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← Sam Harris at AAI 07

Sam Harris at AAI 07 - Comments

ksskidude's Avatar Comment 1 by ksskidude

I think right now we must be very clear in our position and "atheism" says it very precisely.

We must stand out at this important time in our history. If we are going to actually create massive change globally, in my opinion of course, atheist's need to be vocal and prepared. We must have the knowledge to debate our position on a moment's notice. It's all of our duty to be so prepared.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 15:12:00 UTC | #78288

JonH's Avatar Comment 2 by JonH

If anyones wondering who that dashing young man is, in the second question; It was me. :D

I agree with Harris. We should drop the Atheist tag, and if we HAVE to have one, it should be humanist.

Atheist has a lot of baggage, and I think it turns people away. I think proof of this can be seen with people who believe the same things we do, yet call themselves agnostic.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 15:42:00 UTC | #78296

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 3 by Steve Zara

I still have to disagree with Harris. I think right now we must be very clear in our position and "atheism" says it very precisely.

Ah, but does it? Do you share the same view as a Buddhist who does not believe in a God, but does believe in ghosts and demons?

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 15:47:00 UTC | #78300

plastictowel's Avatar Comment 4 by plastictowel

Steve you answered your own question be calling them a Buddhist....

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 15:50:00 UTC | #78302

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 5 by Steve Zara

I assume you agree I answered the question in the negative. Atheism is not a precise term, as simply describes something absent from a person's set of beliefs. It says nothing about the remaining beliefs and their reasons. I am tending towards Harris' views.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 15:54:00 UTC | #78306

Mango's Avatar Comment 6 by Mango

If someone says, "I'm Catholic, what are you?" I can say naturalist, rationalist, or ramble on about not believing in the supernatural, but when I'm done speaking the person is going to say, "Oh, you're an atheist." Not labeling ourselves does no good because it's the most accessible, common term for us that our neighbors have.

The real problem with the term "atheist" is that our communities do not know how normal, centered, and friendly atheists can be. Let's claim the word and be examples of admirable people who make it unreasonable for theists to use it as an epithet or stereotype.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 15:57:00 UTC | #78309

Summer Seale's Avatar Comment 7 by Summer Seale

Actually, I think Harris is right.

We should perhaps re-term ourselves as "Skeptics".

This is why: I have noticed in each and every debate, the first thing that the other side is try to tag us with all sorts of labels to prove that we're "just as bad" (or just like them, only they don't realize they're trying to drag us down). Basically, they attribute that God is a fact, and that denying God is a burden placed upon us.

If we rename ourselves "Skeptics", then the word automatically launches a new meaning for us in each and every debate. Suddenly, we're not saying "God doesn't exist and we know he doesn't". Instead, we are suddenly saying "Okay, prove to me that such a ridiculous thing exists."

Suddenly, they are the ones faced with proving their case.

At least, that's my take on it. I have nothing against the word "Atheist", but perhaps Sam is right. And, coming from the right (at times), I do see the value in good re-branding of an idea. It can work. Let's use it for Atheism and science and put *them* on the defensive for once? =)


P.S. Nobody remarked on my other amazingly brilliant and fab idea the other week. Our side is *always* asked "What are you going to replace religion with?"

They ask everyone this question. We sorta don't have a simple answer for it either. Hitchens talks about philosophy and art, poetry, music....etc...etc.... so does Dawkins. And I agree. But it's not catchy.

Next time they ask you that, answer with *my* new catchy phrase.

Q: "What are you going to replace religion with?"

A: "The Truth!"

Hope you like it. =) I do. Maybe cuz I'm blonde, but I think we can still popularize a few concepts and make them more catchy.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:03:00 UTC | #78314

ksskidude's Avatar Comment 8 by ksskidude

What Harris says all make sense, until we actually reach the point where we have a majority opinion, I think our position needs to be stated.

Before slavery was ended, and new states entered the union, many people were called free soilers, because they did not want more states to enter the union as slave states. Now that is a term that has no meaning today, but back in 1855 it was absolutely necessary!

