Friday, October 05, 2007

Sam Harris and the atheist label

P.Z. Myers has written an open letter in response to Sam Harris' address to the Atheist Alliance, in which Harris said this:
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.

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.
But then, after reading Harris' entire speech, I amended this as follows:
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 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 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 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.

34 comments:

Reed E said...

Even 'skepticism' as a label has its problems, as it's often confused with cynicism or the dismissal of even well-grounded claims.

UK Psychologist Richard Wiseman rants about this negative image of skeptics on a recent Skepticality podcast interview, saying that his published books are skeptical in theme but cannot mention 'skeptic' on their covers. Publishers won't touch them if that's the case.

That said, it's better than any of the rest, principally for the emphasis on tools over doctrine that you mention.

Regarding building those social networks, both skeptic meetups and Drinking Skeptically are well-suited to pursue such ends.

rushmc said...

The idea that non-believers have widely-varying ideas and motivations can be illustrated quickly by perusing any online discussion of religion/atheism. Very quickly you will see non-believers attacking one another for being too soft or too hard, etc. Subtle semantic differences between the different labels aside, I think what is shared is a fundamental worldview which eschews the supernatural. Some go further and seek to actively resist the encroachment of organized religion and irrational belief into the secular realms of law, education, and society, and others fail to embrace this additional task.

I agree that Hecht's book is excellent and should be widely read. The idea that atheism and doubt is a 20th century invention is far too prevalent (and those moved by appeals to authority will find much here to ponder).

olvlzl said...

Reed E, Richard Wiseman could be the poster boy of those who have ridden the entirely worthy mindset of skepticism into disrepute. If "skeptics" and even skeptics want to blame someone for their negative image, he's a good example. Ray Hyman once pointed out that in contrast to parapsychologists, "skeptics" tend to be rather nasty and mean spirited. If Hyman said that much it's worth considering.

Jim Lippard said...

Why do you say that about Wiseman? Are you basing that on criticisms from Victor Zammit?

And does your Hyman quotation refer to Wiseman, or did you simply put an unrelated quotation next to your statement about Wiseman in order to falsely convey that impression?

olvlzl said...

The Hyman quotation mentioned was from George Hansen's CSICOP And The Skeptics, as I recall I found the link at one of your sites. It didn't refer specifically to Wiseman.

My opinion about him is based on what I've read in a number of places, I don't recall if Victor Zammit is among those, though looking at his site it doesn't look remotely familiar. I'm not particularly interested in NDE except as it has been "studied" by "skeptics". Luckily, I don't buy cable so I don't know if he's gracing the Discovery Channel.

Jim Lippard said...

So what have you seen that casts a negative light on Wiseman? I'm not particularly familiar with his work or criticisms thereof (I just came across Zammit via Google, though I have a dim recollection of seeing his charges before).

On NDEs, Keith Augustine of the Internet Infidels is a skeptical atheist who has recently published a multi-part article (parts still in press) critical of the inference from NDEs to immortality in the _Journal of Near-Death Studies_. The article is being published with responses from NDE researchers and then Keith's reply to them. I think he gets the better of the argument, in part since several of them leap to contradict their own published claims in popular works, stating that they aren't claiming that there is scientific evidence for survival of death. I'd rather have seen them try to defend it...

Hume's Ghost said...

Every year I pick a book of the year that I've read. I picked Hecht's Doubt for 2005.

Reed E said...

olvlzl, wouldn't this negative image of skeptics persist even without Wiseman? We have these problems here in the US where Wiseman is largely unknown.

olvlzl said...

Reed E, the negative image of self-identified "skeptics" that some people hold isn't just the product of one person. James Randi, Penn Jillette, in the pop field, much of the old guard at CSICOP, and their follwers (ironic isn't it the number of "skeptics who are clearly followers". Most of them are pretty unpleasant. It all comes down to several attitudes, "you're stupid and ignorant and I'm smart", "we own science and you own superstition", "hey, let's get the faith-head". It's just a development of the bully and his pack mentality that never got left behind. Lost in all of this is that most "skeptics" aren't skeptical about anything. They know exactly what you're supposed to believe because they say so.

It doesn't have to be that way but it's the way it developed. I've always wondered how the atheist-fundamentalist skeptics handled Martin Gardner's case. Clearly, celebrity trumps orthodoxy.

