Though I'm Still Uncomfortable With The Label

I was recently speaking with a family member and fellow atheist about my interest in joining an active Free Thought society in my city, because I've just relocated from a very christian area and would like to meet and socialize with some like-minded, politically active people. I've just moved from a small southern city in the bible belt to a very large one in the northern US. I was telling him that I feel excited to be living somewhere with such an active atheist community, and I think it's time to have the courage of my convictions and become more involved in raising the profile of atheism and countering the some of the religious nonsense out there that as I see it, hurts our society. To which he responded, "but you're not an atheist, are you?" Even though we have had many discussions on religion, this is a difficult question for me.

You see, I'm kind of a coward. Where I'd previously lived for seven years, it is tacitly unacceptable to be an atheist. Even among my friends that never attended church, no one self applied that word. It seemed almost an insult, meaning closed-minded and perhaps as dogmatic as any fundamentalist. At one job, I actually witnessed a manager discriminate based on this. People are quite open about about what they think about atheists, while maintaining complete politcal correctness with regards to religion. The only atheists I ever met in that town were congregants of a Unitarian Universalist church, and they mostly seemed to just sit in the back very quietly (I had heard unitarians welcome any belief or lack of one, and I briefly attended services there, until they showed that movie "The Secret", and started preaching that nonsense). And so, I've learned to kind of talk around my lack of belief, by saying things like "I don't believe in organized religion," or even "I'm not a Christian"; because it seemed people would just assume I believed something, or at least would politely not take their inquiries further.

Before this, I spent four years in the military, and especially after 9/11, many people were vocal about their faith. As we all can agree Islamic extremism is very scary, and some of us clearly felt it was not only our professional duty to counter it, but also a religious one. I mostly just stayed quiet. For that matter, in the Marine Corps at that time (it could be different now) you had three choices for the type of officiating services to be offered if you were killed in action: Catholic, Protestant, and No Preference. On your dog tags, under your name, SSN, sex etc., the last line would be one of those three choices. I semi-proudly was "No Preference"; though my preference at the time would have been something more like "toss me on a pyre, throw a party while lighting it, and smoke two joints in my honor." I was fortunate enough to be discharged from military before any of the stop-losses, and was never deployed to Iraq.

So when my family member asked if I was an atheist the other evening, I believe it may have been the first time in my life that I answered yes. I'm uncomfortable with the word. I'm unsure of it's etymology, but to me it feels like a label that theists have defined for us; principally that we blindly follow a scientific dogma, as they do a religious one. That we are myopic, intolerant, etc., I'm sure we're all familiar with their judgements... I recently saw a video of a talk given by the author Sam Harris, and I thought he put it very well when he said that the word atheist is a word we don't really need, any more than we need a word for people who don't believe in astrology. There is no word that I know of for a "non-astrologer."

What I find most frustrating about this discussion is a theist's refusal to see the difference in a belief in the nonexistence of god, and the informed choice we make not to believe that god exists. I don't think the greater burden of proof lies on us; a much greater part of that burden lies on those that claim we are damned, that we deserve to be treated harshly and silenced because we are immoral and dangerous. To them, the word atheist means all of these things; and I've realized that as long as I remain quiet about my lack of belief, I continue to allow them to frame the discussion within their terms.

So, even though I may be a coward, I've decided to do something about it... At least I won't be doing it in the bible belt - I've got to be employed, you know.

KingGeedorah KingGeedorah
31-35, M
14 Responses Jul 24, 2010

Thanks for commenting butterman, hopefully one day declaring ourselves atheists won't be such a conversation stopper, or an invitation for conversion. I really do think that would be better for everyone.<br />
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And that's exactly where their moral argument falls apart for me, Dragonhermit. I don't deny that Jesus taught some good things about how to live, albeit commonsense things, and maybe not very original; but it seems that christians especially are more concerned with punishment or reward in the afterlife, and how moral is that, really? Seems pretty childish, and that is why I think it's time to move on... Good luck with your new transition.

