Ellen Johnson Responds to Sam Harris

Sam Harris said that we should stop using the “atheist” label at the Atheist Alliance International convention.

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, has a slightly different opinion.

In the recent Humanist Network News, she writes this:

… We give ourselves a name because we are proud of who we are. A group needs to be identified in some way. And we want to be a “group.” We aren’t just against something. We are something.

Is the American Cancer Society just “against” something because they fight against cancer? Are they a “negative” organization? Is Greenpeace a negative organization because they are against pollution? Sounds silly doesn’t it? Yet we buy into this nonsense when it is said about us.

I’m not quite seeing the parallels there…

But I do agree with the general sentiment expressed in this next statement:

In the end, the Theist doesn’t give a damn what we call ourselves. You can call yourselves “sugar” and they will still hate you and lie about you if you are an activist or if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.

And you have to love any reference to Mr. T:

Our own approval is enough. Our history is one to be proud of and American Atheists will never back down on wearing our name proudly. You cannot lead the way by looking back and we aren’t going back. I invite Atheists to stand proud and use the name Atheist proudly and when you want people to refer to you remember the words of Mr. “T” who said, “Let them call me Mr. ‘T.’”

It’s too early to abandon the “atheist” label. There will come a day when we can start to shed it, but that time hasn’t come yet. People are finally beginning to understand what it actually means to be an atheist. It simply means you don’t believe in a god. No more, no less. It doesn’t mean you’re evil or immoral, as many Christians have been taught. People are finally starting to accept atheism (PDF) — why abandon the term now?

I’m afraid people would be lost by the obscurity of simply advocating for reason and evidence (which most religions would say they advocate, anyway).

No, we shouldn’t need the term “atheist.” But since we’re fighting an uphill battle, we need to band like-minded people together in some way. For now, atheist is the most well-known term we have for that.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Christian[/tags]

  • Kate

    I’m not sure I’d go so far as to equate belief in God with cancer or pollution…

    But I still use the term atheist. I get asked about it, especially since technically I’m more of an agnostic/other. But I use it to show people, like you said, that atheists aren’t bad. I’m trying to take the toxicity from the word.

  • http://www.eloquentatheist.com Michael W. Jones

    Atheist is just fine with me, too. The word “atheist” says who we are, very directly. We need to be proud of it and not hide. I really appreciate Ellen’s take on this. It does not help to change the label. Instead, we need to change the *perception* of the label. If someone is not helping us do that, I have to question if that person is helping at all. Changing the label is just another way of running and hiding.

  • http://bjornisageek.blogspot.com Bjorn Watland

    It all comes down to what comes up in a debate. To stamp out poor reasoning, for example, with regards to whether gay people should be allowed to marry, the issue of belief in a deity will probably come up as a reason for a point of view on one side. It may go something like this:

    Theist: Gay’s shouldn’t marry. It’s unnatural, and the Bible tells us homosexual acts are wrong.

    Atheist: Well, I’ve looked as studies of homosexual marriages, and families, and there doesn’t seem to be any unusual harm to that relationship.

    Theist: It doesn’t matter whether there is harm or not. The Bible says it’s wrong, therefor God says it’s wrong.

    Atheist: But look at the studies! Ethically, you can’t say humanity is better off restricting the right to legally marry someone of the same sex.

    Theist: My ethics come from the Bible. I have every right to base my ethics on scripture which I believe is divinely inspired. Why can’t you understand the meaning in the Bible? What are you, an atheist?

    Atheist: You’ve got me.

  • Eric

    I’m definitely not on board with this “proud to be an atheist” nonsense. And there is absolutely nothing in Sam Harris’ lecture that suggests we should run and hide. I think Sam Harris is a true iconoclast and a blessing (if I may use that term) and this lecture solidifies that. I want to write more about this but I need more time to think about what I want to say.

  • http://odgie.wordpress.com Odgie

    I knew I had forgotten something…I haven’t hated on any atheists or lied about them today! Thanks to Ellen for the reminder!

  • J.S.Brown

    I’m in the middle on this. I agree with what Harris said about dealing with bad claims (whatever they are) using evidence and reason. I have been doing this all along while calling myself an atheist (in theistic context). I use the term as a conversation starter – something to get the attention of the theists.

    I have also found that a person’s reaction to the term, atheist, can be used as a basic measure to how open he or she might be to reasonable discussion on the subject. But that’s often based on a misunderstanding of the term, so there are problems. I do tire of explaining what it does and doesn’t mean over and over again.

    I wonder, though, about Ellen Johnson. Would she ever agree with this idea of Harris’? Being the president of American Atheists, it seems she might encourage the use of the term for her organization no matter what. Just a thought…

  • http://daybydayhsing.blogspot.com Dawn

    I’m just wondering why the term theist is being used to mean christian? I’ve seen a lot of discussion on blogs and message boards about what atheist means or whether it should even be used. It would probably be a good thing to apply the same rigourous frame of mind to the use of other terms and ditch the sloppy approach to language and labels.

    Theist means someone who believes in a personal god period. It says nothing about who the god is, how many gods there might be or what that god’s opinions on homosexuality are.

