“Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch ‘atheist’ belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas.”
—Mary Alice Robbins, “GOP Raises Religion in Court Race, Calling Democrat an Atheist.” Law.com, 9 October 2006.
In Paradise Lost, published in 1667, John Milton labels Satan and the other rebel angels “the atheist crew”, despite the fact that they were in Heaven at the time fighting against God and the faithful angels. Presumably, their belief in God’s existence was not in doubt, and Milton meant the term as a generic synonym for wickedness. This tactic is still in use today: witness the Republican political attack cited above, or professional media troll Ann Coulter’s recent book, Godless. From the way she uses the word, one would almost think she meant it as a bad thing!
Islamic fundamentalists have adopted this tactic as well, such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declaring the Western nations’ “atheism” as the cause of humanity’s problems (source), or the now-deceased terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a tape from June, denouncing Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as an atheist (source). This claim is especially ridiculous, since al-Sistani is one of the supreme religious authorities in post-war Iraq and is probably the closest thing in the Muslim world to a pope. As far as Ahmadinejad’s claims, it is if anything militaristic, intolerant right-wing Christianity, not atheism, that has led to the Iraqi civil war in which America is embroiled. However, Ahmadinejad apparently believed that denouncing his American adversaries as atheists, rather than as crusading Christians, would win him more popular support.
Clearly, the term “atheist” has acquired a substantial weight of negative connotation. How can real atheists fight back against this?
As the name of my weblog suggests, we atheists can only fight prejudice by stepping into the light. It is easy to demonize the unknown and the invisible. Only by keeping nonbelievers in the closet for so long have members of the believing majority been able to perpetuate such slurs; when we are not there to counter them, they can say whatever they like without fear of contradiction, and with no counterevidence in sight there is no reason for ordinary people to disbelieve them.
However, when actual atheists are visible to contradict these smears, they do not stick. We do not need to display superlative moral virtue to disprove the ugly stereotypes that equate atheism with wickedness (although it wouldn’t hurt). We just need to show that we are ordinary, decent people, just like everyone else, who differ from other people in that we believe in one less god than they do. If more atheists came forward to express such sentiments as these, the use of the word “atheist” as a term of insult would dwindle and die on the vine.
In this respect, I disagree with efforts (like those of the Brights) to coin a new term. We already have a perfectly good one: atheist. We should say what we are plainly and not allow our enemies to usurp or pollute the word. If we avoid using it to describe ourselves because we fear the repercussions, we play into their game. We harm and hinder our own movement when we abandon these words to our enemies as a way to tar us, and what is to stop them from similarly smearing any new word we come up with?
This tactic cannot succeed without our consent. The use of “atheist” (or “liberal”, for that matter, or any of the other descriptive words that have been distorted and demonized by the hosts of ignorance) as an epithet can only work if we buy into it by fleeing from the word when they use it that way. If instead we stand up and proclaim our pride in who and what we are, we will win every time; and if our enemies have polluted our words with propaganda, then we must reclaim them. In that spirit, I have some remarks to offer by way of response to Coulter and others:
Yes, I am godless. I am an atheist, and I am proud of it. I am proud of the fact that I do not fearfully bow down to noises in the night. I am proud of the fact that I value evidence and do not believe just because tradition or authority tells me so. I am proud that I value human well-being as the highest good and do not prize obedience to ancient superstitions more highly than the lives and happiness of real people alive today. I am proud of the fact that I think for myself and do not blindly subordinate my will to the pious mutterings of costumed charlatans or the shrill voices of bigots who think they have some magical power over my eternal destiny. I am unapologetic about this, and I think everyone else should join me. You hurl the term “godless” at me, but I wear it as a badge of pride, and if you think you will ever be able to make me ashamed of who I am, you have disappointment in store.
Ben Franks, mentioned in the quote at the start of this article, may or may not be an atheist; he has said that he is not. The Republican party’s major line of attack seems to consist of the claim that an atheist, if elected, could not take the Texas oath of office, which includes the term “so help me God”. This line of attack neglects the fact that Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any public office in the United States. (It seems to be asking too much of the Republican party these days that they read or understand the Constitution.) However, whether Franks is an atheist or not, what he should be saying is that it makes no difference to his ability to represent the people of his state, and that atheists have every right to hold public office in America, just as theists do. The output of bigots will not necessarily fade away in the face of strong and principled opposition, but we can undercut them and take away their support by showing, both by our speech and by our lives, that their hateful claims bear no relation to reality.