Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pick a colloquialism: What's your flavor of non-belief?

“It’s one thing to not believe in God, but an Atheist?

Comments like the one above have left many non-believers to adopt any one of a number of different colloquialisms to avoid the stigma attached to “The A Word.” Let’s review a few of them, shall we?

Agnostic: Let’s get this one out of the way first; Yes, agnosticism is different from Atheism, but in many cases, it is used by Atheists as a way of self-identifying as a non-believer in a more palatable way. It can also, in fact, be quite a subjective term. Technically, even Richard Dawkins is an agnostic, because he can not say with 100% certainty that there is no such thing as a god or gods. This is exactly my stance as well, but I (and I assume Prof. Dawkins as well) identify as Atheist to indicate that it isn’t something I am unsure about, that I don’t feel there’s any reasonable chance that there is a god. I cannot claim 100% certainty that anything doesn’t exist, but I find it so unlikely that the difference is almost indistinguishable. Thus: Atheist.

Free-Thinker: This is a way of downplaying the disbelief, making it nothing more than incidental to the fact that the bearer of the title practices “free thought.” That free thought should naturally lead to the conclusion that there is no god. I find this to be both pretentious and, somehow, not pretentious enough. On the one hand, “free-thinker” is a way of elevating yourself to a higher status than those you’re differentiating yourself from: that they are inferior because they do not have the ability to think for themselves. In that sense, I think it can be a more damaging label than Atheist. On the other hand, I think that you could drop the “free” and just acknowledge that you just need to think, period, to know that the idea of God is ridiculous.

Humanist/Secular Humanist: The “Secular” part, when added, is almost redundant. Secular doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t believe in God, just that you want that part to be separate from the rest of society, especially government. There are even plenty of Christian secularists here in the States (though not nearly enough). But someone with no belief in gods is almost always going to be a secularist... after all, why would you want something you don’t believe in having a say in something as important as government? “Humanist” serves to express the disbelief, so “Secular” should be logically inferred. But what about that phrase? It indicates a faith in humanity, in human nature to provide morality, empathy, guidance and charity. It says that we don’t need something outside ourselves to be just and righteous. A stance on the existence of God takes a back seat to the more important notion that, whether God exists or not, we don’t need one. In that way, I very much like the term. For me, though, I prefer to be more blunt about my views on the subject of God’s existence.

Skeptic: All Atheists are, by definition, skeptics. In fact, my dictionary says they are synonymous. Unfortunately, too often the term skeptic is thought of more as someone who doubts the existence of ghosts, physics, Bigfoot, or UFOs, rather than someone who doesn’t believe in deities. So, while the term skeptic is perfectly accurate, the perception of the term usually gives a false impression and usually calls to mind people like James Randi, who try to expose faith healers and other charlatans.

Bright: According to the-brights.net, there are semantic differences between a Bright and an Atheist. However, the goal seems to be to introduce the word “Bright” into the public vernacular to mean “A person with a naturalistic, not supernatural, worldview,” mush in the same way that the word Gay went from meaning “happy” to meaning “homosexual.” I think this is a worthy endeavor and I have signed on as part of the movement. But I’ll continue to identify as an Atheist. Especially for the time being, since no one would have any idea what I was talking about if I said “Oh, I’m a Bright!”

Those are all the ones I can think of for the moment. If anyone identifies as something I don’t have listed (or something I do) then let me know what and why. I’m very interested in hearing why people use the colloquialisms that they do.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Heretic, Gentile, and Blasphemer come to mind;).

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

The Amazing Randi did something where he exposed the faith healing technique, or at least that's what the video said, but he didn't say anything about what he was doing, just did what they did.

I thought he would've explained something about slight of hand, but he didn't. See what I'm talking about?

- trevor.

paulg99 said...

Good to meet you, Shawn at the atheists meetup. If you want to leverage your writing maybe we can do a website one day and get some money from advertising etc

paul
www.floridahomeownersinsuranceinfo.com

Humanist Mama said...

This is a great post. For me, it really depends on who I'm talking to and what I'm talking about. When I identify as humanist, I'm saying more about what I do believe than about what I don't believe. I try to gauge the person and determine which term will freak them out less ;) People have misunderstandings about all of the terms and I find that I often have to explain what I mean by each term anyway. Also, I've heard some people use some of the terms together like: Agnostic Atheist, Atheist Humanist... I think they do that just to clarify their position since the terms have slightly different meanings.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

I used to find it remarkable that atheists can protest so strongly to separate themselves from a group of people they disagree with so strongly but whom they so closely resemble.

But now after reading this post, I have a new take. Now I find it remarkable that any atheistic-type would have the temerity to call themselves a 'free thinker'.

There's different denominations of Christianity or Catholicism and now there's different denominations of Atheism?

Please. I'm not religious and couldn't believe in a conventional God to save my life, but it's stuff like this that makes me pray for the apocalypse.

- trevor.

Humanist Mama said...

Now I find it remarkable that any atheistic-type would have the temerity to call themselves a 'free thinker'.

There's different denominations of Christianity or Catholicism and now there's different denominations of Atheism?


I think you are misusing the word denomination when referring to atheists. The only thing atheists necessarily have in common is the lack of a belief in a god. So, it makes sense that there would be other descriptions people use based on what they DO believe or to describe how they have come to their conclusions.

When one uses the word freethinker, they are referring to the fact that they do not depend upon an authority to tell them what is right or wrong. They are free to change their minds as new evidence emerges. People who belong to religions depend upon a church authority to tell them what to believe.

That is what many nonbelievers object to. I would rather have people look at the evidence and examine it for themselves than depend upon a church leader to tell them what to think.