  • Vincent

    I’m not positive, but I think Bjorn was just using Christian as an example of an atheist because it’s the one he’s most familiar with.
    You can just substitute Koran for Bible if you prefer and it doesn’t change his dialog one bit. In fact you could just substitute (insert holy text here).

    But you have a point. We should not get intellectually lazy.

    Personally I like the term atheist. I don’t go around boasting about being an atheist, but I do use it to gather with like-minded people. How else will I know that I can get together with people to have dinner without someone making it awkward and uncomfortable by asking me to hold hands and pray?
    And as far as a movement goes, the analogy to Greenpeace doesn’t really work. We’re not out there trying to push atheism (and sinking boats full of missionaries). The homosexuality analogy is still the best one: it’s something personal that can be hidden and that affects how we view the world but that we’re not trying to push on people who aren’t already in the group.

    p.s. Why quote Mr. T? Not to mention he’s a born again minister.

  • http://skeptigator.com Skeptigator

    @Bjorn
    Bjorn let’s make sure we try to be a little more inclusive when coming up with examples for your posts

    @Dawn
    Let me rephrase Bjorn’s post so as not to offend anyone or cause confusion when interchanging theist and christian

    Theist: Gay’s shouldn’t marry. It’s unnatural, and the [Holy book, sacred text, revealed message or other form of communicating a deity and/or deities commands, rules or other prescriptions for daily life] tells us homosexual acts are wrong.

    Atheist: Well, I’ve looked as studies of homosexual marriages, and families, and there doesn’t seem to be any unusual harm to that relationship.

    Theist: It doesn’t matter whether there is harm or not. The [Holy book, sacred text, revealed message or other form of communicating a deity and/or deities commands, rules or other prescriptions for daily life] says it’s wrong, therefore [the deity and/or deities described in the aforementioned Holy book, sacred text, revealed message or other form of communicating that deity and/or deities commands, rules or other prescriptions for daily life] says it’s wrong.

    Atheist: But look at the studies! Ethically, you can’t say humanity is better off restricting the right to legally marry someone of the same sex.

    Theist: My ethics come from the [Holy book, sacred text, revealed message or other form of communicating a deity and/or deities commands, rules or other prescriptions for daily life]. I have every right to base my ethics on [Holy book, sacred text, revealed message or other form of communicating a deity and/or deities commands, rules or other prescriptions for daily life] which I believe is divinely inspired. Why can’t you understand the meaning in the [Holy book, sacred text, revealed message or other form of communicating a deity and/or deities commands, rules or other prescriptions for daily life]? What are you, an atheist?

    Atheist: You’ve got me.

    Oh and I hope the sarcasm comes through in my post ;)

  • Darryl

    Harris makes some good points. It may be that the present interest in atheism per se, from all sides, is a passing fad. What will endure, if anything, is not the hoopla, but what Harris is describing.

  • Mriana

    I have to agree with Ellen. Those of us who are in “the closet” so to speak are being encouraged to come out and to back track now would be a bad thing. I really feel we should be proud to be Humanists, atheists, agnostics, Freethinkers, etc. To retract and hide is not good. There are times I have to figuratively come out kicking because some theists will push one back when they find out you don’t believe [as they do], when someone comes out and says, “I don’t believe”. Personally, I’ve gotten a little tired of starting to voice something and then getting the Inquisition, so to speak, and in some cases it really is a case that others demand I say “I believe” when I don’t in order to get them to back off. This is not a good thing.

    I think it’s time to start pointing out things like, “Before you didn’t know I didn’t believe and when you knew, you became hateful. Why? Have I suddenly changed now that you know?” The reality is that I’m still the same person as I was before they knew. The only thing that really changed was their attitude AFTER they found out that I don’t believe. For example: My family had no idea what a Humanist was until now. What has changed is their attitude towards me, but I am still the same person- I still stand for reason, compassion, and love. Why go back into hiding behind an untruth now? I just have not used the word atheist or non-theist with them yet, but they do know that Humanists do not believe in a god. But what is the difference?

  • Mriana

    I just had a thought, if we start limiting our vocabularies, which is what we do when we decide to quit using words because of what other people say about them, we will eventually start to struggle to find words and then maybe make up new words to replace those we threw out of our vocabulary.

    Making up new words is not a bad thing, but I know as a writer I have to be creative sometimes to keep from saying the same word over and over again. Sometimes I go out on a limb use words that on the surface appear to be religious, esp when I am trying to communicate an emotion, sometimes a shared emotion. Sometimes that shared emotion is between myself and a religious person, in which case I am openned to play with words in which we both interpret differently.

    For example: I was seriously thinking about rewriting a poem I wrote for my mother a few years ago when she had recovered from Breast Cancer. I had used the word ‘God’ in it and got to thinking I do not think as I did six years ago, but even then my mother’s and my definition of God was different- mine was a non-metaphysical god and her’s was and is the traditional religious concept.

