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Let's Play "Name the Atheist”

Different ways of naming the godless. In the era of bestselling pro-atheist books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins...

Different ways of naming the godless.

In the era of bestselling pro-atheist books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins (plus Bill Maher's documentary Religulous), atheists have a higher public profile than ever, even if the first atheist President seems about as near as the first talking-dog President.

FYI, I'm an atheist myself. I don't believe in God, Buddha, Xenu, the force, angels, werewolves, ghosts, or smurfs. However, my claims to pure rationality are somewhat undermined by the fact that I'm frequently knocking on wood, avoiding the number 13, shying away from tails-side-up pennies, and throwing virgins in the local volcano-just to be safe. What can I say? Let he who has won the Nobel Prize for Consistency throw the first stone.

Still, the high-profile/bad name of "atheist" is reflected in mixed feelings about the word itself, which just doesn't taste right in the mouths of many unbelievers, who feel it sounds too certain, too annoying, too aggressive, or too likely to result in a smiting if they're wrong.

While I embrace (and occasionally spoon) atheism, I sympathize with others who would like a different word but aren't comfortable with the ultra-hesitant "agnostic" label either. Fortunately, the English language has a rich history and ever-evolving present. In the spirit of previous columns on economic pickles and rampaging Romeos, here's a guide to old and new terms for non-believing, heretical blasphemers-because godless doesn't have to mean synonym-less.

Used from the 19th century to the present, this 1834 use from the Oxford English Dictionary sums up the atheist position well: "The Non-theist..affirms that natural reason has not yet attained to (evidence of) Supernatural Being."
Pros: A perfect synonym for "atheist" that's a bit fresher.
Cons: Approximately as dull as dishwater.

I kind of love this word, and I often refer to myself as a "godless heathen." Historically, I would only be only semi-correct, as the word was more of an insult for pagans and their polytheistic ways.
Pros: Kind of humorous in an archaic way, like using "thee" and "thou" and "by the hammer of Thor!" Also, "Here comes the heathen!" inspires more awe than "Here comes the secular humanist!"
Cons: Strictly speaking, a heathen believes in a metric heaven-load of gods, so that's pretty far from an atheist.

secular humanist
Though around since the 19th century, this 2003 OED quote gets to the reasons why some embrace the term: "We have affirmed that secular humanists can lead a moral life and be good citizens without religious faith. Secular humanism is an ethical, philosophical, and scientific outlook." Intriguingly, one meaning of "humanist" (as well as the original meaning of "humanitarian") was someone was believed Jesus was only a dude, not a god.
Pros: Major specificity. Plus, it's more positive than "atheist," which suggests a lack of deities and nothing else.
Cons: A little academic-sounding for my tastes. I've never seen "secular humanist" listed on a dating site, and there may be a reason for that.

athey (or athy)
This abbreviation of "atheist" popped up in Grant Barrett's end of the year roundup for 2009. He didn't say much beyond labeling it "Usually derogatory," but the semi-reliable Urban Dictionary suggests it's similar to calling a Christian a "Fundie." Whatever its origin, "athey" hasn't caught on much.
Pros: It's silly. So much talk on this topic-whether pro-god, anti-god, pro-atheist, or anti-atheist-is as amusing as an oozing cyst. I'd be happy to be called an athey.
Cons: Will offend the more self-important of the atheys, but that's a pro in my book.

This was coined by Paul Geisert and brought to a wider audience by Richard Dawkins, who anticipated the vocabulary skeptics: "Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new noun.... Brights constitute 60 percent of American scientists, and more than 90 percent of those scientists good enough to be elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences are Brights. Look on the bright side: though at present they can't admit it and get elected, the US Congress must be full of closet Brights. As with the Gays, the more Brights come out, the easier it will be for yet more Brights to do so." That comparison raises an interesting question: Are there more gay gays or bright brights?
Pros: You got me. This word is freaking brutal.
Cons: "Bright" is-forgive the expression-a godawful term. Pretentious, arrogant, tone-deaf... It kind of reminds me of a local coffee shop in Chicago called Intelligentsia-perhaps the worst name of anything I've ever heard, a name that almost makes me want to forsake their delicious coffee (almost). If you have to call yourself "bright" or part of the intelligentsia, you probably really belong among the buttholia.

Other terms such as "unbeliever" (1526), "non-believer" (1846), and "disbeliever" (1648) exist, but my favorite is the rarely used "blasphematour." Like a terminator or matador, a blasphematour sounds like an impressive person indeed.

It totally beats being called a godless doofus. Not that I would know anything about that...

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