I don’t have internet access this week — this post was scheduled in advance. See you in August!
Atheists have developed a lot of replacement terms, mostly in order to find something more palatable than “atheist.” “Atheist” sounds so confrontational, so negative, so cold and unfeeling. Well, I don’t think it sounds that way, but some people do. I guess it sounds negative, but only in the sense that the word “not” sounds negative — which we can hardly avoid.
At any rate, we have all these words that people use as substitutes for “atheist” when they want to sound nicer. Ultimately, though, I think those terms — particularly when used to describe atheists as a group — are either misleading or completely pointless. I know some will disagree with me on this, but in my opinion, we should stick to calling ourselves atheists.
Let’s go through a few of these euphemisms alternative terms for “atheist,” and I’ll show you what I mean.
- brights: Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell suggested this term back in 2003 to describe people who have “a naturalistic worldview,” in other words one that is “free of supernatural and mystical elements” (source). It’s awkward because it sounds like it implies that the nonreligious are smarter — brighter — than religious people, even though Daniel Dennett suggested that we could also refer to people who do believe in the supernatural as “supers.” If we’re talking about atheists expressing naturalist ideas, we can already say “naturalist.” “Brights” just sounds silly.
- freethinkers: This term refers to people who believe that “opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any dogma.” That sounds really nice, but is so general that it doesn’t say anything about the actual beliefs which are concluded from such a mindset, so it doesn’t communicate much at all. The thing is, in practical application this results in something that reminds me of James Oberg’s famous statement, “You must keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” (More on this another time — I’ll be writing a post or two in the not-so-distant future about my experiences growing up UU.) Just about everybody thinks they are being logical, and plenty of people arrive at supernatural, religious beliefs even without authority, tradition, or dogma. Freethinkers may often be atheists, but the term is far from synonymous.
- humanists: The problem with this word is that it’s very confusing. Atheists say “humanism” to refer to considering ethics and caring for other humans while being nonreligious, but it’s also the name of the Renaissance educational movement that emphasized the study of things we now classify as “the humanities.” Also, even the supposedly atheist version describes an outlook on humanity which some religious people claim as well, and which not every atheist agrees with. As with words like “naturalist,” “rationalist,” “materialist,” and so on, “humanist” may be another good adjective to keep in our toolbox to describe things that atheists sometimes talk about, but it should not be used as a simple substitute for “atheist.”
- secularists: I often find myself trying to make the point that the “secular” is the stuff that applies to everyone, so “secular” things are inclusive. Our government has the authority to make secular decisions, and should be acting within a secular framework. This is as opposed to religion, which is a private matter and which the government should not try to regulate. If we use “secular” as a synonym for “atheist,” we just confuse the matter by making it sound as though the government is actively promoting atheism. That only stokes the anger of zealous theocrats.
Trying to find some other way to call ourselves “atheist” without saying so just reinforces the notion that atheism is something to be ashamed of. That’s not a message I ever want to send.