Today I came across a Pew Research study showing that overall, people in the US feel more negatively about atheists than nearly every other belief system except one (see the table at the bottom of the article).
I can’t help but wonder how much of that may be affected by just the term atheist. That word makes it sound like the whole person is defined by opposition to an idea. It emphasizes a lack, as though the most important thing about that individual is an absence. It’s not a term that captures or even suggests a perspective. It doesn’t point towards a set of beliefs or values. The only inherent depth to the word atheist is “disagreeing with what all those other people believe.”
It’s hard to feel warmly towards someone who only ever disagrees, but doesn’t stand for anything. And that’s not to say that atheists don’t stand for anything, just that the umbrella term suggests that. Do atheists get invited participate in interfaith gatherings?
A less abrasive term might make others feel more positively towards them. But as I think about it, I’m not sure what other unifying tenet would suffice to distinguish between those who believe in God and those who don’t. Godless is no better, because it suggests lacking a moral compass.
If Atheism was a company, or a centralized organization, repositioning and renaming intentionally could be a viable option. Right now, I don’t see a clear path to getting a new name to stick. For now, we’ll have to pursue other paths that enable and encourage dialogue between atheists and theists. It doesn’t help anyone to see your neighbour as an enemy.
Update 2015-05-16: There is a common alternative term for atheist: skeptic. And groups that actively discuss religion from a non-believing perspective refer to themselves as the skeptic community. That, to me, is a huge improvement over atheist. It has a stronger tie with the scientific method, and does suggest something about how they view the world. I’ve heard skeptic used as a self-identifier a lot lately, but completely forgot about it when it came to writing my thoughts above. So it goes.