For many years of my childhood, I was a Christian. In my teens, I eventually lost my faith. However, for a long time, I identified myself as an Agnostic, because while I no longer believed in the supernatural being that is the Christian God, I did believe that there was still possibly something greater than ourselves out there. And I still do.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Eventually though, I chose instead to identify myself as an Atheist, for a number of reasons.
First of all, it comes down to actions; while in my mind, I may feel myself Agnostic, in the course of my daily life, I act like an Atheist.
Second of all, I realized that the main reason I identified as an Agnostic rather than an Atheist, was out of fear of the stigma associated with Atheists. I did not want to be stereotyped and pigeonholed by people who just hear the word Atheist, regardless of who I was as an individual.
But over time, I came to terms with the fact that I am an Atheist, and like any other aspect of my character, I did not want to have to hide who I really was.
Nearly a fifth of Americans identify as unaffiliated to any religion, however only a tenth of those call themselves Atheists.
I don't think all 20% are actually Atheists in hiding. However, like me, I think there is a significant number who avoid the using the title because of the stigma.
Now, I think people should ultimately identify themselves however they want. If they want to be called an Agnostic, a Christian, a Pastafarian, or even one of the subtypes of Atheist, then by all means go ahead and keep doing that.
However, if those who are truly Atheist admitted as much, I think we would start to see some major changes in the treatment of the non-religious in this country.
First of all, for me it comes down to personal action. The old cliche, "Actions speak louder than words," has strongly shaped my own preference for identifying as Atheist.
When it comes to concepts like Agnosticism and spiritualism, most people don't live on a daily basis based on these concepts. Intellectually, you may take the stance of an Agnostic, but how exactly does that affect your behavior, and how is your behavior any different than if you considered yourself Atheist?
“I have noticed that even those who assert that everything is predestined and that we can change nothing about it still look both ways before they cross the street.”The same goes for most of us, religious or not. When it comes to a lot of our actions in our daily lives, the underlying basis is not that there "might possibly be" a higher power. Either we believe or we don't believe, and our actions reflect that. After all, if you are caught in a burning building, and you pray to God to be saved, and then you are saved and then later on find yourself in the same situation, are you then going to not pray?
― Stephen Hawking
As another example, I may tell you that I am not racist, and think in my mind that I am not a racist, but if I drive around with a Confederate flag on my car, if I attend KKK rallies, if I read white supremacist materials, can I really say that I'm not a racist? However I may think I identify, if it does not reflect how I act and interact with others, is that identification really valid?
Of course, the same goes for many so-called Christians, who stay home to watch football on Sunday, who don't show charity and compassion for their fellow human beings, and ignore many of the Bible's teachings such as "judge not lest ye be judged" and "he who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone" and the parables of the Good Samaritan and the widow's mite. How is it appropriate for them to identify themselves as Christians-and how should other Christians feel about being associated with those kinds of Christians-when their actions do not align with what they are supposed to believe?
Being true, not to some idealized version of ourselves, but true to the person who goes out and lives our lives within the larger human existence, is what I think anyone should strive for.
Second of all, like I used to be, I believe there are still people out there who shy away from the Atheist title, and instead choose Agnostic, or their community's preferred religion. One of the best ways for these people to feel more comfortable in coming out religiously, is knowing that they are not alone. They need to be made aware of the large network of fellow Atheists, their diverse backgrounds, and ultimately, that they will have a strong support group to help them through whatever they face for coming out as Atheists.
The fact of the matter is, Atheists are still one of the most negatively stereotyped groups in America, but these can be overcome, first and foremost by growing the number of Atheists who positively represent our group.
In this sense, I see the movement of people like me away from other groups and into the Atheist group, as a positive feedback loop that will make it easier for Atheists hiding in even more groups to come out.
I think that there is more political weight in furthering the cause of Atheists than any other non-religious identity, because it means overcoming far more emotional extremism. I think it is because, out of all the other types of non-religious identities, only Atheism forces the religious to face the contradictions in their own religions. Here is someone who, without reservations, completely rejects your religious views, but at the same time represents a wholly similar way of life and set of values and morals. It really forces people to ask questions that make them uncomfortable, more than if they are just faced with someone who simply has a different set of beliefs or rituals.
Religious displays are a good example, both holiday displays and monuments. Thanks to recent actions of Atheist groups serving as lightning rods, it highlights the religious intolerance to other religious groups as well. Look at the hostility that was directed towards a teenage girl, including her friends and family, simply for wanting to start an Atheist group at her school. All non-religious freethinking groups face similar types of social pressure; few religious groups ever experience the same escalation.
Finally, many of the unjust policies on which liberals fight the hardest are ultimately religiously based. Abortion, not teaching evolution in schools, not extending equal rights to the LGBT community, these are all justified not by any rational discourse or evidence, but purely on religious grounds, or some lame appeal to "tradition" which, based on religion's role in establishing most human traditions, merely masks the religious pressures. Even climate change denialism is quickly becoming enveloped in religious adherence.
How does identifying as Atheist advance these causes? Well, simply put, it highlights the religious nature of these stances, and provides a platform for highlighting these egregious violations of the principle of separation of church and state. Take the recent example of the contraception mandate for religiously-affiliated employers. Here, we had a special group of institutions who wanted special treatment simply because of religious reasons. However, proponents were never forced to address this blatant hypocrisy. How exactly does contraception If Christian organizations can refuse to provide contraception for its employees, why can't Atheist organizations be able to refuse some other provision?
They did not have to seriously face such scrutiny. Much like labor groups, women's groups, and LGBT groups push politicians on these respective issues, politicians need strong non-religious advocacy groups to push them to take stands on issues of religious intolerance as well. Religion has plenty, and outnumber and swamp all the non-religious groups, and the split into separate divisions only exacerbates this.
In the end, I want everyone to feel they can freely identify themselves however they truly feel. Whether you are an Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, Christian, or Muslim, you should not feel compelled to hide who you are because of what other people will think and how other people will treat you. That is why I am an Atheist.