Every once in a while someone relatively new to the “Atheist movement” will bump up against Sam Harris and his negative feeling toward the word “Atheist”. At the AAI 2007 Convention in Washington D.C., he presented his case against using Atheist and any other label. Sam Harris is well known and important to Atheism. He wrote The End of Faith and his Letters to a Christian Nation is an excellent read—short and to the point. However, he has the idea that we should “go under the radar” and simply think about things rationally as a winning strategy. He starts his talk by saying how strange it is that a meeting of Atheists is even necessary. Then he argues that the use of the word Atheism is a mistake and we shouldn’t be using it. In his talk, he states that the label prevents us from being effective in our criticism of religion. He believes while under the radar, we should be destroying bad ideas where we see them. He says that there are so many bad ideas that we’ll be spending a great deal of time discussing religion. He is wrong.
Not using an identifying label—Atheist, Secular Humanist, Freethinker, Secularist, etc.—might work if winning an intellectual argument is all that is considered but people need more than that. They need community. How do people of a community find each other if not through labels? Look at the Meetup.com site. There you’ll find Tucson Atheists and Skeptics of Tucson. You’ll also find many other groups. A similar search through FaceBook will also result in pages dedicated the Secular Students, Atheists, and Recovering from Religion groups, national and locally.
Dr. Harris spends a great deal of time criticizing religion and he’s good at it. However, we are not all like him. And while we do criticize religion on occasion, any group that spends all of its time criticizing other groups is not mature and supportive of its own membership. Religions often criticize Atheists but it is not all that they do. They provide complete community service. They don’t meet once a week just to compare clothes. They have youth programs, and social events, and often pitch in together to help a member that has fallen on to hard times. Religions also have power through their large numbers and organizations such as the Center for Arizona Policy that act on their behalf and push Christian values on to the society in general. We need to do that and more.
In fact, we are starting to build and Tucson’s Atheist community is doing well. In the Barna Group’s rating of The Most Post-Christian Cities in America we rank #12. Here in Tucson we have multiple groups carrying the labels of “Atheists,” “Skeptics,” and “FreeThought.” We have our own increasingly effective legislature lobbying group The Secular Coalition for Arizona. This would not be possible without the use of identifying labels. In the past several years while the community was expanding, I often heard, “I’m glad I’ve found you. I thought I was the only one!”
The word Atheist has had negative connotations and many would rather not use it but any other term we use to describe ourselves would soon be saddled with the same baggage once it is clear that the term refers to those that don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Have you ever heard someone say “Secular Humanist” in such a way as to be dripping with venom and dismissal? The better strategy is to come out as an Atheist, if you can, and take back the word. Erase the evil, negative connotations through positive example in all that you do.