are interested in playing a kind of identity politics with a frighteningly disparate group like atheists. I don’t want anything to do with a great many atheists. We have almost nothing in common but a singular non-(or anti-)belief, and we may not even agree on the best means to arrive at or maintain said beliefs. “Yes, Atheism!” seems both unclever and misguided, and often harmfully so. See above for why I feel that atheism isn’t the best for a rallying point.

    Also, I have to say, it’s playing reactionary politics, if you want to talk about that realm. It’s like the old legend about LBJ. You may not be able to prove that your opponent is a pigfucker, but that’s not the point. You just want the son of a bitch to deny it. By even debating your opponent’s favorite topic, you’re lending their worldview credence. Religion is merely a large copse of trees in the forest of bad ideas.

    To create a truly ‘offensive’ strategy you need to be able to shape your own debate; to do that you need a positive statement. You need to be arguing for something, not merely against something.

    It’s 2:22 in China. I’m going to bed.

  66. #66 incunabulum
    October 9, 2007

    I just wanted to share something. It’s not entirely on- or off-topic and I am sure it’s not an unfamiliar story either. So, I am active-duty military and recently went down to Alabama for some training. Now, I don’t have much chance to hang out with the rest of the “normal” military and, therefore, this was an opportunity to rub elbows with the whole gang. I had to decide if I was going to stay silent about my lack of belief and let everyone else go on assuming that all military servicemembers are monolithic in their view about god or if I was going to speak up. As we all know, in most peoples’ eyes there is a hair trigger when it comes to “militant atheism.” It’s all or nothing. Say one thing and you are an extreme militant activist that is getting in peoples’ faces. Stay silent, and people think they can say stupid stuff without recourse. They just assume everyone will agree before they even open their mouths. I decided to be a bit vocal. It rubbed some people the wrong way. I know because they told me. But I think it is important to put yourself out there and let others know where you stand. If anything, it allows people to tailor their speech around you. Even if they continue to say stupid stuff when you aren’t around. And apparently it wasn’t too much of a barrier – they honored me with the top award at graduation. So that gives me some hope. And I had some fun too.

  67. #67 Greg Peterson
    October 9, 2007

    …and Dennett is utterly unconvincing on free will (and “elbow room”) and Hitch’s politics are sort of a mess and Dawkins, while a scientific genius, shows some philosophical blind spots. And I would not for a moment do without any of them. Or PZ, or many of the commenters here. I need them all, to round out my own thinking. It would be distressing in the extreme if I agreed with most of you (and them) most of the time. That’s one of the things I LEFT religion for–an ability to consider a variety of opinions and chose the ones that seemed most sensible. Can we hang together on that method, at least, even if we’re diverse in our perspectives? I think Harris provides some food for thought. I think about a third to a half of what he said was quite good, and I’d like a chance to think about the rest–though my initial reaction was disagreement. We don’t want to be like the religious in destroying those we disagree with on some one point, unless they’re like, you know–Ralians or something.

  68. #68 Loren Michael
    October 9, 2007

    Huh? Doesn’t say anything about reason or irrationality? Really?

    Unless I’m missing something, I’m pretty sure the reason(s) why people become atheists are kind of important here.

    Yes. Really. Atheism is pretty much a thumbs down. It doesn’t say anything about why you have your thumb pointing that way. It’s descriptive in pretty much only one capacity.

    God? No. Ergo, atheist!

    Reasons are very important, which is one of the reasons I don’t like to champion “the atheist cause”. Many atheists have shit for reasons, and a society that, for example, rejects gods for gremlins (atheistic!) isn’t what I’m looking for.

    Bedtime for real now.

  69. #69 arachnophilia
    October 9, 2007

    fundamentalism comes in all kinds of flavors.

    i wish i could introduce you to my mother. she’s reasonably educated — a masters degree in classical studies. she’s in mensa. but lately, it’s just been downhill. she’s started approaching things from a black-and-white mentality, accepting arguments based more on authority than evidence, and full of personal bias. she tends towards the more crackpot, fringe ideologies, scientifically. she’s got a shelf for atlantis books. i’m not sure if she’s agrees with them, but i think she even has “chariots of the gods?” somewhere. and i know she agrees with julian jaynes, who proposes a major shift in the evolution of the human brain (one that doesn’t match what we know of evolutionary history, a sudden and recent development of the corpus collosum that occured within the last, say, 2000 years) as an explanation for religion. she’s very culturally biased, and quick to anger when her beliefs are questioned. she’s a fundamentalist, if i ever met one — and i have very personal first hand experience with fundies.

    she also happens to be an atheist.

    it doesn’t really matter if the position itself is rational. if the person is irrational, and prefers faith over reason and reality, they are a fundamentalist. if they start with their conclusion, and end with the carefully selected supporting (and misrepresented) argument, they are a fundamentalist. regardless of whether their position is right or wrong. and regardless of whether their position CAN be reached rationally. now, of course, rational positions are more predisposed to rational people, and irrational positions collect fundamentalists — but there ARE exceptions.

  70. #70 Christian Burnham
    October 9, 2007

    In centuries to come, this will be seen as the beginning of the schism between the Pharyngulites, the Harrisons, the Dawkinistas and the Christo-Hitchenians.

  71. #71 BlackSun
    October 9, 2007

    Sam Harris has all but lost me. He made some great points in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation–premises we can mostly all agree on. But now he’s spending way too much time trying to be clever and politically correct. It’s like he wants to be the P.R. guru for the atheist movement, while at the same time publicly muddying the waters and undoing years of painstaking memetic development which has taken place organically.

    Sam: Do us all a favor and quit with your holier-than-thou pronouncements and “sagely” advice. Of course we are going to call ourselves atheists. You’re suggesting we give up the one identifier that gives us some cohesion. If there were no theism, and if it wasn’t the dominant meme in the world, then maybe your suggestion would hold some weight. You’ve sold some books and given a good initial thrust to the conversation–but now with this lame condescension to your own support base, you’ve worn out your welcome and overstepped your bounds. And your “cult” accusation is simply beyond the pale.

  72. #72 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Loren in #5 said “I’m happy to not have a label.”

    Then you and other who agreed with Sam’s comments did not need to have him spell anti-all-labels out in a speech.

    I was an atheist long before I became angry enough at theistupidity to see atheism as a necessary rallying call for politicized attention. Perhaps we should call ourselves anti-stupidity.

  73. #73 Sastra
    October 9, 2007

    If Harris’ point had only been that atheism doesn’t necessarily imply a rational, scientific approach and so we need more emphasis on why many of us don’t believe in God, and less emphasis on the fact that we don’t, I could accept his stance without being confused. But he doesn’t like more specific terms like humanist, skeptic, metaphysical naturalist, or empirical rationalist either. Apparently, he doesn’t want us to promote ourselves as a group at all, because, from what I can tell, he thinks this leads directly to identity politics.

    His example pits two approaches on stem cell research against each other. One side says “3 day embryos do not have souls, so faith-based thinking is wrong, and there is no good reason to be against this research.” The other side says “a lot of atheists (who do not believe in souls) are in favor of this research, so faith-based thinking is undemocratic, and there is no good reason to be against this research.”

