Why Identify as an Atheist when I'm More than Just my Lack of Belief?

Atheists are a diverse bunch of people. There's no single set of beliefs or ideas that unite all atheists under a single banner. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that they don't believe in any deities. 

This can make understanding the atheist community rather difficult for an outsider. Doesn't it make more sense to unite with people based on shared beliefs or identifying by what you are rather than what you are not? After all, it makes sense to start a golfing club, but there's no point in starting a club for non-golfers. Why should non-believers be any different? 

The atheist community is important because religion is not like golf. In a logical world, atheism would be the de facto status, a status quo requiring no labels, organizations or movements. Religion, like a hobby, would be an added identity for people who chose to affiliate with any given religion. But that's not how religion works. 

What if Golf Was Like Religion? 
Imagine that a golfer, Frank, is very passionate about his golfing. It's changed his life, giving him purpose and inner peace. Eager to share this wonderful message with the rest of the world, he decides that everyone on the planet should be a golfer. To complete this end, he starts sending out emails to all of his friends and colleagues, outlining a plan to make golfing the official international pastime. 

 Frank doesn't stop there, though. As his following starts to pick up members, they start drafting legislation that will protect golfers and give them certain benefits, including freedom from taxes. Golfers would also get special holidays celebrating the invention of the sport or the first ever golf T, and they would be exempt from working on these special days. Eventually, they manage to hold enough large fundraisers to build support among lobbyists for their plans.

At this point, golfers are still a very small minority in the world. Many other people prefer tennis or go swimming, and some people have no interest in sport activities at all. Nevertheless, through their political power and loud voices, the golfers have secured their sport as the de facto official sport. 

The golfers insist that everyone begin to wear cleated shoes, plaid shirts and other golfing attire. They also want to make sure that children learn golfing skills at an early age, so they change the curriculum so that golf becomes the only sport they're taught. Golfers become disgusted with non-golfers and look down on them. 

In this situation, it makes good sense for the non-golfers to unite against this kind of prejudice. The non-golfers may have different goals from each other. Some might be primarily interested in changing the golf-based curriculum in schools. Others will reach out to the non-golfers who are being oppressed in areas where the enforcement method of golfing is particularly cruel. A few might hold rallies, create art that shows the arbitrariness of golf obsession or simply announce publicly, "I am not a golfer." If there are enough of these non-golfers, they might even start up their own website and Facebook community to hold discussions about the problems of being a non-golfer in a world filled with loud, pushy golf enthusiasts. 

The Power of Community 

In an ideal world, people could always identify by what they are rather than what they are not. Until religion stops dominating the public sphere, however, atheists will have ample cause to unite for their rights. Religions put pressure on individuals, governments, the legal system and educational institutions; without the non-religious pushing for advocacy and support, the public sector can be easily steamrolled by a religious agenda. 

Our lack of belief is more than disbelief; it's a way for us to find each other and rally around our shared values. Not every atheist cares about worldwide religious injustice and oppression, but many atheists do, and uniting under banners such as Atheist Nexus, American Atheists or Atheist Republic gives us the strength to combat these injustices head-on.


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Comment by Steve Earley on December 9, 2013 at 10:19pm

I've been thinking the same thing lately; it's why I finally have decided to call myself a Buddhist (though I don't believe in any of the extraneous supernatural stuff). It cuts through more confusion than atheist, because atheist says pretty much nothing about you. You could be an atheist that believes in UFO abductions and denies evolution... all the word really does is tell people that you don't believe in gods, which is nice but it's not all that.

Comment by Joan Denoo on December 9, 2013 at 7:38pm

Terry, I suspect there are far more non-believers than anyone realizes. For centuries, people have died for expressing resistance to religion. It is still not safe to express one's thinking; many of us have experienced toilet papered homes, spray painted cars, obscene phone calls, even a death threat, and the very familiar insults thrown at us by loved ones and strangers who do not like what we say. 

Well, we won't be burned at the stake, have our tongues pulled out, or the other religious horrors visited upon dissenters. The punishment metered out in these modern times are more bark than bite, more inconvenience than life threatening, more annoying than death.

So, develop a thick skin, figure out what we think is true, based on valid, double blind, and replicable evidence, and stands up to the tests of time. 

The amount of scholarly writing explodes as we discuss this topic and the ideas that emerge inspire and motivate me. One piece I watched this week and recommend: 

Imagine No Religion 3: Sean Faircloth

Comment by Armin Navabi on December 8, 2013 at 11:23pm

Wow! Thank you all for your great comments and support. It's very encouraging to see that you have such an active community here. As an ex-Muslim atheist that used to live under an oppressive Islamic regime and experienced the isolation and sometimes dangers that come with it, I see so much value in communities such as this.

I also hope and fight for the day that atheist activism is a thing of the past. But witnessing the power of religion in countries such as mine, I know that we have a long fight ahead of us. What I try to remember is that for every right and freedom that we enjoy today, a certain group of people had to find the passion, the courage and the patience to sacrifice part of their lives towards making the world a better place for everyone. And that keeps me motivated. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on December 8, 2013 at 5:32pm

I feel much encouraged reading this string. The reasons I am an atheist are because I experienced unmet needs and protections relying on religion, laws, law-enforcement and culture to protect me and my children from the influences of these institutions. We needed something else. Being able to recognize, name and challenge the status quo, I am better prepared to provide for my family. By extension, I assume I am no different than legions of others who live under the boot of ancient values as revealed by religions. 

Women and children face one kind of domination, men another. I cannot speak for men; you have to identify the ways you have been dominated and exploited by religious dogma. 

Observing Islam and its effects on women, children and men is a metaphor for the less obvious, but actual oppression of religions. Living under the influence of religion is much like a fish living in water. I assume fish do not recognize water, just as women, children and men do not recognize oppression and domination of religion; it is the 'normal', not healthy, mode of life. A better way exists, and it is up to those who can see the effects of the dilemma are the ones who need to speak out. Obviously, religious institutions and people who benefit by religious dogma will not give away privilege. 

Freedom is not a gift given freely, it must be taken. 

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 8, 2013 at 4:57pm

Yes Armin Atheism is actually a stance, non-believer is not.

Especially when you consider the "A" prefix to mean "Anti" or Anti-Theism or against religion.

This makes the average locals around my region as non-believers and not really Atheists, since they simply don't believe in a deity, but don't oppose religion.

I prefer to capitalize the "A" prefix for myself, because I'm definitely an Anti-Theist.

and I when I refer to the average atheist around here I use the lower case "a", for lesser anti-religious sentiments/behavior.

I'm an Atheist, because I go out of my way and revel in attacking theism, especially fundamentalism and creationism.

I gain a lot of pleasure out of denigrating superstitious beliefs and pseudo-scientific bullshit.

Even though I see it as just a cognitive, cultural evolution from a dark form of cultural transitional form (Irrational) to a more rational form.

I consider theists as transitional fossils in the cultural/cognitive evolution of the human race.

Well, this is how it may appear to those of the future, say a couple of thousand years time.

Though when creationists attack me, I automatically label themselves as evidence of transitional fossils, which they really Hate!  LOL  :-D~

Comment by Greg on December 8, 2013 at 12:31pm

I enjoyed the essay Armin. In the ideal world, professing theistic/atheistic beliefs would be unnecessary.

Oddly enough, before I came to read your essay, I had just gotten off a nutjob conservative website doing a bang up job of rehashing the so called "war on Christmas". Several people, claiming to be atheists, chimed in that they had no gripe with proposed legislation protecting schools, government agencies and their employees from lawsuits when "season celebrations" were taught or buildings/properties were decorated as such. In their mind, we should go along with the majority as it is what makes up the culture of the community.

When I saw the title of your essay, I was completely prepared to see another apology for abusively imposed beliefs and culture. Prior to reading what you had written, I mentally ran through the reasoning I would use to oppose it. I was quite pleased to see your reasoning ran along the same lines as mine. Boiling it down, and I believe most court judges would agree, is the question of "what harm is being done to the minority?" You've done a good job of identifying what many in the theistic community can no longer see. They've come to see the previously accepted situation as right. In property matters I can understand the reasoning behind the saying "possession is 9/10's of the law". Unfortunately, when dealing with individual rights, it's circular reasoning to believe you're right to impose your beliefs for no better reason that that you were previously successful in imposing them. I think stated another way, that's just "right makes right".

