What's in a Name?

At the Atheist Alliance convention, Sam Harris spoke against atheists' referring to themselves with the term "atheist".

A quick look at cyberreactions reveals much what one would expect: many blogs pasting the transcript with minimal or no commentary; theists crowing over any sign of dissent in the opponent's ranks; atheists who disagree with Harris; and, atheists swayed by the latest pronouncement from the pulpit (forgive this analogy to religion, I'll explain later).

On Richard Dawkin's site, most comments seem to be for retaining the label "atheist", partly because nonbelievers' and fed-up-with-religious-stupidity-types need a rallying identifier. Atheist is certainly shorter than either of those labels and it is more to the point than the implicitly insulting "bright".

I did think that this comment makes sense regarding human attitudes:

"It is something about the way the human brain works - forever handicapped by the sequence in which you feed in the information. If you bring forth a sound argument, people may listen to you, even accept your reasoning and most may not care too much if they later find you to be a 'new atheist'. However if they find that out first, then they will lock out of anything you have to say immediately."

(Comment #75517 by 82abhilash on October 2, 2007 at 10:51 pm)

I do think that the commenter is being too kind to religionists, though his comments might be relevant to moderate theists. In my experience, religionists are too locked into inculcated thought-patterns to even recognize a sound argument as being a sound argument. Instead, their radars are finely tuned to any hint of deviance from the party line.

In comment Comment #75521, ChrisMcL says:

"Why don't we just do with the "A" word what African-Americans have done with the "N" word. Let's "take back" the "A" word. The negative connotations to the label are from stereotype, not reality. By showing the world who we really are, atheists can, in time, redefine the ideas associated with the word "atheist"."

A-Deistic wrote:

"Many of us are atheists, secularists, secular humanists, naturalists, and skeptics/rationalists/freethinkers/brights. Each of the terms indicates a different manifestation of the usually liberal, empirical worldview that also manifests as atheism. . . This is not a problem due to calling ourselves 'atheists', rather this is a manifestation of the cognitive problem that accompanies theism. To be a theist in this age of scientific explanation requires that the believer close his or her mind with the church door. . . I can assure you, Sam, that our not calling ourselves 'atheists' will not make this [atheists are bad] bogus argument go away, because it appeals to emotional thinking. When a rationalist makes what is only an intellectual argument, most theists are simply not paying any attention. As soon as most theists are aware that any discussion relates to religion, to lack of faith, or to science, they will troop out one of the tired fallacies of logic that offer such emotional succor to the logically challenged. . . The war of ideas against religion can only be won by attacking the illogic of religious dogma by asserting the facts and arguing and arguing and arguing that 'atheism' is the logical, rational alternative on the basis of all the evidence."

Like that commenter, I agree that rationality is needed. Rationality is ultimately the point in so far as all supernatural religious beliefs demand faith not merely in the absense of evidence, but demand faith counter to the evidence. This insistence of churches of "Abandon all Reason, Ye Who Enter Here" has had far reaching negative impacts on critical thinking. By all means, we should emphasize that we are speaking for the evidence and for logic – and we should do so with well-thought out arguments to counter religionist emotionality. We also need to emphasize and demonstrate that we also experience love, appreciate life and beauty, and follow moral codes.

Atheism is on the rise amongst the young and many older atheists have recently become vocal and political because, as Harris pointed out, because of the dangerous increase in religious violence and hysteria (mysteria!)

The cat's out of the bag, religionists and moderate theists alike are well aware of the rise of political atheism. Trying to retract from the label just because religionists pull out fallacious ad hominem arguments against a misrepresentation of atheism will neither fool theists that the sound argument is not atheistic, nor demonstrate that their depictions of atheists are not accurate.

Contrary to theist arguments that atheism is a religion and theist wishful thinking that atheism will become a religion, atheism is a belief system. Rejection of supernatural explanations includes the conviction that empirical evidence can provide us with explanations for the physical world and much of the emotional world. On the other hand, religion, despite its claims, actually provides us with no explanations at all.

When I made an analogy to atheists' being swayed by the latest pronouncement from the pulpit, I referred to the human tendency to seek inspirational leaders. Atheists have only recently acquired vocal, atheism-identified leaders. Because atheists are generally more open minded than theists, atheist are more likely to be swayed by well-expressed appeals. I did not think that Harris' speach was particularly impressive, but some more placatory bloggers appear to have been swayed.

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” :

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


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