So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.Myers rightly takes issue with this proposal. This quotation was the first thing I read from Harris' address on the SKEPTIC mailing list, and I wrote this in response before I read his entire talk:
I disagree with everybody who says there's only one way we should all be.But then, after reading Harris' entire speech, I amended this as follows:
I have no problem with there being atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, naturalists, skeptics, brights, humanists (secular or otherwise), rationalists, and people in the closet or under the radar.
Now that I've actually read his essay, I do strongly agree with him that "atheism is not a worldview." It is a small but significant component of a large set of possible worldviews.I should add to this that in my opinion, the term "freethinker" includes a subset of theists (I am in agreement with Jeff Lowder on this point, though, unlike Jeff, I believe I have met such people, though perhaps I have confused some kinds of fideists with freethinkers), and I welcome association with them.
I went to my first atheist meetup group meeting a couple of weeks ago, curious to see what it would be like. It was the first meeting of a group of people who have different ideas about what they want to do--some want to be political activists against the religious right. Some want to picket churches. Some want social events with like-minded people. I gave my endorsement for the last of these, and further suggested that they be as inclusive as possible to bring together people from other existing groups in the Phoenix area--skeptics, humanists, atheists, etc., as an informal network to have events and let people know of what other groups are doing. The megachurches succeed by creating a framework in which there are lots of little subgroups catering to a wide variety of interests, and a secular community should offer the same.
Harris' point that "Atheism is not a thing" is the same point I made to this group--it may be that the only thing we have in common is a lack of belief in God. If the group focuses on that, the meetings will be as entertaining as a meeting of people whose only commonality is disinterest in watching spectator sports, who get together to discuss their disinterest in watching spectator sports (or worse yet, watching spectator sports to comment on how stupid it is).
I have a preference for the term "skeptic" over "atheist" because I like the way it focuses the attention on method--doubt--rather than on doctrine--lack of belief in gods. If I were to find sufficient evidence for the existence of God, I would become a theist, but I would remain a skeptic. One of the most inspiring books I've read in the last couple of years was Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History, because she shows that there is a very long tradition of doubters of the dominant religious views, and that even in cases where doubters are driven underground, doubt resurfaces again.
UPDATE (October 8, 2007): Sam Harris has responded to criticism here, and P.Z. Myers responds to that here. I agree with Myers.
UPDATE (October 9, 2007): P.Z. Myers comments on Sam Harris' references to an atheist "cult." Again, I agree with Myers here--the attributes of a cult are something like this or this. There can be atheist cults, but they need to exhibit those characteristics to deserve the name.
UPDATE (October 16, 2007): Chris Hallquist weighs in on the subject at the Internet Infidels website.