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?
(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.)