Atheistic Religiphobia #2: The Fear of Identifying as an Atheist

What are some key reasons that some atheists resist identifying as atheists?

  1. They (excessively) fear that identifying as an atheist would make them akin to religious people for making their position on gods central to their self-understanding and public self-identification. Somehow thereby opening themselves up to both the same vices of religious people, or even just the derision of having wound up like the religious after all.
  2. They fear that integrating one’s identity with one’s beliefs or non-beliefs will stunt their ability to think critically as it infamously does for countless religious people. The more someone equates their very identity with what they happen to believe, the potentially harder it is to achieve the critical distance necessary to reexamine their beliefs. People wind up effectively saying “We are our beliefs” at that point and that makes it much harder to dispassionately tear up their beliefs if they’re weak because it feels like tearing up themselves. And this encourages them to engage in all sorts of prejudicial thinking to protect their beliefs from counter-evidence as though they are protecting their very selves.
  3. Some scoff at the idea that what they merely don’t believe can be definitive of who they are in some way. They often deride this as being as silly as identifying non-stampcollecting among their hobbies. And some of these scoffers will say they are happy to affix an identity label based on their positive beliefs (and identify, for example, as Humanists) but not based on their mere non-beliefs.
  4. They argue that merely sharing a non-belief in gods with others is not predictive of having very much else in common at all with them. Two atheists could, completely consistent with their respective atheisms, wind up on the complete opposite ends of the values spectrum, the political spectrum, and with wildly different beliefs about the world. So, it makes no sense to lump oneself in with atheists in general when they could differ so much from any given atheist.

So, these are each pretty strong and prima facie compelling reasons not to identify as an atheist, not all of which are an excessive concern to avoid being like the religious (what I am, tongue-in-cheek calling “religiphobia”). But I think many atheists’ rejections of what I like to call Identity Atheism (being an atheist in such a way that you treat it as a serious part of how you socially identify yourself) effectively shoot atheists in the foot.

Why should atheists explicitly identify as such? Because we live in a world where being an atheist is (irrationally) scandalous. Many religious doubters, under psychologically ruthless religious pressure, feel a great deal of anguish over the prospect of becoming atheists. They need to know good, happy, and proud atheists exist. Further, people are routinely ostracized and otherwise made to feel isolated on account of their non-belief when they’re open about it. They need to know they are neither alone nor nearly as abnormal as they are made to feel when atheism is routinely kept a quiet matter due to apathy or shame. In our culture it is still, ludicrously, a common assumption that morality and hope and meaning in life are all bound up with faith and deference to deities. In that context, many people who reject deities, are by pressured into feeling immoral and hopeless or at least are treated as such. People are taught that faith is a virtue and I wince to meet numerous embarrassed atheists who bleat on about how they envy people of faith their ability to simply believe. We need to do active counter-messaging, consciousness raising, and identity formation that resists this. The theist messages won’t just become ineffectual or wither away of their own. We atheists need to band together for the sake of their own dignity and make common cause.

And there are countries where you can be murdered by the government for having no religious faith. And even in Western countries that are de facto secular in many ways, the assumption that faith is an inherently good thing can mean all sorts of concessions to not only the teachings atheists think are false but the methods of inculcating beliefs that most of us think systematically undermine critical thinking. The forces of theism are legion and they lead to a whole host of beliefs and practices that atheists, as a group are likely to reject. If nothing else they lead to hostilities towards atheists that atheists need to reject.

And atheists, as the ones who, as a de facto group, typically reject the most culturally trumpeted institutions for the development of morals, metaphysical beliefs, spiritual development, etc. need to recognize that there is a place in society for institutions where people focus on their values, their philosophy, their charity, and their development as an integrated person. There is a place in society for institutions that develop communal rituals and help with the moral cultivation of children and the private administration of community-based charity, etc.

Since atheists are, for good reasons, often opting out of the dominant institutions for these things, they are the ones, as an identifiable set of people, actively cutting themselves off from a potentially good kind of institution. Sure the existing religions in many ways corrupt this ideal by giving bad moral instruction, peddling false beliefs, and using people’s dependency on them to mentally, spiritually, and morally enslave them. But atheists are not necessarily better off for eschewing the whole ideal of non-governmental, private institutions that are focused on people mutually supporting one another and working out their views on philosophy and values and developing meaningful rituals and “spiritual” practices and charitable practices in local community collaboration.

