This discussion developed from Michael Rosch's very interesting blog post on whether Bill Maher deserves the Dawkins award. The "... hours ago" line in this opening post dates from Saturday, July 25 at 1:02 pm.

*Comment by D'Holbach 13 hours ago*

I really like Bill Maher as a comedian and as a satirist of religious extremism, but the problem with giving him the Richard Dawkins Award is that it suggests that all Dawkins stands for is atheism, when presumably he stands for rationalism and science as well. That Dawkins did not publicly object to the committee's decision may show that Dawkins is capable of being more gracious than sincere.

The Maher issue brings me to another problem: the inadequacy of the term "atheism." I would like to be part of a community of rationalists, not just a community of atheists. Yesterday on Atheist Nexus, a couple of 9/11 "Truthers" took over the Chat; they were atheists, and I certainly have no love for George Bush, but their world view is irrational--they simply refused to weigh compelling evidence against their views.

"Rationalism" is not an ideal term, as it evokes images of unfeeling vulcans. "Secular humanism" is, I suppose, more apposite, but it's a bit vague. "Brights" is okay, but it smacks of arrogance. I should probably start another discussion thread for this question, and perhaps I will shortly, but what term best captures the rational, humanistic outlook that many of us share?

*Comment by Dave G 13 hours ago*

Rational humanists?

And I agree, D'Holbach, 'atheist' is far too vague of a term, as all if means is an absence of a belief in gods. It may be an accurate description of what I am, but it is by no means a complete one. Rational, skeptical, and scientific also apply, and do more to define me than the simple absence of a belief.

It is a common misconception that atheists are uniformly rational or skeptical. Maybe the majority are, but not all.

*Comment by Reggie Hammond 12 hours ago*

I think the term atheism serves it's purpose well. I don't think positive claims of any kind should be foisted upon it. There are a lot of terms out there that could apply to any positive claims that better describe me, but I don't feel enamored with the idea of claiming to be this label or that label. And this is not the juvenile "don't label me" whine, but more a response to my apprehension of accepting some dogma, no matter how well thought out it may be. I don't mind not having an easy label. The only two I feel comfortable with aside from "atheist" is "Skeptic" or "Secular Humanist", and the latter I am only becoming familiar with recently.

*Comment by D'Holbach 11 hours ago*

I completely understand your wariness about labels, Reggie. Many atheists' refusal to adopt a positive philosophy, however, seems to me to have several rather serious side effects. For one thing, it's very hard for atheists to form part of a community; while they all clearly stand against something, it's not clear what they stand for. Standing against something is not, I would contend, a sound basis for a long-term, tightly knit community.

Even if one is not interested in joining a "community" in the traditional sense, it's worth considering the reasons that atheists and secular humanists get so little respect in this country, despite the fact that they have more members than a host of religious groups that do get at least a modicum of respect. One reason is that we can't seem to organize--it's what Dawkins et al. call the "herding cats" problem. We're divided and thus easier to conquer.

Most people here understandably don't want to be lumped together under any label aside from the loose, amorphous term "atheist," but that kind of affiliation won't, I submit, last long; and there are high costs to standing apart and standing alone.

*Comment by Reggie Hammond 11 hours ago*

"Standing against something is not, I would contend, a sound basis for a long-term, tightly knit community."

Not sound but it can be effective. The common enemy will make even strange bedfellows.

But I see your point and agree with it as I have come to the same conclusion. The problem is that freethinking folk are just too damn free thinking. The strategy is to unite and have strength in numbers and that is a good strategy. Atheism's spread is hopefully just the beginning and we are united now as pariahs in the minority. But it is true that you can't forward an agenda based on unbelief. Or I should say that you can only push it forward so far before you have to stop and ask "now what?"

Personally, I have found myself gravitating towards the Humanists and what I have read so far I agree with and like. This appears to me to be the most popular of the secular philosophies. But really, my initial objection was for any redefining of the term "atheism". I know there are many ways it is used now (strong atheism, weak atheism, etc.), but the simple meaning of a rejection of theistic claims is the most pure and correct in my opinion and I think it does well to be just that.

I think I am just rambling now. It is way past my bedtime.

*Comment by Michel Poisson 11 hours ago*

I agree. The fuzzyness of the term 'atheist' suits me fine (while also learning to be a skeptic). It's fuzzy on the edge but it has a solid core: "without god".

Labels are useful but I prefer to think in terms of flags than in terms of boxes. With boxes you're either in or out. With flags you can be close or far.

But D'Holbach, what do you mean when you say that "that kind of affiliation won't, I submit, last long"?

*Comment by D'Holbach 1 hour ago*

Thanks for your remarks, Dave! "Rational humanists"--that's pretty good.

*Comment by Michael Rosch 44 minutes ago*

I also agree with D'Holbach. While atheism only refers to non-belief in deities, I think of myself as more than just an atheist. I'm rationalist and a skeptic was well. I also like the term that Thunderf00t used when debating Ray Comfort, a PEARList (or Physical Evidence And Reasoned Logic). I'm fine with the term atheist, but I don't like merely being defined as being in the same camp as 9/11 Deniers and those who don't believe in science-based medicine. Christopher Hitchens would have made a far, far better choice in my opinion.

