What’s in a Name? Atheism and the Stigma of Labels

Posted by on July 5, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 8 comments



“It is worth noting that no one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, atheism is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma.” – Sam Harris, An Atheist Manifesto, 2005

The above paragraph comes from one of the best manifestos surrounding the topic of belief and disbelief that I have read, Sam Harris’ “An Atheist Manifesto” which he wrote as an attempt to dispel the notions and misinformation that commonly surrounds the term atheist. In it, Harris not only tells by example why religious dogma is bad for societies and individuals, but also touches on how the term itself is a labeling of a state of absence, not a labeling of a core belief system or doctrine.

In 2007 Harris gave a talk titled “The Dangers Of Atheism“, he outlines some of the many negative associations that come with the label of atheism, and why he believes the label is a “missing of the point” of why so many of us have chosen to affiliate ourselves with a disparate group of non-believers. Sure, the question of  whether a god exists or not is an important one precisely within that exact conversation, but arguing about the non-existence of god or gods is only one of the many hurdles we face as a society, and so ethereal a question as to become nigh on useless for human progress. Harris points out that, whether a god exists or not is not what we should fight over, because by the very label of “atheist” our position on this single topic has already been laid upon the table; “Atheism” means simply a lack of a belief in god or gods, nothing more.

I also find the label somewhat troubling myself at times. By labeling ourselves as atheists, all of us under one banner, yet all of us coming from our disparate and varied backgrounds, we become a target, a group, a “them”, under which banner we can be despised, reviled and misrepresented. It makes us easier to pin down, the unbelievers, the heathens and the damned, if we are all thrown together in one pot to be hated all at once. But this comes with the territory of appealing to the like-minded. In short, we have been brought together by the gravitational pull of similarity of minds, but on only one subject, and are therefore targeted by those who claim the opposite.

As opposed to groups who claim to know that god exists, we as unbelievers have no structure from which to build a movement or grouping. These believers have a very deep and rich history built around their reverence for their purported god or gods, whereas given the often very personal nature of disbelief, we find ourselves as individuals within the throngs of the faithful. We only come together under the banner of “atheism” because there is strength in numbers, and because it feels better to know that you’re not alone in your disbelief.

For many, the leaving behind of faith means putting everything on the line; Individuals who come to the conclusion of atheism, yet live within a tight-knit community of believers may feel like an outcast, thrown to the whims of the wind, putting at risk their relationships with family and communities, and in extreme cases even risking death. This can leave a massive hole in these people’s lives, because where once they had the safety and comfort of a religious community, they now find themselves alone, isolated and without any means of societal support. It seems only natural to seek out some source of solace and belonging, because we are after all social beings, and the entirety of human history has depended upon the way we interact with others. Some have even gone so far as to create “atheist churches”, where all the trappings of the religions they have left behind are played out once a week in a communal celebration of being alive, except for one thing; God is not there.

People like Alain de Botton have tried to formalise disbelief by borrowing from the traditions of theism and theistic ritualisation of reverence to an all powerful creator being, but have failed, and will continue to fail, precisely because of our disparate nature. (While I understand what de Botton is trying to do here, creating a formalised “coming-together” of humanity without the need for the polarising effects of religion, he misses the mark, because what he is trying to do resembles so closely a religion that many who have struggled for years to leave religion will find it either insulting, or see it as a huge step backwards.)

Yet we remain as individuals, with as many personal histories as there are people, only tied together by a mutual disbelief in the superstitions of religious claims.

For people such as myself, the coming to an activist stance on religion, and freedom from religion, is a social justice issue; We see around us the affects of religious doctrine and teachings, and when combined with cultures, as it must inevitably do, the good of the people at large is so tied up in dogma that many are discriminated against, ostracised and cast out. Simple issues, like the right to be safe in our own homes, the right to walk alone safely at night, or the right to our own reproductive freedoms, can and will be vetoed by passages from one or another holy book, and while these may just be beliefs, these exact beliefs are the ones that some see as the core of their humanity, the sanctity of their family, and the very fabric of their society. In particular, women have borne the brunt of religious persecution, which is no wonder since all of the holy books have been written by men, with implicit or explicit wishes to control.

So the task of appearing as a unified force against the evils of the world is thwarted by our own individualities. I personally am a non-believer, not because I was indoctrinated at a young age and am finding my own feet without the church, but because I was raised in such a fashion that questioning information presented to me was healthy and worthwhile. Many others have broken free of the shackles of religion, and rail against religion because of their early indoctrination, and the insidious practices that occur within these religions.