Also, church goers have a holy book that they base their beliefs upon. I do not find it odd at all for people to have different opinions and different labels. However, I do find it odd that all of the Christian denominations base their beliefs upon one holy book and that their beliefs can be so different.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

When one uses the word freethinker, they are referring to the fact that they do not depend upon an authority to tell them what is right or wrong. They are free to change their minds as new evidence emerges. People who belong to religions depend upon a church authority to tell them what to believe.

Mama, I'm not disputing the definition of a free-thinker. I'm saying atheists aren't free-thinkers, quite so much as rebels.

I have never met a single atheist in my day who has ever even considered entertaining a notion, let alone outside possibilities, such as Intelligent Design. Not one.

Because of this, I am no longer an atheist. In fact, it took even longer before I realized that there's no reason for a definition as to what I believe.

It's all too simple for them to say "There is no god... Period".

That's laziness. It's the same reaction most atheists had to that film 'Expelled!'.

That is what many nonbelievers object to. I would rather have people look at the evidence and examine it for themselves than depend upon a church leader to tell them what to think.

A church leader... or other like-minded atheists. Or the squadron of atheist books that Shawn has on display.

Now, somehow, I managed to realize the importance of faith and the true nature of belief without ever going to church, reading a book or believing in God. And I did it by being truly objective and divorcing myself from any stake I may have in the future and to humanity as a continued species.

You're all smart, right? Then why is it that you don't see the inherent similarites to that which you try to distance yourself from?

- trevor.

Humanist Mama said...

I have never met a single atheist in my day who has ever even considered entertaining a notion, let alone outside possibilities, such as Intelligent Design. Not one.

Could you explain why anyone would entertain an idea when no evidence exists to support that idea? If someone came up and told you that flying dragons are really holding up the earth, refuting the theory of gravity, would you automatically consider it to be true? Or would you possibly require some evidence before you believed it? Most atheists I know require evidence. If someone wants to make a crazy claim, they need to show it's true if they want other people to believe it.

It's all too simple for them to say "There is no god... Period".

I surely haven't said that, nor have any other atheists I know. I think there is a very small chance that a god exists but I have not said that one absolutely does not. However, theists claim that there absolutely is a god but do not want to provide any evidence for that claim. So, if anyone wants to provide some evidence, I'm open to it.

That's laziness. It's the same reaction most atheists had to that film 'Expelled!'.

Actually, I disagree. It is lazy when people just believe because they always have.

Could you explain how it is lazy to question the claims of a documentary film and then provide evidence that the claims are false? You might want to check out Expelled Exposed to see why most atheists have a problem with that film. Oh and by the way, it is not just atheists who had a problem with the film. It did terrible in the box office and and had terrible reviews.

A church leader... or other like-minded atheists. Or the squadron of atheist books that Shawn has on display.

The difference is that a church leader has free reign of his church...nobody questions him..his word is gold. The atheist books on Shawn's site are all good books but that does not mean that all atheists agree with them and do what the books tell them to do. These books are opinions of the authors and do not attempt to tell people how to run their lives. Again, the only thing atheists necessarily agree upon is that they do not believe in a god.

Now, somehow, I managed to realize the importance of faith and the true nature of belief without ever going to church, reading a book or believing in God.

That's great. It sounds like you are a person who does not believe in any type of label...and that's fine. But, you can't expect everyone else to abide by your decision for yourself. Humans' use of language means that we do put a label on everything. Personally, I am fine with that. And if I am similar to theists simply because I have a label for myself...so be it.

Travis Morgan said...

I don't mind saying I'm an atheist. The only weight is carries when I say it is that it means that I lack belief in the existence of gods.

Agnostic, I have no problem with that. Same stance as Dawkins.

I happen to also be a skeptic. I don't believe in ghosts\spirits, or any supernatural realm. While I think that is is possible and maybe even likely that there is life on other planets, I am skeptical that they have visited earth.

I used to consider myself a free-thinker, but I refrain from calling myself that now. As it implies I have some freedom to control or choose what I think. Being a determinist, not believing we have free-will, I cannot rightfully say that I think "freely."

I don't call myself a humanist or secular humanist, because I don't thing that our interest should only be focused on the human specifically. What about the rest of the species of life?

Brights, I never called myself a bright as for people who are not familiar with it, they can easily be misled to take it as an elitist position, that brights are brighter then everyone else. LOL.

Buffy said...

I'm an agnostic atheist. A 6 on the Dawkins scale.

Elephant said...

I think most agnostics are closet atheists.

At least that was partly the case when I called myself agnostic.

Also, I enjoy your use of the word charlatan. Very Randi-esque.

You should go on youtube and search for "James Randi Psychic Investigator". The clips are hilarious. And check out Randi exposes James Hydrick if you haven't seen it yet.

P.S... I totally just commented, see?

jtm said...

Hey, Shawn. Andrew told me about your blog over lunch. Read this post, thought I'd mention something about the Brights movement:

As an atheist, I think that the movement to take the word "Bright" is alienating in a way that the word "gay" is not. Homosexual people using the word "gay" never implied that those who are not homosexual are not "happy," but the word "Bright" does imply that those who are not atheists are stupid. While many atheists might feel that way at some level, it's not going to be conducive to shedding the baggage that the word "atheist" has acquired over the centuries. I read a blog post somewhere else expressing this same sentiment, and the blogger suggested that the Bright movement also promote a value-judgment-neutral term for those who do believe in the supernatural -- this blogger suggested "Super".

If the goal of the Bright movement is to rebrand atheism, they're going to have to do something like this, because the adjective they chose is (I think) inherently more problematic than "gay" was.

Joshua Starry said...

I consider myself a free-thinking humanist atheist and now I will follow your blog.