Paul Kurtz Responds to Sam Harris

The identity politics wrapped up in author Sam Harris' statements at a recent atheist conference here in Washington, DC has sparked a ton of discussion and debate. Paul Kurtz, chair of the Center for Inquiry and Editor of Free Inquiry, has circulated an important response via various email lists. Nathan Bupp, media relations director at CFI, asked that I post it here at Framing Science.

Kurtz appears to agree with the proposal to drop the label "atheist" but argues strongly that other terms such as "secular humanist" are important and appropriate. These terms signal a philosophical tradition that goes beyond just negative attacks on religion and that promotes alternative values and institutions.

What Label for People Like Us?

A Message From Paul Kurtz

I note with interest that Margaret Downey organized a blockbuster atheist conference in the Washington, D.C. area to which she brought many of the "new atheists." We congratulate her on her energy. However, may I agree with Sam Harris who states that in accepting the label of "atheist" that "we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture... a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms."

May I first compliment Sam (as the newest kid on the block) for his two fine books and his eloquent voice now being heard on the national scene. May I then disagree with his subsequent "seditious proposal" that we should not call ourselves "secularists," "humanists," "secular humanists," "naturalists," "skeptics," etc. "We should go under the radar for the rest of our lives," he advises. We should be "responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them."

That sounds lofty but in my view it is counter-productive. For in order to develop new ideas and policies that are effective, we need to organize with other like-minded individuals. And a name is crucial. If we followed Sam's advice, the critical opposition to religious claims would naturally collapse. If we generalize from this, we could not come together as Democrats or Republicans, Libertarians or Socialists, feminists or civic libertarians, world federalists or environmentalists, utilitarians or pragmatists. Should we operate only as single individuals who may get published or speak on street corners with little influence or clout? Come on, Sam, that is unrealistic; for almost no one would be heard and we would be lone voices in the city canyons, unheard and drowned out by the powerful media. We say that democracy best functions when the citizens of a country unite under whatever label they choose to achieve what they deem to be worthy goals. True, you have had a best-seller which brought you to the public forum. But for most people the opportunity to affect the public debate is lost unless they work together with others to make their views heard, and unless they build institutions dedicated to their ideals and to the values they hope will endure.

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Paul, although I agree with Sam Harris and in fact, have been saying this for some time, I do like your argument for having to have to call us something. The problem with the term "Athiest" is it is mis-understood. When I am asked if I am an "Athiest", I always respond by saying what is an "Athiest" to the person asking. The responses are amazing. Try it and you will see. Very rarely will someone say that I think it means that you simply don't believe in a diety with the existing evidence. Instead, you will hear things like, you hate God and believe such a person or thing (Spirit) could ever exist.


I am leery of using a name like "Secular Humanist" to describe my support of the scientific method, allowing free speech, or free and open use of libraries to allow any and all people to read, see, hear, share ideas.

I am a religious person who works in academia, and I find the misunderstandings on both sides of what the other is fascinating, and disturbing. By labeling people who share the same values, but do not have "faith" in a religious(-like) system of beliefs, there is the assumption of organization, similar attitudes about Faith. Using the lingo, I would call myself a secular humanist, and probably share many of the same views as those at the atheists' conference mentioned above, but I believe in God. Granted, I started at a place of Agnosticism, but by believing in God, I do not believe less in science to explain the natural world around me, nor that certain ideas can harm me. In my view, God is bigger than all that, and can handle questioning humans.

So, calling people with these (secular humanist) beliefs does give a false sense of unity of purpose, and makes it SH seem like a religion, with ordered rules and "faith," which I do not think is there. It gives "the opposition" a focal point, which, in my view, doesn't exist.

But, I don't have the solution either. Thanks for "framing" the debate! Love the site.