    But as PZ pointed out, these aren’t mutually exclusive positions as long as atheists take their view as one grounded in reason and science, and not simply some “sacred” tenet that needs to be “respected.” I don’t know any atheists –including lobbyist Laurie Lipman Brown — who think saying “we are here” is going to weigh legislation according to numbers. It simply allows our point of view to get a hearing on fair grounds, and compete in the marketplace of ideas — not by virtue of its popularity, but by virtue of the reasons behind them.

    A few people have lumped Harris in with the “appeasers” (whatever they are) and I disagree. Sam Harris is not really doing the same thing as some of the other “framing” advocates are doing (or seem to be doing). Here is a (probably strawman) version of what I think that would be like:

    “Mr. President … your veto, frankly, seems very Unchristian to any theologically educated person, and it is painfully obvious that it was the product of failing to understand the true message of Jesus — to act compassionately and reasonably, according to science and morality. Do you ever worry that you may be dangerously misled by your own understanding of religion, and ignoring REAL religion? What can you say to the tens of millions of Americans whose suffering will be needlessly prolonged by your unchrist-like attitude?”

    And then “oh yeah, I’m an atheist, but I deeply respect and understand how religious people think. So I can use it effectively.”

    No, Harris is certainly NOT doing that, is he?

  74. #74 Ken Cope
    October 9, 2007

    Michael Shermer (that agnostic splitter) has declaimed on the critical difference between a cult and a religion, which is: “about fifty years.” Fifty years ago, Mormons were still a cult, while today, they are considered a religion. Meanwhile, $cientoogy is today a cult; in another fifty years $centology will be another world-class religion, worthy of every bit as much respect as all the other religions have earned.

    Cults are newcomers, which atheists are not. Atheists have been around since there were religious beliefs to reject; that’s far too long for people whose attitude toward belief is only properly capitalized at the beginning of a sentence to be credibly referred to as a cult. Nearly two millennia ago it was the cult of Christianity persecuted for its atheism WRT the Roman Pantheon, the Greek version of which Socrates got himself in trouble over for for his atheism.

    Atheism is no religion, but it’s been around far too long for the word “cult” to be anything more than a calculated slur. Harris, miffed, aims it at atheists so cult-like in our behavior that we won’t regard Harris’s pronouncements as holy writ.

  75. #75 Owlmirror
    October 9, 2007

    In centuries to come, this will be seen as the beginning of the schism between the Pharyngulites, the Harrisons, the Dawkinistas and the Christo-Hitchenians.

    Rich: “Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Christians are the f**king Atheist People’s Front.”
    Sam: “Yeah, the Atheist People’s Front.”
    Rich: “Yeah. Splitters.”
    Sam: “And the Popular Front of Nontheists.”
    Rich: “Yeah. Splitters.”
    Sam: “And the People’s Front of Nontheists.”
    Rich: “Yea… what?”
    Sam: “The People’s Front of Nontheists. Splitters.”
    Rich: “We’re the People’s Front of Nontheists!”
    Sam: “Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.”
    Rich: “People’s Front!”
    Francis: “Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Rich?”
    Rich: “He’s over there.” [points to a lone man]
    Rich, Sam, PZ, Dan: “SPLITTER!”

  76. #76 Jack Rawlinson
    October 9, 2007

    “In centuries to come, this will be seen as the beginning of the schism between the Pharyngulites, the Harrisons, the Dawkinistas and the Christo-Hitchenians.”

    And the moment when we Russellian Humeists started the takeover! Probably.

  77. #77 Sastra
    October 9, 2007

    Ken Cope wrote

    Harris, miffed, aims it at atheists so cult-like in our behavior that we won’t regard Harris’s pronouncements as holy writ.

    Yes — we’re sort of damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, aren’t we?

    “Sam Harris, I adore you, you’re so wonderful I agree with everything you say.”
    No, don’t make me the authority: that’s cult-like.
    “Sam Harris, although I agree with you most of the time, I disagree now. I think the label ‘atheist’ does have value, and let me tell you why.”
    No, your reasons are bad: that’s cult-like.

    Objecting to being compared to someone in a cult is just exactly what someone in a cult would do!!!

  78. #78 True Bob
    October 9, 2007

    I think a point yet to be made here is not that we have sopme cause, but that we have common enemy(ies) (acauses?).

    I sure don’t see those moderate religios stepping in to fight things like ID in school, or the god-pushers in our schools and the indoctrination oath (maybe a little involved on the military proseletyzing).

    So how do those of us Merkans who think god doesn’t belong in the public square get action/attention? By single individuals taking action? Sure, we probably all write letters to our papers, call our legislators, publicly ridicule expressions of faith, etc. But as pointed out above, groups create change, not individuals.

    If you want to follow Harris’ dictum to accept no labels & stay in the closet, go ahead, but don’t expect the rest of us to, and don’t expect any changes from you keeping it on the down low. I’m not really thrilled with the label, but what are you going to do? It’s not an accurate or complete descriptor, but it is already there, and besides, your actions will reveal your True Nature to the great unwashed.

  79. #79 Michael (the other one)
    October 9, 2007

    Yes, Loren Michael, I’ll use irate from now on.

    Back to the topic at hand. I’ve read your thoughts on why atheism is a bad rallying point, what you think atheism resembles currently and even the effectiveness of big red A t-shirts and as you might have guessed, I disagree with them. You seem to have missed the entire point of continuing a movement.

    It’s a good thing you didn’t get to the GLBT culture before they decided to take terms used only in a derogatory sense and turn “queer” and “gay” into rallying points that a group united in nothing but their sexual preferece, could gather under and fight for their rights. They then took those terms and created a culture where sexual acceptance and inclusion were part of what it was to be gay. Much more than what the words themselves mean in any dictionary sense. It mattered little that there are tons of sexually repressed, exclusive people that were also GLBT. They weren’t taken as representative of the movement even though they were by definition GLBT. You see a dictionary and a movement are different things.

    Why is this idea so damn hard for people to understand?

    As for making a “positive” debate on our own terms, do you think that before Sam mentioned reason and evidence, that they weren’t the focal point of all that we stand for? Hell, RD’s next tv special is about all the other paranormal antiscience out there and how science and reason can tackle it. Simply because religion is the greatest of the evils we’re tackling doesn’t mean we’re one trick ponies. We’re simply paying attention where attention is due. It’s about prmoting science and reason. If we happen to rally under one of the grand human conclusions from this method: the existance of god, then so be it.

    And for the last time, if you don’t wish to aid in a political movement, don’t. But your conclusions about what atheism is are already becoming outmoded. Atheism is changing as we speak and it’s being seen by popular culture as something much more than a simple dictionary definition. Much of that is due to Sam Harris himself. And like GlenD said, this thing is going to figure itself out the way that this particular group of atheists works: Reasoned debate. But regardless, it’s happening. Sam and yourself are a little to late to stop it from beginning, and a little to early to state that it’s unneeded.

  80. #80 Michael (the other one)
    October 9, 2007

    Ha, one of the grand human conclusions reached by the method of science and reason is not the actual existance of god, but a conclusion about the existance of god. But hey, you guys get the jist.

  81. #81 mk
    October 9, 2007

    For Michael (the other one)

    Good points.

    Also, “Suffragist” I believe was another word appropriated by those for whom it was initially intended as an insult.

