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.