Words, Words, Words – Part Two: "Atheist" Is Not a Dirty Word

This is the second in a series of two posts on the linguistic challenges facing the secular movement and efforts to engage the non-religious in interfaith work. (If you missed Part One, you can find it here.) Thanks to my friend Adam Garner for the great conversation that inspired this piece! You can find him on Twitter, and read about his awesome work with Interfaith in Action at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I have a public service announcement for everybody (religious or otherwise) who ever wants to have anything to do with anybody non-religious: “Atheist” is NOT a dirty word.

Even among truly well-intentioned activists in the interfaith movement who genuinely respect the non-religious and want them to feel included, I often encounter an unwillingness to use the word “atheist.” I am absolutely positive that this arises from a place of respect, not a place of bigotry. That is why I am making this public service announcement: so those who believe they are being nice by avoiding the word “atheist” can understand the actual effects of that behavior.

I have heard the following sentences and others like them too many times:

“Chelsea is an athe—sorry! a Humanist.”

“Interfaith work isn’t just for religious people – it’s also for Humanists.”

“It’s important to reach out to Humanist students on your campus.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the last two – of course Humanists should be involved in interfaith work. But so should non-religious people who don’t identify with Humanism. As for the first sentence, the only offensive part is the apology. “Atheist” isn’t a slur, so don’t treat it like one. When people tiptoe around the A-word or hastily correct themselves after it slips out, their well-meaning attempt to be respectful ends up being disrespectful by perpetuating negative attitudes toward the word “atheist” and the people it describes.

I identify as both an atheist and a Humanist. If the two words were synonyms, I wouldn’t use both of them. The fact is that atheism and Humanism are very different things. Atheism is simply a belief that no god or supernatural intelligence exists. Humanism is, to quote the Humanist Manifesto III, “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” The lack of supernatural beliefs that defines atheism is just one component of Humanism, so not all atheists are Humanists. Not all Humanists are atheists, either – for example, some are agnostics, or even deists.

As an atheist, I feel compelled to destigmatize the term by using it frequently and unapologetically. The OUT Campaign sets an excellent and admirable example for atheists everywhere who should be able to own their identity instead of being ashamed of it or remaining closeted for fear of others’ reactions. However, identifying myself as an atheist only tells people what I don’t believe; I also identify myself as a Humanist in order to tell people something about what I do believe. I also hope that, by using the word “Humanist” (which may be less familiar to many people than the word “atheist”), I will encourage people to learn about Humanism. But being a Humanist doesn’t make me any less of an atheist, or any less proud to be one.

When my friend Adam Garner, who is an atheist but not a Humanist, hears the word “Humanist” used as a euphemism for “atheist,” he worries that the speaker “might think that there is something intrinsically better in calling someone a Humanist over an atheist….So while I am not offended [by being mistakenly called a Humanist], I am slightly concerned about the line of reasoning that brought them to that conclusion, whether they are conscious of it or not.” The root of the problem, he thinks, is that “many people are not comfortable with the fact that some people do not believe in God, and while defining yourself as an atheist puts [non-belief in God] front row center, the term ‘Humanist’ does not make that the primary focus.” Adam is a pretty chill guy, and always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. But many atheists become justifiably upset when they have a label imposed on them that they do not identify with, and when the label that they do identify with is treated as a dirty word.

It’s not just atheists who can be offended when people use the two words interchangeably; Humanists can also feel slighted. I, for one, wouldn’t call myself a Humanist if I didn’t think it meant something special that wasn’t contained in the word “atheist.” Calling all atheists “Humanists” denies that specialness, and strips the word “Humanism” of any real meaning by demoting it from unique belief system to euphemism.

So here is my message to interfaithers everywhere: Treating Humanism as a sanitized version of atheism is disrespectful toward atheists, Humanists, and people (like me) who are both. Don’t do it. We heathens know you can’t use all of our words all of the time, and we truly appreciate any attempt at inclusive language. But don’t perpetuate stereotypes by deliberately avoiding oft-maligned words like “atheist.” Instead, be part of the solution by demonstrating that there is no shame in atheism.

Chelsea Link is a senior at Harvard University, studying History and Science with a focus in the history of medicine, and minoring in Mind/Brain/Behavior. She is the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, and the President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council. She also writes for the Harvard Brain and volunteers with the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry. She likes to cook while pretending she’s on Top Chef (Hasty breakfast? More like Quickfire Challenge!), adores word games of all kinds (and was once the President of the illustrious Harvard College Crossword Society), and tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare. This summer she is interning at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. You can ask her what she’s doing after graduation, but she’ll give you a different answer every time.

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