Should the Word “Atheist” Even Be Used?

In his talk at the Atheist Alliance convention this past weekend, Sam Harris decided to go all contrarian, and argue that we shouldn’t even use the word “atheist”. While he makes some good points, I feel that on the whole, he’s wrong.

And, as I argued briefly in Letter to a Christian Nation, I think that “atheist” is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people “non-astrologers.” All we need are words like “reason” and “evidence” and “common sense” and “bullshit” to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.

He’s right. “Atheism” shouldn’t need a separate word; it should just be lumped in with common sense. No one calls themselves “abolitionist” or anything like that anymore: it’s just assumed that anyone you meet is opposed to slavery. And perhaps the same will happen with “atheism”. But we’re not there yet.

Another problem with calling ourselves “atheists” is that every religious person thinks he has a knockdown argument against atheism. We’ve all heard these arguments, and we are going to keep hearing them as long as we insist upon calling ourselves “atheists. Arguments like: atheists can’t prove that God doesn’t exist; atheists are claiming to know there is no God, and this is the most arrogant claim of all. As Rick Warren put it, when he and I debated for Newsweek—a reasonable man like himself “doesn’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” The idea that the universe could arise without a creator is, on his account, the most extravagant faith claim of all.

He goes on to say that answering PRATTs like this take time and distracts from the real issues. Such is the nature of PRATTs.

But this isn’t going to go away any time soon. It doesn’t matter whether we call ourselves “rationalists”, “freethinkers”, “brights”, or whatever. Once a label becomes established, the same tired old arguments and straw men are going to come up, just as in any discussion of evolution vs. creationism, someone is bound to ask why, if humans came from monkeys, there are still monkeys.

Even if we don’t call ourselves anything, as Harris suggests, it won’t solve the problem. In my experience, most people who call themselves atheists believe that there is no evidence for any gods, as the term is commonly understood; that if any such evidence were presented, they’d revise their views; and of course it depends what one means by “god”; but on the whole, while it’s impossible to utterly disprove the existence of every god, the likelihood of any such being existing is so minuscule as to be negligible.

But who has time for that kind of nuanced answer? If you ask an atheist whether there’s a god, he or she will likely just say “no”. And that opens the gate to all the usual misunderstandings and straw men.

Lastly, Harris argues that having the forces of reason unite under a common banner prevents a sort of intellectual guerrilla warfare:

We are faced with the monumental task of persuading a myth-infatuated world that love and curiosity are sufficient, and that we need not console or frighten ourselves or our children with Iron Age fairy tales. I don’t think there is a more important intellectual struggle to win; it has to be fought from a hundred sides, all at once, and continuously; but it seems to me that there is no reason for us to fight in well-ordered ranks, like the red coats of Atheism.

I’ve been catching up on old episodes of The Atheist Experience. One refrain that keeps coming up is that a lot of people think they’re the only person in town who doesn’t believe in God, and are surprised to find out just how many like-minded people there are. We have already been divided; let’s not be conquered.

Right now, atheists need to find each other to be effective. Stand up and say, “We’re here, and we’re not going away. Get used to it” (to take a page from the gay playbook). The attack on a hundred fronts will take care of itself, I think: it’s been said that organizing atheists is like forming a non-joiners club, so I suspect the natural tendency will be for people to go off in a hundred different directions and argue over everything (hell, we can’t even agree on a logo). The “hundred different fronts” part isn’t the problem.

Harris makes some good points, such as that religion does not have a monopoly on irrationality and superstition, but on his main point, that the word “atheist” is a liability, he seems to be dead wrong. Sorry.

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2 Responses to Should the Word “Atheist” Even Be Used?

  1. Cyde Weys says:

    Did you see PZ’s response to Sam Harris? He said most of the same things you did. I agree with both of you. If we call ourselves anything other than “atheists”, then whatever we pick will just become demonized in the same way. They hate the idea, not the word; change the word, and they’ll attack the new word just as well. And calling ourselves nothing only marginalizes us, giving them exactly what they want.


  2. arensb says:

    I have, but I wanted to get my response out before reading PZ’s, lest I be overly influenced by the Cephalopod Throne.

    And yes, you’re right. one point that I didn’t make above—because Harris doesn’t advocate switching to a different name, he advocates not using a name at all—is that “negro” and “colored” used to be neutral words (viz. United Negro College Fund and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) before racists turned them into derogatory terms. “Idiot”, “moron”, and “retarded” used to be clinical terms before being turned into epithets (Mark Haddon plays with this in his novel The Curious Case of the Dog in Night-Time, in which neighborhood bullies taunt the autistic main character by yelling “special needs!” at him). “Suck” and “gay” as negative terms (as in “you suck”, “this movie sucks”, “Halo 2 is so gay”) are IMO obviously based on homophobia.

    In short, the problem lies not in the name, but in opponents’ attitude, which is the problem that needs to be fixed in the first place. So why bother going to the effort of changing the name for a short-term fix?

    I’ve also heard people use “Jew” as an insult. And not with an explicit context playing on antisemitic stereotypes, as in “You’re leaving a 5% tip? Why are you being such a Jew?”, but direct and unadorned: “You’re a Jew!” Since the person being addressed this way was Jewish, she was amused that anyone would think “Jew” was an insult.


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