Sam Harris & the End of “Atheism”…. as a term

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.

7 Responses to Sam Harris & the End of “Atheism”…. as a term

  1. I would never call myself an a-voodooist, a-druidian, a-zeusthian, a-arthurian, to call up just a few examples of magical belief systems I reject without a second thought and less debate.
    I emerged without the burden of an activated need-to-believe-in-magic gene, much as I emerged without an activated gene for a number of other mental conditions. It’s beneficial that “atheists” are examining the language of this particular condition.

  2. Bad says:

    Indeed. The other issue is that because what we’re talking about is mainly being unconvinced by theist arguments or offering debunking of the same, one shouldn’t need to have any explicit group membership to appreciate the logic: logic is the same for everyone. Theoretically, even a theist could agree with us that this or that argument for theism is unconvincing or false.

  3. Pamela says:

    Good points and admirable that Harris was ballsy enough to bring it up at the convention which further demonstrates the veracity of the reasonableness of atheists and the like.

  4. […] read — I’m sure the speech was even more interesting, although Friendly Atheist (via The Bad Idea Blog) notes that it didn’t go over terribly well — and I’m not surprised about it, […]

  5. Jose says:

    I prefer the term “not religious” when describing myself. It’s unambigious and carries less baggage.

  6. Well, it’s not a good word to build an identity around … but there’s a need to state the position that religion is false because its central, foundational claim – the existence of a powerful supernatural being – is false. Yes indeed, there’s an atheist position (or a number of related positions), and this means that a word is needed.

    But there’s a related, if separate, issue of who would we should join with in social and political struggles. I’m happy to join with genuinely moderate deists and theists, and I do dislike the reflex assumption that I often see that all theists must be nut-jobs.

  7. Highly impressed, found your page on digg.Glad I finally tested it out. Not sure if its my Explorer browser,but sometimes when I visit your site, the fonts are really tiny? However, love your site and will return.See Ya

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