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An Atheistic Language Problem?

November 25th, 2007 · Posted by Who Knows? · 16 Comments

The Christians are not the only ones with a language problem. I’m sure atheists would agree that the term “atheist” is often grossly misunderstood. The history of the word is as an insult, a very negative word. Combine with that the fact that atheism lacks any memes encouraging people not to care what people think of them, memes saying they should expect to be misunderstood, and it becomes obvious why there are so many diverse labels used by people that “lack belief in a supernatural entity that interferes with the laws of nature by supernatural means”.

I’m not sure which group has more diversity of beliefs: atheism, or Christianity. I suppose comparing atheism with theism might be more correct. Either way, we have atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, “brights”, skeptics, freethinkers, more… (Maybe we can even include atheistic religions like Buddhism? Naah.) Similar diversity in Christianity is grouped together under the label “Christian”.

So, what is heard by some people when “I am an atheist” is uttered? This is what some people hear:

I have no appreciation for my existence, I lack any sense of wonder. I do not acknowledge any mystery in the world. I am not at all thankful or appreciative for my existence (as I am not thankful to the “original cause”). I just am. There is no meaning to life. It is all pointless. There is no action that can be labelled “good” and no action “bad”. I might as well just drink all day and all night, if that makes me happy. Hell, why not go shoot some people, considering I don’t have to be moral. There are no adverse consequences to immoral behaviour. I think all theists are stupid. They suffer from delusion. They are “dim”, while I am “bright”.

Yes, this is what some people hear, even if it is not what is meant. That’s quite a mouthful to de-stigmatise.

Again, to de-stigmatise the label, people need to get to know you, rather than your label. Only once they know you, can you make any contribution by telling them what label you use. Only then might they understand what you mean by that label. De-stigmatising the label is irrelevant, the aim is to de-stigmatising the world-view.

So this is the idea behind Dawkins’ “Out Campaign”. Many atheists out there have already built relationships with “religionists”. The “Out Campaign” aims to unify the efforts to de-stigmatise the world-view, through use of the label. Whether it will be useful for you to contribute or not, is something only you can determine. You know your audience, no-one else does. Do you care much for the “atheism” label? Do you think it worthwhile to de-stigmatise it? Or might it be counter-productive and serve only to stigmatise something else you’re standing for? Priorities… Tough call.

I have a very different approach, the post-modernist that I seem to be. (Dawkins seems a typical modernist.) Free people from labels all around, then they are much more free to develop their own world-view, rather than having it forced down their throats by some pigeonholing label. Have patience, the P campaign is on its way. (Give me another two weeks or so. And get me a copyrightable Red P!)

Do you think it is worthwhile de-stigmatising the “atheist” label? How do your thoughts about this post compare to your thoughts about the Christian language problem post?

Further reading: Language Differences.

Categories: Religion and Science
Tags: · · · · ·

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Nov 25, 2007 at 8:47 am

    “Atheism” compared to “nigger”… very many similarities. When an atheist calls you an atheist, it is a complement. When a religionist calls you an atheist, it is an insult.

    Atheists are welcome to call me an atheist, if they want. But don’t let me catch any Christians calling me an atheist. Jesus is my God. 😛

  • 2 Pieter // Nov 25, 2007 at 8:16 pm

    If I can channel them for a moment: The term “atheist” is used as a challenge directed at christians. See that we are educated good people that needs no supernatural morality. It is our opinion that it is best for humanity if we all drop our supernatural pretenses.

  • 3 Pieter // Nov 25, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    So perhaps the negative image of atheism associated with a functioning moral human (with a visible public life) is meant as food for thought for those quick of judgement.

    Some rappers like to call each other nigger as well. But don’t you dare do that bro. 😉

  • 4 Hugo // Nov 25, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    I agree with the sentiment, but I disagree with the method. They are denying a very deep part of humanity. They are attacking what they do not understand. Richard Dawkins realises he came on a little too strongly. You see him ponder that question in one of the video’s Zach linked for me recently. He then defends his book by saying “at least it raised the consciousness level”. And that is true. And for that I am thankful. He is giving me a springboard, a platform on which to stand. He has given me shoulders to stand on.

    Now this is the thing: God is a very natural phenomenon. It is part of humanity. Everyone believes in God. Everyone that is happy, believes in some God. God does not have to be supernatural. Dawkins seems to have made science his God, and what a cold God that is. There is much more to humanity than just science. As long as he fails to see that, he will not reach the people he would like to reach. But that is okay, he inspires others to reach those people.

    He attacks religion as someone proud of not understanding it. This seems so much the creationists to me, attacking evolution, which they do not understand. I think Dawkins is a hypocrite, on a certain level.

  • 5 Negate // Nov 25, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    >So, what is heard by some people when “I am an atheist” is uttered? This is what some people hear:

    Atheist has the freedom to choose their own path, and decide for themselves what makes their life meaningful and worthwhile to them.

    You realize more that if you want to better yourself at something you need to better yourself first. There is no god that is going to provide for you or protect you. In the end you are stuck with only one true thing in this world, yourself!. You create a inner satisfaction that comes from living a fearlessly self-directed life.

    Some religions command their followers not to expose themselves to certain knowledge deemed “dangerous”. The Roman Catholic church only several decades ago abolished its Index of Forbidden Books, which for centuries threatened with excommunication any Catholic who read any titles on the list without special permission.

    In contrast to this barrage of prohibition, atheism offers the freedom to think, believe, question and form opinions as one sees fit. To an atheist, there is no forbidden knowledge, there are no prohibited books, and there are no questions that may not be asked. Where the religious mind sees a mental landscape bristling with bars and locks, the atheist sees a wide-open horizon, where nothing is off-limits and the inquiring mind may travel wherever it pleases. Atheists are entirely free to study all perspectives on any topic and decide for themselves what they believe.

  • 6 Rinus // Nov 26, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Allow me to be blatantly simplistic:

    I find it interesting that many atheists are ‘moral’ people, even without the coercion of an ‘eternal damnation’.

  • 7 Hugo // Nov 26, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Great! I love simplistic. Short and sweet. Concise. Let’s see if I can return the favour.

    I find it interesting that people think religion is only about the threat of ‘eternal damnation’.

    Let me not get into detail about what my views on “hell” and “damnation” are. You can go look at the Wikipedia article on “salvation”, under the section about the Emerging Church’s perspectives on the matter, if you want some food for thought.

    People that think religion is only about eternal damnation in the afterlife sense, have been brainwashed by fundamentalism. In this context, the Christian kind and the Atheistic kind are identical. That is not what religion is about.

  • 8 Negate // Nov 26, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    >I find it interesting that people think religion is only about the threat of ‘eternal damnation’.

    I lately talked to a group(4) 14 year olds, about god, atheism etc 2 of the 4 children were relieved that there is no hell. His exact words. “dankie tog daar is nie hell”

    Eternal damnation is a fear that children don’t take to very well. So yes most people only think of eternal damnation, why? because as soon as you say you don’t have to believe they automatically get afraid, why? hell!

    >That is not what religion is about.

    Religion(god) is a tool. Thousands of years ago people lived in a brutal violent world. Extreme rules was needed(hell) to keep humanity in check. This was of course the views of modernists in their time. Now its a fundamentalist view if we look back at it.

    Each generation needs a modernist that will shape new values around religion, just like jesus did with jewish religion just like you hugo are trying to do with christianity.

    You must remember new perspectives will always at first be rejected, then it will get cult status(christianity was rejected -> cult -> worlds biggest religion) etc.

    Religion as tool can be used to build a house and break it down. Religion in the hands of wrong person leads to undesirable effects. Atheism in the hands of wrong person leads to undesirable effects.

    How can u hugo convince me that religion will keep more people in check than atheism?

  • 9 Hugo // Nov 26, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    I will not convince you. I will attempt to demonstrate. But that takes time. A long time.

