Sam Harris’ talk from last week, “The Problem with Atheism,” is online at the WaPo/Newsweek On Faith website. In it, Harris calls the label atheist “a mistake of some consequence:”
Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.
Harris suggests that 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.
PZ Myers responds at Pharyngula:
I'm sorry, Sam, but complaining about your name and fishing about in a dictionary for happy words you can appropriate is such a Republican thing to do. I much prefer the forthrightness of an out & proud movement. […]
Those labels you denigrate — "atheists," "humanists," "secular humanists," "naturalists," "skeptics," "anti-theists," "rationalists," "freethinkers," and "brights" — are useful rallying cries for the tiny, scattered bubbles of rationality drifting in the sea of superstition and ignorance. It's how we find each other and grow. It's how we build whole communities working for a common cause, rather than acting as isolated individuals.
update (10/8 @ 12:02pm):
Daylight Atheism criticizes Harris here, writing that “I don't think Sam Harris was entirely off the mark. I think he's identified a real problem - I just think he's misdiagnosed the solution:”
If we consent to our adversaries' prejudice and flee from the terms they have already slandered, what will stop them from poisoning any new term we come up with to describe ourselves as well? (We can already see members of the religious right pouring bigotry and invective on terms like "secular humanism".) We should not surrender this ground to them, or any ground. Instead, we should fight them on their own terms and refuse to back down when attacked.
Harris suggests that we "should not call ourselves anything", but this is too facile. if we do not name ourselves, we will be named, most likely by our adversaries. Refusing to give a name to who we are and what we stand for will only create a vacuum that religious conservatives will gleefully fill with lies and distortion. Rather than give them such an opportunity, we should take the initiative to say what we believe, and we should do it loudly and with pride. That will serve as a rallying point for those who agree with our ideals, and it will deny bigots the chance to define us in terms that they find most convenient.
update 2 (10/9 @ 10:38am):
Sam Harris responds here, writing that “much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety.”
PZ Myers rebuts Harris here:
I give lots of talks on evolution, and I handle lots of questions. I rarely go out of my way to use the words "atheist" or "atheism" in them — I'm not reluctant to say what I am if asked, but it's not central to the topic. However, I do not need to use the evil word "atheist" to get certain people angry: all I have to do is dismiss religious explanations for evolution as "the product of religious metaphysics and superstition". A recent example was my talk in Stillwater, where I did not say I was an atheist or demand that others be atheists, but did plainly reject religion as a way to answer questions of our origins, and that was sufficient to trigger the usual foot-stomping and finger-pointing.
Sam Harris is living in a fantasy world if he thinks he can criticize religion and merely by leaving the A-word off, he will win everyone over to his point of view. It won't. The theists aren't stupid.