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Today's blogwatch

Sam Harris suggests avoiding 'atheist'. It's too negative and distracting. Note he's all for aggressively criticizing religious claims, but not from a clear anti-religious label. Kind of asymmetrical ideological warfare.

PZ Meyers responds. They'll label you anyway. And negative labels can be worn proudly, like Abolitionist. I'd note 'atheist' got slapped even on Epicureans and Deists.

Meera Nanda, an ex-Hindu, rips into Sam Harris's defense of mysticism.

Unrelatedly, Skatje Meyers thinks about bestiality.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 10th, 2007 02:30 pm (UTC)
They'll label you anyway. And negative labels can be worn proudly, like Abolitionist.

But "Abolitionist" is essentially a proactive term that defines both a position and a proposed solution. It's not "Antislavery," which exists only in relation to the institution of slavery and offers no action in response.

Similarly, the term "atheist" is not the same as say, "Secular Humanist." "Secular Humanist" defines a specific set of beliefs; atheist just labels the person as a non-believer in the divine and, like the term "anti-slavery," exists only in a negative relation to a contemporary institution.

So calling yourself an atheist when asked about your religious beliefs works fine, but it's definitely not a label I'd adopt when engaging in political debate. Used politically, "atheism" is often taken to mean being anti-religion, which means that Pagan, Hindu, Christian, Jew, left-wing and right-wing are now automatically arrayed against you. And what have you gained? You haven't defined a political position and you haven't proposed a course of action. You could be a communist (which is, after all, one of the only specifically atheist political movements), an anarchist, or a political moderate. It's pretty much a useless word, really, except when used for its denotative meaning.
Oct. 10th, 2007 06:20 pm (UTC)
A good point on proactiveness, one I don't think I'd seen in the plethora of blog comments.

I don't think anyone was advocating "as an atheist, I support universal health care". Harris was talking at an atheist conference, and seemed to be saying that the whole thing was a bad idea -- as opposed to, say, a good way for like-minded people to find and reinforce each other.

And then there's the matter of 'atheist' being a slur used for the past 2300 years; do we try to duck it, or embrace it? Nigger vs. queer.

I was actually wondering last night how true it might be that atheists actually do have common political positions. Yeah, the usual line is "it's just a negative label, it doesn't actually tell you anything" and certainly there's variety, but I was thinking that rejection of God, revelation, and soul tends to converge on a smaller space of positions. One might be liberal, Communist, or libertarian, but conservative is rarer. Knocking out the soul tends to encroach on free will, with implications for judicial systems, moving from revenge and moral retribution to deterrence and prevention.

Maybe I'm biased by the first organized (quasi)atheists, the Carvaka and Epicureans, being so similar (and modern seeming).
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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