Chapter 5. Names and symbols.
We live in a day when there is a great war going on in the society in which we live. There are many battlefronts and aspects to the war, but the primary war in our day is between Christianity and secular humanism. Abounding Joy Christian Website
[W]ords have power to mould men’s thinking, to canalize their feeling, to direct their willing and acting. Conduct and character are largely determined by the nature of the words we currently use to discuss ourselves and the world around us. Aldous Huxley
Religionists like to use sharp-edged terms to describe atheists--terms like “secular humanists.” There is nothing inherently wrong with the term secular humanist. “Secular” simply means nonreligious and “humanism” is a philosophy that emphasizes ethics and personal responsibility for the good of humanity without the need for god. There is even a “Council for Secular Humanism,” that publishes the popular Free Inquiry magazine.
But alternatively, the term “atheist” comes with a lot of baggage. Atheists are one of the most despised minorities in America. It is little wonder that the majority of people without religion avoid the term and cluster in a majority known as “nones.” Only about 10% of nonreligious people call themselves atheists.
Because religionists have been negative about atheists for so long, atheists have sought alternative terms to describe themselves, including: brights, freethinkers, godless, heathens, heretics, humanists, infidels, irreligious, materialists, naturalists, nonbelievers, non-theists, nones, pagans, rationalists, secularists, skeptics, unbelievers and more. This chapter looks briefly at some of these terms, but I will be up front, the term I prefer and the term I believe we should gather under, is atheist.
Paul Geisert coined the term “brights” in 2002 as a positive term for people with a naturalistic world view and a commitment to fairness. “Brights” is intended to be positive and empowering in a manner similar to the adoption of the term “gay,” instead of the sharp-edged and clinical term “homosexual.”
I have two concerns about the term “brights.” The first is that “brights” are unknown except among those who have been reading about atheism or trolling the Internet for atheist information. If you go to the local shopping mall and announce that you are a “bright,” the majority will think you are conceited and only a few will perceive you to be atheist. The second concern is that it sounds elitist, as though only smart people can be atheists and that theists are dim. I remember reading an Internet discussion of whether janitors could be atheists. I was appalled. Of course there are many atheist janitors, I was an atheist janitor at one point in my life. Atheism is not dictated by education, intelligence or high-status employment. Atheists are everywhere. Taking an elitist approach will result in atheism being limited to mostly white, college-educated males. I believe we need a more broadly recognized and inclusive term.
“Freethinker” has a long and honorable history. A freethinker is one who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independently of authority, especially one who doubts or denies religious dogma. Freethought was born in Europe in the 1700’s and flourished in Germany. A number of German freethinkers immigrated to the U.S. in the 1800’s and established freethought communities here, including Comfort, Texas. The oldest continually published atheist magazine is The Freethinker, started in Britain in 1881. Putting the lie to the claim that “new atheists” are the first to challenge religion, the introductory issue said, “The Freethinker is an anti-christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against superstition in general, and against christian superstition in particular. It will do its best to employ the resources of science, scholarship, philosophy and ethics . . . [and] any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armory of common sense.”
I am fond of the term freethinker. However, “freethinker” describes a process of open-minded thought, rather than the status of rejecting religion. Further, some argue that religionists can be freethinkers and conversely, that not all atheists are freethinkers. Additionally, applying the shopping mall test, if you went to a shopping mall and declared you were a freethinker, the majority of the people might think you were open-minded, but most would not conclude that you reject religion.
“Godless” is a clear and powerful term. It is a virtual synonym for atheist. But it comes with a lot of baggage, even more baggage than “atheist.” During the cold war, “godless” was repeatedly linked with “communist,” and the “godless communists” were vilified. Additionally, “godless” is used by religionists as a synonym for “wicked or immoral.” In fact, Godless is the title of a book by arch-conservative Ann Coulter in which she argues that liberalism is a religion.
“Godless” passes the shopping mall test–the majority of the population would understand what you mean when you tell them you are godless, although it might not apply to non-theistic religions, like Buddhism. Another problem is that “godless” has the dreaded word “god” in it. Atheism has the same meaning, but the Greek origin of “atheist” softens the impact and makes it sound a little more scientific. But absent these factors, only personal preference leads me to choose “atheist” over “godless” to describe myself.
Irreligious, nonbelievers, non-theists and unbelievers.
The terms “irreligious, nonbelieiver, non-theist and unbeliever” are similar to “godless,” in that they are quick, clean and easily understood. Each passes the shopping mall test. The hyphenated words are a little bit tricky to write, and to my ears, they lack a nice ring. The biggest problem is that none of these terms has been widely adopted by atheists to describe themselves. “Atheist” has a broader history and better identification by the general public as term describing a person with no belief in religion.
Recent surveys recognize the rapid growth of the number of people with no religion and call them “nones.” The term has also gained usage in some atheist circles. Unfortunately, when spoken, “none” sounds exactly like “nun,” sometimes leaving even atheist insiders wondering why the speaker is talking about a religious woman in a funny outfit. “None” is handicapped because it requires a whole lot of additional words to get the point across. In a shopping mall, the speaker would first have to explain he is not calling himself a religious woman and then add another sentence to explain “none” refers to an absence of religious belief. A quickly understood single term is preferable to the easily misunderstood “none.”
Heathens, heretics, infidels and pagans.