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:04:00 UTC | #78315

TheHardProblem's Avatar Comment 10 by TheHardProblem

I agree with Sam Harris. I may be just repeating points here brought forth by Sam but i'd like to point them out anyway.
Problems with atheism (the word):
There is so much more to oppose then mere theism that calling ourselves just atheists would not be covering enough ground.
There is something strange about a position in which you try to point out the irrationality of theism and it's nonsensicality and at the same time calling yourself something which is only to be understood by knowing what the other side is about.
Another problem is that, through a political viewpoint, calling yourself anti or a-anything is suggesting a rebelious nature, and rebels, in the past, have more often then not been caught practicing anti-democratic behaviour.
Atheism is telling people what we're against, or at least what we do not believe in, but what about the rest? For some this position would seem a very negative and depressive stance.
All this makes the term becoming much too complex if one would want to use it within politics.

Kelly's question is ofcourse a legitimate one, but then again I would find no problem in the name of her movement (rational response squad).

I think we would be better of if we would call ourselves Rationalists or Humanists.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:07:00 UTC | #78317

Mango's Avatar Comment 9 by Mango

Related to the term atheist, until recently I thought it was clever to say to a theist, "You're an atheist when it comes to Zeus or Wotan, so you're just like me except I go one god further." But that's not right at all. Christians and other theists today are not atheists when it comes to those gods -- they are merely non-believers. Atheism by definition denotes belief in no god(s), and only those people who do not worship any gods can really be atheists. So I've changed my tactic to instead say to a theist, "When you understand why you don't worship Zeus you'll also understand why I don't worship your god."

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:07:00 UTC | #78316

Mango's Avatar Comment 11 by Mango

commment 10: I think we would be better off if we would call ourselves Rationalists or Humanists.

I see your point, but it can sound condescending.

Theist: "I'm Catholic, what are you?"

Atheist: "I'm a rationalist."

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:14:00 UTC | #78321

TheHardProblem's Avatar Comment 12 by TheHardProblem

Ah yes, but then again, I do not propose to abolish the word as well.
I would say something like this:
Theist: "I'm Catholic, what are you?"
Atheist: "I do not adhere to any branch of christianity, on the subject of god I'm an atheist."

Do we want to be precise or politicaly smart?

Ofcourse, what exactly is the atheist movement trying to achieve? Are we promoting science, educating, trying to establish a voter-base, or?

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:41:00 UTC | #78336

Diacanu's Avatar Comment 13 by Diacanu

Posted by Mango-
I see your point, but it can sound condescending.

*Shrug* Good.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:45:00 UTC | #78338

Nusmus's Avatar Comment 14 by Nusmus

As much as I enjoy Sam for talking about it, I don't think he is very persuasive to atheists about mindfulness and meditation. The whole experience of losing what we call "I" is his main talking point, but it is ungraspable to someone who hasn't even pursued meditation in a sustained manner.

He would be more successful if he chose to start at a more understandable goal: being happy.

What does it take to be happy? Well, one aspect is that you must BE. You must live, and the more fully you live/experience life, the happier you can be. Meditation is a wonderful tool to increase our capacity to "be"

Studiously trying to maintain awareness of ALL our sensory input, all our experiential faculties, can be another definition of meditation. The difference I can experience in the quality of my day can be astounding between a day when I begin with 15 minutes of meditation vs. not. Granted, I have been doing this for some time, it makes me a more integrated, informed, smart, and happy individual.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:52:00 UTC | #78341

TheHardProblem's Avatar Comment 15 by TheHardProblem

To 7. Comment #82098 by Summer Seale on October 25, 2007 at 5:03 pm

I like your idea of calling yourself a skeptic during a debate with regards at the question at hand.
But outside of it becomes a bit problematic, because the question will always be 'A skeptic of what?' and then you would find yourself holding on to a dogma that you should be a skeptic, no matter what.

And if you dont want your opponent to win on the spot, I would seriously discourage using a term like 'The truth' of something that we would replace religion with. You would hand them the debate on a gold platter if your opponent is any bit knowledgeable of philosophy.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 16:57:00 UTC | #78343

Diacanu's Avatar Comment 16 by Diacanu

because the question will always be 'A skeptic of what?'

One could simply say "extraordinary claims", and leave it at that.

