Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith," is a famous atheist. But he isn't fond of having that word describe him. After all, people who don't believe in unicorns aren't called "aunicornists."
They're just people who recognize that evidence is lacking for the existence of a mythical creature that resembles a horse, but has a single twisting horn on its forehead.
Likewise, what need is there for "atheist"? Why not simply call people who believe in God, "theists," while having no special word for those who don't?
So says Harris in a well-written and well-argued essay, The Problem With Atheism. (Thanks to blog post commenter "sgl" for sharing a link to this piece.)
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.
If the comparison with astrology seems too facile, consider the problem of racism. Racism was about as intractable a social problem as we have ever had in this country. We are talking about deeply held convictions.
...Of course, I’m not saying that racism is no longer a problem in this country, but anyone who thinks that the problem is as bad as it ever was has simply forgotten, or has never learned, how bad, in fact, it was.
So, we can now ask, how have people of good will and common sense gone about combating racism? There was a civil rights movement, of course. The KKK was gradually battered to the fringes of society. There have been important and, I think, irrevocable changes in the way we talk about race—our major newspapers no longer publish flagrantly racist articles and editorials as they did less than a century ago—but, ask yourself, how many people have had to identify themselves as “non-racists” to participate in this process? Is there a “non-racist alliance” somewhere for me to join?
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.
...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.
...Nobody wants to believe things on bad evidence. The desire to know what is actually going on in world is very difficult to argue with. In so far as we represent that desire, we become difficult to argue with. And this desire is not reducible to an interest group. It’s not a club or an affiliation, and I think trying to make it one diminishes its power.
I rarely call myself an atheist, because that word doesn't capture how I feel about my non-belief in God. I don't go around thinking to myself, "Oh, it is so satisfying to not believe in an imaginary God."
I just don't believe in God. If I wasn't surrounded by many millions of people who do believe in God, I'd never think about God at all, just as I never think about unicorns unless I come across some mention of them.
Harris is correct. Those of us who don't believe in God shouldn't be drawn into ridiculous debates between "theists" and "atheists." Actually, as he says, the debate is between those who favor evidence and reason over faith and guesswork.
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.”
It is nearly impossible to totally avoid speculative discourse on the "God" issue: someone you know assumes that there exists an autonomous entity that is responsible for the universe, and they will find a way to engage you in the consideration of this assumption.
A friend of mine once asked me why I did not consider myself to be an atheist. I told him: for the simple reason that there is no God to NOT believe in. He accused me of double-talk. But there we were: he, secure in the knowledge that there is in fact a God, and I, secure in the knowledge that there is no God. Life and the universe persist with no regard to human opinion.
With the exception of proselytizers, theists inadvertently maintain a blissful insularity from unlike-minded people. Their ideas are basically harmless, and the transparency of their human nature does not blatantly support their ideas.
Regardless - Reality is inescapable for all and sundry.
Posted by: Willie R | August 22, 2012 at 05:11 AM
"...theists inadvertently maintain a blissful insularity from unlike-minded people. Their ideas are basically harmless..."
If their ideas were harmless, we wouldn't be talking about them. Their ideas are retarded and regressive, and to minds not developed enough to examine them, pernicious.
Posted by: cc | August 22, 2012 at 10:32 AM
What hath ~God~ wrought?:
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | August 22, 2012 at 12:39 PM
This need to be a new "atheist" definition time.
Last Sunday morning, while watching a particular religious program, one Bible student stated,
"An atheist is a person that has an extreme hatred of God."
Okay, so this atheist must first acknowledge
the existence of God, then proceed to obtain a hatred of such.
Anyone have any other goofy definition examples?
Posted by: Roger | August 22, 2012 at 03:00 PM
I have something goofy to contribute. =^) I was an atheist for most of my life. I am fairly literate in science and I over-all respect science, including such concepts as the Big Bang and evolution.
One major turning point for me was when I no longer framed the question of a deity or deities between Judeo-Christian beliefs versus Darwinism, a nice clear cut cage match. Taking the Bible and Christianity and any number of religious people out of the question altogether, might various religions be imperfect attempts to grasp something valid?
There are any number of experiments designed to illustrate how nature manifests order, complexity, and life at random. One I have come across online is to take a tumbler. Place matching nuts and bolts inside the tumbler and let the machine spin, tossing them around. After a certain period of time, depending on such variables as how many matching sets of nuts and bolts were placed in the tumbler, some of them will have begun to thread together all on their own. Random nature can assemble things.
What I find interesting about this experiment though is to ask how much of it we should consider? The intent is clearly that no one had to manually assemble the nuts and bolts. Other facets of it that I notice, though, is that the tumbler was designed and manufactured and procured, as were the conveniently matching nuts and bolts. A power source was produced and accessed for the machine, and of course someone placed the nuts and bolts into that tumbler and turned it on. Conditions were deliberately set into motion by which nature can build things at random.
By analogy I think of a part of the unauthorized collection of essays by Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything. Toward the end of that book, he asks why there are any laws of thermodynamics in the first place, resulting in a universe to describe. He then asks if God made it all. And if so, "then who made him?"
I feel that it is valid to ask, instead of the universe see and ponder and are a part and product of, why, instead, hadn't there been a universe of absolute disorder after the Big Bang? Or why, really, hadn't there simply been no Big Bang at all, and no universe, ordered or otherwise, and none of us or life or earth or anything else?
I continue to agree with my former tribe, the atheists, that nature and evolution unfold at random. The only essential difference now is that I no longer happen to believe that they unfold purely at random.~Mike.
Posted by: Mikey47 | August 23, 2012 at 04:32 PM
Agreed with Sam Harris.
That is why I am quite hesitate to use the term "atheist" to describe myself. Theism does not worth non-believers labelling themselves by adding an "a" before the term, otherwise all of us will have to call ourselves with a thousand names: a-unicorn-ist (I really agreed wtih Sam), a-Santa-ist, a-fairy-ist, a-lake monster-ist, a-UFO-ist, a-martian-ist, a-ghost-ist, a-paranormal-ist, a-divination-ist, a-Nuwa-ist (Nuwa is a Chinese creator goddess), etc.
That is why I am searching for a better name to identify myself. Naturalist (Naturalism) and Humanist (Humanism) are high on my list. How do you think of these?
Naturalism: "If you don’t believe in anything supernatural – gods, ghosts, immaterial souls and spirits – then you subscribe to naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is."
Humanism: "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."
Inspired by your remark "Why not simply call people who believe in God, 'theists,' while having no special word for those who don't?," a new choice came to my mind: "normal person!"
Posted by: Alex | August 27, 2012 at 09:58 AM
How about a non-ist, that is not a follower of an -ism. That said, I'm still a pickup truck driver, now living in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Posted by: Roger | August 27, 2012 at 11:02 AM