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The Power to Name Ourselves: Why I Don’t Give a Damn If You Call Yourself Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, Freethinker, or What

Of all the assorted fights and squabbles in the atheist/ humanist/ freethinker/ secular/ godless/ whatever movement, I’ve tended to stay away from the one about which of these “whatever”s we should call ourselves. A lot of this has to do with my own personal and philosophical views on naming and language — and a lot of it has to do with my experience in the LGBT community, and my experience with the squabbles we went through about what to call ourselves.

I recently got an email about this question from Kaylie Johnson, who’s working on a project about secular self-identification for the Secular Student Alliance and the new Openly Secular project. Here’s what she said:

My hope is that I can produce a resource to help people understand that is important for individuals to be able to identify and label themselves as they see fit. I also will probably end up making a list/glossary of possible labels within the secular community.

It would be awesome to have your input on things like:

-Why is it important to be able to define yourself/choose your own label?
-Why should you allow others to choose their own label?
-How does self identification within the secular community help people feel more comfortable?

These are just some topics off the top of my head. I know you like to relate things to the LGBT community, so that may be a good way for me to help others understand the importance of self identity.

Here’s my reply.

*****

The answer to all these questions is the same. The power to name ourselves is hugely important for anyone. It’s especially important for marginalized people. I’ll use LGBT culture in my examples — but these translate to other marginalizations as well, including non-belief.

headline inquiry by senate on perverts askedThroughout history, other people have gotten to name us. For decades and indeed centuries, straight people were the ones who chose the language commonly used for LGBT people. Because being out was dangerous, we couldn’t speak up publicly and use our own language, so outside of our private conversations with one another, we had to accept straight people’s words for us. And to this day, homophobic or transphobic slurs being hurled at us are often among our earliest experiences of forming our understanding of our identity.

Throughout history, other people have not just gotten to name us — they have gotten to define our names. For decades, straight people were the ones to define what exactly it meant to be homosexual, bisexual, transgender, transvestite, etc. — and they typically insisted that they knew what those words meant better than we did ourselves.

plain talk about homosexualsAnd throughout history, other people have gotten to decide which names were the polite ones, and which were the insulting ones. A classic example of this is the word “homosexual.” Most LGBT people don’t like it: we find it too clinical, and it has connections with an ugly history of our sexual orientation being medicalized. But for decades, this was the “polite” word many straight people continued to use, especially in medical or other scientific contexts.

When marginalized people begin to push back against our marginalization, part of that process involves saying, “We are not who you say we are. We are who we say we are.” Naming is a big part of that. That’s true on a larger community level, and it’s true for individuals.

And when people respect this — when people with privilege stop to think, “What is the polite word?” and work to remember which the current polite words are — it’s a sign of respect. It shows that they recognize the reality of our marginalization; it shows that they understand that we know ourselves better than they do; and it shows that they care enough about all this to undergo the slight inconvenience of keeping track of the language. (Conversely, when people don’t do this, it’s a sign that they either don’t understand any of this, or don’t care. Or both.)

lgbtqBecause of all this, it’s important to be able to name ourselves. It’s important to choose our own names, and to decide what those names mean. Example: “Bisexual” means somewhat different things to different self-identified bisexuals. How many partners of both sexes we’ve had, or how recently we had those experiences, or how important those experiences were to us, or whether those experiences were romantic or simply sexual, or how many people of both sexes we’re attracted to and how important that is to us regardless of who we’ve had sex with… all of these get weighed differently by different people when we’re deciding whether we’re bisexual, gay or lesbian, straight, pansexual, or some other words.

And because of all this, it’s important to support other people in naming themselves. Example: When gay men and lesbians insist that they know better than bisexuals do what it means to be bisexual, and tell other people that they’re “really” bisexual or “really” gay or lesbian or straight, it just perpetuates that same disempowerment we resist when we get it from straight culture.

Yes, this can lead to some confusion — especially in the earlier days of a community coming into its own, when a rough consensus about language is still being formed. It means that not everyone uses the language exactly the same way: that’s sometimes confusing, and it sometimes means we have to clarify and define our terms. (Not to mention the whole thing about how “we get to decide for ourselves which slurs we’re reclaiming and which ones we aren’t, and we get to use our reclaimed slurs but you don’t,” which outsiders can find very confusing.) But the power to name ourselves is too important. It far outweighs any inconvenience we might experience when we have to take ten seconds to spell out what exactly we mean.

So, similarly, non-believers shouldn’t insist that we all call ourselves atheists, or humanists, or agnostics, or whatever. And we shouldn’t insist that other non-believers define these words exactly the way we ourselves do. Example: I’m personally a little puzzled by self-identified agnostics, since most of them have about the same level of disbelief in God that they do about unicorns or leprechauns, and they don’t usually say they’re agnostic about those myths. But if that .0001% of doubt they have about God is important to them, so important that they feel “agnostic” describes them more accurately than “atheist” — or if they have other reasons to use the word “agnostic,” such as it going over better with family — I’m not going to press them to give the word up. I might debate with them over the actual epistemological question of whether religion should be in a different knowledge category than other things — but I’m not going to insist that they’re “really” an atheist. And I’ll ask them to extend the same respect to me, and not insist that my .0001% of doubt means I’m “really” an agnostic.

The power to name ourselves is too important. We shouldn’t try to take it away from each other.

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    The only thing I would add is that I find it off-putting when people’s choice of self-labeling involves a disavowal or disrespect of other people’s naming choices. What hits closest to home for me are people who disavow the label “atheist” in a manner that suggests false certainty on the part of atheists, i.e. rather than “I find that agnostic describes me better because I don’t want to claim false certainty” (which is fine), it becomes “‘atheist’ is a claim of false certainty, so I won’t go there”. For instance, I don’t mind that Neil DGT calls himself an agnostic, but when describes why he does that, it makes me cringe a little bit. I suppose it is just as bad when self-identified atheists say that “agnostic is just a cowardly word for ‘atheist’” or some such.

    Extending the analogy to LGBTQ terminology, I guess it would be like a person who self-identifies as gay, despite having had partners of both sexes, not only eschewing the label “bisexual”, but dissing the label as reflecting confusion or lack of commitment or whatever.

    Maybe a pithier way of saying it: Sometimes choice and presentation of self-labeling can become a passive-aggressive means of criticizing other people’s self-labeling. And that’s not cool.

  2. says

    “Bright” really annoyed me. I glad that little piece of Dawkins’ oblivious privilege died aborning. Other than that, whatever floats your boat.

  3. screechymonkey says

    I might debate with them over the actual epistemological question of whether religion should be in a different knowledge category than other things — but I’m not going to insist that they’re “really” an atheist. And I’ll ask them to extend the same respect to me, and not insist that my .0001% of doubt means I’m “really” an agnostic.

    I was hoping you’d get to this point! Like jamessweet, I’m not really interested in persuading people they should call themselves atheists instead of agnostics, but it sets my teeth on edge when some self-described agnostic insists piously (heh) “I’m not arrogant enough to be an atheist. Atheists claim to know everything

  4. Pen says

    I’m not at home with the phrase ‘secular community’. I haven’t thought of another one yet, nor am I even satisfied as to what type of thing it is which is probably referred to. I have an idea of what she means. Then again, I’m not even sure whether I should be commenting on this issue, because I’m not at all sure that it means me.

    I call myself an atheist and if questioned about certainty, I would probably argue from a) the astonishingly large spectrum of other infinitesimally uncertain things e.g. ‘you are really a duck having a weird dream’, b) the equally gargantuan implausibility of all of them, c) their self-evident irrelevance, d) my consequent disinterest (unless it’s as a form of fantasy fiction and folklore, in that case, I think it’s a blast).

  5. doublereed says

    I theoretically don’t care what agnostics call themselves. However, whenever I’ve asked them, it always has to do with the stereotype of atheists. So it’s kind of double-edged. I don’t care what you call yourself, but don’t perpetuate stereotypes against me to do it. That’s way too far.

  6. Lea says

    People always seem to forget asexual when they list all the different sexual possibilities. I guess that’s another parallel to how religious people seem to forget atheist when listing religious possibilities.

    Back on topic, the word “atheist” seems to be loaded with extra baggage and you never know what set of connotations someone might have for it. I use “atheist” as a practical way to identify myself online, but IRL the need to label myself doesn’t usually come up. On the rare occasions the question of my beliefs has arisen, I’ve said things like “I’m not religious” and “I don’t believe in that stuff”, etc.

  7. says

    Would you call a person catholic who self-identifies as catholic, but who, by their own admission, does not have any kind of belief in any god? If not, how do you reconcile that with the above?

  8. badgersdaughter says

    Frank Bellamy: Would I call a person Catholic who self-identifies as Catholic but who is arguably an atheist? This question may sound absurd to you, but it’s not absurd to people who live where religious sectarianism is a huge problem. My husband, an atheist born in Ulster, went down to a pub the other day in the village where we live in Connacht, A couple in the pub, hearing his accent and his last name, joked sneeringly in his direction about pouring petrol over Protestants and lighting it on fire. Would I call them Catholics and my husband and myself Protestants? I wouldn’t, but it’s a risky omission around here.

  9. badgersdaughter says

    Lea, I honestly mean no disrespect, but you’ve heard of the saying, “Atheism is a religion in the same way bald is a hair color”. Is it unkind or unsafe to say that “Asexuality is a sexual preference in the same way that…”? I don’t forget, I just think that it is sensitive to not lump asexuals in with sexuals. If this is a misunderstanding that arises from my poor understanding of the nuances, please let me know what is correct.

  10. A Hermit says

    I think of agnosticism as the approach I take to knowledge, but it’s because of my agnosticism that I am for all practical purposes an atheist (and an a-leprechaunist, a-unicornist a-sasquatchist etc.).

    But that’s just a first step, from there i have to decide how I’m going to live my life, so I’m also a humanist and a social democrat and a whole bunch of other things.

    So whatever label I attach to myself often depends on the context of the conversation. Sometimes I just call myself Jimmy…but you can call me Al.

