Positive vs negative label

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Positive vs negative label

Post  blacklens on Mon Sep 14, 2009 4:28 am

Once in a while a thought pops into my head that I need to explore a little further, and what better place to do that than among you guys.

There has been quite a lively debate on the whole labelling issue when it comes to us non-believers - should we call ourselves atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, rationalists or even brights? Indeed, the first poll on this forum is about this very thing. I freely admit that I haven't been following the overall debate too closely, but one of the main objections to labels such as atheist is that it's a negative label and as such doesn't describe what you are but only what you are not.

I could gladly use quite a few of the different available labels for myself, but when I'm forced to choose only one (as the eminent doubtcaster Dr Prof Luke Galen forced the respondents in his recent survey to do), I choose (without hesitation) to label myself as atheist. The other day I started thinking on why that is. Why would I rather choose to use a negative label than a positive one? Is it only due to cultural aspects, such as the term atheist being more commonly known than many of the others, or could it be something else?

So, the thought that popped into my head the other day was this:
What if I choose the negative label 'atheist' rather than any positive label because of my innate dislike of group conformity (I can't remember what term was used for this personality trait in 'Profile of the Godless')? Every positive label, at least those that suggest multiple traits or attributes or opinions, might include some trait/attribute/opinion that I don't agree with and that I'm not quite comfortable with as a description of who I am. A negative label,on the other hand, only describes what I'm not.

What are your thoughts about this little idea of mine?
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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  Stegocephalian on Mon Sep 14, 2009 4:47 am

Interesting idea!

And it might have a grain of truth in it, at least for me. Though I rarely describe myself as just an atheist - I usually attach something more to it, as my position on a single question "do gods exist?" seems like a very spartan thing to exclusively associate myself with.

So I tend to describe myself as an agnostic atheist, which at least conveys the information that I distinguish between a claim of knowledge, and a claim of belief.

I often describe myself as "naturalistically thinking atheist", or "an atheist with a fully naturalistic world view", which is closer to conveying my actual world view (though it says nothing on ethics).

I don't like to associate myself with too complex, "heavy-baggage" ideologies though, perhaps for the reluctance to conform that you suggest... though perhaps more because I believe that reality and truth should not be a matter similar to supporting a sports team - I'd rather evaluate separate issues on their own, not as blocks of ideology, where attachment to a lable dictates your position on very disparate issues.
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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  Nicholas on Mon Sep 14, 2009 6:26 am

I think part of identifying who we are is figuring out who we aren't. A negative label is not always a bad thing.

I use atheist as a starting point, should such a need to call myself one arises. Let me explain: I tend to find that when I use positive self-defining phrases such as "secular humanist", "freethinker", "rationalist", or what have you, more often than not I get a blank stare followed by a "what's that?" So I start with atheist. Almost everyone knows what that means. And why should I not? I am proud of the fact that I can think for myself, and don't let myself fall prey to fanciful fairy tales and the like. I then explain that no, in fact I cannot show one way or another if there is a deity of any kind - and neither can anyone else. If I still have their attention, I can continue on explaining what secular humanism is, and so forth.

Intellectually and philosophically I am an agnostic, but in practice (and for all intents and purposes) I am an atheist.
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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  Sosa on Mon Sep 14, 2009 3:43 pm

Yes, negative labels aren't always a bad thing. By knowing what we are not we get closer to knowing what we are. I hope that makes sense. I try not to label myself an atheist unless it is relevant to the conversation. Atheism only describes my position on one issue and does not define what ideologies I hold or what my political positions are. It is more of a rejection than an affirmation.
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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  blacklens on Mon Sep 14, 2009 5:40 pm

