The population of people willing to admit to pollsters and census takers that they do not to subscribe to any particular religion is on the rise in many countries. In Australia, for instance, the number of people responding “no religion” in the census has increased from a dismal 10,000 in 1911 (0.4% of the population) to 4.8 million in 2011 (22% of the population) – a percentage only beaten by self-reported Catholics. But despite such a massive secular community, Australian politics is overwhelmingly populated and driven by the religious (Julia Gillard being a notable exception). Our new Prime Minister studied for the Priesthood before he found his true calling, Parliamentary sittings are opened with the Lord’s Prayer, and no one bothers to even hide the religious motivations in the never ending debates over abortion rights, school chaplaincy programs, and same-sex marriage (etc.). Not surprisingly, and despite a very similar demographic trend, the plight of the non-religious is even worse in America. According to Jennifer Michael Hecht at Politico, it is harder for an American politician to admit they are an atheist than to admit they are gay. There isn’t an open atheist sitting in the current congress, there wasn’t one until 2007, and the Secular Coalition of America can only point to five openly atheist public officials in the entire country. Faced with this political reality, many atheists are trying to either construct other appellations, or to try and “take the term back” like the homosexual community has done with the word “Queer”. But creating a new term will not help. Nor will resurrecting the old one. And beyond this, it is simply not necessary.
I can understand the motivation of those wanting to move beyond the term “atheist”, or at least beyond the current understanding of it. It is a poisoned word – long used as an insult. It is illegal in some countries, and even some states in America officially (although not practically) forbid atheists from holding public office. It also partially concedes the argument – to paraphrase others, is there a word for someone who does not believe in fairies? I myself refuse to use it. Just a few weeks ago, when discussing religion on the radio, I was forced to give a rather nebulous description of my beliefs in order to avoid labelling myself an atheist. For that matter, it is an inexact description of what many of us think. I do not consider my religious thinking as simply “non belief”. To a certain extent I don’t know or care whether god exists. In this sense I am an agnostic. But I also have a certain acrimony to organised religions (“organised” anything if I am honest), unshakeable belief of any kind (but especially that built on tenuous proofs), and any deity that demands to be worshiped after constructing such a shambolic, misery-filled world. In this sense I am an anti-theist. But I am neither an agnostic, nor an anti-theist because these too are labels I reject for various reasons.
There, I have just given examples of two more pre-existing words that the irreligious can use in place of atheist (and as a plus they are more specific). If we want even more there is the tried and true word secular. Or irreligious, or skeptic, or free thinker, or a dozen others. But all of these words feature the same major downside that the word atheist does; they have all been poisoned. They back the user into a corner. They lumber them with baggage. The reason I have not constructed or searched for an encompassing term to describe my religious thinking is that labels too easily become weapons for those that disagree with me. Anyone who has ever gotten into a serious debate about religion has experienced the mind numbing low point, when the religious person runs out of their apologetic talking points and starts going on the offensive. All the people and acts throughout history that can possibly be tied to atheism are dragged out and the atheist is forced to defend themselves as if they support those people or actions. All too often have I been regaled with the greatest hits of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, and then requested to justify my atheism in this context (I am not going to get into the debate over whether you can count Hitler and Stalin as atheists, or whether Maoist or Communism should also be considered religions). True, it hasn’t all been sunny since I refused to label myself, but I am a much smaller target, which in turn allows for more productive discussion.
Disbelief is as varied as belief. Just like you get Christians and Jews and Muslims (etc.) of all stars and stripes, there are all manners of irreligion. We are a very big tent. The secular should not allow themselves to descend into the factionalism that has aided the irrelevancy of religion. Labelling ourselves will just bring this on. Furthermore, ‘saving’ the totem of atheism, or creating a new, all encompassing word, will not help us win in the face of straw men arguments, guilt by association, and tribalism (etc.). Just look at what has already happened to the so-called “new atheists”. We already have a bunch of names, and whatever name is dreamt up to follow atheism will only be another target, another distraction to be jettisoned once it too is poisoned. In short, the irreligious do not need a replacement of the word atheist. We already have many. And we don’t even need these words. They just make the whole issue harder.