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Is the Word “Atheist” Negative?

“But the word ‘atheist’ is so negative. It defines us by what we’re not, not by what we are. Why don’t we use a positive word for ourselves instead?”

If you’ve been around the atheist/ humanist/ secularist/ freethought/ bright/ etc./ movement for more than about five minutes, I bet you’ve heard this argument.

I want to take a minute or two to shoot it down.

I want to get this out of the way first: If you don’t believe in any gods, then I care almost not at all what you, personally, call yourself, or what word you use to describe your god-themed opinions or lack thereof. I do sometimes wish we could all agree on a word — I think we might present a stronger and clearer face to the public if we did. But apparently we can’t, at least not now, and I think we have more important things to bicker about. More interesting things, anyway. And the right to define ourselves is too important for us to take away from each other.

For the record, I think that what we don’t believe is important, and can have positive value. But I don’t agree at all that the word “atheist” is negative. Except in the most narrowly semantic sense of the term.

And I want to make a comparison to make my point.

Let’s look at the word “non-violent.”

Would you say that “non-violent” is a negative word? When you hear that a person or an organization is committed to non-violence, do you think, “Oh, they’re so negative”? Do you think they’re defining themselves entirely in terms of the very thing they oppose?

Or do you think the word “non-violent” is a positive word? Do you have good associations with it? Do you think that non-violent people and organizations are committed to a positive, valuable principle? (Assuming that you do think non-violence is a good thing, of course. If you don’t… that’s another discussion.)

Or take the word “unbiased.” Do you think this is a negative word, in the sense of being unpleasant or undesirable? Do you even think it’s a negative word in the sense of not having positive content of its own, and being defined solely in terms of what it isn’t? Or do you think “unbiased” is a good thing to be, a positive virtue to be pursued?

There are plenty of words and phrases with a technically negative semantic construction, but which we think of as positive — “positive” in the sense of “valuable and good,” or “positive” in the sense of “having actual independent content,” or both. I can think of oodles of examples. (Or rather… I could think of oodles of examples, if I weren’t writing this at one in the morning. I thought of about a dozen examples a few hours ago when I was writing this piece in my head. I really need to get better at taking notes. If you can think of any, please mention them in the comments, so I can hit myself on the forehead and go, “D’oh! Of course! How could I forget (X)?” )

Here’s the point. A word can technically, semantically, be constructed as a compound word with a negative prefix… and still have a positive meaning. For one thing: The meanings of words shift over time, and once a compound word or phrase becomes an independent unit, its meaning can change independently of its components. (That’s why hot dogs don’t have to be hot, and the phrase “cold hot dog” isn’t a contradiction.) To say that the word “atheism” is inherently negative simply because it’s constructed of the negative prefix “a-” appended to the root “theist”… I’m sorry, but that’s a really bad argument.

And here’s the other point:

Yes, atheists have a largely negative public image right now. But it’s not because the word “atheist” is a negative word. It’s because the concept of atheism is upsetting to so many people. It’s not the word that’s the problem. It’s who we are, and what we think and don’t think. It’s the fact that we don’t believe in gods. That’s what people have a problem with.

And that’s not going to get fixed by changing what we call ourselves.

I like the word “atheist.” Obviously. It has a powerful, attention- grabbing, in- your- face quality that appeals to me. And pretty much everyone knows what it means. A lot of people have stupid myths and misunderstandings about its implications… but most people get that the word’s core meaning is “doesn’t believe in any god.” That is patently not true for the words “humanist,” “freethinker,” “secularist,” “bright,” etc. A whole lot of people literally have no idea what these words mean. (Or worse… they think they do, and don’t.)

But again, I’m not trying to talk anyone into using the word “atheist” for themselves. That’s not my point. If you don’t believe in any gods, use whatever word you want to convey that. Call yourself a humanist, a secularist, a freethinker, a bright, any combination of the above. Whatever. That’s your business, and none of my own. (Within reason. If you use the word “omelet” or “bioluminescent” or “fuckface” to describe your lack of belief in any gods, I’ll object on the grounds of incoherence.)

My point is that, if you think other people shouldn’t use the word “atheist,” or that organizations/ events/ movements/ etc. shouldn’t use the word “atheist”… you really need a much better argument than, “It’s so negative.”

