"Don't call me an Atheist!" from Atheist Climber blog


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.

Views: 19

Tags: Atheism, Atheist, Harris, Philosophy, Religion, Sam, Secular, atheistclimber, opinion

Comment by Apple on June 8, 2010 at 10:45am
I see you're thinking about the iPad.
Comment by Elliot on June 8, 2010 at 2:06pm
"...much like has happened to Communists and witches in history."

No comparison. Witches didn't engage in wholesale theft, nor did the most prominent implementations of witchcraft involve the murder of 100,000,000 people, political prisoners (with all of the attendant torture and other horrors), or the constant monitoring, intimidation, and deprivation of over a billion people. For a huge portion of the world, the anti-reason involved in political collectivism has rivaled the anti-reason of theism, and far exceeded the murder, intimidation, and theft. One of the disgusting aspects is that, unlike the Nazis who were totally defeated and who faced judgment at Nuremberg, Communist mass murderers die old men in their beds without any trial. Meanwhile, the intellectuals scoff at McCarthyism (even though many of the people who were defended as falsely accused actually turned out to be guilty, according to recently revealed evidence) as being baseless hysteria, rather than a reckless, misguided reaction to a real, existential threat. Whether it's the trendy wearing of Che shirts (he was a mass murderer who worked to enslave people to tyrannical governments), or the insane push for socialized medicine and Mussolini-style fascism in the form of government intervention in the economy (banks, insurance, auto), people have not learned the lessons of history. The love affair with socialism among "liberals" is as bad as religion amongst the Buckley wing of "conservatives".

As an atheist libertarian, I find the myths of God and Government to be comparatively pernicious. A rational system of morality should reject the use of aggressive force to coerce people. Ethical people use reason, not force, to persuade others.
Comment by Rocky Oliver (LotusGeek) on June 8, 2010 at 3:10pm
I have also given this a great deal of thought, and have landed on the side of using the "atheist" label. The thing about labels is that, at their base level, they are used to convey meaning in shorthand; rather than use the entire sentence, "I am a rational person who does not believe in the existence of any gods or deities" I simply say, "I am an atheist".

The problem with this is one you have touched upon - the "loaded" nature of the atheist label. Some people - typically the religious ones - have applied additional meaning to the word atheist. Usually this additional meaning is completely unfounded, and is usually defamatory - quite often in the vein which you have mentioned. But I submit that these additional meanings would be applied to us, no matter what we call ourselves, because it is our (lack of) BELIEF that causes these unfounded meanings to be applied to us, not the word "atheist" itself. To not use the label atheist is to basically hide behind a veil of ambiguity. By clearly stating our lack of belief by using the label atheist - which simply means "a" (no) "theist" (belief in gods) - we directly and succinctly state what our belief system (or lack thereof).

I believe that a better course of action is to clearly, proudly state that we are atheists, and then to counter these misconceptions about us by living well, by being good examples, by using our actions to show that these unfounded beliefs about us are just that - unfounded. I happen to live in the Bible Belt (rural Georgia), and I am an "out of the closet" atheist. I break down these misconceptions through my life and my family - I have been married 25 years, I have five kids who are leaders in their schools, I live a just and moral life, and so on. Just as Christians are taught to "lead their lives as a living testament", I am doing the same. My life is a "living testament" that demonstrates that atheists are "good people" - just as good as, if not better than, many of the Christians they know.

So, I am happy being an atheist - and will continue to wear that label proudly.
Comment by Gerald Scott on June 8, 2010 at 4:36pm
I agree with Rocky. I love being an atheist. The last few people I told I was an atheist, actually knew what one was.
Comment by Holly on June 8, 2010 at 9:44pm
I too have always been what could be described as atheist, but have never labelled myself as such.
The baggage and connotations attached to the label 'Atheist` have never really sat that well with me. I've never felt I needed to categorise my beliefs, as I shouldn't have to explain myself to anyone else. If asked, which is very rarely, I only tell people I'm an Atheist as it's the quickest way to explain my 'world view'. I don't see why this 'lack of Belief ' should really require a label?
On the other side, it seems collecting under a unified banner does have it's advantages, an opportunities. So for the time being I guess I'm an Atheist.
Comment by Martin Pribble on June 8, 2010 at 9:51pm
@Elliot I was making the comparison to the stigma attached to the label of Atheist is like being called a "Communist" or a "Witch" and the negative connotations the label brings with it. Not comparing the Witch-hunts to the Communist regime, nor the state of Atheism in this day and age.
Comment by Shine on June 9, 2010 at 2:16pm
I also have misgivings with the label of "atheism" as I find it to be rather nondescriptive; the term only describes an inaction and really says nothing of my actual actions. As has been frequently pointed out, atheists do not necessarily have anything in common besides a shared lack of a belief in a god. There is no other requirement for atheism and therefore no other logical point of unity across the atheist spectrum. I think that this is contradictory towards the general human drive to coalesce into some sort of social unit. An atheist movement will always be compromised by this foundation upon a single, shared inaction; beyond this inaction, any actual action serves to be a potential point of divergence amongst atheists.

I see "atheism" as a negative label because it describes an inaction and labels like "naturalist," "rationalist," or "humanist" to be positive because they are actually descriptive of what the individual does adhere to. (I am using "positive" and "negative" to describe the functionality of a label rather than inject a value judgment.) However, I'm still quite ignorant of the specifics of many labels so I hesitate to adopt any of them at present. For now, I'll stick with the negative label of "atheist" until I find a positive label that aligns with what I do believe and think.
Comment by Camilla on June 13, 2010 at 8:33am
I prefer to call myself an Atheist. When I talk to someone who believes in "something" (spirits, orb, "vätter" or supernatural energy) I can simply say that I am an Atheist and she/he will know that I don't believe in any supernatural phenomenon so we don't have to go in to what i believe and don't believe.

But maybe it is different for me being an atheist in Sweden. I have never being called a demon worshiper, baby-eater or any sort of negative things. It is not really hard to be and call your self an atheist in a place were being non-religious is the norm.

But I do think that the label atheist is needed for some people, especially those who live in a very strong Christian community and feel like outcasts. I think that many can find strength and comfort just by knowing that they belong somewhere and that they are not alone.
Comment by Johnny on June 13, 2010 at 9:51am
Comment by Wonderist on June 13, 2010 at 11:28am
I'll even go one step further and call myself an unapologetic atheist. I'm an atheist, and there's nothing wrong with being an atheist, and I'm not ashamed of being atheist in any way, and I'm not going to apologize in any way (e.g. by trying to hide my atheism by refusing to acknowledge the word as describing my lack of belief) simply for being an atheist.

Furthermore, insofar as theism represents one kind of potentially dangerous irrationality, I think that it's important to stand up and publicly speak out as an atheist; to contradict the anti-atheist stereotypes; to make strong and vigourous criticism of religion, which is dangerously under-criticized; to promote reason, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech; to make the world safer for more atheists to come out of the closet. And I'm not going to apologize for doing that, either.

There's nothing wrong with being an atheist, or in criticizing religion or other irrational beliefs, or even in using the word 'atheist' as a rallying call to other non-believers. I don't need a capital-A on my atheism, thanks. I'm just an atheist. But I'm an unapologetic atheist, too.

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