Atheist Diversity: Don’t Define Me By What I’m Not

Atheists are having a big week in the news. Data analysts reported that the atheist subreddit is the third most toxic group on Reddit, coming in behind a men’s rights group and followers of a racist radio program. Then, CNN showed a Special Report on Atheism in the United States, attempting to showcase the highs and lows in the lives of non-believers. Or, as American Atheist president David Silverman calls us, “the most hated people in America”.

Like most minority groups, the non-religious don’t usually enjoy the benefits of having their diversity showcased in the media, and so when we are talked about it’s usually something negative – a clash or conflict of some kind. We know different types of Christians don’t espouse the same beliefs and approaches, yet we ask (read: demand) that all Muslims respond to the actions of violent, fundamentalist Muslim factions, and we’re quick to do the same to atheists. For most minority faith traditions, this is an unfortunate situation fueled by a general ignorance of world religions in the United States.

It’s trickier with the atheist community because our unifying factor – atheism – is a negative. We are categorized as one group because there is one thing that we all don’t believe in, namely God. To present this group as unified in our philosophy, our ethics and morality, or our approach to life is to say that the most defining factor of our identity is an absence of belief. To do so is to define ourselves against the standard of religion – because we don’t have it, what we share is an empty space. Unfortunately many of the people who persist in trying to identify all atheists as unified under nothing more than the absence of religion are atheists themselves. More specifically, atheists whose atheistic identity is largely defined as being against religion, or anti-theism.

In my experience, the secular or non-religious community is really a large umbrella that includes several different groups of people, all with their own priorities, beliefs, practices, and approaches. There are atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, non-religious, secularists, and probably a dozen others. Each of these groups has a particular way of defining themselves and their understanding of the world. There is a great deal of overlap, and many people may claim more than one identity or affiliation. I would consider all of these different groups part of the same community, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are all the same, which is how they were portrayed in the recent CNN special. Certainly when you only have 45 minutes and limited resources, you aren’t going to be able to showcase the rich diversity of a given community or group. I am less frustrated with CNN than with some of the individuals highlighted in the program, who not only attempted to say that all atheists share the same values and priorities (we don’t), but that by attempting to claim identities that are positive rather than negative, identifying ourselves by what we do believe in rather than identifying solely by something we don’t believe, we are liars and somehow hurting the atheist community at large.

David Silverman is wrong when he says that humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, etc. are just atheists who are afraid to use the term atheist. This claim belies Silverman’s lack of understanding about what these identities and terms signify. It shows how little he understands the diversity of non-believers. And it explains why so many non-believers prefer not to associate with his particular brand of atheism, which is anti-theistic and – from what I’ve seen in past speeches or writing – far more focused on what we don’t believe than about validating what people care about and seek in community. To be fair, Silverman’s primary objective is to normalize atheist identity, and the best way to do that is for everyone who doesn’t believe in God to stand up and loudly say so. Normalizing atheist identity will make it easier for those seeking support from de-conversion or being ostracized by family and communities; it will help us mobilize for religious freedom for non-believers and other social justice issues. It’s a noble cause. But that doesn’t change the fact that his claim about humanists, freethinkers, and others being synonymous with atheism or too scared to call themselves atheists is incorrect and ignorant.

When I identify myself, I say that I am a humanist and an atheist – both pieces are important to my identity, and both pieces tell you something different about me. When I say, “I’m an atheist”, I am telling you I don’t believe in God or the supernatural. When I say, “I’m a humanist”, this tells you what I do believe, where I find my ethical grounding in life, what I stand for and work for, and what my values are. I include both pieces precisely because neither one does the job of the other – I could be a humanist but not an atheist; I could be an atheist and not a humanist. I strongly and proudly identify with both.

Unfortunately, not only are we often all lumped in together with a term that only tells you something we don’t have, but the most vocal representatives of the non-religious in the United States seem to be working quite hard to equate atheism with anti-theism, despite the fact that anti-theists are a small minority among atheists. When Bill Maher says that all religions are dangerous and stupid, or when David Silverman says that religion is harmful, or when Sam Harris calls religion a mental illness, they are giving their opinions, which are shared by a certain percentage of non-believers. They aren’t speaking for all atheists any more than Pat Robertson speaks for all Christians.

Likewise, when I say non-religious people need to engage in interfaith work and would benefit from better understanding the religious beliefs and practices of their neighbors and their families, I am giving my opinion, which is shared by a certain percentage of non-believers. I fight for a collaborative, community-based approach to religious pluralism that allows us to work together despite differences in beliefs, and I think a commitment to bettering ourselves and our communities should be more important than whether or not one side wins or can de/convert everyone on the other side. I don’t expect Silverman, Harris, or Maher to agree with me, but they also don’t get to redefine atheism to fit their anti-theistic creed.