As atheists, we have a responsibility to oppose attempts to force beliefs upon us. It's not just good for us, it's good for everyone. Hiding in the shadows only encourages the bullies. They're just going to have to make their case as best they can and convince us to go along. Good luck with that. Those days are clearly drawing to an end.

Comment by Peter Martin Page on December 8, 2013 at 11:28am

Armin, I have always held the same view. I feel uncomfortable being labelled as an Atheist. While studying Philosophy I came to identify with a group of philosophers called Encyclopedists. They were a group of people brought together by Denis Diderot. Diderot was the editor of the first comprehensive Encyclopedia. Spending most of his adult life gathering knowledge, Diderot became a connoisseur of human understanding. He was heavily influenced by empiricists such as Bacon and Locke. This put him in conflict with the Catholic church who considered themselves the authority on knowledge.

It wasn't as true to characterize the Encyclopedists as anti-theocratic as pro-empirical. This is also how I identify my philosophical stance. Unfortunately few people would understand what I mean when I identify myself as an Encyclopedist. 

I also do not  strongly identify with rationalism. The great epistemological metamorphosis that took place during the Enlightenment was empiricism. Diderot realized it was futile to project onto the world how we felt it should be. This only distracted us from actually observing what existed. Rationalism was an improvement over idealism but was essentially a more disciplined form of idealism. Rationalism needed to be subordinate to empiricism.

It would be possible to write a book of examples of the failures of rationalism. I will limit myself to one example. During the time of the Encyclopedists a group of economists known as Physiocrats were proposing Free Enterprise. One of them, Turgot, became Louis XV's minister of finance and eliminated regulations on the grain trade. The results were disastrous. Grain prices rose. Too much grain was exported and there was large scale starvation. Turgot's reasoning was perfectly rational and very convincing.

One of the Encyclopedists, Galiani, wrote Discourse on the Grain Trade, in which he asked how could it be possible to create an equation, or rational model, for something as complex as the wealth of a nation? How could you possibly deal with a relationship that may contain hundreds of variables? The only possible way of managing something so complex would be to make small, careful changes and observe the effects. 

Comment by Loren Miller on December 8, 2013 at 10:00am

Personally, I would love to see the day when the words, "atheism" and "atheist" become obsolete ... along with "theism" and "theist," and all the other related terminology.  I want to see the people of the world as PEOPLE, fragile, transitory beings who live our lives NOW and value NOW, rather than striving for a place in an unseen afterlife, ruled by an unproven god.

Until that day and while believers still attempt to superimpose their beliefs on individuals and governments, I declare without hesitation:

I Am An Atheist.

Comment by Joan Denoo on December 8, 2013 at 9:34am

I had no interest in atheism until I realized the role religion plays in wars and conflicts. Religion plays a very important role in maintaining and perpetuating family violence. I began to pay attention to current wars and wars throughout history, realizing the role religion played in those events.

Atheist means nothing more or less than non-belief in god/s with many different versions and manifestations. All these splinter groups with their different agendas have virtually no power to influence resistance to the perils of religious policies and practices. Therefore, laying aside differences, joining together  for a common cause to effectively challenge religions' power, makes good sense. 

By forming coalitions with Atheists, Agnostics, FreeThinkers, Irreligious, Naturalist, Skeptic, Secular Humanists, Spiritual Humanists, and including Atheist Nexus, American Atheists and Atheist   Republic, there is a possibility to secure and regain desired rights. 

Comment by Randall Smith on December 8, 2013 at 8:25am

That's precisely why I am a supporter (member) of Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). If groups like that don't fight prayer in schools and board meetings, no one will. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement, where injustice was the cause, standing up to the religious majority is a cause that is simply the "right" thing to do. PS: I'm a golfer, but liked your analogy.



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