When I joined Atheist Nexus yesterday, reading some of the conversations there caused me to return to the idea of what we nonbelievers should call ourselves so as to most easily accepted by the masses of believers.
There is a debate about how best to represent our cause, whether to call ourselves atheists, humanists, brights, or something else. Throughout history, going back to the Classical Greeks at least, atheism has been a pejorative term applied to those who refused to honor the god(s) of the day and were usually thought to be otherwise immoral. I have thought about this quite a bit, especially after the misguided attempt to get everyone to sign on to using the term bright as a collective description of non-theists. I think the term bright is a very poor choice because it seems to support one of the worst stereotypes about nonbelievers, that we think we are brighter (more intelligent) than the simple people who believe in god(s). Also, there are a large number of undoubtedly brilliant people who believe in a personal god, a fact that I’ve struggled with over the years and that tells me that this issue is far from straightforward and that in order for so many intelligent and inquisitive people to believe in a personal god that is inherently unapproachable using our reason, the primary tool we use to navigate the world, there must either be a deep human need that this belief addresses, or the theists possess some faculty of “god perception” that we nonbelievers lack. Since I have studied religion (all the major religions), formally and informally, for many years, and the very idea of a personal god with the properties ascribed to him by monotheists is an affront to our reason, I must reject the latter possibility. If a god existed, it seems extremely unlikely that he would require us to put aside reason, the faculty that has allowed us to survive and thrive in the world, in order for us to perceive him. But to simply dismiss theism as a mental aberration or a comforting story that simple people tell themselves is a gross oversimplification of the issue.
Of course, everyone is free to choose their own term to describe themselves. But to help our struggle to win public acceptance and respect, I think we need to pick a group term that is hard to represent as negative, that shows that we regard the world (and other people generally) in a positive way. With few exceptions, the nonbelievers I meet in everyday life (those who publish that fact to me) are very intelligent, compassionate, and actively engaged in making the world a better place. We need a story that tells the world that this is who we are and a simple term that serves as a symbolic pointer to this story.
This is not a finished project. I’m just writing down my current thinking on this. It’s likely that there are atheists out there who want to publish their lack of belief but do not agree with the basic tenets of humanism, so humanism might not be an option for all. Maybe the term atheist is the only common ground we will be able to find in our common cause to separate the shadow of religion from the structures of official power and gain acceptance as a group that contributes greatly to society. I find it more appropriate to describe myself as a humanist, which describes what I believe and mostly has a positive connotation right now, than an atheist, which literally describes a lack of belief and currently has a negative connotation for most people. I think we have work to do in reforming public perceptions of the term atheist and I am happy that we have chosen to reform the term rather than abandon it. But for now, I think I’ll call myself a humanist in general conversation and use the term atheist when others need to understand that I do not believe in god(s).