We need to frame our issues in our own terms, and not accept the words that our enemies want to use to describe us. If keep our mouths shut and stay under the radar, they will be more than happy to tell everyone what we are all about. Whether this happens though outright attacks or though concern trolling, it will not be flattering or helpful to our cause. For this reason, we must not fear charges of “atheist evangelism” or of “salesmanship” (as alleged by Josh Jones in his commentary on the Louisville COR billboard)
Language describes reality. That is its primary, most self-evident function. We use words to define for ourselves, and communicate to others, what’s going on out there. Less evident, but almost as potent, is language’s role in shaping reality. The meaning of what is out there changes with the words we choose to describe it…
Language frames politics, of course. In the struggle to win over the public and brand their positions, those seeking to outlaw abortion became “pro-life” and those seeking to keep it legal became “pro-choice.” Using these terms in any other context will seem weird. (“I’m very pro-choice; I love the combination menu at Burger King;” “I’m pro-life, that’s why I don’t wear fur.”)
I’ve long thought that allowing and accepting the anti-abortion block to adopt the term “pro-life” has been detrimental to the struggle to keep abortion legal. I mean, if you look only at the words themselves, which is more important, “choice” or “life?” As anyone who has read the stories of women who have needed abortions should see, those terms do not even come close to describing the reality of the situation.
Atheism has had some of the same framing issues as the fight to keep abortion legal. Commonly heard phrases containing the word atheist, which I thought up off the top of my head, include:
It’s no wonder so many atheists are timid about coming out! Speaking from my own experience, it took me a long time to dissociate atheism from anti-Americanism. I grew up not only seeing Christianity wrapped in the American flag, but whenever threats to our country were discussed I’d hear about the “atheistic” or “godless” communists. Besides that, I never heard of atheism at all when I was a child except in a pejorative sense.
Now, one item in the list above, “New Atheists,” can be taken positively or negatively depending on your point of view. But it seems to me that most of the time I hear it, it seems to be accompanied by a disparaging tone.
We have our positive phrases too.
The Happy Heretic (Thanks to Judith Hayes)
“New Atheists” (Included here because it is also used in a positive sense sometimes :))
“avowed atheist” (Also included here for the same reason as the item above.)
“It’s OK to be an atheist”
“Atheists are beyond belief”
I’m having a bit more trouble thinking up the positive memes without relying on Google, which is just a sign that we have let our opponents frame the issue for far too long. If we atheists ever want to be accepted as a legitimate part of society, if we ever want to get rid of the stigma associated with atheism, we need to be out there spreading our memes to the public and defining ourselves in our own terms. And the concern trolls who are worried about us offending religious sensibilities by merely advertising that we exist can go away, because I’m not listening.
Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.