Don’t call me an Atheist!

June 6, 2010 § 14 Comments

I have always been atheist. I was born without god and have never found that I have ever needed a god in my life. And it would seem as time goes on, that I have been drawn toward people who share the same opinions about religion as I do, mostly without ever having discussed it, or at least having barely touched on the subject. I had never called myself atheist until recently and I must say, I do it with a bit of apprehension, because the term itself to me is without meaning. However at the same time, I do call myself an Atheist with a capital “A” for reasons I will expand upon below.

I find the title of “Atheist” with a capital “A” to a be problematic thing for various reasons.

Being atheist is not like missing something that is needed like being without an arm or leg, in fact it’s an absence of something people add to themselves, more like being without an iPad, or without a favourite type of sushi, so I wonder why it needs a label at all. It has been compared to being a “non-stamp collector” or like considering bald as a hair colour, which shows the absurdity of the label.

With “Atheism” also I worry about the gathering of many people, all of whom have their own individual views of the universe, being lumped under the banner of “Atheism” makes us easy to identify and demonise as a collective. With the collective comes the “target” which theists and conservatives can band together against, much like has happened to Communists and witches in history. Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance Conference in Washington DC in 2007 went so far as to say “…our use of this label is a mistake—and a mistake of some consequence.”

I also have a bit of discomfort in saying  I am an “Atheist”, because it is a word which is loaded with so many misconceptions, and paints us as a pariah. We get called variously, “baby eaters”, “haters”, “communists”, “Nazis”, “extremists”, “un-American”, “un-Australian”, “infidels”, “heathens” and the list goes on. The label of “Atheist” is a negative thing, even though it asserts a positive standpoint. Harris says this:

“Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.”

So here we have an unneccessary label, which is demonised and targeted, is considered to be evil and yet we stand proudly under this banner and say “Listen to me, I know what I’m talking about.”  I know that the misconceptions of Atheism are incorrect, and nobody I know has actually eaten a baby; in fact I would go as far as to say the self-proclaimed Atheists I have met are some of the smartest, wisest and kindest people I know.

However, in opposition to Sam Harris’ stand on the label, I also see a plus side. While he says “We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them,” a sentiment I understand and agree with on one level, I think there is an advantage to the label which Harris fails to address in this talk. There is an advantage in unity. The unity of people, who while they might like to gather under the banners of “reason” and “rational”, to gather under the “Atheist” banner gives us a face, gives us a voice and gives us power of numbers. I cannot see how a bunch of solitary people who simply call themselves “reasonable people” and nothing else can even hope to have their voices heard. Sure we can write replies in blogs, or blog ourselves, we can post links in Facebook or tweet as much as we like, but without a unifying label I think we are just solitary figures without a face and without any power.

So we have the conundrum. Which is better? Flying solo under no banner, or flying under a banner of unity? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to this, but it is something I have been thinking about.


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§ 14 Responses to Don’t call me an Atheist!

  • Katheist says:

    didn’t i just read this yesterday?

  • Bess says:

    I generally feel that labeling yourself and being unified is better than being under the radar and therefore under/misrepresented in society as a whole. If no one advertised or announced who they really were, whether it be atheism or homosexuality, they are a missing voice. And it takes a lot of voices for people to realize that not everyone society fits into the single mold of Christian/religious, straight, or whatever “typical” way of being there is.

    Of course, I’m not really very vocal in my differences so I could be considered a bit of a hypocrite, but oh well.

  • DistroMan says:

    Well stated and I agree 100% with your position.

  • Miguel says:

    I agree with you and Harris. The important thing is HOW the label is used. It should only be used in it’s literal context and definition.

    Atheism = lack of BELIEF in god.

    Under this definition I gladly label myself, because all of us “atheists” will also have different moral standings and views, depending on where we grow up and educate ourselves. What will join us however, is “no belief in god” and employing “rational thought” to further move our society forward.

