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.

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