Atheist, Humanist, Secular: Why Fight Over Labels?


No matter how you look at it, the nontheist movement in the U.S. is experiencing momentous growth. According to a Harris poll, those who profess no belief in a god is at the highest percentage ever recorded. Atheism as an identity is also becoming more mainstream and even politically acceptable, as seen by the fact that most Americans would now vote for an atheist running for president (something that would not have been possible even a few years ago).

As any movement expands and incorporates the views of individuals who are new, it makes sense that its members are likely to diversify. Such expansion among those who reject ancient texts and divine revelation as sources of knowledge has led to people identifying in many ways while still seeing themselves as part of the nontheist movement. They use labels like humanist, atheist, agnostic, deist, nonbeliever, nonreligious, freethinker, bright, nontheist, skeptic, secularist and more. There are even millions of Americans who retain labels from traditional faith traditions, like Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist, but also state that they don't believe in an intervening god — as first clearly revealed in the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, doesn't seem to appreciate the value of this type of diversity in nontheistic labels, as interviewer Rachel Silberstein reports in a recent article in The Tablet. "Some call themselves secular humanists, and many call themselves Jews," says Silverman, and according to Silberstien, this is "a term he argues is particularly damaging to the cause. When atheists call themselves Jews, it implies theism, he says, which 'makes atheists look small and negates a learning opportunity.'" Silberstein also mentions that Silverman feels "that only the word 'atheist' accurately conveys the proper meaning" of disbelief.

Written By: Roy Speckhardt
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  1. I admire France where 40% of the population identify themselves as Atheists. 100% would be better, in my opinion, but 40% is probably enough to keep a lid on the death loving, civilization destroying, child molesting poison know as religion. If you think I go to far with the “child molesting” comment then try reading the results of the investigations into pedophilia by the catholic church in Ireland. Some of these orphanages were straight out sex camps for pedophiles. As an orphan child in some of these places you would spend every night as either a sex toy yourself or lay there listening to the screams of other boys taking your place. Not isolated cases but absolutely relentless 365 days a year.

  2. From the article:

    “If we were to follow Silverman’s advice and limit the movement to those who are willing to only identify as atheists, the nontheist movement would look small indeed”.

    I don’t think that is what Herb Silverman is saying at all. He would just prefer all non-believers to come out as “atheists”, and then we could claim to be a movement of x million atheists instead of some much smaller number. At the same time we would strike at the root of the opposition – their belief in god and our non-belief. No room for doubt.

    Also from the article:

    “By definition, identifying as atheist indicates that one doesn’t have a belief system that includes a god, nothing more. It doesn’t encompass all the views that a person has when it comes to personal values, which is why terms like “humanist” and “secular Jew” are so important”.

    This is a good point and if we all called ourselves atheist, this would likely open up a philosophical debate about “our” values. This could be a bit divisive for atheists as our world views differ. Theists will use this to claim we are divided as if this is some type of problem. It isn’t to us, but those infected with group-think will believe it is. Still, we can’t help that, and anyway, that’s a battle for another day.

  3. Imagine a world where the label ‘atheist’ is antiquated. That should be the ultimate goal of the atheist movement. 🙂

  4. In reply to #3 by The Jersey Devil:

    Imagine a world where the label ‘atheist’ is antiquated. That should be the ultimate goal of the atheist movement. 🙂

    I agree that the goal of “New Atheism” is not to replace religion, but simply to end it, it is an important point note that we don’t have the right to dictate to others what they should think and act.

    We may dismiss the beliefs of the religious as mere superstition, but if those beliefs don’t harm anyone (which is not the case for most religions) then they have every right to have them.

    In the United States religious groups frequently claim that secular groups are infringing their religious freedom by calling for separation of church and State, we need to make clear that it is only separation of church and State that guarantees their religious freedom (as long as their religion isn’t harming anyone). It is important we achieve this in the USA as it is a vanguard for freedom and democracy founded on the principles of The Enlightenment, and where it goes other countries eventually follow

  5. I’d call myself a secular humanist if I wasn’t such a misanthropist. I think the label “anti-theist grouch” would be a more accurate description.

  6. In reply to #4 by N_Ellis:

    I wasn’t commenting on the 1st amendment. I just want Abrahamic Religions to go the way of Alchemy.

