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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University