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.