What’s in a Label? (a Christian/atheist by any other name…)

Pascal, I appreciate your recent post which you titled “Why I am not a Christian.” It reminded me that I am not alone in my struggle to find a suitable, minimally tainted label that describes what I actually believe (or don’t believe). I want to back up your point from the non-theistic side.

Like you and many who may read this, I try very hard to avoid stereotypes. I believe that when we hear someone use the label “Christian”, we shouldn’t take it to mean anything beyond the claim that they revere and/or follow Christ in some way. Anything further can’t be known until talking with the individual, so we should try not to make assumptions. One reason I adhere to this is from personal experience. To my shame, I’m guilty of at least one of the categorizations you pointed out. I’m forced to implicitly adopt the label “Christian” for social reasons. I so regret being in that position. It’s the only area in my life that I feel deceitful. However, this viewpoint makes it easy to see how others may claim a label for any number of reasons, and a personal friendship with honest, open conversation, safe from stigma, provides the best opportunity to know what someone really believes. Case-in-point—we have been having this conversation offline for over a year and I’m just now beginning to explain what I actually believe.

It seems many of us face similar choices to what you outlined in your post — accept the label that describes our belief position (but comes with unwanted baggage–see About Russell), try to adopt a different label, or do our best to ignore identity labels altogether and just state what specific positions we hold. It can be argued that in some circumstances the problem for a non-theist is sometimes more challenging depending on what they believe, because the definitions are so scattered and occasionally overlapping. I don’t think I could go so far as you and claim that an unwanted label does not apply to me. But I appreciate your situation and your effort to hone in on your identity without the baggage.

So what should one assume about someone who claims to be an atheist? Just this… they haven’t heard a description of a god that they think is more likely to exist than not exist. They may even be 50/50 about whether certain descriptions represent a god that exists. Nothing more should be assumed without further conversation. Why might someone who believes this use the label “atheist” to identify themselves? They may have looked up atheism wikipedia and realize that the third description fits them… “the absence of belief that any deities exist.” Notice that this definition does not say, “the belief that no deities exist.”
For many atheists, atheism is not their identity. Many don’t go around thinking of themselves as atheists. It just means they are not theists. Which, in this culture pretty much means they don’t believe the Bible and so they aren’t Christians. We can’t assume they’re pro-choice, anti-gun, socialists, determinists, evolutionists, or moral relativists. It doesn’t define them politically or educationally. As in the case of the “Christian” label (which actually does not offend me at all), there may be some general trends but statistics applies best to a population, not to an individual.

I hope my fellow non-theist reader can understand that hearing that someone is a Christian tells you of nothing beyond their present claim to revere and follow Christ. Likewise, I hope the Christ-follower reading this can understand that hearing that someone is an atheist tells them nothing about the person beyond their present lack of belief that any specific description of god that they’ve heard represents something which actually exists. It does not necessarily mean they think there is no god. That’s only one definition of atheism. Militant anti-theists do exist, but loving them is a topic for another post. In each case, before letting our stereotypes fill in the gaps, the only wise course is to put minimum confidence in our assumptions of what a person actually believes until speaking to them directly and openly in friendship and safety (which admittedly is difficult to achieve).

I can tell you from personal experience, we should not assume the person in the pew next to us is even a Christian. Many of us are under duress. The unfortunate reality is there is so much stigma in this world that the skeptics often can’t admit their doubts, even to themselves. It may take a while before our friends feel comfortable speaking honestly about what they really believe. Actually, I think this is a good time to point out that if you, the reader, are struggling with something faith/belief-related, Pascal and I want you to feel comfortable sharing here, with either of us. You can comment anonymously and ask questions either to Pascal, the Christ-follower, or Russell, the non-theist.

Rather than shrugging off the uncomfortable labels, I think it would be more productive for us all to learn what the labels actually mean and take them to mean that and nothing more. What if every time someone said so and so is a Christian or an atheist and then made a negative comment, we stopped them and encouraged them not to make assumptions, but to make friendships instead?

–Russell

(with special thanks to my wife for “trimming” this down for me…from 5 pages to 2 :). I obviously have a lot more to say, but plenty of time to say it. Thanks for reading.)

6 comments

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Two thing jumped out at me:

    The unfortunate reality is there is so much stigma in this world that the skeptics often can’t admit their doubts, even to themselves.

