The Terms of Unbelief: An Atheist by Any Other Name



Prominent Atheists, R to L: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett

It is probably easier to be an atheist today than at any other time in history. In most countries in the West, atheists face few or no legal barriers to their beliefs, although in some countries, particularly in the Islamic world, these barriers persist. Even in places where atheists are legally accepted, the term “atheist” itself can still send a chill down some people’s spines due to its association with immorality, lack of trustworthiness, and unsociability, among other things. In tracing the history of how the term acquired these connotations, we find that while some people have defended the term, others have tried to come up with new terms to describe their beliefs – although not always successfully.

Historically, “atheist” has been synonymous with the worst insult one could say about a person. The connotations around the word lack the power they used to, yet the term “atheist” remains such a highly-charged word in contemporary North America that in a study from 2011participants reported distrusting atheists about on par with rapists. A 2012 Gallup poll, meanwhile, found that only 54 percent of United States citizens would vote for an atheist candidate for president, coming below a Muslim candidate (58 percent), or a gay or lesbian candidate (68 percent). Of course, in some ways, 54 percent seems much more encouraging if one takes into account that in 1958, the first time the question was asked, only 18 percent said they would vote for an atheist candidate. This trend toward increasing open-mindedness for political candidates holds true across the board for other groups, but it is clear that negative connotations around the term “atheist” linger.

The term “atheist” itself, like any other, is neutral on the face of it. The word comes from the Greek atheós, “a” meaning “without” and theós, meaning “god.” It entered the English language in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, but was used almost exclusively as a term of abuse rather than an accurate descriptor of one’s metaphysical views. In early modern Europe, one who did not believe in God was understood to be one who also did not believe in divine reward or punishment. This created a dangerous situation for society since an atheist could make disingenuous promises or commit immoral actions without fear of consequence. In John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), he refused to grant atheists tolerance precisely for this reason: “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.” Atheists simply could not be trusted to act morally because they didn’t believe in divine punishment. As a character in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov remarked, without God, “everything is permitted.”

This idea that atheists had no reason to be moral was challenged in the early eighteenth century when philosophers, most notably Pierre Bayle, argued that a moral community of atheists was possible. Bayle, although he never called himself an atheist, argued that there seemed to be no connection between belief in God and virtuousness. He pointed out examples of highly virtuous atheists, while similarly showing there were also believers in God who were profoundly immoral. As Bayle and others began to make the case that one could be simultaneously moral and an atheist, a handful of people in the late eighteenth century began to use the term to describe their own philosophical viewpoints. Still, into the nineteenth century, negative judgments about atheists, not to mention legal penalties, persisted, so a variety of new terms were introduced with varying success.

One such term was “agnostic” (also derived from the Greek, meaning, “without knowledge”), coined in the mid-nineteenth century by T.H. Huxley, the English scientist. The term meant that one simply could never gain the empirical evidence needed to make a determination one way or the other about the existence of God, so it was best to remain agnostic on the issue, since one was without knowledge. The term appealed to those like Huxley, and to his fellow evolutionist Charles Darwin, who were reared in the tradition of scientific skepticism in which a statement that “God does not exist” seemed over-confident and unwarranted. There was no evidence that God did not exist, so how could one make that statement? Yet not all nineteenth-century atheists happily adopted the term and some even found something insidious lurking in it. G.W. Foote, a leading nineteenth-century atheist in Britain, made the case that agnosticism essentially meant the same as atheism, just dressed in a more respectable garb. Foote came from a tradition of working-class atheism, and this meant that he was suspicious of what he saw as Huxley’s attempt to distance himself from the godless masses and remain respectably middle class. Foote contrasted the terms in this way: “An Agnostic may safely be invited to dinner, while an Atheist would pocket the spoons.” For Foote, the real issue was not the finer distinction between the two terms, but their connotations. By using “agnostic,” one was capitulating to religious prejudice against the perceived immorality and disrespectability of atheists.

Bertrand Russell, the early-twentieth century British philosopher, was ambivalent about the term on more practical grounds. When speaking to an audience of other philosophers, Russell admitted that yes, he would describe himself as an agnostic since it was impossible to ever prove there was no God. Yet when speaking to a general audience, he would use the term “atheist,” since it conveyed a much clearer message about his overall beliefs and avoided any philosophical obfuscation. Confusion around the precise meaning of “agnostic” continues to this day, among both atheists and religious people, and the term is not free of its own connotations of indecisiveness or timidity.

