October 10, 2007

Sam Harris Is Wrong (And I Feel Fine)

I really enjoyed Sam Harris' The End of Faith and am quick to recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the maladaptive nature of religion. But that does not mean I agreed with everything Harris said in the book. As but one example, I found much of his advocacy of Eastern spirituality to be absurd. My great respect for Harris does not prevent me from critically evaluating what he says or even from disagreeing with him on some important issues. You see, I am not blinded by faith; I think for myself and welcome the opportunity to evaluate information critically.

Harris has been slammed throughout the atheist blogosphere for comments he made during a recent speech at the Atheist Alliance conference. In the speech, titled "The Problem with Atheism," Harris argued that we are making a mistake to use the word "atheist" and that this mistake has unfortunate consequences.
So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.
Harris argues that it makes far more sense for us to form a movement around the promotion of reason and evidence than around nonbelief of either particular religions or religion in general. By attempting to forge a secular movement, Harris suggests that we are playing right into the hands of those who condemn us.
Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.
Rather than promoting atheism, Harris suggests that we should advocate for reason, intellectual honesty, evidence-based decision-making and the like. By continuing to define ourselves as atheists, Harris says that we lock ourselves into the never-ending series of absurd arguments religionists throw at us because they are so deluded as to think they are successful. We make no progress because we are forever playing defense.
Instead of doing this, consider what would happen if we simply used words like “reason” and “evidence.” What is the argument against reason? It’s true that a few people will bite the bullet here and argue that reason is itself a problem, that the Enlightenment was a failed project, etc. But the truth is that there are very few people, even among religious fundamentalists, who will happily admit to being enemies of reason. In fact, fundamentalists tend to think they are champions of reason and that they have very good reasons for believing in God. Nobody wants to believe things on bad evidence. The desire to know what is actually going on in world is very difficult to argue with. In so far as we represent that desire, we become difficult to argue with. And this desire is not reducible to an interest group. It’s not a club or an affiliation, and I think trying to make it one diminishes its power.
This is an excellent and thought-provoking argument. It also happens to be one with which I do not entirely agree. It is human nature to use labels to communicate meaning. Even if we could somehow agree to stop calling ourselves "atheists" and every other label Harris suggests we discard, the media will never stop using these terms to describe us. As PZ Myers points out at Pharyngula, we will be called "atheists" and experience continued demonization regardless of what we call ourselves. We represent a threat to religious institutions, and Harris is naive if he thinks reason itself would not be similarly attacked if it becomes too powerful.

While I do agree with Harris that promoting reason, evidence, and skepticism are worthy goals, I do not see why we can't do this under a secular banner. My attitude is increasingly becoming one of, "Of course I'm an atheist. Now let me tell you what that means and why I find it incredible that anyone could cling to theistic belief in this modern world." I am an atheist because I apply reason and recognize that truth claims require evidence. I take at least a little pride in my ability to do this, and I see little wrong with atheist pride. In fact, we could probably use more of it. Where I would say Harris is absolutely correct is that we do need to devote more effort to promoting reason and evidence outside the context of religion. The promotion of atheism should be a part of what we do but not the entirety of our efforts.

As Hemant at The Friendly Atheist points out, the key issue facing us now is how to bring the many secular groups together to maximize our strength and work together. This is a point I have raised many times here and will continue to advocate.

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