“But the word ‘atheist’ is so negative. It defines us by what we’re not, not by what we are. Why don’t we use a positive word for ourselves instead?”
If you’ve been around the atheist/ humanist/ secularist/ freethought/ bright/ etc./ movement for more than about five minutes, I bet you’ve heard this argument.
I want to take a minute or two to shoot it down.
I want to get this out of the way first: If you don’t believe in any gods, then I care almost not at all what you, personally, call yourself, or what word you use to describe your god-themed opinions or lack thereof. I do sometimes wish we could all agree on a word — I think we might present a stronger and clearer face to the public if we did. But apparently we can’t, at least not now, and I think we have more important things to bicker about. More interesting things, anyway. And the right to define ourselves is too important for us to take away from each other.
For the record, I think that what we don’t believe is important, and can have positive value. But I don’t agree at all that the word “atheist” is negative. Except in the most narrowly semantic sense of the term.
And I want to make a comparison to make my point.
Let’s look at the word “non-violent.”
Would you say that “non-violent” is a negative word? When you hear that a person or an organization is committed to non-violence, do you think, “Oh, they’re so negative”? Do you think they’re defining themselves entirely in terms of the very thing they oppose?
Or do you think the word “non-violent” is a positive word? Do you have good associations with it? Do you think that non-violent people and organizations are committed to a positive, valuable principle? (Assuming that you do think non-violence is a good thing, of course. If you don’t… that’s another discussion.)
Or take the word “unbiased.” Do you think this is a negative word, in the sense of being unpleasant or undesirable? Do you even think it’s a negative word in the sense of not having positive content of its own, and being defined solely in terms of what it isn’t? Or do you think “unbiased” is a good thing to be, a positive virtue to be pursued?
There are plenty of words and phrases with a technically negative semantic construction, but which we think of as positive — “positive” in the sense of “valuable and good,” or “positive” in the sense of “having actual independent content,” or both. I can think of oodles of examples. (Or rather… I could think of oodles of examples, if I weren’t writing this at one in the morning. I thought of about a dozen examples a few hours ago when I was writing this piece in my head. I really need to get better at taking notes. If you can think of any, please mention them in the comments, so I can hit myself on the forehead and go, “D’oh! Of course! How could I forget (X)?” )
Here’s the point. A word can technically, semantically, be constructed as a compound word with a negative prefix… and still have a positive meaning. For one thing: The meanings of words shift over time, and once a compound word or phrase becomes an independent unit, its meaning can change independently of its components. (That’s why hot dogs don’t have to be hot, and the phrase “cold hot dog” isn’t a contradiction.) To say that the word “atheism” is inherently negative simply because it’s constructed of the negative prefix “a-” appended to the root “theist”… I’m sorry, but that’s a really bad argument.
And here’s the other point:
Yes, atheists have a largely negative public image right now. But it’s not because the word “atheist” is a negative word. It’s because the concept of atheism is upsetting to so many people. It’s not the word that’s the problem. It’s who we are, and what we think and don’t think. It’s the fact that we don’t believe in gods. That’s what people have a problem with.
And that’s not going to get fixed by changing what we call ourselves.
I like the word “atheist.” Obviously. It has a powerful, attention- grabbing, in- your- face quality that appeals to me. And pretty much everyone knows what it means. A lot of people have stupid myths and misunderstandings about its implications… but most people get that the word’s core meaning is “doesn’t believe in any god.” That is patently not true for the words “humanist,” “freethinker,” “secularist,” “bright,” etc. A whole lot of people literally have no idea what these words mean. (Or worse… they think they do, and don’t.)
But again, I’m not trying to talk anyone into using the word “atheist” for themselves. That’s not my point. If you don’t believe in any gods, use whatever word you want to convey that. Call yourself a humanist, a secularist, a freethinker, a bright, any combination of the above. Whatever. That’s your business, and none of my own. (Within reason. If you use the word “omelet” or “bioluminescent” or “fuckface” to describe your lack of belief in any gods, I’ll object on the grounds of incoherence.)
My point is that, if you think other people shouldn’t use the word “atheist,” or that organizations/ events/ movements/ etc. shouldn’t use the word “atheist”… you really need a much better argument than, “It’s so negative.”
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