Sam Harris and Ellen Johnson are at the center of the latest sparring match between rationalist thinkers. Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) gave a speech at the Atheist Alliance International conference this past weekend and made a rather astounding claim:
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.
. . . [R]ather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general.
As a Humanist I’m all for being decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them, but I think now is the worst possible time to go under the radar. With the religious right trying to make even greater inroads into our political and legal system we have to stand up and be counted, now more than ever. We also can’t go underground at a time when we are the most untrusted group in the country. Only visibily can change those statistics.
I also agree with Harris that being a atheist isn’t all that defines me any more than being gay is all that defines me. But to deny either of those parts of myself is to denigrate myself and what do I gain from that denial? Ellen Johnson, Head of American Atheists published a letter yesterday in the Humanist Network News countering Harris’ speech and I couldn’t agree more with her, especially the following remarks:
Mr. Harris cannot see why we need a name for a group of people who are “against” something, or who don’t believe in something. Take racism he says. There isn’t any term for people who are against racism. We give ourselves a name because we are proud of who we are. A group needs to be identified in some way. And we want to be a “group.” We aren’t just against something. We are something. . . . To say we should not have a name is to not exist. For far too long there have been words in our society that were considered taboo. If you didn’t say them, those things didn’t exist. We cannot allow ourselves to be made invisible by those who want the approval of others. At American Atheists we don’t allow our adversaries to dictate what we call ourselves nor do we allow them to determine our actions.
Our movement has many names associated with it. Atheist, Agnostic, Bright, Humanist, Freethinker, Naturalist, Rationalist Skeptic and so on. We have no need to hide our names.