Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Problem with Atheism

"Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." -- J.K. Rowling


Second hand, by way of Andrew Sullivan's blog, is noted atheist (but don't call him that) Sam Harris' admonition to atheists to not be so quick to accept the label of "atheist":

"... 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.

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of "atheist," it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I'm not saying that meetings like this aren't important. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.

While it is an honor to find myself continually assailed with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] as though we were a single person with four heads, this whole notion of the "new atheists" or "militant atheists" has been used to keep our criticism of religion at arm's length, and has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism.

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 ..."

While I agree with a lot of Harris' arguments, he has a tendency to outclever himself sometimes - and this might be one of those occasions. He seems to be getting just a bit hung up on semantics. Whether I call myself an atheist, humanist or skeptic, it doesn't fundamentally change who I am. If an argument or a critique of something (in this case, religion) has merit, should it matter where it comes from? Maybe that's naive on my part. As he says, naming "has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism".

It's too bad that people are not taken on the merit of their ideas, instead of what we perceive them to be. We're too quick to slap a label on them. I certainly am. I've bandied about terms like neo-con, right-wing, liberal, etc. It's a shortcut. People's opinions are hopefully more nuanced than a mere name can capture.

I'd have to agree with him that naming something certainly makes it an easier target. Hence the tendency of some to give the mantle of religion to atheism.



So, overall, I agree with a lot of his comments. Where I could disagree is in his position that we should allow our fear of being label atheists to affect our behavior. Certainly a lot of atheists call themselves humanists or agnostics because the fear of being ostracized. That's a problem with society, not with one's views. If more were not afraid of the label, maybe society would get over it's hangups.

"What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2) -- William Shakespeare

5 comments:

wunelle said...

I love Sam Harris. I love the simple strength of his line of argument.

I think we needn't expend our energy trying to thwart the machinations of the mystically-inclined in their efforts to keep the tide of rationality at bay. I don't think of myself as an "atheist," though I surely meet every proper definition of the term. I don't think of myself with any labels. If a religious person identifies me primarily by how I differ from this fundamental thing in their lives, so be it.

I try (with really limited success) to expend my energy making sound rational argument about the core issue.

CyberKitten said...

I am more than happy with the 'label' of atheist - though I do understand Harris's objection to the name.

For me it says exactly what's "in the tin" as it where.

shrimplate said...

Atheists can pretty much call themselves whatever they want and it won't matter a whit to people of faith, who will persist in using the label.

Laura said...

There's a valid argument here. In much feminist scholarship there is an emphasis on the importance of language and the meanings imposed on certain words and the negative (or positive) impact that choice of language can have. It's difficult to change the meaning of a word, so you change the word. Negro becomes African-American, retarded becomes mentally disabled... now you can take it too far - which is where the politically correct people are. But if athiest carries with it negative connotations imposed upon the word by religious bigots, then change the word to a more positive one.

Of course, then there are the groups that try to "reclaim" words - like "Fag", "Dyke" and "Queer" in some populations of the gay community. That only works to a point. Some words, like the N-word, will never, ever lose their negative meanings no matter how groups try to reclaim it.

dbackdad said...

Wunelle - I'm a big fan of Harris too. At the very least, his writings are always very provocative. And he's perhaps not as strident a Dawkins.

"I don't think of myself as an "atheist,"" - I didn't consider myself one for a long time either. I made the same mistake that a lot of society makes in attaching a negative connotation to it. So, I always tended towards "humanist" or "agnostic". From being better educated about atheism and skepticism by JA, CK, Laura and others, I don't have that feeling about atheism any more. So, I'm not offended to be called an atheist but I also don't go out of my way to call myself one. As you and CK say, labels are not so important as the underlying beliefs.

Laura -- Thanks for the input. I appreciate your ability to both look at it from a scholarly perspective and also by comparing it to another term with often negative connotations, "feminism".