*Comment by D'Holbach 2 minutes ago *

Hi Michael,
I like the idea of flags instead of boxes. The problem, for me, is that the term "atheist" has started to seem more like a box than like a flag. It's very limiting: it means simply "disbelief in gods." It doesn't mean that one thinks rationally, that is, that one accepts arguments based on sound reasons and evidence while rejecting unsubstantiated claims and unfounded conspiracy theories. It doesn't mean that one cares about others--that one has a scientific but also a compassionate and cosmopolitan world view--or that one wants to be part of something larger than oneself. These kinds of criteria, which some of us are proposing for a new humanism, don't seem to me to constrain in the way that boxes do; they open up possibilities.

There are many people on this site who have recently "deconverted," and I understand the enthusiasm that they bring to the deconversion process and to their arguments against theism. But once they get through that deconversion process, which can take months or even years, my guess is that they will feel a certain emptiness as the euphoria of rejecting organized inanity wears off.

When I was in college, I relished Nietzsche and the radical individualists, even though I described myself as a liberal. As I've gotten older, however, I've felt the need for something more. So, to answer your question about what I meant when I said that an affiliation of bare "atheists" won't last long, it's that standing against something can sustain one for only so long--negative philosophy, like negative theology, brings disillusionment and emptiness in the end. To put a twist on what I said before, negative philosophy won't provide the basis for an individual's long-term growth, much less the foundation for a tightly knit community.

I'm going to bump this discussion into a new thread; I've hijacked Michael's blog long enough.

*Comment by Michael Rosch 23 minutes ago*

I like "atheist" because, as Reggie said, the term serves its purpose well. It concisely defines my position in that arena. However, because it only means non-belief in gods, it's but one of many flags or banners I proudly wave. I think there are times when the atheist label is beneficial and then there are times when it's inadequate so I switch to skeptic or rationalist or something in that vein to distinguish my position from paranormalists and conspiracy theorists, etc. But I think you nailed it when you said "I would like to be part of a community of rationalists, not just a community of atheists."

*Comment by Michel Poisson 4 minutes ago*

@D'Holbach: Thanks for your reply. By the time I had finished writing my post (I'm real slow when I write) Reggie had already posted his comment which answered my question. With your added precisions I now get what you meant and agree with you both.

In the meantime however I think the looseness of the appellation is what allows the herding of cats. I would also add that it is not all negative philosophy; a lot of us here at TA are also pro-reason, pro-science and pro-critical thinking as well. And maybe that's what makes ThinkAtheist different from other more strictly atheist communities (I've tried a few before joining here).

Good idea to bump the thread - I'll follow it.

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Or rational atheist or skeptical atheist.

Although, I do confess to some attachment to my spuriously created rational humanist. :)

*Comment by Reggie Hammond 42 minutes ago*

Atheism is a rejection of beliefs. If we want to build something, we don't build by rejecting materials. The materials that religion bring to the job site are crap and we all agree on that. This is what binds us. But when it comes to accepting materials...well, that is where atheists will find their differences.
Here's my thought, after skimming the list of posts.

Atheist is a signifier that should have only one real meaning: without god. Anything beyond that requires additional signifiers and modifiers. If you want to specify anything beyond that, you have to start to weed out groups through additional description. For the original example: atheists who also believe in coming to any conclusions through rational means, you might call them "rational atheists". So on and so forth.

Each word signifies a group. There can be groups within groups, people that are members of multiple groups and multiple groups within those groups and so on and so forth. Think of how we describe people. The first group, all-encompassing, is "human". From there, we can add "tall," "short," "European," "Asian" ad nauseum. Somebody could be born in China (thus Chinese) but raised in France (thus French), therefore belonging to two groups. The same is true of belief systems and ways of thinking. Describing someone as "atheist" is very much like calling them "European". It's a base description, inside of which there is a vast amount of variation. The purpose of both words is to describe an overarching group of peoples' single common trait. If you want it to do more than that, to sort people more, you have to add to it.

I will grant that grouping together as "not" something is difficult, but most revolutions simply start out as NOT the ruling class. There's no reason this one should be any different in that aspect. Where we stand right now, we NEED atheism to be as overarching a term as possible because we need it to apply to as many people as are willing to apply it to themselves. Only once there's at least a reasonable chance of atheism having some power will it make sense to subdivide into smaller groups.
Well said, Sam!
I agree with Reggie--well said!

Here are a few further thoughts; I'll start with a quibble and then expand outward. No doubt "atheism" itself should mean just one thing: lack of belief in gods. The question, though, is whether some other, broader term would work better for myriad reasons, both rhetorical and otherwise.

For one thing, the paranormalists, conspiracy theorists, and mystics who sail under the "atheist" banner may hamper rather than help our cause. My main concern, however, is not to exclude people, but to include them. On that point, I'm not sure that the secular movement is a "revolution" in the Marxist sense, and I'm not convinced that such militancy serves our cause, at least not in every context. With stubborn religious bigots, one may need to be sharply polemical, of course; but ultimately I agree with Greg Epstein's argument that to win secular "converts" we need to expound a positive philosophy and not simply set ourselves in opposition to the views of others. After a while, adherents of any "negative philosophy" (we don't know what we are, but we're not that) will, I think, come off as mere killjoys--depriving people of the solace that they find in religion but offering nothing to replace it.

As I noted in a post above, I understand the process of rage and grief that many go through when they let go of their religion, and I certainly understand the anger and resentment that atheists feel about being disenfranchised in this country. I spent two years teaching in Nebraska, and let me tell you, although many of my colleagues were wonderful people, being an atheist there was a difficult, isolating experience. Nevertheless, I would like to be part of a community that does more than reject other people's views--and I think that I'm not alone in that.
Also well said! I'm afraid I'm going to come across sounding like a parrot on this site, repeating "well said" too often.


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