I hope this post will connect with some newer atheists who still have trouble speaking, writing, or even thinking the phrase “I am an atheist.” I hope this especially helps those who, like me, grew up in fundamentalist Christian households and have been psychologically/emotionally conditioned to understand the word “atheist” as analogous to, and on the same moral level as, Satan himself (or sometimes, even worse than Satan).
When I first started calling myself an atheist (in my mind – never in public), I struggled with thinking lesser of myself, like something was wrong with me, like I was not as good or moral as a human as believers. Like I was missing something inside – maybe the “God hole in my soul”. The reason was obvious (besides my clinical depression, but that’s a whole other story coming soon…) – I had become the monster my parents had taught me and my siblings to fear and revile. I was embarrassed and afraid. I feared that other people would think of me the way my parents thought of atheists. It was pretty scary “coming out” and, to be honest, sometimes still is.
For many people, the word “atheist” is a striking word. It carries with it negative emotional and psychological baggage, and it just sounds evil, sort of like how the word “moist” sounds disgusting. Why is this? People have attached so many misguided notions to the word that they have a visceral reaction when someone says that they are an atheist before even processing the word rationally.
(I actually prefer “agnostic-atheist,” which does require a bit more explanation, but that is not my purpose here. Also, the word “atheist” doesn’t make much sense, anyway. As Sam Harris would put it, we don’t have a word for a non-astrologist – you either believe it or you don’t, and you can’t really label a non-assertion of a belief. The label of atheist implies dogma, of which atheism has none. Lastly, a substitute title could be skeptic.)
I had to go through a process of becoming comfortable referring to myself as an atheist. If you are uncomfortable with the word, all I can say is practice. You must think it, write it, and say it in order to get rid of the negative emotions you have and become proud and confident in your non-belief. Reading atheist books, watching debates, and learning as much as you can about the topic of religion will only make you more confident using the word. You will not fear the interrogating, pressuring, and condescending responses you are likely to experience. You will have material ready to respectfully, intelligently, and persuasively respond to common retorts. (Please remember that clarity of your opponent’s questions and arguments, summarizing their view, and clear responses are your goal – NOT winning an argument, calling names, generalizing, etc. Stay disconnected and DO NOT let them get under your skin and cause you to lose your cool. If you become emotional, it doesn’t matter how effective your arguments are – they have won.)
I think it is practical at this point to use the word “atheist” because it is quick and to-the-point, but I might start saying that I am “non-religious” when asked about my beliefs. This will undoubtedly draw follow-up questions for clarification, but through experimentation I’m sure I’ll come up with quick and effective responses. But for now, “atheist” is the word.
One other problem is that theists believe they know the atheist position. If you’ve had the opportunity to argue with a theist who thinks they understand atheism, you know what I mean. So, once you say you’re an atheist, they say “Oh, I know what your views are,” or, “You just believe in nothing.” They may even get right to accusatory questioning, such as, “Where do you get your morals from?” insinuating that you aren’t a moral person without the Bible. Or even, “Your children won’t learn right from wrong.” I have had people say these things to me and about my kids. For you new atheists, stop them right there and say something like the following. “Please don’t assume that you know my position – it is condescending and demeaning. I can elaborate on my ideas if you would like to hear me out for just a few minutes.” At that point, you should have a few brief points that you are comfortable making that do not attack, but just clarify 1) why you don’t prescribe to a religion and, 2) what values you promote or believe are important (you must have positive assertions). If they start to bring up specifics about theology or the Bible, argue one point at a time and hold them to it! They are likely to keep throwing around non sequitur one-liners and bringing up topic after topic and just keep coming and coming and coming. Just request to be asked one specific question at a time and discuss without trailing off. If they can’t do that, the conversation is over – it’s not worth it.
Stand up for yourself. Good luck!