Calvinists, Arminians, atheists and other sub-categories of non-Sheilaism

Does God Play Duck-Duck-Goose?” Richard Beck asks, critiquing the Calvinist doctrine of “double predestination.”

That’s the idea that “before you were even born, God had predestined you to either go to heaven or go to hell.” Beck notes that:

Double predestination has been roundly criticized, even within Reformed circles. But many people do subscribe to the doctrine. Double predestination is deemed to be a crude bastardization of Reformed theology, but crude bastardizations tend to be pretty popular.

He then goes on to explore the arguments that Calvinists use to distinguish themselves from double predestination, and how all of those arguments lead, logically, either to double-predestination by another name, or else to a form of Calvinism that turns out not to be very Calvinist at all.

Beck concludes:

As I see it, it really just boils down to this. You’re either an Arminian or you believe in double predestination, either the classic variety or the Duck-Duck-Goose variety. Because the election “in Christ” argument is either just more Duck-Duck-Goose or it’s the equivalent of Arminianism.

So either way, it boils down to a choice: Arminianism or double predestination.

Arminianism or Duck-Duck-Goose.

Yep. That’s the basic gist of the logic for why Christians like Beck and I can respect Calvin’s contributions without wanting to regard ourselves as Calvinists.

Like most non-Calvinists, I do not carry this picture in a locket worn around my neck.

My quibble here, though, is that I don’t think that makes us “Arminians.” This is a pet-peeve of mine. “Arminian” is mainly an in-group word for outsiders. It’s just silly to expect me, as an outsider, to embrace that word or to make the in-group categories my primary source of identity.

The picture there to the right is of Jacobus Arminius. If you didn’t recognize him, that’s OK — most of the people whom Calvinists regard as “Arminians” don’t recognize him. Or think about him much, if ever. But that has no bearing on the in-group terminology. Even if you’ve never heard of Arminius and have no idea what he believed, you’re still an Arminian, as far as the group is concerned.

That’s an annoying assertion. I suppose it is technically true, if by that label they mean something binary like “not one of us Calvinists.” But one of the nice things about not being a Calvinist is that one does not have to define one’s self primarily in relation to Calvinism. That’s actually one of the nice things about not being anything — of not subscribing to any given “-ism.”

Decades ago, Robert Bellah & Co. introduced us to “Sheilaism” — the idiosyncratic, solipsistic religious faith of a woman named, yes, Sheila. Given that Sheila herself was the sole proponent and adherent of Sheilaism, that makes the rest of us non-Sheilaists.

But of course that’s not how most of us think of ourselves. Most people in the world aren’t even aware that there is such a thing as “Sheilaism,” and so they would never identify themselves as non-Sheilaists. So while such a classification is, indeed, technically true for all of us (except Sheila herself), you won’t find anyone who primarily identifies themselves that way.

Thus while it’s not technically wrong to say that you and I are non-Sheilaists, it’s misleading to categorize us as mainly that or as only that. Those binary categories of Sheilaist/non-Sheilaist aren’t things we much think about or care about. We can be classified according to those categories, but they aren’t anything that interests us or concerns us in any meaningful way.

Such classifications, it seems to me, can be accurate if all we say of them is, “Here is a label that might be applied to you,” but it becomes inaccurate when we say, “this label is what you are.”

The latter seems reductive, misleading and irksome.

So here, then, is a question for those of my fellow non-Sheilaists who also are non-theists: To what extent do you find the term “atheist” similarly irksome?

This sort of thing can be more than merely irksome, too. It doesn’t really matter if Calvinists insist on defining me as an “Arminian,” since their choice of terminology doesn’t affect the parameters of my actual identity and beliefs, nor does it restrict my freedom. But when the in-group enjoys real privilege, then its redefining of all outsiders as primarily outsiders can become a way of enforcing and maintaining that privilege. And that is more than simply annoying — that is unjust.

This points us toward a larger problem, and a longer discussion, having to do with the ways such labeling can be used to maintain an imbalance of power — allowing one group to dictate the terms for everyone else. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it in a future discussion.

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  • Matthew Elmslie

    a question for those of my fellow non-Sheilaists who also are
    non-theists: To what extent do you find the term “atheist” similarly

    It’s not irksome, in that it’s usually used in conversations where the distinction that it gets at is the one that is under discussion anyway. But you’re right; it’s of no constructive use.

  • Morilore

    Well, to answer the question directly, no, I don’t find the term “atheist” irksome or othering.  It feels like a positive, affirmative identity to me – one that describes me in addition to labeling me.  That’s me, personally, though.  I know for a fact that there are many non-theists who refuse to identify as “atheists” for reasons that have a lot to do with the problems of misogyny, racism, and so forth in the atheist community itself.  I’m sure there are others who don’t like the word for the other reasons.

    I think there’s a critical difference here: an Arminian, as you say, is anyone, absolutely anyone who is not a Calvinist.  An atheist, on the other hand, is not anyone who is not a Christian.  She is someone who is not a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Pagan, or a Hindu, or… etc. And Christianity is the privileged religion in this society, not any religion in general.

  • Shay Guy

    So is it the relative sizes of the “X” and “Not X” groups that makes the difference?

  • Morilore

    It’s not the size, it’s that in this case, “X” is “Christian.”  So “Not X” cannot be “atheist” because there are other religions in this world, and an atheist (ignoring for a second the subtle issues of atheistic Buddhism and so forth) is not any of them.  A Muslim is not an atheist.  A Pagan is not an atheist (usually).  The word would be worse if it were routinely applied to everyone who is not a Christian.

