Sam Harris – do not cast the first stone
(You may want to read the Over view blog on conference first to get a background on Sam Harris’ led balloon – the blog below this one, though not essential)
Sam Harris says stop being atheists!
Well considering the response a pin dropping at the back of the hall would have got everyone turning their heads you would have thought that was what he had said. He was talking about tactics, for example, when discussing stem cell research why would you have to resort to stating atheism as a clinching reason when other more effective ones can be used?
Sam says consciousness is mystical!
Which is what one questioner seemed to suggest accusing him of being a super naturalist, when he had said he is a materialist, yet maybe we just need to find more evidence as to what makes the whole thing tick which may be different from the western interpretation. Naturally I will not quote people who were talking frankly to me, as it was off the record. But many people there seemed to suggest that Sam was too much the philosopher and not the activist. Perhaps their view could be summed up with Mat Chapman (great grandson of Darwin) that atheists should show they care by getting involved in social justice issues, in his words adding litmus tests to being atheists.A concern I had was that looking round the conference you would get the impression that atheism and democrat politics were the same thing. Now statistically that may be the case, but I also know many democrats involved in left wing religious groups too.
Yet atheism is that by logic you cannot deduce there is a god, and the evidence that we have strongly suggests otherwise. It will not tell me whether abortion is something women should have on demand, the size of the public sector, what rate of income tax the top 10 per cent of earners should pay, whether children should have free school dinners. To answer these questions the “A” word would not come up once in my responses, because it does not answer the questions.
I tackled Mat on that point. When it comes to politics atheism does not tell me in England whether I am Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat. Atheists will be found on all sides of the house. My concern as a secularist is that religion and faith is not given an access to policy making that it does not deserve based on faith being considered venerable. That reason and science are under threat. Yet if we start tagging on political subjective issues to the Atheist bandwagon then the big tent idea goes out of the window. How many biologists, writers, politicians will be out in the cold if the movement ends up with economic doctrines they are opposed too that could help with education and science?
Yes it is good to show we care, but when tackling social issues this is not because I am an atheist, rather because I am a liberal in the Rawlsian tradition, and as a social libertarian when it comes to people living their lives. I had this vision of wearing my “A” T shirt in a soup kitchen – nothing wrong doing that but I cannot help that I would tackle homelessness for the reason Bertrand Russell did, not because we are not Christians.
As to Sam Harris, I know he gets stick. Probably considering the Out campaign of RDF it may seem that I would be opposed to what he was saying about ditching the Atheist word. Yet one of the first threads I ever created was on what we should call ourselves and with thousands of hit’s on that thread it leads me to think that this issue is one that the movement thinks about.
I agree that when destroying a religious person’s point of view I can let them refer to the bible and I can use reason and science, without having to lie down in the chalk outline on the floor by stating “as an atheist” which immediately turns some people off the message (Sam’s line). Do you perhaps think that is not the issue? Simple test – go to a bar and buy someone a drink at random. Get chatting for a few minutes then mention you are an atheist. If they are religious or have belief in belief the shutters will go down immediately even though you have been talking freely for a few minutes.
I noticed that in a lift at the conference. Talking to this gentleman with a child, said how great it was. When someone said it was the Atheist Alliance International he flinched. The point I am trying to make is that some social issues will be harder to promote if we tag atheism on to it.
Reason and science are under threat. One day being an atheist will not be a big deal. It will happen, if we can have the enlightenment, if we can go from the wheel to landing on the moon it is possible. It is by no means a guaranteed progression, nor does it mean that we will not have to stand tall, stand out and challenge faith and the consequences of this meme.
I honestly think we should not abandon the word atheist. I am not afraid of using the word, and I am only just getting used to the idea of Brights (“Come OUT it’s BRIGHT!” was all I could think of to chant outside White House) and yes I think there is a good reason. Is it BRIGHT to look for evidence for positions on scientific questions? Is it BRIGHT to use reason to work out how we should make sense of how we live our lives?
So maybe it is difficult to separate how humanism influences political stances, that it is complex how we make our decisions on these issues. Often social issues of abortion, education, science we will be tackling SUPERS and well meaning MURKERS. The question I think is one of tactics – and people even question the use of the word bright.
I think we can honestly discuss these things without the stoning of Sam Harris, who I am glad to have – someone that will speak knowing he will have stones hurled. If we do not have room in the tent for Sam Harris then I put it to those people that litmus tests for atheism for people to be “one of us” is a slippery slope to us becoming an exclusive club, and perhaps even worse analogies.
Our focus is on defending reason and science, the separation of church and state, and the removal of faith as having a special significance in the policy making process. Lets not make the struggle any more difficult by leaving people on the way side that could otherwise help us in these goals.
Sam Harris talk can be read here: