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10/13/2007                                                                                       View Comments

Sam Harris' Problem with Atheism

Reposted from: Freethought Café by J.C. Samuelson

Sam Harris stands poised on the brink of history as one of the preeminent thinkers of this century. His abilities as a wordsmith notwithstanding, the clear, incisive logic he uses to demonstrate his ideas is nothing short of refreshing. An example of this can be found by reading the transcript of a recent speech, delivered at the Atheist Alliance International Convention this year. Faced with a choice between preaching to the choir and challenging his audience, he chose the latter course, and in so doing moved the conversation forward.

Harris makes many valid points, such as the fact that the label, atheist, is (or should be) unnecessary. His point is, of course, that people don't tend to define themselves by what they reject. Those who reject astrology are not called 'non-astrologers,' for example. Nor do those who reject racism refer to themselves as 'non-racists.' Another good point is that atheism implies too narrow a focus on only religious belief, and is myopic in the sense that it treats all religion as equally devoid of merit. Harris also scores highly in his discussion of how mankind responds to life's deep and persistent questions, and why he explores his spirituality. Not least is the sense of well-being, and the avoidance of existential malaise.

Yet there is room for criticism of Sam's view. It's all very well to talk about the meaningless nature of labels, and lofty to recommend eliminating their use. Sadly, it's also not very realistic.

In a group I belong to - the one that inspired this blog, in fact - we discussed the problem with labels in our very first meeting. None of them is adequately descriptive, and each attracts misunderstandings. Atheism and skepticism seem too narrow, Bright seems too problematic in its implications, and even Freethinker (which we settled on) is not without problems. In that sense, we would probably all agree with Sam that labels distract from the real issues. However, we also agreed that people tend to unite under banners that to them seem representative of their views. Symbols, whatever form they may take, are powerful magnets and motivators.

Religion has these symbols in abundance, and even the smallest sects have some sort of workable infrastructure, at least for networking. The largest, such as Christianity and Islam, have worldwide networks, and organize their adherents to promote their views in government. The last elections were instructive in this regard, to say the very least. If one believes the surveys that followed that election, Evangelical Christians almost single-handedly reelected Bush to the office of President, and they are the ones who have shaped (and are shaping) our policies. This is the beast secular society faces. It is therefore imperative that those who care for the future of secular society band together and form networks of their own, and bring the collective voice of rationalism to the ears of legislators.

Responding to some criticism leveled against his speech, Sam says he has been horribly misunderstood. He rightly says that there are those who by all rights are atheists, but do not wish to label or place themselves at odds with religion. However, these same people may be feeling isolated, and the increasingly bold expressions of non-belief by others can be encouraging. The group I mentioned above affirmed this a few months ago. Some have personal experience with feeling isolated in spite of the increased availability of books by and for non-believers. It's one thing to criticize irrational ideas from behind a computer keyboard. It's quite another to go through life without interacting with other like-minded people, and taking action to promote meaningful change. We agreed that, in order to let others know that they are not alone, we should promote our group a bit more aggressively.

In further rebutting his critics, Harris goes on to write that "[t]here is something cult-like about the culture of atheism. In fact, much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety." This unfortunate bit of phrasing deserves some clarification from Sam.

To be sure, dogma and the phenomenon of cults are human problems, not confined to organized religion. Sam's reaction might thus be viewed as a cautionary reminder to atheists that they too can succumb to cultish tendencies. Yet that doesn't seem to be what he's addressing. There is no atheist orthodoxy to speak of, and if there is a culture, it is one that encourages dissent. Not once have I heard of any atheist accusing another of being disloyal to the cause because of an individual's views. Nor am I aware of any excommunicated atheists writing autobiographies describing their ordeals as a member of the seditious cult of atheism. There have been, of course, strong disagreements and heated disputes among atheists, but this is natural in a sub-culture that values opposing views. Indeed, there has been a generally positive response to Harris' speech in some online forums, particularly at Richard Dawkins' website. Perhaps he could take comfort in the fact that his views are taken seriously, even if they aren't always accepted.