One of the most common arguments given against religion is freedom from dogma and the freedom to believe that which you learn from the observable world. To say all religious practice is harmful is no less dogmatic than a religious claim on single truth. It also doesn’t stand up to what we can observe and measure. The observable world tells me we’re better together because of our different ways of seeing the world than we could possibly be if we all agreed all of the time. It teaches me the way to peace is understanding, and the way to understanding is openness and respect.

Silverman offers one example of atheism, but there are many different ways to be in this world without believing in God. I look more to famous Humanist Robert Ingersoll, who said, “The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.” And I embrace an atheistic humanist identity that strives for equality, understanding, and spreading joy.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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8 thoughts on “Atheist Diversity: Don’t Define Me By What I’m Not

  1. I think Mr. Silverman was being perhaps a bit more literal in his definition of an Atheist in that an Athiest is defined as having a lack of belief in God(s). Further while there are some subtle differences of attributes gained or changed by identifying as a Humanist, etc it’s really a softening or avoidance of labeling ones self as an Atheist.

    1. I don’t dispute that Silverman was being literal in his definition – someone who doesn’t believe in God(s). For me, and for many, that is not enough to be the central or most significant part of our ethical or philosophical identities, which is why we identify as Humanist or something else. However, he also claims that atheists are in direct opposition to religion, and should therefore be working to deconvert people and dismantle religious powers. I think it’s important to note that such an anti-religion stance is not the definition of atheism. And I strongly disagree with you that Humanist is a softening or avoidance of labeling oneself an Atheist, which is my whole point. To say that is reductive and dismissive of the diversity within atheism, and demonstrates a lack of understanding about what Humanist actually means, what Humanists do believe (as opposed to not believing in something), and where they are morally or ethically grounded. There are people who are Humanist but not atheist, for example.

      1. I think that you are missing the point. Many people see the word Atheist as a negative and groups or segments of atheists (sticking to the literal definition) have identified as belonging to one of these other groups to avoid calling themselves Atheist. I get your point about wanting to rally around something other than non-belief. I have other interests and hobbies which are far more interesting than trying to peddle non-belief. However, I think it is our collective duty to keep myth and folklore out of laws which is difficult as there is no single banner under which to rally. So while I am far from being militant about my atheism I do understand and applaud the diversity amongst us all even though I wish that we could collectively focus on some of the issues facing us.

        1. I understand the desire to have everyone who is an atheist – in the literal sense – clearly identifying as atheists. It would help to de-stigmatize the word and address misunderstandings that atheists are immoral or satanist or something. But claiming an identity such as Humanist is NOT a softer version of atheism, and it is NOT something people do to avoid calling themselves atheist, but to claim an identity rooted in what they believe and care about, etc. Many people identify as both atheist and humanist, while others might say they are agnostic and humanist, or even spiritual and humanist. There are also a lot of people who are atheists and not humanists. The two aren’t synonymous or degrees of the same idea, though they are related and have a great deal of overlap. More importantly, I don’t think anyone has the right to tell whole communities of people that the way they choose to identify is based in fear or deception.

        2. Jeremy, I think you’re right to the extent that there are some people who are technically atheists but shy away from using the term to describe themselves because it has negative connotations. And I think it’s a shame that this is the case, in the same way it’s a shame that many abandon the word feminism because of an aversion to being associated with righteous anger.

          That said, we can’t conclude from that phenomenon that humanism is a “softening” or “avoidance” of atheism. It is, by literal definition, an assertion of principals that says something more than “I don’t believe in God(s).” Humanist identity is not inherently a “softer” stance, it is a stance that asserts itself more specifically. There are atheists who aren’t humanists, and humanists who aren’t atheists, because the terms mean different things. One is not wholly a version of the other.

          Regardless, if the goal is to encourage all who don’t believe in God(s) to unite and speak with one voice, Silverman’s attitude does absolutely nothing to further that goal. He sends the message that if one’s atheism doesn’t look like his (anti-theist and antagonistic) it isn’t “real” atheism and it’s cowardly. As long as that’s his attitude toward people who believe differently than he does (whether atheist or theist), there will be many atheists who try to distance themselves from him–not out of fear, but as a strong statement of principal: that this animus and combative posturing has nothing to do with the way we live atheism, that it does nothing to make our world better, and that we reject it.

          1. Grace, I agree with your statements and would like to clarify my earlier statements. You can be or identify as more than one group and I have no issues with anyone doing so. My issue is that if you are an Atheist you should identify as such and not as something else. You can be more than one thing but you are always an Atheist and… I have ran into plenty of humanists, etc that don’t identify as being Atheist at least not until you drag it out of them. So there are many closeted Atheists out there which need to come out of hiding and stop misrepresenting themselves via a label. I completely get that humanism has more to offer than non-belief but like Popeye said “I yam what I yam an tha’s all that I yam” so be who you are, live out loud and standup for what you believe in.

  2. There are as many reasons to not believe as there are reasons to not believe. I think the problem of generalization arises when people universalize their experiences, this goes for believers and non-believers. Perhaps atheists should also have an intra-faith dialogue.

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