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Comments

  1. AnneS says

    I think ‘atheist’ is a good word because, hey, it says what it means. I also call myself a humanist, a sceptic and a secularist depending on context, but ‘atheist’ is what I use if I’m telling someone I don’t believe in any gods. When Jehovah’s Witnesses turn up at my door ‘I’m an atheist’ gets rid of them way faster than ‘I’m a humanist’ probably would.

    By contrast, I’d use ‘I’m a rationalist’ or ‘I’m a sceptic’ if I’m explaining to someone why I think homoeopathy is a load of nonsense or why I don’t believe in reincarnation.

  2. says

    Reminds me of when people say that we shouldn’t call ourselves feminists because society has negative associations with the word…

    Historically I can not think of a maligned group who felt that the best response to people not liking what they were called was to change what they were called instead of changing the negative association with it…

  3. says

    I am an agnostic atheist secular humanist rationalist.

    None of these terms are mutually exclusive, none of these terms are negative.

    What I hate most is saying I’m an atheist and getting the response back “no, you’re more like an agnostic” at which point I want to slap the person and shout “NO! Bad!”

  4. John Morales says

    Nice post.

    I think that the meaning (no less than the stigma) attached to the term has changed over time; there was a time when the knowledge/belief distinction was less commonly appreciated, and so those who’d today likely call themselves atheists (such as Robert G. Ingersoll*) called themselves agnostics, because ‘atheism’ denoted dogmatic belief.

    Outspoken gnus such as you have made a big difference, so thanks for that, Greta.

    * I reckon that, these days, he’d proudly proclaim his agnostic atheism.

  5. Dunc says

    Neither “humanist” not “secularist” will do – there are many theists who could (and do) rightfully use these words to describe themselves. Just because all atheists are secularists (although this may be debatable, I’ll run with it for now), that does not imply that all secularists are atheists.

    I am a humanist, a secularist, and an atheist. Whilst all these positions sit well together, they are very definitely not three different words for the same thing – they are clearly distinct concepts.

  6. Jonathan Burnett says

    I like the word atheist, do not take it to have negative connotations, and feel that people/groups should freely employ it.

    There is certainly a difference between connotations and proper, consistent, and/or useful definitions, though. People can perceive anything as being a positive or negative, largely independent of what the words actually mean.

    Were I to say that atheism is negative, I would mean only that it makes no positive claims. I would also prefer clearer language.

    As to non-violence and similar, I expect the comparison only holds when demonstrating that negative words can have positive perceptions, as you were.

    For example, while (I take) belief to be binary, non-violence as a mode of conduct admits of degrees. Further, how I esteem non-violence varies by degree: as a general directive, I respect and recommend it, while I could commend it to none as an uncompromising ideal.

    There’s certainly nothing wrong with (or negative about) using negative categorical headings as apt descriptors.

  7. unbound says

    I think George Carlin is relevant here. As he stated, there are no bad words, just bad thoughts, bad intentions and just plain words.

    If atheist is a “bad word”, it is solely because of people who have worked hard to make it that way…

  8. hoverfrog says

    I think that “atheist” is a positive word. It denotes someone who is free from god belief, free from all the baggage that religion entails and able to decide for themselves that worshipping a deity is without value. It is only that theists see god belief as valuable that the word has any negative connotations at all. It is true that atheism is defined by what it isn’t (not belief in a god) but that in and of itself says nothing about the values of the person who identifies as atheist. In the same way “theist” only expresses belief in at least one god.

    Even more informative terms like Christian (as a subset of theism) aren’t that useful when trying to determine what values a person has. Is this Christian a hellfire and damnation, anti-gay, anti abortion, pro war, right wing lunatic who froths at the mouth or are they a quiet, liberal, open and honest theologian who sees all paths of self discover as paths towards God (where “god” is a nebulous term rather than a specific deity who dislikes crosses)? Humanist is at least more specific. Secularist refers to a political stance on religion. Etc, etc.

    Most of the time “atheist” is perfectly sufficient as a label. It may prompt some discussion and explanation as to what an atheist isn’t (I’ve never eaten a baby. Too chewy) so that the questioner gains a better understanding of our position as it relates to deities. Understanding is after all of vital importance if we atheists wish to eradicate the falsely negative stereotypes about us.