What unites atheists here is significant. And atheists do suffer, on average, as measured by social scientists, for missing the social community religions provide their practitioners. And without their fellow atheists identifying as atheists and coming to their aid and building rival institutions for them, many atheists stay going to theistic churches, mosques, or temples, and supporting beliefs they don’t agree with rather than abandon access to such benefits. Even some of the adamant anti-theist atheists I know deliberately send their kids to parochial schools because they judge the benefits of how the Catholics or the Jews approach education to be that much better than what public schools offer and worth the cost of some exposure to false religious beliefs.

Atheists as a group are typically thrown together as the opt-outs from a central kind of human institution. This means we miss out on the same potential benefits religious institutions provide and we collectively are pushed to the margins, belittled, and shamed by theists. So, we should all show more solidarity for the sake of each of us individually. Even those of us who have it relatively easy (like an academic philosopher like me, living in New York City) should care about those like us who are wrenchingly losing spouses and family and friends and jobs over their non-belief. And we should care that there are countless people out there who deep down think like we do but who are trapped in theistic religions that make them self-loathing and terrified over their burgeoning atheism. They need to be able to see that there are so many of us out here dispelling myths about what it’s actually like to be an atheist.

“But then why not just identify as Humanists? Wouldn’t that be a more positive alternative than atheism? Defining as atheists is defining ourselves negatively by what we reject rather than positively by what we embrace.”  That’s a good question and consideration. The simple fact is that atheism is the broader catch-all category for all the non-theistic people alienated by a dominantly theistic culture. When I recently took an ongoing non-scientific survey of non-believers about their identities there were 6 alternative identifiers (and “other”) as options for identification and yet so far, out of over 230,000 participants, roughly 63% of the survey participants have chosen “atheist” as their primary identifier. I think were this done scientifically, the results would be similar (or even favor “atheist” more). Only ~7% chose Humanist.

Hegemonic theism has made it so that plenty of atheists, especially but not limited to deconverts, have long had no conception that there could be anything like atheist communities. And without any pro-atheist messaging, many atheists default into sharing the limited horizons for atheists set by self-serving theists. For many people, atheism can only be seen the way theists want it to be seen—as a rejection, a negation, a lack, and nothing positive. This means that way too few atheists will grasp that they’re being appealed to with the word Humanism. But they will grasp that they’re atheists. Or self-professed agnostics–which is close (and which is something agnostics often want to fight with atheists about when we reveal ourselves to them).

Because atheists so often start out religious, and because even those raised atheistically by non-believing parents are usually not part of atheist institutions, and because in so many mixed families the atheistic parent acquiesces to the religious parent’s insistence on religious education for the kids, etc., etc., generation after generation atheists have remained scattered, unorganized, divided, and, as a result, socially conquered, and forced to live in a theist’s world. And without strong institutions, there is little memory and accumulated wisdom and learning for a new deconvert or a lifelong atheist to pick up from other atheists. So generation after generation, atheists have to feel like they’re reinventing the wheel and largely miss out on literally centuries of atheistic wisdom. And that means these isolated atheists figuring out atheism for themselves are prone to repeat the old mistakes perennially and never progress as much as atheists could if we were all caught up with the wealth of ideas that other atheists have brought to the table and all catching up with and contributing to major atheistic institutions. 

The burgeoning atheist movement is an identity movement that, with the powerful help of the internet, is finally connecting atheists and getting many of us on the same page so we can make a collaborative, concerted, and consolidated effort to push back against theism. A great lie perpetrated to the intellectual, moral, political, legal, social and, even, spiritual detriment of billions of people deserves an organized pushback against it. And that means it deserves principled people willing to identify as its enemy. Theism deserves proudly self-identifying atheists as its unrelenting enemy. It’s time we stop doing organized theistic religions the favor of dividing and conquering ourselves.

In fact, even if among atheists we want to subdivide further into Humanists, Libertarians, Stoics, Existentialists, Nihilists, Buddhist Atheists, Jewish Atheists, Unitarian/Universalists, Feminist Atheists, Pagan Atheists, or any other kinds of groupings that people find more workable for various constructive purposes related to freedom and diversity of opinion and values, we should still nonetheless make common cause as atheists against theism.

