Why The “A” Word Won’t Go Away

Tom Flynn


Sam Harris dropped a bomb at a recent atheist convention by suggesting that those who embrace the label “atheist” “are consenting to be viewed as a cranky subculture.” In the last FREE INQUIRY, no lesser an authority than Paul Kurtz agreed (p. 8), warning secular humanists against “accepting the label of ‘atheist.’” But do secular humanists get to choose whether to accept or reject the “A” word?


Atheism has many meanings. In his Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Michael Martin distinguishes between “positive atheism,” the firm confidence that no deity exists, and “negative atheism,” the simple absence of god-belief. In various writings, Paul Kurtz echoed Martin’s dichotomy, proposing a distinction between atheism and nontheism, claiming for the latter term negative atheism’s implied open-mindedness.* In our respective encyclopedias of unbelief, Gordon Stein and I argued for a definition of atheism closer to Martin’s negative atheism—the mere absence of god-belief. This reflects the word’s Greek roots: a-theos, literally “without god.” Stein and I both found it perverse that “real atheism” should require certainty that God does not exist, itself a sort of faith.

Ultimately, this controversy is meaningless. If we seek a future in which the nonreligious can enter American culture’s arena of “acceptable diversity,” it matters less which labels we prefer to use to characterize ourselves than the label or labels the culture uses to characterize us. Whether we like it or not, most people associate our worldview with a single label, and it is “atheist.”

I’ve been doing media appearances as a secular humanist activist for fifteen years now. I perennially underwent this exchange:

REPORTER/HOST: Are you an atheist?

ME: I call myself a secular humanist. Secular humanists disbelieve in the supernatural and prefer to use reason, compassion, and the methods of science to build the good life in this life.

REPORTER/HOST: But you’re an atheist, aren’t you?

I couldn’t sidestep the “A” word. When I tried, it was all I’d get to talk about. Today, I handle this question differently:

REPORTER/HOST: Are you an atheist?

ME: Yes, but that’s only the beginning.

After that, my odds of actually getting to say something about secular humanism are pretty good. Why do things work this way?

1. Secular humanists are atheists. Not just any atheists, as we’ll see in a moment. But when mainstream Americans slap the “A” word label onto us, it sticks.

2. Mainstreamers have powerfully negative, largely noncognitive responses to atheism. This is bigotry, surely. But while it persists, average Americans may be incapable of responding rationally to the parts of our secular humanist agenda that have less to do with atheism, such as the autonomy of ethics, applying scientific methods to social and moral problems, and defending universal human rights.

In view of the second point, it might seem wise for secular humanists to distance themselves from atheism, as Harris and Kurtz have recommended. The problem is the first point: anyone can plainly see that secular humanism is a variety of atheism. Struggle as we may to exclude atheism from the discussion, we can’t; when we try and fail, we just look sneaky.


Picture the set of all atheists—those who at least lack belief in God or the supernatural. They’re a diverse lot. Some are nihilists, rejecting not only God but the very idea of the good; set them aside. Ditto for relativists who believe that with God gone, anything goes; subjectivists who believe one person’s idea of the good as good as any other’s; diehard Marxist atheists wedded to a fundamentally inhumane dogmatic system; and so on. Eventually, you’ll isolate the subset of atheists who disbelieve in God and the supernatural but do believe that right and excellence can be identified objectively, and believe further that reason, compassion, and scientific methods are uniquely powerful tools for building the good life in this life. Welcome home: you’ve found the secular humanists—the minority within the atheist minority that has the most vivid cognitive and affective program for forging good lives in a universe that happens to be unencumbered by a deity.

As I said, secular humanists are atheists—but that’s only the beginning.


If I’m right that secular humanists can’t avoid the atheist label, we should be honest with ourselves about the trouble it brings. Atheism gives mainstream Americans the creeps. They recoil viscerally from the seeming emptiness of living in an authorless cosmos and from what they imagine the absence of God would mean for morality. Mainstreamers tend to interpret all atheism, positive or negative, as harsh positive atheism. Many frighten themselves by imagining how horrible it would be (they think) if they lost their own faith. In the grip of such revulsion, few will hear what we have to say about the things besides atheism that secular humanism stands for. Bad as this is, it’s only bigotry. It can be resisted.