    Is this really true today? I am not doubting your honesty; I am just surprised that this would seem the case to anyone nowadays. It seems on the contrary that the one who doubts is by far the one most comfortable in today’s society. And speaking of doubt . . .

    I hope the Christ-follower reading this can understand that hearing that someone is an atheist tells them nothing about the person beyond their present lack of belief that any specific description of god that they’ve heard represents something which actually exists. It does not necessarily mean they think there is no god.

    I have recently heard other self-professed atheists say this and it has puzzled me. Not to sound unkind, but when I grab my dictionary off the shelf beside me and look up “atheist”, this is what i find:

    atheist: a person who believes that God does not exist

    So the only way I (arguably anyone) can understand that an atheist “does not necessarily think there is no God” is only by concluding they do not know what the term means. I could understand if there were no other term, but fortunately there is: Agnostic, which means (dictionary coming to my rescue again): a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not. It seems like a suitable term, and if I had walked away from my religious belief but the verdict was still out on God, I would use it, and not a term that overstated my present position.

    But I might be missing something here. Care to elaborate?

    Thanks again for the post. Keep up the work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your very legitimate questions.

      Regarding stigma
      We all live in cultural pockets that are not necessarily reflective of the wider community. For example, many non-believers have parents who may be so afraid of their grandchildren going to Hell that they may go so far as attempting to take custody of them. Others have spouses who would choose not to have children with them if they found out. Seriously. The stigma against atheists may not be strong in some geographical regions, but to the individual atheist, family dogmatism is sometimes a very real concern. There are also those of us who are employed by a secular company but happen to work directly under a very outspoken Christian who, assuming the subordinate is a Christian, has voiced hatred for atheists. These supervisors are responsible for reviews and pay raises. These are very narrow examples, but the point is there are many reasons a non-believer would not want others to know that they do not conform. It’s similar to being surrounded by people you really care about that are on the extreme opposite side of the political spectrum, but that analogy falls far short, because politics isn’t seen as something that will get their precious child or grandchild condemned to an eternity of torment. As long as some people hold this view, there will be some atheist’s who will choose not to “come out”.

      Regarding the atheist label
      This is part of what my exquisitely beautiful and talented editor (I love you) had to trim out. I even made a chart to explain the differences, but I’ll save that for another post. In a large part it’s a problem, as I mentioned, of overlapping and unclear definitions. It’s also a denotation/connotation issue and a misunderstanding of the difference between agnosticism (a claim about knowledge) and atheism (a claim about belief). This post, however, was about assumptions. As such, I wanted the reader to understand the least a person might mean when they claim that label. The weakest, least forceful and sure claim a person might hold who takes the atheist label is the inclusive version of the definition in Wikipedia, “the absence of belief that any deities exist.” So, yes, they may claim the definition that you find in your dictionary, but given the varying definitions and confusion, should we assume that? Can we assume that someone who says Christian means they believe the world was created in 6 days? When it comes to what we should assume about someone based on a label, I think it would be helpful if we adopt the least meaningful definition and then talk to the individual to see what they actually believe.

      Agnostic vs atheist
      The knowledge vs belief delineation is often not clear in the definitions. Take another look at yours, “a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not.” The key phrase is “definite belief”. Definite meaning without doubt. The simple version of this definition is “a person who does not know (with certainty) whether God exists or not.” Easy to miss the belief/knowledge distinction, right? OK, so they aren’t certain, but what to they believe? “Agnostic” tells you nothing about what they believe. It’s not a label that describes belief. Gnostic and agnostic are knowledge claims. Theist and atheist are belief claims.

      What about “agnostic atheist”? For someone who is close to 50/50 on the existence of a God, this isn’t really accurate because it could also represent someone who has a strong belief there is no God, but lacks certainty.

      What about just “agnostic”? As I mentioned, it’s a knowledge position, not a belief position, and despite the connotation, according to the denotation it could mean almost anything (i.e. many Christians are agnostic theists).

      The technically accurate label for the person I’m describing is an “agnostic weak atheist“, or just “weak atheist” (since that implies lack of a knowledge claim). However, by definition, they are still an “atheist” due to their lack of belief in at least one God. “Agnostic” and “weak” are modifiers on their atheism to explain they don’t know (agnostic) there is no God, and they don’t necessarily disbelieve their is a God (weak).

