Hemant over at the Friendly Atheist has a summary of the recent Atheist Alliance International Convention in DC that mentions that Sam Harris got a less than stellar reception at his talk. Why? Because Harris made the case that using the term atheist and organizing under the banner of atheism is counter-productive. It’s a very interesting point, and I like Harris even more that he was plucky enough to raise it at a convention named, well the “Atheist Alliance” where there’s little question that it would be controversial.
Harris apparently argued that when non-believers use of the term atheist, it’s like having religious people draw a “chalk outline of a dead man” and then just lying down in it. There’s a lot to be said for this. Too much time and energy has to be spent explaining to people that non-believers are just people, not a group, not an ideology. We’re people that, if it wasn’t for religion, wouldn’t have any reason at all to think of ourselves as in any way related. Having to explain for the 80th time that we have nothing in common with Stalin just because we are both non-believers (anymore than we have values in common just because we are both non-aliens) just gets exhausting, boring, and irritating.
This isn’t, as I suspect some roaring Secular Spartans at the conference probably understood it, an issue of atheism being bad: it’s really an issue of it just being deeply confusing and distracting in some contexts. And, it has to be said, it’s really often pretty confusing even to atheists. Harris seems to be a good example of practicing what he preaches to: as Hemant notes, he apparently wrote “The End of Faith” without even mentioning “atheist” or “atheism.”
Now, obviously, there is no atheist Congress that is going to pass legislation banning the term, and the convention was not simply going to close up shop on the spot after Harris’ suggestion. Nor is there any possibility of simply dumping any and all terms for non-believers: atheism, for all it’s twisted and convoluted issues with connotation, is here to stay, and we’re here to defend it. But in the case of individual arguments and movements, I certainly think it’s worth considering whether it makes much sense to unfurl the banner “atheism” at every opportunity. When it’s a matter of defending atheists from slander and attack, that’s one thing. When it’s an issue of arguing against religious faith, as Harris has, I can definitely see the advantage of just leaving the discussion of “atheism” to the wayside and getting straight to the point.
I sort of feel the same way about this as I do about the recent push to create more conspicuously “secular/atheist” charities. The whole point of a charity, as I see it, is to just deliver the service, not to spend time or energy promoting any particular ideology or opinion on religion, especially when such matters are utterly tangential to the social need in question. Spending time on the promotion of religion, or trying to rack up the good that’s done as “points” for a particular ideology, is a bad thing that some explicitly religious charities do. Non-believers should not feel the need to “compete” with them by emulating that misplaced focus.
This issue has a bit of the same flavor and overtones of the tiresome “framing” debate, which I’m still working on writing about. So, more thoughts to come.