I ran a quick search for discussions on this topic and nothing came up, so I thought I'd make a thread on it to see what you guys think.


The provocative title of this thread is identical to the title of the even more provocative speech by the formidable Sam Harris at AAI 2007:


Link here should the embed not work.



When Sam made this speech there was a lot of controversy about it, because he argued that the very act of associating yourself with a negative term (in this case, atheism) brings about a number of severe disadvantages. You'll have to watch the whole video to know exactly which disadvantages these are, because Sam sums them up quite a bit better than I can.


The reason I start this thread is because the more I think about this issue, the more I'm starting to agree with Sam, and the more time I spend on atheist forums I also realise that reason is something that's bigger than atheism, and I'm also beginning to have doubts about whether identifying myself as an atheist is really worth it.

So, what do you think? Is the label useful? Do we need it? Is it holding a broad application reason and rationality back? Is it perhaps useful now and can it be abandoned later?


The second half of the video is Sam talking about how science should accept that there might be experiences that mystics have had through the ages, which are different from the ones we normally experience, and so science should be interested in what exactly those states are and should incorporate them in our growing knowledge of neurology.

I thought that was a less controversial subject (though just as interesting), but if you want, you can comment on that too. Not really why I'm opening this thread though.


Thoughts, Nexus?

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Born into a world that holds a view of existence that may or may not reflect reality or truth, whatever they are, but of superstition, customs, traditions, and values that maintain and perpetuate a status quo, they may lead one into questioning and experimenting and exploring.  I guess that is what "growing up" means.

Obviously, there is no precise right or wrong answer. How does one distinguish experience from belief?  

You wrote, "reason is something that's bigger than atheism".  Sam writes about the mystical aspect of life that atheism does not address and that is a question I ask:  When I look at my great-grandchildren or the sky on a clear night with a telescope, or those wiggly things I see through a microscope, or watch a peach seed open and produce the cotyledon leaves, or sit with a dying loved one ... what is life? Where does consciousness reside? How do we know fact from fantasy? What is the purpose of life? Will we come to an understanding of life forms before we destroy it all? I know the Earth will survive human actions and the probability exists that living forms will not.  

mystic crap just shunts evolution. the best and only explanation to how we came to rely on our instincts and hone them nah mean?

This is a good talk.  I agree with much of what he is saying.  I agree that we should simply say no to stupid misogynistic, arrogant ideas about how the world operates and that we need to simply smash bad ideas at every turn.  Furthermore, I agree with the last part of his talk although it is very sobering to think about.  He is right.

Whether or not you choose to associate with the term atheist you will still be considered as such by the religious. It may be a derogatory term to them but to me, the way to change that is to say, "yes, I am an atheist" and explain what it means and why being one doesn't mean you are a bad person.  I think it’s too late in the game to try and make the term go away.  It will do so on its own eventually.  There were probably words used to describe people in the not too distance past that said the world was round or that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe and so on.  But there isn’t any more.  Or maybe there is, rational.


Sam Harris asks at one point if there is a "non-racist society he could join." During the 1960's and the height of the civil rights movement, there were all sorts. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was one such organization, at least in that period when racism against blacks was particularly virulent and people organized to combat the bigotry of those who, in some locations, were in the majority.

Since that time, the focus has obviously shifted somewhat away from racism as the movement to remove racism has met with a reasonable degree of success. The GLBT community became a focus not very long after, particularly in the wake of the Stonewall Riots. Those who were attempting and continue to attempt to act against the homophobes may not be known as "anti-homophobes" or whatever, but they were and are an identifiable group. It is also worth noting that, again, for a considerable time, that those who supported the homosexuals' case against the homophobes were in the minority.

The difference in the actions we take in our efforts to challenge religion, irrationality and faith without substantiation is that we actually have something to call ourselves - atheists. It's a loaded word, and I doubt there are many if any atheists who would say it isn't. I can see Sam's point in that "atheist" is a LABEL, a shortcut which fails to fully express one's individual identity. At the risk of generalizing, that label in large part states the wearer of that label's subscription not just to disbelief in gods, but the subscription to rationality and reason which Sam suggests be our modus operandi.

