The WashPost transcribed an excellent Sam Harris talk -- in which he argues against using his own most famous label! Highlights:
The (main) problem is that the (social) concept of atheism imposes upon us a false burden of remaining fixated on people’s beliefs about God and remaining even-handed in our treatment of religion. But we shouldn’t be fixated, and we shouldn’t be even-handed. In fact, we should be quick to point out the differences among religions, for two reasons:
First, these differences make all religions look contingent, and therefore silly. Consider the unique features of Mormonism, which may have some relevance in the next Presidential election. Mormonism, it seems to me, is—objectively—just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas. For instance, the Mormons think Jesus is going to return to earth and administer his Thousand years of Peace, at least part of the time, from the state of Missouri. Why does this make Mormonism less likely to be true than Christianity? Because whatever probability you assign to Jesus’ coming back, you have to assign a lesser probability to his coming back and keeping a summer home in Jackson County, Missouri. If Mitt Romney wants to be the next President of the United States, he should be made to feel the burden of our incredulity. We can make common cause with our Christian brothers and sisters on this point. Just what does the man believe? The world should know. And it is almost guaranteed to be embarrassing even to most people who believe in the biblical God.
The second reason to be attentive to the differences among the world’s religions is that these differences are actually a matter of life and death. There are very few of us who lie awake at night worrying about the Amish. This is not an accident. While I have no doubt that the Amish are mistreating their children, by not educating them adequately, they are not likely to hijack aircraft and fly them into buildings. But consider how we, as atheists, tend to talk about Islam. Christians often complain that atheists, and the secular world generally, balance every criticism of Muslim extremism with a mention of Christian extremism. The usual approach is to say that they have their jihadists, and we have people who kill abortion doctors. Our Christian neighbors, even the craziest of them, are right to be outraged by this pretense of even-handedness, because the truth is that Islam is quite a bit scarier and more culpable for needless human misery, than Christianity has been for a very, very long time.And the world must wake up to this fact. Muslims themselves must wakeup to this fact. And they can.
Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at moments like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment—with peaks and valleys and local attractors—and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.
I’m not at all suggesting that we leave people’s core religious beliefs, or faith itself, unscathed—I’m still the kind of person who writes articles with rather sweeping titles like “Science must destroy religion”—but it seems to me that we should never lose sight of useful and important distinctions.
Another problem with calling ourselves “atheists” is that every religious person thinks he has a knockdown argument against atheism.We’ve all heard these arguments, and we are going to keep hearing themas long as we insist upon calling ourselves “atheists.
Why should we fall into this trap? Why should we stand obediently in the space provided, in the space carved out by the conceptual scheme of theistic religion? It’s as though, before the debate even begins, our opponents draw the chalk-outline of a dead man on the sidewalk, and we just walk up and lie down in it.
Instead of doing this, consider what would happen if we simply used words like “reason” and “evidence.” What is the argument against reason? It’s true that a few people will bite the bullet here and argue that reason is itself a problem, that the Enlightenment was a failed project, etc. But the truth is that there are very few people, even among religious fundamentalists, who will happily admit to being enemies of reason. In fact, fundamentalists tend to think they are champions of reason and that they have very good reasons for believing in God. Nobody wants to believe things on bad evidence. The desire to know what is actually going on in world is very difficult to argue with. In so far as we represent that desire, we become difficult to argue with. And this desire is not reducible to an interest group. It’s not a club or an affiliation, and I think trying to make it one diminishes its power.
Steve Jobs releases the iPhone, and I’m sure it wasn’t twenty minutes before someone asked, “when are you going to make this thing smaller?” Notice that very few people at this juncture, no matter what they’ve accomplished, say, “I’m done. I’ve met all my goals. Now I’m just going to stay here & eat ice cream until I die in front of you.”
Even when everything has gone as well as it can go, the search for happiness continues, the effort required to keep doubt and dissatisfaction and boredom at bay continues, moment to moment. If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life.