    And for what it’s worth, the ‘m’ in mk stands for Michael…but I thought “Michael (the other other one)” would be excessive. ;^}

    Cheers.

  82. #82 Greg Peterson
    October 9, 2007

    A Message From Paul Kurtz

    I note with interest that Margaret Downing organized a
    blockbuster atheist conference in the Washington, D.C. area to which she brought many of the “new atheists.” We congratulate her on her energy. However, may I agree with Sam Harris who states that in accepting the label of “atheist” that “we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture… a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms.”

    May I first compliment Sam (as the newest kid on the block) for his two fine books and his eloquent voice now being heard on the national scene. May I then disagree with his subsequent “seditious proposal” that we should not call ourselves “secularists,” “humanists,” “secular humanists,” “naturalists,” “skeptics,” etc. “We should go under the radar for the rest of our lives,” he advises. We should be “responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.”

    That sounds lofty but in my view it is counter-productive. For in order to develop new ideas and policies that are effective, we need to organize with other like-minded individuals. And a name is crucial. If we followed Sam’s advice, the critical opposition to religious claims would naturally collapse. If we generalize from this, we could not come together as Democrats or Republicans, Libertarians or Socialists, feminists or civic libertarians, world federalists or environmentalists,
    utilitarians or pragmatists. Should we operate only as single individuals who may get published or speak on street corners with little influence or clout? Come on, Sam, that is unrealistic; for almost no one would be heard and we would be lone voices in the city canyons, unheard and drowned out by the powerful media. We say that democracy best functions when the citizens of a country unite under whatever label they choose to achieve what they deem to be worthy goals. True, you have had a
    best-seller which brought you to the public forum. But for most people the opportunity to affect the public debate is lost unless they work together with others to make their views heard, and unless they build institutions dedicated to their ideals and to the values they hope will endure.

  83. #83 Soren
    October 9, 2007

    Why all the hype about virgins?

    Seriously, though we all can have sex, its kinda an instinct, practice makes perfect.

    If you wanna have fun go for a man or woman that have been practising for a while. They have to know what they want, know to enjoy it, and yes know how to please you in return.

    I think one of the selling point of the atheist cult should be that we do not advocate abstinence, and thus the sex is so much better on our side!

  84. #84 Michael (the other one)
    October 9, 2007

    Greg: Thanks for that. As usual Paul puts it well and says basically everything I’ve been trying to say.

    mk: The funny thing for me is I’ve been posting as Michael here for a while. But when another one showed up I didn’t want to add confusion by holding rigidly to my handle. Not to mention I shouldn’t be surprised when it’s only been the most popular male name since the 40′s.

  85. #85 Tulse
    October 9, 2007

    “In centuries to come, this will be seen as the beginning of the schism between the Pharyngulites, the Harrisons, the Dawkinistas and the Christo-Hitchenians.”

    Oh, dear, this is beginning to sound like a South Park episode…

    For what it’s worth, I think Harris is being far too prickly — “atheist” is a well-understood term, and regardless of its present connotations, it pretty much is the only term that holds together Science-Minded Dawkinsistas, Crypto-Woo Harrisites, and Drunken Hawk Hitchensians, and Angry Evo-Advocating Myersites, much less various of the other groups of nonbelievers. The New Atheists aren’t really any sort of coherent group, except in their nonbelief (for example, it doesn’t look like Harris is even a committed materialist). So why not use a term that accurately describes what all these disparate folks have in common?

  86. #86 Michael (version 2.0)
    October 9, 2007

    You’re welcome to the ‘Michael’ crown here. I’ll pick something less biblical (though my mother will have my head for changing it…)

  87. #87 Anton Mates
    October 9, 2007

    Tulse,

    For what it’s worth, I think Harris is being far too prickly — “atheist” is a well-understood term, and regardless of its present connotations, it pretty much is the only term that holds together Science-Minded Dawkinsistas, Crypto-Woo Harrisites, and Drunken Hawk Hitchensians, and Angry Evo-Advocating Myersites, much less various of the other groups of nonbelievers. The New Atheists aren’t really any sort of coherent group, except in their nonbelief (for example, it doesn’t look like Harris is even a committed materialist). So why not use a term that accurately describes what all these disparate folks have in common?

    Because, apparently, when you reach out to people of other political leanings and areas of interest, in the service of some common cause, you’re acting like a cult.

    I dunno, maybe it’s a koan.

  88. #88 Christ Davis
    October 9, 2007

    I usually just go with “god free”, if I use any label. I have read the books by the usual suspects and don’t agree with all of their conclusions; how could I, or anyone? I read PZ daily, as well as many other blogs from most of the spectrum of atheism/freethought. Firebreathers are a necessity because we are pushing against a strong tide of fantasy, long entrenched. If hyperbole makes some people feel icky they shouldn’t read it.
    Now I’ll go back to lurking

    Christ D.

  89. #89 Kevin Conway
    October 9, 2007

    PZ is right on the mark, here. I think that Harris hasn’t had an innovative idea in about four years now. I wonder if, instead of insisting that the rules of dialogue be changed he might consider adding something of value to the conversation, if he can.

  90. #90 Eric Paulsen
    October 9, 2007

    Atheism is, at it’s best, a loose association of like minded individuals whose very nature is antithetical to coalescing into support groups.

    Unless I missed that HUGE national meeting we all had in Washington, or maybe the weekly non-worship services held in the local art house to be fed my godless talking points, and where’s my members only T-shirt or talismanic charm to dangle between my cheeto encrusted disbelieving man-bosoms?

    If this is a cult it is SUCH a jip! Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or other paranormal creche crickets) there are no dues or I would so complain to… uh, Christopher Hitchens? Mother Theresa?

  91. #91 RamblinDude
    October 9, 2007

    Some day the language will degenerate to the single phrase “You know what I mean,” but of course, no one will.

    Posted by: BaldApe

    Nice.

  92. #92 Sastra
    October 9, 2007

    A Message From Paul Kurtz

    I note with interest that Margaret Downing organized a blockbuster atheist conference in the Washington, D.C. area …

    I’m sure Margaret DOWNEY will be pleased that Paul Curts took interested note of her.

  93. #93 salient
    October 9, 2007

    charley in #24 said “cohesive social group, novel belief system, its great devotions, its idiosyncratic practices, its perceived harmful or beneficial effects on members”

    Wiki’s definition of cult diverges from Harris’ accusation of atheistic cultism in the aspects I’ve listed above. Not believing in the supernatural agency claimed by theists is hardly novel, nonbelievers do no express great devotion (except, perphaps, to truth-seeking), atheists are not guilty of idiosyncratic practices peculiar to atheism (though the definition of idiosyncratic merely speaks to individualized habits), and any perceived harmful or beneficial effects on atheists could only come from an alteration of practices by nonmembers (theists).

    The notably negative popular perception does not result from a realistic appraisal of the actual impacts of atheism but upon populist polemics emanating from the mainstream cult.

    Thanks for the definition, charley. I think it supports what PZ is saying.

    “I think Sam is right when he says it can look like one to others, especially in highly religious communities.”

