I once said during one of our “Ask an Atheist” events that the Kansas City Atheist Coalition could be called the “Kansas City Secular Super Square Dancing Squad” and its purpose would still be the same. The person to whom I was speaking exclusively took offense to the word “atheist” itself. When I attempted to ascertain the reason as to why, the answer I received was that atheists were bad people without any further explanation. I then asked if they thought that I was also a bad person. The response I received was that I am not a bad person because I was not an atheist.
To clarify, I am very much an atheist; but simply being an atheist doesn’t really say much about my character or what type of person I am. Atheism isn’t a worldview, as it only takes the null position that one does not accept belief in any god(s). The identifier merely opens the door to acquire more information about the person. These labels and identifiers give us a good starting position to acquire additional information about someone. This was the first time that someone attempted to No True Scotsman me out of my own atheism. This was also the first time that I began to realize that an innocuous word such as atheism carried such negativity without a good explanation.
Recent events have lead to me see this doesn’t stop with just the word atheism. These negative impressions have a far greater impact than simply not liking the word itself. These impressions create this “us vs. them” dichotomy in ways that affect the care and well-being of those less fortunate because of the negative bias that the word atheism carries – specifically when it involves acts of altruism and philanthropy. I have often been asked why an atheist cares to help anyone at all if they do not believe in god(s). This is a common question that I am happy to address, even though the question brings with it a tone of personal incredulity. I live in a world where my actions and beliefs can have a demonstrable positive or negative impact on others. These actions and thoughts do not exist in a vacuum and helping others not only improves their quality of life, but also further enhances my own and the lives of those closest to me. This brief answer can open the floodgates to acquire more information about the person and can also accompany a myriad of other known labels such as humanism.
From that point, I’ve been asked why it is necessary to call myself an atheist or be an open atheist – again, as if the word atheist is something that can never be spoken. The reason is simple: because I am an atheist. It seems to me that the entire position hinges upon the desire that I should disassociate from the word atheist. I do not give back to the community strictly because of my atheism, but that still doesn’t change the fact that I am an atheist. There are various organizations around the country with members who identify as atheist, yet their atheism isn’t the sole driving force behind their good will. The Pathfinders Project is one such example of an awesome group of people that place the needs of others above the promotion of a message of non-belief or faith; however, they do not hide how they choose to individually represent themselves. I desire people to be open about how they choose to identify. This is far different than desiring to promote a message above the basic needs of others. I will never deride Christians for wearing their belief openly when they give back to the community – in fact, I appreciate it! I desire to also work side-by-side with them because I do not see this dichotomy when helping others. I can represent myself as an atheist without the need to discuss atheism. This acts as a catalyst to destigmatize misconceptions surrounding atheists. Atheists are your neighbors, friends and those you care about. I will not evangelize my atheism when I volunteer and give back to the community in any capacity other than simply representing myself as an open atheist, nor would I hold a sandwich ransom in order to acquire an acceptance of non-belief.
This awareness of how someone represents themselves can create a pushback from others in the community. This goes back to this “us vs. them” dichotomy that can be troublesome to shake. When people start saying that open atheists are “intimidating and inappropriate at times” with no explanation, then what is the message that you want to project? Is simply the act of being open about who you are so troubling that you’d much rather pretend we don’t exist? The one thing that I won’t do is hide who I am to appease someone’s inability to accept that I do not adhere to the same beliefs as them. I would never want someone to hide who they are because I do not ascribe to the same beliefs. Their difference of belief does not mean that we cannot work together or see value in helping, educating, and improving the lives of those around us.
There can be a tacit agreement between two people of differing backgrounds and beliefs, yet work together harmoniously to better the lives of others. I should not have to hide who I am, nor would I ask anyone to do the same. I should not have to hide the “A” word when I serve a meal to the hungry, or when I give a gift to someone in need. I shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone I am not. I am an atheist and that’s just fine.