Differently labeled

John Wilkins is proposing “Affirmative Atheism” as a moniker for the “militant” or “strident” practice of standing up for one’s right to be godless. I like the term, but I have to say I don’t think it’s going to accomplish much, even if it does catch on.

I’m old enough (barely) to remember TV commercials for charities devoted to helping “crippled children” or “the crippled.” Shortly thereafter (roughly the early ’70s), they decided to change “crippled” to “handicapped,” since it was less queasy-making.

By the ’80s, “handicapped” had changed to “disabled,” and people were toying with awkward constructions like “differently abled” or “physically challenged.” The idea was to remove the stigma attached to a word by substituting a more palatable word. Instead, “challenged” and “special” became smirky insults.

The problem is, no matter what word you use for them, people with serious physical problems are always going to make lots of other people uncomfortable. Being reminded that you’re mortal, and vulnerable, isn’t a lot of fun, and for some people it’s really problematic. And changing the vocabulary isn’t going to help. The stigma doesn’t come from the word, it gets attached to the word.

What does this have to do with atheism? Well, the very idea of not believing in God, or an afterlife, or a soul, or something “spiritual” makes some people very, very uncomfortable. Giving it a nice-sounding name like “affirmative” isn’t going to change that.

(pic via Gasoline Alley Antiques)

One response to this post.

  1. It’s funny that you brought this up…I was just thinking about semantics and was going to blog about it. Being an atheist is such an odd thing. The word “atheist” is so loaded and carries such a stigma. I’ve played around with everything from “secular humanist” to “naturalistic pantheist”…when quite frankly, I’m just an atheist. Really. But I’ve been spending a lot of time running circles around the word, partly because it means different things to different people (does being an atheist mean you are sure there are no gods, or do you deny the existence of gods without evidence to the contrary, etc.?) and partly because, well…to most people it’s the equivalent of labeling myself as evil and hedonistic.

    Apparently we’re on the same wavelength this week. 🙂 Great analogy!


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