I recently listened to the latest podcast of the Institute for Humanist Studies’ Network News. Noteworthy were several brief interviews with the notable “New Atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (http://humaniststudies.org/podcast/). The broadcast focused on comments made by Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance International annual conference in September, where he told the crowd that they should not identify with the atheist label.
The rationale was perfectly logical (and frankly not a new argument), and reflected my own thoughts about the term for many years. “Atheist” as a word carries an immensely negative connotation, and is really not a particularly valuable label. As Harris pointed out, atheism is not a world view, as is a belief in rationality. Atheism is simply a rejection of an unsubstantiated notion.
What troubled me, however, was not the comments made in response to this argument, but rather a question asked of all three figures and their answers. The interviewer asked whether atheists should pursue the reform of religion or its destruction. Now, obviously, as someone pursuing the life of a minister, the question is at best problematic. My more visceral reaction, though, is one of offense at its simple mindedness and nastiness. My reasons for such a reaction are these:
- Contemplating the destruction of organized religion is a waste of time, given that billions of people on this planet support the concept and many of them are willing to kill themselves and others to defend it. As a long-term evolutionary goal of human society, perhaps I would be willing to consider the idea, but it’s priority would lag far behind a multitude of more pressing human needs.
- Simply discussing the desire to eliminate religion as a “yes/no” question ignores the many positive contributions of religion. One might just as logically argue for the elimination of all government because some politicians are corrupt, all families because of instances of abuse or divorce, and all other forms of human interaction and organization because they produce some negative as well as positive outcomes.
- The question assumes that atheism and organized religion are mutually exclusive (an assumption which all three of the speakers appeared to share). This assumption is unwarranted even under the current dominant paradigm of our modern view of the cosmos. There are at least hundreds of thousands of American atheists (many Unitarian Universalists, for instance) who belong to and participate regularly in churches, fellowships, societies, etc.
- The assumption is particularly erroneous if one is open to new quantum views of the universe, in which one acknowledges that many fields and forces exist that we do not yet understand, cannot yet quantify, and may well have wide ranging effects on our lives in biological and perhaps spiritual ways (however one chooses to define the term).
Obviously, I have no desire to take on these giants of the movement, who are far more adept at verbal repartee and public debate. I do, however, think it matters when public figures present their views in a cavalier manner that divides potential members of a movement. Atheism has faced this problem for decades, as have humanists. I find this paradox fascinating, given that two billion people are comfortable labeling themselves Christian and another 1.5 billion are comfortable with the term Muslim. Until atheists and humanists even come close to 1% of any nation’s populations, how can they ever hope to become the dominant paradigm of thought?