The theists get this. We see an astonishing willingness right now of different denominations within religions and different whole religions themselves banding to identify in some cases publicly as simply theists and people of faith who in a unified way denounce atheism and faithlessness. They see what’s at stake. They get that the differences between their denominations or, sometimes, their entire faiths are less important to their whole operation than the ideas that faith itself is good and that divinity exists. They get that those ideas are what float their whole operations. We should take seriously that our opposition to faith is of huge, uniting, (and, to the theistic religions’ leaders, genuinely threatening) significance.  

Yes, by identifying together, organizing ourselves, and building rival cultural institutions for the advancement of non-theistic philosophical beliefs, values, and spiritual practices, we may be accused of “becoming like the religious”. To which I look forward to some day replying, “You mean we’re becoming a powerful force for creating community, organizing charity, and determining how people view the world, their values, and how to spiritually develop themselves? Fantastic! It’s about time someone did that without superstition, authoritarianism, blind traditionalism, faith, anti-intellectualism, and regressive archaic values. Glad to be of service!”

In another post I’ll return to answer the concerns about forming our identity around our beliefs. I will also explore about what extent to which atheism is or is not a basis for shared beliefs and values. I will also say more about the alleged problem that atheists have too little in common in overall beliefs and values to be a cohesive group when addressing another “religiphobia”.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction to “Answers to 10 Atheist Phobias of Being Like Religious People”

Atheistic Religiphobia #1: Fear of Believing Anything At All About Gods

Your Thoughts?




About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • eamonknight

    This. I don’t think I “got” the value of the label Atheist (as opposed to Skeptic, Secularist, Humanist, or other terms that identify specific positive values) until I went to the Reason Rally. And there were 20000 of us standing in the cold rain, representing a range of opinion on other issues, but being, for an afternoon, *us* — in defiance of a society many segments of which despise *us* to a greater or lesser extent, for no greater crime than rejecting a commonly held superstition. “Atheist” may embody very little as a philosophical descriptor, but as a social label and political statement, it says a hell of a lot.

  • jfigdor

    Ok, but the example you gave wasn’t an atheist rally. It was a REASON rally.

  • Ima Freethinker

    This is a GREAT compendium of all the reasons that atheists should be open about their identity, and be active in building supportive atheist communities. Thank you!

  • Shira Coffee

    Dan, this post raised a couple of ideas I’ve been thinking about for a couple of days, but weekends are usually family time, so I will try to get them down here today and hope you read comments from bygone posts!

    I find I have two issues with what you call “identity atheism”. The first has to do with tribalism. Now I understand that tribalism is ancient — in fact, it probably goes back to pre-human evolution territoriality. But ideological tribalism is a peculiarly human invention, and raises particularly thorny problems. As I see it, Christianity invented the idea of a tribe with “hard” borders based, not on ethnicity or regional loyalties, but on a shared set of ideas. This was supposed to build trust between Christians of different origins, and perhaps it did. But it also created the idea of thought crimes, leading to the possibility that individuals could be exiled or killed on ideological grounds. Islam and Marxism copied or reinvented this model of tribalism, and the history of Marxism suggests that atheism does not confer immunity to the particular dangers of ideological tribalism.

    So that’s my first problem with the idea of “identity atheism”. I know atheists are better-than-average people… but so were the original Christians. I’m dubious of the wisdom of creating a new ideological tribe with hard borders.

    My second point is more subtle, and I’m not sure I can express it, but I will try. It’s about identity and rigidity.

    I’ve known for many years that people who claimed to have a bundle of undiluted truth, all neatly fenced in, were fooling themselves. Truth doesn’t work that way… though it’s sometimes possible to find bundles of error and fence them off. (In other words, I actually don’t have a problem with atheism as a negative view, since it is useful to point out and fence off the errors of theism.)

    The other day I realized why that is: error invariably bears the hallmark of human mentation. All errors originate in human minds. We have, therefore (as humans with human minds) an affinity for errors. This makes it easy to fall into error, but also, if we are paying attention, relatively easy to notice and avoid errors.

    Truth, though, is mostly inhuman, because the universe is mostly inhuman. The most reliable indicator I know of for being in the vicinity of truth is that I am surprised, shocked, or (at worst) shaken, with my core certainties in shambles.

    That last state (as you know) is deeply unpleasant, but fortunately there is a way to mostly avoid it, which is to continually court truth, instead of ignoring it until it mauls me.