In the end, Sam achieved his objective of challenging his audience. For that, for his ever-lucid presentation, his thought-provoking ideas, and for his indefatigable defense of reason, he deserves our applause. We may hope that Sam's vision of a label-free world, where reason is the norm and superstition a thing of the past, will someday become a reality. At this point, it may be premature.

8 comments:

SpaceMonk said...

"In further rebutting his critics, Harris goes on to write that "[t]here is something cult-like about the culture of atheism. In fact, much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety."
This unfortunate bit of phrasing deserves some clarification from Sam."

How else should such egotistically stubborn ignorance be interpreted?


"Sam's reaction might thus be viewed as a cautionary reminder to atheists that they too can succumb to cultish tendencies. Yet that doesn't seem to be what he's addressing. There is no atheist orthodoxy to speak of, and if there is a culture, it is one that encourages dissent..."

I don't think Sam is saying there actually is an 'atheist orthodoxy'.

To me, he's warning that that's what it looks like to 'non-atheists' because atheists seem to be suckered into thinking of themselves, or behaving, the same way they are thought of by those others.
Which is what those he's described with an 'offended atheist piety' seemed to have done.
They're living the stereotype, so to speak, which in the long run will only be detrimental to their cause.

As Bruce Lee once said, "Be water, my friend."

"...the clear, incisive logic he uses to demonstrate his ideas is nothing short of refreshing."

Yes :) I think it's better to read the speech itself, and Sam's response (linked from this article)...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, folks. I may be a sceptic but I don't owe you almost nothing for my personal opinions concerning religions in general. And yes, I do have believers, like several Christian fundamentalists and Catholics, as friends despite not believing much of their doctrines. Call it "socializing" with the enemy if you wish. HA HA! I may be unchurched but wish to continue thinking independently. Mr. Harris and Doctor Dawkins and other have no right to tell us how we, and others like me, think. That atheists can fall into "cultish tendencies"? We had them in the past. Remember Murray O'Hair? She made her group a "cult" where she was, ironically for an atheist, the "god" to be "worshipped". That didn't save her from being a victim of a crime, too bad. Bye!

boomSLANG said...

Once AGAIN, disingenuous anonymous Christian who poses as a "Deist" is back, with:

Sorry, folks. I may be a sceptic but I don't owe you almost nothing for my personal opinions concerning religions in general.

Yes, like all Christians, you are a "sceptic" when it comes to everything and anything that's not Christian-based. Um, it's called Christian fundamentalism, and that's what you are, a Christian fundamentalist---that's certainly no astonishing disclosure. But yet, you do it with a new "twist"---yes, you are straight-up deceptive about your position/worldview(at least, you haven't denied you are a Christian once).....but nonetheless, whether you know it, or not, your true colors are revealed by the content of your moronic posts.

Example:

Remember Murray O'Hair? She made her group a "cult" where she was, ironically for an atheist, the "god" to be "worshipped". That didn't save her from being a victim of a crime, too bad. Bye!

Firstly, neither she, nor the proponents of her philosophies, ever said anything about her being "God". That is simply you, projecting your fundamentalist mentality. Secondly, and more telling, the woman was murdered, and you have the nerve to make a snide remark about it. Yes, once again, the Christian shows his true colors.

Christian said: bye!

'Promise?

Riley said...

