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no32209091I simply can’t stand us. Really I can’t. We crack me up.

I’ve written before about the endless obsession of the freethought community with labels: atheist vs. humanist, atheist vs. agnostic, humanist vs. secular humanist, nonreligious vs. nonbeliever vs. Bright.

I don’t mind someone saying why they choose one over another, or why they switch back and forth in different situations. What I’ve had enough of is people insisting, loudly and self-righteously and endlessly, that one or more of the labels is an affront to all things good and mustn’t be used, period.

It’s not that I don’t find the discussions interesting, even revealing. They are. And I do have my own carefully-considered preferences. But in flinching and thrusting and parrying every time someone attempts to denote something, we run the serious risk of gazing so intently at the labels in our Laputian navels that we never get to substance.

The latest entry in this silly and counterproductive grumblefest came after Barack Obama chose, in the first twenty minutes of his presidency, to acknowledge the existence of nonbelievers — to say, in no uncertain terms, that this is our country too.

Most of us fell over in (what else?) disbelief. But how did some members of our fine community respond? By whining, in blogs and comment threads across the country, because he used the word “nonbelievers.”

“I DO have beliefs, thank you very much,” said more than one of these into-gift-horse’s-mouth-lookers, unable to bear the fact that “belief” is easily understood in this context as “religious belief.”

I get similar umbrage from Unitarian Universalists (UUs) on occasion — a few, not most — about the subtitle of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion. “We are a religious organization,” sniffed one UU minister in turning down my offer of a seminar. That’s right — she went for the emphatic trifecta, bolding, italicizing, AND underlining the word.

I can stand knowing that various groups and individuals understand the word “religion” in various ways. I have my preference and even my arguments for why I prefer it. But I am comfortable living in a world where “religion” means different things to different people. I now always use “theistic religion” to make myself understood to UU audiences. Non-UUs understand my meaning without it.

I digress.

Much of the protest over “nonbeliever” is that it defines us in terms of religious believers. I care about this no more than the fact that “nonsmoker” defines me in terms of smokers and “non-idiot” defines me in terms of idiots. You don’t find many non sequiturs up in arms about being defined in terms of the hated sequitur, nor are the nondescript or noncommital often irate about comparisons to the descript and commital.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed not to find their advocacy of nonviolence diminished by the lexical negation of violence. Nor does Nonviolent Peaceforce, the nonpartisan, nonprofit, non-governmental organization for which I work. For each and all of these terms, the prefix is a non-issue.

So why do we continue to waste our pique on such terms as “nonbeliever” and “nonreligious”? I find them both useful and economical. Pile on your polysyllables and modifiers as you wish. I have things to do.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.