  • Zeno_of_Elea

    While I do know what you mean, the idea of an “atheist community” has always seemed a little bit funny to me. A friend once asked me, “well, what do atheists believe?” to which the only response is, “I don’t know, and that’s kinda the point. Also: sleeping in on Sundays.”

  • Carstonio

    That sounds like the common jokes about Unitarian Universalists that imply that lack of belief is wrong. When told by non-UUs, they have the same tone as the common joke “Vegetarian: Indian word for bad hunter.” Ridiculous that anyone would object to either vegetarianism or lack of belief. Almost like they take it personally when others make different choices for their own lives.

  • Bificommander

    I am not bothered  by the term atheist, but then I have chosed that as my own identification. Even though I could imagine someone who believes exactly what I do prefering to call himself an agnost, as I consider it fundamentally un-provable that there is no god or supernatural entity of any kind.

    But I prefer the ‘atheist’ label because the same could be said almost as easily of unicorns, gnomes or any other mythical creature. You can never conclusively prove you’ve checked every mushroom on the planet simultaniously and made sure none of them were actually houses for gnomes. But I feel that, given the state of current evidence, it is reasonable to assume that there are no gnomes, and I will not change the way I live to prevent damaging any mushrooms at all costs just because I cannot prove conclusively that I might not squash a family of gnomes by doing so.

    And to come back from that tangent, I feel the same about religion. To call myself an agnost feels too much like saying ‘Either god exists or he doesn’t, so there’s a 50-50 chance he exists’, even though I’m sure many people who self-identify as agnosts don’t feel this is an accurate description of their beliefs. If I turn Fred’s question around for a moment, so that I can more easily identify with the problem, and ask myself whether I’d be happy to be labeled an agnost because I don’t consider the non-existence of god an undisputably proven fact: I wouldn’t care for it much, but if some other party says hir calls everyone an agnost if hir doesn’t believe god’s existence is completely proven or disproven, I’d probably just shrug. Don’t like it, but I don’t get particularly upset about it.

  • John Alexander Harman

    I was going to comment pedantically that the standard term for someone who is uncertain about the existence of god(s) and/or considers it unprovable is “an agnostic,” but on reflection I think that “agnost” really ought to be the noun form of the adjective “agnostic,” just as “atheist” is the noun for someone whose beliefs are atheistic.  As far as I can tell from a quick google search, though, you may be the first person to coin that word.

  • Lori

    It doesn’t bother me either. I think it has to do with what Morilore said. Atheist is not a term that lumps a huge group of people together as not members of a much smaller group of people. That’s what strikes me as weird and offensive about the Calvinist vs Arminians distinction. It’s Calvinists assuming (possibly unconsciously) that the universe revolves around Calvinism, which it does not. The majority of people do believe in at least one god, so being identified as someone who doesn’t  seems perfectly reasonable to me.

    I do get irked when people assume that because I’m an atheist I must agree with ____ fill in the blank with name of atheist they either find offensive or who they think is the bestest atheist ever, and I don’t identify with organized atheism in any meaningful way, but those are separate issues.

  • Ross Thompson

    I don’t identify with organized atheism in any meaningful way, but those are separate issues.

    There’s organized atheism? Isn’t that what the phrase “herding cats” was coined to describe?

  • Becca Stareyes

    I’m somewhere in the middle.  I’m comfortable with using the word ‘atheist’ to describe myself, but if asked my religion (and not given a multiple choice option where I have to select the one that best describes me), I’ll usually use ‘secular humanist’, for some of the same reason  I don’t use ‘anti-Sheilaist’: atheist describes an aspect of my religious and philosophical beliefs, but not anywhere close to the whole. 

    (The analogy being that few Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. would identify themselves as theist when asked ‘what is your religion?’.)

  • John Alexander Harman

    What Becca said.  I am an atheist, but that fact alone is not terribly informative; Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, and Sigmund Freud were all atheists, but their worldviews didn’t have a lot in common with one another beyond that, nor do any of them have that much in common with mine.  Secular Humanist is a descriptor that indicates a set of beliefs, some descriptive, some prescriptive, to which I do in fact subscribe; atheism is only one of those beliefs.

    I’m also working on becoming a Bayesian rationalist, but I think I still have a ways to go to clear out all the mental junk that impedes my mastery of that art.

  • Neil Rickert

    I have preferred the term “non-religious” to “atheist.”  But I don’t make a big fuss about it.

  • FearlessSon

    This sort of thing can be more than merely irksome, too. It doesn’t really matter if Calvinists insist on defining me as an “Arminian,” since their choice of terminology doesn’t affect the parameters of my actual identity and beliefs, nor does it restrict my freedom. But when the in-group enjoys real privilege, then its redefining of all outsiders as primarily outsiders can become a way of enforcing and maintaining that privilege. And that is more than simply annoying — that is unjust.

    Reminds me of a few years ago when the Republican party was flirting with the idea of only referring to the Democratic party as the “Democratic Socialist Party”.  It would not have any direct authority, but if enough Republicans referred to them as such in front of news cameras, it might sink into enough viewer’s heads.  

  • Turcano

    To which I would respond “I fucking wish.”

  • Shay Guy

    It’s not the size, it’s that in this case, “X” is “Christian.”


    I think it has to do with what Morilore said. Atheist is not a term that lumps a huge group of people together as not members of a much smaller group of people.

