On Branding

There’s been another kerfuffle in the atheist community, and for once, it wasn’t caused by someone telling us that we need to pipe down and stop attacking religion. This time, surprisingly, the instigator was Sam Harris – who argued at the Atheist Alliance International Convention 2007 that we should stop calling ourselves “atheists”. Hemant of Friendly Atheist has been reporting on this controversy from the beginning, and has collected responses to Harris, including from Ellen Johnson of American Atheists, David Koepsell of the Council for Secular Humanism, and of course PZ Myers. (Harris’ original speech is here.) In this post, I’d like to respond as well.

Harris’ main point, as best as I can summarize it, is that the term “atheism” already comes with negative stereotypes attached to it, and by using it to describe ourselves we are playing into the hands of our opponents. He says that we are “consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture” and that we have “walked into a trap” by so doing. When we call ourselves atheists, religious people who already think they know what atheism is and how to refute it will assume they know all about us already and can dismiss our arguments without further notice.

I don’t deny that there are negative stereotypes attached to the word “atheism”. What I do deny is that this constitutes reason to shrink from using it. Instead, we should work to reclaim it. We can and should shatter those harmful stereotypes by speaking out forcefully against them and by disproving them through the example of our lives. If we consent to our adversaries’ prejudice and flee from the terms they have already slandered, what will stop them from poisoning any new term we come up with to describe ourselves as well? (We can already see members of the religious right pouring bigotry and invective on terms like “secular humanism”.) We should not surrender this ground to them, or any ground. Instead, we should fight them on their own terms and refuse to back down when attacked.

Harris suggests that we “should not call ourselves anything”, but this is too facile. if we do not name ourselves, we will be named, most likely by our adversaries. Refusing to give a name to who we are and what we stand for will only create a vacuum that religious conservatives will gleefully fill with lies and distortion. Rather than give them such an opportunity, we should take the initiative to say what we believe, and we should do it loudly and with pride. That will serve as a rallying point for those who agree with our ideals, and it will deny bigots the chance to define us in terms that they find most convenient.

Harris’ second point is that atheism defines what we are against, rather than what we are for. He says that it “is not a philosophy, just as ‘non-racism’ is not a philosophy”, and “a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology”. Instead, he suggests that we should simply use words like “reason” and “evidence” to describe what we stand for, and attack all bad ideas wherever we find them.

First off, I agree that “[w]e will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept”. If everyone is an atheist, I agree that the term “atheist” will no longer be meaningful. I for one would welcome that day. But the obvious point which Harris overlooks is that that day is not yet. At the moment, the term “atheist” does select out a distinct group of people, and is therefore a real and meaningful concept. As long as religion still exercises vast and undue influence, there will be a need for a word that defines those who do not buy into its fantastic claims.

However, I don’t think Sam Harris was entirely off the mark. I think he’s identified a real problem – I just think he’s misdiagnosed the solution.

It’s true that proclaiming myself to be an atheist does not by itself identify what I do stand for. But that doesn’t mean that the word should be scrapped. What it means is that, whenever we identify as atheists and explain why we reject the claims of religion, we should devote equal effort to explaining what ideals we support instead. Contrary to what Harris says, there have been successful social movements that defined themselves in terms of what they were against – just think of “abolitionist”. We can do the same thing, just as long as we also offer a positive vision of what we are for. If we do this often enough, we can push out the harmful stereotypes about us that currently flourish and instill a more accepting view of atheists and atheism, one in which we need not fear to describe ourselves as such.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://cafephilos.blogspot.com/ Paul Sunstone

    I have nothing against the term “atheist”, but I’ve fallen into the habit of calling people “Theists” or “Non-Theists” — largely because I’m too lazy to explain to everyone and their dog that “Atheist” actually means “Non-Theist” and not much else.

  • Brock

    Ebon states:
    It’s true that proclaiming myself to be an atheist does not by itself identify what I do stand for. But that doesn’t mean that the word should be scrapped. What it means that, whenever we identify as atheists and explain why we reject the claims of religion, we should devote equal effort to explaining what ideals we support instead.

    I totally agree. I have been dissatisfied with the word “atheist” for several years now, both because of it’s negative stereotype, and because it only defines what I am not. The classic example of this is pointing out to the theist that the difference between my atheism and his is merely that I add in one god more to all the thousands that he disbelieves in. Nevertheless, I have been unable to come up with an alternative. I usually describe myself as a humanist, because I align myself with them on most issues, and only mention that I am an atheist if I need to further define my position. I do not shy away from the word anymore; if someone reads immorality/communism/pederasty into their interpretation of the word, that’s their problem not mine.

