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Sam Harris Says Reject “Atheist” Label

Sam Harris recently gave a lecture at an “atheist” conference where he shocked his audience by telling them their use of the label “atheist” is a huge mistake — “a mistake of some consequence,” to be exact.

To understand the magnitude of his “seditious proposal,” you have to know that Harris is considered one of the leading public voices for atheism — along with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett — but, therein lies his point — you cannot be for something that is by definition simply an absence of belief.

He called for anyone using the concept “atheist” to reject it forthright:

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.

His entire lecture is worth reading, whether you use any of these labels or are just intellectually curious. You can find a full transcript of it at Washington Post online.

Sam Harris is one of my favorite writers. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience, and I look forward to reading his books in the years to come. He is an extremely honest intellectual, and he is not afraid to go where the evidence takes him.

He gets criticized by fellow scientists for his desire to explore “spirituality,” despite his lack of religion. I admit, I am sympathetic to his soul-searching. I agree we can learn much about the human mind and experience by exploring phenomena usually associated with the mystics — meditation, hypnotism and the power of prayer, to name a few.

He makes a fascinating point about what we can learn from the mystics, or “contemplatives”:

Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.

Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself — that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people — he’s probably mentally ill.

But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently — thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen — but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests.

I think he may be on to something — something that could add to our body of knowledge about health and well-being.

In any event, as a result of Harris’ lecture, I will cease using the term “atheist.” I have only used that term in the last few months, and, oddly enough, I was emboldened to use it after reading Harris’ book, End of Faith.

But, he is right. It is intellectual honesty and reason that need to be brought to the forefront of the current conversations.

For what it’s worth, I have been without organized religion for nearly 20 years now, yet consider virtue and pursuit of the good paramount. While I am non-religious now, my past is a mosaic of religious, mystical and philosophical pursuits.

I was raised Southern Baptist, attended Catholic masses during middle school, converted to Lutheranism in high school, dabbled in tarot and delved into Buddhism before finally letting religion go altogether — but only in exchange for psychology and philosophy.

There were too many religions to explore, and what I was always after was simply inner peace. I have found the best way to inner peace is living virtuously, or taking the “right action,” as Abraham Maslow called it. And, the idea of living virtuously brought me full circle to Aristotle, who had come to that conclusion in the 4th Century B.C.

My whole path could have been a lot shorter had I been taught Aristotle’s philosophy in high school, but they don’t teach philosophy at that level anymore, at least not at public schools.

And, the few brave souls who take philosophy at the universities today are lucky if they avoid brain damage. They don’t generally emphasize Aristotle at colleges either. (I learned about Aristotle and Epicurus indirectly, through my study of art history.)

Modern philosophy (post Kant), as taught by academics, can be summed up as follows: You can never know anything for certain because you cannot perceive reality directly; and, therefore, there is no reality.

If you laugh at this statement, then you have not studied philosophy at the college level. I assure you, if you do, you will be taught this at some point. And, yes, it is egregious. It’s even scarier when you realize that there are people graduating from Ivy Leagues who actually believe this nonsense, and scarier still that they are running our country.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that philosophy is useless or esoteric. It is, as I learned from Ayn Rand, an inescapable influence that shapes our lives and ultimately the course of human history.

Epicurus said it well:

Let no man be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more.

And, in our quest for answers, we would all be better off if we we follow Harris’ lead, going only where the evidence takes us, correcting our errors along the way.

(hat tip: Joseph Stewart)

2 comments to Sam Harris Says Reject “Atheist” Label

  • Wow, those are some very thought-provoking comments.

    If you’re ever interested in exploring Harris’s “atheist” label perspective in more detail, it might make for interesting reading at the Atlasphere.

    Ayn Rand had some provocative comments on her own on the subject, but I don’t think one has to discount her observations to recognize there are multiple useful perspectives on this subject.

    Speaking personally, I would have to say that my use of the word “atheist,” when I was younger, always seemed to cause more confusion and consternation than recognition and understanding. Today I certainly lean toward Harris’s perspective; I don’t find the label helpful.

    I should blog about this at Mudita Journal. Pardon me now while I do that…

  • […] columnist Allison Taylor, who has become one of my favorite bloggers lately, has a new thought-provoking post up about noted atheist Sam Harris’s public rejection of the very “atheist” label […]