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The Problem of the Word Atheist

February 29, 2008

Some of the feedback I’ve received in online forums and social networking sites brings up the issue of atheists organizing and forming communities.  Some argue that atheists should not even use the term atheist.  This argument is a serious challenge to the approach many of us take, and it deserves consideration.  Sam Harris argues, for example, that we do not use labels such as non-racist to describe ourselves.  He and others instead argue that society and individuals should instead promote reason and science.  Furthermore, some argue the term atheist is unnecessary or perhaps even misguided. 

The word atheist is a sticky issue.  I myself rejected it for a time.  I would tell philosophically inclined friends that the term atheism did not describe what my philosophical inclinations were… it only described what they weren’t.  Despite that fact, it did indicate something I had in common with other atheists… that I rejected or otherwise ignored any belief and idea that proposed some kind of supernatural object or energy. 

That may be the main reason the term atheist is still so debatable: although it gives a name to non-theists, it doesn’t explicitly signify what our philosophy and agenda actually are.  I think that is why we see others choosing words to describe themselves: rationalists, humanists, secularists, secular humanists, naturalists, non-theists, agnostics, brights, and probably many more.

The reason I took on the term atheist again is because although the roots of the word atheist lack any explicit description of what an atheist is and thinks, contemporary usage of the word provides an implicit picture of who an atheist is and what he or she might think. 

In fact, the implicit meaning of the words atheist and atheism seems now to include all of the other words that people have proposed to replace it.  There is of course variability between those who call themselves atheist, but for the most part we tend to be non-theist, secular, humanist, and naturalist.  We tend to use science and reason to guide our thoughts and decisions rather than faith, religious ideas, and supernatural forces.

It is a bit ironic, but even though the word atheist doesn’t tell us what an atheist thinks about many issues, that may work in its favor.  Perhaps the word atheist could actually serve as a rallying point for all of us with similar and overlapping philosophical approaches because it is in fact so non-specific. 

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One Comment
  1. lifelessonsfromwriting permalink

    In an ideal world, there would indeed be no need for the ‘word’ atheist. I suppose people have differing opinions on what an ‘ideal world’ is, but I’m talking about a world in which religion is relegated to the status of UFOlogy or scientology – in other words, one where disbelief is the norm rather than belief.

    Unfotunately, belief is the norm for most people, which is why not believing is always going to set us apart. Personally, I have no problem with the word atheist. I’d be more inclined to ammend it with something like ‘antitheist’, but I know that’s not a common position even among atheists (unfortunately).

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