Another term invented in the nineteenth century ostensibly to avoid the taint of “atheism” was “secularism,” coined in the 1850s by George Holyoake. According to him, “secularism is a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.” With this principle in mind, “the existence of deity and the actuality of another life, are questions excluded from Secularism.” As with agnosticism, the label was not without controversy. Charles Bradlaugh, one of the best-known atheists in nineteenth-century Britain and the leader of the National Secular Society, was himself a committed secularist, yet he disagreed with Holyoake about the implications of secularism. Bradlaugh believed that any honest secularists should ultimately become atheists in time and that to do otherwise was simply disingenuous. To fulfill the secularist mission, Bradlaugh believed Christianity needed to be fought at every turn – a position Holyoake rejected. The two squared off in a public debate in 1870, during which they argued over the motion “The principles of Secularism do not include Atheism,” but, as might be expected, the results were inconclusive.

During the 1920s and 1930s, another term emerged: “humanism.” The term described a positive philosophy, in contrast to that of the purely negative atheism, and had its roots in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attempts to retain some of the positive aspects of religion, like the community and ritual, without the dogma. In 1933, a group in the United States led by Unitarian minister Raymond Bragg released “A Humanist Manifesto,” in which humanism was declared as a new religious movement, albeit one that proclaimed a naturalistic worldview which saw “the universe as self-existing and not created.” The manifesto also discussed a positive view of life in which “joy” and “fulfillment” were given prominent positions. Subsequent manifestos, both in the United States and internationally, have scaled back the talk of religion from the original and have elaborated on humanist values, like human rights, democracy, and rationality. National and international humanist groups have continued to grow and often work hand-in-hand with atheist groups, yet there are lingering suspicions among some atheists that humanism is becoming too much like a religion, as in Scotland, where humanist weddings now make up ten percent of all marriage ceremonies.

A contemporary example of this kind of rebranding is the term “bright,” coined in 2002 by Paul Geisert, an educator in the United States. Leading atheists Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett quickly championed the term. Geisert, Dawkins, and Dennett have noted that they were consciously trying to mimic the twentieth-century success of the term “gay” in replacing “homosexual” or “queer,” terms hampered by negative connotations. As Dawkins explained, a new word to describe atheists should “[l]ike gay,…be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.” (A similar appropriation of language from the LGBT movement is the idea that atheists should “come out of the closet” and declare their views publicly.) The Brights Network stated in 2010 that there were 50,000 Brights across the world, yet the term itself, like the many other attempts, faced a great deal of criticism from other atheists. Christopher Hitchens, the British journalist, denounced the idea as a “cringe-making proposal” that gave the impression of arrogance.

Despite all of the attempts at rebranding “atheism,” the term still remains the preferred label globally by a large margin. The Atheist Alliance International began a self-reporting global census of atheists and non-religious people in late 2012 and asked, among other things, for individuals’ preferred labels. Of over 250,000 respondents, 63.6 percent said they preferred the term atheist. “Non-religious,” “agnostic,” “freethinker,” and “humanist” received about 7 percent each, while “secularist” had less than 2 percent. “Bright” did not even register in the poll. This data (and indeed the title of the organization which ran the poll) indicates that many continue to embrace the term.

All of this gets to a broader issue of strategy. Should atheists be struggling to rehabilitate their chosen label or should they be inventing new words, without the negative baggage of “atheist,” to describe their beliefs? Of course, in many cases the innovators of the new terms would hasten to point out that their terms were not just superficially different from atheism but actually had different meanings – though the invention of “bright” was an unapologetic attempt to paper over the negative connotations. As we’ve seen from the results of the “atheist census” and in examining the historical debates, efforts to create a more positive term to replace atheism have not been entirely embraced. One can only window-dress for so long before the substance of the beliefs need to be confronted. Whatever one thinks of the term, “atheist” as a label is probably not going to be replaced in the foreseeable future. For better or worse, we’re stuck with it, connotations and all.

Nathan Alexander is a co-director of The International Society for Historians of Atheism, Secularism, and Humanism. ISHASH aims to provide a forum for academics working on any historical aspect of atheism, secularism, or humanism, broadly defined. The society provides the growing number of scholars in this area the means to communicate and collaborate with others who share their interests. Previously, only a handful of academics have dealt with the history of unbelief in any sustained way, though in recent years this has begun to change. The society encourages and facilitates the growth of this vibrant new field. To find out more see their website here


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