    OK, now I’m all turned around. Somebody help?

  • Lori

    I think the confusion is that I misunderstood Morilore’s point. I’ll try to rephrase my point without the reference to the error.

    Calvinist vs Arminians is one specific group of people with a specific set of beliefs (Calvinists) vs Everybody else. It treats all the very different beliefs that “Arminians” have as unimportant except in such much as they are non-Calvinist.  That’s incredibly offensive, especially in light of the fact that Calvinists are actually a smaller group that “Arminians”.

    The term atheist doesn’t work that way and so doesn’t offend me the way it would offend me to have a Calvinist call me an Arminian. Most people believe, so for me being identified by a lack of belief isn’t a problem, even though in other cases I do tend to be bothered by being identified solely by what I don’t believe.

    If I’m understand correctly now, Morilore’s point was that Calvinist vs Arminian is only applicable to Christianity, with all other religions left out as if they don’t exist.

  • The_L1985

     That, and there’s so much more to non-Calvinist forms of Christianity than just “does not believe in predestination.”

  • Morilore

    As Lori said, her opinion and mine parted ways at some point.  Now that I think about it a little more, I think that maybe size is an important issue.  But what I was originally trying to say is that “atheist” doesn’t define me in relation to “Christianity,” it defines me in relation to all religions everywhere.  And since all religions everywhere are not equally privileged, the term “atheist” doesn’t feel like a marginalizing, otherizing word to me.  It doesn’t identify me as “them” as opposed to “us”, it identifies me as “this type” among a hundred thousand possibilities.

    In contrast, words like “Calvinist” and “Arminian” together supposedly encompass the whole of humanity – and the latter word serves to erase a whole swath of massive diversity.  “Calvinist” and “Arminian” together are a complete set, one which clearly and unambiguously divides humanity into “us” and “them.”  “Christian” and “atheist” together are not a complete set.  “Atheist” is more precise and less erasing than “Arminian” because it does not mean “anyone who is not Christian.”

  • The_insane_protagonist

    Is the final paragraph pointing towards something to do with the term “non-white people”? That’s what it sort of makes me think of…

  • Andrew Ridgway

    Well … that’s an interesting question.

    I think that there are several atheists who are afraid of the term because of all the negative propaganda associated with it–and make no mistake, there IS a lot of negative propaganda and ill-will that has been heaped upon it.  But I don’t see the term as inherently alienating, though along with most of my fellow atheists we dream of a world in which it has become as superfluous as ‘Copernican.’

    There’s also a distinction between the ‘us v everyone else’ usage of ‘Arminian’ as opposed to the ‘us v that particular group among all others that we revile particularly’ that we see with the term ‘atheist’.

    But on another level, atheism isn’t really a thing in the way that Christianity or even Armenianism is.  A religion has a set of dogmas, a social and institutional structure, etc.  Atheism is simply the state of having rejected all such dogmas.  There is no ‘there’ there, and asserting otherwise is the foundation for all the other ninth commandment violations that so many of them resort to or repeat.

  • Ruby_Tea

    Every now and then, atheists come across believers (almost invariably Christian) who snidely ask, “Why do you call yourself an A-theist?  Why identify yourself by what you don’t believe?  After all, you don’t call yourself an A-Bigfootist, right?”

    To which I can only answer, if we lived in a world where belief in Bigfoot was really, really important (and for many people, considered the most important thing you can know about a person), I would call myself an abigfootist.  But I’ve never had anyone care about the state of my belief in Bigfoot.  I’ve never been told I deserve to be tortured forever due to my lack of belief in Bigfoot.  It has never been my understanding that a lack of belief in Bigfoot will disqualify me (officially or not) from holding public office.  So yeah, I’m an atheist, and not an abigfootist, or alochnessmonsterist, etc.

    There’s another reason I like to call myself an atheist: believers have had control of language for a long, long time, to the point where “atheist” is still, in many circles, a pejorative instead of a simple descriptor.  (I remember a couple of years ago, Obama matter-of-factly alluded to his mother’s skepticism, only to be criticized for “throwing her under the bus.”)  I’d like to live in a world where this is not the case, where people don’t assume that I’m immoral and hedonistic just because I say I’m an atheist.

    So, I’m an atheist because it’s a simple and truthful descriptor (I am Not A Theist), because it’s a matter of importance in our society, and because I’d like to reclaim a useful word.

  • Carstonio

    The problem with atheism as a word is that it treats theism as the default or the norm, and none of the positions on the existence of gods should be treated that way. Too many people assume that atheism is the opposite position, a belief that gods don’t exist as opposed to a lack of belief that gods exist. I’ve often said that the latter includes, by implication, a lack of belief that gods don’t exist. Or if it doesn’t, then it should. To my knowledge, there isn’t a word that describes my own refusal to take a position on whether gods exist. Agnostic isn’t it, because that word means a position that gods are unknowable. 

  • Ruby_Tea

    As it stands right now, theism is the norm–in the United States, we’re outnumbered by about 9 to 1.  That’s actually one of the reasons I like identifying as an atheist: to show people that although we may be a minority, we do actually exist (and we don’t have horns and tails).

    As to people who assume that atheism equals a belief that gods don’t exist, I usually try to point out that my atheism is of the very literal variety: I am a-theist, without theism. 

    (Now, as it happens, there are gods about which I have an affirmative belief that they do not exist.  The literal RTC God, for example, the guy who caused a worldwide flood–that guy cannot exist, because the things he supposedly did could not have happened.  But those questions are for a much deeper conversation about religion and, for me, don’t have much to do with my personal use of atheist as a self-description.)

  • Carstonio

    I was using “norm” to mean not simple prevalence but the mistaken belief that prevalence or the lack of it is a moral value. The lesson that the human race needes to learn is that there’s nothing wrong with being different. Minorities shouldn’t be defined in relation to the majority, and that’s related to Fred’s point about categorizing positions other than Calvinism as its opposite.

  • Tricksterson

    So have they ever said what they think you should call yourself?

  • Amaranth

    I had an experience similar to this once, on a Christian fundamentalist forum.

    I was trying to sum up my reasons for believing a particular Bible verse didn’t actually say what they said it did, and finally one of the other people on the board posted (in what I imagine was supposed to be a snotty voice) “Oh, so you’re a *feminist*”, where it was clear that:

    a) Feminist = anyone who didn’t agree with their particular interpretation of a woman’s place in the grand scheme of things and
    b) Feminist = a convenient box where anything and everything I said could be instantly marked as unworthy of attention or consideration because, after all, I was just quoting that “feminist” junk.

    Normally the label wouldn’t have bothered me, except I could see that the only reason they were putting me in that box was specifically so that no one else on the board would listen to me. Once I was branded an Other, nothing I said mattered. And then they would sit there and pretend to not understand why I disliked being so labeled…because after all, technically I *was* a feminist.

    I can imagine a parallel here of a staunch Calvinist getting into a conversation with Average Joe Christian and it ending with the Calvinist going, “Oh, so you’re an *Armenian*…well then, I guess I already know everything I need to know about you.”

  • Cephas

    I like your box example. It’s so true: those we see as “very different”, we’re so much put through so much more scrutiny, when we give them credence at all.

  • A NonnyMouse

    Some days I’m a believing Christian who knows she asked Jesus into her heart as a child.   Some days when I look around at the world and see the conflict and mess I’m not sure that God exists.  Maybe those days I’m an agnostic.  Some days the whole Christian scheme feels flying spaghetti monster ridiculous.  On those days perhaps I’m an atheist.  I honestly don’t know which one, if any, will win out.  Or maybe I’m all three at once.

  • Dan Audy

    You certainly aren’t the only person who struggles with a consistent religious identity.  I fluctuate between being a religious Baha’i, a secular Baha’i, and an atheist depending on my mental state and view of the world this month.  I’m not sure what the best way to describe people like us is but I lean towards describing myself as a ‘Conflicted Baha’i’ if I need to hang a single term.

  • A NonnyMouse

    Maybe I could describe myself as an occasional Christian.  I just know that on those days I call myself “Christian” I am certainly not the kind of Christian I was 25 years ago.  Thank God……if there is a God!

  • Cathy W

    It helps that I self-identify as an atheist. Why should I be irked by a term I apply to myself?  

    What’s irksome is that when I self-identify as an atheist to many Christians, I’m assumed to be in dire need of having extra Chick Tracts left on my laboratory clipboard, or worse.

  • picklefactory

    ‘Atheist’ seems accurate if asked about my religious beliefs. I don’t think ‘secular humanist’ is a religious belief, after all. Fred is one, no?

    Also, what Ruby said.

  • Cathy W

    I don’t know if I’d describe Fred as a ‘secular humanist’. A humanist, certainly, but not secular. Fred himself would tell you he’s an Evangelical Christian, last I checked, whatever differences he has with others who claim that label.

  • Erp

     Secular is another one of those words with multiple meanings.  Fred probably is secular in supporting church/state separation to some degree.  He probably isn’t in regards to his own religion. 

    As for myself I would probably use humanist though atheist and agnostic have family  usage (a great grandfather was an out atheist  starting in the 1880’s, my aunt’s husband’s grandfather supposedly coined the word agnostic).     Atheists have a huge range of other beliefs and practices (much like theists can range from those who practice human sacrifice on a large scale to those who are opposed to war) so I’m reluctant to use that word alone.  However I will use the word ‘atheistic’ when I want to make clear where I stand on belief in gods. 

  • John Alexander Harman

    Fred might call himself a religious humanist, and I might so describe him as well, but he isn’t a secular humanist; secular humanists are a subset of atheists, and Fred is not an atheist.

  • Mary Kaye

    The term that’s really offensive, I think, is “non-believer.”  I’ve seen Christian writers throwing that one around, often in contexts where it clearly doesn’t even mean “atheist” but simply means “non-Christian.”

    I guess “non-Christian” has fallen out of favor because it’s used as a moral judgment (this person is not a good Christian so I call her a non-Christian) and that type of use tends to drive out neutral uses (this person is a non-Christian because she is a Pagan).  But to this particularly Pagan “non-believer” used this way reeks of the offensive idea that non-Christian folks don’t really believe in their own religions, an accusation particularly often made against Pagans.

  • AnonymousSam

    The term that’s really offensive, I think, is “non-believer.”  I’ve seen Christian writers throwing that one around, often in contexts where it clearly doesn’t even mean “atheist” but simply means “non-Christian.”

    This. To people like that, there’s only two positions in life: Christian and Not. Odds are better than even that their version of “Christian” is one that excludes other denominations as well. Sometimes there are tribal markers, and sometimes there are tribal barbed-wire fences.

  • christopher_young

    The term that’s really offensive, I think, is “non-believer.”

