People don't like the word atheist

The American Religious Identification Survey 2008 is out. It is complementary to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, and seems to confirm its findings. But its main advantage is that there was a survey in 1990 and 2001, so you have three points in time from which to observe trends.


As you can see, the number of atheists & agnostics tracks the general increase in the number with no religion, it's doubled in the past generation. But, though only 2% of the population identifies as atheist & agnostic, around ~10% of the population holds to beliefs which are atheistic or agnostic.

Interestingly the shift toward "No Religion" is about the same in all ethnic groups:


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People don't like the word atheist because it defines them by what they are not. The word treats these people as outcasts, and this type of thing is only done to atheists/agnostics. We don't call Democrats non-Republicans, or aRepublicans. No one likes to be called something negative. This is a longstanding prejudice against those outside of organized religions, or those who are not religious in the traditional sense.

There is a new movement called the "Brights" which defines these "non-believers" by what they are, not what they aren't. Brights believe in a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural or mystical elements.

Hence the number of attempts at euphemism; "Bright" and "nontheist" and "naturalist" and such.

Connotations can travel from an old word to a new word, so a while back I decided to just go with "atheist".

Unfortunately 'Brights' while avoiding defining a group by what they don't believe in, succeeds in making those who go under the name look like a bunch of arrogant bastards.

I'm an atheist, meaning that every god of whom I've heard tell I've promptly disbelieved in. That's close to the christian position, which is that every god bar one of whom they've heard tell they've promptly disbelieved in.

By bioIgnoramus (not verified) on 09 Mar 2009 #permalink

I suppose if one had to, he or she could define me as atheist. I don't like that word though. It is exactly like giving me a lable because i dont believe in unicorns and tooth fairies.

Shouldn't it be "Americans don't like the word atheist"? Brits don't seem to have as much of a problem with the word.

I generally don't like to label myself, but I recently learned a term that appeals to me and that I may start using when people ask me what I "am": apatheist.

I always thought that "humanist" was the term used to describe atheists - it's what Asimov used, because he disliked atheist, much for the same reason. I've always felt it was more meaningful and descriptive anyway; I'm not an atheist, I'm a deist, but I keep an open mind and respect all people.

I would disagree with "bright," though, because I've meet plenty stupid atheists before, just like I've met a great many stupid theists - stupidity is a human trait, not a religious one, and to say that one group is more intelligent than another group simply because they don't believe in a higher power does nobody justice.


By TheEngima32 (not verified) on 09 Mar 2009 #permalink

Personally, I prefer the term "nonbeliever" over "atheist".

The word "atheist" carries a strong connotation that a person's lack of belief in gods, or belief in a lack of gods (the ambiguity is part of the problem) is a central to that person's view of reality. People perceive it, by analogy with various other labels, as a label that defines rather than merely describes a person. But my lack of belief in gods is far less central to my view of reality compared to, say, my positive belief that the universe is full of interesting things I don't know about.

So I don't define myself in terms of something I'm not. But the issue doesn't end there. It's sometimes useful, for pragmatic reasons, to use words that denote what things are not, but if you must do that, then I would say it's better to use a word that draws attention to the fact that you are describing what it is not so that you don't create the false impression that you're saying something important about it. This is what the word "nonbeliever" achieves but "atheist" fails to achieve.

I haven't been able to stomach "Bright". Whatever correlations there are between IQ and education level with atheism don't mean all that much on the individual level. I wouldn't call myself a Bright any more than I'd want to take the MENSA tests to put their bumper sticker on my car.

I don't use naturalist either, because people think I either study plants and bugs, or spend most of my time in the nude.

I just stick with atheist, and have resigned myself to the inevitable arguments about "you can't prove a negative" or "you're just as much a faith-based person as I am."

"Nonbeliever" isn't bad. I suppose in some ways I use "atheist" because I want to educate people a bit about what atheism actually means (and doesn't mean) in the real world.

I don't worry much about the word being defined in opposition to something -- if god is the subject of the conversation, that's where I stand. It's not the subject of most conversations, nor is it the first word I'd come up with if someone asked me to describe myself.

Yes, people -particularly atheists - do like the word atheist. I recently did a web based survey of atheists (n=8,204) and asked the question, "Which word below do you most often use to identify yourself? The options I gave and the percentage results are as follows:

Atheist 71.0%
Agnostic 5.1%
Humanist 5.0%
Bright 0.5%
Freethinker 3.5%
Skeptic 5.0%
Naturalist 1.6%
Non-believer 3.4%
Other 4.9%


When asked if I believe in God, I like to answer, "I don't have beliefs", meaning that I am not just a non-believer in religious affairs, but in all things.
I can see no area of life where having a belief about something or someone, as opposed to knowledge or data about something or someone is more beneficial or desirable to me.

But there is no reason at all why one ought to self-identify or be identified as the opposite of the identity of another. Although I may technically be an "atheist", it is only in the viewpoint of someone who considers themselves a "theist" that this label has relevance. It says nothing as to my positive beliefs about myself, consciousness, other persons and the rest of nature. Some few positive labels that might be applied to me at various times are "rationalist", "naturalist", "pantheist", "objectivist", "empiricist", "Bright", "classical liberal", "artist", "poet", "lover", "writer", "diarist", "lifelong learner", "tea-drinker", "treehugger", etc. ... the list goes ever on. Suffice to say, NO human being can be summed entirely in a list of hundreds or even of thousands of applicable labels, let alone in only one. It is a childlike mind that thinks it knows much at all about anyone through a single label. Assuming you could succeed in the impossible task of creating a thorough list of labels for only one human being, you then face the fact that no human being is entirely the same from moment to moment. Your list would necessarily have to evolve with the person and, because many labels such as "atheist" are applicable relative only to external points of view, those labels too would have to continually evolve with the inevitable changes in those individuals.

Suffice to say, "atheist" is grossly insufficient to thoroughly describe any human being living or ever to live. Aside from the fact the label is a negative one, this is the primary reason why the label "atheist" is undesireable. That some theists and non-theists alike find it sufficient in describing a complex and dynamic human being is telling of them, but not at all telling of those to whom the label "atheist" is very well next to irrelevant.

An atheist in the Roman days was a Christian. How interesting.
Since the Christian god above all refused to make any accommodation with the deities native to Rome, the Christian god was utterly revulsive to patriotic and religious Romans. In fact, Christians were referred to as atheists for their lack of respect for the imperial and city cults, and their insistence on worshiping only one vague and powerless deity whose earthly incarnation perished as a common crucified criminal. It must have seemed a supreme irony, therefore, that when the Christians became the only authorized religion in the final days of the Western Empire, it was their turn to refer to their enemies as pagans--not only rustics, but those whose deities were not permitted within the (now no longer meaningful) pomerium.