Don’t call me a freethinker

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.

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  1. “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.”
    Agreed. Atheist is a very good word to describe a lack belief in theistic or supernatural claims and we should not shirk from using it to describe ourselves. However, most of the listed terms are fine “modifiers” of ones worldview. They make for good shorthand labels for the things we do believe as opposed to atheism, which is a good label for what we do believe.

    (Except for Brights… I don’t know wtf that means…;)

  2. “which is a good label for what we do believe.” That should be DON’T believe! (stupid children eating my brain!!!)

  3. Ubi Dubium

     /  July 30, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    I get your point, but I still want to have terms besides “atheist” to describe myself. “Atheist” only speaks to what I don’t belive, and says nothing about what I do. Kind of like if someone asked me my hobby, and I said “Well, I don’t collect stamps”. It’s true, but it really does not tell you much about me.

    I like “humanist” because it reflects my belief that all we have is this world and each other, and that our problems, if they are to be solved, will be solved by people. I also like “skeptic” because rational thinking and understanding cognitive bias are particular interests of mine. I usually don’t use “atheist” as the first way I desribe myself, because sheeple have too many preconceptions about what that word means.

  4. There is no good term. I’m a rational thinker, or a skeptic, but they’re still ways of floating around the word atheism. Personally I don’t mind the word, but I wish there was an actual positive word to describe what I am.

    Atheism describes what I don’t believe, not what I do. But the other words are also inappropiate.

  5. Here is my table on the pros and cons on these terms.
    I love your conclusion.

  6. “I guess it sounds negative, but only in the sense that the word “not” sounds negative — which we can hardly avoid.” You’re totally correct.

  7. I really like the point that Ubi made about not collecting stamps. I am an atheist within the realm of religion, but really the only reason I care to label myself is because of the theists. If it weren’t for religion, I probably wouldn’t care.

    My political philopsophy is libertarian, but that doesn’t label my beliefs either. It just states that you can live your life as you wish provided it doesn’t stop someone else from living their life as they wish.

    In my own personal life, I am much more of a traditionalist with regard to family and behavior. Most people assume that I am a Christian and a conservative, because that’s what they mostly are here in the American Bible Belt. I look and act the part, so therefore I must be one.

    Just because I live that way, does not mean I judge how you live though. I have friends that march to all sorts of different drums. My only judgement is that they are rational and generally intelligent.

  8. To me, it’s not exactly like someone saying “What’s your hobby?” and me answering “I don’t collect stamps.” It’s like someone saying “What’s your hobby?” and me answering “I don’t have a hobby.”

    I agree with those of you who have commented about the usefulness of some of these terms as additional descriptors, as in, “I’m an atheist humanist.” My intention was primarily to address the times I see atheists using these terms as substitutes, as synonyms, as though we’re not theists but what we really are is humanists (or whatever). Some of us are not humanists. Or, humanist is not really an answer to the question. (Like someone saying “What’s your hobby?” and me answering, “I’m less than seven feet tall.” I mean, true, but….)

  9. I agree. I took this thought and added a bit in my own blog post. Within the realm of politics, I am a libertarian. Within the realm of religion, I am an atheist. It’s generally that simple and I am comfortable with those terms at this point.

    With the regard to government, I expect a secular one.

  10. I agree with much of what is said.
    I am not a humanist. I am sort of close to being a Buddhist but when a Buddhist asks me if I am a Buddhist, I have to qualify. When a theist asks if I believe in God (depending on my patience) I may explore what they mean by that to help them see I believe in mystery, good behavior and self-reflection.
    And likewise, thought “libertarian” often is closest to defining me, it doesn’t depending on the listener.

    Words are silent voluntary contracts between individuals to try and influence and inform each other. They are only tools. We have to remember out goal — not the word, but the influence.

  11. Ubi Dubium

     /  August 3, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Which word I would use also depends on what the question was that I was responding to.

    If asked “What’s your religion?” I might say “Atheist” or I might say “I don’t have one”.

    If asked “What do you believe in?” then I might answer that I’m a Humanist.

    And if I’m asked “Do you think creationism should be taught inpublic school?” then I would have to say “I’m Pastafarian”. It really depends on the context of the conversation.

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