There’s been another kerfuffle in the atheist community, and for once, it wasn’t caused by someone telling us that we need to pipe down and stop attacking religion. This time, surprisingly, the instigator was Sam Harris – who argued at the Atheist Alliance International Convention 2007 that we should stop calling ourselves “atheists”. Hemant of Friendly Atheist has been reporting on this controversy from the beginning, and has collected responses to Harris, including from Ellen Johnson of American Atheists, David Koepsell of the Council for Secular Humanism, and of course PZ Myers. (Harris’ original speech is here.) In this post, I’d like to respond as well.
Harris’ main point, as best as I can summarize it, is that the term “atheism” already comes with negative stereotypes attached to it, and by using it to describe ourselves we are playing into the hands of our opponents. He says that we are “consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture” and that we have “walked into a trap” by so doing. When we call ourselves atheists, religious people who already think they know what atheism is and how to refute it will assume they know all about us already and can dismiss our arguments without further notice.
I don’t deny that there are negative stereotypes attached to the word “atheism”. What I do deny is that this constitutes reason to shrink from using it. Instead, we should work to reclaim it. We can and should shatter those harmful stereotypes by speaking out forcefully against them and by disproving them through the example of our lives. If we consent to our adversaries’ prejudice and flee from the terms they have already slandered, what will stop them from poisoning any new term we come up with to describe ourselves as well? (We can already see members of the religious right pouring bigotry and invective on terms like “secular humanism”.) We should not surrender this ground to them, or any ground. Instead, we should fight them on their own terms and refuse to back down when attacked.
Harris suggests that we “should not call ourselves anything”, but this is too facile. if we do not name ourselves, we will be named, most likely by our adversaries. Refusing to give a name to who we are and what we stand for will only create a vacuum that religious conservatives will gleefully fill with lies and distortion. Rather than give them such an opportunity, we should take the initiative to say what we believe, and we should do it loudly and with pride. That will serve as a rallying point for those who agree with our ideals, and it will deny bigots the chance to define us in terms that they find most convenient.
Harris’ second point is that atheism defines what we are against, rather than what we are for. He says that it “is not a philosophy, just as ‘non-racism’ is not a philosophy”, and “a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology”. Instead, he suggests that we should simply use words like “reason” and “evidence” to describe what we stand for, and attack all bad ideas wherever we find them.
First off, I agree that “[w]e will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept”. If everyone is an atheist, I agree that the term “atheist” will no longer be meaningful. I for one would welcome that day. But the obvious point which Harris overlooks is that that day is not yet. At the moment, the term “atheist” does select out a distinct group of people, and is therefore a real and meaningful concept. As long as religion still exercises vast and undue influence, there will be a need for a word that defines those who do not buy into its fantastic claims.
However, I don’t think Sam Harris was entirely off the mark. I think he’s identified a real problem – I just think he’s misdiagnosed the solution.
It’s true that proclaiming myself to be an atheist does not by itself identify what I do stand for. But that doesn’t mean that the word should be scrapped. What it means is that, whenever we identify as atheists and explain why we reject the claims of religion, we should devote equal effort to explaining what ideals we support instead. Contrary to what Harris says, there have been successful social movements that defined themselves in terms of what they were against – just think of “abolitionist”. We can do the same thing, just as long as we also offer a positive vision of what we are for. If we do this often enough, we can push out the harmful stereotypes about us that currently flourish and instill a more accepting view of atheists and atheism, one in which we need not fear to describe ourselves as such.