When I was invited to join Freethought Blogs, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet new people, reach new eyes, and join some interesting conversations about various and diverse topics. I’ve thus far not been disappointed on any count! A topic I haven’t yet broached was brought to me by a reader via e-mail yesterday that I think merits some discussion.
Thank you, kind reader! I’ll do my best to address the question appropriately.
A number of theist factions on the internet — proselytizers, apologists, et cetera — often capitalize the word atheist in order to present atheism as Atheism, a dogma that Atheists have in place of Christianity. It is presented thus to allow minds steeped in the inherent tribalism seen within religious doctrines to pigeonhole self-described atheists and respond appropriately. It is this mentality wherein each adherent to each philosophy can be prejudged and appropriate steps can be taken to make your conversion efforts more likely to succeed.
Grammatically, capitalizing “atheist” is as incorrect as capitalizing “Football Player” or “Shopper” or “Hipster” — these are not proper nouns. They are common nouns, descriptives, which describe some aspect of the subject. There’s a special case for adherents to a particular organization, though. Being a member of a group that, itself, is a proper noun, means the word that describes you as a member also gets that capitalization. The organization called the Catholic Church has adherents called Catholics. There’s a word “catholic”, though, divorced from the name of the church itself, which means “free of prejudices or attachments”. It’s also a common noun, though long years of abuse by the Church has divested it of its secular meaning. The Church named themselves using the word, and with their prejudices and attachments to material possession have proven themselves to be its antonym.
If there is an organization, or a dogma, or even a unified philosophy associated with atheism, I am unaware of its existence. One can properly capitalize “New Atheist”, but I take issue with the existence of the term in that there’s nothing particularly new about the movement or its ideas — being chiefly that people who are atheist should be allowed to participate in the public policy or conversations that generally allow religious special interest groups. The term is often used in a pejorative sense, suggesting that “New Atheists” are firebrands and godslayers, dogmatic adherents to materialism and incapable of treating religious folks with any measure of civility. But we’ll not get into that — we’re talking language today, and others have covered the “Accomodationism/New Atheism” dichotomy better and more thoroughly than I ever could. (Though I have tried, once upon a time.) Regardless, the fact that none of us attend a service, worship any particular ideas, or can even be called a unified group — seriously, 99% of the things you could say about how atheists other than that they do not believe in a god or gods, do not translate to every member of the group! — indicates that there is no need to make “atheist” a proper noun.
There’s another situation where capitalization changes the sense of a word, which should be obvious to theists. When one says “god”, one means a different thing than “God”. God with a capital G is a title, given by the Abrahamic religious adherents, to their particular monotheistic “creator of the universe” entity. With a small G, the word means “deity” in the generic. Surely with such an example of how the capital letter changes the word, people will remember from now on that the word “atheist” is not capitalized.
As for your pimple, gentle reader, try an exfoliating scrub next time you’re in the bath. I’m not sure how that will help humanity in general, but I do hope it helps with your ass.