Some have conflated their atheism and skepticism to be intrinsically tied to other social justice issues such as female equality, reproductive rights, animal cruelty etc., and I can see why this is the case. I have nothing against using a lack of belief in god as a platform from which to attack other issues, if and only if the issues are seen as exclusive unto themselves. In fact, a standpoint such as atheism could be a common ground to draw people together who wish to address the more important issues, just as an interest in rock-climbing might draw together people who are also interested in conservation. They are separate issues, but compatible to some degree. Personally, as I stated above, freedom from religion should be the number one topic on all feminist agendas, because freedom from religion means standing up for the rights of women.

But it’s not “atheism”.

But the bottom-line here is not really about “atheism” as such. All atheists can agree about one thing, and that is a lack of belief in god or gods. Everything else is up for grabs, and there are so many more important issues facing us that we could be spending our time focusing on. We waste precious time arguing with theists about the existence or lack of existence of god, yet when it comes down to it, this is the least important of all questions as it makes no difference to the world either way. The world is as it is with, or without, a god.

We should be concerned with convincing people of the efficacy of climate change, and the potential harm that denialism has within this realm. We should be concerned about population, and just how we are to feed the potential 9 billion people this planet may soon be home to. We should be aspiring to colonise the galaxy, not gazing at our navels and asking what the ramifications of the potential existence of a creator  are. These are real and urgent topics we have the power to address, and none of these topics have anything to do with the existence of god. I am not the first to recognise this.

The only power the label “atheism” gives is the power of unity. “Atheism” has helped people see that the world is not inhabited solely  by flocks of the religious, and should therefore be treated in such a way as to account for this. “Atheism” has shown that the inequalities and injustices served up in the name of a non-existent deity figure are not acceptable in a world where our diversity and the complexity of humanity should be celebrated. And most importantly, when viewed in the context of all I’ve presented above, “atheism”, means we should set aside the god-topic when there are much more pressing matters we need to address.

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  1. The New Mexico Humanist Society has been discussing precisely this via email recently. May I have permission to have this printed in our monthly newsletter?

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    • Matthew C Bryant Absolutely, just link to my blog in the newsletter.

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  2. I don’t like labels. I particularly don’t like the label ‘atheist’, because it tells people what I don’t believe, not what I do. World Pantheist fits better, but who the hell has heard of that? nonetheless, I think we are stuck with it. Attempts by Dawkins and others to relabel the movement ‘Brights’ or somesuch have failed, and there is an arrogance to that word which only feeds the theist idea that we are smug know-it-alls.
    Harris is right – roll on the day when ‘a-theist’ is as unnecessary as ‘a-unicornist’ or ‘a-fairyist’.

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  3. I generally dislike labels, but the two I most proudly wear are atheist and feminist. Both maligned, both often misunderstood, both bring attack. But that’s why I think it’s important, in this exact moment in time, to use these labels and make an attempt at community, even if just to show that Good Without God is more than a catchphrase (re: atheism, of course. Plenty of feminists are believers lol). I talk to a lot of people stuck in the religion closet and it is so important that they have ways to find others without belief. That’s really hard to accomplish without a label!
    Labels are tools, it’s how we use them that matters. I’m done with letting theists decide what atheist means. If we shrink from that label due to what other people think we have lost far more than one word.
    But I’m with you on how we should be past this and focusing on more important issues, the ones that affect the lives of millions.

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  4. Great article Marin. I agree with all but one point:
     “We waste precious time arguing with theists about the existence or lack of existence of god, yet when it comes down to it, this is the least important of all questions as it makes no difference to the world either way. The world is as it is with, or without, a god.”
    It is this belief alone that prevents so many people from focusing on the important points that you made (climate change, feeding 9 billion + mouths etc), I agree that as atheists we can broaden our horizons to en-corporate these sentiments to our daily struggle. But lets not dilute our message too much until the the tide has begun to turn towards rational thought.

