What is atheism?
It seems like such a simple question, does it not? Yet this question leads one to discover a multitude of other questions, many misconceptions, the perpetuation of misinformation, and straight-forward lying.
The history of educating the masses is one that shows little progress over long periods. For years after the Wright brothers flew the first airplane there were people all over the United States that refused to believe it. Education on such a grand scale is time consuming, taxing, tedious, and often disheartening. Many quit before they ever reach even a marginal percentage of accomplishment.
Perhaps this is the problem with the misconceptions and taboo associated with atheism. Many people have tried and given up, realizing that the effort was wasted on those that did not care to learn. No matter how much you teach or what strategy you use, there are those that simply refuse to learn or be taught.
Yes, books have been written, speeches have been given, web sites have been created, and debates have raged. Where have these gotten us? Nowhere. Will the continuing efforts to educate the masses help? Perhaps. At least we are no longer burned at the stake. Of course that could simply be because it is against the law and not because there is no desire to actually burn us at the stake…
What is the next step? Atheism has been helped by the Supreme Court when it decided that atheism was a “religion” so that it could be protected against religious discrimination. That at least gave us a foothold to stand on when discriminated against in the workplace. There is progress, there is no doubt about that, but for every inch of progress we make, we lose half an inch to the continuous spreading of what we are fighting against.
If we look at the civil rights movement, we can see how progress was made and perhaps learn from the strategies of that movement. This does not mean that we should conduct atheist riots in the overly religious cities of the United States. It would be nice if we could get a Million Atheist March going, but we can barely get more than 500 atheists together at one time. What we can learn from those movements is the marketing of their cause. It wasn’t the Black Movement, it was the Civil Rights Movement. Do you think as much progress would have been made had it been called the Black Movement?
The problem with the education effort about atheism is the word atheism. Atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings. Beyond that, the personal philosophies, ideas, and causes vary so greatly, that I often find myself debating fellow atheists more than I debate theists.
The word atheism has become so taboo that many atheists are afraid to refer to themselves as atheists in public. We know these people as closet atheists. Sometimes, even their closest friends and family members do not know about their atheism. Many continue to go to church, continuing the façade and fooling their families and friends.
Would you drink a product called Carbonated Prune Juice? Why not? If you drink Dr. Pepper, guess what you are drinking? Carbonated prune juice. Dr. Pepper was originally made as a pharmaceutical for soar throats at a pharmacy and soda-fountain. A major bottling company liked the product, bought it, and marketed it as Dr. Pepper. The word atheism is Carbonated Prune Juice and we need a Dr. Pepper.
NOTE: The “major bottling company” denies the claim that Dr. Pepper contains prune extract or was used as a pharmaceutical remedy, the story of Dr. Pepper’s origins and prune juice are an Urban Legend, which I have used here as an analogy – not a literal fact.)
So what word can all of us embrace? What single word unites us all? The word Freethought is more accepted by the general public and holds fewer “perceived flaws” than atheism. Is Freethought the politically correct word for atheism?
A prime example is the group that I founded in Mobile. Originally, I called the group the Mobile Atheist & Skeptic Alliance (MASA). Membership was slow and the hate mail was coming in quantities that were difficult to keep up with. Finally, an honest individual let me know that the reason he didn’t join is because he did not want to be associated with a bunch of “atheists.”
We changed our name to the Mobile Area Freethought Association (MAFA). Within two weeks our membership jumped from 5 to 18 and within 48 hours the Mobile Register asked me to write a special to the editor (the article helped membership as well because of the free advertising). When atheists themselves are afraid of the word atheist, then we need to find a better word to sell our product. Admittedly, I cannot say that this was causation or correlation.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, that’s what this is all about, selling our product. Unlike the religions of the world, we lack a unifying symbol, we lack a “trademark”, and we lack a unifying cause. Nothing but our lack of belief brings us together. This disorganization certainly does not help our cause in the business of education.
While I personally cannot stand the idea of selling out and being commercialistic, I also think it is necessary at this point. A unifying course of action under a unifying banner or name, which is perceived with less angst, discrimination, and suspicion by the general (and religious) public is desperately needed at this point. In my view, the word “Freethought” is our Dr. Pepper.
I tried a simple experiment locally in Mobile. Whenever I was asked if I went to church or believed in God, I usually responded, “I’m an atheist.” Of course the looks of disgust were common. Then I tried responding with, “I’m a freethinker.” The disgusted looks went away (exceptions provided for, of course) and curiosity replaced them. Using the word “freethinker” instead of “atheist” opened the door for the initial cause… education.
I’ve learned that when writing letters to the editor or special editorials that when I refer to atheists as freethinkers, non-believers, or non-theists, it gives the article more credit in the religious public’s eye and creates less of a culture bomb in the Baptist Beacon of the South. Give it a try for yourself the next time someone asks you what church you go to or if you believe in God.
There are many groups that fall under the Freethought umbrella: atheists, agnostics, rationalists, skeptics, humanists, secularists, and some non-theistic religionists. I would love to see every group that falls into those categories rename themselves by replacing said words with Freethought. If you think that skeptics, rationalists, humanists, or secularists are subject to any less discrimination than atheists, tell your local Fundamentalist that you’re a humanist and see what he or she has to say about it.
Of course I’m not claiming that Freethought is the cure-all to end all of our ills. What I am suggesting is that if the word Freethought is perceived with less angst by the general public then why not market that to our advantage?
Can we ever educate enough to get rid of the “angry, god-hating, Satanist, immoral, and baby killing atheist” image? Perhaps. One of my favorite phrases is, “Work smarter, not harder”. The use of the word Freethought is the smarter way to go. The uphill battle has already been won. Why fight over ground that has already been conceded by the enemy? It is a waste of time, energy, resources and most of all it only serves to perpetuate that which we fight.