    Yet I prefer to describe myself as an unbeliever rather than as an atheist because although I am equally not a Christian, not a pagan, not a Muslim, not a Hindu…, I also don’t want people to mix me up with the Richard Dawkins fan club (I don’t aggressively proselytise for a world view without gods in it, because it’s my experience that neither belief in a religious system not rejection of all of them determines whether somebody is a decent human being, or capable of understanding the material world we live in or even inclined to agree with my own trivial priorities).

  • Stone_Monkey

    I’m British, so the term “atheist” probably doesn’t carry the same pejorative weight here for me as it would in the US. We’re… um… a bit odd (to US minds at least, I should think) about religious belief here. I guess it comes from us actually having an established church and centuries of inter-religious violence. Your religious convictions are your own business, but should you start waving them around in public then that’s just impolite; and, as we’re a nation built on simmering, repressed rage, impoliteness is the one thing we really can’t stand.  An example would be Tony Blair’s ostentatious religiosity; in the US, from what I can gather, that would seem to be SOP for a career politician, in the UK, its appearance was tantamount to political suicide for him(when he started going around loudly trumpeting his faith, the consensus of opinion here was that George W. Bush had been a very bad influence on him indeed)

    But, on topic even, the word “atheist” describes my position on the matter pretty concisely – most people know what it means. And when questioned by Christians (or Muslims or anyone else) my reply is that I don’t believe in your, or anyone else’s, God(s). I’m personally not a part of an Atheist Movement – I can’t quite see the point, it’s going to be like herding cats or getting anarchists to agree on anything. So yes, I’m happy to be known as an atheist with a small “a”. Anything else I might consider myself as; feminist, humanist, egalitarian, pacifist etc. is an extra, as one can still be atheist without being any of those other things.

    An interesting point to be expanded on from another post is that whilst, intellectually speaking, religious people probably do understand that atheists don’t believe in the gods of other religions either, some of them do seem to have difficulty getting the idea that atheism is not specifically about their chosen religion. Which might be a reason to take it so personally. Arguably atheists might need to emphasise that it’s not all about you, it’s bigger and more encompassing than that.

    But, then again, if you are a believer why would you even think that anything could be bigger than that? It’s what you define your life around.

  • FearlessSon

    I’m British, so the term “atheist” probably doesn’t carry the same pejorative weight here for me as it would in the US. We’re… um… a bit odd (to US minds at least, I should think) about religious belief here. I guess it comes from us actually having an established church and centuries of inter-religious violence. Your religious convictions are your own business, but should you start waving them around in public then that’s just impolite; and, as we’re a nation built on simmering, repressed rage, impoliteness is the one thing we really can’t stand.

    And this is one of the many reasons why I find myself envying the British.  

  • Tricksterson

    Maybe it’s because we didn’t hear much about it here in the US but what you call “ostentatious religiosity” would probably get Blair accused of downplaying his religion here in political circles.  At least some political circles.

  • mistformsquirrel

    Atheist doesn’t bother me except insofar as I share that label with some very loud very obnoxious people.  But since I also share that label with some truly wonderful and awesome folks, that’s kind of a wash.

    I think if anything about it bothers me, it’s simply the way the label is often treated – that atheism is often treated as a religion or philosophy 0f it’s own.  I mean yes, there are explicitly atheist groups and movements… but merely being an atheist does not make one a member of said groups or movements.

    I guess it’s one of those things that just bugs me about labels in general – that by and large if you fit a given label AT ALL, you are expected to fulfill every connotation of that label; not merely the simple definition of it.

    So yeah, insofar as it bothers me it’s less about the label itself and more about the way it gets treated.

  • mattepntr

    Atheist here, and I’m fine with the word. As a descriptor, it’s perfectly accurate.

    If I take Fred’s point accurately, it’s rather like the way some Christian fundamentalists confuse “Muslim” and “atheist” when describing Obama’s beliefs. They don’t really see that those terms describe very different things, only that he is “not RTC”. Kind of like how, in the “Left Behind” series, all the non-RTC people left behind all adopt the new One-World religion instantaneously, because of course whatever religion or non-religion they had before wasn’t Really Real religion to begin with.

    This is what the term “Arminian” seems like to me. It’s an out-group identifier.

  • Jay

    Technically, I consider myself an “igtheist”.  That is to say that I consider the word “god” so poorly defined that it’s meaningless to try to distinguish atheism from agnosticism.  That word isn’t commonly understood, so I use “agnostic” if I’m feeling conciliatory, and “atheist” if I’m not.

    Short version is that I don’t believe in the kind of god who would care what I believe.  Gods that mind their own business are harder to refute, but why bother?

  • Dave

    I’m suddenly reminded of my introduction to anti-triclavianism.

  • friendly reader

    I’m sorry, Mr. Beck, but isn’t Universalism the third option here? Can’t God have predestined everyone to salvation from the dawn of time? I notice that a few of his commenters have pointed that out, but since at this point I lean strongly to the Universalist camp of this argument-I’m-not-a-part-of*, the either/or he sets up does not sit well with me.

    *Luther technically believed in a sort of double predestination, but also believed that worrying about things like elect and damned in the long run damaged your faith. Much of “Lutheranism”** was Luther getting away from the salvation anxiety that ruined his early life. As a Lutheran, the Calvinist/Arminian argument is always something I tend to be looking at from the outside-in – another reason I don’t like the dichotomy, and I imagine a lot of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians probably feel the same way.
    **I don’t consider myself a “Lutheranist,” as in, I don’t agree with everything Luther taught. I do consider myself “part of the Lutheran tradition,” which includes a wide variety of interpretations of some central ideas like grace, Christian freedom, vocation, and the importance of sacraments.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    As a Lutheran, the Calvinist/Arminian argument is always something I tend to be looking at from the outside-in – another reason I don’t like the dichotomy, and I imagine a lot of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians probably feel the same way.