I have been an athiest for almost 3 years. I have read every book I can get my hands on from Harris, Russel, Dawkins, Paine, Hitchens,and etc..
I have been battling xtians on the point of being an athiest. I have dealt with one or two unbelievers on these points also. The two non's said they can't be an anthiest because they never believed in the first place. They tell me the absense of belief is not atheism.
I agree that I hate labels too. I strive to not be labeled by an egotistical culture. Did I just label our "might it right" culture?
Here's the dilemma I deal with that Harris hit on. How do I strive for self-realization of my atheism? I feel like I am being told to "shut up". I have been told that hundreds of times. I am told that a true athiest would have nothing to say on the matter. Its the same as voting. I am told I have no room to talk unless I am labeled into dem or republican. Its the culture of tolerance that does not tolerate untolerance. Its the go along to get along mentality. How do I express my views against something I see as evil and abusive (religion)? I mostly get flack from moderates in the middle. They believe in belief. Some of them are closet athiests - I agree with Richard Dawkins on that point.
In a nutshell, my claim to atheism is being judged more by the moderates than fundies. As far as being in a cult of atheism, that absurd. Our nation is built on politics and the only power in our country is by the numbers. Look how the race card has done wonders for blacks. Woman have used equal rights to secure jobs, money, and power. In the end, groups want equal money and power. I don't think atheism is shooting for that.
I see atheism as the only tool to stand up and stop religious abuse. Who is going point out the atrocities of actions through religous belief? Religion is justified in killing and abuse. If athiests are told to shut up, how is there any freedom?
I am told I am same as a religion, but on the others side. Another way to shut us up? I think religion has created a slippery slope depate among ourselves. They tell us athiests don't exist. The same mental gymnastics they use to justify their belief, they have centered on us to fight.
Atheism is not a rejection of a god...it is saying there is no god. Many say since we say there is no god, there is no argument for atheism.
Lastly, I can not agree with Harris. I understand the challenge, but it holds no water in the world we live in. We live in a world of words that express our views. I also consider myself a "free thinker". To tell my I can't say that would inhibit my free thinking.
Athiest seems like a bad word. Xtians see satanism as the same.
I can agree I don't like the word athiest, but it tells the personal story best.
Harris' comparison of an astrologist and non-astrologist is imcompetent as an equal to religion and atheism. Religion is a failed hypothosis, while atheism is evidence by science. Or should be. Atheism born out of bad religious experience does not hold water, unless evidence is found in the later.
I agree atheism is not the answer to solving the trouble with religious fables, but that is what we have for now until we evolve mentally. Yes, atheism has a bad label. Xtians have made it that way. But we must still fight to express ourselves. How can we do that without being labeled a cult? Do we need to strive for political power? I am not sure. I just won't be shut up by the xtian matrix. If I am silent, I justify their actions. I will not allow my mind to be raped of reason.

SpaceMonk said...

Riley, you said, "...we must still fight to express ourselves. How can we do that without being labeled a cult?..."

I don't know if you've clicked it already but in the article there's a link to Sam's response to some criticism of his speech in which he gives an example of a way for atheists to express their views, yet without invoking the distracting stigmatism attached to the label 'atheist'.
It's also here if you want.
You don't have to shut up.

Riley said...

SpaceMonk,

Thank you. I will read it later today.

One thing I didn't hit on about Harris' comments was his view of "spirituality". I see spirituality as being invented by religion. The spirit is unprovable and the cloak of religion for those who don't want to be in religion, but want to be left alone. If spirituality is a metaphor for life, I can agree with it. We may speak it into existence by words, but that does make it true.
Spirituality may be a way to lazily explain our thoughts and feelings. And then religion and other fanciful ideas run amuck.
Again, I think spirituality is lazy. The definition is whatever one wants. It does not have a consistent definition. It seems like Harris took some steps back from what I have understood of him in his writings.

J. C. Samuelson said...

SM,

How else should such egotistically stubborn ignorance be interpreted?

I'm not sure I would characterize PZ Myers' criticism (another here in response to Sam's response) or Paul Kurtz' criticism (below) as "egotistically stubborn ignorance." Ellen Johnson's wasn't very cogent, so I'd agree with him wholeheartedly if the criticism were limited to her piece.

As was mentioned in the post, Sam's points are well-taken, but there is room for criticism. One particular sentence of Sam's jumped out at a lot of people as being ill-advised: "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."

