Should Atheists Use Religious Language When Describing Ourselves? March 19, 2009

Should Atheists Use Religious Language When Describing Ourselves?

There was a nice article from the Associated Press yesterday that talked about Humanist “congregations”, focusing on Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein

One part of the article raised a point about the words we use when describing our atheist communities:

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, is building a God-free model of community that he hopes helps humanists increase in numbers and influence.

Epstein wants to plant local humanist centers nationwide that perform many of the community-building functions of a church, only in service of the humanist creed…

While many humanists reject anything that hints at organized religion, Epstein is freely borrowing from it — from the ”small group” format familiar in evangelical churches to calling his group a ”congregation.”

Paul Kurtz, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism, disagrees with that approach, saying humanists are building secular communities that show people don’t need religion to get together ”in a joyful mood and do good works.” But that’s undermined when religious words are used to describe those communities.

”I don’t think we should use the language of religion, that’s very confusing,” Kurtz said.

It’s only confusing to someone who puts little or no thought into what the “congregation” is saying or doing and only looks at the word choice. If you’re part of that group, you’re probably not a Humanist, anyway. Obviously, there’s a difference between a church group and a Humanist group in those areas.

I personally like the idea. It provides a useful transition for people who want to leave God but not necessarily the idea of a church (and all the benefits that come with one).

If you can have small groups to discuss your beliefs, be part of a congregation, sing, rejuvenate yourself weekly, teach your children about the basic realities of life — all outside the confines of a church and God — more power to the Humanist communities who are co-opting the words.

Is the “religious wording” fine by you, or would you prefer using words that have no religious context whatsoever?

It seems to be working, for what it’s worth:

To those who say [building a Humanist community] can’t be done, Epstein points to his community at Harvard, and nonstop requests for more services, as a rebuttal. He believes humanists are responsible to make sure their community grows more.

”Salvation is here on earth,” he said. ”We have evolved over 14 billion years without purpose. Now we want purpose, we need to build it into our own lives.”

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    I am washed in the same blood as you.

  • benjdm

    Is the “religious wording” fine by you, or would you prefer using words that have no religious context whatsoever?

    I prefer using non-religious words. It gets too confusing otherwise. Heck, I would be much more interested in checking out the local UU society if they didn’t have ‘religious education’ going on for the kids.

  • Zar

    I’m a little nervous about co-opting even the superficial aspects of religion. A big part of the problem is the dogma and tribalism, and you don’t need myths for that stuff.

  • Bart the Pirate

    St. Bart the Pirate?

    Yeah. Okay.

    Using the term “congregation” communicates alternative church.

    Makes sense to me.

  • Leanstrum

    I think terms like ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ are very loaded, so maybe we can do without those. On the other hand, I don’t intend to stop using them. Hopefully, they can be tempered.

  • There’s nothing wrong with congregations. We accept the idea of community building activities in the form of, say, volunteer groups or civic associations. It’s the concept of indoctrinating people with myth and urging them to go forth that doesn’t sit well with me.

    Next year will be my freshman year in college. I can only hope — pray? 😉 — that there’s something similar wherever I end up.

  • Tom

    Thanks for the honest words on the article Hemant.

    I do want to point out that you seem to deny that a humanist community could be more then a transition tool, and not a destination for humanists. And daresay those who only prefer to be named atheist!

  • Miko

    *ahem* 14 billion years of evolution?

    Personally, I’m neutral on most of the language use, but I’d drop the word “salvation.” The idea that we’re all horrid wretches who need to be saved is one of the nastier aspects of religion, and is responsible for most of the oppressive behavior of religion throughout history. If humanists want to build community, they should do so on grounds of what’s good about us, not what’s bad.

  • Skepticat

    I prefer the use of non-religious language simply because using traditionally religious terms opens up more possibilities for the Religious Right to convince judges that secular humanism is a religion. Then they could try to argue that evolution and such are religious tenets and shouldn’t be taught in schools. Stupid, I know, but they’ve tried it once and they’ll try it again.

  • GullWatcher

    I was about to say what Skepticat said, but I was less concerned with judges than with the average religious person using it as ‘evidence’ that atheism is a religion. They are confused enough on this without us helping it along.

  • Garrick

    It doesn’t matter. The religious flavor will appeal to some and not to others. Who cares?

    Whatever gets you off in this world.

  • I find the idea of Humanist community really appealing, but I wouldn’t want it to become too religious-sounding because then I might as well go to a UU group. UUs are pretty cool, but I want a group of people that think similar to me, not just people who accept me no matter what I think. There’s not enough emphasis on critical thought in the local UU groups for my personal taste.