    This Catholic didn’t hear about Arminianism for the first three decades of my life, so rather than it being an argument I look at from the outside it’s an argument happening in a room I’ve never gone in.

  • Kirala

    Not to sidetrack the intended conversation, but I was under the impression that “Arminian” was meant to refer to non-Calvinist Protestant Christians, not to everyone else in the world. Was that impression mistaken?

  • Aaron Boyden

    I can’t say that the category “atheist” has ever bothered me in the way described, and it is a label I’m willing to apply to myself.  I wonder, though, if a factor in that is that for all the unpopularity of atheists in the broader community (as atheists love to document in the various polls), atheists are heavily over-represented in a variety of respected and/or powerful subgroups.  Among academics, where I spend most of my time, being very religious is viewed as much stranger than being an atheist.  I imagine if I spent more time in surroundings where being an atheist subjected me to intense prejudice, I would have stronger and more conflicted feelings about the label.

  • torrilin

    Arminian kind of requires that one be Christian AND not a member of one of the hierarchical sorts like Church of England, Roman Catholicism or one of the Eastern Orthodox churches. I can’t be Arminian coz from my POV he’s a Protestant heretic, and if he spoke English he’d call me a filthy Papist. (if he could cope with a woman who studied theology tho, we’d probably get on rather well anyway… one should take delight in prayerful contemplation of morals and ethics, and it sounds like he rather did)

    I don’t find non-Christian to be a term of condemnation in and of itself. It’s a descriptive term. Lots of people have not chosen to follow a Christian path, and that doesn’t make them evil. Some of them I consider great moral examples who I should strive to follow. Un-Christian is rather stronger. Being un-Christian means you chose a Christian path, and are now actively choosing actions that conflict with that moral path, so you’re undoing your choice. That’s not good at all.

    Atheist is pretty positive most of the time. If you believe in a moral and ethical path through life yet don’t believe in God, that tends to mean you’re a lot better at compassion than I am. I’m not good at caring about people I don’t interact with, and quite a lot of atheist philosophers put me entirely to shame in terms of compassion and care for others. I don’t care how you’re called to moral behavior, doing it well is a good thing. (but see previous about being a filthy Papist ;). of course I think both right thought and right action matter)

    It’s a bit similar to vegan thought for me. If you’re striving to live a vegan lifestyle in order to do your best to care for all life, that’s a really large (and laudable) moral goal. I wish I had the moral fiber to a do something like actively choose not to kill bugs. For me, that would be very difficult. Not eating meat is easy by comparison, and in some periods of my life, would have been something I used to hurt other people. But figuring out a way to not kill bugs, and still value myself and other people… that’s hard.

  • John Alexander Harman

    But figuring out a way to not kill bugs, and still value myself and other people… that’s hard.

    For an individual it’s hard; for the human species as a whole, it’s flatly impossible.  We are in direct competition with insects for our food supply, and if we didn’t kill huge numbers of insects in defense of our food, the vast majority of us would starve to death and/or die of insect-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.  The carrying capacity of the Earth for humans-who-never-kill-insects is probably less than one hundred million, and the planet is currently (just barely) supporting over seventy times that number.

  • Random Lurker

    I call myself an atheist and there are couple of irks I notice about it.

    The first is when I consider the source.  From some people, the word atheist means “baby-eating, dog-kicking, folk rock music-listening, kitten-burning sataninazi.”  As anyone should, I naturally feel irked by this insult.  It’s definately a case of “You keep using that word…”, where I know both what it means and what he thinks it means.  As a real issue though, it’s rather minor, since I know that the people that see it this way are beyond reach for me and I just move on.

    The second is the conflation between strong and weak atheism.  I’m a bit of a pantheist/animist, and do believe in spirit guides.  However none of these spiritual entities are “gods.”  They are souls, just like us, sharing the universe in a different form.  Thus I am an atheist- I don’t believe in any gods.  That doesn’t mean I reject everything spiritual or religious outright though.  I’m a narrow/weak (the terminology varies) atheist- I just don’t believe in a particular interpretation of god(s), namely the anthropomorphic deity who wields cosmic authority.

  • halcyon

    Atheist doesn’t bother me at all. It’s a useful description for reasons Lori has covered. “Unchurched” always sets me looking for a chair to throw, though.

  • Revelshade

    “To you I’m an atheist, to God I’m the Loyal Opposition.” –W. Allen

  • Keulan

    I’m not bothered by the term atheist, and use it to label myself for pretty much the same reasons Ruby mentioned. Of course, it irks me when people think it means something different than what it actually means, and at those times I do my best to dispel their misconceptions of what an atheist is.

  • Albanaeon

    Hmm…  Well I usually go with atheist because it’s easier for a fundie whose pestering me to grasp than “I am a philosophical Taoist, and don’t care, but wouldn’t be affected too much either way because I am trying to grasp the universe.”   So while they usually completely miss the idea of what an atheist is (I am not mad at a god) it usually cuts quicker to the “Accept Jesus” stage of the conversations where I can tell them off.