    Theists have been trooping out tu quoque fallacies for years–long before militant atheists put pen to paper. I have always suspected that the fact that obsessive theists favor such fallacious arguments stems from a number of factors: their beliefs have no evidential foundation; their dogmatic systems are fraught with philosophical tension; they are attracted to religions precisely because they want to be told what to think and how to respond; they have a tendency to revere authority and so to thoughtlessly accept the in-group message; they do not question the message because they think categorically (good/evil, us/them, “Truth”/honest-uncertainty-re-science, etc.); they are quite often hateful people hiding their prejudices behind religious approbation; and, they are emotional thinkers and are attracted to religion because of its inculcated emotional content (fear/reward).

    Obsessive theists have great difficulty understanding reality in logical, non-emotional terms, and they seem to view argument as meaning quarrelsome, you-too, name calling rather than meaning elaboration of a logical progression from fact to relevant conclusion. (If they did think that way, then they’d have trouble being obsessive theists.)

    Sam has fallen, I think, into the error of partially buying into the message because he does not sufficiently distrust the cognitive style of the messengers. This strikes me as odd coming from a neuroscientist, but perhaps his youth and the fact that he is not a practicing psychologist explains some politically un-astute statements. Our running and hiding from theistic labelling will never succeed because the errors in their emotional-conformity accusations need to be met head on.

  94. #94 Suze
    October 9, 2007

    I would describe Sam-speak as in the Harris School of Atheistic Thought. Am I alone in thinking that atheism is more than the rejection of an idea and institution, more of a philosophy? We’re here discussing something, not nothing. If all atheism is is rejection of the supernatural, and all we’re here talking about is nothingness and how much we reject that nothingness, then Harris might be right. If it has theory and thought, substance — which I think it most certainly does — then Harris is wrong to dismiss atheism as a cult or pop culture fad.

  95. #95 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Jack Rawlinson in #35 said “I absolutely reject the idea that describing oneself as being NOT something automatically suggests that the “something” is more normal.”

    Thank . You . Jack!

  96. #96 Caledonian
    October 9, 2007

    I can’t help but wonder whether Harris has been called on his uncritical acceptance of various mystical claims (mostly from Eastern religions) by rationalists who are also atheists, and Harris wants to strike back – but he doesn’t want to be seen attacking rationalism, so he attacks atheism instead.

  97. #97 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    you might be on to something there, Cale.

  98. #98 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    “I think Sam is right when he says it can look like one to others, especially in highly religious communities.”

    It’s trivially obvious to note that cultists often project cult behavior onto everything else.

    it’s part of the psychological defense mechanisms that allow the cult behavior to maintain itself to begin with.

    surely, such a trivial observation isn’t the core of Harris’ critique of the term, right?

    right?

  99. #99 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Loren Michael said in #41 “Counter religious ascendancy directly by showing and explaining how the people and the assertions they make are full of shit. You don’t need to identify yourself as an atheist to do that, and it’s both easy and (in my experience) exhilarating.”

    In my experience, it is frustrating to beat one’s head against a theistic brick-head.

    Otherwise, I partially agree with what you say, Loren – we don’t need to declare ourselves atheistic in order to say what amounts to, “it’s mythology-bound mental crockery”, nor do we need to declare ourselves atheists for theists to realize that we are atheists by virtue of the position that we take on the supernatural and on religion.

    Besides, theists have heard, “it’s mythology-bound mental crockery”, or “biological evolution is an empirically demonstrated fact”, repeatedly without paying any attention to rationally presented empirical arguments. If they concede that there is no empirical evidence, they retreat to the Faith will be Rewarded defense.

    If Sam had said we need to prepare ourselves with facts and sound logical arguments rather than harping on only that we are atheists, then I’d agree. However, I doubt that many of the atheists or agnostics who attended that conference were really resorting to theistic tactics for argumentation (“Richard Dawkins my Intellectual Savior” or “It Says so in The God Delusion, which is the Literal Truth on Revealed Atheism.”) I think that because he is the person who has written and published books on the topic, he is underestimating the quality of argumentation exhibited, for example, by many Pharyngulists. I think that Sam’s response to criticism indicates that he has been beguiled by his earlier favorable reception into assuming that his opinions had more merit than unherdable cats might think.

    “People are attaching themselves to “atheist” as a new fad, a new club, a new tribe.”

    Yes, and some of those people were formerly already-doubting apostates who are finding it difficult to leave one community without having another community that would welcome the freethinking mentality that gave them apostate doubts.

    This topic has excited a great deal of discussion and I thought at first that this might be a good thing, but I think that Sam might have done the “rational empiricist” cause some external-political and internal-political harm.

  100. #100 Wrought
    October 9, 2007

    I suspect he doesn’t really mean cult. He means sub-culture, or tribe.

    Some people give up their faith because they lose interest in the (organised) religion.

    Some people might lose interest in the environment because they don’t want to assosciate with hemp-wearing, tree-hugging hippies. (Just an example)

    To extrapolate: people can lose interest in an issue because, although they support it, they dislike the trappings, such as the lingo, celebrities, clique behaviour and so on.

    People could well be put off atheism because, due to the language used, they believe it to be another tribe, or to put it another way: just one of many options.

    Atheism’s most powerful asset is that it doesn’t require anything but rationalist argument. It needs to be argued on this footing; not on the “we’re a lobby group too” footing.

    I think the reason this is happening is that, as Dennett might argue, I’d imagine, religion is a natural phenomenon and we’re seeing tribal behaviours emerging. We’re using strength in numbers instead of strength of argument when we start to appear as “the atheists”, which is a natural occurence but not one that lends credibility to our case.

    Sam wants us to stop arguing as a tribe and get back to basics.

  101. #101 Caledonian
    October 9, 2007

    Am I alone in thinking that atheism is more than the rejection of an idea and institution, more of a philosophy?

    No, you’re not alone. You are, however, wrong.

  102. #102 Rieux
    October 9, 2007

    Suze (#100):

    Am I alone in thinking that atheism is more than the rejection of an idea and institution, more of a philosophy?

    I don’t think you’re alone; Michael-the-other-one (#83, especially the final paragraph) seems to be leaning in that direction, and IIRC the American Atheists organization, during the Madalyn Murray-O’Hair years, argued strenuously that Atheism (always capitalized) had all sorts of ideological content.

    I’m fairly resistant to that; it seems to me that atheism is merely the lack of belief in gods, and that that’s a perfectly good and useful way to conceptualize ourselves.

    However, beyond that point I think Loren’s argument here is flat wrong, and that Michael-the-other-one (especially @ #83) is on the money. “Atheism” itself is nothing more than the lack of a particular belief, but in the context of real life in the actual world, presenting oneself publicly as an atheist is not nearly so empty.

    I don’t think Harris, Loren, and various other people in the “you might as well call yourself an a-astrologist” camp are adequately addressing the fact that “God,” and religions that centrally feature “God,” are among the most powerful ideas in the world. And yet those are atrociously bad and destructive ideas. I openly call myself an “atheist” because the idea of “God” needs to be opposed. Running away from the label, I think, is a refusal to fight that illegitimate and destructive power.

    And what’s all this snideness about “identity politics”? Of course this is identity politics–just like women’s suffrage, civil rights, and GLBT rights are identity politics. What the hell is inherently wrong with identity politics?

