If you don’t believe in any gods, you are an atheist, right? This definition seems pretty basic, not the kind of material that requires an advanced degree in theology to understand.
But apparently it isn't accurate. In fact, as I circulate in the secular movement on a daily basis, I frequently meet nonbelievers who are unwilling to identify as atheists.
Of course, there are other words that might describe those who don't believe in deities — agnostic, humanist, skeptic, etc. — and quite a few nonbelievers prefer one of those terms as their primary means of religious identification, but many reject outright the atheist identity even as a secondary or incidental label. "Don't call me an atheist!" one such nonbeliever recently told me. "I refuse to identify according to what I reject. I don't believe in astrology or unicorns, but I don't label myself according to that – so why should I identify according to my rejection of god-belief?"
This is an interesting argument, perhaps even somewhat persuasive, but it deserves some scrutiny.
For starters, most of us would probably agree that each person should be free to identify as he or she sees fit, so those nonbelievers who are uncomfortable with the atheist label shouldn't feel obliged to use it. But when we scratch beneath the surface, we sometimes find that the stated reason for avoiding the atheist label – such as the claim of not wanting to identify according to what one doesn’t believe – is a bit disingenuous.
After all, since there are no specific, common words in the English language for one who rejects astrology or unicorns, it would be rather difficult to identify as such a person. But if there were such a word (say, an “anti-astrologist”), it seems doubtful that those who fit the definition would vigorously avoid it. I couldn't imagine astrological skeptics saying, “Don’t call me an anti-astrologist! I refuse to label myself according to what I don’t believe!”
In fact, standing up against certain ideas is common in our politics and culture, both historically and in modern times, as we see with terms like anti-imperialist, anti-bullying, anti-defamation, anti-war, anti-racist, and anti-federalist. It hardly seems a matter of noble principle that one should refuse to identify as rejecting a concept, particularly a central philosophical question such as theism.
Read the rest here.