Ellen Johnson Responds to "The End of Atheism"
"ATHEIST is really a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term, it admits of no paltering and no evasion, and the need of the world, now as ever, is for clear-cut issues and unambiguous speech."
-- Chapman Cohen
From the President of the organization of people formerly known as "Atheists":
Sam Harris did not set out to be an Atheist spokesperson. Like Dr. Michael Newdow, the media thrust them both into that spotlight and they became defacto spokespersons.
Dr. Newdow once proclaimed, at our Godless Americans March on Washington, that Atheism should be considered a religion. Sam Harris proclaimed, at an Atheist convention, that we should not use the word "Atheist." Mr. Harris was fed up after having to repeat some explanation about Atheism three times. I think he said he had to do that in two different books and in one speech. Mr. Harris is an academic and may not be used to Atheist activism.
Blacks are still dealing with bigoted notions that they are lazy and on welfare. Jews are still dealing with claims that they are cheap or that they run the media. Italians are still having to deal with claims that they are all in the mafia, etc., etc. Yet, we don't seriously suggest that they change, or not use, their names in order to stop having to refute certain bigoted ideas. Should gays call themselves "non-heterosexuals" in order to be accepted?
Mr. Harris cannot see why we need a name for a group of people who are "against" something, or who don't believe in something. Take racism he says. There isn't any term for people who are against racism. We give ourselves a name because we are proud of who we are. A group needs to be identified in some way. And we want to be a "group." We aren't just against something. We are something.
Is the American Cancer Society just "against" something because they fight against cancer? Are they a "negative" organization? Is Greenpeace a negative organization because they are against pollution? Sounds silly doesn't it? Yet we buy into this nonsense when it is said about us.
In the end, the Theist doesn't give a damn what we call ourselves. You can call yourselves "sugar" and they will still hate you and lie about you if you are an activist or if you don't accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.
While we remain hung up on arguments over defining ourselves the extremist right wing Theists in America are defining the socio-political agenda for America and they don't give a damn what you think about their names.
From my experience, Christian fundamentalists are more concerned about our "activism" than what we call ourselves. They will attack anyone, Atheist or Theist, who challenges their privileged position in society. Remember Lisa Herdahl in Mississippi? She challenged organized school prayers there and she was a Christian. She was viciously attacked by the religious community for her efforts. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has received sixteen death threats in the last 30 years because of his liberal religious views. Trying to distance ourselves from our Atheism is not the answer.
But behind the call to change our name is always the desire for respectability by the Atheists. Atheists want the approval of others and so they try to hide who they are and the face they present to the world is one of shame and fear. When you act like you are ashamed of who you are, people will treat you like you should be. It is not the answer.
To say we should not have a name is to not exist. For far too long there have been words in our society that were considered taboo. If you didn't say them, those things didn't exist. We cannot allow ourselves to be made invisible by those who want the approval of others. At American Atheists we don't allow our adversaries to dictate what we call ourselves nor do we allow them to determine our actions.
Our own approval is enough. Our history is one to be proud of and American Atheists will never back down on wearing our name proudly. You cannot lead the way by looking back and we aren't going back. I invite Atheists to stand proud and use the name Atheist proudly and when you want people to refer to you remember the words of Mr. "T" who said, "Let them call me Mr. "T."
Ellen Johnson is president of American Atheists.