Some people seem constantly desperate to put some shiny new paint onto the house of atheism, presumably to make us appear more hip, accomodating, communicative, jovial, approachable, I don’t really know to be honest.
We’ve had the terribly arrogant “Bright” proposed by Dennett and Dawkins in the past, and now Julian Baggini has come out in the Guardian with some not only ill-conceived but also completely unneccessary manifesto for atheists, in which he suggests that we call ourselves “Heathens” in the future. Oh, please.
It has long been recognised that the term “atheist” has unhelpful connotations. It has too many dark associations and also defines itself negatively, against what it opposes, not what it stands for. “Humanist” is one alternative, but humanists are a subset of atheists who have a formal organisation and set of beliefs many atheists do not share. Whatever the intentions of those who adopt the labels, “rationalist” and “bright” both suffer from sounding too self-satisfied, too confident, implying that others are irrationalists or dim.
If we want an alternative, we should look to other groups who have reclaimed mocking nicknames, such as gays, Methodists and Quakers. We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves. This is no trivial point: atheism faces the human condition with honesty, and that requires acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion. “Heathen” fulfils this ambition. We are heathens because we have not been saved by God and because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened
“Atheist” doesn’t define me negatively in the slightest, it expresses precisely what I think, namely that gods don’t exist (although I prefer the more accurate term antitheist). Whereas “Heathen” is a derogatory term which implies that I am missing some obvious and natural capacity and property, that of a belief in whichever deity is in favor in the time and place I find myself in. Might as well call ourselves blasphemers, since that’s what we are doing in the eyes of the religious.
No, I don’t think that we need any other word to describe and indicate our lack of belief in the supernatural, “atheist” will do just fine.
There is more in Baggini’s piece that I find dodgy, but I have some stuff to do now, so I might come back to it, or leave my commenters to dissect it further.