In this context, certain people have traditionally wondered whether a deeper form of well-being exists. Is there a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and successes and avoiding our pains? Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favorite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?
This question, I think, lies at the periphery of everyone’s consciousness. We are all, in some sense, living our answer to it—and many of us are living as though the answer is “no.” No, there is nothing more profound that repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; there is nothing more profound that seeking satisfaction, both sensory and intellectual. Many of us seem think that all we can do is just keep our foot on the gas until we run out of road.
But certain people, for whatever reason, are led to suspect that there is more to human experience than this. In fact, many of them are led to suspect this by religion—by the claims of people like the Buddha or Jesus or some other celebrated religious figures. And such a person may begin to practice various disciplines of attention—often called “meditation” or “contemplation”—as a means of examining his moment to moment experience closely enough to see if a deeper basis of well-being is there to be found.
Contemplatives have claimed to find extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while spending vast stretches of time in total isolation. It seems to me that, as rational people, whether we call ourselves “atheists” or not, we have a choice to make in how we view this whole enterprise. Either the contemplative literature is a mere catalogue of religious delusion, deliberate fraud, and psychopathology, or people have been having interesting and even normative experiences under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.
Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo,what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.
Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself—that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people—he’s probably mentally ill. But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently—thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen—but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests.
Of course, I am by no means denying the importance of thinking.There is no question that linguistic thought is indispensable for us.It is, in large part, what makes us human. It is the fabric of almost all culture and every social relationship. Needless to say, it is the basis of all science. And it is surely responsible for much rudimentary cognition—for integrating beliefs, planning, explicit learning, moral reasoning, and many other mental capacities. Even talking to oneself out loud may occasionally serve a useful function.
From the point of view of our contemplative traditions, however—to boil them all down to a cartoon version, that ignores the rather esoteric disputes among them—our habitual identification with discursive thought, our failure moment to moment to recognize thoughts as thoughts, is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this spell, an extraordinary kind of relief is available.
But the problem with a contemplative claim of this sort is that you can’t borrow someone else’s contemplative tools to test it. The problem is that to test such a claim—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted we tend to be in the first place, we have to build our own contemplative tools. Imagine where astronomy would be if everyone had to build his own telescope before he could even begin to see if astronomy was a legitimate enterprise. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but it would make it immensely more difficult for us to establish astronomy as a science.
To judge the empirical claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter: many of these can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy by merely thinking about them. But to judge whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. We have to be able to break our identification with discursive thought, if only for a few moments. This can take a tremendous amount of work. And it is not work that our culture knows much about.
One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar—the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc.
My concern is that atheism can easily become the position of not being interested in certain possibilities in principle. I don’t know if our universe is, as JBS Haldane said, “not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.” But I am sure that it is stranger than we, as “atheists,” tend to represent while advocating atheism. As “atheists” we give others, and even ourselves, the sense that we are well on our way toward purging the universe of mystery. As advocates of reason, we know that mystery is going to be with us for a very long time. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that mystery is ineradicable from our circumstance, because however much we know, it seems like there will always be brute facts that we cannot account for but which we must rely upon to explain everything else. This may be a problem for epistemology but it is not a problem for human life and for human solidarity. It does not rob our lives of meaning. And it is not a barrier to human happiness.
We are faced, however, with the challenge of communicating this view to others. We are faced with the monumental task of persuading a myth-infatuated world that love and curiosity are sufficient, and that we need not console or frighten ourselves or our children with Iron Age fairy tales. I don’t think there is a more important intellectual struggle to win; it has to be fought from a hundred sides, all at once,and continuously; but it seems to me that there is no reason for us to fight in well-ordered ranks, like the red coats of Atheism.
Finally, I think it’s useful to envision what victory will look like. Again, the analogy with racism seems instructive to me. What will victory against racism look like, should that happy day ever dawn? It certainly won’t be a world in which a majority of people profess that they are “nonracist.” Most likely, it will be a world in which the very concept of separate races has lost its meaning.
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.