    As with the minorities in all of those other cases, we have no choice to play “identity politics”–because whether we like it or not, our enemies have already “identified” us, and they are happy to despise, defame, and (in notable instances) oppress us. They will paste that identity on us and attack us for it regardless of what we do, so it seems to me that our only real choices are flight (from the label, or from the conflict) or fight.

    Harris tries to split that difference by advocating independent guerilla bands of label-less rationalists–but (1) I can’t imagine how any such effort could possibly be effective in achieving societal change and (2) as PZ has noted, those bands wouldn’t be able to escape the “a” label and its concomitant derogatory cliches anyway.

    Anyway, my point is that I’ll stop calling myself an “atheist,” and rallying around that word, when “God” stops being a major force for inhumanity in the world. Until then, I don’t see the point in running away from the word.

  103. #103 Suze
    October 9, 2007

    Why I am I wrong, Caledonian (and who says)?

  104. #104 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Michael (the other one)

    Might I suggest “Michael X”?

  105. #105 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    Some people might lose interest in the environment because they don’t want to assosciate with hemp-wearing, tree-hugging hippies. (Just an example)

    exactly the reason to point out that like atheism, the ridiculous associations are primarily just that. If you let the anti-environmentalists define environmentalists as “tree hugging hippies”, that is exactly what they want; that is indeed a choreographed strategy.

    should the response to someone who says that they lost interest in environmental issues because of “tree hugging hippies” be a correction of the misconception, or not?

  106. #106 Ken Cope
    October 9, 2007

    I’m inclined to agree with Cal here too. It’s easy to get the impression that atheist is too far beyond his personal pale for the spiritual but not religious tone Harris tries to strike in his screed against Abrahamic faith. Any atheist reading The End of Faith nods along until that meditation non sequitur slides down the reader’s back like a cold bucket of woo. With his last couple of bromides it sounds like he wants to make sure he isn’t associated with a large number of his readers.

    Cults are too well-defined, especially by those involved in rescuing victims from them, to be used to characterize a group of people so inappropriately, especially by somebody engaging in prescriptivist controversies.

  107. #107 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Bob in #66 said “Unless I’m missing something, I’m pretty sure the reason(s) why people become atheists are kind of important here.”

    I’d be interested to read everyone’s reasons. I suspect that desire for rationality, enjoyment of intellectual pursuits, and preference for truth are biggies, but perhaps I’m projecting.

  108. #108 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Misanthrope in #66 said “However, the part of Harris’ talk that really took my breath away was the second half, in which he addressed the problem of human happiness and the bearing that a study of mind (or mindfulness) might have on it.”

    And I’m a ‘shrink’ and fascinated by how people heal–not just cope, heal–and my eyes glazed over at the transcendental psycho-babble. Of course, some folk with emotional difficulties don’t resort to meditation, instead they focus their anger while smoking and drinking to excess.

  109. #109 salient
    October 9, 2007

    incunabulum said in #68 “militant atheism.”

    Or, in your case, “military atheism”. More power to you for having the courage to stand up for your convictions amongst people with guns ;-#

  110. #110 True Bob
    October 9, 2007

    salient, I am atheist because there is/are no god(s).

    I got to that by a very long process. Totally rejected all gods around age of 9, since they refuse to make themselves known. Later, early teens, decided sheer atheist thinking was presumptive, so decided on agnostic. Stayed that way for maybe 10 years, basically based on no evidence, and that infinitesimal possibility that there was some kind of god (allowing room for error – certainly not the kind of god anyone on Earth worships). Then I decided to follow the crowd and join this cool cult.

  111. #111 Russell Blackford
    October 9, 2007

    There’s some danger of it turning into a mere fandom, I suppose. Fandoms can be fun, and when you actually look at them they are full of internal debate, intellectual ferment, creativity, etc. Science fiction fans, for example, whatever their faults, are pretty much the opposite of the stereotype of brainwashed, group-thinking cultists. It’a a social milieu where I feel pretty comfortable, though less than I once did. However, fandoms can also be inward-looking, and they are not effective in influencing the wider world. In fact, that’s not what they’re about.

    “Cult” is totally the wrong comparison, but if he’d written “fandom” he’d at least be talking about a possibility. Perhaps he detected an element of fannishness rather than cultishness, and doesn’t understand the difference.

    With luck, though, whatever nascent “atheist movement” exists will be less like a fandom for the New Atheists and more like a political or cultural movement that contributes to real change. Maybe Sam should be thinking of how to encourage that happening if it’s really an element of fannishness that is bothering him.

  112. #112 John Morales
    October 9, 2007

    Suze, if the lack of belief in something is a philosophy, then everybody has a myriad philosophies.

  113. #113 Sastra
    October 9, 2007

    Wrought wrote:

    We’re using strength in numbers instead of strength of argument when we start to appear as “the atheists”, which is a natural occurence but not one that lends credibility to our case.
    Sam wants us to stop arguing as a tribe and get back to basics.

    Sam Harris argues against the virtue of faith, the value of religion, and the existence of God. He’s certainly not ducking the hard issues, or thinking we should be nice and quiet and leave religion alone.

    One of the most powerful arguments the ordinary religious person on the street uses for the existence of God, however, is that “everyone believes in God.” It’s self-evident. It’s universal. Why would this be true unless it’s something we instinctively know, in our heart of hearts?

    There are excellent academic answers to this: supernatural beliefs cross cultures, but take many forms, not just “God”; there are explanations in neurology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology for human tendencies to anthropomorphize and form communities; people absorb beliefs from their parents and environment, etc.

    But one of the strongest arguments against “everyone believes in God” — because it is the most direct and simple — is that no, not everyone believes in God. There are actually a lot of atheists and agnostics. Look around. They are your neighbors, your friends, your relatives. The guy who owns the restaurant. The woman who sells you flowers. It’s not just the Village Atheist.

    Harris sneered at atheists being “the kind of people who meet in hotel ballrooms” — marginal and easy to ignore and stereotype. I don’t know. I think the lone atheist sitting in a small town and wondering if he’s the only one is marginal and ignored and stereotyped. Bring us together in ballrooms, or chatrooms, or blogs — and let us disperse ourselves around and not be afraid to casually mention “of course, I’m an atheist…” and I suspect over the long run we will become less marginal, and harder to ignore or stereotype.

  114. #114 Christ Davis
    October 9, 2007

    I too have been an atheist since I was 8-9 years old. Not that I knew that was the name for my lack of belief in god(s). Over the years I had the mis-fortune to be under the control of various arms of the State, who all felt the need to keep waving their books in my face while I was precluded from walking away. This turned me into a god hater, which is even more of a waste of time than being a god lover, believe me.
    Most of a decade ago I stopped drinking and met A.A. More god. But this time I was forty and starting to think clearly, so I was able to defend myself. I am still around a lot of people who think they can’t make a move without bothering god. I do not hide my atheism. I even have a tattoo on my arm stating that I am god free, but I have been around long enough that more often than not anyone who tells me that it isn’t possible to get sober w/out god has fallen down the rabbit hole several times while giving it up to the lord, so I get to tell them to step off.

