There seems to be some controversy among non-believers as to the best way to refer to themselves. There are atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, humanists, brights, godless, etc. Personally, I have no problem with any of these terms. It is not for me to decide how other people should identify themselves.
Like everyone else, though, I do have a term which I prefer over the others, and that term is "atheist". For me, the choice to use this term happened in a single week, and the choice was caused by a news story on television. To be accurate though, I should say that the news of that day was really the final straw in a long sequence of events. At that point, I was already a non-believer having left the religion of mormonism into which I was born. I simply could not bring myself to refer to this state of non-belief as atheism.
Evacuate the Earth
Then, around March 26, 1997, I heard the news. A cult in California had committed group suicide: Heaven's Gate. For many people, this was the first time that they had heard of the group. Not for me though. I have always had a strong interest in religion and, in particular, how religions develop. This interest had led me to a study of various cult groups such as heaven's gate.
I watched the news pundits discuss the beliefs of this group with a look of incredulity on their faces. The group's belief in UFOs, their communal lifestyle, and lurid details of some member's castrations were paraded around by the media. Some questioned their sanity. Others wondered how people with enough intelligence to run a successful web company could believe such nonsense.
Nonsense was the word of the day. In any conversation about the cult, the words stupidity, insanity, and nonsense would be used over and over again. People made jokes about it, laughed about it, declared it a tragedy, asked if cults should be illegal, wrote articles on how to prevent your children from joining a cult, etc.
All of these activities were carried out with a smug self-confidence, and the majority of people who performed these activities were not atheists but christians. Within one week of this event, I was calling myself an atheist.
Nonsense is relative
As I said, I have spent time studying various cults. In doing so, I often noticed the way in which people made a sharp distinction between cults and religions. In conversing with religious people this distinction was often a source of confusion because, for me, it did not exist.
Religions start out as cults. In the beginning, they often hold radical beliefs. In fact, religions only become more mainstream after they gain a significant number of followers. To me, it seems like early christianity exhibited all of the characteristics of the other cults I studied. Certainly, my own childhood religion, mormonism, was like that. Some cults, like heaven's gate, never last long enough to move beyond this extremism. Other cults become full grown religions by jettisoning the more extreme beliefs.
Before the suicides, I had preferred the term agnostic. Atheist seemed too dogmatic, and a childhood filled with indoctrination had left me wary of any dogmatic stance. Atheists seemed just as dogmatic in asserting that there was no god as theists were in asserting god's existence. I had always felt it better to take the middle ground.
When the reports on the suicide came out, it caused me to take an entirely different view. I realized that I could go pretty much anywhere in America, find a large group of people, stand up, and proclaim that the heaven's gate followers were idiots for believing such nonsense. I also realized what would happen to me if I did: nothing.
I would not be ostracized, I would not be looked at with anger, I would not be accosted, I would not be yelled at, and I would not be called upon to justify my opinion. People would simply nod their heads in agreement, and move on. It was this realization that was key to my adoption of the atheist moniker.
When I had first learned about this cult, I did not join up with them. I did not join up because there was no evidence to support their claims, and I did not join up because their view of the world was not reasonable. However, I could make these same statements about any of the cults I have studied. Even more, I could make them about any religion including christianity.
The only difference between the claims of christianity and the claims of heaven's gate is the number of people who believe in them. Both claims are unreasonable and without evidence. However, denying the claims of christianity can have all sorts of negative social consequences if you happen to live in America.
Atheism is political
I do not need a special term to designate myself as someone who does not believe in the truth of heaven's gate. My status as a non-believer with respect to them is simply taken for granted.
In addition, no one declares me to be in any way dogmatic for saying directly and without qualification that the followers of heaven's gate were wrong, that their religion is not true, or that their claims are false. No one looks down on me for demanding hard evidence of a spacecraft or alien life. In addition, I have never been accused of being angry for simply denying the truth of their religion.
No one declares that my refusal to live by the arbitrary constraints of that religion is because I prefer a life of immorality or hedonism. And, no one suggests that I am being selfish for my unwillingness to submit myself to a communal life under the complete control of that cult even though it is true. If I were less selfish, maybe I would have been willing to give all of my money to them. Maybe I would have submitted to their total control. Maybe I would have undergone voluntary castration for the greater good, and maybe I would be dead right now.
Despite the fact that I do not believe in heaven's gate, or the fact that I chose the path of selfishness in not converting, no one declares me to be the least bit immoral for either of these. When it comes to christianity in America, however, the situation is very different.
In the week after the suicide, I came to realize that my refusal to call myself an atheist had more to do with fear than anything else. I was simply afraid of the way many people would view me for making such a declaration. Not declaring myself an atheist was due to the social constraints of living in America, but agnostic was not an accurate way to describe myself. The fact was, I did not believe in god in the exact same way I did not believe in heaven's gate. I was simply an atheist by definition. As time moved on though, it became much more than that.
Unlike the terms humanist or free-thinker, the term atheist comes with a great deal of baggage. There are certainly stereotypes to overcome. Some people prefer a term without all of this baggage. Others prefer a more positive term instead of a negative word like atheism which expresses an opposition to something. Atheist is an "in your face" type of word, and some people do not like this confrontational aspect. I have come to prefer it. Why? Because I am in opposition to religion.
It is no longer a matter of simple non-belief. I am opposed to the ignorance, the blind stupidity, and the evil carried out in the name of religion. I am tired of the privilege assigned to religion, and I am angry at the way religions use that privilege to trample on the rights of others while escaping prosecution for their own evil actions.
In a non-religious world, I would not need a word to designate me as a non-believer. It would simply be assumed. Instead, such a word is a necessity. It is a necessity for simple practicality. For me, it is also necessary as a political means to speak out against the evils of religion.
The word atheist is subversive in a way that those other terms are not, and I think I will keep it.