By Lora Hibbard
There’s a comedy routine I became familiar with in high school, one performed by George Carlin entitled ‘The Seven Words you can’t say on television.’ None of the words on his list came as a shock to me, but let’s face it, even at sixteen I was a jaded old fuck when it came to the inner workings of language. I’ve had my nose in a book since I first learned to read; I received my Bachelor’s Degree in English in 2010, and in my spare time I get into arguments over semantics the way some people fight about what to watch on television.
I’ll be the first to admit it; words have power. Even if you try to get around it, some words have connotations they can’t be dissociated from no matter how many times you use them. Sure, you can say ‘fuck’ in public until the end of time, but the average bystander is going to think you’re insane or just plain crude. There are words that, if you say them in the right kind of company, could easily get you killed, or at least sent to intensive care. For the safety of the American public, and our own reputations, these are the words that end up neutered abbreviations, representations designed to deliver the same, commonly insulting, premise, without as much direct attack. The F-word. The C-Word. The N-Word. Hyphens and letters replacing pejoratives. Evidence that the English language has more power than a punch in the face when that language is delivered correctly.
Which brings me to the A-Word.
When presented with the word atheist, the common reaction people have is one of trepidation at best, flat out hostility at worst. Something about this word completely changes the atmosphere of a conversation, adjusts perceptions of you as quickly as if you’d just said ‘I skin cats in my spare time’ or ‘really, Hitler wasn’t that bad a guy.’
An atheist is defined in the dictionary as follows:
Atheist (noun): a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings. (1)
A general definition to be sure, but definition does not imply correlation or implication, and the implication an atheist brings across when they admit to their beliefs, or rather lack thereof, is that the belief in a ‘supreme being’ or god is wrong.
Ask any atheist you know – go ahead, ask, there are more of us in your local community than you’d think – how they define atheism and you’ll more than likely end up with a different answer from each person. While the word Atheist has been around since the 16th century and philosophers have debated the existence of a god or gods since pre-socratic Greece (2), the term ‘atheism’ has become more of a blanket terminology for the skeptical movement in modern society as the secular movement has picked up steam (3). In his opening address to the attendees of Skepticon IV, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, makes an appeal to the skeptics, free-thinkers, secular humanists, non-believers, agnostics and so forth in his audience who to begin using the word atheist as a collective definer for their belief, even if their specific beliefs differ in the ultimate semantics (4). As it is, much in the same way that if you ask a Christian what they believe and how they define themselves, you’re likely to get just as diverse a collection of answers from people who identify as atheists.
Silverman makes a strong case for unity in a movement that needs unification, and his method is unification under the banner of the term ‘atheism’, even if not everyone in the movement specifically identifies as a textbook atheist. As well as people who prefer to identify under other terms, such as agnostic, non-believer or skeptic, due to the negative connotations of the word, there are plenty of people within the movement whose personal views and beliefs line up more accurately with agnosticism or skepticism over full-blown atheism, if they line up with any label at all. Other, slightly less inflammatory blanket words are also associated with the movement, including secular, freethought and humanist, and they all cover the non-religious spectrum of people living in the United States today.
The problem with the word atheist is that the word itself, as well as the entire concept of atheism, still lacks acceptance in the general public, and this misunderstanding, this fear of the different and the unknown, leads to assumptions and flat out discrimination against the secular movement in the United States. Here are just a few examples.
In Ohio this past Fall [Fall 2011], the Mid-Ohio Atheists group began a billboard campaign to raise awareness for their local chapter (5). Their billboards, contracted to go up at various points around Mansfield, bore a simple slogan based on a billboard posted by a local church, and simply read ‘There is no god: don’t believe everything you hear’ along with the relevant contact information for the group. The company contracted to place these billboards, LIND Billboard Company, backed out of the contract after deciding that “the inflammatory nature of the proposed displays would no doubt be considered offensive to much of the community and would be harmful to LIND’s community reputation and goodwill (Martha Seigenthaler, VP, LIND).” The billboards, designed to inform skeptics “that they aren’t alone”, were no more inflammatory than the religious billboards posted in the same community, by the same company, due to their being posted by an atheist group (6).
[Blog note: as a follow up to that story, a more current instance of this form of discrimination is documented here].
