Why We Should Identify As Atheists

Why We Should Identify As Atheists September 7, 2013

What are some key reasons that some atheists resist identifying as atheists?

  1. They (excessively) fear that identifying as an atheist would make them akin to religious people for making their position on gods central to their self-understanding and public self-identification. Somehow thereby opening themselves up to both the same vices of religious people, or even just the derision of having wound up like the religious after all.
  2. They fear that integrating one’s identity with one’s beliefs or non-beliefs will stunt their ability to think critically as it infamously does for countless religious people. The more someone equates their very identity with what they happen to believe, the potentially harder it is to achieve the critical distance necessary to reexamine their beliefs. People wind up effectively saying “We are our beliefs” at that point and that makes it much harder to dispassionately tear up their beliefs if they’re weak because it feels like tearing up themselves. And this encourages them to engage in all sorts of prejudicial thinking to protect their beliefs from counter-evidence as though they are protecting their very selves.
  3. Some scoff at the idea that what they merely don’t believe can be definitive of who they are in some way. They often deride this as being as silly as identifying non-stampcollecting among their hobbies. And some of these scoffers will say they are happy to affix an identity label based on their positive beliefs (and identify, for example, as Humanists) but not based on their mere non-beliefs.
  4. They argue that merely sharing a non-belief in gods with others is not predictive of having very much else in common at all with them. Two atheists could, completely consistent with their respective atheisms, wind up on the complete opposite ends of the values spectrum, the political spectrum, and with wildly different beliefs about the world. So, it makes no sense to lump oneself in with atheists in general when they could differ so much from any given atheist.

So, these are each pretty strong and prima facie compelling reasons not to identify as an atheist, not all of which are an excessive concern to avoid being like the religious (what I am, tongue-in-cheek calling “religiphobia”). But I think many atheists’ rejections of what I like to call Identity Atheism (being an atheist in such a way that you treat it as a serious part of how you socially identify yourself) effectively shoot atheists in the foot.

Why should atheists explicitly identify as such? Because we live in a world where being an atheist is (irrationally) scandalous. Many religious doubters, under psychologically ruthless religious pressure, feel a great deal of anguish over the prospect of becoming atheists. They need to know good, happy, and proud atheists exist. Further, people are routinely ostracized and otherwise made to feel isolated on account of their non-belief when they’re open about it. They need to know they are neither alone nor nearly as abnormal as they are made to feel when atheism is routinely kept a quiet matter due to apathy or shame. In our culture it is still, ludicrously, a common assumption that morality and hope and meaning in life are all bound up with faith and deference to deities. In that context, many people who reject deities, are by pressured into feeling immoral and hopeless or at least are treated as such. People are taught that faith is a virtue and I wince to meet numerous embarrassed atheists who bleat on about how they envy people of faith their ability to simply believe. We need to do active counter-messaging, consciousness raising, and identity formation that resists this. The theist messages won’t just become ineffectual or wither away of their own. We atheists need to band together for the sake of their own dignity and make common cause.

And there are countries where you can be murdered by the government for having no religious faith. And even in Western countries that are de facto secular in many ways, the assumption that faith is an inherently good thing can mean all sorts of concessions to not only the teachings atheists think are false but the methods of inculcating beliefs that most of us think systematically undermine critical thinking. The forces of theism are legion and they lead to a whole host of beliefs and practices that atheists, as a group are likely to reject. If nothing else they lead to hostilities towards atheists that atheists need to reject.

And atheists, as the ones who, as a de facto group, typically reject the most culturally trumpeted institutions for the development of morals, metaphysical beliefs, spiritual development, etc. need to recognize that there is a place in society for institutions where people focus on their values, their philosophy, their charity, and their development as an integrated person. There is a place in society for institutions that develop communal rituals and help with the moral cultivation of children and the private administration of community-based charity, etc.

Since atheists are, for good reasons, often opting out of the dominant institutions for these things, they are the ones, as an identifiable set of people, actively cutting themselves off from a potentially good kind of institution. Sure the existing religions in many ways corrupt this ideal by giving bad moral instruction, peddling false beliefs, and using people’s dependency on them to mentally, spiritually, and morally enslave them. But atheists are not necessarily better off for eschewing the whole ideal of non-governmental, private institutions that are focused on people mutually supporting one another and working out their views on philosophy and values and developing meaningful rituals and “spiritual” practices and charitable practices in local community collaboration.

What unites atheists here is significant. And atheists do suffer, on average, as measured by social scientists, for missing the social community religions provide their practitioners. And without their fellow atheists identifying as atheists and coming to their aid and building rival institutions for them, many atheists stay going to theistic churches, mosques, or temples, and supporting beliefs they don’t agree with rather than abandon access to such benefits. Even some of the adamant anti-theist atheists I know deliberately send their kids to parochial schools because they judge the benefits of how the Catholics or the Jews approach education to be that much better than what public schools offer and worth the cost of some exposure to false religious beliefs.