  • 10 Tim Mills // Nov 26, 2007 at 4:13 pm


    Although I see some value in what you are saying, I have to disagree strongly with you about some things, particularly this claim:

    “Dawkins seems to have made science his God, and what a cold God that is. There is much more to humanity than just science.”

    First, Dawkins (as any scientist) uses science as a set of tools for understanding the world. I haven’t heard of God referred to as a set of tools for understanding the world. Dawkins does not approach science the way anyone approaches their idea of God, so it is wrong that “Dawkins seems to have made science his God”.

    Second, if you say “what a cold God that is”, you must not have read “Unweaving the Rainbow” or “The Ancestor’s Tale” – two books of deep reverence and wonder at the world as revealed to us by science, both written by Dawkins. I understand that, since their tone is different from what you’ll find in theological circles, it may be difficult to detect the reverence behind Dawkins’ words, but please believe me when I say that it is there. Science is, to Dawkins, a powerful illuminator of the beauty of the universe, and particularly (for him as a biologist) the beauty of living things. I know you have encountered Carl Sagan – surely after hearing him speak (or write) about the beauty of the Cosmos, you cannot seriously think that science is cold or impersonal.

    Finally, you say that “There is much more to humanity than just science.” This is true. But Dawkins, writing as a scientist, appropriately limits himself largely to scientific points. This is not a claim that non-scientific experience is irrelevant. He’s just not talking about that. Dawkins writes about the physical facts of the universe, and does so elegantly and reverently. When he encounters people who seem to want to conceal or deny those truths, he calls them out on it. I think he does so gently and respectfully, but even if you think he’s abrasive and shrill you cannot deny that enemies of truth must be faced down.

    Dawkins is not “proud of not understanding [religion]”. He is responding in “The God Delusion” to common and virulent manifestations of religion – manifestations that he does understand, and sees rightly as threats to human knowledge. I know that these manifestations do not reflect your religion. But they do exist. Not every religious person sees their scripture as metaphorical and subject to reconstruction. Not every religious idea or interpretation is worthy of respect.

  • 11 gerhard // Nov 26, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    I find it interesting that people think religion is only about the threat of ‘eternal damnation’.

    you are perfectly right , its not only about eternal damnation 🙂 its about damnation of anything conform to the christian idea or ideal of life 🙂 [gays , free sex , humans as animals etc]
    What you constantly forget is just how extream the teachings of the bible are… there is no difference between christianity and scientology nor the belief in thor (to hijack a richard dawkins example) the difference is you just choose to ignore its idosyncracies or adjust them to theirs:)

    They are denying a very deep part of humanity. They are attacking what they do not understand.

    actually , most atheists start off a theists 🙂 So from their point of view ,they understood, but it is you who doesn’t understand and keep making claims like ‘They are denying a very deep part of humanity. ‘ WE dont need another religion, what we need is a return to naturalistic morals 🙂
    btw, u may not know this , but u can keep the ritualism and personification of the devine(one could argue nature here ) and still be a atheist 🙂 as long as you admit to yourself what it actually going on 🙂 but that is just my opinion 🙂

  • 12 Hugo // Nov 26, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    Tim Mills, I agree and I stand corrected.

    it may be difficult to detect the reverence behind Dawkins’ words

    This is true. I loved his ending to “The Root of All Evil” as well. I do recognise the reverence, and I do like Dawkins. I just seriously dislike many of his followers’ approach to the problem of fundamentalistic religion.

    When I say “Science is a cold God”, I mean it lacks compassion. While we may one day be able to explain compassion from a scientific perspective, compassion is still a human experience, not a scientific fact. Not many people see compassion in science, and when they are told that they must let go of compassion, let go of their God, they see a bleak and dismal world. They see a world without love. Why do that to them?

    Teach them about their own God. Teach them about compassion. Teach them the example that Jesus set, as reconstructed by scholarly study. Then you get somewhere. You get somewhere by compassion and understanding, by learning the language. Dawkins uses polemic. Polemic causes war. Polemic is intellectual genocide. Or something like that.

    Excuse my poetic language. Thanks for responding, I have always been able to talk to you. These other atheists, may they learn from your example. May they learn of your God. Please respond to the “Tell me about God” post, by telling me about humanistic values. Your God is the humanistic ideal. The dream of compassion and peace and a world without “religion” (in the sense that the atheists use the word).

    I use “religion” in a different sense, and they cannot see this. And I’m being reactionary to their polemic, and am unable to break through the blindness caused by the beams in their eyes…

    May they learn from you. Thanks Tim.

  • 13 Hugo // Nov 26, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    naturalistic morals

    There, gerhard, thanks. There you are sharing a piece of God. Keep it up. Tell me more about your God.

  • 14 Angelica // Jan 19, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    ….oh, dear dear deary me. It seems that there is DEFINITELY a language problem here between atheists/christians. Or perhaps a concept problem.

    See, Hugo is describing this “compassion god” which he worships. To him, God is the concept of compassion. God is a feeling. He seems to think that science can also be a god, and that we worship it.

    This is not my understanding of God.

    God, as I have been told, is this omni-benevolent/potent/vident/present/etc being that performs miracles, has three parts, sends people to heaven and hell, and all that other stuff he does.

    Compassion God isn’t really capable of that stuff. About all Compassion God could possibly do is, you know, go around and be compassion — which Compassion God could do without even being God. Compassion God could just be Compassion, and we could throw away this whole religion thing that makes us argue with each other in all sorts of unkind ways.

    In essence, here is the difference between a religious person and an atheist, or at least my representation of it:

    Reggie Religionist: I love you, Alice, and I love you too, Bobby, and I love you, Chester.
    Bob: Um, Reggie?
    Reggie: Yes?
    Alice: Er, Chester is your imaginary friend, remember?
    Reggie: So?
    Bob: …why are you saying you love Chester?
    Reggie: Because I love you AND Alice AND Chester.
    Bob: Why can’t you just love Bob and Alice? Why do you need Chester when he’s imaginary?
    Reggie: Chester is love! Chester is love! Without Chester I can’t love anyone!
    -Reggie leaves. Norm Normal comes in.-
    Norm: I love you, Alice. I love you too, Bobby.
    Bobby and Alice: Yay!

  • 15 Hugo // Jan 20, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    I acknowledge the trickiness of communicating with me (and me communicating with others the way I do) due to the.. um… can I call it anti-reductionitic-definitions I tend to use. I have plans for a glossary, as well as posts more thoroughly talking about my troublesome use of the words “faith” and “God”. These are the ones that cause the most grief, and thus need some significant effort from my side to clarify.

    However, my time is unfortunately limited… one of the stupid things about having a job now, y’know. I’d like to add that I cringe at a number of my fourth quarter 2007 posts, but often the stuff has been picked apart in comments already. See my exchange with Tim above? If you’d like to know more of how I think and talk, scan the comments. In general, I might not be very responsive, especially about things I’ve discussed already. My regulars have a better idea of how I think, but I don’t know how one would encourage them to answer on my behalf, they also have jobs… silly them. 😉

    Thanks for your contributions! Stay friendly. 😉

  • 16 Hugo // Jan 21, 2009 at 1:50 am

    Some more thinking later, I thought I’d revisit the “Science as Dawkins’ God” idea. (Also to bury my scary and bad November 2007 ideas/comments in more verbosity. 😉 )

    Talking in the context of the Meaning Assigner aspect of the “God concept”, Dawkins does not find meaning in his life in science. That is why my comments above are wrong. He finds his Meaning in the pursuit of science, the investigation, the practising, the inquisitive exploration. Together with that meaning-in-life, comes an appreciation of life, from which flows morality and the golden rule (e.g. thou shalt not kill, because that would be destroying that which is so remarkable and worthy of inquisitive exploration).

    Now I could also link to the post about Pullman and the values he promotes, and how they line up with this curiosity/appreciation-driven worldview. But I’m too lazy, and want to go to bed, so enough for now.

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