Harris gives awesome food for thought
Sam Harris was at his provocative best at the Atheist Alliance convention last night, warning us all against the dangers of labels and suggesting point blank that we should all stop calling ourselves atheists. Here are some of his points:
1. By using the term atheist, we are automatically defining ourselves in terms of the thing we oppose. We put ourselves in a conceptual box created and defined by our enemies. As he put it, it's as if the theists drew a chalk outline of a dead body on the floor to represent atheists and we are willingly lying down in it. Philosophically, we're accepting their paradigm and their terms of discourse before we even begin the discussion.
2. The term atheist is, of course, a negative term since it defines us not by what we believe but by what don't believe. Positive characteristics are easier to define and promote, and easier for outsiders to understand. So Harris is saying that instead of calling ourselves people who don't believe X, we should be concentrating on saying that we do believe in things like reason and science.
3. Atheism stands in opposition to god-belief and religion but, Harris says, it is a mistake to approach these things as undifferentiated monoliths. To do so is to ignore the huge differences between religions and individuals and beliefs within religions. For instance, the term atheist implies that we are equally opposed to our church-going grandmothers and the 9/11 terrorists. Harris would prefer us to focus on individual faith-based beliefs themselves, like creationism and opposition to stem-cell research, and define ourselves with our insistence on rationality in public discourse about these matters. If we do this, he feels we have a much better chance of actually effecting change on the issues that matter because we can work with like-minded theists (which are the vast majority) without alienating them with the term "atheist."
4. By using the term atheism we automatically become, in eyes of non-atheists and agnostics, a kind of club or cabal that stands for only one thing and can be broadly categorized and wholly dismissed. All the various atheist individuals and organizations get painted with the same brush and anyone claiming membership in the group automatically gets labeled with certain characteristics and ideas associated with the group. It may not be right, but it's what happens. It's called stereotyping.
5. If our ultimate goal is to discredit faith and faith-based beliefs like religion, then we are actually seeking a social environment in which the word atheist is a non sequitur. After all, there is no word for a non-racist. That is because the movement to defeat racism has largely succeeded and a state of non-racism is considered the norm. Harris feels we should reach for that condition now.
I agree with all these arguments, but I think that Harris is ignoring some political realities.
Think of the feminist movement. At first, they struggled with different names and different ideas of where the movement should be going. Some women just wanted the vote and everything else to stay the same. Others wanted to tear down the entire capitalist infrastructure along with male dominance. They used different words like sufferance and women's liberation. They were viewed as weird and irrelevant and largely ignored by those in power. That was the first phase.
The next phase was when they exploded all over the national consciousness, gaining respect and power and starting to make changes to legislation and policy. Women became proud to call themselves feminists. At this time, of course, is also when the most serious attacks to the movement occurred and the most serious attempts to keep it from influencing institutions. In the case of feminism, these efforts failed and the idea that women should be equal to men became part of the accepted political fabric.
Now, most women reject the label "feminist." Why? Because they dislike the limitations it places on them. They feel the term carries too much baggage in the form of preconceived notions and assumed characteristics. They have transcended the term and no longer feel the need for the protection of the group identity it once afforded. Women, largely, feel equal and realize that to be viewed as shrilly demanding their rights would actually be a step back. The term served its purpose, but now a state of equality is assumed under the aegis of the term "woman."
The question for atheists is, which of these three phases are we in? Certainly the movement has been around for long enough that we should be in the third phase, as Harris wants us to be, but I think the sad fact is that American atheism is having to start all over again at phase one. We need, for now, the slogans and jargon and rigid ideologies that people can use as psychological tools to get behind the movement and take action. The strict accuracy of those terms, the pure defensibility of our methods, the perfection of our philosophical framework all must take a back seat to the necessity to make the movement accepted and popular and to drive its adherents to action.
Introducing a new term to the public at this time can only create confusion and divisions in the ranks (as the "Bright" movement has proven). The term atheist at least carries the political benefit of being familiar and somewhat understood, if loathed, by many. What is needed now is an effort to raise consciousness, as Dawkins called for, about the perils of religion and to foster in people a sense of pride in calling themselves atheists. This is how we can emerge from our long gestation of self-examination and muddle and start to gain momentum and make political progress.
IMO, the day when we can safely discard the word atheist is still a long way off.
Lazy is a word we use when someone isn't doing what we want them to do.
- Dr. Joy Brown