Atheist, Humanist, Secular: Why Fight Over Labels?
By Roy Speckhardt
Executive Director, American Humanist Association
No matter how you look at it, the nontheist movement in the U.S. is experiencing momentous growth. According to a Harris poll, those who profess no belief in a god is at the highest percentage ever recorded. Atheism as an identity is also becoming more mainstream and even politically acceptable, as seen by the fact that most Americans would now vote for an atheist running for president (something that would not have been possible even a few years ago).
As any movement expands and incorporates the views of individuals who are new, it makes sense that its members are likely to diversify. Such expansion among those who reject ancient texts and divine revelation as sources of knowledge has led to people identifying in many ways while still seeing themselves as part of the nontheist movement. They use labels like humanist, atheist, agnostic, deist, nonbeliever, nonreligious, freethinker, bright, nontheist, skeptic, secularist and more. There are even millions of Americans who retain labels from traditional faith traditions, like Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist, but also state that they don’t believe in an intervening god — as first clearly revealed in the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, doesn’t seem to appreciate the value of this type of diversity in nontheistic labels, as interviewer Rachel Silberstein reports in a recent article in The Tablet. “Some call themselves secular humanists, and many call themselves Jews,” says Silverman, and according to Silberstien, this is “a term he argues is particularly damaging to the cause. When atheists call themselves Jews, it implies theism, he says, which ‘makes atheists look small and negates a learning opportunity.'” Silberstein also mentions that Silverman feels “that only the word ‘atheist’ accurately conveys the proper meaning” of disbelief.
I spoke to Silverman for this article to make sure I correctly understood his viewpoint. He responded that, “Some fight the battle to get humanism (or some other label) better recognized, but this battle is counterproductive, as there are very few people who know what humanism is — as opposed to atheism — and fighting that fight completely distracts from the equality fight, which is far more important. The humanism battle is nuanced; the atheism battle is basic and foundational.”
If we were to follow Silverman’s advice and limit the movement to those who are willing to only identify as atheists, the nontheist movement would look small indeed. And what’s more, that smallness would make it all the harder to achieve our shared aim of equality for all who are good without a god. It shouldn’t be required for people to give up their other identities and claim only atheism, as people can and do identify with aspects of a particular religion that they agree with while still choosing not to believe in a god.
That being said, I do think people should still aim to be open about their lack of belief in a god or the supernatural, regardless of how they choose to identify and which religious traditions they may continue to keep. Those that pretend to be theistic, as I mentioned in an earlier article for The Huffington Post, may be acting unethically by misleading others about their beliefs. Of course, it helps when people use words that communicate clearly who they are and what they stand for. For those who know, or take the time to learn what words like humanist, skeptic and freethinker really mean, such identifiers can actually convey more than the atheist identity.
By definition, identifying as atheist indicates that one doesn’t have a belief system that includes a god, nothing more. It doesn’t encompass all the views that a person has when it comes to personal values, which is why terms like “humanist” and “secular Jew” are so important. Nonreligious Jews might not believe in a god, but they may base their ethics or culture on elements of Judaism that they find to be meaningful. The same goes for humanists who find that a simple negation of belief in a deity is not enough to live life ethically and fully, and that the progressive values of humanism complement their skepticism. Demanding that people identify only as atheist limits the ability of individuals to truly express not only what they don’t believe in, but what they do believe in.
After speaking before dozens of groups with nearly all attendees happy to use multiple freethought identifiers, it’s obvious to me that any search for purity of name for members of the nonreligious movement is a losing battle that could unnecessarily constrain the movement in the long term and prevent people who don’t believe in a god, even if they still ascribe to religious traditions, from joining. At the end of the day, as long as people aren’t expecting divine intervention in their lives, they are already acting as an atheist, no matter what self-identifying term(s) they use.
If the nontheist movement is willing to accept people from all identities who are also not theistic, the movement will grow by leaps and bounds. Not only will this expanded pool build numbers, those who are still participating in faith institutions will help, from the inside, to make them more rational and humanistic than they are today. Their rejection of supernatural and dogmatic authoritarianism will also make the world a better place. We should respect humanist-leaning religious people who do not like the atheist label. Even though they may choose to identify and participate in a particular faith tradition, either because of their culture, their family, or some other societal reason, they also should be invited to identify as nontheistic humanists. Let’s not create a schism where it is not needed, and instead be welcoming to those who wish to learn more about humanism and how to live a good life without a belief in a god.
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