If You Don’t Believe in God, Does It Make Sense to Avoid the “Atheist” Label? December 9, 2014

If You Don’t Believe in God, Does It Make Sense to Avoid the “Atheist” Label?

Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t believe in God. He’s said as much in interviews. However, he has also made a point of not using the term “atheist” to describe himself.

Tania Lombrozo at NPR wonders if that’s fair. If you fit the description, can you really ignore the label that comes with it?

Now, this is a strange response if being an atheist is strictly a matter of belief (or lack of belief, as the case may be). Consider a vegetarian making the opposite move — eschewing the label vegetarian based on her beliefs rather than on her behavior. “Sure,” she might say, “As an inviolable rule I never eat meat, but I don’t have the beliefs that one typically associates with being a vegetarian. For instance, I believe that making animals suffer is perfectly fine. I don’t eat any meat ever … but don’t label me a vegetarian.”

I would use slightly different examples: There are people who never eat meat, but don’t want to be associated with PETA, so maybe they avoid the term “vegetarian.” Or, as we know all too well, there are people who support all the goals of feminism but have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to using the term “feminist.” There are also those who eschew the term “Christian” because of all the baggage and prefer something like “Follower of Jesus.”

You just don’t want to be associated with those people. (Julia Galef suggested to Tyson on the Think Rationally podcast that there’s value in taking on the label specifically because you don’t like those typically associated with it. You can help change how people perceive the word.)

On a personal level, when it comes to atheism, I normally don’t care what you call yourself. If you don’t believe in God and promote critical thinking in general, we’re on the same side.

On a practical level, though, there’s value to these labels. It makes a statement when we can say there were 20,000 atheists at the 2012 Reason Rally. Or that 10% of voters in a particular election were atheists. It means people are more likely to take our shared concerns, whatever they are, seriously. You can’t get that if you’re only loosely tied together based on behaviors.

I’ll admit I get frustrated when polls show that nearly 20% of Americans are “Nones”… but fewer than 3% call themselves atheists. How much more of an impact could we have on policy if legislators knew they had to appease a formidable non-theistic base?

(Image via Shutterstock)

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