Religionists use the terms “heathens, heretics, infidels and pagans” to demonize outsiders. Further, these terms do not designate a rejection of all religion, but rather rejection of a specific religion. Heathens, heretics, infidels and pagans might well follow a polytheistic religion–just not Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Also, these terms would not result in broad recognition if used to the general public in a shopping mall. These may be fun terms to get the attention of certain religionists, but they are not a multipurpose tool to describe a movement based on a lack of belief in religion.
Materialists, naturalists, rationalists and skeptics.
Multiple meanings and no immediate link to the rejection of religion are shortcomings of the labels “materialist, naturalist, rationalist and skeptic.” For example, if I announce I am a naturalist, more people would think I like visiting nudist colonies than understand that I reject religion. None of these terms conveys specifically the rejection of religion and none passes the shopping mall test.
“Secularist” refers to someone who rejects or excludes religion. It is a fairly good synonym for atheist. I have three main objections to the term. The first is that religionists really like to use it. This may be a little silly, but I do not want religionists to choose the term that describes me. The second is that “secular” is a hard, angular sounding term. Perhaps that is why religionists like using it so much–it sounds unpleasant. Or maybe religionists like it because “secular” sounds a bit like “sexual,” a term they are accustomed to using in demonizing “homosexuals,” and a term they think polite company wants to avoid. The third objection is that for a substantial portion of the population, the rejection of religion does not pop into mind when they hear the term “secular.” The average college-educated person understands, but I would guess that 50% of the people in the shopping mall would not understand that it means a rejection of religion. Atheists need a broad coalition and a name understood by the great majority of the general public.
The American Humanist Association describes humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Humanists seem like nice people and I have little disagreement with their goals. But I see two problems with humanism. First, humanism does not exclude religion. There are a number of humanists who are also religionists. Second, humanists seem to be working awfully hard to prove that they can be good without god (see Chapter 7). I do not disagree with humanism, but it adds an unneeded factor, like saying you must be liberal to be atheist. I am both, but the categories are not necessarily intertwined, there are plenty of right-wing conservatives who are also atheists. There is no need to add an extra requirement to our common bond–the absence of religious belief. Humanists say you must be both ethical and not supernatural. I am both, but once again, the categories do not need to be intertwined. Ethical conduct and morality appear to be as important an element of the humanist agenda as the rejection of supernaturalism. To me, humanism is “atheism plus,” atheism plus ethics structured in response to a challenge from religionists. In fact, humanism was originally called a new religion and retains some of the structure of religion. Most humanists may be atheists, but humanism is more than atheism.
“Atheist” is the term I support. First, it is the most common term to describe a person with no belief in religion. When you say, “I am an atheist” in the shopping mall, almost everyone knows what you are talking about. Second, it is a term that has been around for hundreds of years, so it has a lot of history behind it. Third, using the term honors the proud atheists who came before us, people who accepted the label “atheist” and worked hard to educate a mostly hostile population about the merits of atheism. Fourth, the term “atheist” does not intertwine itself with other issues like ethics. And finally, fifth, atheism does not imitate or duplicate religion, it is the absence of religious belief and nothing more. However, the first reason is the strongest reason, “atheist” is the most widely recognized term to describe a lack of belief in religion.
In a rare study of the terms organizational atheists choose to describe themselves, Luke Galen found that when they were allowed to choose multiple terms to describe themselves, 77% included the term atheist, 63% humanist and 29% agnostic. However, when only allowed one term to describe themselves, 57% choose atheist, 24% humanist and 10% agnostic. Galen additionally found that the term atheist is used more commonly by younger people. So there is support that atheist is the preferred term among the godless, and is becoming increasingly preferred among our younger members who represent the future.
It is true that the term “atheist” was originally used as an insult (people were accused of being atheists, they never labeled themselves as such). But instead of minting a new term like “brights,” we can take an already recognized one and make it positive, much like “homosexuals” did with the term “gay.” It is also true that “atheist” is negative–it defines a person by what he is not (more about this in Chapter 6). But I find it the best term to describe myself. It does not carry the additional burdens of fairness or ethics desired by the humanists and brights. It is quickly understood by the general population to describe a person with no belief in religion, and it is a term that has stood the test of time. For these reasons, I prefer to be called an atheist. So to adopt a marching chant of others seeking equality, “Say it loud, atheist and proud.”
Atheists have little in common other than their lack of belief in religion. Additionally, atheism, as a mass movement, is a relatively recent phenomenon. As such, there are few national organizations with broad membership. The American Humanist Association, which claims to be America’s largest and oldest, has 15,000 members. The Freedom From Religion Foundation which claims to be America’s largest atheist organization, has around 14,000 members. American Atheists, one of the oldest national atheist groups still operating in the U.S. has about 3,000 members. The Secular Coalition for America has attempted to become an atheist umbrella group, but as of this writing, it has just ten member groups. The Atheist Alliance International serves a similar purpose with an international scope and has about 56 member groups. The Secular Student Alliance is doing better than its elders with about 186 U.S. member groups.
Atheists have not yet developed a strong national voice. Atheist organizations look pitiful when compared to religionists. For example the National Association of Evangelicals claims a membership of 30 million people. Although there are national atheist organizations, no single organization has succeeded in uniting the atheists’ voices. At this point in time atheists remain a relatively powerless and generally despised minority.