January 20, 2015

What's the Problem with the Atheist Label?
Why would a nonbeliever reject the label "atheist"?

Notable nonbelievers have often eschewed the label of atheist.

Carl Sagan, for instance, did not call himself an atheist. Notably, Neil deGrasse Tyson—who of course helped slay Pluto, and so clearly has no love of gods—has refused to identify as an atheist, although he’s indicated multiple times that he does not believe in deities or the supernatural.

What’s up with that? Why? Is it harmful to the movement?

Hermant Mehata at the Friendly Atheist once said this:

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?

For me, I choose to don the label of atheist for a very particular reason: to me, it is the ultimate rejection of my former self, a self that I don’t agree with. That self repressed her thoughts and feelings. She was judgmental. She rejected evidence and reason in favor of a blinded faith. She believed she knew the only absolute truth.

Thus, the label for me is important. It’s an aspect of my identity and I wear it with honor.


But let’s be real—the label can be fraught with connotations. Many people resist it for that reason. They don’t want to be seen as hating religious belief. They don’t want to be seen as angry.

On the one hand, this is the very reason that it’s so important for us to be willing to openly wear that label. But on the other hand—it’s a very valid reason for us to understand those that don’t want to wear the label.

And is the label really more important than the message? When we look at Dr. Tyson, is the label more important than the actual beliefs he espouses and communicates so well?

I am reminded of a passage from Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History:

I think politics drives a lot of clinging to the three terms, but I also think it is easier to force yourself to be clear if you avoid using believer, agnostic and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what’s out there. (485)

When I am espousing my own beliefs, I try to keep this thought in mind. While I accept the label, that label is never more important than my own beliefs or my own thoughts or my own conduct. That label is important—but it’s not the most important aspect of the conversation.

This brings to mind my past life as a Christian. Yes, I identified broadly as a Christian, but I also had to get more specific.

I was an evangelical.
I was a Baptist.
I was a fundamentalist.
I was an independent.

I had to truly reflect on and consider what I believed. It was this process, in part, that led to my rejection of Christianity in the end.

It’s part of the process that I continue today, as I reflect on my new set of beliefs.

I can choose to be identified by a label—but more importantly, I must choose to articulate myself clearly on my beliefs. This is partly because we are, by the essence of nonbelief and the priority our culture places on belief, at something of a disadvantage. We are defined by a negative, and this is why focusing on what we do believe is so much more important than that label itself.

I was recently reading some thoughts that Carl Van Doren displayed in “Why I Am an Unbeliever”, and he articulated that uphill struggle quite well, I think:

The very terms that I am forced to use put me at the outset in a trying position. Belief, being first in the field naturally took a positive term for itself and gave a negative term to unbelief. As an unbeliever, I am therefore obliged to seem merely to dissent from the believers no matter how much more I may do. Actually I do more. What they call unbelief, I call belief. Doubtless I was born to it, but I have tested it with reading and speculation, and I hold it firmly. What I Have referred to as the gift of faith I do not, to be exact, regard as a gift. I regard it rather, as a survival from an earlier stage of thinking and feeling: in short, as a form of superstition. It, and not the thing I am forced to name unbelief, seems to me negative. It denies the reason. It denies the evidences in the case, in the sense that it insists up on introducing elements that come not from the facts as shown but from the imaginations and wishes of mortals. Unbelief does not deny the reason and it sticks as closely as it can to the evidences.

This passage not only points out the struggle that is being defined in opposition to something else, but also the importance of focusing on our own belief versus on a label.


And that, my friends, is why Neil has every right to accept or reject the label of atheist. Because he does more for furthering our way of thinking than simply accepting a label ever could—and in my honest opinion, it will be changing the way that people think that will change politics in the end, irreparably and for the better.

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