I write about, talk about, and think about atheism so much that sometimes I’m honestly stunned by how little most people actually know about the concept. I’m also continually surprised and depressed by the lack of knowledge people have about religion, particularly their own in most cases.
Trying to explain the atheist movement and label is like trying to explain exactly how each flavor at Ben and Jerry’s tastes. Some are better than others, but in reality they’re all pretty good and it doesn’t matter. And it can get complicated to someone who’s never had ice cream before.
So when a friend told me that I was the only atheist she knew, the first thought that came through my mind was “oh god”. Figuratively, of course.
It’s a lot easier to start by explaining what atheism isn’t. There are so many misconceptions that most of the time when people do hear about us, what they’re hearing is wildly inaccurate and sometimes downright hateful.
Atheists aren’t Satanists, except when they are. LaVeyan Satanists are atheists, but instead of the blood sacrifice thing, they have a moral code based on pleasure and pride and heavy metal. Okay, maybe not the last one. The blood sacrifice Satanists Hollywood loves to portray are rare and aren’t atheists. It’s a religion that is based on the bible and that is actually crazier than Mormonism.
Deists aren’t atheists by definition. The evangelical definition of the word ‘atheist’ is actually the real definition of the word deist. It’s someone who believes in a god but lives as though there isn’t one. Some religions, especially the damaging ones like the American Evangelical movement, preach that there’s really no such thing as an atheist. In America, those people get their own reality shows and we laugh at them until they start molesting their siblings.
Also in the category of ‘people who by definition aren’t atheists but get classified with us anyway’ are the Pantheists. They essentially believe that the universe is god. As it was put by Tracy on The Atheist Experience once, if what you’re calling god is really everything, then we already have a word for that, so why call it god? They also get classified with Pagans a lot, although I think the two are different as well.
Atheists aren’t necessarily hedonists or materialists, although I personally fall into both categories. There’s a category labeled spiritual atheists, who believe all kinds of things from paranormal activity stuff to karma to metaphysical universal energy. The only thing out of bounds is belief in a god, which by definition would exclude them from being atheists.
So in addition to all of these categories that aren’t specific to atheism, there are some that are. Agnostic, although this is hotly contested, falls into most definitions of the word atheist. The working definition that I and most other atheists use is someone who doesn’t believe in a god. Some agnostics argue that the definition of atheist is someone who actually believes that there is no god, which is a category I also fall into but which seems ridiculous to me to point out because there’s no way to disprove anything with finality. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence, in my opinion, especially when we’ve searched so long and so hard for evidence.
Humanists are always atheists, and they’re more specifically always liberal atheists. There are some conservative atheists, but not a significant percentage, especially since conservatives typically ostracize us, preferring tradition to new philosophy, even when it’s better. In the US, where our conservative party is actually theocratic, the percentage falls even more. Humanists base their actions on the Humanist Manifesto, which is updated frequently to make sure it doesn’t become outdated, like a certain bronze age book that’s still on the bestsellers list.
The next label is also pretty contested, because some people think that freethinker ought to be an inclusive label that doesn’t just include atheists, but the truth is that religion evolves from self-censorship. The fact that some versions of Christianity teaches that lust is a sin, and jealousy is part of the ten commandments sets the dogma in opposition to freethought.
A lot of the time when people hear the word atheist, they immediately think anti-theist, or someone who believes religion is harmful and actively fights against it. It’s obvious that I fall into that category, right? I mean I literally watch Fox “news” talk about religion every time they run a segment on it, just so that my readers don’t have to. That takes dedication, I’m telling you.
Only one label gets a worse reaction than anti-theist in my experience, and it’s the latest and for me the most accurate. RFR or recovering from religion. There are support groups for people in this category and a blog with the same name. Some psychologists have started doing research on Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS), and it’s become medically recognized as an issue. Some of us specify, and that’s when it gets nasty. I consider myself a recovering Christian, which I know makes some of my friends and blood relatives uncomfortable, but it’s accurate.
Bottom line, AN ATHEIST IS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T BELIEVE IN ANY GODS. That’s it. That’s the acceptable definition. We all fall into subcategories, sometimes multiple subcategories, but no matter what we do believe, atheism is about what we don’t believe, and as much as it sucks sometimes to be defined by what you don’t believe in, it’s a necessary step. Someday we’ll be in the majority and maybe the word atheist won’t even exist, but for now, it’s important that if it applies, you use it. Like any other stigma, this one can be broken with familiarity.