On whether or not to use the word “atheist”
Andrew Sullivan received a missive from a reader which reads, in part:
I hesitate to use the “atheist” label not because I’m ashamed of my lack of belief. Instead, I do so because the label has acquired a life of its own out of my control.
For example, many critics of the godless have successfully attached intolerance, amorality, immorality, fundamentalism, dogmatism, as well as evangelism to the simple lack of theistic belief. In fact, many people I otherwise respect quite a bit (ahem) have even served up the canard that those united only by a lack of positive belief in God can be aggregated just as reasonably as those united by an enormous suite of shared positive beliefs. This results in lumping godless people like me together with Stalin or Hitler as surely as it would lump Spanish Inquisitors with modern Catholics. Is it any wonder then that people like me would try to avoid a category that would be used against us in this way?
Sullivan’s anonymous reader does not specify how he she identifies herself, or provide a solution for the problem he or she describes. This is remarkably like the kind of person who refrains from calling herself a liberal because of the (successful) attempts of conservatives to define the word. Regardless of what some might think the word atheist means, I call myself an atheist because the word is unambiguous and accurate. I lack belief in God; I’m not theist; therefore, I’m atheist. An advantage of the word “atheist” is that “a-” prefix: Atheism is not a something; it’s a lack of a something. It is not a creed or dogmatism of its own, but a rejection of a set of creeds and dogmatisms*.
Your neighborhood Christian apologist might think, or at least claim, that because I’m an atheist, I am joyless and arrogant, I’m dogmatic and evangelical, I look down my nose with disdain at benighted, ignorant believers**, and I agree with everything Richard Dawkins says. But that doesn’t mean any of that is true, and, moreover, I like the English language too much to abandon a word as unambiguous and accurate as “atheist” in favor of refraining from self-identification, or an ugly and ambiguous term.
Maybe, if we didn’t call ourselves atheists, religious apologists would somehow not notice that there exist people who don’t believe in God, and refrain from lumping them all together with a convenient label for the purpose of arguing against them. We should imagine them shaking their fists in impotent fury, unable to argue against atheism because those slippery devils used a different word, or no word at all. Or not.
* There are, obviously, atheist dogmatisms, Communism being the worst example.
** Honesty compels me to admit that I do look down my nose with disdain at young earth creationists.