I have a nifty little email gizmo called a “Google Alert.” With it, I get notification each time an article is published on-line with a specific word in the title or body. One of these alerts is for the word “atheist,” for which I get several hits a day. This is an interesting source of information that provides varying opinions about atheism. These opinions run the gamut from the philosophically accurate to the fundamentally skewed with a broad field of misconception in between. I often use these links as fodder for my own self-righteous smarminess, often apparent in my corrective diatribes (we all need a little release to maintain sanity). I’ve noticed something new, however. An edifying bonus, if you will: the word “atheist” is used in a very special way.
Just taking the last few days as an example, I’ve seen “atheist” written as an identifier in the following ways: “an avowed Atheist,” “a self-proclaimed atheist,” “a so-called Atheist,” and “a militant Atheist.” Sometimes the word is capitalized as if it were a unified body or a proper name, such as “John Q. Atheist of Atheist Local 616.” But one of my favorites is when the word is separated from the normal run of speech. Not in the way I have used it thus far, with quotes to denote it as a word spoken of as opposed to a word used, but with scare quotes… “Atheist.” You can almost hear the thunder rolling in the background. The word thus becomes either a menacing entity or somehow, dare I say it, supernatural.
This seems to tell me that “atheist” and “atheism” are not only terms commonly misunderstood, but also words outside normal, acceptable, rational speech. This type of usage is nothing new. Words like “homosexual” often appear in scare quotes on fundamentalist websites, denoting an inherent unwillingness to even recognize their valid existence. Another contemporary is the word “feminist” as used in most anti-choice literature, usually proceeded by our familiar friend “militant” or the ever-quaint suffix nazi. (They haven’t quite figured out how to translate feminazi to atheinazi, but it’s only a matter of time.) Atheism separates itself in an interesting way, though, because it shares similarities with both camps. On one hand it’s treated like it’s not an actual term (the ‘so-called atheist’) yet on the other it’s used along with religious language to award its kissin’ cousin status with conventional belief systems (the popular ‘devout atheist’).
Yet what’s particularly disturbing is that many of these updates I receive are from reputable websites. Mainstream publications like major metropolitan newspapers and national periodicals fall prey to this. It is to be expected from right-wing Bible-thumpers, but it’s discouraging to read in otherwise respectable sources. Even in academia can be felt the pulse of this libel, such as Oxford University’s Theology “Professor” (slight intended–see?) Alister McGrath’s blatant mischaracterization of atheism in The Incoming Sea of Faith. This particular bit of rubbish is rooted in that most annoying of phenomenon, the reformed atheist. It seems they as a whole hold some of the most odd views of what atheism means, has meant, or will mean in the future. It really can’t be all that surprising then, that authors are duped, confused or flat-out ignorant of atheism when this tripe is pandered by religious “authorities.” (Sarcasm intended again–did I mention my smarminess?)
Regardless of the verbose adjectives paraded before the moniker, atheists are indeed real. No one else is branded as an avowed Caucasian, a self-proclaimed taxi-driver with a so-called Passenger who is a “Member” of society. These are all actual, everyday labels we use without shock value and without derision. It’s strange that someone’s lack of belief can be so casually questioned with such tacit arrogance–the arrogance for being tolerated and the lack of belief for lacking any claim to be suspect!
So <sigh> I write more letters. I publish more pieces like this one. I commit the occasional vitriolic slip of the pen in frustration… but most of all I wonder. I wonder how long atheism will be seen as such a foreign concept that it needs to be identified as a special state of being beyond normal existence. I wonder how long I’ll be a “dangerous” word (appropriate scare quotes mine). Many other cultural minorities have gradually lost their extra adjectives, and I see hope in their small victories. Some entire countries, like Britain (outside of a nameless lecture hall in Oxford), have become very open-minded towards atheism. Is atheism the next great American integration or in another generation will we still be “Atheists”? As much as I enjoy dabbling in excess verbiage, these superfluisms are tiring.