Atheism is a Bad, Bad Word: More on Labels and Such

Happy Secular Sunday everyone! :)

Coming Out and Coming up With Labels for Ourselves

When I came out to my mother as an Atheist, she refused to accept the term.

“You’re a Humanist!” she kept telling me.

At the time I had just begun to identify with the fact that I absolutely did not believe in a god, and I hated the word agnostic in particular because it is so often a cop-out to admitting ones true beliefs, or lack thereof. I wasn’t even very familiar with humanism yet,  but I hated how human-centric the label sounded (I also care deeply about animals and the environment, not just people… ).

It angered me to be labeled by her as something that I didn’t identify with.

I kept spitting back at her, “No mom, I am not a Humanist, I’m an Atheist! That is just what I am!”

My mother grew up in, and was scarred by, a fundamentalist Christian household. She now considers herself to be non-religious (though she likes to go to church for the singing) or agnostic. We now generally agree that we both do not believe in the God that Christians believe in. Together we are non-believers.

She feels safer using the terms agnostic, or non-religious. So do I – and that makes me angry.

The bottom line is that the term atheist scares her because it upsets people. She worries about her children and she worries that I will be harmed by society if I come out as an atheist. No worries there mom! I’m still very much in the closet. But what burns me up is that she is so fearful of the negative consequences of using that term that she is reluctant to let me use it in private discourse with her!

When I had my first coming out conversation with a childhood friend who I knew to be agnostic she also shied away from the term atheist. When she told me she was definitely agnostic and “spiritual but not religious” I inwardly rolled my eyes. She has since been able to admit to me in private discussion that she is atheist, but she’d never announce it publicly.

As of yet neither will I.

It is an interesting path to be on, that seeks to go a step beyond being non-religious. Being non-religious or agnostic is not enough for some of us – those terms are for people who continue about their lives without ever giving much thought to the whole issue of god/no god. Not a day goes by without me contemplating the universe without god and my place in it – as well as my right to assert such things in public and the fears that prevent me from doing so.

I’m consumed daily with the contradictory quests to reclaim the word Atheist with the hope that it eventually will no longer be a bad word, as well as to find other terms that also describe me, in addition to, or possibly better than Atheist.

This quest makes me rub up against another word that my fellow Atheists and Skeptics severely reject: Spiritual.

I will examine this more closely in my next post.

Atheist Census: Choose a Label For Yourself and Be Counted!

I was intrigued to stumble upon this today: the Atheist Census project from Atheist Alliance International. I immediately took it and was confronted with a number of thoughts and feelings summarized below.

  1. I’m still not secure in my chosen label for myself.
  2. In my exuberance to share the census with others, so that more of us may be counted (and one-by-one make atheists more visible!) I realized I am still very much in the closet, and, as a consequence, I have an impoverished personal atheist network. (I’ll explore this more in another post.)

The census breaks up the atheist labels into 8 total categories:

Atheist, Freethinker, Humanist, Rationalist, Secularist, Agnostic, Non-religious, and Other.

I found myself stumbling over what to choose. Can’t I be more than one of these? Should I choose Other because I might be all of them?

First I chose Atheist, then I almost switched it to Non-religious, because that is how I’m most likely to “out” myself to others. Or am I Secularist because that’s most likely the area in which I would engage in atheist-activism at the moment?

I recently used the designation Non-religious when I turned down an invitation to a moms’ book club, which I would really have liked to be a part of, but which it turned out, only read Christian themed books. I spent a long time composing an email response to the woman who invited me (because I had just become her friend and I REALLY liked her) explaining exactly that: I would love to be a part of a moms’ book club – but my husband and I are not religious so I’m probably not a good fit for the group.

But -

Calling myself non-religious really obscures the godless component of my non-participation in religion. Why? For the sake of not making other people feel uncomfortable. (I tell you, religious people make me uncomfortable all the time, but when pressed I go out of my way to preserve their comfort. What’s that about?)

