Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves…
While it is an honor to find myself continually assailed with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] as though we were a single person with four heads, this whole notion of the “new atheists” or “militant atheists” has been used to keep our criticism of religion at arm’s length, and has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism.
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…
We will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept. We will simply find ourselves in a world in which people cease to praise one another for pretending to know things they do not know. This is certainly a future worth fighting for. It may be the only future compatible with our long-term survival as a species. But the only path between now and then, that I can see, is for us to be rigorously honest in the present. It seems to me that intellectual honesty is now, and will always be, deeper and more durable, and more easily spread, than “atheism.”
As Harris tells it it, libertarians strike me as facing much the same dilemma. On the one hand, by identifying with a political ideology we make it easier for others to dismiss our policy arguments rather than confront them on the merits. On the other, if we eschew the label for something more generic we miss out on opportunities to express our opposition to the dominant, pro-state views of modern conservatives and liberals.
I agree with Harris that using the atheist label concedes too much to religion, as if we atheists should also call ourselves “aghostists” and “aNessiests” and “aESPists” when asked our opinion of other irrational beliefs. I, too, would love to live in a world where the basic ideas of major religions are considered so bizarre that it would be silly to assign a label to non-belief. Similarly, I wish proposals for socialized medicine or federal marriage amendments were viewed with such ridicule that I could simply call myself a liberal and be done with it. But we’re far from that state of affairs, both in religion and in politics.
Thankfully, as Harris points out, people of sound mind don’t have to join the “non-racist” club to express their lack of irrational prejudice. But in a previous century they did and organized a movement around abolition. The shedding of labels is a luxury for the victors. We atheists haven’t won acceptance yet. As I wrote last year:
…we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.
Strategically, I think Harris is right that we should work harder at debunking specific religious beliefs rather than always declaring war on religion as a whole. But the need for a label isn’t something we control; it’s forced upon us by a religious society that expects people to fit into religious categories. Much of the time, refusing the category means ducking the conversation, and thus foregoing an opportunity to normalize unbelief.
Even so, Harris’ essay does have me rethinking when to use the label. I know there are a few other atheists reading this site. What do you think?