In my view, secular humanists need—no less than Americans who define themselves solely as atheists—to change public attitudes toward atheism. Since mainstreamers tend to interpret all nontheism as positive atheism, we need specifically to destigmatize the most hard-edged sort of positive atheism. Impossible? Don’t count on it. Only decades ago, another reviled minority figured out how to drag itself from being America’s most-hated and feared group (yes, more so than atheists) to a status of general public acceptance. As I’ve observed in many previous writings, we can learn a lot from the gay/lesbian community’s success.**


Think atheists have it bad? Four decades ago, known homosexuals were routinely denied employment, shut out of higher education, and exiled from their families. It wasn’t unusual for straight young men to down a few beers and go find some “queers” to beat up.

Back then, it was homosexuality that gave mainstream Americans the creeps. They recoiled viscerally from the prospect of attraction toward one’s own gender, reserving special disgust for overt gay sexuality. Antigay bigotry and antiatheist bigotry have many parallels. In part this is because both homosexuality and atheism are affective orientations, states of mind without clear physical markers; like gays, atheists can stay in or come out of the closet as they choose. For the same reason, no bigot is immune to the despised condition. A white racist can’t wake up black, but any antigay bigot can experience same-sex attraction, and any bigoted theist can fall prey to doubt. Much of the fury of antigay, and today antiatheist, bigots presumably reflects this fear of becoming what they detest.

Given the oppression of forty years ago, how stunning are the changes that gay/lesbian activism wrought. Yesterday’s “love that dares not speak its name” is now a sitcom staple. Gay marriage is a live issue. Few look twice if two guys kiss at a party. How did the gay/lesbian lobby do it? Not by avoiding the issues that most disturbed the mainstream, but by attacking them head-on. Much gay activism celebrated precisely the things straights found most disturbing, from gay eroticism to the word queer itself, repeatedly confronting mainstream sensibilities with flamboyant gay exemplars that “lived down” to straights’ most negative stereotypes.

And it worked.

Thirty years of refusing to soft pedal the things that made gays and lesbians different dragged American culture from “Let’s go bash some queers” to “Hmm, why hasn’t Queer Nation’s agenda backfired?” to “Hey, can I borrow your Queer Eye DVDs?”

If gay/lesbian activism could destigmatize the “Q” word and make Americans feel neutral about gay sexuality, imagine what similar activism by atheists—secular humanists included—could do to destigmatize the “A” word and help mainstream Americans accept their peers who live without invisible means of support.

When advocates like Richard Dawkins call atheists to come out of the closet, they’re calling secular humanists, too.

Once atheism, even positive atheism, is destigmatized, we may find mainstreamers more willing to engage with us about the parts of our life stance that we find most compelling. But first, we’ve got to tackle antiatheist bigotry head-on. We have the strategic template and the raw numbers. Misgivings about the “A” word should not dissuade us from doing what needs to be done.


*Odd but true: using Michael Martin’s definitions, negative atheism can seem more “positive” than positive atheism. Also, this should not be confused with positive atheism as used to describe god-disbelief accompanied by humane values, essentially secular humanism; throughout this essay, a “positive atheist” is someone who confidently asserts the nonexistence of a god or the supernatural.

**Today activists prefer to call it the “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender” (GLBT) movement. At the time of the reform work under discussion, “gay/lesbian” was the label in general use.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

  Sam Harris dropped a bomb at a recent atheist convention by suggesting that those who embrace the label “atheist” “are consenting to be viewed as a cranky subculture.” In the last FREE INQUIRY, no lesser an authority than Paul Kurtz agreed (p. 8), warning secular humanists against “accepting the label of ‘atheist.’” But do …

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