So on principle, I kept it on Atheist. I don’t want to be counted among the numbers of non-religious people; I want to be counted among the godless. (At least, that’s how I feel about it today…)

Interestingly, when I urged my husband to do his atheist-duty and get counted on the census, he chose Non-religious.

What Kind of Atheist am I? What Kind of Atheist are You?

I can’t believe I’ve let so many months pass since I’ve last posted. Basically I got a bit stumped about what direction to take or how to begin this blog.

Here is the reason why: when I became active in searching for atheist thinkers, bloggers, and communities on the Internet after I moved to this small town, I discovered that the community in general is split into many different designations for exactly which type of atheist/freethinker/skeptic, etc, a person can be. Furthermore, I found that there was some distasteful and controversial infighting among the groups of atheists.

Elevatorgate …

There was one particular controversy that I stumbled right smack in the middle of both on blogs and on podcasts: “Elevatorgate*.” As Tom Flynn words it it the April/May 2013 Issue of Free Inquiry,

If any topic in our movement has liberated more virtual ink than the current debate/flame war over feminism/misogyny in atheism/secular humanism/secularism/freethought, I don’t know what it is/might be.

This whole thing was particularly frustrating to me because I am a feminist so I couldn’t help but get all emotionally caught up in the middle of what I was reading. And I was annoyed because I didn’t want to be side-tracked by this issue – and yet I couldn’t deny that I thought it was important.

It was just bad timing all around.

I would have rather run into this months down the road when I was more acquainted with the various atheist writers, speakers, bloggers, and organizations.

What kind of atheist am I?

Then there was the question of exactly what kind of atheist I consider myself to be. Can I just write every (possibly contradictory) thing I think on this blog, as I figure things out?  Or do I need to choose a mold to fit into as everyone else seems to do? For example, am I a skeptic? (I had always thought so until I ran into the Skeptic Community…) And if I am, do I need to be hostile towards every unscientific pondering I encounter?

I’m always seeking to find someone just like me – and I never find that person (at least not as people represent themselves in the blogosphere). So I’m left feeling jumbled and confused about everything – and as usual – like I’ll never fit in.

But as I was writing this I googled “what kind of atheist are you?” and I came upon a couple of thoughtful posts about my two main concerns (those being what to think about the whole sexism in atheism debate and “what the hell kind of atheist am I anyway?”) that are helping me to sort it all out in my head.

One man’s atheist taxonomy.

First I found a post on Pharyngula (a blog that I know is popular but that I have not read very much yet myself – although I recently heard PZ Myers in an interview on the Inspiring Naturalism podcast and I was impressed by his views and made a mental note to read his blog) that not only outlined his “brief and preliminary” taxonomy of Atheists, but also did a good job of explaining how not synthesizing these viewpoints within ourselves and in practice can lead to the types of rift in the total atheist community that we are currently experiencing.

PZ suggests that the four “categories of  thoughtful atheists” are scientific atheists, philosophical atheists, political atheists, and humanists, and he gives examples of the strengths and weaknesses of each type.

I found his words comforting in relation to “the current debate/flamewar … in atheism” that I mentioned above:

The current arguments over feminism are broadly reflective of a division between the scientific atheists and the humanists. Often, scientific atheists like to wallow in a smug party of our own incontrovertible truth (I can say this as one of them), and we can get resentful when we’re told that no, there’s more work to be done if we want to win the culture wars. What, just being right isn’t enough? We have to be socially conscious? Oh, screw that, my answer is simple and pure and true.

The “Atheism Advocacy Scale.”

Second I found a post on the blog 40 Year Old Atheist (a blog which I will be returning to) in which the author, Mark, develops a four part gradient scale of aspects of atheism advocacy in particular, which he calls The Atheism Advocacy Scale.

