Why It’s Okay To Call Ourselves Atheists (And Why We Should)

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.

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Comment by Brian on January 2, 2010 at 10:20am
Matt A,

That makes sense, but again you run into the problem that nobody outside of a very small community knows what a pearlist is.
Comment by Matt A on December 30, 2009 at 10:41am
I think it is dumb to name yourself after what you *don't* believe in. I like thunderf00t's term "Pearlist" way better. P.E.A.R.L= Physical Evidence And Reasoned Logic.
Comment by Objection on December 30, 2009 at 5:30am
I see 'atheist' to be as empty as 'a-fairyist' or 'a-alchemist' (well, it Should be). But, in the context of my country, America, and of this particular era, I agree with what you said regarding the term 'atheist'. I'm pretty proud to call myself atheist, actually. I would probably be a little more 'brave' if I was living in the bible belt, but I live in progressive Seattle, so I don't really feel the 'burning passion of the christ' being imposed on me.

'Secularist': It's all-encompassing, and until America becomes de-sensitized to godlessness, it's a nice, "safe" alternative. But... labelling yourself an atheist doesn't quite help de-sensitize people; it's pretty much antithetical to the Atheist Out campaign and its goals. =/
Maybe you could add "secular humanist" if you don't want to be perceived as "without morals".

'Atheist' is not the most offensive word. I like to call myself an anti-theist sometimes, so..... yeah :)
Comment by Brian on December 29, 2009 at 9:54pm
Lorien, look up the definition of atheism. Its root word is theism, with an a- prefix. The a- prefix means "without." Atheism literally means "without theism" or "without a belief in God or Gods." This covers anyone without belief in a God. Buddhists do not believe in a God, they are therefore atheists. Neither do raelians, neither do North Koreans, neither do Scientologists. Therefore, by definition, they are all atheists. How are they not? They are all "without theism," aren't they? Theism deals ONLY with the question of the existence and nature of "God," not other supernatural ideas. Therefore, Atheism ONLY deals with the same question, it encompasses not only the opposite answer as theism, but no answer at all. Agnostics are atheists, too.

I do, however, support using the term atheist to describe those of us who have accepted the philosophies of HUMANISM and SKEPTICISM because the colloquial meaning has been attached in our culture. It is usually implied. However, in formal conversation, where precision is important, 'atheist' can be inadequate and misleading.

Just like a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle not a square, a true skeptic is an atheist who doesn't believe in the supernatural, but not all atheists are skeptics. That's why we have the word skeptic. Again in polite conversation, saying "I'm an atheist" implies that you accept evolution, science, etc., but that's only because of cultural propagation. It doesn't change the definition of the word.
Comment by Lorien on December 29, 2009 at 5:52pm
Brian, I just read your page so I may have been a little hard in my response to you. Welcome to A|N and your escape from JWs. Science has a lot of information to digest to understand the workings of the real universe and it takes time to learn about it. I am an atheist through education in science and not that of discovering the BS of religion. Welcome to reality where there are no ghosts, ESP, gawds, voodoo, spirits, fortune tellers, psychic healers, dowsers, etc...

There are probably no alien landings as well - very highly improbable but not impossible. I have high confidence that there is other life in the universe - probably very common but they would have to be very evolved technologically to get here over those vast distances and to find us. The probability of that type of life is much lower and that lifeform will be significantly different than any life on this planet.
Comment by Lorien on December 29, 2009 at 4:58pm
Brian, you have some learning to do still if you think an atheist does not think that evolution is true or if you think they accept pseudoscience. "Buddhists, Raelians, Scientologists, and the population of North Korea are suddenly no longer atheists" - I would say that statement is correct in that they are not atheists.

I just watched a set of 6 videos called "Godless in America" which documented the story of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and she was very blunt on atheism!

1st of 6 videos.

Audio recordings http://holysmoke.org/audio/mmo.htm

I just really learned of her recently and she is a hero in my eyes.

I am an Atheist and proud of it! I am a militant atheist and support Richard Dawkin's views.
Comment by Sonny Mobley on December 29, 2009 at 2:40pm
Yeah, I think it's a good term because it actually allows for some sort of unity among us. Atheist's are far too varied to be cohesive under any other label. As varied as we all are at least we know we all start at the some point of non-belief.

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