Sam Harris recently gave a lecture at an “atheist” conference where he shocked his audience by telling them their use of the label “atheist” is a huge mistake — “a mistake of some consequence,” to be exact.
To understand the magnitude of his “seditious proposal,” you have to know that Harris is considered one of the leading public voices for atheism — along with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett — but, therein lies his point — you cannot be for something that is by definition simply an absence of belief.
He called for anyone using the concept “atheist” to reject it forthright:
We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” 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.
His entire lecture is worth reading, whether you use any of these labels or are just intellectually curious. You can find a full transcript of it at Washington Post online.
He makes good points about what we can learn from the mystics, or “contemplatives”:
Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.
Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself — that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people — he’s probably mentally ill.
But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently — thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen — but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests.
One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar—the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc.