In Defense of the Atheist Label

by Jesse Galef -

Should we organize around the word “atheist”?  Yesterday I wrote about my disagreement with Michael De Dora Jr.’s “The Problems with the Atheistic Approach to the World” – only to have him publish a response to criticism a couple hours before my post was scheduled to go up.  In his new post, he addresses one complaint that his statement “many atheists define their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism” is untrue:

In my piece, I wanted to specifically discuss those who embrace atheism as the core of their lives, but I also admitted that not all atheists center their lives around their atheism (that would be another contradiction of what I said about the emptiness of the word atheist). Apologies if this was misread.

But, perhaps more to the point: how do I know many atheists do such a thing? To support my claim, I referenced The American Atheists. I also referenced the local New York City Atheists (which, for anyone knowledgeable, is a militant atheist organization) as an example of the “(Location) Atheists” groups we see around the nation. Then, of course, there is the Out Campaign.

But even though the American Atheists are more aggressive than other groups, they’re are far from “defin[ing] their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism.”  A glance at their website shows a host of positive Aims and Principles which include promotion of freedom of thought and inquiry, separation of church and state, nontheistic ethical systems, and general welfare.  I can’t imagine that Michael really believes they “embrace atheism as the core of their lives,” so I started thinking about what he must mean instead.

I get the sense that Michael is really objecting to atheism being used as an organizing principle at all (hence his apparent opposition to the Out Campaign, which I support).  Some of his comments point in that direction, such as his critique of the New Atheists for “rallying around atheism” and “push[ing] people to start huddling under the ‘atheist’ banner.”

Should we rally behind the “atheist” banner? The discussion of tactics is worth having.  As it happens, I don’t see the word to be quite as empty and non-descriptive as he argues in his original piece.  The atheist label has real value and should be one of the tools of the secular movement.

While it’s true that the word ‘atheist’ only says that a person has no god belief, it’s amazing how many other views follow or are at least correlated.  People who don’t believe in a god tend to share values because they focus solely on secular concerns.  There’s no particularly good secular reason to deny homosexuals the right to marry, so most atheists support that right.  We don’t believe in a god who cares about our politics, so most atheists support a secular government.   Lacking belief in divine revelation, atheists tend to promote science as the best way to learn about the world.  I can walk into a meeting of the Omnipresent Atheists in Columbus and expect to find a lot of people with values similar to my own.

I suppose a name like “American Atheists” doesn’t explicitly convey all that they stand for, but I think it’s implied to mean “American Atheists for a Variety of Values Which Tend to Particularly Stem from Focusing on Secular Concerns.”  Labels aren’t expected to be perfectly descriptive, they’re expected to be useful at implying shared values, explicitly or implicitly.

To see the value of the “atheist” label, look no further than the Secular Coalition for America.  By trying to represent nontheists (a new, less-stigmatized form of the word “atheists”) they’re broad enough to appeal to member organizations like the American Ethical Union, the Secular Student Alliance (my new place of employment), American Atheists, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism.  All these diverse groups came together under the inclusive banner of “nontheist” and found we had more than enough in common to work together on Capitol Hill toward a set of shared goals.

Don’t get me wrong, more specific labels like “skeptic” and “humanist” definitely have their purpose.  But so does a unifying, inclusive banner.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • Scott Hanley

    Caring about a subject enough to join a group proves people “define their entire lives around” that subject? No one can be anything but one dimensional? The argument is beyond ridiculous.

    How many people attending NCAA basketball games in their team colors also belong to a church, or a professional organization, or both? Even Christians, although they might think they should tell you otherwise, aren’t capable of defining every aspect of their lives around their religion.

    Of course, there’s no punch to saying, “They join American Atheists; this just be important to them!” But when you present the more accurate statement, it becomes obvious how vacuous the “accusation” really is.

  • http://friendlyhumanist.net/ Timothy Mills

    Well-said Jesse!

  • keddaw

    Surely the Secular Coalition of America should remove any and all theistic or non-theistic ideas. The whole point of a secular country is that it can be enjoyed and embraced by people of all, or no, creed.

    I would much prefer seeing Secularism viewed as a broad church (sorry) and appealing to everyone who doesn’t want someone else’s brand of piety forced down their legal system.

    Maybe such groups exist, but if you want a secular society then you should not be trying to represent non-theists, I can imagine a time when a secular coalition of non-theists will look to ban churches. I know this seems a long way off, but anything is possible in the long run, and I don’t want to see that – I’d like to see them close as no-one was attending, but that’s different. A secular group with a mixture of theists and non-theists wouldn’t allow this to happen.

    “I get the sense that Michael is really objecting to atheism being used as an organizing principle”

    I agree with him if that was his point. I understand that the US is a hugely religious place and to leave a church is often to leave a community which is incredibly difficult, but it makes me cringe when people start talking about what atheists believe.

    You don’t have to be religious to be a homophobe, a misogynist or a racist (but it helps). Atheists can be progressives or conservatives, scientifically literate or incredibly dumb; the one, and only, thing they have in common is that they do not believe in any gods.

    In conclusion, we should not rally behind the atheist banner as it does not, and should not stand for anything. You want a secular society, rally behind a secular banner. You want equal rights for gays, rally behind an equality banner. Please don’t use an atheist banner where not only is it inappropriate but it may actually hurt the cause you are rallying for.

  • JulietEcho

    I think that, since atheism is an alternative to religion, and religion IS something that many people build their lives and identities around, there’s some temptation to conflate the properties of the two (religion and atheism).

    This is also where you get your “atheism is a religion!” claims.

    I don’t know many people who’ve made atheism the “core of their lives” – I guess one of the closest I can think of is Hemant, because he’s written a book specifically from an atheist’s perspective, runs this blog, and gives talks about atheism. However, many people find one topic they’re passionate about and take it upon themselves to educate others and promote discussion about it.

    There wouldn’t really be any need for people like Hemant if atheists weren’t treated so badly in many parts of the world (many of which make the US look quite mild), but for now there *is* a need, and I think it’s pretty ballsy to act as if they’re some sort of problem. They’re addressing a problem.

  • Ron in Houston

    Well, we can certainly argue whether one particular group embraces atheism as the “core” of their goals, but to say that some atheists don’t “embrace atheism as the core of their lives” is fallacious.

    My observations have been there are many folks as attached to their atheism as any theist would be to their denomination.

    Jesse also made a point that tended to undermine his thesis. The Secular Coalition enjoys success not because of the “atheist label” but for the very reason that they chose another label.

  • Jeff Myers

    Don’t know about you, Scott, but I haven’t noticed many people who claim the loudest to be Christians organizing any part of their lives around their religion.

  • Jesse Galef

    Ron –

    There’s an argument to be made for ‘nontheist’ over ‘atheist’ – that’s why the Coalition is using it, after all! I’m hoping it gains more attention, because at the moment ‘atheist’ still wins hands-down for recognition. I’m in favor of using both.

    But my point was never that “atheist” is the only label to use. But I do argue that it should be in our arsenal. I don’t see it as undermining my thesis at all.

  • Andrew

    Scott,
    Exactly along the lines of what I was thinking. By definition, an organization is a group of people who have come together around some common theme. That particular organization is thus by definition focused on that theme. But you can’t say anything about the members who make it up because you have no idea what other interests they may have and how important that particular organization is in their life.

    Your analogy to sporting events is perfect. Is everyone at a sporting event a single minded fanatic who has no other interests in life? And is using the enthusiasm of the fans at sporting events somehow a proof of this?

    It’s not only ridiculous, it completely missed the point that organizations and advocacy groups are often single minded BY DESIGN for exactly the reason that individuals have multifaceted and nuanced lives and they wish to pool their limited time and resources with other individuals on particular topics because their own 5min a day they can spare on it wouldn’t accomplish anything in isolation.

    I am a member of planned parenthood and the ACLU, both “militant” groups to some people. But just because I support their “aggressive” stances doesn’t mean their causes are a “core of my life”.

    In the case of atheism, it IS a core value of mine, and in this sense I couldn’t agree more with Jesse’s post. The label atheist connotes a plethora of positive values to me, succinctly and directly flowing from the absence of a belief in a god. It is directly analogous to the best intentioned meaning of the phrase “christian values”. Unfortunately in our society most of the people who drop that phrase “christian values” do not read similar connotations into the atheist label.

  • Andrew

    Sorry about that last one, I realize I was quite off topic reading the other comments.

    As an atheist, I see secularism as a common cause I have with other individuals. The Secular Coalition is a great example of this. However, I strongly agree with Juliet that atheism carries an unjustified stigma and prejudice in our society and that “standing up to be counted” is an important need to make the spectrum of individuals to be included in our future secular society properly representative.

  • Ron in Houston

    Just pondering here – but would atheist being one of those words that has the a- beginning sort of by it’s definition be negative?

    As I think of a- words – things like apolitical and amoral come to mind. None of the a- words seem particularly inspirational.

    Anyway, I wonder if it’s maybe it’s not the subtle psychology of branding that could be an issue.

  • Andrew

    That’s a really interesting point Ron. As someone brought up having the negative points of theism pointed out to me, it might be why a-theism WAS inspirational to me personally.

  • Arachobia

    I’m part of a feminist organization, and time and time again people ask me why we insist on using the feminist label and not just saying we’re against gender inequality or for promoting equality of the sexes. The simple answer is that the name is only frowned upon because the system we live in views it negatively. It is associated by most with bra burning and outrageous protests, but this is not actually what the group as a whole does, just some members.

    Ultimately, the view of a label depends on the society looking at the label. I watched a documentary on some islanders near New Zealand. There elders are horrified and disgusted by younger members who have converted to Christianity. To them, the Christian label is offensive and people labelled this way are shunned by the majority of leaders who still follow the older belief system. Compared to the Christian society most people live in where journalists are found of saying quoting surprised neighbors, who are surprised that so-and-so always seemed such a good Christian, who they never would think would have murdered someone else brutally. If the islanders had journalists, such a murder would be expected to be carried out by the Christian, and the surprise would be if the murderer was not.

    I say keep the label. If we can promote its good will enough, it will eventually need no defense

  • Aj

    Ron in Houston,

    …but to say that some atheists don’t “embrace atheism as the core of their lives” is fallacious.

    Examples?

    Just pondering here – but would atheist being one of those words that has the a- beginning sort of by it’s definition be negative?

    You’re thinking of “anti-”, “a-” is neutral like “not” or “non”. Of course, you could assign another word for atheism, such as skeptic, then all theists would be askeptics. This whole negative thing is bullshit, the language we use is a product of history.

  • Miko

    It sounds like De Dora is making a proto-Stirnerite argument. (Stirner, for those who are unaware, attempted a completion of the Hegelian project in a different direction from the left-Hegelians such as Marx and was critical of the left-Hegelian attempt to replace such concepts as theism with secular alternatives such as statism or humanism instead of seeking to destroy the power relation inherent in the idea of theism altogether.) This argument is common in a less matured form along the lines of “we shouldn’t even have a word for atheism, just as there is no word for not believing in astrology.” Organizing around atheism qua the word “atheism” runs the risk of providing epistemic legitimization of the concept of theism. If one wishes to avoid this, “atheism” must be used only as a descriptive term, not as a normative one.

    While it’s true that the word ‘atheist’ only says that a person has no god belief, it’s amazing how many other views follow or are at least correlated. People who don’t believe in a god tend to share values because they focus solely on secular concerns.

    This is a good example of what I mean by using atheism as a normative term. Let’s see what sorts of confusion arise from doing so:

    There’s no particularly good secular reason to deny homosexuals the right to marry, so most atheists support that right.

    It’s true that there is no particular reason to deny gay marriage rights, or any gay rights. To the extent that anyone (including atheists) does not attempt to restrict these rights, I salute them. That said, there is also no particularly compelling secular reason to not deny gay rights, other than perhaps the laziness involved in not wanting to enforce the restrictions of rights. However, this argument applies equally well to the pro-gay rights position, since conservatives are making a concerted effort to deny gay rights and the same laziness would make opposing them seem a less than worthwhile effort. Unless one is gay or has gay friends, secularism alone would seem to imply (if anything) only that one shouldn’t really care about gay rights. It makes no more sense to say “we have no reason to deny X, hence we support X” than to say “we have no reason to support X, hence we should deny X” (as in fact Galef is going to do in my next quotation). Since both statements can be made in the context of secularism, and since there is not a consistent use of the laziness principle (in this case, Galef is arguing for the position that involves more work; in the next quotation he will argue for the position that involves less work), it’s clear that some principle beyond simple nontheism must be involved in his argument. And pretending that the principle is just nontheism leads only to confusion.

    We don’t believe in a god who cares about our politics, so most atheists support a secular government.

    To emphasize the above, let’s rephrase this into an equivalent form. All government, including secular government, exists to restrict the rights of individuals, so Galef is really arguing “We don’t have no reason to respect individual rights, so atheists should/do deny individual rights.” (This is particularly odd as it follows directly after his previous argument that “We have no reason not to respect gay rights, so atheists should/do respect gay rights.”) Now, if Galef had instead said “We have no reason to support a theocratic government, therefore we do not,” I would have agreed. However, he seems to be making the error of viewing political thought through the false dilemma of theocratic government vs. secular government and so equating the concept of not supporting theocratic government and the concept of supporting secular government.

    To make a switch like this, one needs an extra principle along the line of a Nietzschean master/slave dynamic in which a master group has a right to impose orders which a slave group has an obligation to obey. Speaking for myself, I instead add an extra principle of agent neutrality, or of equality of authority, which would lead me to support gay rights and also support individual rights more generally (that is, to support anarchism, or something close to it). This leads to two conceptions of atheism:

    atheism[1] attempts to supplant the master/slave dynamic of the theist by creating a new master/slave dynamic in which a different group is the master.

    atheism[2] attempts to overthrow the master/slave dynamic.

    It’s possible for atheists[1] and atheists[2] to work together until we succeed in overthrowing the current hierarchy, but since one side will then attempt to impose a new hierarchy while the other side will continue to oppose all hierarchy, it will be at best a temporary alliance. Worse, since the theistic view will not disappear at once but instead has been weakening over the last few decades, we instead are in the position where atheists[1] are already attempting to impose their new dynamic and so the two groups are at best already only uneasy allies and only some of the time.

    (It’s interesting to note how closely this parallels the state-socialist/libertarian-socialist division of the Left, with the statists trying to reform the master/slave dynamic and the libertarians trying to overthrow it.)

  • Jesse Galef

    Miko –

    “That said, there is also no particularly compelling secular reason to not deny gay rights, other than perhaps the laziness involved in not wanting to enforce the restrictions of rights.”

    I think that’s the point of disagreement. I think there are quite compelling secular reasons not to deny gay rights – concern for others’ happiness, the promotion of a relationship in which loving individuals pledge to support each other, or an interest in basic human rights. These are all secular concerns because they relate to this world and this life.

  • Miko

    Arachobia: I’m part of a feminist organization, and time and time again people ask me why we insist on using the feminist label and not just saying we’re against gender inequality or for promoting equality of the sexes.

    This is a decent question. “Feminism,” like atheism, is too broad of an idea to be encompassed by one definition. There are feminists who are either not against gender inequality or at least not primarily against gender inequality (e.g., those who are more interested in getting government-provided day care, or who argue that there wouldn’t be war if society adopted a matriarchy, etc.); there are feminists who are explicitly heterosexist; there are feminists who believe that all of society’s ills stem from patriarchy and oppose all other class-based struggles rather than seeing patriarchy as a syncretic piece of a larger problem; and those of us who are genuinely against gender inequality might do well to come up with a new label that serves us better. Perhaps it’s too late for that, but we should at least acknowledge that the ecumenical use of the term to mean opposing things is unfortunate.

    The simple answer is that the name is only frowned upon because the system we live in views it negatively. It is associated by most with bra burning and outrageous protests,

    What’s so outrageous about bra burning?

  • Miko

    Galef: I think there are quite compelling secular reasons not to deny gay rights – concern for others’ happiness, the promotion of a relationship in which loving individuals pledge to support each other, or an interest in basic human rights. These are all secular concerns because they relate to this world and this life.

    Fair enough, but lack of concern for others’ happiness, the promotion of traditional marriage relations (for the sake of tradition rather than the sake of religion), and support for some form of class-based nationalism also relate to this world and this life. Are they secular concerns too? And, if not, where do secular right-wingers fit into your classification?

    Any concept relating to this life exists in a duality with its opposite*; how to we get to pick which half of each duality gets thrown in under the secular label?

    * Under my definition, “there is a god” and “there is not a god” are both metaphysical claims, so I don’t think that examples along this line gainsay the secular-duality. I suppose one could argue that “there is a god” is a metaphysical claim while “there is not a god” is not one, but without seeing examples to the contrary, I don’t think that such symmetry-breaking is common enough to establish “secularism” as a specific set of values.

  • Andrew

    Miko,
    your philosophy major is getting in the way of reality. To treat others’ short replies on a blog post under a microscope of symbolic logic is disingenuous. Please consider intent.

    This is a particularly egregious example:

    To emphasize the above, let’s rephrase this into an equivalent form. All government, including secular government, exists to restrict the rights of individuals, so Galef is really arguing “We don’t have no reason to respect individual rights, so atheists should/do deny individual rights.”

    The quote from the Jesse Galef to which you are referring is in response to those in government who justify their opinions based on the notion that “god is on our side” or some sacred text, rather than on some objective reality. It is in this way that “most atheists support a secular government” that would then be free of the sort of irreconcilable differences of opinion that are sure to result from the alternative. Reconciling different opinions based on the facts at hand is hard enough, but when the means of determining what the facts are can not be agreed upon…

  • http://pmhewitt.wordpress.com paula

    i like atheism as a label. Most people know what i mean when i use it (even if they dont like it). secular/humanist sounds a bit wishy washy to me, and some people seem to think skeptics just dont believe in UFOs (or whatever).

    I have lots of labels and i use whatever one is appropriate at the time. In the prep classes at school I am known as Cait’s mum. I don’t bother correcting everyone and saying that label isn’t correct because I am also the mum of two other kids. Likewise I dont feel the need to have a more inclusive label for what is essentially my (non) religious status. If people want to infer from my label as atheist that I am a horrible baby eating heathen i figure that is their problem, not mine.

  • Michael De Dora Jr.

    You’re going to be busy, Jesse, as my next article criticizes aRepublicanism, which I assume you’ll want to defend.

  • Michael De Dora Jr.

    I’m not even sure you could make the argument most atheists support secular government and science. You first have to parse out the different between active atheists and atheists who don’t care about religion, politics, etc. There are a lot of the latter. And even in the former group, you have people like Bill Maher, who’s views on science are ridiculous.

  • Miko

    Andrew: Miko, your philosophy major is getting in the way of reality. To treat others’ short replies on a blog post under a microscope of symbolic logic is disingenuous.

    Unlikely, as I didn’t major in philosophy. I’m not sure if you’re referring to my placement of the argument within a broad philosophical tradition or to my use of (as you call it) symbolic logic. Based on your second sentence, I’m assuming the latter. That said, I disagree that it is “getting in the way of reality.” Reality, to quote Philip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Being overly-precise may slow down the speed of argumentation, but it’s being insufficiently precise that gets in the way of understanding reality.

    This is a particularly egregious example

    Ignore it if you wish, as I was just rephrasing the comment. Also, I was aware when I wrote it that Galef is coming from a philosophical position that makes one wording more likely than the other (just as I come from one in which the opposite wording is more likely). For the sake of clarity, I nonetheless think it’s worthwhile to understand that rational people arguing from two distinct set of premises can view the same proposition in incredibly different ways (think of it as the classical self-help book formula “when you say ___, I hear ___”), especially since the crux of my argument is that Galef is using a stronger set of principles to reach his conclusion than he is acknowledging (and hence my ability to reach a different conclusion from the same principles). In any case, I think that my argument proceeds identically with the comment as phrased initially, so, as I said, ignore the linguistic reinterpretation if you wish.

    The quote from the Jesse Galef to which you are referring is in response to those in government who justify their opinions based on the notion that “god is on our side” or some sacred text, rather than on some objective reality.

    Yes. I explicitly addressed this by noting the distinction between theocratic government, secular government, and non-centralized governance. Galef and I agree that the first is bad, but differ in that he favors the second whereas I favor the third. As both the second and third are compatible with atheism (as far as I can tell), I continue to maintain that it’s incorrect to assert that atheism/secularism as a value by itself implies the second option, much less some particular form of the second option.

    It is in this way that “most atheists support a secular government” that would then be free of the sort of irreconcilable differences of opinion that are sure to result from the alternative.

    Sorry, I’ve tried really hard, but I’m unable to parse any meaning from this sentence. Could you rephrase?

    Reconciling different opinions based on the facts at hand is hard enough, but when the means of determining what the facts are can not be agreed upon…

    … then the means of agreeing on the facts should be reconciled before any attempt is made to reconcile differing opinions. The failure to do this is why our political process is currently based on razor-thin majorities and death-threats sent by the minority. Dismissing opposing views based on the assumption of facts that the other side doesn’t view as facts is not a healthy way to run a society, not even when your side is right.

    And to answer your first point, this is why I chose the level of precision that I did. When the underlying facts (of e.g., what values are either necessarily implied by or strongly correlated with the label “secular”) are in dispute, any attempt to argue at a higher level would be a waste of time.

  • Steven Mading

    Use the right word for the right meaning you’re going for at the time. (Seems a no-brainer to me.)

    Example of a good use of the word “atheist” : “As an atheist, I don’t want to have to say ‘so help me God’ when taking an oath in court.”

    Example of a poor use of the word “atheist” : “As an atheist, I don’t believe in ghosts.”

    The second example is not about disbelieving in gods, but about disbelieving in a different type of woo. While there is a high degree of correlation between the two, since both are often a result of a material rationalist view of the world, they are not always both present in all people. There can exist people who don’t believe in gods but do believe in other superstitions and are therefore not all-around rational skeptics across the board. (A good example of such a person is Bill Maher, who derides the use of faith when addressing the god question, and therefore does not end up believing in a god. But, when you switch to talking about medical practices such as vaccination, you find out that he has a very irrational faith-based stance about that subject. He’s not a rational person *in the general case*. He’s an atheist but not a rationalist. (The irony is that he claims the exact opposite. He claims to be a rationalist but not an atheist – but in actuality its the other way around.)

    Compare that with somebody like, say, James Randi. James Randi is first and foremost a skeptical rationalist, and as a mere side-effect of that he happens to be an atheist.

    Is “atheist” a good word to use? Yes. But only when talking about the very narrow topic of god existing. When trying to rally around the generic cause of skeptical rationality, “atheist” isn’t quite as good of a word to use because there do exist irrational atheists. The fact that someone takes a rational view in regard to god is not a guarantee that they do so for all other topics too.

  • DSimon

    Steven, and yet there we run into the old problem of how not to be jerks to theistic skeptics.

    If the amorphous overlapping community we have going on here starts using “skeptic” or “rationalist” more and “atheist” less, it would probably be more accurate as a representation of the community’s overall outlook on life… but it would also be impinging somewhat into an existing skeptical community which includes a number of theists.

  • cathy

    Those of us who actually are philosophy majors call what Miko is doing ‘ignorati elenchi’, i.e. building up and attacking a position that your opponent does not in fact hold. He makes far more than his fair share of assumptions about both his opponent’s position and the legitimacy of certain theories. For example, Nietzche is a massively sexist, racist, and classist figure and only discusses right of wealthy white men against society, in addition to having theories so weak that they do not hold up in political philosophy. Trying to actually defend existentialism under logical scrutiny is an extremely difficult to impossible task.

    “While it’s true that the word ‘atheist’ only says that a person has no god belief, it’s amazing how many other views follow or are at least correlated. People who don’t believe in a god tend to share values because they focus solely on secular concerns.” This in itself is a normative statement and is claimed as such before it is stated. ‘Tends to’ means that this is true in general, not that it is true for all cases and ‘correlated’ presupposes no causalty’. Galef’s opponent, on the other hand, presents a monolithic ‘atheistic approach to the world’, which assumes far more than the definition atheist=one who does not have a god belief. There is of course an issue around any identity based movement around to what degree the movement picks up and endorses normative views within the group rather than supporting all of the members, but this is by no means what de Dora’s post is about. De Dora is basically at the ‘atheists are meanies and I want them to have a higher burden than anyone else in this’ place.

    Also, no one has ever stopped seeing me as a queer, poor, disabled, socialist woman the momement I declared atheism. It might be worth noting that we tend to pay more attention to people’s deviance from priviledged groups than their adherance. Dawkins is an upperclass, white, straight, relatively politically centrist on non-religious politics, able bodied man. I am sure all of these things play big roles in his day to day life, but De Dora sees them as unnotable because they fit social norms. De Dora sees religion, particularly christianity, as a default and pays a great deal of attention to that deviance. I wonder how the De Dora’s of the world talk about black or queer atheists.

  • Gibbon

    Aj

    You’re thinking of “anti-”, “a-” is neutral like “not” or “non”. Of course, you could assign another word for atheism, such as skeptic, then all theists would be askeptics. This whole negative thing is bullshit, the language we use is a product of history.

    There might be a bit of confusion here. In a purely mathematical sense the “a” prefix may be interpreted as neutral, but in a dichotomous sense that absence can be viewed as a negative. Take a medical test for example. When you’re tested for a disease and you’re found to not have it the doctor won’t say you tested neutral for the disease, they will say the test came back negative. Generally, when there are only two options one of them will be positive and the other negative, and when it comes to belief in deities it invariably comes down to you either having it or not. There is not some middle ground where you can both believe and not believe at the same time.

    On a personal note, it is for this reason that I don’t consider my self an atheist. Why define my self by what I don’t believe when there are things that I do believe?

  • Andrew

    I should have known better than to jump in here at all. I will try to answer your direct questions as I started this direct exchange, but I must admit that one of the drivers of me responding to your post was your insertion of libertarian ideology into a discussion about the use of self identifying labels in the realm of public perception. Something I considered both needlessly off topic and specifically self serving.

    I too value precision in language in so far as it leads to being better understood.

    It is in this way that “most atheists support a secular government” that would then be free of the sort of irreconcilable differences of opinion that are sure to result from the alternative.

    Sorry, I’ve tried really hard, but I’m unable to parse any meaning from this sentence. Could you rephrase?

    Too many unclear references, I agree, let me try again. Mr. Galef’s original quote that you were responding to reads in its entirety as follows. I contend that your plucking of a single sentence out of this context and than the “rephrasing” of it completely missed the intent of the argument being made by the author and thus makes your observations simply intellectual curiosities rather than counterpoint.

    While it’s true that the word ‘atheist’ only says that a person has no god belief, it’s amazing how many other views follow or are at least correlated. People who don’t believe in a god tend to share values because they focus solely on secular concerns. There’s no particularly good secular reason to deny homosexuals the right to marry, so most atheists support that right. We don’t believe in a god who cares about our politics, so most atheists support a secular government. Lacking belief in divine revelation, atheists tend to promote science as the best way to learn about the world. I can walk into a meeting of the Omnipresent Atheists in Columbus and expect to find a lot of people with values similar to my own.

    The third and fourth sentences should be understood to be in contrast to the most oft cited reasons for being against same-sex marriage (it is against god’s word) and the practical implications of religious views informing government actions.

    You are correct that your preference for “non-centralized governance” has been swept under the rug by both Mr. Galef and myself, and I apologize for the oversight. But your attempt to discredit his arguments as contradictory or circular seem to me to be rather indirect and tangential exercises that are much better summed up by your above response to me that:

    I explicitly addressed this by noting the distinction between theocratic government, secular government, and non-centralized governance. Galef and I agree that the first is bad, but differ in that he favors the second whereas I favor the third.

    In the same way that you were side tracked by the slight that your brand of atheism (or secularism) was not acknowledged by the author’s language, I was side tracked by your argumentative slight of hand in stating that “all government, including secular government, exists to restrict the rights of individuals” as a universal assumption that can be grafted onto anyone’s argument. I do not agree with you on this statement, and honestly am not interested in debating it with you. Especially in this forum which I fear I have already subjected to far too much ancillary off topic noise.

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    There might be a bit of confusion here. In a purely mathematical sense the “a” prefix may be interpreted as neutral, but in a dichotomous sense that absence can be viewed as a negative. Take a medical test for example. When you’re tested for a disease and you’re found to not have it the doctor won’t say you tested neutral for the disease, they will say the test came back negative. Generally, when there are only two options one of them will be positive and the other negative, and when it comes to belief in deities it invariably comes down to you either having it or not. There is not some middle ground where you can both believe and not believe at the same time.

    It’s not just a mathematical sense, many different contexts use this or a similar definition of negative i.e. opposition, against. That’s not the point though, clearly if you were using it in context of medical tests or as a binary reply e.g. “affirmative/negative”, then it is the same neutral meaning as atheist. Yet clearly when someone says that there is “negativity” in a message they don’t mean in this neutral sense, they mean opposition, as in maths, which is not the same as the other neutral meaning like in medical tests.

  • SamFH

    I thought about using the atheist definition for a while then decided against it. This is because (for me) the word doesn’t mean simply having no god belief. It means believing there is/are no god/gods. This is an important difference to me. I identify with a liberal religion but call myself agnostic because rationally I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a higher power. Logically one cannot prove a negative, so I must submit that god/gods could exist. That said I’ve seen no irrefutable proof of their existence, so I will not insist that they exist.

    This also goes to why some see Atheism as a religion. Since a belief that there are no gods is based on something that cannot be logically proven, it involves some measure of, for lack of a better word, faith. That is to say it’s fine for someone to decide they don’t believe in higher powers, but they still can’t prove a negative, so the decision is no more or less logical than someone who does believe. In that sense, Atheism is similar to Theism.

    In the same way, theism is not a banner to rally behind. Theists are not one camp, neither are Atheists.

    You don’t have to be religious to be a homophobe, a misogynist or a racist (but it helps).

    No, it doesn’t. No more than being non-religious helps one be tolerant. Religions don’t hold any one view, and neither do Atheists. By some the definition I just ascribed to being agnostic might make me Atheist. Point is both titles are false rallying points. They are subjective concepts that don’t describe any one set of beliefs beyond the belief or lack thereof in a higher power.

  • cathy

    ” Logically one cannot prove a negative, so I must submit that god/gods could exist.” It is in fact false that one cannot prove nonexistence, a self contradictory thing, such as an thing with is defined as blue and not blue at once, is logically impossible. However, we do not normally hold logical impossibility to be the standard for disbelief. I presume then that you also believe in ghosts, yeti, unicorns, lepricauns, and manbearpig, based on your standard for disbelief.

    Also, SamFH, you will find that if you apply this strict epistemology to everything, you will be left with little or no knowledge. Very few of your beliefs are things that must be true. It could be true the you are in fact in a coma and dreaming this right now or a brain in a vat, but, given that it is highly unlikely, you don’t go around supposing that you are a brain in a vat simply because it is not proven 100% that you aren’t. However, if you require logical impossibilty to not believe something and only theoretical possibility to believe it, you should believe virtually everything (including holding contradictory beliefs). Also, holding that your opponent must do something you believe to be impossible (though it is technically not) for your to believe them and imposing a far higher burden (because you certainly can’t prove logical necessity), is basically the same as sticking your fingers into your ears and going ‘lalala I can’t hear you’. You are not taking a neutral position on god belief, you are taking an affirmitive position. A neutral position would be ‘since I do not know, I do not hold a belief either way’. Ido not know if it is raining in paris today, and I don’t have a belief either that it is raining or not raining. Now, if I had weather reports, pictures, etc. or Paris’s current weather, I would be jusitfied in believing it was raining, depsite the fact that I do not have 100% certainty. The question about what beliefs we should hold is a question about the amount and quality of evidence, and does not require 100% certainty. Virtually all of our justified beliefs do not have that degree of certainty and it is unfair to request that your opponent do so when you are not willing to do it yourself. Prove to me with 100% certainty that we’re not in the matrix and see if your inability to do so convinces you we are in the matrix.

  • muggle

    Atheist with a capital A. Let’s not shy away from the word precisely because to do so is to give those who promote negative stereotypes surrounding nonbelievers far too much power.

    If they like to promote the image of Atheist as something amoral, self-centered and callous who will commit atrocities at the drop of the hat if it suits them, they make the Athiest something to be feared as a bad thing and the word itself instills the fear.

    If we act likewise and as if the word Atheist is something to be feared, we only help them build that negative image of those who don’t belive in any kind of deity.

  • Gibbon

    Aj

    It’s not just a mathematical sense, many different contexts use this or a similar definition of negative i.e. opposition, against. That’s not the point though, clearly if you were using it in context of medical tests or as a binary reply e.g. “affirmative/negative”, then it is the same neutral meaning as atheist. Yet clearly when someone says that there is “negativity” in a message they don’t mean in this neutral sense, they mean opposition, as in maths, which is not the same as the other neutral meaning like in medical tests.

    Strictly speaking all negativity is in opposition, regardless of whether there are only two options or more. Even in medical tests there is opposition; a positive test result is the opposite of the negative result, and vice versa. There is not always a neutral when there is a positive and negative, and that is the case with atheism/theism; like I said, you either believe in god or you don’t, there’s no other choice.

    On atheism, you also have to take into consideration the fact that the term atheism, by definition, doesn’t denote anything at all, which makes it even more understandable as to why it would be viewed as negative. What way is there to interpret a word, other than negative, when it doesn’t describe any actual thing?

  • Greg

    Just on a slight tangent, am I the only one who hates the word non-theist?

    It’s just, ‘non- is latin, and ‘theist’ is greek. Given that non- and a- have the same meanings in English, it seems especially silly to use non- rather than a- in this situation.

    The language purist in me much prefers atheist because you aren’t mixing the two classical languages… ;)

    I guess you could call me a nondeusist. (I’m guessing that’s right, anyone who speaks Latin want to help me out? :) )

    The thing is that the word atheist doesn’t have negative connotations in and of itself. The negative connotations are put there by the theists who demonise atheists. If we change our label, the connotations will just move to the new label.

    Personally I like the term atheist precisely because it only says this one thing about me: I don’t believe in theistic gods. Considering how pervasive the belief in theistic gods is, I think its very useful to be able to refer to those who don’t believe in god as a whole rather than listing them as Buddhists, deists, skeptics etc. etc.

    (I include Deists in there, because by my understanding deism is the belief in a non-personal god, whilst theism is the belief in a personal god (one can’t be a subset of the other) – just before anyone wishes to argue the point.)

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    Strictly speaking all negativity is in opposition, regardless of whether there are only two options or more. Even in medical tests there is opposition; a positive test result is the opposite of the negative result, and vice versa. There is not always a neutral when there is a positive and negative, and that is the case with atheism/theism; like I said, you either believe in god or you don’t, there’s no other choice.

    As I said, there are two different meanings on negative. You can’t use the one in the context of binary choices.

  • Staceyjw

    Again, I agree with Muggle (as usual :)
    “Atheist with a capital A”- I do use the label, and think its important to do so. It is not the most important thing in my life, but it is a shorthanded way of describing what I’m all about.

    Secular doesn’t mean Atheist, of course, as there are theists that value having a secular government too. I’m all for uniting people in a common fight, whether they are theists or not. Keeping the wall of seperation is extemely important, so we should use whatever tools/words are best for the situation.

    Keep up the good work Jesse.

  • SamFH

    @Cathy

    Actually, I do believe in ghosts, etc., or at least the possibility thereof. Why should I try to prove that we aren’t in the Matrix? We very well may be. This would be trying to prove a negative, which as I said cannot be done. This doesn’t mean I believe in the matrix any more than being the whimsical creation of a greater being, I see little point in trying to claim they’re not true or they are true, it doesn’t matter either way. If I am in the matrix, it doesn’t change my state of being, nor does being the product of scientific chance or or divine creation. All I care about is life as I experience it, the rest is academic.

    Using this rationale doesn’t eliminate knowledge but rather eliminates assumption. Theoretical possibility doesn’t define my belief, but it does define my inability to disbelieve. Perhaps as you say I’m in a coma and dreaming all this. Thinking through these different perspectives allows for different views of life as we experience it and at least for me a greater appreciation thereof. You’re right, I don’t believe I’m a brain in a vat because I can’t disprove it. Nor by my inability to disprove god/gods do I create belief in a higher power. These are both beside the point. Asserting a belief or disbelief in god/gods does not change the life you live. One can live a good life regardless of belief/disbelief. A banner on buses read, “Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness sake.” The second part of the message is to me the important one, the first doesn’t matter. Why not believe in God? Just be good for goodness sake.

    My logic isn’t meant to assert religious certainty, since it’s equally impossible to logically prove god’s existence. Assume nothing, and merely focus on living life as one wishes to live it.

  • cathy

    @SamFH, ” You’re right, I don’t believe I’m a brain in a vat because I can’t disprove it.” Exactly, so why should I not have a similar position relative to god belief? You seem to be confusing a strict definition of knowledge (100% certainty) with rational/justified belief. I don’t ‘know’ with 100% certainty that England exists, but the bulk of my evidence is that I have a lot of good reason to believe it and no good reason to disbelieve it, so I am perfectly justifed and reasonable when I say ‘I believe England exists.’ There is also a large bulk of good evidence against the existence of gods and no good evidence for it, so I am perfectly justifed in saying that ‘I do not believe in gods’ which is the definition of an atheist.

    Oh, and this one “One can live a good life regardless of belief/disbelief.” is demonstrably false. I have several good friends who are queer and grew up in fundamentalist religious households. It is obvious that holding certain beliefs about oneself being evil, sinful, and unwanted impairs one’s ability to live happily and fully.

    “Asserting a belief or disbelief in god/gods does not change the life you live.” Also false, based on every religion in existence. People who hold certain god beliefs do have markedly different behavior, for example, Bin Laden, or the Amish. It might be possible for a loose deist or such to have no behavioral difference, but this is not a typical case.

    “merely focus on living life as one wishes to live it.” Except others actively impede my ability to do so, often on religious grounds. This assumption that god belief and the religions it spawns have no effect on people’s lives is rather silly, given the worldwide history of religious war, terrorism, religiously based excuses for oppression of a minority (such as the bible being used to justify slavery or deny gay rights), etc.

  • cathy

    “trying to prove a negative, which as I said cannot be done” Again, this is wrong. One can actually prove definitively that something does not exist by proving logical impossibility, though this is an extremely high burden. For example, we can know with certainty that square circles do not exists, because the very definitions of square and circle make the two mutually exclusive. Square circles, being by definition impossible, are something we can safely say does not exist in any case. This is important in part because some claim that if the theist accepts the premise 1) evil exists, then God (classical, western conception) by definition cannot possibly exist(this is known as the problem of evil).

