The Names We Use

I am an atheist.  I am also a skeptic, an anti-theist, a feminist, a secularist, a liberal, and a secular humanist.  I could pick a few more labels—freethinker, egalitarian, or even the dreaded Bright—but that set is already a bit redundant.

But all of those labels matter.

Each of them describes a particular conclusion or set thereof that, in sum, comprise a worldview.  Each of them is also a group that overlaps incompletely with all the others.  There are skeptics who are not atheists, there are secularists who are not anti-theists, and there are liberals who are not secular humanists.  Each of those groups has interests, goals, and priorities that may or may not match the interests, goals, or priorities of any of the others, despite any overlap.  It is in how people relate to their labels that one resolves those differences.

And that’s what makes the “atheist” identifier so important.

Many nonbelievers prefer the “skeptic” label to the “atheist” label, and why wouldn’t they?  The idea of relying on evidence rather than hearsay or superstition is powerful, and it can easily form the core of one’s approach to dealing with the world.  And whether or not deities exist is but one question among an infinity, one application of the skeptical impulse.  What’s more, by keeping the skeptical label at the fore, they avoid putting another, less “important” label where people can see it.  Thus do these skeptics attempt to avoid “alienating” a substantial segment of the population that might otherwise share some of their goals, at the cost of any semblance of intellectual honesty.

But that’s the thing: people don’t get stabbed for regarding homeopathy or Sasquatch as the balderdash they are.  People don’t lose custody of their childrenbecause they understand that government-mandated Christian prayers are oppressive to Buddhists.  People don’t become the most distrusted group in the United States for valuing freedom, growth, and creativity.  People don’t (usually) find themselves ostracized from LGBTQ advocacy groups because they support women’s full participation in society.  But people who hold to all of those benign identifiers suddenly receive the full brunt of society’s ire if they let people know that they don’t think deities are real.

Nonbelievers who trivialize the atheist aspect of our identity can do so only by ignoring or regarding as unimportant the difficulties that atheists face.  They can do so only by failing to recognize the massive degree to which god-belief or the lack thereof can influence one’s ethics, social circle, and even the way in which we apply the idea of skepticism.  They can do so only by thinking that it isn’t a momentous break from one’s theistic fellows to openly declare that one does not share what they regard as the core of their identity.

It is, in the end, a privileged position to regard atheism as an unimportant and trivial subset of a skeptical worldview.  For all that atheism often actually IS only a part of a larger evidence-based secular humanist system, atheists are still a discrete group with identifiable needs and perspectives.  As if our de facto, absurdly contrived marginalization within the skeptic community was not proof enough of that.

That’s one reason why the constant push to expel atheist feminists and other social justice advocates from the ranks of “pure” atheism and have us do our advocacy from within “mainstream” organizations is so deeply wrongheaded.  For just as “skeptic” is for us an inadequate, incomplete label that does not encompass our experience or perspective, “skeptical atheist” is still more incomplete without our understanding of social justice.  And to expect us to “fit” into any group that refuses to share those priorities, our priorities, is to ask us to set aside—or worse, actively repudiate—that which we care about and that which makes us who we are in the name of getting along.  For many of us, that is the exact experience that encouraged us to come out of the nonbeliever closet and look for atheist groups in the first place.

And atheist groups are rapidly realizing that they have nothing to gain from courting people who don’t share our skeptical, atheist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, anti-ableist priorities, and everything to gain from making atheist groups a safe space for atheists.  Embracing inclusivity makes us all better people; tolerating bigotry makes us all worse.

That is the casual brilliance of Atheism+: we are atheists, plus we care.

In a world where bigotries were justified entirely in pseudoscientific rather than religious terms; where what set me at odds with my family, my country, and my entire culture was skepticism rather than atheism; and where not believing in Bigfoot got the same kind of attention that not believing in Allah gets a person in Bangladesh; I might have settled on “skeptic” as my primary identifier and the lens through which I look at social justice issues.  Maybe someday, when religion is but a series of fringe cults and nonbelief is the cultural baseline, we’ll have that world.

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Until then, I am an atheist, and I care.

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