  • konrad_arflane

    The idea that one can de-stigmatize a group by inventing a new, stigma-free term to replace the old words is (ironically, considering that even a man like Sam Harris agrees with it) rather plainly contradicted by the available evidence. What usually happens is that, once the new term achieves sufficient circulation, it takes on the same stigma that the previous term had. In my language (Danish), there’s a sequence of some four or five terms for “mentally challenged” that have all, at one point or another, been put forward as alternatives to whatever denigrating term was common at the time. Of course, that denigrating term was originally a “neutral” alternative to the previous denigrating term…

    This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, I think. In a sense, the belief that a new term will make any kind of substantial difference is very close to magical thinking – if we use the right words, we can change the world… But of course, it doesn’t work that way. Plainly put, our opponents in this debate aren’t stupid enough to (in military terms) keep assaulting a vacated position. Whatever we call ourselves, they’ll go after that, just as we attack creationism even when they call it Intelligent Design or something else again.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Besides, if we stop calling ourselves atheists, think of all those organizations that will have to change their names.

  • Torusisnotadoughnut

    As long as religion still exercises vast and undue influence, there will be a need for a word that defines those who do not buy into its fantastic claims.

    How about “Naturalist” (using the philosophical definition here as opposed to this one) and the theists “Supernaturalist”.

    “Materialist” is another option (Again, philosophical definition instead of economic or Marxist) as opposed to “amaterialist” I’ve always been fond of those two as labels that define me on non-religious terms.

    Moreso the naturalist one because at least its alternative definition doesn’t have negative connotations already attached to it.

  • http://dailyatheist.blogspot.com Strappado

    konrad_arflane: “The idea that one can de-stigmatize a group by inventing a new, stigma-free term to replace the old words is rather plainly contradicted by the available evidence. What usually happens is that, once the new term achieves sufficient circulation, it takes on the same stigma that the previous term had.”

    Quite true. A lot of politically correct rebranding has had no effect. The only effective thing to do is to do something with the stereotype itself.

    And it has to be mentioned that Atheist was from the start a derogatory term, so as far as I can see (at least in Europe) it’s a lot better than it was. It’s the particular American prejudice against Atheists that needs to be attacked.

  • Ben

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “atheist.” And besides, look at what happens to euphemismsL they keep getting “contaminated.” (See “secualr humanist” above.) If atheists start calling themselves “rationalists,” say, then that word will get contaminated with the same connotations theists already see for atheist and secular humanist. You need to change the culture, not the word.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Exactly – all that happens is the new name is as stigmatized as the old. “Special” in “special education” is a fine example for the US, too, not just Denmark. Plus, after a while you get laughed at for rebranding. Think “sanitation engineer”. I think that’s why Harris suggests no name at all.

    Of course, that won’t stop the rest of the world from putting a name on us, so we might as well claim one and fight for what it means.

  • James Bradbury

    The main reason I prefer to start by saying “Humanist” is that people have fewer preconceived ideas about it and often ask for an explanation. So I get a chance to talk the positive aspects of a non-religious outlook. Even if the other person is also an atheist, saying “Atheist” tends to end the conversation prematurely.

    OTOH, if you want a laugh, say “Diagnostic – I know there’s something wrong with me, but I’m not sure what it is”. :)

  • Torusisnotadoughnut

    I don’t really care about stigma, otherwise I wouldn’t go around wearing atheistically slanted T-shirts. But I also don’t like having my self-identity defined on religious terms.

    Since Atheist already exists, I don’t shy away from it. Whenever I tell people I’m a naturalist, I nearly always follow it up by saying “or atheist, whichever you prefer.”

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    Poor Sam — as you point out, this is all over the atheosphere, and almost nobody agrees with him. Even hard-core “let’s make an effort to take religious people seriously” folks like me don’t agree with Harris. Looking at this as half-full, though, he’s accomplished the amazing feat of getting the “herd of cats” to agree on something… ;^)

    But seriously, even suggesting that atheism requires a euphemism feels like a big step in the wrong direction to me. The last thing I want is for people to get the idea that deep down I’m ashamed to be an atheist and that I think think theists are (morally?) superior.

  • Crosius

    This may be an oversimplified example, but the homosexual community de-fanged the terms “gay” and “queer” by relentlessly self-applying the terms while re-associating them with concepts like “pride” and “solidarity.”

    Now, anyone who throws those terms out with derogatory intent looks like a bigot and an idiot.

    We should follow their example and be proud of our athiesm, proud to self-identify as athiest. Claim the term as ours and make the word mean what we want.