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  5. Quoting the Sam Harris statement Martin placed at the beginning — “It is worth noting that no one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines.Likewise, atheism is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma.” – 
    With all due respect to Sam Harris, I find this an absolutely ridiculous, rather naive and simplistic statement. Astrology and Alchemy are pseudo-disciplines, made-up disciplines based on belief systems – but disciplines nonetheless. Therefore, there is ordinarily no need to separately identify oneself as a non-practitioner of the said discipline… that is, UNLESS, one finds oneself in a situation where one is propelled to interact with astrologers and alchemists.
    Consider this, if someone like Prof. Edzard Ernst wishes to attend, for example, a homeopathy or a chiropractic conference to check out what latest kind of bullshit they are peddling, he may well wish to identify himself as a non-homeopath or non-chiropractor, so that the other attendees know a priori where he is coming from. 
    Like homeopathy at a homeopath conference, religion is pervasive in our lives, culture, customs and traditions, and the society around us. Therefore, many of us find it important, perhaps even necessary, to wear the label of ‘Atheist’, so that certain things become immediately clear to others who interact with us. Of these things, some of what I consider the most important – as a matter of statement – are:
    (a) We are by and large responsible for our own actions (I’m not getting into a Free Will discussion here); this means, WE are the ones who take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. We don’t look up to an/any invisible, absent/nonexistent, inchoate deity/luck/superstitions to justify our actions, or attribute the consequences to. 
    (b) Many of us are ethical, moral human beings, with our morality and ethics rooted in rationality and humanity. We claim no special privilege for our humanity, nor do we consider our morality as a hand-me-down from some authoritarian deity or written in stone by some dude or dudes who thought it ‘wise’ to codify their superstitions and weird prejudices in form of a book. This is why, for many of us atheists, the concept of social justice and equitable practices seems altogether reasonable and natural. 
    (c) As a corollary to (b), absent the burden of religious dogma that essentially drives many to discriminate against many others, many of us atheists find it relatively easier to look at humanity in its diversity as a whole, without any undue Othering of any group. We don’t subscribe to any ‘divine’ injunction to look upon women, or people of different sexual orientations or ethnicities, as inherently inferior. We don’t succumb to any sanctimonious urges to “convert” people with beliefs into non-believers. This is why, in the interest of a common cause for social justice and equality, many of us don’t have any problem in working with believers to achieve a noble goal.
    (d) However, that said, we do recognize that religious belief is hardly something that believers like to keep to themselves. And because religion is inherently divisive, the messages engendered from that belief system are by and large harmful to a lot many people. That’s why we, as atheists, need to counter those messages by communicating the concepts of reason, evidence, and harm of religion, and encouraging people to think for themselves. 
    Labels can be useful tools, and that’s why I don’t shrink from the “atheist” label. As Martin has pointed out, it can be a useful rallying point. But I’d treat this like a platform, so create a more meaningful discussion around the important issues of social justice. This is also why I find the concept of ‘atheist churches’ rather despiriting and pointless, because it tends to sequester the universality of the message of atheism to a select few – much along the lines of what theists do.

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  6. Great post, after reading the comments though, I find a few things striking like the idea of hating labels. I think when people reject the label atheist, or when atheists themselves try to reject the label, they do atheism / secularism / humanism a great disservice.
    Atheists should wear the title with pride and not be ashamed. If we continue to cower in shame of the social stigma of the label, then societies view will never change. It is up to us to change how society sees the label.
    I wear the red A on my jacket. I have been told is no different than wearing a cross, and maybe its not, but when I help someone carry their groceries to their car, help someone w/ their trash, and then they ask what the pin is and I tell them, they now see a good kind person who doesnt believe in god. Some people say okay, some people ask questions. I have yet to be told off.
    I have a sticker on my car, GOOD WITHOUT A GOD. It gets me flipped off and honked at. I never even look at them. The irony seems lost on them.
    What we do need to do however, is be careful how the word atheist is applied, and correct misuse. “You’re an atheist, explain the big bang”. The two couldnt be less related if you tried. People do believe atheism comes with a guideline for beliefs. We must change that.
    And to a commentator who called out Harris, I feel you could not be more wrong. Atheism should not be a word, it is only a word spoken when dealing with believers, when someone asks about me, its on the of the last things I bring up, because its silly to even need to deny such foolish ideas.
    When you talk about homeopathy, and non-homeopath, you are actually not referencing atheism, you are referencing anti-theism. I believe homeopathy exists, I am just against it because it doesnt work. I dont believe god exists and am against him. The two do not relate as you try to illustrate.

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  7. Great, thought provoking article. If the question of religion ever comes up in conversation, which it seems to do less frequently now, I always say I am a ‘practising atheist’. By this I mean that I have chosen to not believe rather than either just being apathetic or, like my children, having been brought up without faith in a god. I have been challenged quite aggressively about this. I have been asked how I know the difference between right and wrong and accused of indoctrinating my children. Having been a christian in the past I also am sometimes on the receiving end of misplaced sympathy that I must have suffered some terrible life event that caused me to doubt god whereas what actually happened was a realisation that talking to other people worked just as well when working out problems and that therefore when I was praying I was actually talking to myself.

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