  115. #115 Steve Branks
    October 9, 2007

    I think these kind of disputes and debates among atheists is absolutely marvelous! First of all, it tends to clarify issues that we all should be more aware of, and, second, we atheists are able to engage in this kind of thing without wanting to kill and maim one another.

  116. #116 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    October 9, 2007

    Who gives a fuck about labels anymore? It is what atheists say and the fact that we demand accountability from religious thinking that offends them, not what we call ourselves. If we stop calling ourselves atheists, they’ll still call us atheists, or more properly “athiests.” Brights, Freethinkers, Agnostics, Secular Humanists….. or “nothings;” we are all the same evil package to the fundamentalists. Sunnis, Wahabi and Shiites consider each of the other shades of Muslims as atheists and pagans. Catholics are papists, romists. Protestants have thousands of churches, each of which knows that all of the rest are wrong, wrong, wrong.

    I am an atheist, cause it’s the word that makes the most sense. I don’t care if people despise me for it, it’s my label and I am keeping it. I’m a liberal for the same reaasons, not a progressive. And I’m 5’9″ and there’s nothing I can do about that, either.

  117. #117 Carlie
    October 9, 2007

    On cults:

    Marge: Are you sure you can get him back for us?
    Cult Deprogrammer: Absolutely. I’m the one who successfully deprogrammed Jane Fonda, you know.
    Marge: What about Peter Fonda?
    Cult Deprogrammer: Oh, that was a heartbreaker. But I _did_ get Paul McCartney out of Wings.
    Homer: You idiot! He was the most talented one.

  118. #118 Michael (the other one)
    October 9, 2007

    You know salient, I might just go for that whole “X” thing. It sounds kinda funny. But if I keep changing my handle, how am I supposed to get a Molly Award? ;)

  119. #119 Brian Macker
    October 9, 2007

    Seems like Harris deserved that if you ask me.

  120. #120 Anton Mates
    October 9, 2007

    Caledonian,

    I can’t help but wonder whether Harris has been called on his uncritical acceptance of various mystical claims (mostly from Eastern religions) by rationalists who are also atheists, and Harris wants to strike back – but he doesn’t want to be seen attacking rationalism, so he attacks atheism instead.

    I think that’s largely true, although I doubt that Harris is consciously attacking rationalism at all–his version of “rationalism” just involves a smaller dose of skepticism than does that of his average reader.

    I’d extend your reasoning into more areas, though. In The End of Faith, Harris presented a number of positions which aren’t very popular with the average self-labeled “atheist” in the West. E.g., that we should take a greater interest in “spirituality;” that evidence favors certain paranormal phenomena; that certain religions such as Buddhism are a largely positive force, while certain others such as Islam are irredeemably negative, with Christianity somewhere in the middle; and, spinning out of the last one, an unusually hawkish attitude on foreign affairs in the Middle East and the torture issue. You’ll notice that he hit pretty much all those areas in the “Problem with Atheism” speech.

    Harris isn’t particularly far from the “atheist mainstream” in most ways–certainly not compared to, say, Hitchens–but he seems particularly troubled by the fact. He’s spent more time than most New Atheist luminaries in writing about how his positions have been misrepresented/distorted by other atheists. I think he embarked on his literary career expecting to win a lot more converts to the specifics of his ideology, and found it hard to accept that even his most appreciative atheist readers were generally unswayed.

    In short: Harris pushed for a particular version of “atheism.” Most atheists didn’t go for it. So instead he’s rejecting the atheist label and community and encouraging others to do the same.

  121. #121 Ichthyic
    October 9, 2007

    that we should take a greater interest in “spirituality;” that evidence favors certain paranormal phenomena; that certain religions such as Buddhism are a largely positive force, while certain others such as Islam are irredeemably negative, with Christianity somewhere in the middle;

    sounds like he wants to have his woo and eat it too.

  122. #122 Sastra
    October 9, 2007

    From what I can tell, Harris’ position on mysticism and the paranormal is actually pretty rational. The most “damning” thing – his apparent endorsement of Dean Radin in End of Faith — is something he seems to be backtracking on (or clarifying), claiming now that he only meant that the area is capable of being studied, and he doesn’t think the evidence supports the existence of the paranormal.

    As for mystical experiences, a careful reading shows that he thinks that they may be untapped resources for 1.)understanding how the brain works and 2.)learning how to be happier and more satisfied in our lives. He doesn’t think they are some sort of gateway to supernatural realms. Both seem like reasonable possibilities to me — and other atheists, including Dennett, who took him to task during questions for acting as if he, Dennett, doesn’t think mystical experiences should be studied.

    At least, this is what I’m getting from what he writes (admittedly, he sometimes says things which can be taken several ways). I was at his speech at AAI in DC, and afterwards, when he was signing my book, I asked him how he felt about Ken Wilber, a transpersonal psychologist/philosopher who is, I guess, a sort of “thinking man’s” Deepok Chopra. I have a friend (who is rather heavily invested in woo) who adores both Wilber and Harris, and thinks they are both in agreement on the Higher Realms of Consciousness and Reality. Harris told me that was interesting, because although he agrees with Wilber in a few areas, he disagrees strongly with him in others, and Wilber can’t stand him, and they may have a debate.

    If Ken Wilber doesn’t like him, that’s a good endorsement.

  123. #123 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Wrought in #106 wrote “People could well be put off atheism because, due to the language used, they believe it to be another tribe, or to put it another way: just one of many options.”

    Call it a tribe (too diverse to be a tribe, and without a clear leader) if you must, but don’t believe all the theistic misrepresentations of the other attributes of individuals who happen not to believe in supernatural mythologies.

    I could not be put off atheism by the character of its participants, even if atheists were the cold-hearted destroyers of life’s meaning, of imagination, and moral values that some theists want to believe. I might not be tempted to join any organization comprising solely atheists if that were the case, but it could not alter the fact that I do not believe in Sky Daddies. Not only do I not believe in supernatural agencies, but I believe that, even though we cannot logically disprove nonexistence, there are no supernatural forces because we have good evidence for their invention and perpetuation by humans.

    I respect bright, educated people with reasonable, well-presented ideas, but I still try to decide most things for myself. So, how could my naturalist philosophy be reversed by the behavior of others?

    “We’re using strength in numbers instead of strength of argument when we start to appear as “the atheists”, which is a natural occurence but not one that lends credibility to our case.”

    Most successful movements use both. I suspect that there is more discussion of atheism per se on forums such as this than there is when atheists discuss science, life’s meaning, or philosophy with theists. In other words, I doubt that most of the commenters on this board focus predominantly on being agnostics or atheists during debate.

    “Sam wants us to stop arguing as a tribe and get back to basics.”

    With no disrespect to Sam, I don’t very much care what Sam wants us to do. He’s probably a great guy, but he isn’t the bossman. However, if Sam had wanted us not to argue as a tribe, then he should have been much more careful about what to suggest, how to express that suggestion, and how to respond to an understandable rejection of his edicts.

  124. #124 Anton Mates
    October 9, 2007

    Sastra,

    From what I can tell, Harris’ position on mysticism and the paranormal is actually pretty rational. The most “damning” thing – his apparent endorsement of Dean Radin in End of Faith — is something he seems to be backtracking on (or clarifying), claiming now that he only meant that the area is capable of being studied, and he doesn’t think the evidence supports the existence of the paranormal.

