Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sam Harris: We Should Not Call Ourselves Atheists

reposted from:
Oct. 3, 2007

After the success of his best selling book The End of Faith, author Sam Harris is now calling for the end of atheism.

Duncan Crary speaks with Sam Harris

"I'd like to try to make the case that our use of this label is a mistake -- and a mistake of some consequence," Harris said Friday night, Sept. 28 to a crowd of more than 300 at the Atheist Alliance International conference in Washington D.C.

"I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism," he said. "So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves 'atheists.' We should not call ourselves 'secularists.' We should not call ourselves 'humanists,' or 'secular humanists,' or 'naturalists,' or 'skeptics,' or 'anti-theists,' or 'rationalists,' or 'freethinkers,' or 'brights.' We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar -- for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them."

Though he is now one of the public voices for atheism, Harris said that he never thought of himself as an atheist until he was "inducted" to speak as one. He did not use the term atheist in The End of Faith, which is his most substantial criticism of religion.

HNN Podcast Speaks to "The New Atheists"

Humanist Network News traveled to Washington D.C. to cover the Atheist Alliance International conference for our HNN Audio Podcast. Co-host Duncan Crary recorded face-to-face interviews with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.

Richard Dawkins These interviews will appear on the next Humanist Network News Audio Podcast at the end of this month. If you've never listened to our audio podcast, this is the one to start with.

Crary speaks to these famous authors about their reactions to Sam Harris' talk, about organized atheism and many other topics.

To listen to the HNN Audio Podcast, visit

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"As I argued briefly in Letter to a Christian Nation, I think that 'atheist' is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don't need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people 'non-astrologers.'" he said. "All we need are words like 'reason' and 'evidence' and 'common sense' and 'bullshit' to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion."

In order to be consistent, Harris said those who label themselves atheists would have to waste their time opposing all irrational faith claims equally. Instead he said those who do not believe in god should focus on challenging opposition to issues like stem-cells on the grounds of reason. Identifying as an atheist "squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues."

Many audience members were taken aback by Harris's talk and expressed offence, shock and confusion during the question and answer session. Afterwards, one conference-goer vowed to throw away her copies of the author's books.

On Saturday, Harris spoke with Humanist Network News and other reporters in the conference media room.

"As a matter of philosophy, atheism is not a worldview. And yet it is being construed as one by its opponents and attacked as a worldview. And people have many erroneous associations with what is entailed in not believing in god. And I think we collaborate in that misunderstanding by labeling ourselves in opposition to religion," he told HNN.
"We're falling into a trap in some sense set by religious people because atheism as a term is so ill dignified in our culture. It has such bad PR that to answer to the name of atheist in some sense already wins the argument for your religious opponent. ....We have a terrible PR problem."

Harris said he's not sure what atheists should do if they all suddenly agreed with him.

"We'd have to change some websites and business cards," he said, referring to atheist organizations.

Harris prefers organizational titles like the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason, which allows Dawkins to openly challenge religious claims on the grounds on science and reason rather than atheism.

"Atheism is nothing more than the sounds people make when in the presence of unjustified dogma. It's just reason in action," Harris said, adding that the term atheist will no longer be useful if atheist organizations achieve their goals.

"Maybe there is a role for being outspoken as atheists, self-labeling, at the moment," Harris said, musing on the topic. "Maybe there's some transitional importance to this."

Other notable conference speakers included Prof. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. Along with Harris, these authors have been branded "The New Atheists" by the media.

Also speaking to reporters in the conference media room, Dawkins said of Harris: "I think he was making a very interesting point, and I'm still thinking about my reaction to it."

Dawkins, author of The God Delusion said that he looks forward to a time when atheist organizations are no longer necessary, but they are necessary now, especially in the United States.

Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell told HNN: "I think Sam's right that the term atheist is a risky term in some ways because it minimizes and marginalizes what the real issue is: which is irrationality and a failure to respect reason. Belief in God is just one aspect of that.

On the other hand, Dennett said that people need labels and that "atheist" is a good term that needs to be rehabilitated.

Hitchens, author of God is Not Great spoke with HNN in the hotel bar on Saturday night. Hitchens said he recognizes that the term atheist is unsatisfactory and that he prefers to call himself an "anti-theist."

"I believe the confrontation with the term (atheist) is inescapable. One is going to be asked -- either out of curiosity or hostility -- 'Are you an atheist?' And the term has a common understanding....where to say 'yes' means 'I do not believe in a creator god or an intervening god.' Thus, I think it's idle to expect that one can dodge the question, as it will be presented in that form. And I'm perfectly content to say 'yes' to that question in whatever tone it is asked of me.... I think any attempt to duck the question is doomed."

Duncan Crary is the director of communications of the Institute for Humanist Studies. He is the host of the Institute's monthly podcast.

Editor's Note: The Washington Post published an edited transcript of Harris' entire Atheist Alliance International conference talk on its website. To read the transcript, click here. Also be sure to read Ellen Johnson's response to Harris published in this edition of Humanist Network News. Johnson is president of American Atheists.

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