    But to people that actually care about what I believe, “atheist” implies a certain certainty on a position to a question that I am not actually asking.  I don’t care about gods.  They are distractions for me to trying to understand the Tao, because in even asking it, I am getting confined to a certain way the universe works.  I am, in asking about gods, taking a stand that the universe must either work or not work with them.  Which means that I am probably limiting my ability to understand, which is not the Tao.

    So, I guess it’s a Taoist answer of “no, and yes” because of a limitation of words which is fitting.

  • michiexile

    Just like Stone_Monkey earlier, I come from a different cultural background, which colours the amount of emotional charge inherent in the word «atheist».

    In particular, I grew up in Sweden. We have an established church — used to be a state church until about a decade ago. I was baptised and went through confirmation as a member of the Church of Sweden, and then decided I didn’t actually really believe in any of that, and thus quit.

    I am a cultural Swedish lutheran, and this colours a lot of my thoughts and ideals. I am a non-believer; I have found the best term to describe my approach to be «ignostic» — I find the existence or non-existence of supernatural deities to be essentially irrelevant — but I will happily use «atheist» or «agnostic» in a pinch.

    Having lived in the US, and met some of the US atheist culture, I would be slightly inclined in certain social circles to distance myself from the label «atheist», preferring instead «agnostic» or a more wordy explanation of my views. The US has something I really haven’t seen much of anywhere else: proselytizing atheists. While I understand many of the motivations and agree with some of the arguments advanced by the louder parts of the US atheist movement, they spend sufficiently much energy making personal religious choices a matter of public debate that it becomes … kinda embarrassing.

  • Jay

     To the extent that America has proselytizing atheists, it’s mostly reactive.  When you live in a country where high school biology teachers are sometimes obliged to give equal time to the story with the talking snake, it’s not always possible to disengage and let the religious do their own thing.  Other public issues where atheists often disagree with some particularly unsophisticated Christians include environmentalism and relations with Israel.

  • Mary

    There’s that famous quote that goes: “I content that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    ― Stephen Roberts
    That does sometimes occur to me when someone makes a big deal about how strange it is to be an atheist. Why should I define myself in terms of my non-belief in your god any more than you define yourself in terms of your non-belief in, say, Thor and Wodan?

    On the other hand, I was raised very religious, and realizing that I could no longer believe what I had been taught (though I wished I could) was a long, slow, painful, and very conscious process for me. And I remain interested in my former religion more than in others. So in fact in my case it is true — I do kind of define myself in terms of my non-belief in one specific god, which sometimes feels like a missing limb. Two armed people don’t think of themselves as “not three armed,” but if you lost an arm you might think of yourself as “one-armed.” And if you had a third arm and lost it, you might actually think of yourself as “not-three armed”… I think many if not most American atheists were raised religious, and thus probably do kind of define themselves in terms of what they no longer have.

    My husband, on the other hand, was not raised religiously at all, and for him I think the term “atheist” really is almost as irrelevant as the term “Arminian” is to most non-Calvinists. He thinks of all religions as equally weird, and is kind of bored by the whole topic. Religious people are, to him, like people who are just way too into cars, or some other hobby. He doesn’t get it, and prefers to avoid the whole topic lest the conversation become tedious. But you’re not likely to see him, or someone like him, in this comment section, I think. This blog kind of calls to those of us who are still probing an old wound…

  • The_L1985

     As a Pagan ex-Catholic, I assure you that that “missing limb” feeling is also there when you convert form one religion to another.

  • The Guest That Posts

    I’m an atheist and not bothered by referring to myself as one.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Couple problems with atheist as a label.

    1. I really don’t believe in the Christian god (and by extension other Abrahamic gods) because I’m not familiar enough with other beliefs to reject their gods. I’m not inclined to believe in any gods, so atheist is as accurate as anything.

    2, The moment someone hears “atheist”, they bring out all the arguments for God’s existence, which misses the point (for me) of whether I would WANT to worship Him.

  • Tricksterson

    I like the term “Freethinker”, which I define as someone, whether atheist, agnostic or theist (and of any denomination thereof) believes that the spheres of religion and politics should be kept as seperate as possible.  So I wouldn’t call Fred a secularist but I would definitely term him a Freethinker.

  • Parhelion

    Like a lot of the other atheists who have posted here, I don’t mind being called an atheist whenever people understand they’re talking about what I don’t believe.  I only get annoyed when the word atheist is supposed to describe what I do believe, or how I feel about my beliefs, or the way I’ll behave.

    Unfortunately, I’ve found theists are rarely interested in any of the finer points of my atheism.  Even those from non-evangelical religious traditions are much more eager to share the specifics of their belief with me than hear about my unbelief. But given that, from bits of conversation I’ve pieced together, a great many theists seem to believe the “denominations” of atheism are the Loud, the Bloodless, the Lazy, the Sheepish, and the Tortured, this lack of interest is not too surprising.

  • AnonymousSam

    You say “denominations” and I’m reminded of the people who think atheism is a religion, sometimes even complete with churches. Not to be confused with the atheist temple.

  • Becka Sutton

    Hmmm… musing over Beck’s over simplification of soteriological positions and he misses the point.

    He may well be an Arminian but when Calvinists say Arminian they mean Pelagianism and Arminius wasn’t a Pelagian by any stretch (it’s not even clear that Pelagius was).

    But a couple of other positions a Christian may hold to:

    1. Jansenism – holds that God double predestines most of the damned but only single predestines the elect  so they can reject his Grace and be damned as well. Creepy. (Blaise Pascal was a Jansenist).

