Being an atheist doesn't mean you worship "satan" or kill babies. So why does the word that merely means a lack in belief in an, in my opinion absurd, God make people cringe as it does? 

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Religions pose and then answer questions related to most fundamental aspects of people's existence and meaning, the big questions. In traditional religious communities there is a shared understanding and acceptance of these answers, and for Christians, it's obviously J & G. By rejecting those beliefs, we threaten the group as a whole and the individuals at this most fundamental level. For these believers their reactions to us are going to be very emotional to say the least.

Fortunately, in Australia, we rarely come across such an extremes. Most are indifferent to religious beliefs or polite enough to keep religious talk out of everyday conversation. I find, when these issues arise, that many "ordinary" people still see atheists as dogmatic and automatically anti-religious.

I had to explain to a religious friend that he was equating atheism with some sort of dogmatic fundamentalism. I went on to explain that many non-believers lead ordinary lives and rationally argue against things like unreasonable church intrusion in society without taking up arms or screaming and yelling.

Ultimately, however, I'm not sure "atheist" and "atheism" are redeemable as terms, especially in the US. The built-in antithetical nature of the words with, at least on paper, the majority belief positions may be too much for these words.

Alex
That is a great idea Phil! ;-)
Among the other things which have been discussed here regarding the negative connotation associated with atheism, I think there is one more which hasn’t yet been mentioned. One of the terms we like to use in lieu of “atheist” is “free-thinker.” Consider the implications of that term. Not only do we disavow belief in any deity, we also disavow the propaganda promulgated by said deity. We are not under the influence of priest, pastor, rabbi or imam. We don’t subscribe to their dictated morals or even to any portion of their holy books. We reject their pat answers as simplistic and incomplete. Indeed, we prefer to get our own answers.

The magic word here, in my humble opinion, is “control.” We are not in the thrall of someone pretending to either speak for a deity or correctly interpret his/her/its holy writ. To use one of Guy Fieri’s favorite terms, we’re “off the hook” … which must confound those who are so used to being ON that hook … and disconcert the crap out of those who may presume to exercise that control with their sermons and homilies. We’re rogues, revolutionaries, and iconoclasts to that mindset, and what we’re about borders on inconceivable to them. Further, some of their number may, in some corner of their minds, begin to recognize that there may truly be something to what we espouse, that they’ve been fooled most or all their lives by the truth-speak peddled by the charlatans in robes, starting the cognitive dissonance between dictate and reality inside them.

That doesn’t just make us oddballs or eccentric in their eyes. It makes us a threat to them, to the artificial belief and authority which is the entire structure of what makes their religions work. That we are and that we do not believe as they do threatens to pull a comforting reality down around their ankles, and that scares the whee out of them.

We’re DANGEROUS … and they don’t like it.
That doesn’t just make us oddballs or eccentric in their eyes. It makes us a threat to them, to the artificial belief and authority which is the entire structure of what makes their religions work.

They are indeed frightened by us, which makes me think that they themselves do realise just how fragile their beliefs are, and that if they begin to question anything that their religion has branded into their brains it would all crumble to nothing. Which is why it can be very difficult to find a believer to have a rational and logic discussion on religion as they simply dismiss what you say as a defense mechanism so as not to get any rational thought on them. They seem to treat it like the plague!
Almost, but not quite. We're penicillin ... and they are one scared bacillus!
Yes, that is a much better analogy!
"Free-thinker" was a popular term in the 19th century amongst atheists and I see no reason why it shouldn't be re-activated. It captures the Enlightenment ideals of thinking and investigation without fear or prejudice. For the British friends amongst us Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), atheist, Member of Parliament, and social reformer was a classic free-thinker. Alex
Actually, thinking about the term "free-thinker" got me wondering about other older beliefs that may be offered as better alternatives to Christianity et al.

Many are reluctant to sign-up to atheism even though they reject the teachings of the various churches. They often see atheism as a too strong commitment to nothing beyond the physical world. They want to believe in something beyond the physical, the Other (à la William James) and then describe themselves as spiritual. Of course, in practical terms, they are atheists. Perhaps deism or pantheism (but not panentheism as that gives too much away) are okay to suggest. Both appear pretty benign as religious beliefs go. We can separately have an ontological argument over a nice bottle of wine.

So the non-atheist church-rejectors (sorry about the wording) could exercise their spiritual myth-making while still concentrating on the important things - stopping unreasonable societal interferences by churches. It may enable these guys to legitimately keep religion in its place.

Alex
I completly agree that control is the fundamental issue behind their fear of anyone asserting her atheism. Their fundammental premise is that there is simply no rational way to deny a god---Intelligent Design and all that. When they see self-professed atheists doing quite well with life----and, as someone above noted, seeing us live well ordered, moral lives without having to rely on a grandfather in the sky, it disproves their premises. If they do not exercise control over us, they fear that our way will eventually lead people to live their own lives based on the existential principles so many of us have developed in lieu of the received wisdom they base their lives on. They are "good" out of fear. We try to be good humans because we have observed and learned from the human condition that societies would prosper if its citizens work for the common good.
I think those who said we are perceived as a theat to believers have it right.
We are more feared and despised than believers of alternative religions.
For some reasons, theists are not bothered by those who believe in different gods - only those who believe in no gods. Doesn't make sense to me. I have a good friend who is christian (I refuse to capitalize it) and I asked him if he probably wouldn't believe in islam if he grew up in Pakistan.
He said he guessed he probably would. So I said that means you only believe in Christianity because you were brought up that way and told to. He said no (!). So I asked what criteria he used to objectively determine that his religion was the right one. No real answer there, except the 'personal communication with god' angle.

Unfortunately, the religious tend to amplify the negativity associated with non-belief by subliminally propagating the inference that 'you can't be a good person' without belief in a god.
Non-believers are left with 'no moral compass' in their eyes.
So there is a deep level of mistrust.
Others have told me 'you have to believe in something' (OK -the scientific method) and 'even atheism is a belief system' (Huh???). So the negative connotation is culturally propagated by a broadly held assumption that 'some belief' is necessary and good, but 'no belief' can only be bad.
i hope that theist that mite be reading in this site, will start reading what we think, we are not the bad guys, i say they can read but no posting

the sport of religion is to defeat there opponents and convert, witch is every one out side of there faith, i am a atheist and im not in there game but they think we are. they want to take over this country and get rid of me and all of us atheist and other religions, dont care what they believe in, all i say to them go to where you rise to the sky, to your after life and let us fix what was broken and live a happy life, and i will stay on this beautiful planet and discover the wonders of it, while all of you theist are under command and lock step of your _od. i only i feel sorry for you all becaues you beleive this supernatral crap.
I understand why some people want to believe in a god. Life is incredibly hard and it is frightening as hell---so to speak. They are so incredibly frightened by the notion that we really are alone in the universe and that life has no meaning beyoind what we give it that they have to believe in something "higher" and "better." They revel in telling us that we "have to believe in god" or an old stand by, "there are no atheists in foxholes." When we demonstrate to them that we can live without those millenia old myths and that we can face life just as easily as they do, it scares them to death. They want to define us out of existence. Our existence proves they are wrong in their notions that belief is essential. Atheist is a negative word to them because it negates their entire world paradigm. I am sorry as hell that they are so scared. I am too, sometimes. That's life.

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