  • Using religious terminology plays right into the hands of people who label atheism a “faith” so they can muddy the issue and dismiss it.

    Thumbs way down.

  • For starters, I think there is a market for this sort of thing though it is probably small. I applaud the effort to replace one of the few benefits of religion with secular alternatives.

    How would these groups compare to a run of the mill community association or centre?
    One niche an association like this might fill is with secular weddings and funerals.

    I am opposed to using “religious” terminology since it can only add to the confusion and feed stereotypes. Why use the word “congregation” when other words would work just as well?

  • larryd

    Wait a second here… Who is co-opting whom here? Since when is ‘congregation’ a strictly religious word? Yeah, the traditional churches want to co-opt the word, but why let them?

    Even words of reverence aren’t owned by the traditional churches… you can have reverence for many things and use reverent words to express as much without being religious.

    I used to be a very militant atheist… and then I got involved with a Unitarian Universalist church and got over myself significantly. I’m no less atheist today… I’m just able to speak to a much broader audience and do so much more effectively now.

  • I agree with Garrick. Some people will like this – obviously, a lot of people won’t like it. But I strongly believe that this could fill an important role for many people. Let those who think it is a good idea see if it works.

    Why do we always have to concern ourselves with what other people think?

    Ooooh, the fundies will think I’m religious. Well, that’s too bad — I’m going to do what I want anyway. We shouldn’t let ourselves be denied by religion again – that would be too ironic and too nonsensical a fate.

  • Sorry to tell you guys, but the courts already declared Secular Humanism a religion:
    Wikipedia link

    Of course, there is a pretty big difference between atheism and Secular Humanism but you can’t convince the fundies of that. That’s beside the point since you can’t convince them of anything in the first place. 😉

  • Oh yeah, the other part of the topic. I have no problem with using religious language. Then again, I’m weird. I’m officially ordained by the Universal Life Church and call myself a Discordian Pope. (You can be one too. Ask me how!!!) I love subverting their language and using it against them.

  • Tom

    I am sick and tired of these cynical atheists cowering behind some kind of preservation of how their image is perceived by our enemies. Have you been intimidated by their power? Look at yourselves, cowards. If you really want to address this ask, is everything connoted by the word “religion” is wrong?

  • Tom: if you want to confuse people about what atheism is, and weaken its chances of being understood and accepted, then by all means go ahead and use confusing and misleading terminology. In fact, why stop at the word “congregation”? Why not go out there and start calling it the Church of Atheism? It’s pretty much the same idea.

    With friends like these…

  • fw

    I am in agreement with dwasifar. To me the problem with atheists using religious language is that doing so seems a sort of implicit admission that religion actually has something that we’re missing and actually has something going for it that we need. Well, if that were the case we would be religious then, wouldn’t we?

    If you truly wish to leave religion behind as the useless at best. and destructive at worst, thing that it is, then LEAVE it behind. All of it. Language too.

  • Cafeeine

    The point has been raised that using terminology strengthens the position of those who wish to brush off atheism / secular humanism as “just another religion” and dismiss it.

    I disagree. By voluntarily cutting ourselves off by certain words, we are essentially conceding those words, and the positive connotations they have to the religious. There are perfectly secular uses for words like ‘congregation’, ‘faith’, ‘conviction’, ‘atonement’, ‘observant’ etc. Part of this mind game played by religions is the attempt to co-opt “morality” as a solely religious word, which has been from my perspective somewhat successfully countered. When atheists say “I don’t have morals, I have ethics” they are falling exactly into that trap.

    I suppose that being in a place where religion is ubiquitous may drive some atheists to reject even the more distant associations with religions, but doing so as a rule just reinforces a dichotomy in things where there is none. The issue is the dogma and the superstition, not the sense of community, friendship and fellowship.

    It’s the same argument they have against atheists who enjoy religious music. “How can you enjoy Byzantine hymns if you’re an atheist?”

    There may be a good argument in avoiding religious language when actually discussing and debating theists because they will misunderstand and read their own presuppositions into the words, but then again, isn’t that how we do consciousness raising?

  • Renacier


    Since when is ‘congregation’ a strictly religious word? Yeah, the traditional churches want to co-opt the word, but why let them?

    Because it already has a meaning and a connotation which is decidedly religious. The effort we would have to put into “taking back” religious language would have to be both massive and highly coordinated. Not likely given our small numbers and inherent disorganization.

    Most non-theist organization that I’m familiar say their driving goal is education. I think that’s the right idea. Teach people what atheism is and isn’t. And throwing “churchy” language around will only confuse the issue.

