If you don’t believe in any gods, you are an atheist, right? This definition seems pretty basic, not the kind of material that requires an advanced degree in theology to understand.
But apparently it isn't accurate. In fact, as I circulate in the secular movement on a daily basis, I frequently meet nonbelievers who are unwilling to identify as atheists.
Of course, there are other words that might describe those who don't believe in deities — agnostic, humanist, skeptic, etc. — and quite a few nonbelievers prefer one of those terms as their primary means of religious identification, but many reject outright the atheist identity even as a secondary or incidental label. "Don't call me an atheist!" one such nonbeliever recently told me. "I refuse to identify according to what I reject. I don't believe in astrology or unicorns, but I don't label myself according to that – so why should I identify according to my rejection of god-belief?"
This is an interesting argument, perhaps even somewhat persuasive, but it deserves some scrutiny.
For starters, most of us would probably agree that each person should be free to identify as he or she sees fit, so those nonbelievers who are uncomfortable with the atheist label shouldn't feel obliged to use it. But when we scratch beneath the surface, we sometimes find that the stated reason for avoiding the atheist label – such as the claim of not wanting to identify according to what one doesn’t believe – is a bit disingenuous.
After all, since there are no specific, common words in the English language for one who rejects astrology or unicorns, it would be rather difficult to identify as such a person. But if there were such a word (say, an “anti-astrologist”), it seems doubtful that those who fit the definition would vigorously avoid it. I couldn't imagine astrological skeptics saying, “Don’t call me an anti-astrologist! I refuse to label myself according to what I don’t believe!”
In fact, standing up against certain ideas is common in our politics and culture, both historically and in modern times, as we see with terms like anti-imperialist, anti-bullying, anti-defamation, anti-war, anti-racist, and anti-federalist. It hardly seems a matter of noble principle that one should refuse to identify as rejecting a concept, particularly a central philosophical question such as theism.
Thus, if most "non-atheist nonbelievers" were honest (and, by the way, many are) they would concede that their avoidance of the word has little to do with a principled refusal to stand up against a concept; rather, they avoid the atheist label because it carries with it a powerful stigma. Even to many nonbelievers, “atheist” is still a word that is not uttered in mixed company. In fact, some surveys show that, despite the growth of secularity in America in recent years, atheists are nevertheless the most distrusted minority.
We should bear in mind that use of the atheist identity does not necessarily preclude the use of other terms. Personally, I strongly prefer the word “humanist,” but I nevertheless will use “atheist” if a situation calls for it. This might be in response to a direct question – Are you an atheist? – or in circumstances that simply do not allow for an explanation of humanism.
Importantly, although it is unfortunate that many feel it necessary to avoid the atheist label, we shouldn't be critical of them. Everyone's personal and family situation is unique, and it wouldn't be fair to judge those who are reluctant to openly identify as atheist. Ultimately the decision is up to the individual, and nobody should be berated for hesitating.
What is worthy of criticism, however, is the disingenuous claim that one’s refusal to identify as atheist is the result of some high-minded, principled position, if in fact it is not. If we refuse to identify as atheist even though the term, objectively applied, would accurately describe us, then we should at least be honest about the reasons.
Moreover, we should also realize that shunning the term feeds the prejudice against it. Just as gays and lesbians only began gaining social acceptance by coming out of the closet, there is no reason to conclude that the experience of nonbelievers will be any different. Until ordinary people routinely identify openly and proudly as nonbelievers, the myth that open atheists are presumptively “militant” and undesirable will continue. This is why identity-oriented efforts by secular groups, such as the Out Campaign, are an important part of today's secular movement.
Nonbeliever Nation, David Niose's new book, was just released. It can be ordered here.