Stegocephalian wrote:I don't like to associate myself with too complex, "heavy-baggage" ideologies though, perhaps for the reluctance to conform that you suggest... though perhaps more because I believe that reality and truth should not be a matter similar to supporting a sports team - I'd rather evaluate separate issues on their own, not as blocks of ideology, where attachment to a lable dictates your position on very disparate issues.
That's exactly what I mean with 'reluctancy to conform'. Maybe I should have said 'dislike in package deals' instead. That's the reason I've always had trouble attaching a specific political party label to myself, and tend to jump around a bit depending on the issue at hand.*


*I had a scary experience a few months back when I (for the first time) actually found myself agreeing with the Christian right wing party here in Sweden. The issue in question was if the Church of Sweden (and other religious institutions) should retain their right to officiate weddings or if that should be reserved for the state. I as well as the christian party wanted to this over to the state, but for completely different reasons. The Christian party's reason was that if the Church were to turn this over to the state, the Church would be free to choose which marriages to bless, which really meant that it could choose which marriages NOT to bless, i.e. same-sex marriages. I, on the other hand, wanted to have the officiating priviliges moved to the state in order for same-sex marriages to not be descriminated against. The result? Well, same-sex marriages now have the same legal status as opposite-sex marriages (i.e. so called registered partnerships have been available since 1995, but now there is no longer any difference whatsoever, not even in name), and next month the CoS will decide whether they will officiate them or not. If they do (and they probably will) they will be the first church in the world to do so, much to the dismay of the Church of England which sent a very worried letter to the CoS. You can read the letter here: Part 1, Part 2
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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  DG on Mon Sep 14, 2009 9:03 pm

**Warning - I submitted a similar post some hours ago, but it seems to have vanished so this is my frustrated, possibly disjointed, recollection of what I had written. NOTE: The previous post was funnier and more coherent**

An interesting idea, but I don't know if I am convinced that the use of the term "atheist" is non conformist - in fact I think a good argument could be made to the contrary. Atheism includes a number of ideologies that elect to come together under one banner, despite their differences or the more 'non conformist' labels that they can use. As mentioned elsewhere, when I am feeling particularly non-conformist I refer to my religion as "Apathetic", very few people would classify their religion as apathetic, there is no information given with that 'label', it is just meaningless, non-conformist rambling (but it helps me to annoy the religious right, so I am happy with that).

As for Atheism being negative, I disagree:

Atheism is simply a way of saying "My world view is based on science, I believe in evidence and remain sceptical in the absence of viable evidence. My world-view does not need a "God" (even for the things that science can not yet explain) and, in the absence of viable evidence, I remain sceptical as to the existence of God. I dare say that, for most atheists, if sufficient evidence was provided for the existence of God they would be believers (and, with a sufficient demonstration of His/Her powers, would accept Him/Her as the creator).

To view this as a negative we must first accept theism as the 'positive' proposition - in the western world one could be forgiven for assuming that this is the default position, but there is no reason for this to be the case. If we look at it the other way, any person who claims to have faith without evidence (ie God, the Invisible Pink Unicorn) or even despite the evidence (young earth, dead people getting better after a few days) and go on to day that they do not believe in science (in so far as it contradicts their faith). Have they not taken the 'negative' position.

With some reluctance I should probably accept that atheism is most commonly recognised for its negative belief in God, and as such could be considered negative, but I maintain that this is ONLY the result of common usage and the assumption that Religion is the positive proposition. it seems strange to me that those making the positive proposition seek, not only to assert their proposition as fact in the absence of evidence, but have managed to treat the non-believers as having the negative label.

Meanwhile, I find myself wondering if Scientologists can be considered atheistic. Without being an expert, as I understand it they have no need for, or belief in, a "God" (as far as I am aware they don't deal with creation, and Xenu is an alien, not a god in a theistic sense), further their belief is based on evidence* and is a conclusion based on the observation of that evidence.


* It may be based on BAD evidence (e-meters and the likes) but the believers seem to accept the readings as evidence of the existence of thetans (rather than requiring faith).

