Atheists are a pretty misunderstood bunch. Many people think that all atheists deny the possibility of God’s existence and eat Baby Jesus for lunch. Or at least they feel that atheists would like to, because without God they must hate religion and have no moral foundation.

Certainly, some atheists argue that God cannot exist, hate religion and are pretty immoral. But there’s quite a range. There are varieties of unbelief, just as there are varieties of belief. I like to call myself a “weak atheist,” or “little ‘a’ atheist,” primarily because I acknowledge the possibility that God may exist, but partly because I value religion. Well, at least the good bits.

One note on atheist morality: most atheists I know are very ethical and compassionate–some of them more than most religious people I know. Theists assume that if you have no God, then life has no meaning. But sometimes the opposite is true–if there is no God and no afterlife, then life *is* your meaning. This is your one shot to make the world a better place. I’m an atheist, and I think have pretty high moral-ethical standards. I’m not saying that I do a good job of living up to them, but most Christians I know are good people with high standards who struggle to live what they believe as well.

Anyhow, I’m thinking of changing my self-label from “atheist” to “agnostic”–less to reflect any change in belief in deity and more to help me communicate to others. People can’t understand an atheist who prays, who wants to attend church and who seeks out the experience of the divine. Many they’ll accept an agnostic pursuing these things. I hate when people trip up on the label and are unable to get past it (I get this with the “Mormon” label sometimes). I’d like to move beyond it and to get to the dialogue that matters. Anyhow, thanks to my brother Joe, John from Pittsburgh, and others who have made me think about this subject.

Any experiences or advice on this whole religious-labeling business?


  1. This is one of those problems that seems to be specific to a particular setting. I never have to provide a label summing up my religious proclivities, but then, I don’t hang out with many people who go to church. However, I often find it useful to to sum up my political stances.

    I am sitting here trying to figure out what I’d call myself. Neither atheist or agnostic is quite right, and it’s not like there’s a group I want to align myself with or support, the way there is in politics–I call myself a feminist in part because I am one and in part because it helps support other women who call themselves feminists. But if I call myself an atheist, does it help other atheists? I don’t think so….

    I guess I generally use the term seeker to describe myself. I want to know a lot more than I do, and I’m willing to look for the knowledge I want, and I also accept the possibility that everything I’ve ever thought or believed about the divine and the nature of the universe is patently, thoroughly wrong.

    For what what’s worth.

  2. The label’s actually more of a problem in discussions outside of Mormonism. Because religion is my primary interest / passion / obsession, I’m constantly engaged in dialogue about it, and I think we put out labels to get a sense of where we’re coming from. My boss and some of my friends call me a “Mormon atheist.” But I’ve also had enough deep conversations with my boss that he can see past the stereotypes.

    I actually think taking on the label can be helpful to atheists who either feel isolated or who are concerned about how atheists are vilified and misunderstood. I know it’s helped me when I’ve encountered others who identify themselves as atheists. But you’re right, it’s not quite on the same order as feminism. There’s atheism as a personal philosophy, and then there’s atheism as a political identity, which is pretty isolated and small.

  3. Holly, the more I think about it, the more I like the term seeker. Labels like atheist and agnostic place primary importance on one’s stand on God’s existence (and nature). Seeker puts the focus more on one’s attitude. I’ve also been thinking of myself as a pilgrim, a spiritual traveler, and that kind of fits, too.

    Maybe I should ditch the whole atheist/agnostic concern and get on with my seeking and traveling…

  4. I’ve been thinking of you as my “Agnostic-Mormon brother.”

    I like to think of myself as a “Humanist.” Although I still find the term a little too closely tied to the Humanism Movement, and less on the focus towards the equal treatment of all people, and the helping out of people in need. At least in my mind, that is. Of course, aren’t true seekers of enlightenment above such petty things as labels?

  5. Humanism, as Karen Armstrong points out in A History of God, is a religion without god.

    I don’t think anyone interested in enlightenment is above attempting to understand, decribe accurately and communicate his/her sense of what the universe is and how s/he experiences and fits into it. Which doesn’t mean we ever expect our descriptions to be adequate or absolute. One you thing you find over and over in mystical texts is an acknowledgment that language is inadequate when it comes to expressing/discussing the divine–or, for that matter, any complicated human experience–love, for instance. But the fact that language is inadequate doesn’t mean we should dispense with it entirely.

    One of my favorite scriptures is Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” I have long believed that the sincerest prayers are those that cannot be articulated in anything other than a shout of joy or a groan of despair. But sometimes I figure I should use the other tools at my disposal to articulate what I feel/think, include nouns as precise as I can find.

  6. Good post, Holly. :) I could probably have worded what I said better, but I find my vocabulary getting smaller and smaller as the days since college get more and more. 😛

  7. michael

    dude, i’m an day-theist, which means i only believe in God during the daylight hours, and which makes dating both more fun and more perilous…


  8. michael

    ps, i’ve got a young mormon lass attending the festivities tonight – perhaps you’ll make it and show her we’re not all weird, theory-bound god fearers…



  9. Hey Mike–good to see you stomping around these parts! Do day-theists have vampire-like weaknesses and strengths? 😛

    I wish I could be more involved in the Long Beach happenings–the commute and the family/work life make it hard for me to feel connected to all that’s going on over there… :( Unfortunately, you’ll have to handle the Mormons on your own tonight!

  10. amber

    This only works when people are ready to listen to you talk for a long time, but I tell people that I am a “literal atheist”—that I am “without god.” Clearly this is not the same as your experience of atheism since you are involved in religion, but it takes the edge off of what a lot of people consider a pretty disagreeable stance. I don’t deny god because god doesn’t affect me in any way that I can see… which is why I also don’t acknowledge god. God is or is not; but either way I live my life in a way that I feel is good (or try to), and if god cared if I believed or not, god would let me know.

  11. Amber, I like how you choose to speak about your unbelief–from personal experience, rather than trying to prescribe or make general declarations. I think that this approach opens the door for much better dialogue and relationships, and I wish more people would speak this way religiously and politically.

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