As a follow up to the special about atheists, CNN invited some prominent atheists — all white men, of course — to give their answers to a set of common questions, including Jerry Dewitt, Greg Epstein and Dave Silverman. The answers to this question jumped out at me:
Why are there so many names for atheists? Is it all the same thing?
Silverman: Yes, they are essentially the same thing. As I mention in my upcoming book “Fighting God,” atheism is the broadest term, and it is the best understood term, so it is the term I think people should use. Some choose to use multiple terms, i.e., “I’m a humanist and an atheist,” but others literally hide behind those other words, i.e., “I’m not an atheist, I’m a humanist,” which is simply misleading. If you lack an active belief in the existence of any gods, you’re an atheist. If you want to choose a different primary label, that is up to you, but we encourage the use of “atheist” because it’s the most straightforward and the more we use it, the more we de-stigmatize it.
Epstein: I consider myself an atheist and a humanist, but I honestly don’t care what term people call me by. And I strongly disagree with David Silverman’s statement, “These are atheists who are afraid to use the word. And what are they doing? They’re lying.” I find that statement offensive, because some people who don’t happen to believe in a God just happen to prefer to call themselves humanists, or by some other term, and it’s none of anyone’s business why. I don’t think there are very many people these days using “humanist” to avoid saying the “a-word”. Maybe some of us just want to put greater emphasis on who we are, rather than on what we’re not. Sure, we don’t believe there’s a supernatural god. But it’s more important to many of us to just try to live our lives as good people than it is to think, all the time, about God.
I think Silverman is being disingenuous here. When he says “that is up to you” if you choose another label, the unspoken next sentence is “but we’ll go on national television and declare you all to be liars if you do.” Epstein is right, that is offensive. It’s also just plain factually wrong. Kudos to Silverman, though, for calling out CNN about their own lack of diversity in the people they chose to interview. What I’d like to see, though, is for all the usual suspects — the ones like Silverman and Dawkins who always get the media calls for interviews — to do more than just call that out, but to insist on it and condition their participation on it.
I really like what Rebecca Watson does. She refuses to speak at a conference if there aren’t at least 35% female speakers. And just as important, she has a list of women who can speak on a wide range of subjects. She isn’t just saying she won’t do it, she’s offering to help them find women speakers. When the old and middle-aged white guys get asked to interview for projects like this, we can do the same thing. We can recommend specific people that will help get them a broader and more complete picture of atheists.