Reading Time: 5 minutes


When she says “I’m Sagittarian”
I confess a pigeonhole starts to form
And is immediately filled with pigeon
When she says her name is Storm.

Tim Minchin, “Storm”

We all do it. We listen for a few clues, then assign a pigeonhole to the speaker. Maybe the beak’s still moving, who knows. It’s hard to hear since we’ve already shoved the bird headfirst into the hole.

Though some might forget this by the end of the page, I’m NOT calling for an end to the pigeonhole. It’s a necessary, practical shortcut. We don’t have the luxury of time or energy for a full investigation into every minor question. When it matters most, I take that time. But for a thousand decisions a day, I pick up clues and come to conclusions before I have all the information. There’s simply no choice.

What I’m suggesting, in the interest of getting more things more right, is that we work on delaying the leap to the pigeonhole just that little bit.

When I listen to another person, I try to listen and think a few minutes beyond my natural tendency to stop — juuust in case the pigeonhole I’m carving isn’t the right fit after all. I find in the end that I make slightly more comfortable pigeonholes that way, better tailored to what the person actually says and thinks.

And I end up with a much more interesting coop.

I’m sure Richard Dawkins wonders at the pigeonhole he’s been jammed into. He has become a conveniently polar figure for atheists and theists alike, the banner carrier for scorched-earth Atheism. But for the most part, it doesn’t fit with what he says, nor even how he says it.

It’s easy to maintain this caricature if you never hear him speak or read his books, or if you do so only through the filter of preconceptions. Richard spends vast whacks of time acknowledging the positive contributions of religion, the Bible’s contribution to Western literature, the need for religious literacy, the difference between moderates and fundamentalists. But once he’s in the extremist pigeonhole, all that nuance goes unnoticed by BOTH sides. Wouldn’t want to have to carve out a whole new hole, now would we.

One of my favorite moments is when one of those carefully-formed complexities finally gets itself noticed by the pigeonholers. The result is pandemonium as the question is raised: Is so-and-so actually in the completely OPPOSITE pigeonhole?

That was the sadly comical case when Antony Flew, under his own power (or not) renounced his atheism (or didn’t) to become a Christian (or a deist, or something else). The Flew affair was not just a battle between believers and nonbelievers, but between pigeonholers and nuance. (If you’re not familiar, the Wikipedia article on Flew includes a nice synopsis of the whole farce.)

Then there was a remarkable speech by Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance convention in 2007. His talk (as always) was brilliantly crafted and filled with subtleties that most of any given audience can’t hear because they’ve ensconsed him in the pigeonhole of either Extreme-Atheist-Yay! or Extreme-Atheist-Boo!

You’d think the title of his talk — “The Problem with Atheism” — would have forewarned the AAI crowd that this wasn’t the typical self-congratulatory slop on which we sup. But the opening sentences lulled a lot of us into complacency:

To begin, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just how strange it is that a meeting like this is even necessary. The year is 2007, and we have all taken time out of our busy lives, and many of us have traveled considerable distance, so that we can strategize about how best to live in a world in which most people believe in an imaginary God.

A few sentences later, he tried to signal what was coming:

In thinking about what I could say to you all tonight, it seemed to me that I have a choice between throwing red meat to the lions of atheism or moving the conversation into areas where we actually might not agree. I’ve decided, at some risk to your mood, to take the second approach and to say a few things that might prove controversial in this context.

Then, the crux splendidior of his message:

Given the absence of evidence for God, and the stupidity and suffering that still thrives under the mantle of religion, declaring oneself an “atheist” would seem the only appropriate response. And it is the stance that many of us have proudly and publicly adopted. Tonight, I’d like to try to make the case, that our use of this label is a mistake—and a mistake of some consequence.

Oh dear, thought the group, looking at their nametags and banners. Several hundred atheists had awakened to find themselves holding the flapping pigeon of Sam Harris — and began searching frantically for a new hole into which he could be stuffed.

I won’t excerpt his actual argument here since it must be read in full and slept on, then read again. (Please do that at the end of this post before responding to Harris.)

By the end of this unprecedented speech, Harris provided many in the room with the evidence they needed to dispose of him when he criticized the tendency of many atheists to auto-reject anything that has ever been associated with religion or spirituality.

Take meditation, he said — and proceeded to discuss how important the practice has been to him and how seriously he pursues it.

I could barely hear the rest of the speech for the sound of birds slamming home around me: Sam Harris isn’t a bold atheist crusader after all — he’s a fuzzy-headed devotee of flim-flam and woo-woo!

Those are the only choices, you know.

Harris had “take[n] some pains to denude [meditation] of metaphysics” for the audience, but that went largely unheard. Sure enough, the very first questioner walked to the mike and said, “I was very disapppointed with your speech. I did not know you were a supporter of spiritual nonsense.” Most of the rest were much the same.

A similar re-pigeoning mini-kerfuffle happened recently after Richard Dawkins suggested in a Newsweek interview that some intelligent people believe evolution can be reconciled with traditional religious belief. Even though he said he himself continues to find them irreconcilable, scores of atheist blogs suddenly lit up with the title “RICHARD DAWKINS, ACCOMMODATIONIST?”

I spend a huge amount of energy resisting pigeonholes myself so that my favorite nuances can be heard. Many religious readers see “atheist” and slam me into the hole with Stalin and Pol Pot. Many atheists have me pigeonholed as a “nice atheist” or part of “Atheism 3.0.” It’s often assumed, despite the evidence, that I believe all points of view are deserving of respect, that we should “all just get along.” And when I step out of that cartoon by (for example) suggesting that religious moderates need to “get off their butts” and help me oppose religious extremism, I am accused of violating a Nice Atheist oath I never actually took.

My hope here is to help raise our collective awareness that careless pigeonholing can get in the way of hearing and being heard.

Sam Harris speech in full:

Full text of “The Problem with Atheism” by Sam Harris

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.