Atheist, Humanist, Non-religious: Do Labels Matter?

Following my post on “the nones” and touching briefly on the idea of atheist communities, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the labels we use and why they are or are not helpful. A theme that continues to pop up in my life lately is that of organized community. I suspect this is the case because my oldest child is inching ever closer to the pre-teen years: a time of constant change, confusion and personal growth and identity development. I want our family to enjoy like-minded relationships and to be supported in our beliefs and values. However, I am finding this is not as easy outside of religion as it was inside of it.

Not as Easy to Define as You Think

Atheism: a term that is exasperatingly complex in its simplicity. Many people say, “If you don’t believe in a divine being/god, then you are an atheist.” Others employ a small variation; saying, “If you believe there is no divine being/god, then you are an atheist.” (employing a positive belief statement) While others argue atheist isn’t a term that should exist at all because it’s basically a label for something that is nothing – arguing that the negative should be the baseline or default and shouldn’t require a label. Even famous scientists, who many say are clearly atheists, refuse to use the term and even deride it because of its implicit baggage in the social context.

Feminism is a label that shares a similar angst. I suspect much of the frustration about these labels exists because people are far more complex than a series of dictionary definitions. Because of the nuances of human belief, knowledge and expression, there are labels to describe what we don’t believe, what we do believe, what we know, what we value and how we live out our beliefs, knowledge and values. Humans create classifications and labels for all of these elements. Is your head spinning yet? Ready to throw in the towel and demand we just go back to all being called atheists? If so, you definitely aren’t alone.

Labels: Necessary Evil?

As frustrating as this all can get, labels continue to find usefulness in human societies. Humans want to be understood. When we find a label no longer satisfactorily represents us or is causing misunderstanding, we find a new label or attempt to redefine the current one. In addition, the brain is constantly trying to assign meaning and create connections when presented with various sensory and data input. There’s a natural irritation when the brain can’t do this and very few of us can live indefinitely in that state of flux. So whether we like it or not, labels are probably here to stay.

Personally, I find labels simultaneously useful and frustrating, and depending on my mood, I either like or hate them. Also, I’m a bit of a modernist when it comes to words. I think they should actually mean something universal so when people attempt to redefine a label – even if their argument has rational merit, I tend to rebel.

My Labels

I currently consider myself an agnostic atheist and I identify myself with the “tribe” of secular humanists. I like the word “tribe” because anthropologically, it’s used to describe a group of people organized largely on the basis of their web of social relationships. These social relationships form an important part of the lives of most humans in most societies.

Agnostic Atheist

“People are invariably surprised to hear me say I am both an atheist and an agnostic, as if this somehow weakens my certainty. I usually reply with a question like, “Well, are you a Republican or an American?” The two words serve different concepts and are not mutually exclusive. Agnosticism addresses knowledge; atheism addresses belief. The agnostic says, “I don't have a knowledge that God exists.” The atheist says, “I don't have a belief that God exists.” You can say both things at the same time. Some agnostics are atheistic and some are theistic.”
Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists

Secular Humanist

From the British Columbia Humanists website: Humanism is a naturalistic philosophy that affirms the value of humanity without the need for supernatural explanations or dogma.

From Wikipedia: The philosophy or life stance secular humanism embraces human reason, ethics, social justice and philosophical naturalism, whilst specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision making.

I have known atheists who classify themselves as skeptics who are also secular humanists but don’t employ the “agnostic” modifier. I have known skeptics who consider themselves agnostics without the “atheist” modifier... You get the idea.

The Human Factor

I know some of you are going to contribute your passionate arguments against labels or you’re going to take umbrage with the way I have defined or used mine. That’s ok. But it might help to keep in mind that labels are intended to be self-identifiers. It’s not helpful to push labels on others or take issue with how people describe themselves. Words have meaning, labels have meaning, and it’s certainly possible for someone to misappropriate a label onto themselves but ultimately, individuals label themselves and those labels are part of their story.

Ultimately, I believe this is about human connections. I believe human connections matter. I believe relationships have value, both implicit and explicit. And I believe human beings want to be understood and truly known by their fellows. When we have a greater understanding of one another, we are able to connect on a deeper level and it is through those connections that we are able to communicate, journey, discover, grow and develop.

Developing atheist communities is important to me because I believe most human beings thrive in them. What those communities look like and how they function varies dramatically based on what people need. And this is one area where I believe labels can be useful and why I think it matters that these labels maintain meaning.

How about you? Do labels matter to YOU? Do you find labels generally helpful or harmful? What do YOU call yourself?

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