    If you’re taking about clarifications like this one, my impression is that he doesn’t actually claim the above–he just says things that, given heavy benefit of the doubt, could imply those positions.

    For instance, he said it wasn’t worth his time to try to verify the data in Dean Radin’s book. (Or at least he said he hadn’t tried, and that that fact should show how worthy of his time he thinks it would be.) This could mean he thinks said data is worthless, and I suspect that’s how he hoped it would be read by most of the people who initially objected. But it could equally well mean that he thinks said data is highly reliable, or at least solid enough that there’s no point in further verification. Or that enough other studies have pro-psi data that verifying or falsifying this particular one wouldn’t resolve anything.

    It’s really not clear, and certainly to my mind doesn’t outweigh the way he originally presented the issue. If he just thinks the paranormal’s an area worth studying–and hey, so do I–why not include any citations for people who’ve found negative results, or people who’ve debunked the pro-psi authors he did cite? Why instead complain about the scientific establishment’s ignoring the issue, and exhort us all to keep an open mind? Any number of his critics brought up the fact that the paranormal often has been scientifically investigated with negative results, and that the data of Radin, Sheldrake et al. have been found faulty. You’d think he’d at least acknowledge that in his responses.

  125. #125 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Steve Branks in #121 said “. . . second, we atheists are able to engage in this kind of thing without wanting to kill and maim one another.”

    Speak for yourself! (joking)

    You are quite correct, Steve, even though people are disagreeing about some pretty fundamental (excuse pun) issues, emotions have not run much higher than “tizzy” level.

  126. #126 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Michael (the other one) in #124 said “You know salient, I might just go for that whole “X” thing. It sounds kinda funny. But if I keep changing my handle, how am I supposed to get a Molly Award? ;)

    By sticking your fist in the air and declaring, “Mike Power”.

  127. #127 salient
    October 9, 2007

    Anton in #126 said “In short: Harris pushed for a particular version of “atheism.” Most atheists didn’t go for it. So instead he’s rejecting the atheist label and community and encouraging others to do the same.”

    That’s an interesting hypothesis.

    Ironically, he set himself a very hard task if he hoped to convert what were probably predominantly agnostic and atheist readers to spirituality and Buddhism.

    I think that spirituality, like love is something that you either feel, often at semi-unbidden moments, or you don’t.

  128. #128 Paul Crowley
    October 10, 2007

    “fakir” accuses Harris of being a dualist – does he have any evidence to support that assertion?

  129. #129 John B
    October 10, 2007

    Paul Crowley,

    I think the focus on meditation implies mind/body dualism. What are you going to learn about brain function through calm-abiding or clear-sight type meditation? Not much, unless you are working with neuroscientists. Even if you think you are making observations about how your consciousness arises from physical experience, you have accepted the ancient dichotomy by pretending you can observe your own thought process in some independent way.

    No matter how long you meditate you don’t become aware of the underpinning of your own awareness, obviously. Buddhists are taught a theory of mind/consciousness before they begin going into the guided trance-states that seem to confirm it. Studying your personal internal states has more to do with narrative analysis than any non-dualist theory of neuroscience, imo. Nothing wrong with it, really, as long as you admit that you are constructing personal meaning rather than studying phenomena of some kind.

  130. #130 Russell Blackford
    October 10, 2007

    I think the focus on meditation implies mind/body dualism.

    I think you need better evidence than that if you want to argue that Harris is some kind of metaphysical dualist.

  131. #131 John B
    October 10, 2007

    I don’t think so, meditation as a practice (particularly when influenced by Buddhist anthropology) implies a metaphysical claim about the duality of our nature. It goes well beyond anything a materialist would find useful for understanding the brain.

  132. #132 salient
    October 10, 2007

    John B in #137 said “meditation as a practice (particularly when influenced by Buddhist anthropology) implies a metaphysical claim about the duality of our nature.”

    I should have thought that meditation would look exactly like a hypnotic trance state on a fMRI. There’s nothing dualistic about trance states, though they are altered levels of consciousness in which the ‘subconscious’ becomes more accessible.

    Dualism, to my mind (sotospeak) is simply a simplistic misinterpretation of issues of scale (neuroanatomy up to consciousness). Dualistic assumptions preclude methodological naturalism, don’t they? Or should I say methodological naturalism could not be expected to access dualism?

    I have read that Sam is studying neuroscience, but I don’t know whether that indicates neurophilosophy or neurophysiology. . . ???

  133. #133 Michael X
    October 10, 2007

    Yup, I’m giving it a shot. But if I knock someone out on the train yelling “Mike Power” and punching, you’ll be getting my one call from jail salient.

    From all I’ve read of Sam’s work and his responses to allegations of being too metaphysical, he seems to be firmly on the grounds that, if indeed you can gain greater calm or happiness or contentment through meditation, as many would argue you can, then those actions and those states should be studied so that we can do away with all the unneeded particulars and just focus on what’s causing those feelings. And then maybe turn those actions up a notch (as Emeril might say).

    As for his other metaphysical claims such as being open to testing the claims of ESP, even Sagan suggested that in The Demon Haunted World. Though, I do think Sagan came off as doing it more to avoid the charges of dogmatism, and for following the scientific spirit. He even mentions that he doesn’t think they’ll turn out true. I’m not sure if Sam comes off quite as clear, I don’t have a copy of the book in front of me.

  134. #134 Glen Davidson
    October 10, 2007

    I don’t think so, meditation as a practice (particularly when influenced by Buddhist anthropology) implies a metaphysical claim about the duality of our nature. It goes well beyond anything a materialist would find useful for understanding the brain.

    So does “I am a Strange Loop.” I can’t believe that so much BS can be written regarding consciousness and treated as if it were science.

    Moving on, I’d agree with salient, claims are made that meditation is due to metaphysical dualism, but the evidence (and implications of the energy laws) is that it’s all due to brain. And if one chooses, one may meditate without accepting any of the religious claims, just as one can take acid and “experience God” without bothering to think that this God is anything except an acid experience much like the dancing purple paisleys. Some may think that peyote is a God, but it doesn’t mean that taking peyote initiates you into their religion.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  135. #135 Anton Mates
    October 10, 2007

    Paul,

    “fakir” accuses Harris of being a dualist – does he have any evidence to support that assertion?

    Harris has certainly argued that dualism is unfairly rejected by modern science. From The End of Faith, p. 208:

    “Most scientists consider themselves physicalists; this means, among other things, that they believe that our mental and spiritual lives are wholly dependent upon the workings of our brains. On this account, when the brain dies, the stream of our being must come to an end. Once the lamps of neural activity have been extinguished, there will be nothing left to survive. Indeed, many scientists purvey this conviction as though it were itself a special sacrament, conferring intellectual integrity upon any man, woman or child who is man enough to swallow it.

    “But the truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death. While there is much to be said against a na´ve conception of a soul that is independent of the brain, the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question. The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.”

    And a little later, after discussing why you can’t investigate consciousness scientifically,

    “Investigating the nature of consciousness directly, through sustained introspection, is simply another name for spiritual practice….the history of human spirituality is the history of our attempts to explore and modify the deliverances of consciousness through methods like fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation, and the use of psychotropic plants.

