What to do with the A-Word?

“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.


8 Responses to “What to do with the A-Word?”

  1. May 9, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Before the “New Atheists” of the last decade, the most outspoken American atheist–and the mental image that comes to my mind when I hear the word atheist–was Madalyn Murray O’Hair.


    Unfortunately, she was a rather unpleasant person and I think did damage to the “brand.”

    There are some people who are irrationally prejudiced against atheists. However, I think there is also some “karma” involved, in that to the extent that atheists’ public communication is focused on criticizing religious people, one can only expect religious people to criticize atheists.

    That’s why I think it’s good that Greg and, from what I gather Sam Harris in his forthcoming book about morality, talk about positive thinks atheists can focus on rather than get into a culture war with the religious.

  2. May 10, 2010 at 10:01 am

    You do not have to be an atheist to be a humanist. As I responded recently to the flap about Glenn Beck’s recent comments: “Supporting and promoting social justice are good Christian acts. They are also good Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Pagan acts. It should be obligatory for all of us if we are to be truly human.”

  3. May 10, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Thank you Ron and Rick for your comments! I take both points: that some atheists spend a lot of time attacking religious people and can expect to be attacked in return, and that not all humanists are atheists. I hope that second point was clear from my post – I mentioned the discussion of “the extent to which I felt atheism was a necessary requirement for Humanism” – although we could have an interesting discussion of the relationship between “atheism”, “humanism” and “Humanism”!

    However, I think neither of those points detract from my argument. Those Humanists who are atheists do suffer significant discrimination in this country, most clearly in political contexts, where religious belief seems almost mandatory for election to high office. I met atheists in New Orleans who were unwilling to appear in photographs of the New Orleans Secular Society’s events, for fear of losing their jobs.

    Surely this is unacceptable, and simply avoiding the term leaves those who feel that their atheism is integral to their Humanism out in the cold.

  4. May 10, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    I absolutely agree that no one should fear losing their job for expressing their lack of belief in God (unless perhaps they work for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese!)

  5. May 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm


    In your reply, what do you mean by “humanism” and “Humanism?”

    Prejudice is found everywhere. In general, an atheist suffers in conservative states and someone who is too religious is suspect in liberal states.

    A person’s religious beliefs – or lack thereof – seldom has any bearing on their ability to perform a job.

  6. 6 Jim Farmelant
    May 11, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Personally, I think that terms like naturalist (which denotes what we believe exists) and humanist (which denotes our ethical values) are preferable to the term, atheist, which denotes what we reject. However, there is something to be said for adopting a label which forces people to confront prejudice head on.

  7. May 11, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Ron: By “humanism” and “Humanism” I mean to distinguish between the life-stance of Humanism, which to me entails a naturalistic worldview and a rejection of the supernatural, and those who share broadly humanistic ethical principles, who might well be “humanists” but not comfortable being described as “Humanists”. I recognize it is not a neat distinction, but I think it has some use. What do you think?

    As for prejudice, I wonder if there is any metaphysical commitment that is widespread amongst the population of America of the world today, except atheism, which would effectively bar someone from holding high political office in most areas of the country? It seems to me those oft-cited polls suggest that prejudice against atheists is really very strong, for some odd reason.

    Jim: I agree entirely.

  8. May 11, 2010 at 6:33 pm


    Prejudice against atheists might more prevalent in the U.S. than elsewhere. Within religions, however, there is still much prejudice against one another and also between divisions of each faith.

    I think your “humanism” vs. Humanism” is a bit too neat. What atheists believe to be supernatural is considered perfectly natural by theists. Atheists attack God; theists defend God. In the process, both ignore the underlying reality which is present in all of existence, not just humanity.

    “The Tao is the law of nature, which you can’t depart from even for one instant. Thus the mature person looks into his own heart and respects what is unseen and unheard. Nothing is more manifest than the hidden; nothing is more obvious than the unseen. Thus the mature person pays attention to what is happen-
    ing in his inmost self.”
    Tzu-ssu (483-402 BCE)
    Note: Grandson of Confucius, founder of a philosophy and doctrine of humanism…unlike the religion of Taoism.

    “Extensive as the ‘external’ world is it hardly bears comparison with the depth-dimensions of our inner being, which does not need even the spaciousness of the universe to be, in itself, almost unlimited. It seems to me, more and more, as though our ordinary consciousness inhabits the apex of a pyramid whose base in us…broadens out to such an extent that the farther we are able to let ourselves down into it, the more completely do we appear to be included in the realities of the earthly and, in the widest sense worldly [universal] existence, which are not dependent on time or space.” Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
    Note: German-language poet, acknowledged as one of the greatest of the 20th-century.

    “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.” Albert Einstein
    Note: His theories of relativity revolutionized physics.

    (quoted from my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org )

Comments are currently closed.

%d bloggers like this: