Can’t Escape the A Word March 3, 2008

Can’t Escape the A Word

Doesn’t matter if you call yourself a Bright, Freethinker, Secular Humanist, Nontheist, Pastafarian, or None.

Everyone else is still going to call you “atheist.”


In an op-ed for Free Inquiry, Tom Flynn elaborates:

I’ve been doing media appearances as a secular humanist activist for fifteen years now. I perennially underwent this exchange:

REPORTER/HOST: Are you an atheist?

ME: I call myself a secular humanist. Secular humanists disbelieve in the supernatural and prefer to use reason, compassion, and the methods of science to build the good life in this life.

REPORTER/HOST: But you’re an atheist, aren’t you?

I couldn’t sidestep the “A” word. When I tried, it was all I’d get to talk about. Today, I handle this question differently:

REPORTER/HOST: Are you an atheist?

ME: Yes, but that’s only the beginning.

After that, my odds of actually getting to say something about secular humanism are pretty good…

That’s one good way to interject what you do believe.

But maybe that’s a futile effort. Is it even possible to change public perception of an entire group?

Sure it is. We all know another minority group that has done just that in similar circumstances:

Given the oppression of forty years ago, how stunning are the changes that gay/lesbian activism wrought. Yesterday’s “love that dares not speak its name” is now a sitcom staple. Gay marriage is a live issue. Few look twice if two guys kiss at a party. How did the gay/lesbian lobby do it? Not by avoiding the issues that most disturbed the mainstream, but by attacking them head-on. Much gay activism celebrated precisely the things straights found most disturbing, from gay eroticism to the word queer itself, repeatedly confronting mainstream sensibilities with flamboyant gay exemplars that “lived down” to straights’ most negative stereotypes.

And it worked.

If gay/lesbian activism could destigmatize the “Q” word and make Americans feel neutral about gay sexuality, imagine what similar activism by atheists—secular humanists included—could do to destigmatize the “A” word and help mainstream Americans accept their peers who live without invisible means of support.

Of course, this is easier said than done. But if more non-religious people were public about their atheism (in whatever form it took) and made a point of defending and protecting the word when others used it in a derogatory fashion, it’d be a start in changing the overall perception of atheists in America.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Kate

    Yes, but that’s only the beginning.

    Hmm…don’t know why I never thought of saying that before as a response. 🙂 thanks!

  • Allison

    That’s only the beginning…… basically what I say. Otherwise it looks a bit like I’m trying to avoid the issue. Imagine:

    person A: Are you a Christian?
    person B: I call myself a Southern Baptist.
    person A: That means you’re a Christian, doesn’t it?

    I AM an atheist, and putting a different name, such as Scientific Pantheist, on it to make clear what my beliefs are beyond that is an elaboration.

  • I am right there with you. I use the “Atheist” word right upfront when people ask me about it. I put the “Scarlet A” on my website.

    I get rankled when people hide from it and try to make new terms to replace it, euphemisms. Secular humanism is a different thing, “brights” is arrogant. Sam Harris was wrong when he basically said it is a statement of a non-belief and needn’t be used.any longer.

    Atheism can be friendly. And yes, I am so much more.

  • My website states my non-religion as well, although not on prominent position. Mainly becauses it is now big deal anyway, since I live in Europe and atheists aren’t really discriminated (at least I haven’t been and so is nobody in my environment).

    Actually the (atheist) family of a friend is even paid by the church as his father has been pastor before ‘loosing’ his faith.

    I read your and PZ’s Blog for few days only, but can’t stop shaking my head about american theists.

  • slut

    I totally agree, the way to address the PR problem is to claim the label and wear it proudly. (Easier said than done, of course, for many of us in areas where prejudice is high.) Euphemisms only make us sound dishonest, which is exactly what Xians think of atheists to begin with. Better to admit it and talk about what we DO believe as well as answer questions.

  • repeatedly confronting mainstream sensibilities with flamboyant gay exemplars that “lived down” to straights’ most negative stereotypes.

    I think this part is key to changing the image. From my perspective, there are still too many atheists, even prominent ones, who seem to be making a point of living up to the negative stereotypes.

    For any minority group, hearts and minds will start to change when people can say “I know that person, and they weren’t like I thought they’d be”.

  • Kathryn

    More public about atheism… does this mean we get to take to street corners and yell at Christians? 🙂

  • I identify as an atheist, but if the issue comes up, I attempt to put the term into perspective. Something along the lines of:

    Yes, my worldview is an atheistic one, but that is only a single aspect of it, and not nearly expressive enough to characterize me as a whole. It’d be like you noticing that I’m left-handed, and calling me a left-handist. Clearly I’m not living my entire life actively making choices solely on the criterion of whether or not I can do something with my left hand. I am both atheist, left-handed, and a hundred other things.

    I think that Sam Harris’ reasoning is sound with regard to the ‘atheism is a word we shouldn’t acknowledge’, but I think his argument to abandon it now is premature. When ‘theist’ is the norm by massive majority, we cannot expect to get away with publicly labeling all them and leaving ourselves unlabeled. We’re the exception at present… much in the same way you’re likely to hear a white guy refer to another white guy as just ‘a guy’ while referring to a black guy as ‘a black guy’, at present, theists are ‘the guys’ and we’re ‘the atheist guys’.

    I think that a world where ‘atheism’ is a useless word is a good world to strive toward, but it’s self-deception and a useless distraction from our active fight if we pretend we’re already there.

  • Mriana

    I really don’t care much for the “A” word (atheist) to describe myself, in part because of all the baggage it seems to carry, esp in this area- the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. I really prefer Humanist, because it states more of what I do believe. I also identify as a Freethinker and non-theist.