      Why would someone in this belief position just say “atheist” instead of “agnostic weak atheist” or “weak atheist”? These terms aren’t all that common and they may not know them, or they may not want to try to explain them. To add to the confusion, there are several qualifiers to atheism that mean the same thing as “weak”, such as “negative” or “soft”. Those terms just don’t sound as good, either. Who wants to go around saying their a “weak” or “negative” or “soft” atheist? Further, as I mentioned, that belief position is represented by the third definition of just “atheism” in Wikipedia (the inclusive definition). I personally used just “atheist” here so that people would understand that we can’t know to what degree they disbelieve a God exists, if at all. Finally, as atheists become more common and socially acceptable, many people who used to identify as “agnostic” will claim the more accurateatheist” label, even though their beliefs haven’t changed. The point is, some people are rejected as outspoken dogmatic anti-God atheists when they are really what most people think of as agnostics. So let’s be aware of that when we start up a conversation and find out what they actually believe.

      Further evidence:
      From http://atheism.about.com/od/Atheist-Dictionary/g/Definition-Weak-Atheism.htm
      Weak atheism is defined as simply the absence of belief in gods or the absence of theism. This is also the broad, general definition of atheism. The definition of weak atheism is used as a contrast to the definition of strong atheism, which is the positive assertion that no gods exist. All atheists are necessarily weak atheists because by definition all atheists do not believe in any gods; only some go on to assert that some or no gods exist.

      Some people deny that weak atheism exists, confusing the definition with that of agnosticism. This is a mistake because atheism is about (a lack of) belief whereas agnosticism is about (a lack of) knowledge. Belief and knowledge are related by separate issues. Thus weak atheism is compatible with agnosticism, not an alternative to it. Weak atheism overlaps with negative atheism and implicit atheism.”

      From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism
      Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists.”

      From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_and_positive_atheism
      “Explicit negative/weak/soft atheists reject or eschew belief that any deities exist without actually asserting that “at least one deity existsis a false statement.”

      Do people really claim to be atheists when they’re what most people think of as agnostic? Take a look at this 5-year-old poll. Rather than having a definite belief of no gods (disbelief – what most people think of as atheist), most just lack belief an any gods (what most people think of as agnostic)…
      http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090521180608AA20PA7

      Can you back up the idea that people may be using the label “atheist” instead of the more accurate “[weak|negative|soft] atheist”? Based on the survey above we can extrapolate and hypothesize that over half of all atheists are probably “weak atheists”. However, compare that estimate to the popularity of searches for those terms as opposed to searches for just “atheist” or “agnostic”…
      http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=negative%20atheist%2C%20weak%20atheist%2C%20soft%20atheist%2C%20atheist%2C%20agnostic&cmpt=q
      The survey was a very small sample size with a lot of error in the collection process, so it may not be accurate, but it shouldn’t be this inaccurate. This supports the idea that many atheists are technically “weak atheists” but they’re just calling themselves “atheist”.

      Finally, I am technically a weak atheist, but look what label I tried (unsuccessfully) to claim on About Russell. From personal experience I can tell you the stigma and the label confusion is true. One of the many reasons I wanted to use it, despite the fact that it overstates my position, is to illustrate the misconceptions and fight for understanding. I have several friends who struggle with hatred toward atheists, but not agnostics. I want them to know that many atheists do not hold the anti-God views that my friends hate. Many atheists that do speak out negatively against God are attacking a specific God belief that has hurt them. Sometimes they attack the general belief in any God, but usually it’s a specific religion. My hope is that if these Christian friends of mine can learn to be a little less certain that the atheist next door is a wild heathen who hates them and enjoys attacking their God, they won’t be so afraid to open up conversation and become friends.

      Does that make sense?

      Thanks again for the excellent comment.

      Like

      1. Makes sense very much. Thanks for that.

        Fortunately for both of us, I for one am far more tolerant of atheists, self-proclaimed or otherwise, than vague word definitions 😉

        I am somewhat fascinated by your perspective of life and social pressure from an atheist point of view. I usually face the opposite effect especially on the internet. Just recently, I literally had an atheist tell me: “It is okay what you choose to believe; just don’t teach it to your kids.” And she meant it. This was after she had just finished bemoaning the privileged state of religion in modern society. I realize that this does not represent every atheist, but I have been rather taken back the antagonistic intolerance many atheists hold toward religious faith in general.

        Thanks for the refreshing alternative perspective.

        Cheers

        Liked by 1 person

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