Message from the President: Don’t call Harry an atheist!

My friend Harry, who is nearing retirement, doesn’t believe in any gods. But he gets upset when I call him an atheist.

When I asked him why he shuns the “atheist” label, he launched into a forceful explanation: “Why should I identify as something I don’t believe?” he asked. “I don’t believe in fairies or astrology, but I don’t identify that way! Why should I identify as a non-believer in gods?”

I listened to this explanation, but it didn’t quite satisfy me. So I pressed Harry a bit: “But there’s no word for someone who doesn’t believe in fairies or astrology,” I pointed out. “So, of course you don’t identify as a ‘non-astrologist’ or a ‘non-fairy-believer.’  But there’s a word for those who do not believe in gods – atheist! Why do you shun that word?”

“Because I’m a Humanist! Humanism is my positive lifestance, my values,” Harry explained. He was clearly feeling a bit defensive, but he wouldn’t budge. He continued: “I identify myself by what I believe in, not by what I don’t believe!”

“Okay, fair enough,” I replied. “I can understand that you identify primarily as a Humanist, as do I. But certainly it’s possible to fit within more than one label or identity, isn’t it? You can be a liberal and a Democrat, for example. You can be a doctor and a surgeon. Why can’t you be a Humanist and an atheist?”

Harry looked a bit flustered. Obviously this conversation was getting on his nerves.

He didn’t answer, so I continued, “You don’t believe in gods, so there’s no denying that the word ‘atheist’ would be an accurate description of you,” I said. “Therefore, is it possible that you reject the label mainly because the public image of the word ‘atheist’ is so negative?”

“No, that’s not the reason,” he insisted, standing by his assertion that the rejection of the atheist label was purely a rational, intellectual decision, not a reaction to public sentiments.

There was an awkward pause as I looked him in the eye. We are pretty good friends, and I could see he was uncomfortable with his answer. “Really?” I asked, smiling a bit.

I could see a slight grin on Harry’s face too. “Well, maybe that’s a small part of it,” he conceded. “It certainly doesn’t help that everyone thinks atheists are bad people.”

“You’re right—it doesn’t,” I agreed. “But is that ever going to change if even people like yourself, who are indeed atheists, are ashamed of the identity? How can we expect the public to realize that atheists are good people, that atheists are their neighbors and friends and family members, if nobody tells them?”

“But I’m a Humanist!” Harry insisted.

“Yes, you are,” I agreed. “But do you really think Humanism will ever take great leaps forward in America while the notion of atheism continues to be scorned? Few people know what Humanism is, but atheism becomes the elephant in the room whenever we talk about Humanism to non-Humanists. As such, Humanism can go nowhere without the rehabilitation of atheism, don’t you think?”

“Maybe that’s true, but that’s an impossible task,” Harry said, obviously growing tired. “I’ll stand up for Humanism, but asking me to defend atheism is just too much. It’s not in my blood.”

With that, our conversation soon ended. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that Harry was ashamed of the “atheist” identity. He is as much an atheist as anyone I know; he has read Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, and he has no use for talk of deities and supernaturalism. If even Harry shunned the word ‘atheist,’ how could we expect ordinary Americans to rethink their negative image of atheism?

But clearly, Harry was going to continue to avoid the “A-word” like the plague, and I wasn’t going to change him.

My disappointment turned to optimism, however, when I logged into a social media network that night. I happen to know Harry’s family fairly well, and in fact his youngest son, who is 19, is a “friend” of mine on this social network. That night, I reflexively clicked onto the son’s profile, and I chuckled when I saw his self-identification next to the “Religion” category: Humanist and Atheist.

Harry’s generation won’t break down the barriers, but his son’s just might.

David Niose is president of the American Humanist Association and practices law in Massachusetts.