Truthdig interviews Sam Harris.

There’s a very interesting interview with Sam Harris over at Truthdig that’s worth checking out:

How do you define the differences between an atheist and an agnostic?

“Agnosticism” is a word that was brought into use by T.H. Huxley. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful word. It tends to be defined as the belief that one can’t know whether or not there is a god. An agnostic is someone who thinks we don’t know and can’t know the truth of a position. So it’s a non-committal attitude.

But it’s not an intellectually honest position, because everyone is walking around presuming to know that there isn’t a Zeus, there isn’t a Poseidon, and there isn’t a Thor. Can you prove that Thor with his hammer isn’t sending down lightning bolts? No, you can’t prove it. But that’s not the right question. The right question is, “Is there any reason whatsoever to think there’s a god named Thor?” And of course there isn’t. There are many good reasons to think that he was a fictional character. The Batman of Scandinavia.

The problem for religious people is that the god of the Bible is on no firmer footing, epistemologically, than these dead gods. Which is to say that nobody ever discovered that Thor doesn’t exist, but that the biblical god really does. So we have learned to talk and use the word ‘god’ in a way so as not to notice that we’re using a very strange word and evoking a very vacuous concept, like the concept of Thor.

And therefore the definition of an atheist is?

An atheist is not someone who can prove that there is no Thor. An atheist is simply someone who says, “show me the evidence,” and who is unconvinced by evidence like:

    “Here’s a book that was dictated by the creator of the universe, and in it, it describes all kinds of miracles that people claim they witnessed, but these people have been dead for 2,000 years, and in fact none of the authors of the book are the people who claim to have witnessed these events, and they wrote the book a hundred years after the events in question.”

This is not a story that anyone would find plausible except for the fact that it was drummed into them by previous generations of people who were taught not to think critically about it.

The thing to reiterate is that every Christian knows exactly what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims, for instance. Muslims have the same reasons for being Muslim as Christians have for being Christian. They have a book they’re sure was written or dictated by the creator of the universe–because the book says that it was written or dictated by the creator of the universe. Christians look at Muslim discourse and find it fundamentally unpersuasive. Christians aren’t lying awake at night worrying about whether they should convert to Islam. Why not? Because Muslims can’t really back up their claims. They are clearly engaged in a style of discourse that is just not intellectually honest. It’s not purposed to genuine inquiry into the nature of the world. It is a reiteration of dogma, and they are clearly committed to a massive program of self-deception. Every Christian recognizes this about every religion other than Christianity. So every Christian knows exactly what it is like to be atheist. They just don’t turn the same candor and intellectual honesty on to their own faith.

Liberals started calling themselves progressives when the term ‘liberal’ accumulated too much baggage and negative connotations. Is there an analog for the term atheist?

I’m not a big fan of the term atheist. In my Atheist Manifesto, the first thing I argue is that we really don’t need the word and probably shouldn’t use it. It has the stigma of a term like “child molester” in the culture, for reasons that are not good, but nevertheless worth taking into consideration.  The term simply has a massive P.R. problem.

But the word is also conceptually unnecessary. We don’t have words for people who are not astrologers or alchemists; we don’t have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive. It is sufficient to talk about reason and commonsense in these circumstances.

I’ve been reading more of Sam’s work as of late and I’ve just added his book The End of Faith to my Amazon Wish List in hopes of picking up a copy in the near future. Probably after my next paycheck comes in. Good stuff.

7 thoughts on “Truthdig interviews Sam Harris.

  1. Read “The End Of Faith” a while ago.  Very thought-provoking reading.  Written in an accessible way, without disneyfying the subject.  Made my head spin nonetheless; my own fault for trying to finish it in one monster reading session.

    Very much recommended, whether you’re a believer or not. 

    For me, the most interesting idea from the book: the opinion that ‘moderate’ believers (i.e. those that do NOT take the teachings of the bible/koran/etc. literally) are the ones holding us back from freeing ourselves from religion, not the fundamentalists.

    Discussing this with my sister (a very moderate Christian, married to a minister) caused her to brand me a ‘fundamentalist atheist’  grin LOL

  2. Interesting read!  I agree with his point that the term atheist carries around a lot of baggae in American society.  I’m curious: do you believe that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive?  I’ve had a few debates with people who insist that you can’t be one or the other, but I’ve always disagreed.  If an agnostic is defined as one who does not believe that the truth about a position can’t be known, and atheist is defined as one who disbelieves in all gods, then there is a grey area where on can say, “I understand that the belief in x deity can not be proved true or false by empirical standards, however I don’t personally believe it exists”.  Or is that just weak atheism?

  3. “insist you can’t be one or the other”=“insists that you can’t be both”.

  4. “truth about a position can’t be known” =“can be known”.  Damn, I’m making mistakes all over the place.

  5. Les,

    I haven’t been commenting in some time around here, but I’ve still been keeping up on your articles.
        I would be more than happy to continue my support of the Stupid Evil Project by providing you a copy of the above mentioned book.
        I know you’re probably still feeling it from the time spent without gainful employment. If you’re interested in taking me up on the offer, drop me a line at my regular e-mail address ( I can get an address from you for delivery.
        I’ve ordered so many books from amazon lately that i’m sure they will get worried if I don’t order again within a few days.
        Anyway…….peace folks. Everybody take care of themselves.

  6. Sam Harris hits the nail on the head with his analysis of “agnosticism”.  I’ve often been confronted with believers who insist that there can be no true atheists, because it is impossible to prove the nonexistence of God.  The discussion usually then devolves to nitpicking about the difference between “hard” and “soft” atheism.  But as Harris points out, even though we can’t disprove Thor, or (Daniel Dennett’s example) a copper sphere with the word “GOG” printed on it, outside of the range of our telescopes, we normally don’t distinguish between “hard” and “soft” disbelief in such cases.  Most of us simply don’t believe there are fairies at the bottom of our gardens, despite not being able to prove it.

    As far as the negative baggage of the term “atheist” goes, I’m afraid that merely changing the word will accomplish nothing.  As Steven Pinker says in The Blank Slate, it’s the connotations, not the word itself, that are negative.  Witness the evolution of “negro” to “Afro-American” to “black”- racism keeps coloring the words negatively, so that the “euphemism treadmill” (Pinker’s term) keeps generating new, more “politically correct” expressions.  When the driving force, racism in this case, is weakened enough, the names will stay put.

    I’m afraid we have a long haul ahead of us for the word “atheist”…

  7. “euphemism treadmill” – I like that term, so I’m sticking with “atheist”.  It is a simple, descriptive term and it’s high time we stopped letting the religious world define it, and us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.