  9. Lauren Ipsum says

    I cheerfully and proudly call myself an atheist. I also like “critical thinker,” because it implies that the opposite of atheism (that is, theism) is “magical thinking”… which it is.

    It does tend to piss off the theists when I point that out, but that’s a feature, not a bug.

  10. machintelligence says

    It is my suspicion that the acceptance of atheists and the large increase in the number of people who do not identify with any religion in the USA is due to the fact that our mortal enemies are no longer the godless communists, but rather the god besotted religious fundamentalists.
    I refer to myself as a jovial atheist (I love the mixed images that that adjective conjures up.)

  11. says

    I was going to comment on this post, but Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort has already made the point I was going to make.

    Atheist, humanist, secularist, freethinker, etc, all mean different things. Atheist is a perfectly good word to describe people who don’t believe in gods, trying to co-opt other words merely causes confusion.

  12. Joyous says

    Oooh! I want to be an omelet!

    Seriously, Greta, I love your blog, and I keep getting sucked into your archives. Must stop reading now and go to work…

    But I really, really want to call myself an omelet next time someone asks about my religion.

  13. says

    I’m happy call myself an atheist because it it is a very unambiguous descriptive term.

    On the other hand, I could be an omelet as I came from an egg and I’ve never met an omelet (or an egg) that believed in the supernatural.

  14. says

    The problem isn’t that the word is negative, the problem is that it’s inaccurate.

    Literally everyone is an atheist, in that no one believes in Zeus. Or Thor. Or in at least one of the thousand other gods humanity has created. For this reason, the term is meaningless.

    Personally, I call myself a skeptic and leave it at that.

  15. vel says

    As always, excellent article. I’m an atheist and proud of it. Too bad if it makes others feel like they aren’t the sole holders of the “truths of the universe”. Poor things!

    I’m also a woman, a liberal, and very very intelligent, all terms that others would wish would vanish so they didn’t have to think. I am not a “humanist” because I can be quite a misanthrope at times.

  16. vel says

    As always, excellent article. I am an atheist and too bad if hearing that word makes others realize that they aren’t the sole holders of the “truths of the universe” and everyone doesn’t agree with their delusions. Poor things!

    I’m also a woman, a liberal, a very intelligent person, etc, all of which some ignorant group would hope are never mentioned so they can wallow in their willful stupidity.

  17. martha says

    Wish List:

    -I wish “Truthist” wasn’t such a silly sounding word, because it emphasizes the bit I really care about- I care what’s true & that’s why I say there’s no god, if god looked like a credible theory I’d be for it.

    - I wish for a word that could, in one nifty little package, convey to the non-fundamentalist religious that the “theos” that I am “a-” is not what they probably mean by it in their everyday lives. I’m not “a-” profound emotional bond with the universe, sense of community or commitment to the well-being of others. I’m kind of down with all that. I’m “a-” their theory of where all those experiences in their brains come from.

    And while I’m at it, could this same nifty little word distinguish the kind of atheist who’s down with all of the above from, say, Stalin?

    OK, wish list aside, I agree atheist is the clearest word available. Better to run with it and explain it than argue about it and try to invent new labels.

    And I like Hoverfrog’s point about the insufficiency of the Christian label. One of my earliest realizations of the problems of religion was that religious symbols are ripe for the shell game: they start you out believing that the cross means love and brotherhood and so forth, but turn your back for a second and they swap that pea right out and replace it with sin, obedience and weirdness about sex.

  18. davidct says

    I find myself disagreeing with a good part of you thesis that atheist is not a negative term. While you are academically correct, most of our society does not think of atheism the way we do. Whether we like it or not “atheist” is functionally a pejorative term. As much as we would like our understanding of the label to be understood the way atheists do it is just not the case and to ignore the negative feelings it provokes is not helpful. Perhaps continuing use of the term openly will eventually change the image but that is not where we are now.

    In spite of this I think that the term “Atheist” should be used in public discussions and whenever we are defining what we stand for to larger groups. This is the only way to change the perception of the term to what it really means. The substitute public terms like humanist are not really that useful. Use of these substitute labels in public forums detracts from the force of our arguments.