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that in and of itself. It's great to "destroy bad ideas wherever we find them." Yet, in order to effect change, we need groups, not just individuals challenging bad ideas. Groups do not form the way Sam Harris might like. I just don't think it's practical. One does not propel folks to champion "reason" alone, for example. Everyone fancies themselves reasonable, from Christians, to Muslims, to Atheists, to Jainists, to...well, you get the idea. No matter what atheists call themselves, they will be demonized. And, demonized groups have also frequently co-opted the names others use as epithets, basically to show their opponents the "sticks and stones" principle.

To me, he's warning that that's what it looks like to 'non-atheists'...

Along the same lines as above, I don't think it will matter one bit. The 'non-atheists' are going to draw their own conclusions no matter how well-behaved, nice, uncontentious, or passive we are. If we challenge people in a public forum in a manner that Sam might suggest, it won't matter whether we call ourselves atheists, agnostics, or the "superantiantireasoncuzitsjustsosillytobelieveinmagic" crowd.

And, though labels do carry liabilities, so too does going "under the radar."

I think it's better to read the speech itself, and Sam's response...

Excellent idea. We needn't all agree.

Here's Paul Kurtz' take (from an email sent by the Council for Secular Humanism):

What Label for People Like Us?

A Message From Paul Kurtz

"I note with interest that Margaret Downing organized a blockbuster atheist conference in the Washington, D.C. area to which she brought many of the “new atheists.” We congratulate her on her energy. However, may I agree with Sam Harris who states that in accepting the label of “atheist” that “we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture... a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms.”

May I first compliment Sam (as the newest kid on the block) for his two fine books and his eloquent voice now being heard on the national scene. May I then disagree with his subsequent “seditious proposal” that we should not call ourselves “secularists,” “humanists,” “secular humanists,” “naturalists,” “skeptics,” etc. “We should go under the radar for the rest of our lives,” he advises. We should be “responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.”

That sounds lofty but in my view it is counter-productive. For in order to develop new ideas and policies that are effective, we need to organize with other like-minded individuals. And a name is crucial. If we followed Sam’s advice, the critical opposition to religious claims would naturally collapse. If we generalize from this, we could not come together as Democrats or Republicans, Libertarians or Socialists, feminists or civic libertarians, world federalists or environmentalists, utilitarians or pragmatists. Should we operate only as single individuals who may get published or speak on street corners with little influence or clout? Come on, Sam, that is unrealistic; for almost no one would be heard and we would be lone voices in the city canyons, unheard and drowned out by the powerful media. We say that democracy best functions when the citizens of a country unite under whatever label they choose to achieve what they deem to be worthy goals. True, you have had a best-seller which brought you to the public forum. But for most people the opportunity to affect the public debate is lost unless they work together with others to make their views heard, and unless they build institutions dedicated to their ideals and to the values they hope will endure."

Sam's response to some criticism of his speech in which he gives an example of a way for atheists to express their views...

IMHO, Sam's example could be classified as a straw man, or perhaps a reductio. I don't know anyone who would actually recommend acting the way he illustrates in his second example. That's just absurd. Of course, Sam knows it, which is why he may have used that example.

Sam is one of my favorite authors and speakers, and I'd love for him to come speak in my hometown. Yet that doesn't mean that everything he says is above criticism.

'Nony,

I may be a sceptic but I don't owe you almost nothing for my personal opinions..."

No one said you owed anyone anything. You seem to have no problem offering it, though. ;)

Mr. Harris and Doctor Dawkins and other have no right to tell us how we, and others like me, think.

If that's how you read the above post, or have taken their arguments, then I suggest going back and reading again.

SpaceMonk said...

Thanks JC. I take your points. I hadn't read those replies you posted.

I think Sam's points are best taken as something to fall back on IF what he seems to fear actually happens, ie. that the 'new atheist' cause ultimately loses it's momentum because labelling it made it easy to dismiss.

I'm all for a multi-pronged assault though, even though I have never really called myself atheist simply because it seems too simplistic to describe me.
Which is why I liked Sam's speech.
I've never really liked groups of anything, but I can still see their benefit here.


riley,
I don't think Sam was really talking about any actual spirit, but just alternate ways of thinking, or viewing life in general.