“No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” So George Bush Senior is reputed to have said during his electoral campaign in August, 1987. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback megachurch, certainly said the following: “I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says, ‘I don’t need God,’…They’re saying, ‘I’m totally self-sufficient by [myself].’ And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It’s too big a job.”
Comments like these, and the wealth of polls demonstrating that those calling themselves “atheists” are considered undesirable, can lead to some understandable trepidation among Humanists regarding the term. Last Monday (May 3rd), for example, I had the extraordinary pleasure of speaking with the Concord Area Humanists on the topic of building Humanist communities.
Although I dwelt very little in my presentation on the term “atheist”, many of the questions from the audience which followed probed the extent to which I felt atheism was a necessary requirement for Humanism, and explored whether I felt the use of the term “atheist” might alienate instead of engage people. The argument presented by some attendees was that we might profitably avoid the term “atheist” altogether, speaking instead of “Humanism” without any reference to “atheism”. This might, it was suggested, encourage those scared away by the negative connotations of “atheist” to come forward, and present a less tarnished image of our movement to the public at large.
Respectfully, I must disagree with those who take this position.
First, coming from the UK, where the vast majority of people seem to read absolutely no negative connotations into the word “atheist”, I have seen that it is entirely possible to create a society in which atheism is a respected (rather than reviled) stance.
Second, I think it somewhat naive to assume that if Humanists stop calling themselves “atheists”, those like Warren, who oppose further development of our movement, will refrain from using the term also. Rather, those unsympathetic to our cause will enjoy free-reign when it comes to defining us, and will be able to use the tar-brush of “atheist” against us while we protest lamely.
Third, and most importantly, I consider it unacceptable that there should be such prejudice against a group of people simply due to their lack of believe in a God. The prejudice itself, not the damage that using the term “atheist” might cause to our movement, is the real problem – and this crack in society’s generosity is merely glazed-over if we try to hide from the secular aspects of Humanism.
I am an atheist, and proud to be so. There should be no shame at all in proclaiming this loudly.