Atheists as a group are typically thrown together as the opt-outs from a central kind of human institution. This means we miss out on the same potential benefits religious institutions provide and we collectively are pushed to the margins, belittled, and shamed by theists. So, we should all show more solidarity for the sake of each of us individually. Even those of us who have it relatively easy (like an academic philosopher like me, living in New York City) should care about those like us who are wrenchingly losing spouses and family and friends and jobs over their non-belief. And we should care that there are countless people out there who deep down think like we do but who are trapped in theistic religions that make them self-loathing and terrified over their burgeoning atheism. They need to be able to see that there are so many of us out here dispelling myths about what it’s actually like to be an atheist.

“But then why not just identify as Humanists? Wouldn’t that be a more positive alternative than atheism? Defining as atheists is defining ourselves negatively by what we reject rather than positively by what we embrace.”  That’s a good question and consideration. The simple fact is that atheism is the broader catch-all category for all the non-theistic people alienated by a dominantly theistic culture. When I recently took an ongoing non-scientific survey of non-believers about their identities there were 6 alternative identifiers (and “other”) as options for identification and yet so far, out of over 230,000 participants, roughly 63% of the survey participants have chosen “atheist” as their primary identifier. I think were this done scientifically, the results would be similar (or even favor “atheist” more). Only ~7% chose Humanist.

Hegemonic theism has made it so that plenty of atheists, especially but not limited to deconverts, have long had no conception that there could be anything like atheist communities. And without any pro-atheist messaging, many atheists default into sharing the limited horizons for atheists set by self-serving theists. For many people, atheism can only be seen the way theists want it to be seen—as a rejection, a negation, a lack, and nothing positive. This means that way too few atheists will grasp that they’re being appealed to with the word Humanism. But they will grasp that they’re atheists. Or self-professed agnostics–which is close (and which is something agnostics often want to fight with atheists about when we reveal ourselves to them).

Because atheists so often start out religious, and because even those raised atheistically by non-believing parents are usually not part of atheist institutions, and because in so many mixed families the atheistic parent acquiesces to the religious parent’s insistence on religious education for the kids, etc., etc., generation after generation atheists have remained scattered, unorganized, divided, and, as a result, socially conquered, and forced to live in a theist’s world. And without strong institutions, there is little memory and accumulated wisdom and learning for a new deconvert or a lifelong atheist to pick up from other atheists. So generation after generation, atheists have to feel like they’re reinventing the wheel and largely miss out on literally centuries of atheistic wisdom. And that means these isolated atheists figuring out atheism for themselves are prone to repeat the old mistakes perennially and never progress as much as atheists could if we were all caught up with the wealth of ideas that other atheists have brought to the table and all catching up with and contributing to major atheistic institutions. 

The burgeoning atheist movement is an identity movement that, with the powerful help of the internet, is finally connecting atheists and getting many of us on the same page so we can make a collaborative, concerted, and consolidated effort to push back against theism. A great lie perpetrated to the intellectual, moral, political, legal, social and, even, spiritual detriment of billions of people deserves an organized pushback against it. And that means it deserves principled people willing to identify as its enemy. Theism deserves proudly self-identifying atheists as its unrelenting enemy. It’s time we stop doing organized theistic religions the favor of dividing and conquering ourselves.

In fact, even if among atheists we want to subdivide further into Humanists, Libertarians, Stoics, Existentialists, Nihilists, Buddhist Atheists, Jewish Atheists, Unitarian/Universalists, Feminist Atheists, Pagan Atheists, or any other kinds of groupings that people find more workable for various constructive purposes related to freedom and diversity of opinion and values, we should still nonetheless make common cause as atheists against theism.

The theists get this. We see an astonishing willingness right now of different denominations within religions and different whole religions themselves banding to identify in some cases publicly as simply theists and people of faith who in a unified way denounce atheism and faithlessness. They see what’s at stake. They get that the differences between their denominations or, sometimes, their entire faiths are less important to their whole operation than the ideas that faith itself is good and that divinity exists. They get that those ideas are what float their whole operations. We should take seriously that our opposition to faith is of huge, uniting, (and, to the theistic religions’ leaders, genuinely threatening) significance.  

Yes, by identifying together, organizing ourselves, and building rival cultural institutions for the advancement of non-theistic philosophical beliefs, values, and spiritual practices, we may be accused of “becoming like the religious”. To which I look forward to some day replying, “You mean we’re becoming a powerful force for creating community, organizing charity, and determining how people view the world, their values, and how to spiritually develop themselves? Fantastic! It’s about time someone did that without superstition, authoritarianism, blind traditionalism, faith, anti-intellectualism, and regressive archaic values. Glad to be of service!”

Your Thoughts?

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