    2. Universalism

    Beck also misuses single predestination – at least according to my understanding of the concept.


  • mud man

    I think the problem is in identifying a tradition with (a point of) doctrine. Tradition includes literature, language, major figures, historical key events, and so on. And conversely, any interesting tradition will have ongoing conversation about what are the essential points of doctrine, the core definitions, and all the other touchstones.

    Here I go again, pointing to Alasdair MacIntyre.

  • Hth

    Paganism has a bit of the same problem.  I use the word because it’s the word we all use, but it really does bother me a bit, since it’s a word that only has meaning in the sense that it’s been historically used by Christians to mean “not Christian” — or more accurately, “not yet Christian,” since it’s rare for Christians to speak about pagans (current or historical) as anything other than a mission field.

    Like Fred’s technical Arminianism, I suppose I’m technically a not-Christian, but that isn’t a very descriptive word for how I think of myself or how I go about my life, as though my spiritual world were somehow centered around how I don’t feel about Christ.

  • Tricksterson

    Ask a dozen pagans to define the term and you will get a minimum of a dozen different answers.  Myself I define it as any polytheist, dividing them into traditional or “paleo” pagans which are religions like Hinduism or Shinto with an unbroken line going back for however long and neo which are either relatively new creations like Discordianism or attempts to recreate an old tradition like Asatru.  Wicca, IMHGO falls somewhere int between there.  Should stress that his definition is strictly for my own comfort, I do not seek to impose it on anyone else and won’t argue with anyone who has a differing definition.

  • Lliira

    To what extent do you find the term “atheist” similarly irksome?


    I happen to not believe that any of the religions I have ever heard of are correct in their supernatural elements. I happen not to believe in any supernatural stuff at all. No fairies, no unicorns, no karma, no gods, etc. 

    So I call myself an “atheist” when it comes up. But simply happening to not-believe in gods or whatever is just not that important to me. It does not affect my life on a daily basis, and actually the only time it affects my life at all is online. I intensely dislike those celebrity atheists who like to call themselves the standard-bearers of some kind of movement.  I find that “movement” intensely unwelcoming to me as a woman and as someone who knows something about different religions and cares about lots of different religious people. The misogyny in it is much more dangerous than any anti-atheist crud I may come across in the U.S. Being a Democrat is more dangerous to me than happening to not-believe in supernatural stuff, and I’m not about to pretend that I’m particularly oppressed for being a Democrat. Being unpopular in certain social circles is not oppression.

  • Patrick Hickey

    “Atheist” isn’t a problem for me.  While technically its defining someone by what they’re not, as a practical matter, in my cultural situation in my part of the world, it actually tells you quite a lot about someone.  In a different context it would probably be an unhelpful term, but as a practical matter I know that if I run into someone who calls themselves an atheist, we probably share a lot of experiences and views.

  • EK

    Over time, I have grown increasingly wary of referring to myself as ‘an atheist’ – not because I’m in the least bit concerned about how other people will react to the word, but for personal reasons.  I find that calling myself “an [anything]” tends to be psychologically limiting – I start to accept or reject information not based on its merit, but rather on whether it fits with my sense of who I am.

    I’ve noticed an early warning sign, too – when I am presented with information that doesn’t fit my current beliefs, if I get a strong feeling of irritation localized around my temples and forehead (that has nothing to do with the manner in which the information is presented), that’s a red flag to me that I’m self-identifying too strongly with a particular belief.

    So now, if someone asks me, I’ll concede that the word “atheist” is technically accurate if used to describe me, but that I prefer not to call myself an anything.  I just want to observe the world and see what is in it – whether it turns out to be a god-haunted multiverse, an impersonal clockwork engine, or the dream of a butterfly – and not try to /tell/ the universe what I expect it to be by making my current working hypotheses a part of my identity.

    A wise friend of mine once said, in response to a conversation about the folly of pursing careers, “I don’t ever want anyone to ask me what I /do/.  I want them to ask me what I am /doing/.”  That’s how I feel about the word ‘atheist’ – I don’t want people to ask me what I /think/ about God, I want them to ask me what I am /thinking/.

  • LL

    I have no problem with “atheist.” It’s accurate. It’s reasonably non-offensive, in that it’s a descriptor, but it doesn’t necessarily imply a stigma, just an absence of belief in a higher power.

  • LL

    And various people’s attempt to make “atheist” a pejorative means nothing to me. It would be like being called an “Arminian,” comparatively. Other people’s (esp. fundamentalists) understanding of the term is irrelevant to me. Other people don’t know what lots of words mean. If that bothered me, I’d have no time to do anything but be bothered by how willfully, colossally ignorant people are.

  • mcc

    Here is a bit of a late response.
    “So here, then, is a question for those of my fellow non-Sheilaists who also are non-theists: To what extent do you find the term ‘atheist’ similarly irksome?”
    I find “atheist” problematic because I feel like I don’t know what that word means. It is like describing myself as a “socialist”– people seem to imagine different things when they hear that word. I feel like if I asked someone to define exactly what they mean by “atheist” and “agnostic”, I could be an atheist or agnostic depending on their replies, or could not exactly fit into either category. I don’t feel comfortable describing myself by a word when I am not sure exactly what I am communicating. I usually like to use a word like “nonbeliever” which is descriptive rather than identity-based for this reason, though I don’t complain if I get either of those other two labels.