That covers religion, ghosts, UFO abductions, bigfoot, bullshit political speech, advertising, you name it.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:03:00 UTC | #78346

eXcommunicate's Avatar Comment 17 by eXcommunicate

I'm not too sold on the idea of getting rid of the "Atheist" moniker. I mean, when talking about religion with someone or in a public forum, we are "atheists". It doesn't matter if you're a Buddhist Atheist or a Humanist Atheist or Agnostic Atheist when you're debating the existence of your enemy's god. You may have different approaches to the argument, but in the central question of "is there a god?" then we are simply ATHEISTS. Now, when the discussion comes to ethics or politics that's when other monikers come into question or come into play.

When someone says, "I am a Catholic. What are you?"

"Atheist" is the correct response.

When someone says, "I am a christian conservative. What are you?" or, "I am a Communist. What are you?"

Then "Secular Humanist" or something else is preferable.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:03:00 UTC | #78347

RainDear's Avatar Comment 18 by RainDear

As this Harris AAI 07 talk has been discussed at lenght when the transcript came available, it's probably good to brief here.

It's almost impossible to make words mean what you want them to mean. Language doesn't work like that. It has little to do with reason or logic, and quite a bit with recent history. You just can't use the Latin or Spanish words for "black" in the American English, because it would sound offensive. You'd get punched in the face. So, since the simple fact is that the word atheism means "The Mao-Stalin-Hitler Fan Club" to so many people, why insist on using that word? Nobody could argue that millions were killed on Gulags by secular humanism or ethical rationalism.

Actually, we should turn the argument against the theists: Which do you put first, the interests of your living, breathing fellow human beings or the interests of an alleged abstract supernatural sky-creature?

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:21:00 UTC | #78352

Janus's Avatar Comment 19 by Janus

I don't think the ones proposing other names for ourselves understand what Harris is saying. He doesn't want to switch one label for another, he wants to get rid of ALL labels. He doesn't want us to call ourselves anything at all.

It's hard to believe he's saying something so stupid, but he is.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:23:00 UTC | #78354

Atticus_of_Amber's Avatar Comment 20 by Atticus_of_Amber

If I ever write a "new atheist" book or essay for publication (which I might, at least the latter) I'm going to call it something like, "Against Dogma: the New Atheism, the Culture Wars and the 'War on Terror'"

And if any of you steal that idea, I'm going to take up Voodoo. ;-)

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:24:00 UTC | #78355

82abhilash's Avatar Comment 21 by 82abhilash

I have a question. Why do you feel an obligation to label yourself? And conform to activities consistent with that label. None of us believe in any supernatural entity and we can get together under various banners, for various reasons, but why this urge to tattoo a label onto your brain, that would never come out wherever you are or whatever you do?

I think I know why. Some of you may scream, if I say, but here goes. It is the impact of the Abrahamic faiths on our civilization. Christians, Muslims and Jews are required to carry the label of their religion always under all circumstances, from birth to death to afterlife.

Most people here have a Judeo-Christian background. If the causes of our actions are determined by the sum total of all our previous experiences, this explanation would make perfect sense.

I have an idea. When in a general crowd, just be yourself and put the burden of labeling you to those people who are interested in it, especially when their objective is to use it against you. And always remind them it is their name for you. You do not have any obligation towards them, to be labeled.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:26:00 UTC | #78356

socratzsche's Avatar Comment 22 by socratzsche

Whether to use atheism as a label for oneself does not make a difference to the priest. I don't think this was Harris' point; philosophically, it is futile: the priest declares himself above reason--as a mere messenger of "God's will." Harris is simply saying it is undesirable in terms of social perception.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:30:00 UTC | #78358

Diacanu's Avatar Comment 23 by Diacanu

*Listening along in a separate tab*

Aw man, here he goes with this meditative empty your head stuff again.

Um, NO.

I LIKE my steady geyser of thoughts.
The way I've found release is not to turn my brain off and trance out into nirvana, but to analyze my thoughts with more thoughts, and weed the bad stuff out, and get stronger.