    In private discussions with people I do not know very well is where I will sometimes use the substitute term heathen. I do this intentionally to avoid being labeled too quickly. Once an atheist uses the term “Atheist” with theists we start playing in the theist court so to speak. Theists often find the term threatening and many have had it specifically defined for them in church. We believe in nothing. We hate god. We have no moral guide. The person using that label can thus be defined and all the mindless preconceptions can be applied. This can quickly lead to ending the conversation or the need to justify a position defined be someone else. I find the use of the alternate label initially is a way to avoid being too quickly defined by someone else.

    I am proud of being an atheist but I still feel that it is someone else’s term. I like to think of myself as “normal”. Just a human being who has not been indoctrinated into some cult or other.

  19. jflcroft says

    Greta, you say “Yes, atheists have a largely negative public image right now. But it’s not because the word “atheist” is a negative word. It’s because the concept of atheism is upsetting to so many people. It’s not the word that’s the problem. It’s who we are, and what we think and don’t think. It’s the fact that we don’t believe in gods. That’s what people have a problem with.”

    There’s good evidence that this is not the case. In the widely-reported studies which support the “American Grace” book, people were asked their opinion of different groups of people. “Non-religious” people actually did reasonably well on the “opinion-o-meter” – far better than “atheists” do on similar scales when that specific term is used. Also, people were asked whether “people who do not believe in God” could be good people, or could get to heaven, they did well there too. It does seem, then, that some portion of the American public sees a specifically negative connotation to the word “atheist” as compared to “non-religious”.

    Further, I think you perhaps understate the case of those (like myself) who think we should move on from the term “atheist”. Your counter-examples are smart but somewhat inaccurate. A religious descriptor is a label of identity and group membership in the way “non-violent” or “unbiased” are not. Calling oneself an “atheist” reinforces the idea that “theism” is the norm from which we are deviating, reinforcing religiocentrism and religionormativity. It’s more like calling yourself “non-straight” that “non-violent”.

    Further, pace PZ (who I disagree with on this point), there are few positive values expressed by the term “atheist”. In addition to being negative in the semantic sense you suggest, it’s also essentially values-free. This is a political liability of enormous magnitude, because people are swayed by their values, and the “atheist” descriptor doesn’t provide any. I’d say we should coalesce around Humanist, which has the benefit of expressing our key concern being human welfare, or “Freethinker” which, as Susan Jacoby suggests, expresses the value we prace in freedom of thought and ideas, and make it clear we will not succumb to religiocentrism and religious privilege by our very descriptor.

  20. John K. says

    This may be a bit obvious, but any double negative is going to be positive. “Non-chafing”, “Unencumbered”, “Non-contagious”, “Herpes-Free”. Take your pick.

    I like that “atheist” has been robbed of its old pejorative meaning, much in the same way the sting of self applied racial or sexual slurs have been. It is a fairly vacuous term though, and you tend to have to separate yourself from Stalin and Pol Pot. Even so, using the term in general will shift the outside perception over time.

  21. says

    @jflcroft: But “non-religious” is just as much a negative word as “atheist”. So it’s not just the negativity of the word that makes it unpopular. Besides, non-religious and atheist have different meanings, considering there are religious atheists (Taoists, some Buddhists, Scientologists) and non-religious theists.

    That being said. There are probably negative connotations of the word atheist that go beyond the concept of atheism. People’s brains work like that. And yes, “humanist” or “freethinker” lack some of those connotations.

    Does that make them better alternatives? I doubt it. Alternative terms lack the negative connotations, in great part, because they are less known. Calling yourself by any other alternative term suffers from lack of clarity, and by the time the term is common enough, it will have attracted a good deal of the unpopularity.

  22. Randomfactor says

    Nobody thinks it’s negative when they call Superman “invulnerable,” do they?

    But I also like “freethinker.”

  23. DiscoveredJoys says

    I’ve no problems with ‘atheist’. But I prefer to call my self ‘god free’ as an expression of my autonomy. Similarly I call believers ‘god struck’ since I suspect their rationality and autonomy is impaired.

  24. says

    I think the reason “atheist” hasn’t lost its sting is because atheists are afraid to call themselves atheists. This has been going on for a very long time. We don’t need a new term, we need to control the use of “atheist.”

