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Tag:terminology

Tag:terminology

When I see data on the religious self-identifications of Americans, I am always a bit skeptical of the percentage of people who actually claim to be atheist, as opposed to Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, etc. It always appears to me that the number is too low. This is of course just speculation on my part – random anonymous surveys are usually pretty accurate. I can’t help but think that atheist belief is underreported . The reason I think this is so is because of the connotations associated with the word “atheist”.

Disclaimer: the following scenario contains generalizations. You’ll probably be able to easily recognize them. I don’t mean to suggest that there are not exceptions, they are made merely to show a point.

Say some random person asks you about your religious beliefs and you tell them that you are a Christian, chances are you will not get any dirty looks as a result of your response. People are not surprised by that answer, and most will react with dismissive approval. Saying you are Christian indicates that you are “normal”. However, if you answer that you are an atheist, there is a good chance that you will be met with something other than total approval. People will be surprised that you are willing to admit it in the first place, and then whether or not they then proceed to openly confront you about it, many will think you are a bit abnormal.

According to dictionary.com, an atheist is, “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings”. That sounds a lot like the direct opposite of “a person who believes the existence of a supreme being”. There’s nothing else suggested by the definition of the word - certainly not that an atheist is abnormal, amoral, untrustworthy, unpatriotic, un-American, or malcontented. Why then are such negative connotations attached to the word? Probably because the opposite of an atheist, a person who does believe in the existence of a supreme being, will generally be thought to be normal, moral, trustworthy, patriotic, and content unless you specifically know otherwise. This is of course patently unfair in both cases – theists (can we start calling them that?) are not always wonderful people and neither are atheists usually bad people. The perceptions of the words being what they are though, I suspect there have got to be plenty of closet atheists out there who are just not comfortable with professing as much. Even the word agnostic leaves social wiggle room – you haven’t gone to the dark side, you are just not sure. I have been an atheist for a long time now, but it was only recently that I became comfortable to call myself that – I was claiming agnosticism to avoid social awkwardness.

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