Isn't it funny how the various religions preach that we live in a godless society, yet a majority of the people, even those with little or no morals, tend to believe in a higher power. I've recently begun undoing the wiring of a lifetime of believing. I went from being Christian, then declared myself agnostic, and now I'm starting to consider myself an Atheist. This is a new transition for me as well, and I know that should I publicly state as such, I would be mocked with much ferver. It's interesting how Atheists, many of whom are kind, gentle, decent folks, are lumped in with Satan worshippers.

GreenHazed, I know how you feel about the word atheist being somewhat uncomfortable to you. Only for the past year or so have I actually been using the word to describe myself, although I still haven't done so around my parents at all. I live in a small town in Northeast Ohio and pretty much everyone is dedicated to some sort of religion. Whenever I actually use the term atheist around anyone it seems to kill the conversation and sort of leave an awkward uncomfortable silence. That's why I only bring it up if specifically asked.

Thanks for the comments everyone...<br />
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Yes, I'm glad to be living somewhere now with a little more tolerance, though the south is very beautiful. I was east of TN, on the coast, it was pretty conservative for a beach town... And I can imagine autimom, an openly atheist business owner in the town I lived in would have difficult time finding customers, though I saw several business owners with jesus fish in their logos. I'm quite sure advertising their beliefs like this helped their businesses, ethics aside. Gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.<br />
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@sweetnothingsness: I think mostly because I wasn't raised to be religious, though my parents where christian and I did have to attend church when I was very young. My parents gave me a choice when I got older and I simply chose not too. The older I've gotten, the less useful believing in god has appeared to me. In fact, it has always appeared to me to be a big scam designed to control people's politics and their pocketbooks. I feel I don't need to believe in god to be a good person, to know right from wrong, or to understand the consequences of my actions. Nor do I feel that my lack of belief prevents me from experiencing anything that's wonderful about life, if my mind is open.

Autimom, isn't the more reasonable question "Why don't you believe in little green men, the tooth fairy and Thor, the God of Thunder"?<br />
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Because, really, faith is fallacy, on face.

Autimom, isn't the more reasonable question "Why don't you believe in little green men, the tooth fairy and Thor, the God of Thunder"?<br />
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Because, really, faith is fallacy, on face.

I think the more reasonable question is, Why do you believe in God?

Why do you not believe in God?

Atheism is just A-theism, without theism. <br />
in the same why that Agnostic is just A-gnostic<br />
gnostic being derived from the greek gnĊsis meaning knowledge. <br />
Agnostic - A-knowledge - without knowledge<br />
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Incidentally, there was unrelated early Christian group called the Gnostics. They have nothing to do with the word Agnosticism though :)

and you dont?

I'm in middle TN as well,...south of Nashville a bit. <br />
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I do not doubt for a minute that my atheism, were I to display it that way folks around here display their Christianity would affect my business is a negative way. It is an absolute given in these parts that everyone is a Christian, not just a believer in a God. I might as well announce that I eat small children for dinner.

I second that autimom, I was born and raised in a small town in middle TN. I realized my lack of faith before I was 15, and my best-friends kind of never held it against me, but it did flavor things until I finally left home for the Navy.

I also live in a small southern town. Tennessee to be exact. I own a small business and have two children in elementary school. I wouldn't deny being an atheist were it to come up, or if I was asked, but I don't feel able to freely share my lack of belief or my strong opinions on the importance of the separation of church and state. If I were to broadcast it or even place a bumper sticker from the FFRF on my car, I would be met with mistrust and fear at best,....more likely anger and intolerance.

I feel very lucky to live in northern California, the economy might suck, housing prices are nightmarish and we seem to have our heads up our collective ***** when it comes to electing governors, but it is still a state in which I can wear my various atheist tee shirts, hats and wrist bands and never fear for my safety or fiscal repercussions.<br />
But I do feel it important to create or aid in networks that would assist people like you who might suffer for your refusal to adhere to local mythology.<br />
I think this might be a topic to bring up here in the EP.