    Proving the impossibility of knowledge about God is giving yourself ever bit as high of a burden as that of 100% certainty, because you have to be able to demonstarte that in every theorectical case that might be concieved, there can be no knowledge on this subject. Some physicist claim to have met this burden in regards to knowledge about certina distant entities in the universe, but in actuality, many more people claim to have demonstrated 100% certainty for a proposition than have tried to prove the impossibility of knowledge. Honestly, I think if you attempt to prove that facts about God are by definition unknowable, you’re going to find that this task is an even harder one than trying to demonstrate existence or nonexistence.

  • alex

    Please excuse me if I repeat what somebody else has already said, but I don’t have time nor patience to read through entire sheet of comments. Anyway, here goes my 2¢ of rant.

    I think that my main objection here is that atheism and secularism are different things. While one denotes lack of a belief in gods, the other doesn’t concern itself with such beliefs, complementing religion rather than elimitating it altogether. In my opinion, we would benefit more from a secular society than an atheistic one. The reason for that is while I do believe that rational examination is better than religious belief, one does not fully exclude the other, and we indeed do have many religious folks on the secular side. There are plenty of those who attend a church and argue that it should be separate from the government, and I don’t think it is wise to alienate them by centering organization around atheism.

    Slightly off-topic, but USSR, which I was born in, used to have atheism as the de-facto religion. I know that “atheism = religion” sounds stupid, but that’s basically what it was: people were told that there is no god, and the thought was blindly accepted and followed by many. It is no surprise that there are so many deranged religious fanatics — mostly Christian — in Russia today.

    The whole notion of centering one’s identity or even life around atheism to me sounds a bit silly. Atheism should not be a core concept, it is merely a product of skeptic attitude applied to life (say, a little more than in “progressive” Christianity :) ). Or at least that’s the way I see it. Sure, there is plenty to talk about and debates over existence (or relevance — sorry, pet peeve) of a deity are unending, and I don’t suggest for atheists to shut up: in fact, it might be better for myself to shut up more often about my atheistic stance. It’s just that we are atheists incidentally; our secular goals should be a bit larger.

    Not that I’m anybody worthy of consideration, of course :) In any case, please carry on. This is becoming very interesting.

  • JD

    The only thing I can think of is that religious people generally don’t think of themselves as theists, polytheists, pantheists, etc, usually they have some other name for their set of beliefs, and subcategories within those.

  • keddaw

    @SamFH

    The logical and rational position is to disbelieve anything for which there is no tangible evidence for.

    The problem you have is that belief, for you, is equated with the religious dogma whereas a scientific disbelief is open to evidence and will instantly change belief when evidence points in the other direction.

    Religions, as they stand, have no valid evidence that makes belief in their gods sensible. The only position to have is to disbelieve in all gods until the some evidence points to their existence. Same with ghosts, leprechauns and your head being in a vat.

    ____

    Atheist is not the opposite position to theist. Amoral is not the opposite of moral – immoral is. Perhaps we should have a label for people who hate the idea of god and would not believe in god even when presented with good evidence, we could call them imtheists? Clunky, but consistent with immoral.

  • http://www.belovedspear.org Beloved Spear

    It always struck me as inadequate for two reasons. First, the term is too amorphous. Atheism is simply the absence of a particular worldview, and as such, can include such a wide range of divergent perspectives as to be be functionally meaningless. Second, the term exists only in negation. “Defining” yourself as an atheist means you are defined by the absence of a particular belief. That sets up a worldview that exists only to oppose and deconstruct and resist another. Sorta like the Republican party lately. That might be fun in it’s own way, but it’s hardly the foundation upon which to build a more just society. Atheism can be a meaningful subset of other viable worldviews, like, for instance, secular humanism. But on it’s own, it seems inadequate.

  • SamFH

    @Cathy
    Scientifically speaking, even great bodies of thought are referred to as theories. This is because they cannot be absolutely proven, only observably so. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is a theory because it’s possible it could be wrong somehow, sometime. As far as the square circle goes we can only determine that as we have observed it such a thing cannot exist by the definitions we have set. God(s) don’t have any one agreed upon definition. God(s) is/are an amorphous concept. Once you ascribe a definition to it you can prove or disprove aspects of that.

    My comment about leading a good life regardless of belief referred solely to a belief in a higher power, not how it’s expressed. I’m not a fan of fundamentalism, but not all theists are fundamentalist, and nothing about believing in God requires bigotry. This is what I meant before. Fundamentalists would tell us that God is an entity of very finite definition who condones certain things and condemns others. I don’t believe that’s true, but disbelieving their definition of God doesn’t make belief invalid. The part about Bin Laden or the Amish is a dogmatic argument, believing in god does not by it’s nature define the expression of that belief.

    I don’t know what hard evidence there is to disprove an intangible thing save subjective evidence which is the same type used to prove god(s) do exist. Atheism is perfectly rational, so is religious belief. Logically neither can prove it’s absolute correctness, which is why we’d do best to simply treat each other with respect. Not because of dogma, but because it’s right. Atheists can do that, and theists can too. I suppose the aforementioned “imtheists” could as well.

    @Keddaw:
    I would argue the logical/rational position is to disbelieve only those things you have hard evidence against.

    —–

    Really though in the long run I think Alex has expressed what I’m trying to get at better than I have, so I don’t know that I need to say more.

  • http://blocraison.blogspot.com Paul Fidalgo

    I would in fact defend aRepublicanism, in all seriousness. I can’t see anything wrong with organizing a movement around stopping the creep of Republican slime. Pick anything to which I am opposed, in fact, and I’m happy to defend the notion of and rally to it: aracism, asexism, awillfulignorance, arealityTV. Start the website, and I’ll subscribe to the RSS feed.

    I know the aRepublicanist thing was meant to be dismissive of Jesse’s post, but look how I’ve turned the tables and made it into something lovely.