Is “atheist” worth rehabilitating?

Is “atheist” worth rehabilitating? September 8, 2014


“Atheist” is a loaded term. Although it technically applies to anyone who doesn’t believe in god, many non-religious people feel a strong need to distance themselves from the label.

Some atheists deride this label aversion as “closet atheism.”[1. This draws a false equivalency between atheists and the LGBTQ community, but that is a discussion best handled separately.] It may be true that some nonbelievers simply lack the courage of their convictions, but I think this is a relative minority. More often, I believe “closet atheists” avoid the label because of a legitimate desire to distance themselves from a very particular form of atheism.

Atheists hold a broad range of beliefs, even on religious issues. There are strong disagreements, for instance, over whether religion and science are compatible, and how we ought to engage with believers. Yet despite this diversity, atheism seems to have become synonymous with a very narrow sort of anti-theism championed by divisive figures like Richard Dawkins and American Atheists’ David Silverman.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me to avoid associating with tone-deaf billboards and Islamophobic tweets. Not calling oneself an atheist is the safest way to do so.

Part of me also fears that atheism as an identity marker may be beyond redemption—not only because of the damage done to it by smug old white men perceived to be speaking for all of us—but because the term “atheist” feels inherently confrontational. It pits us against those with deeply held beliefs without offering any compelling alternatives.

Although I sympathize with the impulse against labeling oneself an atheist, distancing myself from the label seems like a shortsighted strategy. By allowing more combative atheists to dominate the conversation, we are enabling the perception of atheism as a monolithic anti-theistic movement.

Therefore, we at NonProphet Status hope to create a space for more constructive engagement—both within the atheist community and with members of faith communities. In doing so, we hope to challenge stereotypes harbored both against, and by, atheists.

That may be a tall order, but the optimist in me believes it’s possible. When my friend Chris Stedman appeared on the O’Reilly Factor to discuss the War on Christmas, he managed to make important points about the separation of church and state while responding to O’Reilly’s attempts to escalate with patience and kindness. No doubt, some Fox News viewers turned off their TVs that evening with a new perspective on atheism.

Of course, I don’t claim to speak for all, or even most atheists, but after a decade of New Atheism, I’m ready for a new approach.

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