Jim Lippard, you certainly aren't unaware of Wiseman's personality or the controversies he's generated. Why are you asking me to document what you are already familiar with? I don't intend to get into that kind of war of the sources, people who don't know can google easily enough if they're curious enough to not read one side only.

Jim Lippard said...

olvlzl: "Jim Lippard, you certainly aren't unaware of Wiseman's personality or the controversies he's generated. Why are you asking me to document what you are already familiar with?"

On the contrary, I have never seen Wiseman in person or on television, I have never heard him speak, and I have read only what he's written in the Skeptical Inquirer. I was simply asking you why you said what you did about him, which you've declined to explain--I'm not asking for a battle of sources and didn't intend to debate you on it, I just wanted some elaboration on your statement. Given your extremely prolific posting of comments, your reticence is surprising.

I've found two controversies via Google--his dispute with Sheldrake over the psychic powers of a dog (which I recall reading about in Skeptical Inquirer, which gave Sheldrake space to comment) and Victor Zammit's criticisms about a test of a Russian psychic.

You write: "I've always wondered how the atheist-fundamentalist skeptics handled Martin Gardner's case. Clearly, celebrity trumps orthodoxy." Your first sentence is no doubt referring to the fact that Gardner is a theist (a position he defends in his book _The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener_). Gardner is far from alone in that position among organized skeptics--one reason that many local and skeptical groups opposed the relationship of CSI and CSH under the Centers for Inquiry is that they believe untestable religious views should not fall within the scope of what skeptical groups deal with. I co-signed a letter to that effect with leaders of other skeptical groups which appeared in the January/February 1999 Skeptical Inquirer (pp. 62-64). When I moved to Tucson in 1988, I turned over the leadership of the Phoenix Skeptics to a Catholic; one of our most prominent supporters was Andre Kole, a Christian illusionist.

What does your second sentence mean?

Jim Lippard said...

olvlzl: "James Randi, Penn Jillette, in the pop field, much of the old guard at CSICOP, and their followers (ironic isn't it the number of 'skeptics who are clearly followers'. Most of them are pretty unpleasant. It all comes down to several attitudes, 'you're stupid and ignorant and I'm smart', 'we own science and you own superstition', 'hey, let's get the faith-head'. It's just a development of the bully and his pack mentality that never got left behind."

It shouldn't surprise you that the majority of members of *any* organization are followers rather than leaders. It does tend to be more ironic in a group labeled as "skeptics," but the problem depicted in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" ("You are all individuals!" "We are all individuals!") is a real one.

I don't think Randi or Penn & Teller are the intellectual leaders of skepticism. Though intelligent, they are in the entertainment business. Randi and Penn tend to shoot from the hip and offer corrections later. I've heard Randi give talks where I cringed at inaccuracies in his off-the-cuff statements, and that's a habit that caused his legal troubles.

I've definitely seen bullies and dogmatic skeptics in organized skepticism. I can't say whether they are a majority, but the skeptics I've enjoyed interacting with don't display those traits (and expect to get called on it if they do)--and that includes current and former leaders of skeptical groups. I'm probably in a special position--in virtue of my critiques of organized skepticism, I have learned from other people's reactions to me who finds loyalty to principles more important than loyalty to an organization.

Hume's Ghost said...

Martin Gardner considers himself a fideist, doesn't he?

I only mention this because he's the only person I've ever seen describe himself as such.

Jim Lippard said...

Yes, Gardner describes himself as a fideist--e.g., p. 213 of _The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener_: "That the leap of faith springs from passionate hope and longing or, to say the same thing, from passionate disrepair and fear, is readily admitted by most fideists, certainly by me and by the fideists I admire. Faith is an expression of feeling, of emotion, not of reason."

This ties into something I've been thinking about writing about on my blog, how intellectual argument from atheists cannot hope to persuade believers who have had religious or mystical experiences--at least, not unless they are given a means of interpreting them *and obtaining them* in ways that are supportive of atheism.

But back to fideism--I had a philosophy professor during my undergraduate career who was also something of a fideist, though I don't think he actually labeled himself that way--rather, he said that he was very sympathetic to the view. I had thought from the content of his lectures that he was likely to be an atheist, until he showed up for class on Ash Wednesday with ash on his forehead. He was one of the best professors I've ever had, a brilliant man with an extremely dry wit who was constantly making hilarious jokes through his lectures that most of the class didn't even recognize as jokes (and that itself made me laugh). (Michael White at Arizona State University, in case anyone reading this has the opportunity to take any of his classes...)

olvlzl said...

