A Movement in search of a label?

I consider myself to be an Atheist – that is I lack a belief in God(s). That’s all Atheism is really, a lack of belief. Doesn’t it say a lot about our society in general, that a name for a lack of belief is even necessary?

I think it says even more that non-believers shy from embracing the label of ‘Atheist’. The devout have worked hard and long to frame this label so that it is associated with a truckload of negative baggage. For example some dictionaries list “immoral” as one of the definitions of Atheist, and religious leaders claim that Atheism leads to everything from teenage pregnancy to category 5 hurricanes.

I must admit that I also have a problem with this word. Although ‘Atheist’ describes perfectly what I am not, it does not describe all that I am. I am not merely an Atheist; I’m more than that. And I’m not alone – I have seen that there are a growing number of others that feel similar to the way that I do.

I have a lot more to say about this under the fold.

There is a growing movement of like-minded people who have decided to not base their trust in the supernatural; they do not trust authority figures for the sake of authority. These people have decided to ask obvious questions about faith, religion, and the nature of morality. They are advocates of using scientific methods to discover truth and have learned or are learning how to understand and apply science. They understand that to be ‘skeptical’ means being willing to wait for evidence before accepting something as true.

I consider myself to be part of this growing movement, this “reality-based community”. I think that I hold many of the values that other members of this community also hold. We don’t define ourselves by a negative statement of Atheism, of what we are not; we use positive statements for what we stand for and the values that we revere. There is variety in this community, and disagreement, but at the same time I think that the majority would agree with me in many of these statements:

  • I am optimistic, both for myself, and for all of humanity. I believe that the happy accident that is ‘human’ has a great deal of potential that should be, must be, encouraged and explored.
  • I believe in helping others. I do not think anyone is sufficiently humble until they have served another. I have so little to give to others, but it means so much to them when I give of myself. It would be selfish of me to deny others what I can so easily part with.
  • I believe in personal rights and liberties, and I believe they are protected by duty. I own me, and you own you – what a person does to him or herself should be of no concern to anyone else as long as it doesn’t infringe on someone else’s rights and liberties – as long as it does no harm to others, and as long as it doesn’t unnecessarily burden the State. Personal rights and liberties are given as gifts to ourselves, and can be just as easily taken away if we lack vigilance. We all have a duty to protect our rights and the rights and liberties of others.
  • I’m patriotic about my country – in the truest Jeffersonian sense of the word. I have given a substantial portion of my life in service of my country. I believe that dissent is the most important right of citizenship, and that disagreeing with my country’s leaders when they are wrong is a mark of loyalty to my country.
  • I’m filled with wonder for our natural world, our universe. This wonder only increases as I learn more about nature through science. Knowing why a rainbow forms or why the stars shine doesn’t decrease that wonder – on the contrary those truths only increase my awe.
  • I try to withhold my opinion, my trust, on matters of importance until I acquire sufficient evidence to judge the truth of those matters. I distrust an opinion that is held merely because it is the opinion of an authority figure. I’m skeptical about explanations that are backed with insufficient evidence. I’m not afraid to live with not knowing – it is better to admit ignorance than it is to accept, or make up, a lie.
  • I am extremely interested in science and technology and what they mean to humankind and to the world. Science has become the best way of truly understanding nature, of understanding how it works and how it came to exist. I think that technology is just as important as science – humans would not have achieved our current population density without technological advances in medicine, agriculture, engineering, industry and information. It is extremely important now that we study how the world is affected by our technology – and adapt it to better coexist.
  • I think that compassion and rational thought are more important than religious faith; I think this is desperately important now because those of religious faith are working so hard to negate both compassion and rational thought.

So what kind of label fits me? What kind of label would fit a movement that includes some or most of these values? There are many labels in use now: Secular Humanism, Freethought, Reality-Based, Skeptic, Bright, and even redefining the label of ‘Atheist’ to include many of these positive values.

The label of “Bright” is endorsed by Dawkins and Dennett; it was coined by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell and is defined as a person with a naturalistic worldview, free from supernatural and mystical elements, who bases his or her ethics and actions upon this naturalistic view. This is an elegant way of describing this movement – but the Bright label is not well liked.

I absolutely hate the label “Bright”. Not because it implies that being a ‘Bright’ means that someone who is not one is a ‘Dim’ or ‘Stupid’. No, I hate the label ‘Bright’ because it seems so, well, silly. It’s flamboyant, like a float in the Mardi Gras parade. It is in-your-face, and it lacks any sort of decorum or hint of science and reason.

The label of “Secular Humanism” was coined as a derogatory term by Christian fundamentalists as a way to lump together all the various related non-belief philosophies. In the American tradition of the word ‘Yankee’ this insult was embraced by Paul Kurtz and used to grow the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Centers for Inquiry.

Although I like the label of Secular Humanist, there are many who hate it because it has the word ‘Humanism’ in it. Traditional Humanism includes religious Humanism, which means that Secular Humanism is a sort of schism from a religion. It is hard for many people to accept a label with what is seen to be blatant religious roots.

“Freethought” is an excellent label for this movement. The label has its foundations in 17th century England, and reached it’s ‘golden age’ in 19th century United States. It has been mostly disused since the beginning of the First World War – which is a shame because it does have such a rich and wonderful history. It even has a symbol, the Pansy flower (Viola tricolor hortensis).

But the label of “Freethought” has also been attacked by religious and is seen as analogous to the term, “free love”. In ‘free love’ all sex is permissible, so it seems that “Freethought” could mean that any sort of belief is also permissible, which is hardly a skeptical or scientific position.

So this movement is still missing a label. There are many labels to choose from, but this community is not used to blind acceptance – we won’t accept a label merely because it is advocated by our mentors or heroes.

This lack of a label is a problem because we lack a common banner to join under, and so remain somewhat disorganized. But it may also be an advantage, because if we did form a cohesive group then the leaders of the organization could hijack it for their own benefit. We have seen this happen with religious groups hijacked for the gain of ministers or political candidates.

And with this observation I admit that I’m not helping here. We still lack a cohesive label that would bind together this growing grassroots movement of scientific, skeptical non-believers. Perhaps there must be many labels to indicate the different focus that individuals hold, while at the same time an acknowledgement that we are all on the same “team”. A multitude of like-minded groups organized under different banners would provide needed checks and balances that religious groups seem to have lost.

So perhaps the lack of a single label for rational, non-believing skeptics is a good thing.