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What should atheists call themselves?
I get this a lot. “Why do you worry about something you don’t even think exists? Why call yourself an atheist?”
That’s a reasonable question. People with no God belief may not call themselves atheists for lots of reasons. Maybe they prefer another name like freethinker, skeptic, or agnostic. Maybe they want to focus on what they do believe in and so think of themselves as humanists or naturalists. Julia Sweeney prefers the label “naturalist,” to make someone who disagrees with her take the position a-naturalist. Maybe, as the cartoon suggests, not believing in God is as irrelevant to their lives as not believing in unicorns or Santa Claus.
But I do call myself an atheist. God belief impacts society in ways that unicorn belief or Santa belief never could. In the list of Christian excesses below, see if you agree that only religion—and not mere belief in mythical beings—could provoke these actions.

  • The Pope says that condoms shouldn’t be used in Africa to stop the spread of HIV.
  • U.S. preachers provoke death-penalty legislation for homosexuality in Uganda.
  • Some churches forbid birth control among their members.
  • Stem cell research is held up.
  • Young women are urged not to get the HPV vaccine that protects against cervical cancer.
  • In-vitro fertilization, which has brought four million children to parents unable to conceive, is attacked by the Catholic church.
  • Some Christians push for Creationism to be taught in science class, for Christian prayers to be said in public schools, and for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in courthouses.
  • Christian belief seems to be a requirement for public office, despite the fact that the Constitution makes clear that no religious test shall ever be required.
  • Prayer allows people to pretend that they’ve actually done something … so they no longer feel the need to get off the couch and actually do something.
  • William Lane Craig dismisses life on earth, the only life we know we have, as “the cramped and narrow foyer leading to the great hall of God’s eternity.”
  • Sex education in many schools is constrained by religion, not guided by best practices.
  • A mother tried to kill herself and her two children to avoid Harold Camping’s Armageddon. Others donated their life savings to Camping’s ministry to make themselves right with God.
  • Texas Republicans call for an end to teaching critical thinking in public schools.
  • Televangelists fleece gullible people.
  • Religion dismisses inconvenient truth. In a March 2012 poll of likely Republican voters in Alabama, 45% said that Obama is a Muslim (14% said Christian), and 60% did not believe in evolution (26% do accept evolution).
  • Prayer is great when you can put your burdens at the feet of Jesus, but not so great when nothing happens. Then you need to wonder what’s wrong with you that God isn’t answering. Mother Teresa wrote about her wavering faith, “[it makes me] suffer untold agony.”
  • African children have been killed or injured because someone supposed them to be witches.
  • And isn’t it enough that religion encourages belief in something that isn’t true?

If Christianity could work and play well with others, that would be great, and I’d find other activities to occupy my time. But it doesn’t.
This is why I call myself an atheist. Many of the alternate labels are also available to a Christian antagonist. Like me, they might call themselves freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, or agnostics. But they won’t call themselves atheists.
If you’re a Christian reading this, you may respond that your church doesn’t do this. In that case, agree with me! Agree that Christian excesses cross the line and must be kept in check.

Kill them all.
For the Lord knows them that are His.
— advice from church leader Arnaud Amalric (d. 1225)
to a soldier wondering how to distinguish friend from enemy

This is a modified version of a post that originally appeared 9/26/11.
Artwork credit: Mike Stanfill

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...