"how intellectual argument from atheists cannot hope to persuade believers who have had religious or mystical experiences--at least, not unless they are given a means of interpreting them *and obtaining them* in ways that are supportive of atheism."

I'd like to see an intellectual argument that can touch someone's genuinely experienced experience. I mean something that wasn't out of analogy or some other intellectual dodge. And why would you want to? It's the greatest arrogance of fundamentalists that they think they know what other people should believe out their own experience.

If they are doing something that harms someone else, deal with that, don't waste your time on what they believe. What if you convert them to atheism and find out that their destructive behavior was actually based in their personality instead of their belief?

"Fidesm" and here poor Harris is in trouble for being unreliable, metaphysicswise.

"I don't think Randi or Penn & Teller are the intellectual leaders of skepticism. Though intelligent, they are in the entertainment business."

Like it or not, Jim Lippard, there are many times more "skeptics" who could tell you who Randi and Jillette are than could name anyone in the non-CSICOP skeptical world you mentioned. Look at the number of posts at Randi's place. There are a lot of people for whom they are the only face of "skepticism", check out how many skeptics list Randi in their blogrolls.

I can tell you from personal experience that even referring to how obnoxious either can be will bring the wrath of their adoring fans down on you. Or at least it did me.

Jim Lippard said...

olvlzl: Are there any comment threads you participate in on any subject where you *don't* find yourself at odds with other people? I think most of what I've seen you post comes across as very adversarial right at the start. My guess is that you value the fight more than the possibility of mutual understanding.

Jim Lippard said...

"I'd like to see an intellectual argument that can touch someone's genuinely experienced experience. I mean something that wasn't out of analogy or some other intellectual dodge. And why would you want to? It's the greatest arrogance of fundamentalists that they think they know what other people should believe out their own experience."

Your last statement is too broad--there are cases where people can recognize that others are mistaken about their interpretation of their experiences, and where it is beneficial to the mistaken person (as well as to others) to educate them. You don't assume that there are no such cases, do you?

I'm also not sure why you write off analogy as an "intellectual dodge." If we can be shown (through direct experiential demonstration) that we are subject to certain kinds of cognitive illusions, we can infer that closely similar cases are also illusory. Likewise, if we can, through purely natural mechanisms, generate mystical experiences that closely resemble religious ones, that can provide a case that those given religious interpretation have similarly natural causes.

I am skeptical of the claim that individual experience is incorrigible, let alone that the individual is always in the best position to interpret his own individual experience.

Einzige said...

I'd like to see an intellectual argument that can touch someone's genuinely experienced experience.

How do you define a "genuinely experienced experience"?

Like it or not, Jim Lippard, there are many times more "skeptics" who could tell you who Randi and Jillette are than could name anyone in the non-CSICOP skeptical world you mentioned.

Who gives two shits? olvlzl, your tendency to toss around loaded words--often encased in wacky scare-quotes--engage in sweeping generalizations, and name-drop is fucking tedious.

Just once I'd like to see you directly address an actual point that someone has made.

2 to 1 odds that you won't even offer a definition of a "genuinely experienced experience", like I asked you to above--and that's even after I've just mentioned the odds.

My prediction of the substance of your "answer": "Einzige, do you expect me to believe that you don't know the definition of something so simple?"

As Jim just pointed out, you don't seem particularly interested in any search for truth. Instead, you seem to thrive on taking a contrary position and arguing it well past the point of absurdity, just to see how annoyed you can make everyone else.

I have no doubt that "fair-minded" readers of this blog agree with me.

Einzige said...

Oh, I should mention that my lack of doubt is a "genuinely experienced experience"--at least according to my definition.

So, olvlzl, it's apparently not subject to intellectual argument.

In other words, I'm right: everyone agrees that you're annoying. To disagree would be the "greatest arrogance."

Jim Lippard said...

olvlzl: BTW, it strikes me as inconsistent that someone who wrote "you certainly aren't unaware of Wiseman's personality or the controversies he's generated" also writes "It's the greatest arrogance of fundamentalists that they think they know what other people should believe out their own experience" in the same thread. If it's arrogant to tell other people what they *should* believe based on their experience, isn't it even more arrogant to tell them what they *do* believe or have experienced?

olvlzl said...

