Harris gives awesome food for thought

Tilberian's picture

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

Wonderist's picture

Tilberian wrote:

Tilberian wrote:
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.

This is something I've been working on for quite a while. Here's my personal take on it.

Quote:
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.

I agree, with a major caveat which I'll explain after your 5 points.

Quote:
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.

The word I use for this philosophy is 'wonderism'. The idea, as related to reason and science, is that the thing that drives us forward in our search for knowledge is our natural sense of wonder. And the thing that is the greatest source of wonder is reason and science, not these old stories of 'gods'. God is imaginary, wonder is real. Check out this series of videos (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) to see that Dawkins agrees with me in principle, if not explicitly.

Quote:
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."

The idea for this I call 'foundationism', which is basically an agreement on basic human rights and freedoms (speech, religion, privacy, etc.) and the agreement that we should resolve conflicts with rational discourse, not violence. The term 'foundationist' then acts as an umbrella under which both theists and atheists can cooperate against those who are against these basic rights and freedoms. You can be a foundationist Hindu, foundationist Christian, even a foundationist Muslim. (The term was inspired by Babylon 5's Foundationism, which is pretty close, but is not exactly the same thing.)

Quote:
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.

I essentially agree with Harris' points 1, 4, and 5, but here's the major caveat: The word 'atheism' is not going away, and while there are people who believe in god, there will be people who are labelled as atheists. Not because *we* want to label ourselves atheists, but because the theists will label us atheists. Not only do they label us, but they also stereotype us (as Harris mentioned). We need to be able to take their label and say "No, you are wrong in your judgment of us as immoral, evil, doomed, etc." We can say, "You may call me an atheist, but I'm actually happy and proud to be an atheist, and none of the crap you spew at me has any foundation."

Now, armed with two more positive labels, we can also say, "I do have a foundation of reason for my beliefs, and you could too. Personally, I'm a foundationist and a wonderist. I happen to think that our natural sense of wonder is the key to enjoying a 'spiritual' life, and not some imaginary god, but as long as you stick to a rational foundation and respect rights and freedoms, I have no problem with you."

But if we don't have a solid defense as being atheists, they will continue to use the word as a negative label to discriminate against people. Atheism is the tip of the ice berg, the intellectual vanguard.

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Some interesting points made

Some interesting points made by both you and Harris. I agree with you in that abandoning the term "atheist" in description of our movement (and that's what I believe you are for... I know I am) and in our goals of conscious raising isn't yet feasible if we're in this to win (ie- get the majority of society to abandon faith-based beliefs).



I disagree with a few things on feminism and what Harris stated about racism. I don't see racism as completely gone, and I think that there are three fundamental stances one can take on it:

1. Racist, being a out-right racist.

2. Anti-Racist, being completely against racist ideas/ policies/ actions.

3. Apathetic, I would say that majority of this country would be in this category... one that probably thinks racism is a thing of the past except in backwards areas of the world/country. I believe these apathetic people can very often even contain within them some racist views --perhaps without full realizing it.



With that said, I would say I disagree that feminism is a thing of the past because women objectively hold an equal footing in this society now. I do agree that there are probably a lot of people (including a lot of women) that believe this, and therefore don't see a need for attaching "feminist" to them.

I think religion (and especially the three main monotheisms) carries with it HUGE amounts of patriarchal baggage... ingrained and infused with it. I see the dwindling away of religion's hold on society with the inequality of women in our social systems and I don't think either can be truly gone without the other going along with it.

“It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.” - Voltaire

Tilberian's picture

Agree with pretty much

Agree with pretty much everything, Natural. Though I might prefer calling "wonderism" "rationalism" because theists often use wonder (as in the Argument from Wonder) as a (flawed) defence of theism. However I think we are agreed that the point remains that the term atheism must be retained, clarified and defended rather than discarded.

Zack, of course I know that there are still racists and misogynists. The point is that they are now on the fringe of political discourse in our society and now represent an aberrant view that needs to be labeled in order to be understood. Unfortunately, atheist have the same status. We need to do like the feminists and Abolitionists and become the normative position. 

Lazy is a word we use when someone isn't doing what we want them to do.
- Dr. Joy Brown

Wonderist's picture

Tilberian, part of the point

Tilberian, part of the point of focusing on wonder is that it elliminates many of the theist's arguments. They *can't* use the argument from wonder, because I've taken the wind from their sails. "But the story is just so wonderful, it must be true." "Sorry, I've got wonder too. Wonder is a natural thing that all humans share. You don't have a monopoly on it. In fact, I find your story very weak in wonder. The universe is much more wonderful than your story. Your argument isn't convincing."

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Brian37's picture

I agree and dissagree. The

I agree and dissagree. The word "atheist" is seen as negitive, but by others, not atheists. I dont know that we need to get rid of the word as much as we need to take the stigma out of it so that it is defined as positive.

If it is not a negitive word, and we atheists know it isnt, then IMHO we should defend using it. But I do understand the position that it is seen by those who dont hold the label as negitive.

So Sam does have a point. I'm not sure what he is saying is nessarry though.

If there is any axiom that we could go by it would be "live well" and show people that it is not a word to be feared.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers."Obama
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Tilberian's picture

natural wrote: Tilberian,

natural wrote:
Tilberian, part of the point of focusing on wonder is that it elliminates many of the theist's arguments. They *can't* use the argument from wonder, because I've taken the wind from their sails. "But the story is just so wonderful, it must be true." "Sorry, I've got wonder too. Wonder is a natural thing that all humans share. You don't have a monopoly on it. In fact, I find your story very weak in wonder. The universe is much more wonderful than your story. Your argument isn't convincing."

 Right. Well, the argument from wonder is so pathetic that it's not much of a challenge anyway. 

Lazy is a word we use when someone isn't doing what we want them to do.
- Dr. Joy Brown

Tilberian's picture

Brian37 wrote: I agree and

Brian37 wrote:

I agree and dissagree. The word "atheist" is seen as negitive, but by others, not atheists. I dont know that we need to get rid of the word as much as we need to take the stigma out of it so that it is defined as positive.

If it is not a negitive word, and we atheists know it isnt, then IMHO we should defend using it. But I do understand the position that it is seen by those who dont hold the label as negitive.

So Sam does have a point. I'm not sure what he is saying is nessarry though.

If there is any axiom that we could go by it would be "live well" and show people that it is not a word to be feared.

But Sam is trying (somewhat half-heartedly) to make the point that atheists shouldn't like the term either, but for their own reasons. Anyway, I still think the term is more useful than damaging, politically, simply because it is familiar. 

Lazy is a word we use when someone isn't doing what we want them to do.
- Dr. Joy Brown