I’m So Over God—but I’m No Atheist!

April 17, 2012

It's only natural for leaders in secular organizations to get asked questions about the differences between atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, freethinkers, rationalists, and so forth.

I rather imagine that typical answers have more to do with the sorts of people one's own organization is trying to recruit, than with any precise definitions for those terms enjoying wide consensus.  Because there isn't much of a consensus, for one thing.  I have long called myself both an atheist and a humanist, and remain happy to do so.  But others can, and do, feel differently.

Just the other day, I was asked about a situation that brought up all these issues.  Here's the scenario, involving two nonbelievers chatting about atheism and humanism.  One of them says something to effect that he is a Humanist, and that Humanists should stay away from calling themselves Atheists.  The other one replies that you have to be an atheist, since not having belief in God is enough to make someone an atheist.  The first one, the self-proclaimed Humanist, replies how Humanism wisely stays away from definite assertions of belief about God either way -- it's enough, he says, to not care at all about the whole "belief thing."  That way, he continues, a Humanist can positively focus on real-world matters, like the ethical life and improving society.

I'm hearing more and more of this sort of thing lately, and maybe you are too.  Debates between atheists and agnostics seem so outdated already -- now we have a third type, the "apatheist" who doesn't want to care enough about religion to be having any definite notions about such irrelevant God-talk.  For these folks, Atheism is a state of mind, and they are so over that.  They don't want or need that Atheist mind-set, and they don't feel comfortable with those who do.  They especially don't want that mind-set if it also involves unpleasant emotions, like actively despising and threatening religious people.  I'm reminded of the way that even many "out" atheists are unhappy with the war-like mentality urged by some Atheist leaders -- a recent example is Sarah Hippolitus on "General Myers and His Endless War on Error."

Polls continue to show that for all the urgings that nonbelievers publicly display their atheism and call themselves atheists, very few nonbelievers to this day will do so.  It's a rare poll that can find more than 2% of Americans who say, "Yes, that's me, I'm an atheist."  And that's their response to an anonymous poll.  As I've asked before, "Where are all the Atheists?"

What can be done here?  Probably not much.  Sociologists track belief, behavior, and belonging.  They classify people along these three lines, but these categories don't always line up.  For example, lots of people who call themselves Catholic no longer really accept an authoritarian God or the existence of Hell, and they hardly ever go to church.  Are they still Catholics? 

With atheism, it is often the reverse issue: lots of people lack a belief that God exists, and they never do anything religious, but they refuse to label themselves as an atheist.  And it's not a mystery why.  Self-identity has mostly to do with social identity -- what we want others to think about us.  As long as "Atheist" publicly means pretty much something like "angry hater of religion obsessed with debating how no God could exist, and is kinda rude in the process", then few people will want to call themselves atheists.  They will latch onto any other label (agnostic, rationalist, freethinker, humanist, etc, etc) in order to avoid the prevailing stereotype of an atheist, and to make forward progress on their practical social agenda. 

Again, what can be done?  I'm on record as saying that atheism comes down to a state of no-minding God -- leaving the business of minding God to the Faithers -- which permits "atheist" to cover the widest stretch on nonbelief from affirmative atheist to skeptic to apatheist.  And I doubt that hiding one's atheism could be a smart way to advance any humanist agenda.  All the same, I'm of no mind to tell you what to call yourself.  I'm happy to assume that you know how to label yourself as you see fit, while leaving me to do the same.