I recently read an intriguing article from Sam Harris, in which he argues that use of the term 'atheism' to describe ourselves is an obstacle to our secular goals.  He is. of course, among the 'four horsemen' militant atheists who are not just content to be free of supernatural superstition themselves, but who are actively trying to bring about the end of religion.  With that goal taken for granted, does labeling ourselves 'atheist' help or hurt the cause?  Here are some of Harris' main points, if you don't want to read the whole article. 

-Having a catch-all term to describe people with naturalistic worldviews creates an artificial sense of categorization, allowing atheists to be pigeonholed as a fringe interest group somewhere along the spectrum of religiosity (at the 'deficient' end, needless to say). 

-The very use of the term is granting the religious person's paradigm of the world unnecessary validity by assuming that man's natural state is religious rather than rational.  (Harris points to the fact that we don't need the term 'non-astrologer' today to argue against the validity of astrology, since this term is unnecessarily equal-handed to astrology and rationality; we may similarly never get far beyond religion while we use a term that means 'non-religious')

-A single term such as atheism belies the variety and diversity of people whose only common feature is their lack of supernatural belief.  We have seen countless historical instances of atheism, and other terms, aquiring certain unshakable associations that immeadiately discredit the bearers; we should perhaps acknowledge that the term, if it is to be used at all, should not be allowed to cary associations that allow other people to assume they know anything about an 'atheist' beyond one single fact.

-The term atheist, for reasons stated above, allows apologists and others to propagate the fallacy that 'atheism is just a secular religion'.  Any studious atheist will know how to respond to this, and the religious will make that arguement no matter what they have to do to describe us, but wouldn't it be convenient if 'atheists' were a group so loosely defined, so well-integrated into society, that it wouldn't even be useful to try to apply such a label?  Harris speculates that a similar end to racism will only come about not when everyone has had prejudice educated or beaten out of them, but when the idea of distinct races ceases even to be intelligible.


As you can tell, I'm pretty well convinced.  I'd primarily like to hear any arguements anyone has AGAINST this notion, since it is a rather radical departure from the normal form of evangelical atheism that I typically 'practice'. 


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I agree with the points listed.  I prefer Non-theist, Rationalist or Freethinker.  As you pointed out, Atheist plays into the Rhetoric of Theists.  God is possible.  But, it is very - very - improbable.  The thought of a Super Intellect - that exists beyond the boundaries of Space & Time - seems pretty nonsensical.  Of course, any God concept that tied down with Scripture - with all the absurdities therein - can be totally rejected.  It goes beyond God, anyway.  It is about attempting to live one's life based on Reason.  Which is very difficult.    

I went through a phase like this toward the end of high school, but gave it up in light of the fact that the term 'atheism' exists because it still has utility.  It does not assume that theism is the natural state; it merely recognizes that a significant portion of the human population (or various subpopulations) are theists, and as such, it is useful to have a term that differentiates those that are not theists.

A single term such as atheism belies the variety and diversity of people whose only common feature is their lack of supernatural belief. 

The term doesn't do that.  It's direct antithesis is theism.  With the term 'theism', it is commonly understood that there is a great deal of diversity in beliefs falling under that umbrella.  Why would the same not logically hold true for atheism?  That's because the problem isn't the term, but rather ignorance and prejudice toward it.  

A simple misunderstanding of what it means to be an atheist can always be remedied with a kindly explanation. For those who will not hear an explanation, the problem is not the word; the problem is their prejudice.  You will not unseat their prejudice through semantics.  Will you look any different to them as an atheist, some other term, or as a godless, heathen sunnova bitch?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say no. Word play is quite likely not the best way to fight this sort of prejudice.

The term atheist, for reasons stated above, allows apologists and others to propagate the fallacy that 'atheism is just a secular religion'.

A rose by any other name.  They aren't attacking the word; they are attacking us.  You can avoid the term 'atheist' or any term for that matter, but there really is nothing to stop fanatics from coining their own.  You can go with terms that have greater specificity for differing views inside of atheism, but that only seems to further the impression that these subgroups are religions.  Again, I don't think the issue is with terminology at all; the problem is with human behaviour.

Interesting that I just used the word "atheist" with my nine year old yesterday and she immediately said, What's that?  It sounds bad?".  After defining it she had no issue with it but I was intrigued at her gut reaction to the word.

I agree with Sam but it's a far cry to imagine a society with no stereotypes.  People crave them and crave giving names to them.  Atheist, Fundamentalist, Humanist.  On and on we will always have the names of the groups.

I do agree that just being nameless and "under the radar" as human beings squashing nonsense and indecency would be a noble society.  

We need the titles though, especially in the digital world, to help us identify which side of reason we are on and who's on our side, don't we?

I've mentioned a few times here at TA, atheism would not even have significance as a movement or endeavor without thesim. I.e., extant theism largely defines current atheism.


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