What’s In a Name? Not Necessarily Religion.

Content Notice for ableist slur in tweet screencap

Spike the dragon from My Little Pony wearing a top hat and twirling a fake mostache
I imagine an extravagant mustache twirl accompanying the asking of “gotcha”-style questions.

“If you’re not a Muslim, then why do you have a Muslim name?”

Boy, do theists love them some cliche-as-all-heck “gotcha!”s or what? Well, so do atheists, but since there are more of them than there are of us, and I’m currently dealing with a fresh slew of smug believers on Twitter, let’s talk about name origins.

To start, my name isn’t strictly “Muslim”, per seMy first name is a version of the name “Hina”, as in “henna”, the orange-brown coloring people use on their skin, hair, and nails. “Dadabhoy” de-anglicizes into “Dada-bhai”; “dada” means father’s father and “bhai” means brother. There is nothing inherently Muslim about “plant-based dye, paternal great-uncle.” Less flippantly, in India, Dadabhoy is both a Parsi and a Muslim surname.

Setting my name aside, all names have origins. Some of those lie in mythologies in which no one believes anymore, like the Greek stories behind Chloe and Alexander. Some of them can be found in religions that still have living adherents, like Daniel or Rebecca. Many parents choose such names without intending to express their own faith, let alone the faith of the child, by doing so. That is why my friend Muhammad can be called that and still an atheist. That is his name regardless of its origin.

The genesis (wait, does it make me Christian to use that term?) for this is in a simple retweet. The other day, Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist asked me my opinion on the criticism of Taslima Nasrin’s clearly-expressed distaste for being called a Muslim. Here is what I said:

I thought it was within Taslima’s right to self-identify as she pleases. I don’t like it when people call me a Muslim, either, in any context. I’m okay with being called a former Muslim or an ex-Muslim or from a Muslim community/family/background, but I don’t like my apostasy to be erased and minimized by being called a Muslim. I don’t believe in Islam and I don’t call myself a Muslim. By any definition, I am not, and neither is Taslima.

What the reporter may not know is that cultural Muslim can be a very different identity from ex-Muslim. There are people who identify that way who consider themselves Muslims and believers in Islam, but they don’t practice or believe in all of it, just parts of it. There are some former Muslims who also say they are cultural Muslims, but there are people who are the latter but not the former.

Her response was an honest one to being called something she’s spent so much of her life not being to great persecution and danger. Since I haven’t faced as much for being an apostate, I deflect with humor/sarcasm when someone calls me a Muslim, but I’m nonetheless pretty angry inside about those times.

man on Twitter calling me "retard"
So pwned.

My agreement with Taslima got a retweet from her. As a result, I’ve gotten people on Twitter calling me ableist slurs, among other things. This isn’t the first time this has happened, though. Hardly. Being in a New York Times story and debating a Christian apologist means that people who believe that their pro-theism arguments are unique and special seek you out to tell you all about why you’re wrong.

It’s all very “Believe in God Again Using This One Weird Trick!” and is frankly incredibly condescending. I was once a struggling theist and I majored in philosophy. Not only have I heard all this before but also, as an undergrad, I debated the heck out of it with smart people who have gone on to seminary. That any rando off the streets thinks that he (and it’s almost invariably a “he”) has the magic words to bring me around is pretty pathetic.

But they keep coming at me, so I’ll keep making my points. Using my true, legal, full name. I’ve made it mine over the years, and it’s not going anywhere.

 

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What’s In a Name? Not Necessarily Religion.
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14 thoughts on “What’s In a Name? Not Necessarily Religion.

  1. 1

    “It’s all very “Believe in God Again Using This One Weird Trick!” and is frankly incredibly condescending. I was once a struggling theist and I majored in philosophy. Not only have I heard all this before but also, as an undergrad, I debated the heck out of it with smart people who have gone on to seminary. That any rando off the streets thinks that he (and it’s almost invariably a “he”) has the magic words to bring me around is pretty pathetic.”

    Because I totally didn’t spend a decade trying real hard to convince myself there was anything to this and that Lee Strobel bit you sorta remember will just blow me right away.

    I get this a lot, too.

  2. 2

    I didn’t change my name when I decided I was not a Catholic anymore, despite the fact that I am named after a bunch of Catholic saints. Is a Muslim name a thing? Like, if I converted to Islam would I be expected to change my name to Aisha or something? It’s definitely a Christian thing (at least for Catholics). I know we often use ‘Christian name’ as synonymous with ‘first name’, but I was quite shocked to find that a Vietnamese friend of mine had to adopt a European name for her baptism. She couldn’t be baptised under the name her parents had given her at birth like I could…

  3. 3

    The genesis (wait, does it make me Christian to use that term?) …

    No, it makes you Greek.

    Other words used in this post make you Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Turkish, Bengali, and totally mongrel (i.e., English). That in turn makes me dizzy.

  4. 4

    @angharad #2 – Many of the more evangelical Protestant churches have similar rules: if you are going to embrace the Christian faith and be baptized, you must abandon your “pagan” name and adopt a “Christian” one.

    This kind of cultural genocide has been going on outside of Europe for more than a thousand years.

  5. 5

    I may have perhaps the most ironic name possible for an atheist who grew up Episcopalian. “Christopher” is Greek for “Christ Bearer,” or “One Who Carries Christ.” That’s about as Christian a name as you can get, but few would mistake me for being Christian solely because of my name.

  6. 7

    … Using my true, legal, full name. I’ve made it mine over the years, and it’s not going anywhere.

    Is Heina Dadabhoy not your original name? I was under the impression that it was the one you were born with, but that comment about ‘making it yours’ suggests that it has undergone change.

    Also, on the subject of the stupidity of the gotcha-via-etymology, my favourite is to point out to the smug christian that the names for Sunday and Monday are pagan in origin, Tuesday Wednesday Thursday and Friday are Nordic, and Saturday is Roman. Suddenly, the argument is typically abandoned when it is discovered the haven’t thought it through at all / it can be used against them.

  7. Ed
    9

    The whole name issue is silly. Most people will be comfortable with the names their families gave them. If not, they can change them. A religion might require or encourage a convert to take a new name for religious purposes, but that’s between the person and their new religious group.

    There is no need for an atheist to take a name reflecting their atheism. There are many cultural manifestations still existing that are older than modern secular philosophies and even most religions. New sets of ideas or beliefs don’t wipe out every trace of the past, though they change how people interpret the past.

  8. 10

    see, I couldn’t name any future spawn with a strongly religious name. For example, a LOT of old-fashioned polish names are literally references to god: Bożydar = gift from god; Bogusław = god’s glory; etc. (I couldn’t do the literal German versions either, e.g. Gottfried; and not only cuz I think it’s an ugly name :-p ) I’m less twitchy about names containing the “chris-” syllable, but probably wouldn’t do that, either.

    OTOH, since I’d want to pick a name that works in 3 European languages, biblical and greco-roman names would be my go-to. They remain more or less the same across the 3 languages: Daniel, Sara, Julia, Alexander, etc.

  9. 11

    What’s in a name?

    A lot of various assumptions and associations it seems and guess that’s inevitable but sad and incorrect and sometimes, even often misleading so it seems.

    Oh – & also letters or syllables or characters (kanji) or heiroglyphs depending on the language. Usually sounds too unless you’re deaf.

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