  • Steve

    I also think Religious words are loaded… they have an unconscious effect on the emotional response that follows their use. 14 billion years of evolution – based on the approx age of the universe…evolving from sub-atomic particles, eh?

    Hmmm…already declared a religion – take a listen to the latest “Point of Inquiry” podcast to hear otherwise. Also – from the Wiki article – note that attempts to put Secular Humanism in a religious bucket: “The U.S. courts, however, have consistently rejected this interpretation.”

  • joanna

    Personally, I consciously avoid using religious terms. I am not a member of a congregation; I do not have rituals; I do not sing or play music within a group setting; I do not worship anything; I’m not even a member of an atheist book club.

    The term “fellowship” used in a previous comment left me wondering about this ongoing attempt to be “communal” as secular humanists and atheists. Isn’t being a “free-thinker” enough? Is it necessary to be members of a club??

    This forum and Atheist Nexus are the only atheist group settings I belong to…and they are “virtual” on-line groups. But I wouldn’t define this as a “community”… unless we consider them “fluid” sorts of groups without distinct boundaries. But I enjoy this sort of liberty…being a member of an “actual” group takes more time and commitment.

  • Tom

    dwasifar: talk about confused people, you confuse humanists and atheists. They are not the same thing! Take a look at your assumptions, there are some obvious mistakes that are preventing you from seeing the whole picture. You are right in some sense, atheism is simple. It’s someone who doesn’t believe in god. That’s not confusing. But you claim to know what atheists can ever be, and that’s where I think you are confused. I am an atheist, but I can be a humanist too. One who congregates with others in a community and listens to a chaplain.

    Those words scare critical thinkers, and triggers their bullshit radar. But your cynicism is illegitimate in this case

  • Tom: You’re dissembling.

    The common connotation of “congregation” is “an assembly of persons brought together for common religious worship.” Atheists do not do “religious worship,” so to call a group of atheists a “congregation” is misleading, and reinforces the misconception among believers that atheism is a faith (rather than the absence of faith).

    If you need a word for “group of atheists,” there are plenty that don’t have religious connotations. So why pick one that does?

  • I work for one of these atheist groups and when I am asked to describe it, I call it a “freethought community centre”. I tend to avoid religious wording, not out of some desire to rid myself of all things religious but simply because it leads to confusion and sometimes misrepresentation. And, with the common definitions in mind, I don’t think we really fit with words like “congregation”. We are not simply a congregation of people who don’t believe in god – we are a community of people with a wide variety of goals in life. We run social groups, support groups, events, discussions, speaker series, a whole bunch of stuff. We are much more closer to a community centre than a church. We are appealing to the people instead of to a specific idea and therefore get people from all walks of life. I like that. So I will keep calling it a community centre.

  • Tommy C

    Joanna: Isn’t being a “free-thinker” enough? Is it necessary to be members of a club??

    It depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to achieve free thought, being a free thinker is enough. If you want real-life interaction with like-minded people, you may want a club.

    Some people want to be in a club just to be in a club. I agree that’s kinda sad. But if you want to perform socially meaningful acts, you often need one or more people to help you. Church can be a good thing in the sense that many people come together regularly, at least partly with the intention of helping each other and helping others.

    Superstitious beliefs usually get in the way, of course. This is why it would be great if there were a weekly meeting of free-thinkers nearby. The purpose wouldn’t be talking about free thinking (I do enough of that here.) The purpose would be to act together toward positive goals–helping each other, helping others, etc., without any woo or nonsense.

  • skinman

    I find the religious terms distasteful. But its their group, not mine.

  • Tom

    Your issue of connotation is again based in cowardice/intimidation by allowing a major party to define a free piece of language. How would those trying to change the connotation of the word “gay” have gotten anywhere if they had simply conceded in the way you are? You let others define what these “religious” words mean to you because you seem to be too scared to define them yourself!

  • Tom: Is that really the best analogy you can come up with?

    Gays reclaiming “gay” from bigots who had made it a slur is not the same thing. It’s not like huge numbers people are out there calling atheists “congregations” and creating a need for us to put a positive spin on it. Maybe if we were talking about the word “heretic” or “heathen” your comparison would make sense. But nobody is calling us congregations except you and a few other similarly misguided atheists.

    I put the question to you: why not call organizations of atheists “churches” to “redefine” the word church if that is how you feel? Why not call ourselves jihadists and “redefine” that word too? If you’re starting on the business of using a word to mean what YOU want it to mean, rather than its generally accepted meaning, then why not call ourselves “hardware stores”?

    There’s no reason to “change the connotation” of “congregation.” It already has a well understood meaning, and there’s no reason to go tilting at windmills to change it. If you want a word to mean “nonreligious group,” the language already has plenty without repurposing another one.

