I read your presentation to the Atheist Alliance. You were eminently successful in being a controversial contrarian, so your intent was well executed. Good work!
However, I do have to disagree with your argument (oh, right — you were trying to stir up dissent. Again, good work!). You say that using the term “atheism” is a mistake, and that “Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities” … and that atheism is entirely negative. You say that accepting that label means we are agreeing to be “viewed as a cranky sub-culture”.
You say you never thought of yourself as an atheist before. And there, I think, is the major rebuttal to your own thesis. It doesn’t matter that you don’t call yourself an atheist. Sam, they’re going to call you an atheist anyway. Your friends might be willing to accede to your wishes and stop calling you an atheist, but your enemies won’t, and the media, which has promoted you as an atheist, probably won’t … and if they do, you’ll vanish from your influential position rather quickly. You don’t get to choose what other people will call you.
It’s true that labels can be used to marginalize a sub-culture, but they can also be used to unify a group, even the negative ones, sometimes especially the negative ones. Look at “Queer” and “Abolitionist”, to name two examples — they’re strange and negative, and using your metric of whether the name suggests something positive, the last is just unrelentingly against something; obviously, they didn’t get a good focus group to help them with their brand identity. At the same time, though, those are groups who have and had proud memberships, who unabashedly embraced their identity. I’m sorry, Sam, but complaining about your name and fishing about in a dictionary for happy words you can appropriate is such a Republican thing to do. I much prefer the forthrightness of an out & proud movement.
The other futile side to your argument is that it doesn’t matter: we live in a culture that has managed to turn “environmentalist” into a nasty epithet. Same for “feminist”. I guarantee you that if you managed to get the whole movement to adopt a brand new label — say, for example, “rationalist” — we’d be hearing that word uttered with the same contemptuous sneer, the same dismissal to a “cranky subculture”, and the preachers will still be fulminating from their pulpits with the same distaste for “rationalist” that they have for “secular,” “humanist,” “intelligentsia,” and “intellectual.”
Of course, you aren’t advocating a new name. You are suggesting no name at all.
We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar–for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.
Well, Sam, you’re welcome to do that. Stop accepting speaking engagements, stop giving interviews, and stop writing books. I won’t respect you any less if you insist on doing good works with no fanfare — it’s your choice.
It seems to me, though, that there is no conflict at all between being decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them and also finding common cause with like-minded people and working together to promote that same decency, responsibility, and critical thinking publicly. In fact, I think such coordinated (and proudly labeled) action by a group would be more effective than similar action by modest individuals.
Like you, I look forward to a post-theist future when the term “atheist” is a quaint relic that lacks any contemporary context, as silly as saying that one is an a-Zeusist or an aleprechaunist. That time is not now, and you are ignoring reality to pretend that it is. We do have a context that makes atheism relevant and appropriate: we are immersed in a deeply irrational religious culture. Those labels you denigrate — “atheists,” “humanists,” “secular humanists,” “naturalists,” “skeptics,” “anti-theists,” “rationalists,” “freethinkers,” and “brights” — are useful rallying cries for the tiny, scattered bubbles of rationality drifting in the sea of superstition and ignorance. It’s how we find each other and grow. It’s how we build whole communities working for a common cause, rather than acting as isolated individuals.
I’d like to see more openly secular communities and institutions forming, and I think to do that we have to accept labels and banners and symbols, and we have to be open about expressing our ideas and encouraging others to join us. That’s how we’ll make a lasting difference. That’s also how we’ll undermine the unfortunate insinuations imposed on us by the way the label “atheist” is used. It doesn’t matter if you try to abandon the name, it’s going to stick to you and us for a good long time; what we need to do is build our own positive values beneath that tag and change its meaning from within.
Yours in godlessness,