Jim Lippard, I assumed you would be familiar with a person as prominent in your movement as Wiseman, though, you are correct, that was presumptuous of me. Though I think there's a great deal of difference between assuming someone knows something and believing that someone should agree with your own preferences. I don't think I've classified you as a fundamentalist, nor do I think I necessarily would.

Einzige, the particular point about Randi and Jillette were in direct response to the point "I don't think Randi or Penn & Teller are the intellectual leaders of skepticism." I had assumed that anyone who read it would realize that I wasn't disagreeing about them being "intellectual leaders" but pointing out that, like it or not, and I can understand why someone might not, they are probably the most prominent "skeptics" in America.

As to being annoying, that title is the fate of those who keep asking questions and investigating. I'd have thought that was the essence of skepticism though not of "skepticism". Though I don't refer to myself as a skeptic. Or anything else except a Democrat and a socialist. Well, I do identify myself as an old gay man too, but that's not really relevant.

I guess the best way for someone observing someone else to determine if an experience is a genuine experience is to see if there is behavior consistent with any claims made about that experience. For the person who had it, a similar examination of conscience and constant review of behavior would seem to be the best way. That has been a consistently appearing assertion of prominent mystics throughout the literature, asserting an experience wasn't enough. It had to change you for the better.

I do find it odd that questioning has such a remarkably strong emotional effect on you.

olvlzl said...

If we can be shown (through direct experiential demonstration) that we are subject to certain kinds of cognitive illusions,

Oh, I left this out. Leaving aside my extensive skepticism about "cognitive science" as that phrase is usually misappropriated, I don't buy it, especially as applied to what is termed mystical experiences. Those are internal, there is no way to know what is really happening, the best that can be had is some knowledge about electrical and chemical phenomena in the brain but that doesn't really tell you what the experience is. The best information you have about the experience is the testimony of the person who had it. Like it or not, absent some disability, people are the real experts in their own experience. How would even real scientists have any idea of what that was without the person telling them what they experienced?

Don't get me started on Pinker.

Einzige said...

...the particular point about Randi and Jillette were in direct response to the point "I don't think Randi or Penn & Teller are the intellectual leaders of skepticism."

...which was in response to you bringing them up! How stupid do you think I am?

I do find it odd that questioning has such a remarkably strong emotional effect on you.

What you're doing is "questioning", huh?

Why is it, then, that I only counted 2 question marks out of all the sentences you've typed in your four prior comments above? (None of which were in your first response to this thread. I note also that in the other thread, your first two responses there had no question marks, either.)

Einzige said...

Don't get me started on Pinker.

We promise: we won't mention him at all. In fact, I beg of you to not mention him. Ever.

The best information you have about the experience is the testimony of the person who had it.

So if I told you that I had just had a genuine experience of flying under my own power to New York and having sex with Kim Catrall then you'd say that the "best information" you have about that experience is my testimony?

olvlzl said...

...which was in response to you bringing them up! How stupid do you think I am?

* If you wanted to bring that up you should have quoted what I said then. How am I supposed to guess that you were referring to an earlier comment when you quoted the later one? Did you expect me to use telepathy to answer you?

- So if I told you that I had just had a genuine experience of flying under my own power to New York and having sex with Kim Catrall then you'd say that the "best information" you have about that experience is my testimony?

* First, I invoke my right as a geezer to not know who Kim Catrall is. Second, the experience you pose isn't a purely internal experience so there would be possible physical evidence outside of MRIs and possible samples of chemical traces of brain activity. I assume that such an experience would be memorable enough for said, Ms. Catrall, unless Kim is a man, so that there would be a witness. Although there are possible witnesses who could testify to the last point, I really don't care to know. You do realize that as meaningful and moving as the experience might be, even in imagination, it really wouldn't match most peoples' definition of a "mystical" experience. Though "mythical" might well fit.

Maybe "investigation" would satisfy you more that "questioning". I won't, however, use the word "inquire" due to connotations and associations, as well as pretensions surrounding to that word that are beyond my control.

J.L. my agnostic friend tells me you are doing me the honor of reading my old comments in other places and, I have no doubt, correcting them. Which I don't mind. Please, don't miss my own post on my blog about"Dr. Brinkley". Search "goats" and you can't miss it.

Why am I feeling like Arsene Lupin all of the sudden?

Einzige said...

Hume's Ghost has the right idea, I think.

