A hotly-debated topic in the worldwide community of purposeful unbelievers is whether or not "atheist" is the right title to use when representing ourselves to the public. As I've written before, the word strictly applies to only one position of belief: do Gods exist? Because of this, great diversity can exist in the atheist community. An atheist can be a conservative or a liberal. She can be a skeptic or a believer in pseudoscience. She can accept Anthropogenic Global Warming or deny it. She can accept the theory of evolution or reject it. She can believe that we are practically alone in the universe or that aliens have visited us and are sending us a message through a man who calls himself Rael. She can support democracy or believe that Chairman Mao was the greatest leader who ever lived.
Of course, diversity of views can be a very positive aspect of the community, but should there be limits to that diversity? What about when people who are atheists commit atrocities, and religious people cite those as examples as to where "atheism gets you." How about atheists who peddle pseudoscience, or run cults? Sure, we could simply say that they're not doing those things "in the name of atheism," but the problem of guilt-by-association still comes up often. Granted, it is correct to point out that atheism was not the major motivating factor for Stalin or Mao, but we still have the problem that "atheist" is a very broad-reaching label, and lately I've noticed that we in the "neo-atheist" community have been trying to use it more narrowly.
But there's a contradiction that we need to deal with, and a question we have to answer: Should atheism be a broad-reaching category for everyone who doesn't believe in a God, or should it be synonymous with skepticism? We use it both ways, but in a recent debate Richard Dawkins equated atheism to having a purely scientific world-view. So does this mean that Buddhists, Raelians, Scientologists, and the population of North Korea are suddenly no longer atheists because they don't tow the rationality line? If so, what should we call them?
What's interesting is that while us nonbelievers often call ourselves atheists, it is quite uncommon for those on the other side of the issue to refer to themselves as theists. 'Theist' says precious little about one's position on what God wants, only that he or she believes that one exists and has intervened (or intervenes) in human affairs. Most often, a theist will describe him or herself as being in a much more specific category: a religious denomination such as Catholic, Muslim, or Hindu. Those labels, while definitely not all-encompassing, nevertheless give us a pretty good idea about what kind of general perspective on life that person holds.
If I meet a Catholic I know that it's likely he does not support abortion or birth control, goes to church on Sunday, and believes that he eats the flesh and drinks the blood of his God when he's there. I could be wrong about some of those things, but in a general sense, Catholic is a useful shorthand for a conversation as opposed to spending the entire night explaining the intricacies of church dogma and history. Instead of saying, "well I believe a man called Jesus Christ was the messiah and the catechism of Saint blah blah blah," he says "I'm catholic," and we can move on.
Knowing that, the same could be said about atheism. All atheism technically means is that the person does not believe Gods exist. It says nothing about his or her moral sensibilities or attitudes. However, in the western world at least there has been a colloquial equivocation between atheism and the skeptic and humanist philosophies. Regardless of what the dictionary says, the message the word carries to most is one of a predominately scientific or materialist world-view; someone who doesn't believe in things there are no evidence for. Unfortunately, the other terms some of us have invented--while they may convey a more accurate definition--just don't carry the same sense of immediate recognition that 'atheist' does. If I were to tell someone I was a 'bright' or a 'pearlist,' they'd probably give me a blank look and ask me what that means. Since the purpose of labels and categories is to do away with the ensuing marathon of explanation, using a label that no one understands is pointless.
Labels like 'rationalist' or 'skeptic' are problematic because the definitions of those words in practical use are too subjective. No one thinks they're an irrational person, so when you tell them you're a 'rationalist' there's the risk of them thinking "wow he believes flying saucers visit earth to mutilate farm animals just like we do!" Likewise, everybody thinks they're a skeptic. Not everybody is right, of course, but an atheist could still give the wrong impression by using that label.
It's true that the 'atheist' label is not without its problems, but it is the best one we have to work with. It has traction, and people recognize it. Nine times out of ten they know it implies skepticism and rationality in the their true sense. It may not have the bleeding-edge literary precision I'd like personally, but dealing with the occasional Stalin accusation isn't enough of an inconvenience for us to change the whole game now. 'Atheist' does the job, not perfectly, but it accomplishes what we need it to accomplish better than anything else we've come up with so far.