Sam Harris doesn’t want you to identify yourself as an atheist

What’s the solution to not accepting the label of atheist, Sam? What does “fly under the radar” mean exactly? I assume it’s not something anyone gets paid massive lecturing fees to do, quite honestly.

I’d love it if we could all somehow agree non-belief isn’t a “thing” either, but so long as we’re clearly identified as atheists simply for refusing to believe in the norm, the name has a purpose. We don’t get to choose what we call ourselves, since the religious have already decided we should have an identification label.

Prince tried the whole “I’m a name but not a name” shit and everyone realized it was ridiculous.

Comments (7)

  • avatar


    So, most of the country – nay, world – is religious. Many – if not most – of these religious folk hear the word “atheist” and shut down.

    Meanwhile, those that think without the handicap of religious indoctrination tend to have the best – rather, most demonstrably effective – ideas on how to improve the world.

    To execute these good ideas, we need to be able to get these secular ideas into the heads of the religious. As such, it makes sense from a strategic point of view to reduce the association between good ideas and atheism.

    That said, there is also the goal of removing the stigma of the word “atheist” in popular culture. I think these can both be well-served. If your audience is already atheists, it makes sense to self-label. If you’re trying to reach a broader spectrum, any form of self-limitation outside of the limiting effects of the proposed ideas in demographic context* seems counterproductive.

    * i.e., you’re going to have a harder time convincing hardcore christians of abortion rights than, say, funding for public schools.

  • avatar


    Thanks for posting this; it was very interesting.

    I think, as Fordi commented, that we face a problem with the connotations of the word ‘atheist’. Sam Harris acknowledges in the Q&A segment that he resigns himself to identifying as an atheist because it’s the word that best conveys his beliefs to whoever he’s talking to and I had a similar experience when I started calling myself such.

    Perhaps it’s not so much about discarding the word, but being mindful of peoples’ perception of it given that our goal (presumably) is to persuade folks to rational thought. It can be advantageous to withhold that label for as long as possible to maintain a discussion with someone who would otherwise have tuned out after hearing the word atheist.

    I don’t agree with Harris that there shouldn’t be any labeling to this movement and, as he alludes to in Q&A, I don’t think he is sure of this either. I thought his talk was a thought provoking examination of how we present ourselves and while he might be guilty of some type of idealism here, his points aren’t so easily dismissed.

  • avatar

    Joe Dixon

    There is nothing wrong with the word ‘atheist’ and running from the label is a complete waste of time. The people who hate us aren’t going to stop hating us simply because we did a name change. And anyone who thinks a hard core religious type is going to be persuaded by ANYTHING we do is deluding themselves. Those people are already lost.

    This isn’t that difficult. We already have the template laid out for us. Atheist need to copy the gay rights movement. Gay people didn’t stop being thrown in prisons or insane asylums by asking to not to be named ‘gay’. What happened was more and more people came out to the point that homosexuals could no longer be easily dismissed or ignored. They didn’t think they should go under the radar and not call themselves anything.

    Actually, that’s wrong. They did that for hundreds of years. It didn’t work to well.

    Look, why do you suppose so many young people are accepting of gay rights? Because they grew up in a world where even if they didn’t know any openly gay people there was nothing unusual to them that such people exist.

    The more of us embrace our atheism and demand our society be secular the better off we will be. The more we point and laugh at the holes in religion the more atheism will be accepted. The more people will realize that they themselves are atheist. Period.

    Remember, the only thing that unites queer folk is the type of sex they dig. Yet, despite all their other differences they’ve managed to move the world to a slightly better place year after year. There is no reason why we godless, despite all our other differences, can’t do the same.

    But that fight isn’t going to be won if we shy away from calling ourselves what we are. That’s just stupid.

  • avatar


    I don’t agree with Harris on this one…
    It won’t change a thing if we stop calling ourselves atheists.
    If I say to a religious person “I don’t believe in any god/gods” or “I’m atheist” that person’s reaction will be the same (it could be shock, anger, disgust, disrespect, intolerance or it could be respect and/or acceptance), it wouldn’t make a difference.
    If calling myself ‘atheist’ can bring me some difficults, fine…I can manage and deal with them perfectly.

  • avatar


    I saw this Harris segment a while ago. I think the suggestion to run away from the term “atheism” is foolish, and it’s a bit of a ploy that theists will see through and consider dishonest. Not that I always care what they think is dishonest and what isn’t (since they bend the term to include patently honest things many times), but there is nothing wrong with the term. I hate to go Godwin – and I’m not doing so to paint Harris with the Hitler brush in any way – but changing the term “atheism” to something else seems a bit like asking Jews to call themselves something else because “Jew” has such a maligned connotation in certain historical situations, and is such in parts of the world even today. Of course Jews aren’t going to change what they label themselves as. To do so would be conceding something to the oppressors, needlessly. Perhaps I have some faulty logic in there somewhere, but it was the first notion that sprung to mind.

  • avatar


    I dont call myself an atheist. Why would I? I shouldnt have a label slapped on me simply b/c I dont believe in silly superstitions. Labels belong to people who believe in something. I reject all religions and I reject all labels they want to slap on me.

  • avatar


    This is probably my all-time favourite lecture of Sam Harris, and I agree with most of what he said. Plus, I wish we’d all get a bit more self critical.

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