Critique of Sam Harris’s “The Problem with Atheism”

[In his speech, “The Problem With Atheism,” Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, critiques the term “atheism” from the standpoint of an atheist. He argues that the adoption of the label by what we might call the atheist movement is counterproductive to its own intellectual aims.]

Like Ralph Wiggum, Sam Harris likes stuff

“Philosophical” Objections to Using the Term “Atheist”

i. Grammatical Issues

Part of Harris’s opposition maintains, in his words, “on philosophical grounds.” He begins:

“I think that ‘atheist’ is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people ‘non-astrologers.’ All we need are words like ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ and ‘common sense’ and ‘bullshit’ to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.”

He goes on to note that the Civil Rights movement was successful without needing to term itself ‘non-racist.’

It is tempting to respond: It isn’t clear that there is ever a strict “need” for any particular term at all—a case where none but it could work. In any case, “needing” is not a precondition for having. We needn’t “need” a thing to have it, and to use it perfectly well—terms included.

(In fairness, Harris may not be saying that the “unneeded-ness” of the term is a reason to abandon it; maybe it is just the reason we can—and should for other reasons. If so, fair enough.)

Harris continues: “Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all.” He is suspicious of the “negativity” of a word like “atheism,” the fact that it defines itself against—as the absence of—some other some other, “positive” entity. (Atheism is just “not theism.”)

Let us not make too much of this. It is perfectly intelligible to speak of “positive” entities, real “things,” in the form of grammatical “negatives.” Harris could hardly go a day without doing this himself. Take the statement, “There is no food in the refrigerator”: “No food” is the true subject, though it is not a “thing” in its own right, but rather the negation of some other thing (food). Suspending everything we know about how language functions, we might expect difficulty with the phrase: “How can you see a nothing?,” for example. (Or that favorite pedantism of mine, “How can you prove a negative?”) But in fact the statement is not the least bit confusing to anyone.

Whether “atheism” is itself a “thing” is immaterial. It doesn’t need to be a “thing” to be intelligible. But I suspect it probably is one all the same. By analogy, a headache is clearly a “thing”; but the same phenomenon can be described alternately as the absence of some other thing—it is a discomfort, or a lack of ease or good health in the head. Its “thing-hood” is not dissolved because we render it as not-something else. The difference is all a matter of words and not of “things” at all. I contend it is purely an accident of history that we don’t speak “positively” of a “thing” called belief in a naturalistic world, against which theistic disbelief is defined secondarily (say, “anaturalism”).

In fairness, I’m sure Harris has no quibble with word choice in itself. His real concern is how the peculiarities of the “atheist” label hinder popular reception of the movement’s ideas. But this hardly diminishes my response: To the extent that “atheist” is not all that peculiar, after all, it is all the less (necessarily) a “liability.”

(On Harris’s criticism that attaching any label to the movement carries liabilities, more to follow.)

ii. Bringing the Real World to Bear

Moving on, if the term “atheism” has more social currency than “non-astrologer,” this has far less to do with any wrong strategic turn atheists might have taken than the fact that theism itself has categorically more social currency than (serious) belief in astrology. If high margins of people openly subscribed to star-reading, if our Congress opened with the Speaker’s horoscope, if Bush waged war against Iraq because the heavens “told him to,” it would not be nearly so silly to distinguish ourselves as “non-astrologers.” For similar reasons, we speak of remaining “unmarried” or “unemployed,” though marriage and employment are the “things” and the former terms are defined as not-them. (Not that we “need” the terms, Sam; we just have them.) If marriage or employment were as scarce a phenomenon as serious astrological practice, it would never occur to anyone to use the label, nor would Harris think to write an essay condemning the practice.

Relatedly: One reason we atheists don’t already, instinctively, call ourselves simply “reasonable people” or “right-thinkers” is because there is no very distinct social phenomenon at the forefront of everyone’s thinking called “unreasonableness” or “incorrect thinking.” That is, nobody claims to go to Church to “act unreasonably,” and “bad thinking” is never invoked to stop abortions. Rather, there is theism, or its Christian form, to contend with. I can’t help this fact—perhaps it could have been otherwise—but this inherited reality sets the terms against which we must map ourselves in discursive and conceptual space.1

It only underscores this point that Christians/theists believe they are using “reason” and “common sense” and “right thinking” themselves. If everyone were a serial killer, and thought it were fine and well to be so, it would do little to call ourselves “good people” and hope that the virtue of non-serial killing should in folks’ minds follow from this. To the contrary, we would embrace the distinct virtue of “non-serial killing,” and promote the hell out of it.

iii. Names Versus Descriptions

Harris adds his objection that “atheism” does not imply a “philosophy,” or a “worldview.” (Not only is it “not a thing,” but it is especially not this kind of thing.) His problem seems to be that we atheists do in fact have a philosophy, a worldview, and “atheism” captures but one tiny facet of what that philosophy deals with. Using this term as the primary way to designate adherents to this worldview is limiting and misleading.

