Being identified as an atheist

I’m not always comfortable being publicly identified as an atheist.

The label is accurate enough; I don’t think that any God or other supernatural entities exist. But the word “atheist” has other connotations as well, and I don’t always want to take them on board or fight against them.

For example, in a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that quotes me, there is this paragraph:

Now, the deeper question may be whether science can ever flourish in Muslim countries without complete independence from religion. Edis, who is an atheist, considers this the defining quality of Europe’s Scientific Revolution, what allowed science to develop without constraints. Other scholars agree that scientific autonomy is needed, even though an entirely naturalistic understanding of the world cuts deeply against the grain of Muslim culture.

When I read it, I immediately wished the author hadn’t identified me as “an atheist.” I probably would have preferred “not religious.”

One problem is that I know how far too many Muslims react to the word; “atheist” has connotations of “enemy” as well as someone opposed to all that is True and Good. I would like Muslims to allow scientific institutions more autonomy in their countries. Once I am identified as “an atheist,” my arguments to that effect become worse than irrelevant—they actually harm any cause I would be seen to support.

But also among non-Muslims, the “atheist” label can poison the well. Even in academic writing, I regularly come across disclaimers that while the author is not devout, they disavow the dogmatic certainty displayed by atheists as well. To some degree, this is invidious stereotype-mongering. But the fact is, the stereotype is out there. Once I’m described as “an atheist,” people feel free to assume all sorts of (usually negative) things about me.

Annoying, but I doubt there’s much I can do about any of this.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10817974804323066290 shreddakj

    That is a serious problem, but in the long run I really do think we need to help the public get over the negative stereotypes.
    While there are some people who refuse to let go of their absurd views of what an atheist is, I think with a little help most people will understand. I met a staunch agnostic the other day who tried to tell me that an atheist is "someone who thinks they know everything and believes in nothing", and wouldn't listen to what I had to say.

    Perhaps it is a bit different where I live in largely secular New Zealand though..

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05594195282113827293 downtown dave

    Since the heavens and the earth declare the glory of God, I don't understand how a scientist doesn't see that He exists. http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    At least they didn't mention that you were black. That would totally have ruined any chance of people treating your arguments fairly!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Steven Carr: "they didn't mention that you were black."

    ????

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02482126036091952489 Christians Walk

    pray about it

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Taner isn't black?

    I will take his views more seriously then.

    Why is it wrong to be prejudiced about black people but not about atheists?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02529120293963246663 elschroll

    As an alumni of truman state, I know what its like being an atheist in Kirksville. However, the stereotyping will never end if atheists continue to hide their existence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08000353980872079468 Ophelia Benson

    But also among non-Muslims, the "atheist" label can poison the well. Even in academic writing, I regularly come across disclaimers that while the author is not devout, they disavow the dogmatic certainty displayed by atheists as well. To some degree, this is invidious stereotype-mongering. But the fact is, the stereotype is out there.

    Of course it is, but isn't that exactly why atheists should chip away at the stereotype the same way Teh Gays chipped away at that stereotype – by not hiding?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00176754512128249839 Nathaniel

    The best thing we can do as Atheists is be the best example of humanity that we can possibly be. There will be those who demonize us and speak ill of us but they should be proven wrong by everyone who actually takes the time to get to know us.

    Of course, it's hard not to fall short of the level of evil that is normally attributed to us. Simply by refraining from eating babies and raping puppies, we've exceeded a lot of people's expectations.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06056410184615941086 M. Tully

    In a way I understand Tanner's feelings. When asked about my world-view, I wouldn't describe it as atheistic; far too narrow. I call my world-view naturalism. It describes how and why I analyze events the way I do and if someone asks what it means, I can them a coherent description of it.

    On the other hand, I am willing to handle the label atheist and explain to (the vast majority) of detractor's why their interpretation of the word is misguided and how under the most charitable of circumstances would be considered bigoted.

    So, I find being labeled "an atheist" as too narrow to know anything about me (much like being called a-unicornist or a-analprobingalienabuctionist), but I don't mind accepting it and asking why they felt the identifier was necessary.

    Or, to piggyback on Carr's point, what if the statement had read like this, "Edis, who is a woman, considers this the defining quality of Europe's Scientific Revolution…"

    I think an appropriate response would be, "Well, I am a proud woman, but that really doesn't have anything to do with the historical significance of the scientific revolution's effect on the modern European standard of living, unless of course you're a bigoted about women's ability to do history. Now, let me tell you about the great evidence for the scientific revolution's…"

    In the end, if you think the label prejudices the message, then confront the prejudice, don't try to avoid an accurate (although admittedly, over narrow) label.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Ophelia Benson: "atheists should chip away at the stereotype the same way The Gays chipped away at that stereotype – by not hiding?"

    I agree.

    But the gay experience also tells us that it is not always possible to come out, and that public "outing" is not always in a gay person's best interest, however valuable it might be to a movement.

    Our interests often conflict. I'd like conservative Muslims to get more used to living with godless infidels in their midst. For that purpose, my being identified as an atheist is a good thing. But I'd also like Muslims to grant more autonomy to their scientific institutions. And for that purpose, my being identified as an atheist is an obstacle.

    Personally and professionally, I identify first with a scientific and academic community, not with an atheist movement. So my judgment calls are weighted accordingly. Others will do otherwise.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15345900255255283518 Cman

    Atheism is actually a very unscientific approach to life, Taner. Atheism is based on the ASSUMPTION that there is no God, thus making it a faith-based belief. Once you assume that there is no God, you subscribe to the belief that since there is no God, man HAS to be the answer to every problem in life, because unless that is true, there are no answers.


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