Atheists and libertarians, same boat

Via Andrew Sullivan, is there a “problem with atheism?” Sam Harris thinks so and explains why in a challenging essay:

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?


  1. Mike says:

    While not an atheist — indeed while bothered by the categorization of a belief in God as “irrational” (I would argue that the irrationality stems from religion rather than the belief in a higher power, but I digress) — I have to admit that I have long been a fan of eschewing labels. This is why I no longer call myself “Christian”, “liberal”, “libertarian”, or anything else — not just because none of those labels wholly apply to me (particularly not the former) but also because it would be pigeonholing myself. I’m not sure I believe that “refusing the category is ducking the conversation” — I’m inclined to think it would open up the conversation, as any remotely inquisitive mind would be more inclined to pursue the subject further than to automatically assume they know who you are.

    As a side note, I find it quite amusing that as I type this post in response to an atheist, I see to the left unabashed Christian Sufjan Stevens’ albums listed on your playlist.

  2. Tim Lee says:

    I think it depends what question is being asked. I almost never voluntarily label myself as an atheist (or a libertarian, for that matter). But if someone asks me about my religious views, then the most accurate answer is “atheist,” just as the most accurate answer to the question “what are your political views” is “libertarian.” If we lived in a pervasively racist society, we probably would have to come up with a term to denote non-racism so we’d have an answer if someone asked us which race we sided with.

    I think it’s important that atheists not be afraid to self-identify themselves that way, especially to their friends and family, because that’s the only way that pervasive negative stereotypes about atheists will be dispelled. It’s easy for people to hate atheists in the abstract, and to perpetuate inaccurate negative stereotypes about them. But I’ve found that hardly anyone has the same reaction when they learn that I’m an atheist. They certainly think I’m misguided and in need of re-education, but they don’t hate me the way they might hate atheists in the abstract. If everyone knew they had an atheist among their friends or family, I think it would go a long way to curbing public prejudices against them.

    By the way, how come the text box here is so absurdly small?

  3. Jacob Grier says:


    The text box was so small because I never got around to changing it on the template. Thanks for pointing that out, I’ve just changed it to a more reasonable size. Next step: a preview option.

  4. Barzelay says:

    I share Mike’s aversion to labels, but that came about because labels rarely describe me with total accuracy. For instance, I don’t think anyone should call themselves Catholic unless they agree with every single official position of the Catholic church. I’m liberal, but probably not a Liberal. I love to say that I’m Jew-ish, putting the emphasis on the “ish.”

    Similarly, I’m certainly an atheist, but I can understand the trouble with presenting oneself as an Atheist. I agree that the label carries a stigma that allows people to dismiss it. Up to this point, however, I’ve found it fun to call myself an atheist, because it’s a provocative thing to say. And when a view is particularly marginalized, provocation may be the best way to get it noticed. The trouble is that I’m not sure atheism has even reached the level of acceptance (or even awareness!) in this country that we can dispense with provocation and just talk about it. Maybe Sullivan is saying that it has.

    Anyway, I’ve seen social networking sites that ask for your “Religion,” providing a drop-down menu with choices like, “Christian – Catholic,” “Christian – Protestant Non-Denominational,” “Lutheran,” “Muslim,” “Jewish,” etc. Perhaps it would be better if they had an option for “none,” instead of an option for “Atheist.” But if Atheist is my only choice, it’s certainly what I’m putting.

  5. Mechelle says:

    I’m not crazy about labels, either. However, a story about a place I used to work as a nurse. For the short few years I worked there, I was given an award for the most compassionate nurse. Two years straight I won this award. The nominations and votes are made by patients and their family members. Hold that thought. Last year, it came to a patient’s knowledge that I was an atheist (I won’t go into the whole story of how) and this patient, along with several others, refused to let me be their nurse. (I live in the south). Their reason? Because atheists are immoral. Now, here’s the irony of all this. Two of those people who referred to me as immoral for being an atheist, were also two who nominated me for the award I got last year.

    “As a side note, I find it quite amusing that as I type this post in response to an atheist, I see to the left unabashed Christian Sufjan Stevens’ albums listed on your playlist.”

    To comment on Mike’s comment I just cut and pasted: I also have a few songs that are faves and recorded by Christian rock bands. I fail to see your point. How many christians listen to/fave bands and recording artists who are atheists? There are loads of them.

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