    As I thought about it the other day, I thought, “Why change it?” The poem conveys the love between mother and daughter and the way it is written conveys those emotions to the mother from the daughter. The meaning was love and thankfulness for her recovery and it still means that. To leave it written as it is conveys even more feeling to my mother regardless if my definition of “God” has gone from a Don Cupitt meaning to love being a purely human emotion and nothing more. Regardless of the one word used to communicate emotions, the poem still brings tears to my eyes. Tears of sadness, joy, thankfulness, and more because without medical science, she would not be here today, regardless of the battles we have to this day. The poem would sound stilted if I were to say, “thank goodness” and dampen the emotional impact it has.

    While there is a big difference between my poem and this topic, I think sometimes we have to use words that convey a meaning, even if it is the wrong meaning that causes us to have to explain ourselves. Words are a means of communication and sometimes we do have to explain ourselves, which is not necessarily a bad thing. So, you may battle over belief systems, misconcepts, misunderstandings, or what have you, but I for one am glad we have a variety of words to communicate strong emotions, thoughts, and what we are or are not.

    Personally, I need words, even the word Humanist, Freethinker, non-theist, atheist, etc and I am not beyond stooping to using a word that I would not normally use in order to communicate my thoughts and feelings to another, esp in writing. Sometimes, it is not necessarily the word(s) we use, but what we are trying to communicate to another.

    Years from now (or even now), others may see that poem “To My Mother”, and say, “But she was/is a Humanist. Why did she use the word ‘God’?” just as they have questioned why other writers, long since dead, used the words they used in writing, including those who are considered atheists. Some dig deeper and find what they think are the answers to the question(s).

    So, the word atheist may bring the wrong concept to some people, but it is our job to change that misconception.

  • http://humaniststudies.org HumanistPR

    Making up new words is not a bad thing, but I know as a writer I have to be creative sometimes to keep from saying the same word over and over again. Sometimes I go out on a limb use words that on the surface appear to be religious, esp when I am trying to communicate an emotion, sometimes a shared emotion. Sometimes that shared emotion is between myself and a religious person, in which case I am openned to play with words in which we both interpret differently.

    Salman Rushdie once asked this question of finding irreligious words that have the same power as religious words on the Humanist Network News Podcast. He asked the question to “Sweet Reason”, the humanist advice column.

    You can listen to his question and answer on this show:

    http://humaniststudies.org/enews/?id=299&article=0

    Or, for those who would prefer, here is a link to the transcript:

    http://humaniststudies.org/enews/?id=303&article=1#Segment1

  • Mriana

    Yes, I heard that episode and I think it was great. Sweet Reason thinks we can give some words new meanings, even and she gave examples of words that have changed meaning over time. I agree with what she said. I just can’t remember all that she did say though. Of course, I seem to appreciate a lot of what she does say in response to people’s questions.

  • Pingback: Friendly Atheist » The Davids React to Sam Harris

  • Lewis Cawthorne

    I personally agree with Harris over Ellen in this one. I don’t particularly care for groups and labels in general, and I am firmly of the opinion that it’s over-identification with a label (religions being common, but nationality and race are high up on the list) tends to be a big source of conflict.

    The label of atheist is kind of silly anyway. Normally we label someone to cut back on the number of words to describe their position. Christian has a lot of baggage, after all. I really don’t need to say I am an atheist, when it only saves me about four words off the sentence “I don’t believe in gods.” That is all atheist means, and when we use it, we generally just put ourselves into a position where we have to start fixing off misconceptions immediately after identifying ourselves, or even worse just get shut out. The label causes us to have to say far more “stuff” than just saying the five simple words in the first place if the question comes up.

    What the heck do we need a label for. It really only serves to help us treat our “in-group” better and the “out-group” worse. I’m all for everyone on an individual level than on a group one. Just because your an atheist doesn’t make your ideas any better than anyone else’s (they are theoretically likely to be since you probably value logic higher, but simple experiment by seeing some of the crap ‘atheists’ spew out on the Internet has proven that this often turns out not to be the case in reality). If you aren’t going to use the label for preferential treatment, what’s the purpose of the label at all? To unite us? Unite us to do what??? We all don’t believe in gods; that’s are only commonality.

    Maybe if we also have some other common interest we can do something together, but heck, why exclude the someone that might be a perfectly good faithhead and be able to keep his religion to himself from a picnic or book club or whatever. When we get to the voting booth we’re all by ourselves anyway. I doubt we’ll ever get on the same sheet of paper enough to form a political lobby.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    Lewis: There already is an atheist lobbyist in D.C., Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America. The organization was created by a coalition of the Internet Infidels, Atheist Alliance International, the Institute for Humanist Studies, and the Secular Student Alliance, and has subsequently added the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The late Clark Adams was one of the people who helped make this happen (as one of the reps from Internet Infidels)–he was an atheist who was supportive of a diversity of self-chosen labels, including “bright.”

    See http://www.secular.org/

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    In the end, the Theist doesn’t give a damn what we call ourselves. You can call yourselves “sugar” and they will still hate you and lie about you if you are an activist or if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.

    This point is really just sort of irrelevant. Yes, they will: so what? So we should spend more time letting them divert the conversation that way? We should HELP them do so? Why?


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