I am not with Sam

Newsweek on washingtonpost.com has a transcript of Sam Harris' talk at the Atheist Alliance Conference, and I still disagree with his ideas on not calling ourselves 'atheists'.

I have lost much respect for the guy, so I'll refer to him as Sam rather than as Harris.

First, Sam makes the point that those who campaigned against racism in America did not have an anti-racist label. He seems to be ignoring the fact that most civil rights activists were distinguished by their degree of pigmentation and that they called themselves 'civil rights activists' if they were moderate or 'Black Panthers' if they were militant. Earlier than these days, those who campaigned against slavery called themselves 'abolitionists', as another participant at the conference pointed out.



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.

Sam was invited to participate in the conference because, whether he used the term 'atheism' in his book or not, his book took an anti-faith, atheist position.

Many of us are atheists, secularists, secular humanists, naturalists, and skeptics/rationalists/freethinkers/brights. Each of the terms indicates a different manifestation of the usually liberal, empirical worldview that also manifests as atheism. Some, who arrived at atheism emotionally because they lost faith in a patently indifferent deity do not exhibit the cognitive manifestations of a liberal worldview, but those folk are unlikely to have attended the Atheist Alliance conference.

Now, it just so happens that religion has more than its fair share of bad ideas. And it remains the only system of thought, where the process of maintaining bad ideas in perpetual immunity from criticism is considered a sacred act. This is the act of faith. And I remain convinced that religious faith is one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised. So we will, inevitably, continue to criticize religious thinking. But we should not define ourselves and name ourselves in opposition to such thinking.

If it talks and walks like an atheist, then it is an atheist.

Well, rather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general. There is no religion in general.

Look again, Sam, there is indeed religion in general, and if you weren't so apparently in love with being different, you would see that when you say, "given the absence of evidence for God, and the stupidity and suffering that still thrives under the mantle of religion" you are in fact talking of religion as problem-generating, deluded belief in nonexistent supernatural entities.

But we shouldn’t be fixated, and we shouldn’t be even-handed. In fact, we should be quick to point out the differences among religions. . . Mormonism, it seems to me, is—objectively—just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. . . Islam is quite a bit scarier and more culpable for needless human misery, than Christianity has been for a very, very long time. And the world must wake up to this fact. Muslims themselves must wake up to this fact.



I agree that Mormon beliefs are even more ridiculous than 'average' Christian beliefs, though not necessarily much more stupid than Biblical literalism. I agree that Islam is a menace to both Westerners and to Muslims (well, certainly to Muslim women). However, neither of these facts alters the fact that the core problem is that any religious belief demands some degree of credulity, anti-empiricism, and illogical thinking. The terrorist style adopted by Muslims has probably caused less actual harm than the non-election and probable non-election of the Religious Wrong's favorite idiot. Sam is correct that some religions are even more stupid and dangerous than others, and it is time to stop being polite about this, so let's not ignore Christian fundamentalism because Congress gave Dubaya carte blanche for invasion and overt war without terror tactics.

Another problem with calling ourselves “atheists” is that every religious person thinks he has a knockdown argument against atheism. We’ve all heard these arguments, and we are going to keep hearing them as long as we insist upon calling ourselves “atheists. Arguments like: atheists can’t prove that God doesn’t exist; atheists are claiming to know there is no God, and this is the most arrogant claim of all. As Rick Warren put it, when he and I debated for Newsweek—a reasonable man like himself “doesn’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” The idea that the universe could arise without a creator is, on his account, the most extravagant faith claim of all.
This is not a problem due to calling ourselves 'atheists', rather this is a manifestation of the cognitive problem that accompanies theism. To be a theist in this age of scientific explanation requires that the believer close his or her mind with the church door.

Many theists are too uneducated, too lacking in imagination or comprehension (like Rick Warren's type), too obstinately ignorant, too illogical, and/or too emotional in their thinking ever to concede that their arguments have failed repeatedly. This is particularly true because they have been protected by the unwarranted politeness that has traditionally been extended to religious follies. So long as such theists are thus protected from critical thinking, they will smugly assume they are not being foolish because there are lots of other fools who also think as they have been told to think. Unless and until such types see that increasing numbers of others do not believe, then they will not question the "rightness" of their own indoctrination.


I can assure you that this [Stalin, etc] bogus argument will be with us for as
long as people label themselves “atheists.” And it really convinces religious
people. It convinces moderates and liberals. It even convinces the occasional
atheist.

I can assure you, Sam, that our not calling ourselves 'atheists' will not make this bogus argument go away, because it appeals to emotional thinking. When a rationalist makes what is only an intellectual argument, many theists are simply not paying any attention. As soon as many theists are aware that any discussion relates to religion, to lack of faith, or to science, they will troop out one of the tired fallacies of logic that offer such emotional succor to the logically challenged.

Reasoning with such non-thinkers does not work, so the only means by which to disrupting their emotional thinking is to directly point out the fallacies in their illogic and to then to provide a rational alternative explanation. Be warned that unlike open-minded individuals, most theists cannot be expected to concede the point, instead they amplify their illogic, change the subject to another irrelevance, or leave the discussion. Such theists don't care about being right, they only care about feeling right.


Instead of doing this, consider what would happen if we simply used words like
“reason” and “evidence.” What is the argument against reason?
What happens? Don't you know, Sam? Many theists resort to denial, arguments from incredulity, ridicule, the scriptures, and the tactics that I have just described.


We will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely
intelligible as a concept. We will simply find ourselves in a world in which
people cease to praise one another for pretending to know things they do not
know. This is certainly a future worth fighting for. It may be the only future
compatible with our long-term survival as a species. But the only path between
now and then, that I can see, is for us to be rigorously honest in the present.
It seems to me that intellectual honesty is now, and will always be, deeper and
more durable, and more easily spread, than “atheism.”

The war of ideas against religion can only be won by attacking the illogic of religious dogma by asserting the facts and arguing and arguing and arguing that 'atheism' is the logical, rational alternative on the basis of all the evidence.

The more advanced Western nations have already freed themselves from much theistic thinking. America and Islam are particularly intransigent in this regard, probably for similar reasons of low educational standards and community pressure to conform. The war will only be won by declaring against conformity to deluded beliefs.

PZ Letter to a non-atheist New Atheist .

Sam Harris responded to PZ Myers and Ellen Johnson to 'clarify the point [he] was making about the use of the term "atheist."':

My point, with respect to the term "atheist" (or any other), is that the use of a label invites a variety of misunderstandings that are harmful to our cause.

Then why didn't you say that instead of suggesting that we quit the label because theist might get upset and make fallacious arguments? Trying to waffle out of your error of political judgement changes nothing that you actually said in the infamous speech. Sam, it is theists who invent misunderstandings regardless of how rational the argument of scientists or atheists. Theists will not desist from fallacies of logic just because atheists don't admit to being atheists.

I was not impressed before. I am even less impressed now.

Blog reactions: Sam Harris seems like a nice fellow, but very confused :



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