    While I am still accepted by some very liberal Christians as one of them, I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic deity or any god of religion. I do believe in love and compassion, which seems to be enough for my very liberal Christians friends, esp since I can still speak their language and tolerate the idea of love being called God. The problem is, I don’t believe in a historical Jesus, which is even OK for those who believe like Spong, Cupitt, etc.

    I guess if one wanted to narrow down the exact catagory of Humanist I am since some view it as a broad term that has to have an adjective with it, I’d say I fit in very well with Robert Price and Greg Epstein, but sometimes I can sound like Richard Dawkins too- esp when I’m peeved. My Christian friends (all very liberal) know I am a Humanist and don’t mind at all. In fact, when I go on a rant about religion, they oddly agree with a lot of what I say and I have very little argument with them. Sometimes I find it very surprising that they agree with what I say against religion, yet at the same time, they share similar humanistic beliefs.

    However, the Evangelicals are the first to scream words like “ATHEIST!” and alike in such hateful tones. It’s the way they say it that makes me cringe and tells me that there is a lot of misconceptions about atheism. There is just something about the hatefulness in the way they say the word that is disturbing- almost like they want to try and convict me as a heretic and a witch. It’s not the word atheist that bothers me, but the tone and manner it is used in this case. I have yet to hear the word ‘humanist’ used in a similar manner.

    At the same time, Humanist and Freethinker carry a lot more meaning for me too, in that they describe more about my beliefs and how I think. I may have to explain to some people what Humanism is or even Freethinker, but that’s ok. I don’t mind explaining it to those who are willing to learn and accept me as a person. In the end, like some of my Christians friends, who believe God is love, we might end up learning we believe in the same thing, but I just view it differently (not as a god concept, but something that is within the human, part of the human, and is part of the human condition) and don’t rely on religious texts. I take the word ‘god’ out of the picture and place everything on the human. Which does make me an atheist, but doesn’t sound as cruel and hateful like the Religious Fundamentalists say it. Which is precisely why I shy away from the word. Maybe if I lived in a different area, I might not shy away from the word. I don’t know.

    I did enjoy the one episode The Atheist Experience, a couple weeks back, where Matt said, “If you answer anything but yes to this question, “Do you believe in God?” you’re an atheist.” Great episode and I can appreciate his definition too. He even included as “you’re an atheist” if you have to ask, “How are you defining God?” Then goes into how trying to define it as “love”, in the following episode, makes one an atheist. He had some good points, that I would love to share, but try explaining that to very liberal Xians who cling to making ‘love’ a god concept. It makes the Evangelicals right though, but puts a nicer tone to the word atheist. Maybe I should move to Austin. 😆

  • robin

    If gay/lesbian activism could destigmatize the “Q” word and make Americans feel neutral about gay sexuality…

    Sorry but I just don’t think this is the case. The christianists spend far more time gay-bashing than atheist-bashing and people continue to be killed for being gay. I don’t recall anyone trying on “atheist panic” as a defence for murder.

    It would be adviseable to set the bar higher than the acceptance achieved by the gay community. Becasue outside the bubble of our small enlightened communities, there is still a lot of hate.

  • I’ve not run into this much. While I don’t consider myself an atheist (depending on the definition), I defend the atheist label when I hear derogatory remarks.

    If someone were to ask me “are you an atheist?”, and I have the opportunity for a longer conversation about definitions, I would respond with “what do you mean by ‘atheist’, tell me more about your understanding of the label”. The aim is to get directly into their stereotypes, and address that there.

    “If by atheist, you mean ‘someone that has no moral compass’, I’m definitely not an atheist: I live according to compassion and reason. If by atheist, you mean ‘someone that doesn’t have a belief in a God that breaks the laws of nature every now and then’, then yes, I’m an atheist.”

    I really don’t care very much for labels.

  • Patience

    It would be adviseable to set the bar higher than the acceptance achieved by the gay community. Becasue outside the bubble of our small enlightened communities, there is still a lot of hate.

    I completely agree. As both a lesbian and an atheist, I must admit that I get harassed for the lesbianism more often in general society. My atheist friends are fine with my atheism (and usually fine with my gayness), and my gay friends are fine with my gayness (and usually fine with my atheism, though I did have an argument over what it meant to be an atheist with a friend–he insisted it was a religion, I insisted that my lack or religion was not, by definition, such). You can’t tell from looking at me that I’m queer or atheist…unless my girlfriend is with me. There is a LOT of gay bashing still going on.

  • May

    Somehow I seem to choose things in life that draw up controversy. I want to help the environment, support biomedical research that relies on animal experimentation, and stay the hell away from religion. But does that mean I always have to be public about it?

    Other atheists engage in these discussions and use all kinds of these words to describe themselves. But to me, calling myself an atheist isn’t about trying to somehow capture my inner belief system in one word (because if you can do that, you’re probably wrong.) It’s more about sending a message: “no thanks, I’m not interested in what you’re selling”.

    If I were to say that I’m a humanist, many questions would follow. If I said I’m an agnostic (as most of my friends do), I might as well be saying, “poor me, I’m lost and don’t know what to waste my time and money on. Please recruit me.” But if I say ‘atheist’–end of discussion, unless I’m in the mood to talk about it at the time.

    Anyway, what I actually believe is irrelevant here–because even if I did believe in some higher power in whatever form, it’s so different from anything our society calls ‘God’, that it’s silly to insist on using correct terminology. They’ll hear it the way they want to hear it.

    So, in summary, “atheist” = “no thanks”.

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