Personally, I am proud to call myself an atheist, and I have no hesitation in identifying myself as such, even though that label is limiting and invites stereotyping. I think it helps to focus the difference between us and the foolishness of what we argue against. I also think that the struggle against irrationality and dedication to myth-based belief will be far longer than the civil rights movement or gay liberation, because of the pervasiveness of what we're up against.

And there is also the matter that we ARE a minority, just as the blacks and gays are. In the US, we are the least trusted minority of any in this country. Some may think that calling ourselves atheists puts a target on our backs. I submit that the target is there anyway, and as long as it's going to be there, we might as well affirm it without fear.

I am an atheist.

Good post Loren, I liked it.

I don't think the point is that we should forget about the term atheist altogether though; atheism will still exist as a philosophical term as opposed to theism. The question is, rather, is it a good idea to gather under this banner? Is it a good idea, for instance, to gather in groups like American Atheists and fight religious injustice under such a banner? Or does it make us sound like just another lobby group with pre-set goals, rather than the group of free-thinkers which I think we want to be.

Perhaps it can be advanced that we need the label now for as long as atheists are so marginalised. That could be true. But I still find it a very strange thought that we are part of a movement whose ultimate goal is to evaporate (i.e. the ultimate goal of atheists is that the label atheist becomes meaningless).

Still though, I find it really interesting that Sam Harris was able to write his first two books without using the term atheist. The strange thing is that his criticisms were probably more effective when they were understood as simply "criticism of religion" rather than "New Atheism".

Transcript on RichardDawkins.net

I recall discussing this lecture soon after the convention.  While it raises interesting questions, I felt Harris' reasoning was faulty and his conclusions were poor.

Reviewing the transcript now, I'm finding myself facepalming all over again.

George, what part of Sam's lecture causes you to "facepalm"? Do you still find his reasoning faulty with poor conclusions? or do you agree with his assessment? 

I think there is more to this cultural anxiety than atheism.  In my opinion, the peoples of the Earth face the reality that old attitudes, beliefs, customs, traditions and values fail us.  We not only question the existence of a deity, we also question the economic and political dilemma created by capitalism and they are bound together.  There are those who believe capitalism cannot exist without theological underpinnings.  The references can easily and quickly be Googled.

There is abundant evidence that capitalism depends on the notions of dominionism, god gave man dominion over all that swims, crawls and flies, over water, air, and minerals, over flora and fauna.  This notion easily becomes translated into man has the right and obligation to control Earth and all its resources.  Slavery comes out of that notion and so does wife and child ownership by husbands and fathers and so does nationalism.  

The problem as I see it is god gave man all, everything, and capitalism is merely the means to that end.  

There are those who believe capitalism cannot exist without theological underpinnings.  The references can easily and quickly be Googled.

I am pretty good at Google-Fu, but the right series of keywords seems to be problematic. The various combinations of capitalism, theological and various connecting keywords seems to bring about a lot of attacks by religious believers on capitalism. If you have some direct references I would appreciate it. You can PM them if you want.

Dee, thanks for the heads up.  I shall dig out a few. 

Dee, I sent you several references on the correlations of religion and economics and I don't see them here. I must have not pressed the "Add" button. It is too late tonight and I will answer your question tomorrow. I appreciate your asking. 

To begin, Google capitalism + religion

This is not a research paper, but a film:

There Will Be Blood: Religion and Capitalism in America

"Is it any wonder that the most prevalent theology in America today is this so-called “prosperity doctrine?” We’re bombarded on television with it, from the Trinity Broadcast Network to Joel Osteen to the Crystal Cathedral. It provides a theological underpinning for our single-minded pursuit of personal wealth, often at the expense of everyone else, and has contributed to the near annihilation of our Native American predecessors and the eminent destruction of our environment."

The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism By Max Weber

Reviewed by  Jeremy Bauer

"In The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, ... Weber convincingly argued that the superstructure - in this case religion- can play a part in the relations of production.   ... Weber argued that the religious affiliation of social groups can influence their “zeal” for capitalism. He notes a high correlation between the great Capitalist “spirit” and individuals with Puritanical and Protestant religious backgrounds, especially those with a Calvinist background."




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