Sam Harris gave a speech at the Atheist Alliance conference, held in Washington D.C., on September 28. In it he threw out the radical suggestion that atheists should stop calling themselves atheists. What was radical about it was that his alternative self-nomenclature was to refrain from calling ourselves anything. He said, in part:
I think that “atheist” is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people “non-astrologers.” All we need are words like “reason” and “evidence” and “common sense” and “bullshit” to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion…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.
Part of his reasoning is that the connotations of atheism are negative, to a large part, especially among theists. Metaphorically:
It’s as though, before the debate even begins, our opponents draw the chalk-outline of a dead man on the sidewalk, and we just walk up and lie down in it.
This has caused a lively discussion of the issue among atheists. I suspect, in fact Harris clearly says, that he wanted to propose a controversial suggestion in order to spark discussion.
In thinking about what I could say to you all tonight, it seemed to me that I have a choice between throwing red meat to the lions of atheism or moving the conversation into areas where we actually might not agree. I’ve decided, at some risk to your mood, to take the second approach and to say a few things that might prove controversial in this context.
He’s received much criticism to his second approach. Harris has responded to the criticism with a clarification. The critics criticize the clarification. The smoke is dissipating, but I’m not so sure it is any clearer, though his point that there are times or situations where an in-your-face reference to one’s atheism would have a deleterious effect does make some sense. However, at best, that means you should use good judgment when proclaiming your atheism, not that you shouldn’t label yourself so .
Ebonmuse has asked, over at Daylight Atheism, whether it is a wise course to take to disclaim the label. He concludes:
I don’t deny that there are negative stereotypes attached to the word “atheism”. What I do deny is that this constitutes reason to shrink from using it. Instead, we should work to reclaim it.
After mulling it over, I tend to agree with Ebonmuse, distancing myself a bit from the Harris approach. While ideally it makes sense that we should need no word for someone who has no beliefs in the divine or supernatural, nor should we go out of our way to alienate listeners by using a label they completely misperceive, as if the word itself was an argument in our favor, in reality, most people in the world do harbor theistic beliefs. As a matter of practicality, there must be a word to describe us, since we don’t share those beliefs. Atheism is not only as good as any other, it is, frankly, the best word to describe us, for a number of reasons.
- The word itself describes exactly what we are. A-theist comes from the Greek A, meaning without, and theos meaning gods. We have no belief in gods, and our lives are lived without them. That’s about the most efficient use of etymology as I can think of.
- The word is known by everyone who has any belief, and those who don’t – in effect, everybody. Why create a new word, or stop emphasizing the old, when everybody thinks atheist, when they think of people who don’t believe in god?
- Alternative words, like brights, are perceived as condescending.
- Finally, the word has the capacity to become a wonderful umbrella term, much like “gay” is used to describe homosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual and even to a certain extent, the transgendered, along with not only a lifestyle and a sexual practice, but a culture. Atheism can include, despite its definitional limitation, a multi-faceted number of differing and complimentary world views and philosophies, if we allow it.
While we often find ourselves defending the definition (see my last post), it’s still true that atheism really doesn’t define what most atheists actually believe in, oftentimes because we defend ourselves from attacks by limiting the term to its strict definition. As a practical matter, atheists run the gamut from naturalism, through materialism, humanism, skepticism and many other isms that translate into affirmative beliefs, as opposed to the simple lack of belief in gods.
When I was a Catholic, I had a definite idea of what an atheist was. Atheists were amoral, unethical, unprincipled, dishonest, irresponsible, not to mention spineless for refusing to accept the obvious – the existence of god. Atheists didn’t take a stand, and affirm a belief in something the nuns thought was patently obvious, the truth of which was hammered into our formative brains. Later on I discovered the Evil Atheist Conspiracy to take over the world, purportedly meant to insure a steady supply of kittens for various atheistic rituals.
However, when I finally started reading and investigating exactly what atheism was, I found a wealth of positive attributes attributable to atheists. There was rationalism, which I define as the belief that most, if not all, knowledge can be obtained by the exercise of clear, critical thinking, logic and reason. There was secular humanism, which I found to be a wonderful, substantive alternative to religion, one that sets forth a concise and succinct philosophy placing a commitment to humanity at its center – not to worship, but to preserve. There was naturalism, which believes that the natural world is all we have, and that natural laws explain reality. Science, and the scientific method, works hand in hand with naturalism. Science assumes naturalism as its premise for discovering the workings of the universe. All of these various philosophies tend to dovetail and overlap.
None of these are atheism, by themselves, but all of them are natural extensions of atheism. Once you shed the stultifying, superstitious beliefs of supernaturalism, a/k/a theism or religion, the benefits of using rationalism, secular humanism, skepticism and naturalism to guide your view of reality become obvious. New vistas open up, allowing you to view your friends, family, neighbors and strangers, not as fellow sinners (talk about your negative connotations), but as common travelers on this road we call life. They are fellow humans who you rely on, and who rely on you. Neither relies on a non-existent supernatural entity.
So, back to Harris’s suggestion, why should we accede to theistic impositions of negative overtones to the term we label ourselves, a label which is most accurate, and which includes, if not definitionally, at least practically many other cohesive and complimentary world views? Why fall back from the progress we’ve made over the past 2000 years, (including the significant progress of the last year) in making religion more and more irrelevant? Atheism, in conjunction with science, has moved inexorably forward in explaining reality to humanity, with religion failing at every turn to keep up. Science, naturalism and rationalism has explained, time after time, those mysteries man previously attributed to god. Religion has yet to take back a scientific explanation wrested from religion.
When viewed this way, the umbrella of atheism has much of substance to offer to the world. Ebonmuse suggests we reclaim the word. I say not only reclaim the word, but redefine it to include everything it naturally leads to, in many cases all those things atheists are accused of anyway. Emphasize that atheists are not just anti-theists. We have a positive view of life, that includes visions of a better world than religion has given us. What better way to educate people to understand the practical ramifications of atheism, than to include explanations of secular humanism, and the other “positivisms” inherent in the rejection of all religion? Once people accept the fact that there is no supernatural world, there is no afterlife, there is no place where we are going to spend eternity (at least, not consciously), they’ll need to embrace some replacement. Perhaps secular humanism will work for some. Perhaps a life of science and materialism for others. Maybe a little of both for you.
Maybe a combination of all these possibilities can be synthesized into the framework of atheism, under its umbrella.