  • jack

    OTOH, if you want a laugh, say “Diagnostic – I know there’s something wrong with me, but I’m not sure what it is”. :)

    James, that is delightful! I will try that sometime. For years I have hoped someone at a hospital or whatever would ask my “religious preference”, to which I planned to reply presbyopian, but I must admit that “diagnostic” is even better.

    I rather like the word “atheist”, and don’t shy away from using it, partly because it is straightforward, honest and stark. But I also realize that most believers attach all kinds of ridiculous and false connotations to it, so sometimes I describe myself as adhering to a scientific worldview, or as someone who tries to be “a scientist in all things”. This is vague and raises questions, but it can start a conversation in which I get to explain my thinking without the other person immediately assuming I’m a communist, angry at the world, or whatever.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Perhaps, instead of falling back into a defensive mode, we should go on the offensive. We need a good derogatory name for theists, that we, as self-proclaimed atheists, can use when needed.

    Personally, I like the term atheist. When I was Catholic, it had negative connotations, because that’s the way the term was expressed to me by the nuns. Now that I’ve educated myself about theism, there are far more positive terms associated with it. I think it has the potential to become a wonderful umbrella term under which concepts like rationalism, reasoning, critical thinker, skeptic, humanist, naturalist, etc. can find more than enough shelter.

    Education is the key. Rather than debating theists, or attacking the specific theistically motivated nonsense emanating from their camps, in which we look strident and confirm stereotypes, we should be backing initiatives to teach critical thinking (not just science) in the schools. It should be a mandatory course in high school, and it should be introduced in elementary school. I read recently about someone in Australia, I think, who was developing a course on it. Atheism would just be the logical conclusion, not the motivation behind it. If kids were taught at an early age to be skeptical of all ideas, religions would have to slowly die away.

    The children is where the future is.

  • bassmanpete

    Four hundred years ago Shakespeare put it this way: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

  • http://polypyloctomy.24kblogs.com Stefan Monsaureus

    Although the point is well taken, the example you give of the negative identifier “abolitionist” is a little off the mark. Abolitionists were not only defined by their opposition to another viewpoint (support of slavery), they actively sought its end. Thus, in that case the use of a negative was wholly appropriate. By analogy, then, identifying as an active atheist might suggest that one seeks to displace theism. As much as we might hope the day will come when theism will be viewed as but a quaint artifact in our cultural evolution, most (but not all) atheists aren’t that aggressively seeking the end of faith.

    Harris posted a rebuttal to his recent detractors, which might help to clarify his stance.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    As Stefan said above, Hemant brings to my attention that Sam Harris has responded to his critics. Really, I think we’re still talking past each other; his sole point this time seems to be that we shouldn’t try to stuff the word “atheist” into every single thing we say in public. That is a far cry from not using the word at all, and he doesn’t even attempt to respond to the people who’ve given reasons why it’s a useful and appropriate way to define ourselves.

  • Polly

    I think I mentioned somewhere on another board – probably Friendlyatheist – that a technical atheist who doesn’t believe in a god or gods can still believe in the supernatural. Today, I read of someone who believes in ghosts but not god! So, really, “atheist/atheism” may not be as good as “materialist/materialism.” When I want to clarify my position I say that I don’t believe in the supernatural or that I’m not superstitious. “Atheism” doesn’t cover that. “Physicalist” just doesn’t have a ring to it and makes one sound like they can bend their joints in unnatural ways.

    Other than that, I have no problem with “atheist.” Ethnic minorities have proudly adopted the use of negative epithets for themselves in the past.

  • Polly

    James Bradbury said,

    “Diagnostic – I know there’s something wrong with me, but I’m not sure what it is”.

    LOL! I think you just found a euphemism for hypochondriac. :)

  • Robert Madewell

    I live in Northern Arkansas and I want to organize a group of like minded individuals. However, I am loath to use the word “Atheism” in a local newspaper ad with my phone number. Not because I don’t like the word (the word simply means “no god”), but because of the hate it might arouse in those who read it in the paper. I don’t want to deal with hateful and cowardly messages on my answering machine. I am considering “superstition-free”, but I don’t know if it conveys exactly the nature of my beliefs.
    By the way, I do use “superstition-free” in everyday conversation.

  • KShep

    Except to my wife, kids and brother, I have never publicly revealed myself as an atheist. There has never been a need to. If someone asks, my answer is “irrelevant.” Works really well.

    I have, however, disputed religious belief in public MANY times to almost anyone who starts it with me. They have tried to brand me, negatively, as an atheist (as I said before—spitting the word at me as though it was the worst insult you could hurl at someone) but I just brush it off and redirect the conversation back to their ridiculous beliefs. It’s incredibly effective, and I think this is what Harris is trying to accomplish. If I am reading him right, he’s simply saying that we don’t need the label, we don’t need to say we’re anything—just people who don’t believe in a god. And since I’ve seen this tactic in action I’m inclined to think there’s an element of truth in it. The jury’s still out, of course.