  7. People really do love their little pigeon holes….Why tolerate labels at all ? …Personally I won’t be defined by one word alone….My collection of views are unique and I don’t subscribe to being called Anti – anything….that is a negative label…..I don’t even like the word Atheist…I’d prefer free thinker If I HAVE TO make a choice…but then who cares Really ?…..only the thought police…should I wear a yellow star to identify my views…well that could be to my disadvantage if the wrong people decide its their business what I think…
    Saying you’re non religious or anti theist etc…implies that you accept the normal stance is the religious one and by being anti something you are the bad guy who’s being defiant…..its a finger pointing word……I’m not happy that religion attempts to take the superior stance even though I’ve never believed their supernatural lying bullshit…..Religion label’s you as a trouble maker or whatever and ‘they’ thought up labels to identify the non belivers….So I refuse to even be called one of their nasty labels…..I don’t acknowledge anything to do with religious expectations or their labels….. I’d only be tolerant of being included as Atheist when taking a stance in a discussion or debate under a very wide and generalised umbrella. But if I’m anti anything it would be Anti Lying….

  8. Atheism doesn’t imply that much by itself; one can be an atheist and be right wing, left wing, liberal, conservative, racist, sexist, homophobic, progressive, pessimistic, optimistic, nihilistic, moralistic, scientific, mystical, etc. The laws of physics do not prevent any of these types of people from existing. It makes more sense to distinguish people by their basic worldviews and psychology, which atheism alone doesn’t do. As I like to keep reminding people here, atheism is not a political platform, and isn’t enough by itself to be the basis of civilization.

  9. Atheism does not, cannot justify anything. Theism can and does justify anything the user wants it to.

  10. I can speak from personal experience that I sometimes use terms like nonbeliever and non religious in certain settings to soft peddle the word atheist. I tend to agree that all these other descriptions cropped up as a more generic sounding alternative. In a perfect world, the discussion about the existance of god would not be enough of an issue to generate numerous labels. The case against god is so convincing that the idea of different denominations of atheists is almost farcicle. It seems to lend too much importance to the issue.

  11. Not unusually, for me, I think Silverman is plain wrong. Words in languages have meanings, and atheist does not mean secularist, and neither of these mean humanist.

    Compared to Britain, America is a secular state (because of the first amendment), and all Americans – including priests – are by definition secularists, constitutionally bound to separation of church(es) and state. Our head of state is also the head of our established church who appoint unelected bishops to our legislature and we have laws requiring the teaching of religion in schools and prescribing a daily act of worship (Christian) in our schools. Churches run a third of our tax-funded state schools. I would love some American secularism.

    Humanism has quite correctly been held by the High Court in Britain to be a “belief system” meriting protection under the European Convention on Human Rights, whereas atheism (obviously, when you think about it) is not a belief system.

    These distinctions are important. And even more importantly I refuse to be pigeon-holed by Silverman to (over-?) inflate the constituency he claims to represent. That is as unworthy as Catholics claiming to represent everyone who was ever baptised as a Catholic even if they have since lost or renounced that faith.

  12. In reply to #6 by The Jersey Devil:

    In reply to #4 by N_Ellis:

    I wasn’t commenting on the 1st amendment. I just want Abrahamic Religions to go the way of Alchemy.

    Not going to happen any time soon.

    Alchemy went the way it did because it professed measurable results which it failed to produce.

    Religion these days, especially Abrahamic, instead focuses on the immeasurable the pure fantasy that has no root in reality, and thus it will never be expected to produce results and never have it’s worth thoroughly tested except by those who value the truth.

  13. In reply to #10 by bluebird:

    ‘Vegetable Farm’?

    Are you Implying that atheists are all just different canned veggies ?
    That’s funny I was imagining each religion as a different breed of dog…it amused me for 5 seconds…I must draw that idea up…

  14. I am a free-thinking secularist, which means freedom of thought is my core value, and I believe the separation of church and state is necessary to protect freedom of thought. My process of thinking freely has led me to atheism, but I think there are religious people who also value freedom of thought and secularism, and if free thought leads me to a religious conclusion in the future so be it. Humanism is appealingly friendly and positive, but I don’t know exactly what it means, so I can’t quite adopt that label at present. If I eventually figure it out and decide I like it, I reserve the right to call myself a free-thinking secularist atheist humanist.

  15. This article appears to be 18 months old. Odd that it is just now being posted here. Anyhow, I agree with Steve Hill on this one. there are legitimate differences.

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