What's in a Label?

Sam Harris' AAIC remarks certainly provoked discussion! (See What's in a Name?)

Reading blogosphere reactions led me to some thoughts on the topic of labels, worldviews, and approaches to message promotion.

Harris said that atheism is not a worldview. I would agree that atheism does not inhere a single worldview, though I do think that statistical clusters of approaches to thinking about the world are implied by the labels.

Conflating two opposing philosophical terms, I'll call the most frequently associated cognitive style 'rational empiricism'. That is, 'rational empiricists' formulate their worldview by emphasizing a combinination of logic and evidence. This is not to say that all agnostics or atheists arrive at doubt about supernatural claims through cognition, but it does seem likely that a greater proportion of those who approach the world this way will also be atheistic. The data on the relationships between lack of religiosity and IQ/education/scientific-attitudes supports this view.

Linguistically speaking, people use labels positively, negatively, or neutrally as simplification tools (jargon), as membership signals, and/or as position indicators. Labels are not only useful but highly likely to be applied by others. A label will be applied with negative connotations whenever we leave the choice solely up to our opponents.

If I say that I am an atheist, you quickly know that I am not a theist and more likely to be a 'rational empiricist' who is also against religious violence, pseudoscientientific mumbo-jumbo, and creationism in science classrooms.

Whenever I have debated such topics with a theist, they usually detect that I am atheistic from my position and I don't need to spell out that I am an atheist, or liberal, or pro-choice, or whatever else is under discussion. Particularly in a written medium where tone is not a clue, we do assess the writer's philosophical position if we are not sure whether they are being serious or satirical.

A religionist might decide that my being an atheist necessarily indicates that I am also guilty of a variety of religionistically-concocted-sins, presenting me with the opportunity to directly address the fallacious thinking beneath those religionist-labels.

I think that much of the reaction to Sam Harris' remarks related to the fact that he suggested that we hide from all labels, particularly the atheist label–"go under the radar"–which seems simultaneously a cop-out, a concession to theistic manipulation, and a loss of the rally to membership.

I really think thatHarris' message at the AAC was superfluous. I think that Harris, and some who are defending his statemenst, are missing the point that atheists always had the right to choose not to join a group of fellow atheists, not to come 'out' as atheists either socially or in debate, and not to emphasize atheism in lieu of rationality and evidence when debating about religion or creationism.

Elsewhere: Ellen Johnson responds to Sam Harris . Ellen Johnson responds to "The End of Atheism" . Sam Harris - pussyfooting to theists?! . Letter to a non-atheist New Atheist . What Label for People Like Us? .

Sam Harris' response: Response to My Fellow "Atheists", on Richard.Dawkins.net : and response to Harris' response: Sam Harris seems like a nice fellow, but very confused . “Cult” is the new “fundamentalist” . Fundamentalism .

AAIC 'o7: Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the AAIC : Dan Dennett at AAIC '07 :


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