    We need people to think of Warren Buffett, Brad Pitt, or Bill Gates, not Stalin or Pol Pot. We have to stop hiding behind vague, “friendly” terms that we use to separate ourselves. All of the other terms do not qualify for all atheists. You can add any of those terms to the word “atheist” and not be redundant.

    I know he’s fictional, but would you call Dr. House a Humanist? He’s a misanthrope. He’s an atheist. Would you call a Buddhist a Secularist or a Rationalist? No, a Buddhist is an atheist. Would you call an atheist that wears a magnetic bracelet while playing golf a Skeptic? No, they’re an atheist that is scientifically illiterate.

    “Atheist” is the umbrella term. It should induce more questions. I can call myself a Secular Humanist Rationalist Skeptic Freethinker that meditates, but I’m still an atheist.

    Let’s stick to what we have in common: a non-belief in divine puppetmasters. This bonds us. You may believe in ghosts, but you don’t believe in angels. You’re still an atheist.

    Let’s stick with ATHEIST and change the perception. New terms are just noise.

  25. Dan M. says

    And pretty much everyone knows what it means.
    Well, except for those folks who seem to honestly think it means “satanist” or “angry at God”.

    @13, Surely a large part of the different in response between ‘atheist’ and ‘non-religious’ is the ability of pro-theism thinkers to presume ‘non-religious’ to still be “spiritual” or some such shit. And thinking that atheists can go to heaven is, well, not at all compatible with respecting atheists. (“I know you’re scared of dogs, but that doesn’t mean that you wont’t one day get to live with our pack of dingoes, too!” What?)

    And “atheism” is as value-free as “non-violent”. The whole point is that it opposes a pervasive and immense cause of harm.

  26. Greta Christina says

    Not sure what just happened, but what I was responding to is now @25. Whoops.

    What happened was that a bunch of comments in the moderation queue got approved, and when that happens, they get numbered in the order they were originally posted, not the order they were approved. Which does muck up the citations. Alas. Sorry about that.

  27. jflcroft says

    @Sigma: “Calling yourself by any other alternative term suffers from lack of clarity”

    I beg to differ. I think “Humanist” is a far clearer expression of my values than “atheist”, which only expresses one tiny part of my worldview.

  28. Sean Santos says

    The word “independent” could be literally taken to mean “not dependent”, but we don’t think of it as a negative every time.

    I also had a frustrating conversation with someone about male circumcision, where he said that “uncircumcised” and “uncut” were bad words and should be replaced with “intact” (which is actually from the Latin for “untouched”, also a “negative word”) or “natural” (which is both ambiguous and seems to invoke one of my pet peeves, the naturalistic fallacy… hehe, phallusy…).

  29. quantheory says

    Apparently I need to remember to sign in. The not-yet-moderated comment by Sean Santos is also me.

  30. Jim Baerg says

    I like to describe myself as “faith free”.

    Free , in this context, has the great merit of stating that I do not have a bad thing.

  31. says

    I’m an adialogueist. I don’t believe we need to have these types of discussions!

    More seriously, yeah, ‘atheist’ is pejorative only to religious wackaloons. To the rest of us, it’s simply an adjective.

  32. Don says

    As always, this is a finely wrought and provocative piece, but I agree with James Croft’s comments as to the viability and suitability of descriptors like “freethinker” and “humanist,” which, as he says, encapsulate values as well as attitude. The trouble with “atheist” is that it is, as linguists say, a skunked term. It has been indelibly dosed with opprobrium, all of it undeserved. But there we are.

  33. Greta Christina says

    It has been indelibly dosed with opprobrium.

    Don @ #43: I agree that it’s been dosed with opprobrium. I don’t agree that it’s indelible.

    Oh, and re “antibiotic,” “unstinting,” “selfless,” “fearless,” “asepsis,” “non-chafing,” “unencumbered,” “non-contagious,” “herpes-free,” “invulnerable,” “independent,” etc.: D’oh! Of course! How could I forget? m-/

  34. says

    Thank you!

