Lil Rome has got me thinking about the negative impact of the word atheist and how it can be misunderstood as a cohesive group with subversive doctrine rather than just the absence of belief in gods.
I am in the UK where most people are atheist but find that the word 'atheist' is only used by people who have strong feelings about religion. It is seen as challenging and confrontational over here whereas saying 'I don't believe in a god' is not - most of my friends will say this casually. It's as though they claim a cultural identification - 'I don't believe in gods but if I did it would the Christian/Muslim/Hindu one' whereas saying 'I am an atheist' is like denying your culture and identity and standing out.
I have found that if, when the subject of religion comes up, I say 'I'm not religious' or 'I don't believe in a god' most people will say comfortably 'No, me neither.' but if I say 'I am an atheist' eyes widen slightly and people hesitate before saying something about not being religious themselves. The word is uncomfortable.
Why would this be?
Is this the case in the US too? I suspect saying that you have no religion or belief in a god may get you a wide eyed stare there too more than it does here but is the word 'atheist' even more of a red flag?
In America, saying you don't believe in god (the term always implies the christian god here) is about on par with being an atheist. Saying you are not religious however will get the more sedate and accepting reaction. For whatever reason, atheism and not believing in gods gets a very negative reaction, even though not being religious is becoming increasingly more common. Most americans seem to have a passive relationship with religion; they use it as they need it for emotional reasons. The funny thing is, when dealing with the more religious americans if you say you don't believe in god or are and atheist they get very aggressive as though you are threatening their beliefs, but if you say you are hindu, muslim or any other religion then they just accept it. It's as though they assume they have a right to control atheists beliefs... as though we are lesser or something. This reaction appears to be motivated by their own deep seeded doubts in their own religion that they never voice. The fragility of their own blind faith drives them to attack those that willingly accept the truth.
Interesting and worrying - that is quite similar then. When I told my daughter's school she was not to take RE (in the UK its Christian and presented as true - my daughter has already been very disturbed by the great flood, rivers of blood and killing of the firstborns) they phoned me and kept trying to convince me to let her attend. This is because I said we did not believe in gods and did not want our daughter told one exists and that they kill children. If I had just said we were Hindu they would have accepted it without question.
When folks tend to proselytize, and hand me written material with god stuff I hand them a copy of one of my favorite poems:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul." ~~ William Earnest Henley
Sometimes it starts an intelligent conversation, sometimes not, but they usually quit the preaching.
From a literal perspective, the Greek translation of "Atheist" (from "a" as the alpha-privative and "theos") is "without god" or "godless". Thus, with this in mind, it's natural that Atheism is considered pejorative. If I'm asked about my religion or my beliefs, I reply with "nontheist". I feel that "nontheist" implies not needing a god, instead of lacking a god.
I dunno if others are as semantic as I am, but I only analyzed it this way since I study the Classics.