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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  Stegocephalian on Tue Sep 15, 2009 2:59 am

DG - I have to disagree with you here. "atheism" does definitely not refer to anything beyond the answer to one question: "do you believe a god or gods exist?". If the answer is "no", then you are by definition an atheist, regardless of your position on any other question, or your epistemological approach to evidence.

What you describe, and ascribe to atheism seems to be skepticism, or the naturalistic world view. Although people often seem to conflate these terms, they are not identical.

Scientologists, if they do not believe in the existence of gods, are atheists, quite uncontroversially. They are not skeptics, nor do they hold a naturalistic world view, but they are atheists.

Many Buddhists are atheists also, yet they do not hold a naturalistic world view, as their belief system includes notions like rebirth.

Raelians are atheists also - they do not believe in gods, but their mythology is rich and, to a skeptic, every bit as preposterous as that of any religion.

It may be true that most atheists, at least in the Western world, tend to be skeptical, and tend to hold a naturalistic world view, rejecting notions of the supernatural altogether, but none of this is implied in the definition of atheism.
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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  blacklens on Tue Sep 15, 2009 3:33 am

DG wrote:As for Atheism being negative, I disagree:

Atheism is simply a way of saying "My world view is based on science, I believe in evidence and remain sceptical in the absence of viable evidence. My world-view does not need a "God" (even for the things that science can not yet explain) and, in the absence of viable evidence, I remain sceptical as to the existence of God. I dare say that, for most atheists, if sufficient evidence was provided for the existence of God they would be believers (and, with a sufficient demonstration of His/Her powers, would accept Him/Her as the creator).
I don't agree with you on this. As Stegocephalian said, atheism is simply the lack of belief in any god.

I live in a very secular and godless country where the majority of people lack a belief in any god (and would probably accept the label atheist), but that doesn't stop them from believing in all kinds of silly woo. I guess that if you grow up in a country where a belief in god is the norm, those who 'escape' that might tend to be more thought through and coherent in their worldview.
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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  Nicholas on Tue Sep 15, 2009 5:48 am

Not to heave on the criticism too heavily, I also have to echo that atheism is, by definition, a negative proposition. A-theism, without deity. I do understand where you are coming from DG; when I claim atheism, it infers (for me anyway) an acceptance of scientific truth over dogma or superstition. For most, I would bet that is the case. But don't let the inference of certain traits associated with atheism (freethinking, humanism, secularism, etc) get confused with the actual definition.

I think it's an important distinction to make, especially when so many believers will equate atheism with nonsense like nihilism, devil-worship, and baby-eating (for real, someone thought I ate babies). Of course this is an extreme on the other end, but all the more reason to more accurately define ourselves.
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Re: Positive vs negative label

Post  Neon Genesis on Tue Sep 15, 2009 8:48 pm

I prefer to identify myself as an atheist mainly because it's the label most people are familiar with and it's the label I'm most comfortable with. I like naturalist but it sounds like too sciencety for me. Not that I don't like science, but it feels like the kind of label that only a scientist or a person who's really intelligence with science would use and I just don't feel like that's me although I do like learning about science. I like the label secular humanist but it sounds a bit too activist to me. I would be more active in separation of church state issues if I could be, but I presently am not able to, so I don't feel like it's a label for me. Freethinker is another label I like but it's not too common of a word with most people and it's just easier to tell people I'm an atheist than it is to explain what a freethinker is.

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negative labels

Post  Closet Agnostic on Tue Sep 15, 2009 11:08 pm

Whatever the actual literal definition of the word, the term Atheist has negative associations with it (in my neck of the woods). If you tell someone you are an atheist here they will think devil-worshiper or nihilist. If you say Agnostic, Humanist, Skeptic, Freethinker, etc., they will say huh? and ask about it. Then you can throw some facts at them and see how they ignore it and go straight to the "faith" argument. I like the Agnostic label and more specifically the Pragmatic Agnostic label. It seems more evidence-based but it still says "prove your god to me".
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