The neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of America’s best-known atheists; his 2004 book, The End of Faith, sold over half a million copies. He agrees that the situation for atheists is “analogous to being gay and in the closet for many people”, and it is striking that virtually every atheist I spoke to talked the language of being “out” or “in the closet”. Nevertheless, Harris argues “it’s a losing game to trumpet the cause of atheism and try to rally around this variable politically. I’ve supported that in the past, I support those organisations, I understand why they do that. But, in the end, the victim group identity around atheism is the wrong strategy. It’s like calling yourself a non-astrologer. We simply don’t need the term.”
It’s not clear in the context of the article what Harris means here. Is he talking about identifying as an atheist per se, or is he warning about becoming one more group of offense-taking martyrs addicted to their own sense of persecution? Is he objecting on the grounds of intellectual stringency or social strategy? Is he suggesting we should just proceed as if God’s nonexistence is a sine qua non for intelligent people and talk around those who attempt to interject?
Misanthropy makes it easy for me. I don’t want to be accepted by society; I want society to forget I exist and leave me the fuck alone. But a grudging, lingering sense of social responsibility forces me to add my insignificant voice to the chorus of those openly identifying as atheist, if for no other reason than trying to help the Jessica Ahlquists of the world have an easier time of it.