Jim Lippard said...

olvlzl: "Leaving aside my extensive skepticism about "cognitive science" as that phrase is usually misappropriated, I don't buy it, especially as applied to what is termed mystical experiences. Those are internal, there is no way to know what is really happening, the best that can be had is some knowledge about electrical and chemical phenomena in the brain but that doesn't really tell you what the experience is."

I think this grossly underestimates what we already know, much less what we are in the process of learning about the neurological correlates of experience.

"J.L. my agnostic friend tells me you are doing me the honor of reading my old comments in other places and, I have no doubt, correcting them."

I've looked up comments elsewhere where you've mentioned my name, and I also looked to see where you talked about Paul Kurtz to see what else you've said about his influence. I've commented on a couple that I found interesting (such as Murray Hogg's post on neo-atheists), but the only place I've offered a correction is on this post at the friendlyatheist blog.

The "Dr. Brinkley" post is a good one.

Reed E said...

olvlzl: you portray the PR problem of skepticism as the fault of the personalities involved. Isn't there more to it? Isn't there something in the message of skepticism that is threatening and thus contributes to our negative image?

olvlzl said...

Reed E, I don't know. It's never been the skepticism that bothered me, it was the certainty of those calling themselves "skeptics" that did. Though it would be easier to tell if so many people pretending to be skeptics weren't rude, arrogant egoists. It might be too late to salvage the word "skepticism".

Einzige, I gather you didn't like my last answers to you. All I did was give in to the temptation you provided. I'd have thought giving in to temptation would have been something you approved of, irreligion and all that. You don't provide opportunities like those and I promise I won't take them.

I'm about done here anyway. I've seen what I came to see.

olvlzl said...

Note to Jim Lippard

In a bit of spare time I've had this week I checked to see if your contention that Paul Kurtz isn't particularly influential in the neo-atheist fad, I have to diffeer with you. I think that much of it has direct and active ties to him and his obvious chain of groups and publications. Some of the ties seem to be quite direct, some, the bizarre praise of "The Jesus Project" shell game rather amusing.

I wonder, where are the non-fundamentalist atheists? I've known a number of them but they don't seem to find commenting or blogging about it to be very interesting. I sort of miss the Murray-O'Hare kind of atheists. She was vulgar and disreputable but she was a lot of fun too.

Kat Lippard said...

olvlzl-
I am one of the non-fundie atheists, my apathy towards others' religious views knows no bounds. I just ask that people keep it to themselves - out of government, schools, etc. And, from the number of posts I've made, you can say that I am not too interested in blogging except as a reader.

Jim is away from the computer and the internets for a day or so. I'm sure he'll get back to you then.

Hume's Ghost said...

"I wonder, where are the non-fundamentalist atheists?"

My Japanese friend says Olvzl is a bigot.

Could not resist.

Einzige said...

He certainly seems to have a - one might say "pathological" - compulsion to pigeonhole everyone and everything.

olvlzl said...

My Japanese friend says Olvzl is a bigot. Humes Ghost

Oooh, give details. With direct, accurate and full quotes from me.

one might say "pathological" - compulsion to pigeonhole everyone and everything. Einzige, I'd ask you to document this in the same way but since I've done that several times and you have failed to come up with even one supporting quote, it would be a waste of time.

If you're not familiar with "The Jesus Project" and it's amusingly botched beginning, complete with publicly announced and listed "fellows", some of whom had never heard of the "project" and others who had never been asked, look it up. I can't wait for Prometheus to begin publishing their entirely objective and unpredictable "findings".

Jim Lippard said...

I'm back from Chicago...

olvlzl: "In a bit of spare time I've had this week I checked to see if your contention that Paul Kurtz isn't particularly influential in the neo-atheist fad, I have to diffeer with you. I think that much of it has direct and active ties to him and his obvious chain of groups and publications. Some of the ties seem to be quite direct, some, the bizarre praise of "The Jesus Project" shell game rather amusing."

Please note carefully what I said--that Paul Kurtz is not personally, directly influential. I don't dispute that his organizations have been so, nor that people he has supported and published have been so, especially taken as a whole. In that sense, he has been influential. But his own personal writings, not so much. If his own work were extremely influential, there would be a bunch of people calling themselves eupraxophists.

Your mention of the Jesus Project prompted me to search. That sounds like a case of staggering Internet ignorance and bad judgment--you don't select a list of supporters/fellows/participants using an "opt out" mechanism. That's idiotic, and R. Joseph Hoffmann has been rightly condemned for it.