The Importance of Understanding Identity

David Silverman of American Atheists, among others, was featured on a CNN special. One statement by David Silverman has caused a stir of controversy:

CNN Anchor: “I’ve interviewed men and women, they say, ‘I’m a humanist, I’m a freethinker, I’m a skeptic.’ So many people won’t say, ‘I’m an atheist.’ Is it all the same thing? Are these just softer terms for ‘I’m an atheist?'”

Silverman: “Yes. These are atheists who are afraid to use the word. And what are they doing? They’re lying.”

I’ll preface this by saying that I, personally, believe that anyone who lacks a belief in a god is an atheist, by definition. That said, I take issue with what David Silverman said because I think it grossly oversimplifies the multitude of reasons people prefer to not identify as an atheist and, in some cases, unfairly shifts the burden onto the person who chooses to not identify as an atheist – the burden of fixing the situation that makes them not adopt the “atheist” label.

Some (but not necessarily all) of these reasons are:

  • Prejudices internal to the atheist movement: The atheist community and movement, in all its various forms and facets, is a product of its surrounding culture. In the U.S., that means our communities carry aspects of the culture in the U.S. – including, to at least some degree, its prejudicial baggage: racism, sexism, cissexism, ableism, heterosexism, classism, and others. It’s understandable, then, that an individual may resist or outright refuse to identify as an atheist because of their experiences with prejudiced atheists.
  • Disagreement with “atheist leaders”: in the public’s eye, people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, David Silverman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others are treated as “atheist leaders”, and with good reason – they are frequently in front of the camera and frequently treated by the media as the voices of the atheist movement. There are people who disagree with some or all things people in these positions have said and, perhaps because they feel these ideas predominante the atheist movement or because they merely do not wish others to associate them to these individuals, they do not identify as atheists.
  • Prejudices external to the atheist movement: This is probably going to be an issue we’re all most commonly familiar with. The word “atheist” has a social stigma attached to it – people who are out as atheists can risk harassment, loss of friends, loss of family, loss of job, and worse. When someone is faced with the security of their livelihood and identifying outwardly as an atheist, they understandably choose the former.
  • Lack of understanding of terms: Far too often, I’ve been asked, “Why do you have to identify as an atheist? Why not ‘agnostic’?” It may surprise you that this line of questioning isn’t limited to religious people – I’ve gotten it from people who identify as part of the nonreligious spectrum, too (“nones”, “agnostics”, et cetera). Fundamental to this question is the lack of understanding of what the gnostic spectrum and theistic spectrum mean; when I explain that I am an agnostic atheist and what that means, it often sparks a light of revelation in their eyes.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a list of some of the most-common reasons I come across in my conversations with people. What I want to punctuate this editorial with, though, is the fact that the response to these and many other reasons that people choose to not identify as an atheist is not to call them liars and to not shame them for choosing to identify as they wish.

What out atheists (and, critically, atheist leaders) should be doing is incorporating these reasons as feedback for potential ways to improve or correct the local communities and society as a whole such that we eliminate these causes that drive people away from the word “atheist”. It not only helps to empower the atheist movement by inviting people to join it, but it also helps ensure that the movement is a safe space for its members and that also empowers its members in the social justice causes they want to champion.

Not everyone who chooses to identify as something other than “atheist” will have reasons for doing so that we can solve, but there are many, many people who choose to avoid identifying with the “a-word” for reasons that we can – and should – work to solve.

3 Replies to “The Importance of Understanding Identity”

  1. Excellent response, Josh. I like David Silverman, and think he has done much good for the atheist cause, but he made a mistake with that statement. We need to embrace and support all who are like minded in the quest for truth. Humanity needs less differences to fight over, and more reasons to unite, with love and solidarity.

  2. Hi. I just stumbled across your organization and site, and an excited to know this group exists in Kansas City. I find your post on identity very interesting. At various points, I have resisted the atheist label for most if not all of the reasons you cite. Another reason I am sometimes reticent to call myself atheist without further explainarion is that the word itself puts the emphasis on the wrong thing, at least for me. Yes, I am an agnostic atheist- but my lack of belief in a god or gods flows more from my freethinking orientation in general, not vice versa. For me, being a “freethinker” both preceded and led to the atheism, and is much more central to my identity that my non belief in gods.

    1. Glad you found us, Kristie! 🙂 I definitely understand where you’re coming from – a lack of belief in a god isn’t necessarily a central part of a person’s identity. We all get to choose how we identify and how we build that identity.

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