Pop Quiz. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" is from:
1. The Rose starring Bette Midler
2. The Purple Rose of Cairo written and directed by Woody Allen
3. The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams
4. Sweet Devotion Roses by FTD
5. Romeo and Juliet by W. Shakespeare
You don't really need me to tell you the answer, do you? (*If you do, it's at the end of this piece.)
So, what's in a name? A lot, if the name is "atheist." Much negativity attaches to that label. By definition, in fact. The term "atheist" seems to have made its appearance in France in the late-1500s in the form of athéiste. It evolved from the Greek atheos, which was assembled from: a (without) + theos (deity or god).
My beef with the word "atheist" is that it suggests one is lacking something, one is without. How can one be lacking or without something that does not exist? Should one be labeled an aclausist if one believes there is no Santa Claus? Or an apanist if one denies the existence of Peter Pan? Silly, right? If one rejects the existence of Santa Claus or Peter Pan, one is considered sane and a realist. But, to one who does not believe in the existence of a god, no such latitude or respect is granted.
Synonyms for "atheist" include such euphemisms as: nonbeliever, disbeliever, unbeliever, skeptic, doubter, doubting Thomas, agnostic, nihilist, and so on. All of them negative to one extent or the other.
"Nihilist" I find particularly disturbing. Google "nihilist," and the first definition provided is: the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. Gulp!
A nihilist is pretty much of necessity an atheist; but an atheist need not be a nihilist. Far from it. I am an atheist, and I ascribe to the basic values of human decency. About most things I am not pessimistic, nor do I condemn existence. I believe in love and friendship and family and community and art and the New York Rangers. I strive to be a good citizen and to help others where I can. I just don't need the supervision of a supreme being or the threat of everlasting punishment for me to be ethical. Being a good citizen and good neighbor simply comprise the logical, responsible, and ultimately satisfying way to live.
So, back to "atheist." There have been numerous attempts to come up with a word or label that better captures what it means to be liberated from superstition and the supernatural. They include secularist, naturalist, secular naturalist, humanist, secular humanist, rationalist, free thinker, and "bright" (for the curious: http://www.the-brights.net).
My preference is "secular humanist," although, granted, it is neither catchy nor self-explanatory. Over the centuries, greater minds than mine have been wrestling with this appellation issue, so I doubt very much the conundrum will be resolved by anything offered by this blog. Consequently, next time you use or consider the term "atheist," do remember that the negativity is in the eye of the beholder. An atheist by any other name very likely will be a cultured, community-minded, considerate, and caring person.
(*The quote is part of Juliet's rationalization of her love for Romeo, who bears the name of an enemy family.)