  11. Lea says

    @badgersdaughter: (no offense taken whatsoever :)) Your point is valid logically, but the reason I would include it in the list is that it is “other” than the majority heterosexual orientation, so where can we feel included if not with the other “others”? I don’t know if there is a “correct”; speaking only for myself here.

  12. Jeff Engel says

    Re 10, 12, Lea, badgersdaughter -

    I think you can place asexuality among sexual orientations (taken as broadly as it needs to be) as it is an orientation toward sex (“no thanks”), while atheism isn’t a religion. You could include it among religions if you’re classifying them as, oh, worldviews or “metaphysical orientations” I suppose.

  13. Jeff Engel says

    It’s often bothered me that the polite words – even capitalization – to use for minorities (particularly) go through so many changes. Tracking is a bother, and there’s a lot of risk of unmeant offense. I’ve supposed that the need to change them is that, whatever the latest polite word is, the bigots doing most of the use of the language will heap a large freight of nastiness on it and spoil its associations over time.

    I’ve realized it’s at least a good way of measuring how much of that nastiness is still leaking into the language – you get a fine measure of continuing racism that way. And all the bother of keeping track is just what those of us who do care about not heaping on more offense get to do as part of the minimal work of pumping the water out of the bilges to keep the ship of society afloat – until the damn leaks get plugged up, if ever.

  14. Otis Idli says

    I agree with this post and I think it’s a very powerful and general principle we can apply to other topics besides atheism and gender/sexuality, letting people control their identity through language. Language as a shared system in a given population is always changing and every member of that population should have the right to influence those changes. I especially agree with you about the term “agnostic”, but I think the doubt for most people can be quantified better as 0.0000000000001%. haha. In my case it’s 0.0%. Gods are fantasies like water is dihydrogen oxide.

  15. Lea says

    @Jeff: I agree with you in both #13 & 14. “Atheist” has a lot of that negativity associated with it, at least to most non-atheists, and can have a somewhat confrontational connotation. Then there’s the confusion as to whether the default meaning is the “hard” or “soft” variety. It would be good to have a not-already-contaminated word with a clearer definition for a generic label. “Rationalist” seems pretty good to me. “Freethinker” is not bad either.

  16. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    I think you can place asexuality among sexual orientations (taken as broadly as it needs to be) as it is an orientation toward sex (“no thanks”), while atheism isn’t a religion. You could include it among religions if you’re classifying them as, oh, worldviews or “metaphysical orientations” I suppose.

    Atheism is a “position on religion” even if it isn’t a “religion” which I think is more directly analogous to “sexual orientation.”

  17. badgersdaughter says

    Thanks, folks, that makes a lot of sense.

    I use whatever word seems best in context. To a casual question from a stranger, I may just say, “I’m not really into spiritual stuff”. To a co-worker, I might say, “I don’t identify as religious.” To friends, I may say, “I’m an atheist” with a smile, and then field the inevitable questions as calmly and kindly as possible. On the Internet, I’m an atheist plainly and without apology, because that’s one of the things about me that needs to be presented foremost when all engagement is through dialogue.

  18. says

    Pen:

    Then again, I’m not even sure whether I should be commenting on this issue, because I’m not at all sure that it means me.

    I see no reason you shouldn’t be commenting on the issue. Given your uncertainty, perhaps in the process of commenting, you’ll acquire a better understanding of what it means to you :D

  19. says

    Lea:

    Back on topic, the word “atheist” seems to be loaded with extra baggage and you never know what set of connotations someone might have for it. I use “atheist” as a practical way to identify myself online, but IRL the need to label myself doesn’t usually come up. On the rare occasions the question of my beliefs has arisen, I’ve said things like “I’m not religious” and “I don’t believe in that stuff”, etc.

    In my experience, the baggage you speak of it the societal beliefs about atheism, rather than baggage held by the atheist. That’s one reason why, to this day, I’m careful to reveal that I’m an atheist. I’m quicker to say “I’m not religious” rather than “I’m an atheist”. I live in the Bible Belt (in Florida), and I just don’t want to deal with the assumptions people have about atheists. There have been times when I described myself as an atheist-humanist. More or less, that’s how I define myself. My atheism led to my humanism.

  20. BobApril says

    “A classic example of this is the word “homosexual.” Most LGBT people don’t like it…”

    Huh. And so I learn. So what is the polite term for a person of undetermined gender who has a sexual preference for their own gender? Wikipedia tells me that “gay” is the preferred genderless term – is that correct, in the opinion of those assembled here?

  21. Greta Christina says

    So what is the polite term for a person of undetermined gender who has a sexual preference for their own gender?

    BobApril @ #21: It’s best to say “gay and lesbian” or “lesbian and gay” (or “gay or lesbian” or “lesbian or gay,” depending on grammatical context). “Gay” tends to mean “gay male,” so saying “gay and lesbian” makes it clear that you mean both. In some grammatical contexts, “same-sex” can also be appropriate (e.g., “same-sex marriage”).

  22. Marcelo Huerta says

    Lauren @ #3:

    “Bright” really annoyed me. I glad that little piece of Dawkins’ oblivious privilege died aborning.

    To be fair, Dawkins didn’t invent the word, even when he happily used it. I still don’t see the privilege in it, though.

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