Here’s another one: Todd Steifel, a philanthropist and found of the Steifel Freethought Foundation, a group that supports nonreligious charitable organizations, made the American Cancer Society a generous offer. Wanting local atheist groups around the world to participate in the Relay for Life program under the united heading of of Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charity organization, he offered to make a $250,000 matching donation, one that could bring half a million dollars to the ACS with the combined efforts of the Steifel Foundation and Foundation Beyond Belief (7). While this offer was accepted at first, the ACS stopped responding to Steifel and his associates, with calls and emails remaining ignored for over a month. Responses, when heard, were not positive. The ultimate assessment given – that the ACS had chosen to focus on corporate backed sponsors instead of not-for-profit groups and therefore the inclusion of the FBB group would not be cost effective – was the first of several rejections and road blocks the Steifel Foundation faced in order to have some form of participation in the program (8). Greta Christina sums it up perfectly in her AlterNet piece on the topic:
“I’ll say this clearly, right up front: The American Cancer Society did not explicitly reject a massive donation offer from a non-theistic organization on the basis of it being a non-theistic organization… Nobody at the ACS has ever said, in words, “We don’t want our organization to be associated with atheists. It’s too controversial. We don’t want atheist money.” And when asked if this was the case, they have denied it. It’s just difficult to reach any other conclusion. In the place of clear explanations, there has been an ongoing series of evasions, imprecisions, conflicting answers, moved goalposts, apathy, and even hostility.” (9)
There are plenty of other examples. Atheists in the military are frequently denied the right to have their dog tags stamped with the affiliation ‘atheist’, instead being given tags labeled with ‘no religious preference’ (10). Students in both high school and college groups are stonewalled and ostracized for insisting on graduation ceremonies free of prayer (11). Studies conducted by the University of British Columbia reveal that atheists are among some of societies’ most distrusted groups, with levels of trust on par with rapists (12). Even secular married couples have trouble finding officials to preside over non-religious marriage ceremonies (13).
[Another update: since this article was written, the notable case of Jessica Alqhuist and the prayer banner at her high school occurred. See here for the basic events as told by wikipedia].
The atheist movement in the U.S. has not taken this discrimination lightly, rather using internet presence to bring these discriminatory events to attention. Rather than let the discrimination discourage them, American Atheists and other secular organizations work even harder to spread awareness and information to the public, making use of everything from podcasts to YouTube to blogging networks, conventions and rallies. Atheists aren’t angry, militant baby-eaters, but the atheist movement is ready to make a stand and have their voice heard in America, and the rest of the world at that.
I may not be a perfect atheist by textbook standards. My definition probably lines up a little closer with something like being an agnostic atheist (I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I also have no evidence either way, which falls under agnosticism). As a newcomer to the ideology and the movement, my specific thoughts on atheism are still changing and evolving as I explore what it means to not believe in god in the 21st century. I’m content to coexist peacefully with people of other faiths, even if I don’t understand their devotion to a zombie deity or a holy book that’s been translated so many times its original message is barely comprehensible. I have no problem with people who identify as agnostics or nonbelievers as opposed to atheists – the ultimate definitions are different, even if the word ‘atheist’ is becoming a catch-all for the skeptic movement. Other people who identify as atheists may feel more or less extreme about such things, but I’m personally not out to convert anyone to anything. I like, plenty of others in the atheist movement, are just out to show the world that atheists and other nonbelievers are normal people who work shitty jobs and pay their taxes and raise their kids and pets and love their friends and families. Just like anyone else. Just like everyone else.
I personally use the word atheist regardless of what the perfect semantic definition of my beliefs may be. I’m reclaiming the A-word, helping to spread the message of secularism in America, and associating myself with a strong, vocal, fast-growing movement that works to do positive things in the world for believers and non-believers alike. I’m an atheist, and I’m proud to be one.
American Atheists: http://www.atheists.org/
Freedom From Religion Foundation: http://www.ffrf.org/
Foundation Beyond Belief: http://foundationbeyondbelief.org/
Steifel Freethought Foundation: http://www.stiefelfreethoughtfoundation.org/
Secular Coalition for America: http://secular.org/
Freethought Blogs: http://www.freethoughtblogs.com/
Friendly Atheist: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/
Reason Rally: http://reasonrally.org/
- (1) Dictionary.com – Atheist: Definition http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atheist
- (2) History of Atheism: http://www.investigatingatheism.info/history.html
- (3) Opposition to the term ‘Atheism’: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Atheism#Opposition_to_the_term_.22atheism.22
- (4) Skepticism, Atheism and Our Common Movement, David Silverman Skepticon 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiPR74AiGdU
- (5) Billboard Backlash: Before it ever started. Mid-Ohio Atheists: http://midohioatheists.org/?p=1120
- (6) Atheist Billboards Rejected by LIND Media Company in Ohio. Friendly Atheist: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/11/22/atheist-billboards-rejected-by-lind-media-company-in-ohio/
- (7), (8) American Cancer Society covers up rejection of an atheist national team? Friendly Atheist: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/11/03/why-is-the-american-cancer-society-covering-up-their-rejection-of-an-atheist-national-team/
- (9) Atheist money too controversial for the American Cancer Society? AlterNet, Greta Christina: http://www.alternet.org/belief/152685/is_atheist_money_too_controversial_for_the_american_cancer_society_
- (10) Many more Atheists being forced to accept No Rel Pref. Rock Beyond Belief: http://freethoughtblogs.com/rockbeyondbelief/2011/12/12/many-more-atheists-being-forced-to-accept-no-rel-pref/
- (11) Damon Fowler is an Atheist Hero. Atheist Revolution: http://www.atheistrev.com/2011/05/damon-fowler-is-atheist-hero.html
- (12) Atheists Distrusted as much as rapists: USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-12-10/religion-atheism/51777612/1
- (13) A Secular Wedding Ceremony from Start to Finish. Friendly Atheist: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/11/20/a-secular-wedding-ceremony-from-start-to-finish/