What's in a name?

It’s mid July, which means it’s time for me to start thinking about club events for the fall semester. And as I’ve been brainstorming and figuring out what needs updating on the website, one thing keeps bugging me.

Our name.

Our student organization is officially the Society of Non-Theists. When I co-founded this club two years ago, the name seemed like a good idea. One, we thought “atheist” provoked a negative reaction from most people. Not just religious people, mind you – but secular people who didn’t want the consequences of labeling themselves an atheist. We figured by toning it down a bit we’d be able to slip under the radar – have events and start dialogs before people actually knew we were mostly a bunch of atheists. Pete Stark had just used the term non-theist, so we thought that was a good stand in. Two, the vagueness of “non-theist” allowed us to use it as an umbrella term. It wasn’t just a club for atheists, but for agnostics, humanists, or whoever else wanted to come.

But the more I think about it, the more I don’t like it for many reasons:

1. Non-theist really isn’t an umbrella term. The prefix “non” is effectively equivalent to “a”, so it’s just a silly way of saying atheist. The only reason it works as an umbrella term is because no one really knows what it means. Which leads to my second point…

2. No one really knows what non-theist means. We’ve slipped under the radar a little too much. I think a lot of students don’t discover our club because it doesn’t have “atheist” or “secular” right in the name. This is especially problematic on the student organization website Purdue has. There’s no way to search in the descriptions of clubs – just for words in the name (it’s an awful, stupid system). So if someone searches for atheist, nothing will come up. They’ll only find us if they happen to browse through the Special Interest category of clubs, which is another debate in our group. Do people look for atheist groups in the Religion category, or would an atheist never bother to click Religion?

3. My ideology has changed since I first formed the club, and now I think it’s wrong to shy away from the term “atheist.” There’s no reason to be ashamed of it, and people are going to keep treating it like a negative term if even us atheists won’t use it. If anything we need to have organizations that proudly call themselves atheist, so people can see us volunteering and holding insightful events and smiling and laughing and just being good, normal, human beings.

If I had a time machine, I would go back and rename the club something like Purdue Atheist, Agnostic, and Secular Students – PAASS. It’s inclusive and has an acronym you can actually use and say – unlike SNT. Hell, I have a hard enough time saying Society of Non-Theists without developing some kind of lisp. But the problem is I don’t have a time machine, and I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to change the club name now. Granted, we’ve already been around for two years, but I don’t know if it’s worth the confusion to go around changing a name. There would certainly be people who would think we’re some different club, and then there’s the whole business of our website and email having non-theist in it. I guess those wouldn’t be too bad to change, but it would still be annoying.

So, am I over analyzing this? Is non-theist a fine word or should we have more atheist pride? I guess I should really be asking the club members rather than random internet people, but consider this more me talking out loud.


  1. says

    non-theist means not a theist.atheist means atheist.Ergo, all atheists are non-theists. However, not all non-theists are atheists.i thought you would understand the difference, considering there are seperate wikipedia articles for the two:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A…if you push for a name change you run the risk of alienating those that don’t consider themselves atheist, as well as those who don’t want to be associated with the negative stigma that goes with the label atheist.if you want to change the name, change it to ‘purdue free thought/thinkers’ and become part of an organization that’s nationally recongizable.

  2. says

    I think the decision about whether or not you should change your organization’s name basically resides upon how much work it would be to change everything from “Society of Non-Theists” to “Purdue Atheists, Agnostics and Secular Students” (ie. how long it would take to change all the eMails, accounts, website name & URL if applicable, etc.). If it’s easily done without too much collateral, then I’d say go for it; if it’s too much of a hassle, just stick with “Non-Theists” (which isn’t that bad anyway; plenty of groups choose to use “non-theists” instead of “atheists”).As you said: never be ashamed of proclaiming yourself to be an atheist. The only people who will see you in a negative light after that are the very folks you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with in the first place, and they’d likely be a minority. Plus it could very well incite more closeted atheists to join up, which is always good.

  3. says

    I agree with Joé but my point was this: while you shouldn’t be ashamed of declaring yourself to be what you are, you shouldn’t make that decision for other people.

  4. says

    Okay, I’ve read that wikipedia article multiple times before this post…and I guess nontheist is technically different. But almost no one else has read that article, so they just see it as another way of saying atheist.You do have a point about not declaring it for other people. I guess I just think making it more obvious would potentially show those people that it’s okay to call yourself an atheist. I dunno, like I said, just thinking about it.

  5. says

    We’re going to talk about names at the SSA conference :) I suggest Secular Student Alliance at Purdue. Go SSAPs! Hmm…

  6. says

    Many atheist groups use the term “naturalist” to be more inclusive and avoid certain negative connotations.Personally, I don’t think a name matters much. A context is the most essential thing that gives meanings to a word.

  7. says

    I certainly believe atheist is always the best word to use, but then I think a lot of people who call themselves agnostic, humanist, blah blah blah are really atheists who don’t want to use the name. Whatever. We’re the Kent State Freethinkers and I guess it’s alright. I wasn’t there at the beginning though, so didn’t have a vote. Also, damn it, I need to get my stuff in for the SSA conference. Hell, I only live 2.5 hours away, if I don’t go people are going to be pissed.

  8. says

    I like PAASS, if for no other reason than the nice acronym. I also think it’s a more descriptive and obvious name for the group, which could help in publicity and helping prospective new members to find you. VOX was a confusing club name because it means “voice,” which I always had to explain was short for “Voices for Planned Parenthood.” Things would have been easier if PP had thought of a more obvious name.If you really think you want to change it, you should definitely do it sooner rather than later.

  9. says

    I also like PAASS!It took me months to come up with a name for my group here in Fredericton. The parts of the name were practically staring me in the face:Fredericton Freethinkers!

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