Of all the assorted fights and squabbles in the atheist/ humanist/ freethinker/ secular/ godless/ whatever movement, I’ve tended to stay away from the one about which of these “whatever”s we should call ourselves. A lot of this has to do with my own personal and philosophical views on naming and language — and a lot of it has to do with my experience in the LGBT community, and my experience with the squabbles we went through about what to call ourselves.
I recently got an email about this question from Kaylie Johnson, who’s working on a project about secular self-identification for the Secular Student Alliance and the new Openly Secular project. Here’s what she said:
My hope is that I can produce a resource to help people understand that is important for individuals to be able to identify and label themselves as they see fit. I also will probably end up making a list/glossary of possible labels within the secular community.
It would be awesome to have your input on things like:
-Why is it important to be able to define yourself/choose your own label?
-Why should you allow others to choose their own label?
-How does self identification within the secular community help people feel more comfortable?
These are just some topics off the top of my head. I know you like to relate things to the LGBT community, so that may be a good way for me to help others understand the importance of self identity.
Here’s my reply.
The answer to all these questions is the same. The power to name ourselves is hugely important for anyone. It’s especially important for marginalized people. I’ll use LGBT culture in my examples — but these translate to other marginalizations as well, including non-belief.
Throughout history, other people have not just gotten to name us — they have gotten to define our names. For decades, straight people were the ones to define what exactly it meant to be homosexual, bisexual, transgender, transvestite, etc. — and they typically insisted that they knew what those words meant better than we did ourselves.
When marginalized people begin to push back against our marginalization, part of that process involves saying, “We are not who you say we are. We are who we say we are.” Naming is a big part of that. That’s true on a larger community level, and it’s true for individuals.
And when people respect this — when people with privilege stop to think, “What is the polite word?” and work to remember which the current polite words are — it’s a sign of respect. It shows that they recognize the reality of our marginalization; it shows that they understand that we know ourselves better than they do; and it shows that they care enough about all this to undergo the slight inconvenience of keeping track of the language. (Conversely, when people don’t do this, it’s a sign that they either don’t understand any of this, or don’t care. Or both.)
And because of all this, it’s important to support other people in naming themselves. Example: When gay men and lesbians insist that they know better than bisexuals do what it means to be bisexual, and tell other people that they’re “really” bisexual or “really” gay or lesbian or straight, it just perpetuates that same disempowerment we resist when we get it from straight culture.
Yes, this can lead to some confusion — especially in the earlier days of a community coming into its own, when a rough consensus about language is still being formed. It means that not everyone uses the language exactly the same way: that’s sometimes confusing, and it sometimes means we have to clarify and define our terms. (Not to mention the whole thing about how “we get to decide for ourselves which slurs we’re reclaiming and which ones we aren’t, and we get to use our reclaimed slurs but you don’t,” which outsiders can find very confusing.) But the power to name ourselves is too important. It far outweighs any inconvenience we might experience when we have to take ten seconds to spell out what exactly we mean.
So, similarly, non-believers shouldn’t insist that we all call ourselves atheists, or humanists, or agnostics, or whatever. And we shouldn’t insist that other non-believers define these words exactly the way we ourselves do. Example: I’m personally a little puzzled by self-identified agnostics, since most of them have about the same level of disbelief in God that they do about unicorns or leprechauns, and they don’t usually say they’re agnostic about those myths. But if that .0001% of doubt they have about God is important to them, so important that they feel “agnostic” describes them more accurately than “atheist” — or if they have other reasons to use the word “agnostic,” such as it going over better with family — I’m not going to press them to give the word up. I might debate with them over the actual epistemological question of whether religion should be in a different knowledge category than other things — but I’m not going to insist that they’re “really” an atheist. And I’ll ask them to extend the same respect to me, and not insist that my .0001% of doubt means I’m “really” an agnostic.
The power to name ourselves is too important. We shouldn’t try to take it away from each other.