I'm with Hitchens, not into the whole siren song of Buddhist/yogi stuff at all.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:32:00 UTC | #78359

RainDear's Avatar Comment 24 by RainDear


That's the very thing about labelling: Once you accept a label, someone's going to make you responsible for all kinds of thing that are done under that label.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:33:00 UTC | #78360

Pin_Cushion's Avatar Comment 25 by Pin_Cushion

I think Harris's point is that our efforts should be used to get things done. If we're talking about why stem-cell research should be pursued with all scientific diligence and we are asked what our religious views are, to answer "Atheist" is to completely doom whatever cogent argumentation we might have had behind the issue to, "Well of course he thinks that...he's an atheist."

The same could be said about abortion legislation, gay rights legislation, war protests, or any number of real-world goals we may have. As soon as The A Word comes up we are viewed merely as pawns of a morally bankrupt ideology. It sucks, but it's the case.

90% of the time, when someone says "What are you?" they are searching for a beachhead from which to make an ad hominem attack. We see it all the time. Athiest is mentioned, and suddenly it's Atheist=Stalin=Evil=You QED. If we just adopted a codeword, such as Rationalist, then it's simply one more easy step to say Rationalist=Atheist=Stalin=Evil=You. You see this logic work for the opposition quite frequently with the Christian=Christ=Good=Me, and faith-based audience members eat it up. Easy thinking, no matter how sloppy, is attractive because it is easy.

Far better to attempt to hold people up to their own moral ideals, or challenge those ideals if they are bankrupt (i.e. killing abortion doctors is my Christian duty), than to exclude ourselves from the debate before it even starts.

That being said, I do think the banner of "Atheism" is a useful construct under which we can gather relevant ideas and like minded people. It simply isn't very useful in mixed company.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:34:00 UTC | #78361

Diacanu's Avatar Comment 26 by Diacanu


That's the trouble, religionists either think, or want to make it look like that's what we're doing to them, which is why they think the Stalin argument is so killer.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:35:00 UTC | #78363

Diacanu's Avatar Comment 27 by Diacanu


That's the thing, this whole "let's be PC", vibe gets my back up on one hand, and I reflexively think "fuck off!! They don't have to be PC, but I do?!?!".

But then on the other hand, shit, I'm outnumbered by these friggin' people.
That is a pragmatic concern.

...I dunno....


Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:38:00 UTC | #78365

TheHardProblem's Avatar Comment 28 by TheHardProblem

I'd like to explore the "I am a Catholic. What are you?" question further.
The questioner here assumes you believe in god, but is not entirely sure in what form it is represented. The questioner is thus actually not nessecarily interested if you believe or dont believe in god (he/she thinks you believe).
So stating you are an atheist is ofcourse a very informative answer but it is not what the person was looking for.
In what form do you express your unbelieve in god?
If you answer Atheist and leave it at, then you are giving rise to speculation and people will fill in the blanks for you. And we don't want that.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:48:00 UTC | #78366

Diacanu's Avatar Comment 29 by Diacanu


How about as George Carlin suggests, sun worshipper?

Or Pastafarian?

Or Subgenius?

Or Jedi?


Thu, 25 Oct 2007 17:54:00 UTC | #78368

eXcommunicate's Avatar Comment 30 by eXcommunicate

It's one thing to say, "atheist is not my label." But to have no label at all will not work in everyday conversation. Someone will always ask you. Will you simply say, "I don't like labels," and dodge the question? Then a label will be imposed upon you without your consent: Waffler, Dodger, or worse, Deceiver, as if you're trying to hide something. Looking like you're evading the question will garner you as much or more suspicion than if you came outright and said the eeeeville "A" word.

Okay, you say, I'll just use a different word. Do you say "Humanist" when in the context of one's belief in god or when talking about the existence of god? Of course not. Someone can be a Secular Humanist and still be religious or at least Deist. No, you are an Atheist. When you describe your views you will be labeled as an "Atheist" anyways. We might as well embrace it, IMHO. If you don't want to, that's fine. I like that we are talking about tactics and all voices should be heard. I do think labels are important in discussions and in tactics. They can be used in specific instances, no matter how "dirty" the word may be. "Atheist" when talking about the existence of god, "Antitheist" when talking about the negative effects of religion, "Rationalist", "Humanist", and so on and so forth.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 18:04:00 UTC | #78372