What’s in a Name?

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Bjorn Watland

Atheist, humanist, secular humanist, Bright, freethinker, secularist, naturalist: these are all words I’ve heard people use to describe themselves. I recall the diversity of identifiers used at the Atheist Coming Out Day last year. I was reminded of this diversity when an issue came up with the newsletter for a secular organization: Should “humanism” be capitalized?

I began doing some research to see what was used by some humanist organizations, particularly the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the American Humanist Association. The IHEU uses ‘Humanism’ and encourages member organizations to do so. The AHA also encourages the use of ‘Humanism’ versus ‘humanism.’  One of the reasons given is that Pope Paul VI referred to himself as a humanist.

The consensus among the people who were working on the newsletter was that atheist should be lowercase and many also thought that humanism should be treated in the same way. One of the reasons given to treat humanism in the same way as atheism was that neither are religions and religions are capitalized. However, there is a feeling that capitalizing a word adds to its respect, as determined by the author. Certain authors do not feel that religions deserve any respect over atheism or humanism, leading to the conclusion that religions should be spelled in all lowercase, such as islam and christianity.

The core issue is the challenge we all face. We lack branding and a unified label.  While researching the humanism issue, I ran across articles touting the efforts of humanist organizations to simplify the use of humanism by removing labels like “secular” from the front and expanding the use of the “Happy Humanist” logo. This logo lets humanists from all over the world recognize each other and other organizations.

Atheists have attempted to do the same thing by choosing a logo at an Atheist Alliance International conference and rallying around the red “A” of the Out Campaign from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. However, atheist groups aren’t as unified as humanist groups are with branding.  

The diversity of labels in our community is a strength, but also an unavoidable weakness. I have met members of Minnesota Atheists who are frustrated with others who don’t use the label “atheist” and have tried to encourage others to push aside words like ‘agnostic,’ ‘non religious,’ ‘Bright’ – even ‘humanist’ – in favor of the label ‘atheist.’ This has encouraged some to adopt the label of ‘atheist,’ but has also made others feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. By browbeating others into calling themselves what we would like to be called in an attempt to unify the cause we may be alienating others who would be just as enthusiastic about supporting the separation of church and state and raising awareness in the community of our issues.  

I used to be enthusiastic about encouraging people to use the word atheist to describe their worldview. I used to get really irritated when someone would be uncomfortable with the word atheist and I would want to do what I could to rid them of this fear. What I realized is that personal labels, no matter what they are, are something each of us needs to come to by ourselves and not be pushed into. We should not be shamed into choosing one label over another, whether that is atheist, humanist, secular, non religious, Bright, or any other future iteration of identification we will invent to describe what we think.

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