    I have had the “atheist is negative” discussion with some freethinker friends. One of them preferred the term non-theist, but that can be criticized as having the same “negative” quality. Like you, I like the stark and descriptive aspect of “atheist” although with some Christians, it carries a huge amount of inaccurate baggage.

    I love your blog posts. You think very clearly about things that matter to me and you express them beautifully. Thank you for doing what you do.

  35. Rieux says

    There’s also “anti-racist,” but one generally only hears that in solidly lefty circles.

    …Which is not intended as a knock on solidly lefty circles, or on anti-racism.

  36. Nurse Ingrid says

    I agree with John K. I call myself an atheist for pretty much the same reasons I call myself queer. Reclaiming pejoratives is fun and empowering, plus it’s very very upsetting to the sort of people who wish we could all just be Nice. I think “godless” is another great example. It reminds me of when the McCarthyites used to call everyone “Godless communists.” It’s like, yeah, so what? I can even be a godless queer, and damn proud of it too!

    Queer Nation used to have stickers that said,
    “That’s MISTER Faggot to you!” Perhaps we need some that say, “That’s MADAM Atheist to you!”

  37. Kevin G. says

    Loosely related, but just in case you’re forgetting that English isn’t the only game in town, I learned this interesting contrast yesterday between Polish and English.

    We have

    necessary => UNecessary

    they have

    NIEzbędny (not unnecessary) => zbędny (unnecessary)

    On the other hand, every other language I checked does seem to use some version of a-theist.

  38. amhovgaard says

    jflcroft #25: there’s a difference between identifying someone as a member of a group (atheists) and just describing them (don’t believe in a god); people have stronger feelings (& more preconceived notions) about Those People in That Group than about all those individuals over there, who just happen to have characteristic X in common. In addition, there’s more room for interpretation and misunderstanding with “non-religious” and “don’t believe in God”: the first can be taken to mean “not very interested in religion, not a regular church-goer” and someone who does not believe in “God” might simply be a member of a different religion – and many religious people find that easier to accept than atheism.

  39. says

    amhovgaard #50: I take your points, but I’m not sure they change my interpretation. The fact still remains that the word “atheist” does seem to have a more negative connotation to many that is over and above the fact that we don’t believe in God. The way the surveys I mention were designed, I don’t think it likely that people read “doesn’t believe in god” to mean simply “doesn’t believe in MY god” – they’d already been given the opportunity to explain their views of people of other religions, and were then being asked to explicitly say what they thought about those with none.

    If you think of this sociologically it makes perfect sense – the right has been demonizing “atheists” (and, in fact, “Humanists”) for a rather long time, and some of the prejudice we face is due to that targeted campaign, I’d wager. Further, those organizations which refer to themselves as “Atheist” have tended, in recent months at least, to act in a way which reinforces some of the worst stereotypes out there about us. No wonder the term isn’t gaining much love.

  40. P Smith says

    I’ve never been a fan of “bright” because it sounds pompous and arrogant.

    An alternative I’ve heard is practicals (atheists) and practitioners (the religious). It suggests that atheists are dealing in the real world while stating the religious are merely “practicing”, although it could be suggested they’re not dealing in a fantasy world.

    .

  41. says

    @jflcroft:

    Fair point, I misspoke. “Calling atheists in general humanists suffers from a lack of clarity” is what I should’ve said.

  42. Ariel says

    If you’ve been around the atheist/ humanist/ secularist/ freethought/ bright/ etc./ movement for more than about five minutes, I bet you’ve heard this argument.


    I haven’t been around the atheist movement for more than five minutes (oh well, commenting on Greta’s blog is my first experience, if that counts); I’m also not American. This is just to explain my very naïve questions – if someone is nice enough to lecture me, I will be grateful. I just want to understand this thread. So, the questions are:
    1. Am I right in thinking that this topic is about something like a family quarrel inside the atheist movement? This is not the argument you hear from believers, but from fellow atheists. Is that correct?
    2. In one of the comments I read that the term “non-believer” doesn’t provoke so bad associations in America as the term “atheist”. What do you think is a reason for that? Is it because the Americans associate atheism with communism? Is it because of the “new atheists” and their activities? Or maybe some other motives are important here?
    3. How negative is the image of atheists (denoted by this term) in America? Some of you are talking about a “stigma” in this context. Can you give some illustrations for that, or just some links?