    The problem with THAT is that truth is always a little alien. It also tends to be too-hot-too-cold-too-big-too-small-too-hard-too-soft. You can’t find much of it in the Goldilocks zone.

    The only way I know to court truth is to be open, flexible and (American heresy) humble. Rigidity is fatal. Hanging on to the truth you already have is pointless, and often counterproductive.

    This, then, is my second and subtler problem with identity atheism. It strikes me as too rigid and grasping, leading to unwarranted certainties and closing off some fruitful uncertainties.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      the problem is that people need anchor points. The concerns you have are legitimate, but people can’t live without identities altogether. They just have to be circumspect and self-critical. You identify as a Buddhist and a Jew, do you not?

    • Shira Coffee

      I put on the identity I need to connect to people. I don’t mean that as a kind of deception, since those elements of character (not to mention habits of expression) are actually there, but I think of identities as tools that are used as needed, then cleaned up and put away. I also identify, in that sense, as a humanist and atheist, when I think that is the best way to be heard in a particular interaction. Or I might identify as mother, neighbor, etc.

      The problem with the notion of anchors is that any anchor we have is illusory (though it may be psychologically important.) I am reminded of a book I read back in the days when I spent lots of hours in bookstores. Like everyone else who did that, I sometimes read books on the shelves and then didn’t buy them. I regret this now when I want to quote from one of them!

      There was a book in which a father and son wrote letters to each other, the father an observant Jew, the son a Buddhist novice monk. The father had an interesting observation about anchors. Buddhism, he said, can only offer a “sea anchor”, which allows the boat to continue drifting with the wind and current, although more slowly. By contrast, he said, Judaism provided a true anchor, tying the boat to something stable and stationary (G-d) that was outside the chaotic flow of the universe.

      Now I know you can see that that idea is illusory. It is, though, one of the main psychological uses of theism, and I would not snatch it away from anyone who needs it.

      Identity / self-essentialism is another kind of attempt to find a stable and stationary point to anchor, but it is also illusory. It can function sometimes as a sea anchor, slowing our apparent rate of change. (And the father was wrong — that is NOT Buddhism.) But a sea anchor isn’t necessarily a good thing — it might put us directly in the path of the wave that swamps us. Better, I think, to be a seagull, judging the winds, letting the leading edge of the storm help push one to safety and resting for the night, unanchored, on the undulatng water. I am not the Shira today that I was yesterday, and tomorrow’s Shira is not even fully designed yet. Not a problem.

      Understand, if I thought you needed the psychological prop of the apparent stability of an identity, I would not speak this way to you. But I do believe you could drop the illusion if you wished to, so I speak.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I appreciate that. Typically, I avoid identity labels because I do not want to rigidify (for example, I am still registered as an independent politically). But I think that there is something constructive about adopting an identity for the sake of psychological solidarity with others, for the value of recognizing the importance of something in your life, for feeling a stake and responsibility in a cause (I am one of them so it matters what others of them do that is good or bad, as it represents me, and I need to step up to speak as one of them if I want them to go in the right direction), and, finally, for motivating commitment to what that identity stands for, if it’s a principled one. I think these are psychological goods that I deliberately adopt the atheist identity on account of. Typically, my identity as a philosopher keeps me at greater arms lengths from causes. But there is a place to also engage politically, socially, communally, ethically, etc. This is a place I feel passionate enough to do that.

      I do very much like your emphasis on identifying where it’s most productive case by case with others. I think though that there is something to be said for also motivating oneself through accepting identity as a kind of internal commitment.

  • Liralen

    My thoughts?

    1. Telling agnostics that they don’t really believe what they say the believe is accusing them of lying. It’s disrespectful of their beliefs and it’s unlikely to win their hearts and minds.

    2. Accusing agnostics of cowardice is a shaming/bullying tactic used by authoritarians. It’s a tactic that might work on deconversions, who may have had guilt buttons installed from their authoritarian upbringing, but it’s not likely to work on those of us raised in non-religious households. Quite the contrary, I was specifically taught to question authority, so attempts to bully me are not only ineffective, it makes me view the perpetrator with contempt.

    3. It’s not necessary to try to force agnostics, Unitarians, Buddhists, humanists, etc. to adopt your atheist label to achieve your stated goals. I have reasons of my own for resisting attempts to fuse church and state and achieving other social justice goals, as do other theists.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I don’t see how this is a reply to this post at all.