    I really wish it were possible to come up with a word for us that can’t be used as a weapon, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Yes, gays have tried to de-fang “queer,” somewhat, but religious bigots still use it like an epithet, just like they do with “fag” and the n-word for black people (who also attempted to take away the power of that word by using it themselves). Listen to any klansman talk—those words are still widely used.

  • konrad_arflane

    I really wish it were possible to come up with a word for us that can’t be used as a weapon, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Yes, gays have tried to de-fang “queer,” somewhat, but religious bigots still use it like an epithet, just like they do with “fag” and the n-word for black people (who also attempted to take away the power of that word by using it themselves). Listen to any klansman talk—those words are still widely used.

    I think the point is that, as long as prejudice exists, people will use these words in a derogatory fashion. “Reclaiming” words like nigger or queer is mainly a point of principle: since there is nothing wrong with being black or homosexual, any word that means one of those things *should* be considered a neutral term. However, merely reclaiming the terms is not going to eliminate prejudice. That’s an entirely different battle.

  • http://grimrhapsody.wordpress.com Dawn Rhapsody

    While I see where Sam Harris makes his point from, I agree with Ebon that giving up the title of atheism is in effect conceding that ground to theists, and they will see it as such regardless of any other such reasons we may have. Nevertheless, I also feel that having the overbranching philosophy of our lives defined in terms of an absence of what we’re fighting against is slightly degrading.

    Translating the terms into their definitions, the question could go as follows: “What’s your central philosophy of life?” to which we answer “A non-belief in God,” after which they cock their heads with an “Ahhh…” and summon to their minds the image of an arrogant nihilist who lost his or her faith after a personal crisis. The fact that we only state what we aren’t makes it easier for theists to fabricate tales about what we supposedly are.

    For that reason, I agree with Sam that we should start associating atheism with reason and rationality as much as possible, though I do not think the term atheism should be abandoned; rather, as Ebon said, it should be something fought for, something which one day will bring to the minds of questioning theists a more accurate and less twisted picture of precisely what we stand for, what we believe and why we believe it.

  • http://youmademesayit.blogspot.com PhillyChief

    I’m with you on this. I say we take the word back. If people react negatively to us because of the word, fuck them. That speaks more to them than us.

    As far as not being what we stand for, we don’t all stand for the same things. We are a herd of cats and we can’t be wrangled. Our opinions vary on almost everything except theism where we all somehow come together in opposition. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think we need a manifesto, an ideology, nor a set of morals so that when asked, “where do you get your morals from without god?” we can give a unified answer. These are all mistakes.

  • Polly

    My wife told me about a co-worker who when asked her religion (presumptive question, no?) hemmed and hawed for about a minute before finally just saying “christian, I guess.”

    My mother was saying something about Bhuddists and their many gods and I corrected her telling her that Hindus have many (1,000s) gods, but Buddhists have no official god, they are ATHEISTS. I thought this would be an interesting little factoid. She turned around and said, “well, then the Hindus are better. At least they have a god(s)” or something to that effect. I just bit my tongue. For my mother, “atheist” is a 4-letter word.
    This was just the past week.

    People should feel free to say “atheist” or simply “I don’t have a religion” without feeling pressured to default to xianity. It’s not the words so much as letting everyone know they have another “valid” option.

  • http://imjustanoutsider.blogspot.com/ JustAnOutsider

    The problem with the term atheism is that it’s a property of a belief system, not a belief system in and of itself. Buddhists and Communists have just as much right to call themselves atheists as I do; so does the guy I work with who is convinced his ex-girlfriend can use astrology to predict the future. Any educational efforts to change the image of the term are going to have to deal with the problem that it simply doesn’t mean what we’re claiming it means. The on-line Atheism community
    is pretty much universal in it’s reliance on evidence-based belief; this simply isn’t true of everyone who chooses not to believe in God.

    My belief system is based on the assertion that faith is not a valid means of ascertaining truth. Disbelief in God is a consequence of this assertion; it’s not a central assumption. It just seems that by singling out that one particular consequence and using it to identify myself I’m conceding ground to the theists by elevating it’s importance.

    I don’t really have a problem being called an atheist; I am one. I don’t really agree with Harris that changing the name will be of any significant benefit to the community. I just don’t think that it’s a particularly accurate term and carries a lot of baggage we would be better off without. Personally, I tend to describe myself as an Agnostic since it more accurately reflects the nature of my actual beliefs. I wouldn’t be adverse to using another term, but I really haven’t heard one I like yet. Has anyone suggested Brights yet?