  43. says

    Maybe part of the issue is that the word “theist” has a good connotation — to such a degree that many people think being a theist is mandatory in order to be a good person — that any word that’s the opposite is seen as negative.

    To offer a word related to my college major: “Afebrile” means “without fever”.

    @Ariel (#54):

    I’ve only been an atheist for a couple of years. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I’ll try to answer your questions.

    1. It does seem to be a family quarrel. Some people seem to have no problem with the various labels, but some passionately defend one or the other. There are sometimes theists who argue that a person who calls themselves an “atheist” should use the word “agnostic”.

    2. I’m not sure why non-believer is considered better. Maybe it’s because non-believer might also include people who don’t believe in a particular religion but still have some kind of religious/spiritual belief? Maybe non-believer has a connotation of someone who doesn’t really care about religious belief or just has doubts, whereas atheist has a connotation of someone who’s vocal about it (e.g. the “new” atheists)?

    3. Well, we’re obviously better off than people who are living in Islamic theocracies, for example, but there are still a great many people here who think this is a “Christian Nation” and that it’s fine for others to be forced to follow Christianity. Along with this, there are stereotypes of atheists (as well as other groups as well, of course).

    Last year, there was an issue of Rabbi Lapin saying that atheists are parasites while talking with Glenn Beck.

    http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201009030038

    Though the rabbi says it in an extreme way, that seems to be the general feeling: that religion leads to morality and anyone else who does good things does so because they learned it from a society that’s been positively influenced by religion.

    These articles came to mind:

    David Plotz’s “The Protestant Presidency” in Slate from 2000.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/briefing/articles/2000/02/the_protestant_presidency.html

    Susan Jacoby’s “Atheists — nauty and nice — should define themselves”

    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/spirited_atheist/2010/02/atheists_–_naughty_and_nice_–_should_define_themselves.html

    Sam Harris’ “10 Myths-and 10 Truths-About Atheism”

    http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/10-myths-and-10-truths-about-atheism1/

  44. azkyroth says

    (Within reason. If you use the word “omelet” or “bioluminescent” or “fuckface” to describe your lack of belief in any gods, I’ll object on the grounds of incoherence.)

    :(

  45. Ariel says

    Ani Sharmin, thanks a lot, the links you provided were an interesting read.

    Personally I doubt that there is any issue here. I find it hard to believe that choosing a word which evokes more positive associations will produce any substantial change in the attitudes of non-atheists (excuse me, but the use of double negation here was just too tempting! :-)). What’s seems more likely is that (other things being equal) this new, positive word will itself turn negative in time – that’s what happened with the word “comrade” in my part of the word. All in all, a classical non-issue.

  46. says

    I don’t believe that the word “atheist” is negative. I believe that the word has been made to sound negative, sort of an insult, meant to make us feel bad about rejecting religion. So much so, that even to this day, I preface saying “I’m an atheist” with…”Ahhh…” as if i’m saying it cautiously. I’m fighting that. Everyone in my friend’s list, believer or not, knows that I am, but the stigma of the word, and my grandmother, still linger. The only way to fight back is to take pride in it.

    I don’t even fight the notion of the there being a god anymore, my stance is more of, it doesn’t matter if there is one or not. For if there is, he is watch the world in its misery and doing nothing about it. So, proof of his existence is proof of his apathy. As for me, personally, every time I say it, my voice gets stronger. And I am d*mn proud to be an atheist.

  47. DoubtingT says

    The problem with “atheist” is that most people interpret it as “anti-god.” Since they are pro-god this automatically brands you as an enemy and unfit to talk to.
    When the need arises I describe myself as an agnostic and go into as much detail as I feel is useful. My preferred description is “Laplaceian.” I then have to explain at greater length that, like Pierre Laplace, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

  48. Peter says

    I’m newly out of the closet, and was planning on trying out “naytheist”. “I’m a naytheist!” No good, huh?

  49. Gareth says

    The term Atheism is a contradiction to theism, It offers theism a direct opposite with which to argue thus giving theists a basis for argument.
    By calling your self an atheist you’re opposing something you dont believe in whilst also lending credibilty to it through being it’s opposite?

    Theism is nonsense, how can there be atheists?

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