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