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Why many non-believers refuse to call themselves atheists

David Niose, the President of the American Humanist Association, has a very good article in Psychology Today lamenting the fact that many religious skeptics or non-believers get angry when people suggest they are "atheists"; and it's not because they are agnostic, but because they claim they don't want to be labeled by what they don't believe in, the same way they don't call themselves "a-unicornists" if they don't believe in unicorns. Niose calls this position disingenuous and I agree with him. Leaving aside the fact that everyone should be free to choose how they identify or want to be labeled, Niose points out most of these people don't want to say they are atheists because the word has a bad rap. It reminds me of woman who are afraid to say they are "feminists" because they fear that people will think they don't like men or they are against being feminine or attractive. Or left-leaning people who are afraid to say they are liberals, because they think that people are going to think they are for "free rides", or "socialism." Niose points out that if we do not "come out" as atheists (provided that it is safe, of course), attitudes about atheism in America are not going to change, and atheism is not going to lose its "bad word" aura. What do you guys think?

Unfortunately, many religious skeptics shun atheist identity.

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.

 

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Yes, but what if the people who do believe in unicorns wanted unicornology explained in high school textbooks, demanded that songs be sung to unicorns in public and had a day off per week to celebrate unicorns?   It would then be important to say that you a NOT an accepter of unicorns and that all of this unicorn discussion is a waste of time as unicorns do not exist.

EXCELLENT point!

Yes I am a aunicornist too. But there's no need for the flag. When it comes to religion, it's another matter. The label is needed.

Avoiding to claim atheism is also a dismissal the weight of religiosity on society. It is definitely not helping. Eventually humanity will forget about this god thing and the Atheism label won't be required anymore but we're not there yet.

 I kind of understand why people refuse to call themselves atheists even if they are... they don't want the label that will often mean they  be set apart and are also frightened of what theists might "say" or "do" to them... It maybe kind of being gay in the 60ties where the label or the coming out wasn't so easy.

But, in my opinion the more people not only admit they are atheist but actually tell others (so like even if at the beginning it seems to them like wearing a badge), the more atheists will come out of the closet and assert themselves (by the way I have a T-shirt where in bold letters it's written GODLESS HEATHEN !).  So it always take a minority who speak up then others follow, I believe.... 

We want a picture of you with that T shirt on! :-))

I'll try (by the way it's bright red !)

Bright red works!

I think the fear of labels sucks. If someone can associate themselves with Nazis, man up an let people know you're an atheist.

I identify myself the same way wherever I am, "liberal atheist bastard." Simple.

Proof I'm an atheist: you know those random ads that appear on web pages (they're actually not random)? One just appeared on a page: "Christian treatment center." My first thought is: a center where they treat Christians to cure them of their delusions :-) 

lolz!

i am not an atheist, i am merely an agnostic. it is my contention that The reason why many people are afraid to label themselves as atheists have a lot to do with the fact that they have been confronted with the realization that to say you are an atheist means you are making the assertive argument that 'without a shadow of a doubt, god DOES NOT exist,'  rather than that of an agnostic who does not believe in a god, but does not claim that one could not possibly exist. if they make that assertive statement implying knowledge of some sort, then they are forced to back it up with evidence;however, Mosts atheists "evidence" of that assertive statement is that 'there is no evidence, but "an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" so usually their arguments fall flat on their face. To say you are an atheist implies you are making a definitive statement, just like the religious make the assertive statement that god DOES exist. therefore, both the religious and atheist alike are required to "prove" their beliefs and are both held to the same exact standards.  

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