    He’s repeated the above in several public statements. For instance, in a debate with Andrew Sullivan,

    “The question of what happens after death (if anything) is a question about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It is true that many atheists are convinced that we know what this relationship is, and that it is one of absolute dependence of the one upon the other. Those who have read the last chapters of The End of Faith know that I am not convinced of this. While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us. But this doesn’t entitle religious people to imagine that all their crazy ideas about miraculous books, virgin births, and saviors ushering in the end of the world are remotely plausible.”

    He doesn’t seem to positively endorse dualism, just hold it up as a significant possibility. But as with psi, that may simply be because of his chosen audience. I dunno.

  136. #136 Steven Sullivan
    October 10, 2007

    Fellow cultists, is it OK to just NOT GIVE A SHIT what Sam Harris says?

    ‘We don’t know what happens after death?’ ‘I do not think the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established?’

    God in the gaps, anyone?

    Sheesh.

  137. #137 salient
    October 11, 2007

    Michael X #139 “Yup, I’m giving it a shot. But if I knock someone out on the train yelling “Mike Power” and punching, you’ll be getting my one call from jail salient.”

    It looks good on you, Michael. By all means, call me, but an American lawyer would be more useful than an Canuck shrink.

    “if indeed you can gain greater calm or happiness or contentment through meditation, as many would argue you can, then those actions and those states should be studied so that we can do away with all the unneeded particulars and just focus on what’s causing those feelings. And then maybe turn those actions up a notch (as Emeril might say).”

    I’m all for knowing how things work, though I can’t see how knowing what brain areas light up or quieten down during meditation could help to achieve more than hypnotic induction, training in meditation, or psychotropic drugs. (I’m a monist, obviously.) After all, to study the phenomenon in a subject, the subject would already have to know how to enter a trance state.

    I very rarely use hypnosis, which is merely a very relaxed state in which patients more easily access ‘subconscious’ material. Some people are much more inducible than others, but everyone seems to go only as ‘deep’ as is useful to them.

  138. #138 salient
    October 11, 2007

    Anton, of SH, in #141 “But the truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death. While there is much to be said against a na´ve conception of a soul that is independent of the brain, the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question.”

    Oh dear. That certainly harkens back to Cartesian dualism, and an argument with precisely the same motivation. In Sam’s case it appears to be life after death without the Abrahamic trimmings. It’s essentially a vague argumentum ad ignorantiam — we don’t know, so the possibility could be hoped for. At least Sam probably doesn’t envisage a connection through the pineal gland.

    Thanks for the details.

  139. #139 truth machine
    October 11, 2007

    You really are on the attack here, PZ, and it seems like there are better targets than Sam Harris.

    Personally I think Sam has some excellent points. Try to look for the value in what he says, rather than just get defensive about it.

    Ya gotta love how the very first comment includes two ad hominems against PZ, with not a word about substance.

  140. #140 truth machine
    October 11, 2007

    You’re focusing on the aesthetic trappings of a “cult.” There are far more substantial — and far more dangerous — manifestations of cult-like behavior, such as dismissing dissenting opinions without actually addressing them.

    Harris obviously doesn’t need to belong to a cult to do that.

    In fact, no one does, as that isn’t particularly a quality of cults, and your comments smack of intellectually dishonest ad hocery.

  141. #141 truth machine
    October 11, 2007

    That he’s blowing off steam should be recognized, and I suspect some slack would be in order.

    I see no reason to give Harris’s intellectual dishonesty any slack.

  142. #142 truth machine
    October 11, 2007

    I think you have misrepresented Harris slightly. He is not saying atheists form a cult. He is saying that it appears to be cult-like to outsiders.

    There’s nothing so offensive as some asshole who “corrects” someone who is is obviously right. Harris is saying no such thing: “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” — that’s his opinion, jackass.

  143. #143 truth machine
    October 11, 2007

    I don’t think you’re over-reacting, PZ–in fact, I think Sam Harris is a bit problematic all around. Ever since he took the time to demonize Noam Chomsky in The End of Faith (Chomsky being a much more interesting and consistent skeptic, atheist, and all-around thinker than Harris will ever be), I have always wondered about his specific agenda.

    Harris demonized not just Chomsky, but in his LA Times piece he demonized every “liberal” who thinks that the problems in the Middle East have anything to do with U.S. foreign policy. I’m glad that Harris is making these hostile comments about atheists because he’s an utter ass and it’s best if people open their eyes to that rather than uncritically treat him as a hero because he’s anti-religious.

  144. #144 truth machine
    October 11, 2007

    But the truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death.

    This is like saying that we don’t know what happens to the whirling of a fan when you turn it off. It’s a frankly dualist conception. Perhaps Harris’s study of neuroscience will educate him.

  145. #145 Paul Crowley
    October 11, 2007

    I agree with #150 exactly – there isn’t really room for serious speculation about what happens to the mind after death, and it’s weird that Harris tries to suggest this is up for grabs.

    However, I can’t see that the slightest argument has been put forward to support the idea that you have to be a dualist to value meditation. What on Earth is dualist about “I do these breathing exercises to achieve a particular kind of harm, and I think it brings me happiness”? How is that any more dualist than thinking that sex or dancing or mathematics can bring happiness?

  146. #146 salient
    October 11, 2007

    I’m never sure whether dualists interpret the evidence so as to exclude reductionist materialism because it is counterintuitive or because they wish to believe in the possibility of the continuance of their personal consciousness after physical death. I expect that it is both, and I think that their assumptions are unfounded.

    I’ll illustrate with a simple example. If your family doc taps your patellar tendon below the knee to test your ‘knee-jerk’ reflex, the neurophysiological and muscular responses are quite simple and could easily be fully ‘tracked’ in an animal model. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patellar_reflex)

    There is no need to invoke a ‘knee-muscle-spirit’ to explain what has happened. Your experience, though, is not directly of stretch of the Golgi tendon organ, neuronal firing, and actin-myosin sliding. You feel the tap and feel an involuntary muscle contraction.

    Modern dualist would undoubtedly accept the physical explanation for this experience without even thinking that a spirit-mechanism need be invoked.

    However, dualists conveniently ignore the fact that this simplest reflex lies on a spectrum of neurophysiological activity/experience that extends up to consciousness. They ignore the extremely high likelihood that experiences that result from the complex, emergent system that is our plastic, input-programmed brain represent the same types of phenomenology.

    They ignore the fact that the brains of different individuals become active in predictable neuroanatomical areas when those individuals engage in equivalent behaviors. If our brains were mere antennas for the mind, then we should expect to see idiosyncratic neuranatomic responses.

    They conveniently ignore Occam’s razor, which indicates that the most parsimonious, not necessarily the simplest, explanation is always to be preferred. They usurp the fact that highly complex physical phenomena are difficult to tease apart, and they distort this techical ‘uncertainty’ into metaphysical argumenta ad ignorantiam that permit the desired conclusion.

    Scientific methodology was ‘invented’ to counteract precisely such wishful unthinking. For my comments above, Sam might join Lee Siegel in declaring atheism damaging to imagination. However, I think that trying to conceptualize how things and people really function is more difficult than simplistic, intuitive, flights of fantasy. That’s what makes it interesting!

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.