  • Damien

    Perhaps, instead of falling back into a defensive mode, we should go on the offensive. We need a good derogatory name for theists, that we, as self-proclaimed atheists, can use when needed.”

    Hmm. I’m not sure trading insults back and forth is going to accomplish very much, either for one side of the argument or against the other.

  • LindaJoy

    I’ve always liked the term “explorer” (a tip of the hat to Edgar Mitchell’s The Way of the Explorer”) because it was the act of exploring other ways of thinking that helped to free my mind from the shackles of a belief system. Or how about Infidel!? That word has such a strong and solid feeling to it and it was used throughout history to describe non-believers (as well as others not of your religion). I can see it now- a new campaign sweeping the country- “Power to the Infidels!” Sam Harris continues to make us think. I love that….

  • Jim Baerg

    Re: Infidel

    I like it.

    I’ve been trying to think of a term that emphasizes the rejection of ‘faith’. It fits perfectly.

    “I’ve been doing my best to avoid the vice of faith. So I’m an infidel.”

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Heh, Jim, if you want to see Christians wince, answer their questions of your faith by saying “I’m faithless.” The attached negative connotations far outweigh those of “atheist”.

  • KShep

    Dawn Rhapsody:

    The fact that we only state what we aren’t makes it easier for theists to fabricate tales about what we supposedly are.

    Right on the money. This is what I think Harris is trying to argue; if we refuse to let them use the word “atheism” to tell lies about us, we are then in control of our own message, not them.

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    Ebonmuse: Good points all through your post. It’s true that we don’t usually create words to describe people who are not acting dysfunctionally. For instance, we don’t have readily available labels for people who are not psychotic, not anorexic, not dyslexic, not gamble-holics or not arthritic. Why make an exception for those who don’t believe in ghosts? Maybe it’s political expediency. Once you have the label, it’s easier to manipulate the concept in thought and conversation, for any of a variety of motives (some of them for the benefit of the group).

    I’d like to have the use of a SLIGHTLY derogatory label to apply to adults who believe in ghosts. I don’t have that word figured out yet, but I’m going to give it some thought. Rather than say that I’m an “atheist,” (which means that I don’t buy into one particular dysfunction), I think it would be more satisfying to say that I’m not an X (meaning that I don’t believe in the literal truth of fairy tales and afterlives).

  • LindaJoy

    Erich- I did some hunting for words to fit your “I am not an X” phrase. Here goes- I am not a mythologist…I am not bewitched…I am not an illusionist….I am not a delusionist….I am not a cultist….and last, I am not gullible. Isn’t this fun?

  • B.C. Lack

    I just read this article of Haris’, and at first I was a bit dissapointed to read the cynnicism and pessimism he attaches to the label “atheist” (and all other euphemisms). Sam has been relentless in his work to educate people, religious and non-religious alike, on what atheists are and are not…on the benefits of reason…on the evils of religion. But minds are difficult to re-educate, as Sam puts it, “So too with the “greatest crimes of the 20th century” argument. How many times are we going to have to counter the charge that Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot represent the endgame of atheism?”. Alas, many, many, many times, my poor Sam.

    I also agree entirely that a beautiful future for atheism is one in which we are utterly free of all dogmatic labels (religious and non-religious). Aah…Utopia! My childhood was free of a religious-badge, and, just as importat, free of an atheist-badge. Whenever one of my grade-school palls asked me which religion I was or what church I attended, I always replied (and often still do), “I don’t subscribe to any religion”. **In my experience, this type of response typically fosters a healthier dialog than if I say, “No, I’m an athiest”, but your mileage may varry**

    Then as I grew and learned so much about science, philosophy and logic, I learned lables like “atheisst”, “agnostic”, “secular humanist”, “deist”, etc. I loved it! I cherished knowing about so many people in this world who shared my beliefs/dis-beliefs. I loved my new atheist-badge. So in this manner, labels can be beneficial.

    Now, I am older, and hopefully wiser, and my badge is a bit duller — it has lost it’s glitter of novelty. I simply am. I’m still an atheist to my closest friends and family, but to most others I strive to (oh geez, I can’t think of any other way to put this) ‘walk the walk’ more and ‘talk the talk’ less. This is the jist of Sam’s speech, I think. Let’s not get so enamoured with trumpeting our atheism that we lose sight of reason.

    However, I also agree with many of the comments here about the need to reclaim and devillify atheism — I will probably never cease to do so. In the end, though, it’s really only just a label, and we shouldn’t live and die for labels.