  • Tom

    It’s probably not the best analogy I could come up with, but it works! You are mistaken about gays reclaiming “gay”: “gay” was not “lost” to the bigots, homosexuals created new meaning for it! Perhaps you didn’t know that gay never meant homosexual until homosexuals changed it.

    Humanists have it even easier then that. Words like “congregation” can already include a secular group, it’s only people’s opinion of the word that is tripping you up. People’s opinions are NOT the foundation of our language!

    I don’t plan to continue the conversation with you, you have demonstrated a pattern of not knowing basic definition and facts. Not worth my time.

    Oh, and please lay off the taunting. I fail to see why you should get defensive…

  • Aj

    The Chaplain wants to use religious terminology? Of course these words are associated with religion, and people are going to assume that it is a religion. It’s not a religion, the question is whether Humanists want to be seen as a religion to outsiders or not. Do they?

  • joanna

    How about the word “coalition”…or I have some other secular terms that might do nicely:


    See, we don’t need “congregations”….too much baggage attached.

    In response to Tommy C’s comment:

    The purpose would be to act together toward positive goals–helping each other, helping others, etc., without any woo or nonsense.

    I think that’s a perfectly fine,reasonable, rational idea.

  • Tom says: “I don’t plan to continue the conversation with you, you have demonstrated a pattern of not knowing basic definition and facts. Not worth my time.”

    Nice. “I’m going to speak my piece and then run off.” How convenient. For what it’s worth, the “basic definition” of “congregation” (that I supposedly do not know) was quoted verbatim from the Random House dictionary of the English language, where it is definition number 1.

    You still have failed to explain why, if you want to call atheist gatherings “congregations,” you do not also wish to call them “churches” (or “peppermints” or any other confusing term). Nor have you explained why we should expend the effort to “change the connotation” of this word. Does it have some special power that other words don’t? What is to be gained by using a word that is guaranteed to cause confusion? Surely, if you want people to make the effort, you should at least explain why the effort is worthwhile.

    “Oh, and please lay off the taunting.” Pot, meet Kettle. Kettle, Pot.

  • Erp

    I would say that congregation is more neutral (the phrase “Jewish Congregation” is used and does not imply Christians claiming to be Jewish) and the associated verb ‘to congregate’ is completely neutral. Church is more closely tied to one specific religion, Christianity.

    I’m not sure whether Humanist congregations (or gatherings or whatever) will take off unless there is something to tie the members together. The something can include mutual aid (e.g., members bring meals to housebound members) or aid to outsiders (e.g., run a soup kitchen or organize rebuilding trips to New Orleans). It can also include discussion groups about ethics, organizing rituals for weddings, births, and deaths.

    Early Christianity had mutual aid and a weekly ritual (which in the very beginning seems to have included a full fledged meal instead of the wafer and sip of wine it is now) as its strengths. Christianity later also adopted from the traditions it replaced (turn pagan temples into churches) which allowed people to feel comfortable; they were still going to the same place.

    Nothing says we shouldn’t take what is useful and good from religious traditions.

  • DeafAtheist

    I don’t particularly like religious wording for atheist gatherings or group meetings. Doing so perpetuates the misunderstanding that atheism is a religion or a belief when it’s not… it’s the lack of a belief. So if a Christian were to present his misconception that atheism is a religion, it would be harder to deny if he or she knew that you were a member of a Humanist “congregation” lead by a guy who labels himself a Humanist “chaplain”.

  • Sgt Skepper

    I would rather avoid the religious nomenclature. Not only does it give anti-atheists an excuse to call secular humanism “just another religion”, but it also implies that humanists are trying to fill a gap left specifically by religion whereas, in my view at least, there is no such gap to be filled.

  • James Coley

    I largely agree with the March 19th post by larryd, and I think we should make a distinction between different kinds of “religious language.”

    On the one hand, there are words that carry religious baggage in that they imply, or at least suggest, certain metaphysical, epistemological or other philosophical views that are generally part of religious belief and dogma.

    On the other hand, there are words that just happen to be used by, and commonly associated with, religions but which don’t have this philosophical baggage.

    I would put the words “God,” “faith” and “spirituality” in the first category. But I would put “congregation,” “reverence” and “sacred” in the second category.

    “Congregation” just means having members, meeting once a week for a service, and so on. (When I was president of an Ethical Culture society I used the word “service” to describe our weekly meetings, but someone asked me to stop using that word because it reminded her of her church days, and I did stop using it. But it carries no bad ideas along with it the way, for example, “faith” does.)

    I think we should stay away from the first kind of religious language, but I have no problem with the second kind.

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