More on this later when we treat his “strategic” arguments, but for now: Harris seems overly upset that “atheism” might be a misnomer, that is, that it does not fully and adequately describe or define the thing—that “right-thinking” philosophy or worldview—to which it refers. But is this really a problem? Plenty of other misnomers refer in the same way without confusion. When my father was growing up in Charlotte, a shopkeeper thought it would get attention to market a snack as “World’s Worst Boiled Peanuts.” They were not the worst, nor did anyone who used the terms mean to describe them as such. That is, the term did not function as a (true) description of the product. It was just its name. It “stood for” the product in the same way “Joshua” stands for me without saying anything to describe me. Many place names work the same way: A city called “Green Gulch” need never have actually been green or a gulch for us to use the term.

In the same way, if “atheism” does not imply all that Harris wants his “worldview” to contain, this does not in itself mean that it does not, or could not, refer to it, after all.

Moreover: Presumably, Harris thinks his suggested alternative term, “reason,” implies a worldview. But even so, it hardly implies everything he wants to say about that worldview. Every term, names and descriptions alike, requires qualification. Even if the town is green and a gulch, it is much more than that (populated, hot, folksy) at the same time; even if the peanuts are the world’s worst, they are also small and brown and made in a crock pot. No term—even when it is a description—is a full description. It always bears qualification by way of additional terms. So to argue that “atheism” describes less than what it refers to doesn’t distinguish it from any other term. Saying less than everything at once is just the way of language; this feature can’t indict the term on philosophical grounds.

Finally, if we must abandon “atheism” because it is merely one implication of much a richer and broader worldview, I might as well argue that we abandon “reason” for some broader term—like “propriety” or “behaving well”—since thinking properly or well is just one aspect of (hence, is reducible to) doing everything proper or well. (Indeed, why not promote all virtues, not just “reason” but charity, love, and maintaining a manicured lawn, to this generic “propriety”?) Not all things which are reducible must be, for just any and all purposes, reduced. And it hardly means that it is reduced “away” to nothingness whenever it is. (Remember that everything is reducible to something else: biology to chemistry, male to human, human to ‘entity’ or ‘object’—so a strict “reductionism” is impracticable if communication is to occur.)

“Strategic” Objections to Using “Atheism”

i. “Atheism” As Marginalizing and Bogging Down the Reasonable People; Harris’s Version of the “Wedge”

But Harris also speaks of the practical or “strategic” problems of the use of the label “atheism.” Again, his main issue is with how people get “hung up” on the term, focusing on what he sees as one polemical tree in a vast, rich, forest of a “worldview.” This marginalizes us as cranks who “meet in ballrooms” to talk to ourselves. Harris laments having to endlessly refute everyone’s “knockdown” pet argument for the existence of God. (Or against atheism directly, like the stupid “Stalin and Hitler were atheists” tack.)

Much could be said here. On one level the marginalization and endless theoretical defense just seems like the burden of maintaining a very controversial position about anything. In any case, Harris seems to have in mind a kind of backward “wedge” strategy whereby a relatively palatable worldview—“reasonableness” or “evidence” or what have you—should be used to promote a less palatable specific belief like atheism. He sees us “leading with” the worldview, and as we encounter specific beliefs that run counter to it, including theism, we should offer our criticisms as a secondary function of holding the worldview.

Granted, the “wedge” is only an analogy, as Harris is really all about the worldview as an end unto itself, and not a vehicle for any other single thing; but atheism is one component of the worldview, and he makes it clear that if it gets across to people it will be by way of the “worldview.” (I say the wedge is backward because usually a more palatable specific issue is used to promote a less palatable worldview—the way creationists use a generic ID theory to promote a Judeo-Christian theology, or California potheads use medical marijuana to promote full legalization—whereas for Harris the directionality is reversed.)

First, recalling the distinction between a name and a description, there is no reason why the reverse of Harris’s model could not work: In principle atheism could be used to promote the style of thinking which it exemplifies. Indeed, this is usually how social movements work: As a leftist, I understand that a protest for “social justice” is too amorphous to draw supporters, impact witnesses, or scare the State into action. Trying to do everything is the surest route to doing nothing at all. Protests are always localized—aiming to stop the World Trade Organization from meeting on a certain date, or to get a new trial for a wrongfully imprisoned man, etc.; but this does not keep them from serving also as occasions to talk about the broader “social justice.” The general-specific dichotomy is a false one.

