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  Debates between atheists and agnostics seem so outdated already -- now we have a third type, the "apatheist" who doesn't want to care enough about religion to be having any definite notions about such irrelevant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.



#1 Thomas B (Guest) on Wednesday April 18, 2012 at 10:30am

I’ve long said the same thing.  I don’t have a problem telling people I’m an “atheist”, but in general it’s not a useful label because it only says ONE thing about you, a negative one at that.  It’s like proudly identifying yourself as a “non-blond.” 

So for most social situations, I use the label “Secular Humanist”.  Most people down here in the South turn up their noses as that one, too, but at least it invites more conversation as I explain what I mean by it.

#2 Josh (Guest) on Wednesday April 18, 2012 at 4:03pm

I guess I am one of the people you are talking about.  I really don’t think the idea of a personal creator god is coherent enough for me to weigh in on its possible existence one way or the other.  To call myself an atheist is, to me, like standing “I don’t believe a circle could ever be a square.”  What content exactly am I communicating?

I think of myself as a pantheist, and if there is a god in my view, it’s that collective consciousness that we’re all creating with our thoughts and behaviors.  I think this is my way of having something big to call sacred.

#3 Kevin Fuller (Guest) on Wednesday April 18, 2012 at 5:12pm

I usually like to say that the proof, or evidence for the existence of a “God” or “Gods” does not exist.  In my opinion, you cannot prove the existence of God due to the nature of the subject.  Therefore, my actions or thoughts are not influenced by the potential existence of God. They are however, influenced by the non-existence of proof there is a God.  To refer to myself as an “Atheist” implies with certainty that “God” does not exist.  All I am committed to is saying that proof does not exist.

#4 johndbraungart on Thursday April 19, 2012 at 5:13am

I find it quite useful, in conversations about belief and the lack of it, to explicitly differentiate concepts of “belief, behavior, and belonging.” It seems to me that, even if the primary focus of such dialogues is to recognize the ways in which these three categories often fail to overlap in people, this alone creates opportunities for raising consciousness.

A compelling way to engage any self-proclaimed “believer” is simply to ask for specific examples of how his or her behaviors indicate (or contra-indicate) specific beliefs. This line of inquiry almost inevitably leads people to an important concession; one has to admit that there is need for more examination into why beliefs and behaviors are contradictory.

Of course, problems of cognitive dissonance are not merely limited to faith-based dogmas. E.O. Wilson, in a recent NPR interview, indicated that most human conflicts (cognitive and social) are likely predicated upon inherent (genetic) conflicts which are constantly dividing our minds between small-group selection and large-group selection.

#5 SelfAwarePatterns on Thursday April 19, 2012 at 7:22am

I call myself a non-believer.  I currently avoid the Greek a-words because of the endless and pointless definition arguments about them and the baggage that they contain (unjustifiably in both cases as far as I’m concerned).

#6 jerrys on Thursday April 19, 2012 at 1:30pm

How I label myself depends on the circumstances.  In many situations I call myself an atheist because that clearly answers the question of whether I believe in God.  In other circumstances I find it clearer to say I’m a materialist because I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural phenomena including gods.  And within atheist or humanist gatherings (in particular among CFI supporters) I call myself an aptheist because i don’t think whether people believe in gods is terribly important. What is important is their positions on moral and political issues.  So I find myself in total opposition to the Catholic churches position on sexuality and reproductive rights, but in agreement with them on the death penalty.  In my activism I’m willing to work with religious organizations on issues where we agree and that makes me, in the minds of some “new atheists” an accommodationist.

#7 EllenBeth Wachs (Guest) on Thursday April 19, 2012 at 3:27pm

I find this to be such a ridiculous and unnecessary conflict. It is really simply time to get over the stigma associated with the word “atheist” It is merely a description for one that holds no belief in any gods.

#8 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Thursday April 19, 2012 at 5:47pm

TOTALLY disagree with the main premise, expressed at the end. For those of us leery enough of Gnus to prefer the label “secular humanist,” we don’t WANT to advance an “atheist agenda.”

#9 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Thursday April 19, 2012 at 5:54pm

To follow up on my previous post, I know Shook talked about a “humanist agenda.” But, given that he thinks humanists’ best option for that is identifying with Gnus, I deliberately switched.

#10 EllenBeth Wachs (Guest) on Thursday April 19, 2012 at 5:59pm

What exactly is an “atheist agenda?” Being an atheist is merely a starting point for me. It allows me to discover what road I want to take. I have chosen the Secular Humanist path.

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