Last month, I said I didn’t care for most atheist models of identity. For example, I hate the “weak”/”strong” atheist distinction. I am not too fond of the gnostic/agnostic atheist/theist scheme. Dawkins’ 1 to 7 scale is okay though.
My views on identity label schemes is largely informed by my participation in asexual discussions. Asexual communities are renowned for making up new words and models. For example, one person might identify as heteroromantic demisexual gray-ace, and another as gray panromantic agender asexual. While these lists are often subject to mockery by Redditors, I find that they are far more intelligible and informative than, say, all the names we have for colors. Also note, for every successful asexual word, there have been many unsuccessful ones. Everything goes through trial by fire.
The atheist community tends to be a lot less introspective about labels, which results in the persistence of bad identity label schemes. Here I’ll discuss some general qualities that you want identity schemes to have.
Avoid judgmental labels
If you want to say that certain kinds of people are wrong, let your arguments do the heavy lifting, not the labels. Unless you intend to express outright hostility, each label in your identity scheme should be non-judgmental–a word that people will willingly adopt for themselves. If there’s a label in your identity scheme that nobody adopts, then the model is probably biased.
To give an example, I have heard many people identify as agnostic atheists, but nearly nobody identifies as a gnostic atheist. And it’s not hard to see why. The whole agnostic vs gnostic distinction clearly portrays agnostic atheists as superior. That’s not a classification scheme, it’s a tool to divide atheists into “the good ones” and “the bad ones”, and then to declare yourself as one of the good ones. It’s respectability politics, plain and simple.
Another common situation is for an identity term to be judgmental by way of being too positive. For instance, “bright” was a massive failure because it seems to portray atheists as the intelligent ones–and guess who the stupid ones are. This is also a problem for “skeptic” or “rationalist”, because they’re basically defined as people who reason correctly.
Of course, when different groups are hostile to each other, it’s usually impossible for them to agree on a non-judgmental identity label scheme. For example, consider TERFs (trans-exclusive radical feminists). Generally, TERFs consider “TERF” to be a slur, even though the acronym simply describes views that they openly hold. Instead, TERFs prefer to identify as “gender-critical feminists” or the like. The problem is that if we adopted “gender-critical feminists” as a way to describe TERFs, then “gender-critical feminists” would become the new slur. TERFs are horrible people, and even if we gave them a positive name, the name would become tainted by who it refers to.
Allow for gray areas
Some people are hard to classify, either because they’re unsure, or they exist on the boundaries, or outside the box entirely. In these cases, you want your identity label scheme to bend, not break.
There are a few common ways to address the issue. One is to use a spectrum. For instance, take the Kinsey 0-6 scale, or the Dawkins 1-7 scale (why didn’t Dawkins just make it 0-6? *grumble grumble*). Of course, just because you have a spectrum doesn’t mean that everybody is on the spectrum. Asexuals don’t really fit on the Kinsey scale.
The asexual model relies more on categories, often leaving the spectra implicit. For instance, we have asexual, gray-asexual, and allosexual, and if you’re not sure which one to pick, it’s okay because *whisper* it’s really a spectrum. It’s also fairly easy to add new categories not on the spectrum, and this leads us to imagine multidimensional spectra, even if we don’t always sketch it out explicitly. We end up with a large set of words, and you can basically pick and choose whatever seems useful.
Importantly, you can also omit words that do not seem useful. For example, there’s the romantic orientation model (homoromantic, biromantic, aromantic, etc.), but there are also a lot of people who don’t identify by any of the romantic orientations. You can accept a model while still maintaining that the model doesn’t apply to yourself.
Contrast with the agnostic/gnostic atheist/theist model. What if I just want to identify as an atheist, and omit any gnostic/agnostic label? Or what if I’m just an agnostic, and prefer not to identify as atheist or agnostic? The model doesn’t allow for that, because the model tries to describe everyone in a four-fold classification scheme.
Describe useful distinctions
The thing about asexual identity labels is that they get used, even the ones that seem really obscure. There are ask blogs dedicated to quoiromantics. There is critical examination of autochorissexualism. These words are obscure, but they serve functions. They identify topics that people actually talk about.
In contrast, I have never heard people talk about strong vs weak atheists outside of establishing that the labels exist. There are no separate discussion spaces for strong or weak atheists. Neither group has any special needs. I just have no idea whether any of the atheist bloggers I read identify as weak or strong. It’s so useless, why is it a thing? Why is it that widespread asexual labels are mocked for being useless, while the most useless atheist labels go unquestioned?
You know what distinction we talk about all the time, and yet have no consensus name for? The whole distinction between atheist who are or aren’t on board with social justice. Atheists are just terrible at coming up with practical language. Really, it’s no wonder that the journalist-coined term “new atheist” has found moderate success, despite being widely disliked.