By Dale McGowan
I’m an atheist — even wrote a book on the subject. I’m also a humanist, an agnostic, and a freethinker. I’m secular and I’m nonreligious. When I describe my world view, I choose among those labels depending on what I want to emphasize. Thanks to the luck of family and geography, I can usually make that choice freely without consequences. It’s an unearned privilege.
Not all nonreligious people are that lucky. Some, especially those from fundamentalist families or communities of color, are not as free to call themselves atheists even if they want to. Others just prefer labels that say more about them than whether they believe in gods.
If I demanded they all embrace atheist, I’d be leaving a lot of people outside of the tent. I’d also be failing to recognize the privilege that makes it so much easier for me to do that.
Through my secular parenting work, I’ve met thousands of people around the country who are raising their kids without religion. I met countless nonreligious supporters of Foundation Beyond Belief when I was executive director. Many use atheist as their primary label, others prefer humanist, skeptic, freethinker, something else, or nothing at all. A huge number of them have zero interest in the freethought movement. Aside from that, our perspectives are pretty much the same. They represent most of our community, yet they are often completely invisible to those of us on the movement side. And the best broad term that includes us all is nonreligious.
Nonreligious identification is growing rapidly. I’m not just talking about the “religiously unaffiliated,” a term so fuzzy it’s almost useless. According to the Pew Research Center, about 20% of Americans were religiously unaffiliated in 2012, up from 8% in 1991. But many of those continue to hold supernatural beliefs, which is where the categorical fuzz comes in.
I’m more interested in those who have separated from religion in belief and in practice, so here’s a better number: 15% of US adults in the Pew study identified as neither spiritual nor religious. That number is rising fast as Millennials take more seats at the table.
By contrast, atheist identification has inched up just 1 percent in a quarter century, from 2% in 1991 to 3% today.
Patheos is meant to represent a full range of perspectives, but tens of millions of nonreligious people who choose labels other than atheist could scan the channels and not see themselves represented. In fact, there’s a wide spectrum of nonreligious content here, but we’ve placed it all behind a single small color in that spectrum.
In the past two years, Patheos Atheist has doubled from 28 to 56 blogs. In addition to writers focused on atheism and anti-theism, we now have more blogs exploring humanism, social justice, inter-belief cooperation, feminism, politics, and culture. None of these topics is incompatible with atheism, but “atheist” no longer seems like the best top-level descriptor of the work we do. Considering this broader spectrum in the channel and the larger community of potential readers, we’ve made the decision to change our channel name to Patheos Nonreligious.
Other terms like Secular and Freethought were considered, but those are relatively inside baseball. If you want a term that’s widely understood, Nonreligious is the one.
When I first brought it up to the bloggers, I braced myself, knowing how big a deal terminology is for us. The response surprised me. A few of the writers were opposed, and they spelled out some good reasons for that. But a large majority, even some of our strongest atheists and anti-theists, said it’s a good move. They felt as I do that a more inclusive term can make others feel at home without trampling the rights or identity of those who call themselves atheists. There’s nothing wrong with ‘atheist,’ of course — it’s just an incomplete description of our writers and our readers.
This didn’t come from the new site owners, by the way. As managing editor of the Atheist Channel, I spent nearly a year chewing on the idea and floating it to others, well before the September acquisition. Then I proposed it to the bloggers, we made the decision, and I informed the management team. Not as good a story, but there it is.
The channel name is the only thing that’s changing. No, the word atheist is not being ‘banned.’ Each blog keeps its name and focus, including Friendly Atheist, Daylight Atheism, and those with Humanist, Secular, Naturalist, Skeptic, and Freethought in their names, achieving a more equal profile under the Nonreligious banner. And no, we’re not somehow going to open the floodgates for woo — there’s already a Spirituality Channel for that. We are the same writers and thinkers we were last week. The point is to keep that spectrum as it is but widen the door.
Though some might see this as a retreat, I see the exact opposite. This is us moving more decisively out into the culture. The nonreligious world view is surging, with millions more each year stepping away not only from belief in gods but from the whole culture and system of religion. We’re forming community, finding meaning, defining morality, facing death, and experiencing wonder without the comforts or constraints of that outmoded world. Nonreligious captures this greater shift in the way people are living their lives.
So welcome to Patheos Nonreligious!
Dale McGowan is the author and editor of 10 books about the nonreligious, including Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He was founding executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, the world’s largest humanist philanthropy, from 2009 to 2015. Dale is currently Managing Editor of the Nonreligious Channel at Patheos. He lives with his family in Atlanta.