The Problem with Atheism
11 October 2007 (updated 24 June 2022)
Sam Harris, a well-known atheist (well, at least until now), recently spoke at an Atheist Alliance conference in Washington DC on “The Problem with Atheism.” In summary, he argued that identifying one’s self as “atheist” is counter-productive because it facilitates others’ attempts at marginalization.
Instead, he suggests, atheists should drop the label and simply become persons “who destroy bad ideas” by advocating reason and intellectual honesty. Furthermore, when such advocacy comes into conflict with religion, these previously-atheist persons should remember that the conflict is with a specific religious belief rather than religion in general.
Overall, I think this is a wise idea. And I recommend it to my atheist friends.
Even as a person with faith in God, I regularly deal with an analogous situation because not everyone understands “God” as I do. To begin with, unlike most theists, I’m a Mormon and embrace Joseph Smith’s teaching that God is a progressive community of exalted persons. Beyond that, I’m not even altogether traditional among contemporary Mormons.
Yet, despite these differences, I have found a great deal of value in not making myself out to be an a-your-theist. Rather, reflecting the example of Ammon in the Book of Mormon, I would find common ground between our varying understandings of God (or even the lack thereof) and work on building together from there, while at times criticizing ideas associated with God that, to the best of my estimation, are of negative practical consequence.
I’ll point out one part of Harris’ speech with which I disagree (predictably):
“Consider the unique features of Mormonism, which may have some relevance in the next Presidential election. Mormonism, it seems to me, is objectively just a little more idiotic than Christianity is. It has to be: because it is Christianity plus some very stupid ideas. For instance, the Mormons think Jesus is going to return to earth and administer his Thousand years of Peace, at least part of the time, from the state of Missouri. Why does this make Mormonism less likely to be true than Christianity? Because whatever probability you assign to Jesus’ coming back, you have to assign a lesser probability to his coming back and keeping a summer home in Jackson County, Missouri.”
These statements are, to return Harris’ blunt assessment, idiotic. However, I’ll temper the return assessment by acknowledging that the statements reflect a superficial understanding of Mormonism. And, presumably, if Harris were more familiar with Mormonism then he would demonstrate as much intelligence in his critiques of Mormonism as he does in other areas.
Mormonism is not Christianity plus some additional ideas. To begin with, Mormonism is a form of Christianity that rejects some traditional ideas and embraces others, while contending that it is a continuation of early (pre-Catholic) Christianity. Beyond that, and more importantly for the questions at hand, Mormonism advocates a religious view of the world and the future that can be (although is not always in practice) fully compatible with reason, intellectual honesty, and the scientific project.