Mark’s four aspects of the Atheist Advocacy Scale:

  • Atheism – how certain you are that there is no god
  • Anti-Theism – how harmful you believe organized religion to be
  • Evangelical Atheism – whether you seek to convert others to atheism
  • Militant Atheism – how badly you’d like to eradicate religion.

I have found the taxonomy and the scale extremely helpful as I gaze internally to decide where I’m at and which established group terms may or may not describe me. I’ll check back in with you all after I’ve had some time to think about this for a while. Now that I’ve got a framework to help me wade through my current confusion about labels and dissatisfaction with atheist discourse, I wager I’ll be back sooner than later this time.

*Feel free to Google it yourself – this is just one of many places you can read a recap of the whole event.

Finding Community While in the Closet (in a Small Town)

I’ve been a non-believer for a very long time. Pretty much since childhood, though I went along with things for a while to please family. But I never gave it all that much thought most of the time. I lived in cities and I had a lot of secular friends. Then my husband and I decided to move to a very small, very conservative, very Republican, and very religious little town. Lately I have become very interested in being more involved in secular activism, while somehow staying in the closet. Well, now that I think of it, it’s probably because I moved here where I feel I must be in the closet that my desire to assert my right to non-belief have become so apparent to me.

I guess there was an incident that really turned my private at home rantings about religion and the religious into a desire to take action against continual spread of Christian privilege.

Right after we moved here we were at a big banquet for my husband’s job and somebody got up on stage before the entertainment and said a Christian prayer before we all ate. A room full of a hundred or so people all bowed their heads and said Amen (except for the one joker who shouted, “L’Chaim!” – causing some chuckles. “Oh, that silly Jew.”) and I sat there stupefied and shocked. Was this okay? How was this okay? Why did I feel offended? Was I the only one who felt uncomfortable? Why didn’t my husband give me that knowing look to make me feel better? He’s an atheist too! What if I had been Muslim or Hindu or Pagan? Or just plain atheist. Why on earth was it okay to assume everyone in the room was Christian?

Since then I’ve been searching for like-minded people. It turns out that pretty much all of the very nice people we’ve met around here are church goers. I’ve been invited a couple of times, since I was pregnant when we arrived here, to a religious mom’s group called MOPS. But I don’t feel comfortable going to that so I stay home and lurk on the Internet for other atheists.

I would love to go to an atheist or freethought Meetup or even a good Unitarian church that was friendly to secularists and atheists. But alas the nearest of those options are over an hour from where I live.

So I continue to scour the internet for people to build bonds with. It has been interesting and encouraging discovering the freethought/non-theist/atheist/humanist world as it currently exists in blogs, podcasts, print publications, and conferences the past few months. The more I look the more I find. But it’s also been confusing. Who knew there were so many distinctions and so much infighting?

Lately my favorite place to hang out has been Atheist Nexus. There is an active forum and lots of different interest groups. So far everyone has been really friendly. Then there is the new Atheist + which has been a positive result of a lot of the infighting about sexism and misogyny within atheism that I’ve seen since I’ve been exploring online.

So that’s where I stand these days. A lonely atheist mom in a new town who is looking for intelligent conversation and activism and can’t get it in her local community.

Does anybody have any suggestions for me?

What Does a Godless Mama Do?

This is a picture if the onion jam I made over the weekend.

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I have so much I want to talk about on this blog about being a SAH godless mama, city girl who lives in a small town. I hardly know where to start! So I thought I’d start with the basics.

What do I do at home on the weekends in between all the talks I have with my husband about the separation of church and state and equal rights for non-believers, etc? Well this weekend I made onion jam.

I’m a long time hater of cooking and I’m currently riding the holiday wave as motivation to get myself to cook more. I came across an onion jam recipe while looking up a recipe for squash and cauliflower soup. I love onion jam! It couldn’t be simpler to make and I love having something simmering on the stovetop for hours. It was an excellent recipe to break my cooking hiatus.

So there you are. This godless (and feminist) mama may not always like to cook, but I love me a good onion jam.