Granted, “reason” and “evidence” are easier ideas to promote because they are already accepted by nearly everyone. (For who argues against being “reasonable”?) But for precisely this reason, using these ideas as the “wedge” has the result of trivializing them—or trivializing what “atheists” mean by them in their totality.

ii. What We Call Ourselves Is Not Really Up to Us

But this is only if Harris’s strategy succeeds in substituting “reasonableness” for “atheism.” More likely, the opposite will occur. It is inevitable that promoting such a “worldview” will manifest itself in charges of atheism—or of some other “cranky” idiosyncratic belief of ours—anyhow. In this case we will be forced right back into “endless arguments” at the “margins.” The way Harris speaks, it is as though it should be easy for Jehovah’s Witnesses to get their beliefs “over on” Christians by simply promoting them as “sound Biblical belief,” or some other virtue that is already accepted among Christians. Of course, mainstream Protestants would swallow this up just until the point they realize the “sound Biblical believers” are fucking Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just as socialists who have attempted to call their socialism something else so as not to scare away recruitable moderates are soon enough “outed” as socialists—people will call us “atheists” no matter what we call ourselves. (And just as the term “atheism” has been applied, indeed invented, to denigrate naturalists and “freethinkers” in the past.)

Plus, I suspect that there is a good reason why we promoters of “reason” and “evidence” (wink, wink) are quickly outed, and marginalized, as atheists. And this boils down to my primary reason for retaining the term “atheist”: Because, to repeat, belief in God simply has tremendously more social currency than either any specific tenet of any one religion, or any other idea which falls out of Harris’s “reasonable” “worldview.” This is why our critics will keep moving there, and why we should already be there.

iii. Attacking What Is Common To Religions As Glossing Over Their Important Differences

Harris also argues that our critiques of the claims specific to various religions are drowned out by the general, leveling focus on “God” which stems from our focus on “atheism.” He says this also leads us to be “even handed” in our treatment of religion, while some religious beliefs are more pernicious than others and should be critiqued more harshly. But this is another false dichotomy: We can perfectly well critique religion in terms of (a) the generic features shared by each (and there must be shared features if we use the word “religion” as a collective reference) as well as (b) each in its specific form. For Harris to say otherwise is like saying that because we critique “bad reason” in general, we cannot also critique the specific manifestations of bad reason—astrology, atheism, etc. And yet promoting the worldview first, and arguing these manifestations as they come up along the way is precisely the “strategy” he advocates.

iv. On Going Underground

The oddest part about Harris’s “strategy” is his idea that, beyond not calling ourselves “atheists,” we “should not call ourselves anything” at all. Rather, “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.” Of course, this is not quite incompatible with meeting in ballrooms to discuss atheism, or any other “worldview.” The other 99.99% of our lives could still be spent destroying bad ideas wherever we find them without even ever mentioning atheism in its own right. I just don’t think the underground strategy is how very large, entrenched ideas are ever knocked out of collective consciousness.

This view also makes mush of the analogy Harris wants to draw between his proposal and the Civil Rights movement. Harris writes,

“[H]ow have people of good will and common sense gone about combating racism? There was a civil rights movement, of course. The KKK was gradually battered to the fringes of society…[B]ut, ask yourself, how many people have had to identify themselves as “non-racists” to participate in this process? Is there a “non-racist alliance” somewhere for me to join?”

First, whatever it called itself, the Civil Rights movement hardly “went underground,” but rather attacked bad ideas and the policies embodying them head-on.

Nor did this movement avoid “attaching a name to” itself. (The civil rights movement was indeed “The Civil Rights Movement”). Those “liabilities” associated with taking on a label either didn’t apply or were outweighed by other factors to the point of negligence. (Why need the “atheist” movement be different?)

Also, if this movement never called itself “non-racist,” this hardly means it avoided those “negative” self-descriptions altogether: It wasn’t explicitly “non-racist,” but it was sure as hell explicitly “non-violent”—though “non-violence” is no more “a thing at all” than “atheism.” Nor was this “negative” appellation incidental to the movement’s success. It bore “strategic” implications. Indeed, without the brawny backing of the National Guard, it is far from clear that resistance and protest would have accomplished anything. But being viewed as non-violent was a great point of recruitment and public relations; and this was almost entirely due to the movement calling itself “non-violent.” At the least, surely we can agree that the label neither hindered the movement, nor confused potential sympathizers as to its best ends. The only “underground” model Harris provides could not have done more to violate his recommendations.

* * *


1 To one degree or another, every term gains its meaning from the fact that it is not certain other terms. Historically, when one term loses currency, the referential scope of another term often “stretches” over time to make up the distance. That is, each term must respect the landscape of other terms “preceding” it, as these determine its own scope of effective action.


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