Sunday, February 3, 2013

"I don't want to be called an atheist"

A friend of mine recently told me that they do not want to be called an atheist because most of the self identified atheists she new were too preachy about it. She wanted another word for someone who doesn't believe in God but was less confrontational about it.

I find there is an absence here, that there is a collection of beliefs that I share with other atheists but that there is no label that talks about what we agree about. And there is great distrust in atheists about having a collective set of beliefs at all.

I wonder what you all think?


  1. I don't believe in God, but I have no interest in the "atheist" label. I think defining myself in terms of what I don't do or don't believe is a profoundly uninteresting exercise.

  2. All "atheist" means is a disbelief in gods. There's no defined belief system in atheism, nor should there be.
    Perhaps the term you're looking for is "secular humanist" or something along those lines. Secular humanism is a philosophical viewpoint that many atheist/agnostics generally agree with. "Secular" just means non-religious, and "humanist" which is someone that believes in human reason, ethics, and justice as a basis for morality instead of superstition.
    Many atheists are secular humanists, but not all humanists are atheists.
    I'm part of a group called Atheists of Maine, and one of our main goals is to just be good, normal people so that the term "atheist" loses some of the negative connotations that it's associated with. We purposely stick to "atheist" because we want to normalize the word. However, there are plenty of other labels that the non-religious use: free thinker, skeptic, agnostic, irreligious, humanist, etc.

  3. She is not alone.
    All atheism is is a lack of belief, no one can really be "preachy" about it. They can explain why they do not believe, but they are not offering another belief with which to replace it.

    People who feel like her have tried many other terms, freethinkers is a mainstay, but Brights is the newest I know of.

  4. Josiah, your friend and others who don't like the label atheist could call themselves secularists. The Oxford Dictionary Online defines secular as, not connected with religious or spiritual matters. There are some religious organizations, Roman Catholics specifically, who also use the term secular to describe clergy who are not members of a monastic order. But that use is more in-group jargon.

    The term, atheist, is the time-honored and clearest word for one who states, "I do not believe in god or gods." I understand your friend's objection to the label based on the style of some of its proponents. (Although you report she said "most atheists" which seems hyperbolic.) I unfailingly vote Democratic in elections but I don't label myself as a Democrat because I disagree with most elected Democrat's performance on many major policy positions. I don't care for the style and substance of many big-name atheists, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and P.Z. Myers come to mind. They rely on tactics such as pointing out religious hypocrisy as clever gainsaying meant to entertain their supporters. They participate in forums mislabeled as debates with the likes of William Lane Craig or Dinesh D'Souza in what appears to me to be a mutual aid pact to promote each other's books and popularity. Movement Atheism's reliance on white males from academia as spokesmen limits the exposure and influence women and minorities can have to broaden atheism's appeal cross-culturally.

    We remind ourselves and theists continually that "atheist" is simply and completely one who has no belief in god(s). We "preachy" atheists who want to actively challenge religious influence should use the term, anti-theist, i.e., one who opposes theism. I'll admit it is easy to be anti-theist when the opponents are fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews. It is trickier to be anti-theist with my dear Episcopalian friends with whom I agree and admire on many social justice issues. I get preachy with them and atheists who wish to accommodate them on issues like the abusive indoctrination of myth-based child education that is Sunday School and their support for tax exemptions for religious institutions and contributions.