  • Madrizzle says:

    I’m of the Dawkins philosophy on this. I think it’s important to actually say “no” be it label or otherwise. I feel like got too many years I just said I was “nothing” when asked about religious affiliation. I want to feel like I am “something” & that something is the guy saying “no, you cannot control our policies or dictate our actions through a being which I firmly believe to not exist & you cannot prove otherwise” – I think to say no & be proud of standing up leads itself to having a label. Fuck connotations.

  • Katheist says:

    oh, sorry, yours is about a capital. my apologies. i’ll read it later, looks interesting

  • mythicsushi says:

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” – Stephen Roberts

    Try throwing that one out there…

    One thing to consider is that, from my experience, most atheist literature argues mainly against religion rather than the basic idea of a God. I wonder if The God Delusion might be better known as “the religion delusion”-that is what it addresses most thoroughly. “Nonreligious” might be an appropriate term to use in some situations.

  • Beechbum says:

    I used to be bothered by the label I had to bear at the whim of the delusional, but that has changed (something about puberty and being confrontational). Now I wear it like a tattoo, a badge of honor, or a star on my chest at a Nazi death camp. They won’t get it back. Sure, I’m a realist, a humanist even a rationalist, but, I’m also an in your face – I brought my own ball bat – if that’s what you want to call me. Fine! Atheist!
    But that’s not what I am! That is what they choose to call me – Hi, I’m Brian and I think for my self – period. I like freethinker because it is true – truest, I think. They can call me anything they want, I get close enough, I’ll clarify it for ’em.
    Maybe, we should all remember this, if as an individual one feels as though that label is being used as an anvil – let them bash their own head on it, “You say atheists are baby munchers, well I can’t be an atheist then – I don’t do that.” You say atheists do not believe in god, “Well that cannot include me for I hardly ever base judgments on beliefs. What is your evidence for this god?” Also, many great human beings have been atheists. Do not dishonor them by being afraid of the name. Although, there is no honor in being beaten by it, so out smart the theist with it. They have already devolved the conversation to a play of words – play the words.

    One more thing, most of you need to remember this:

    Noun: theologian
    1. Someone who is learned in theology or who speculates about theology

    We are all also theologians, some of use are more learned than those with a collar. And all of us are as competent as those without. Remind the bigots of this as often as possible. How’s that for a label.

  • Marcus says:

    If we are what we believe, then everyone is right. Just don’t force your friggen beliefs on me, share them by all means, and then respect mine, then piss off.

  • Rudy Ruddell says:

    If you want to help rid the world of religion and all of the problems it causes, atheists need to be united.

  • Grimmlock says:

    The misconceptions about what the term atheist mean abound. When ibwas a child, my father actually told me that being an atheist meant that you believe in nothing, and by nothing he meant no country, no society, without a belief period. This was a stigma that I carried with me for many years until I came to realize that it just meant without religion.

    As people without religion, we do not necessarily need a label, but like those above have side, to present a unified front something is necessary to promote a form of solidarity.

    Take a look at the people we lump together as Christian. Their beliefs are so widely varied, and yet we still call all of them Christian.

    There have been attempts to find a new term for people without religion, I know we have all heard the term Bright thrown about, but I still stand by the term atheist. The majority of people, at least here in the states, identify themselves as religious in some manner, so just using a term that merely shows that, unlike them, you are without any sort of religion, is a label that works fine for me.

    • Rudy Ruddell says:

      My Facebook profile says that my religious views are: “Atheist, Humanist, Strict Materialist, Non-dualist, Rationalist, Anti-theist, Freethinker, Bright”

      Of these label, only atheist is familiar to the general population. Hence, I think we need to build off of that point of familiarity rather than try to start all over with a new word. I think it is more realistic to educate the general population as to what the real meaning of atheist is than to start a new term and educate the world about what it means.
      Why bother with this education, as previously stated, to unite to fight religion and its long list of deleterious effects it has on society.

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