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 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.