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It may not be the first A-Word that comes to mind, but many Americans still find it just as detestable.

Atheist.

I felt an urgent need to apply this word as a label when I scrapped supernatural belief a few years ago. At that point, it became a matter of personal satisfaction – a badge I wanted to wear proudly on my chest. I had earned it.

I had overcome the formidable challenge of unscrambling my brain after many years of religious programming and the word “atheist” seemed to aptly define my position on the matter. I was convinced at the time that this label was necessary, so I fully embraced it. I bought the shirt, the bumper sticker and wrote openly about it on a blog. I felt a sense of validation by connecting with other self-proclaimed atheists. It seemed to solidify my identity.

However, it wasn’t too long into this “loud and proud” phase when I realized how stigmatizing the label actually was. I kept getting lumped into an over-generalized and redefined idea of atheism. This was not a positive experience for the most part and there were times when I felt like my character was being hijacked by the label.

People who knew nothing about me aside from being an atheist would refer to me as hostile, militant, subversive, and evil, although I wasn’t any of these things. In contrast, people who knew me for years suddenly treated me like a pariah; a pitiable fool corrupted by the world and in need of prayer.

I was still me, Billy – a friendly, fun-loving person. One of the good guys, only now without the belief. Being an atheist was only one aspect of who I was, but it started to distort every aspect of how I was perceived by others.

This isn’t what I had I mind. It was just a label, right? I mean, if you lack belief in a god or gods then what else do you call yourself? That is the definition of the word, after all. It took some time before I finally learned that using a word with an appropriate definition was completely different from using that same word as a label, because a label is a word with baggage.

Why do we use labels?

As humans, we have a strong tendency to categorize things into groups and apply labels to them – a cognitive framework known as a schema. It’s an inherent trait, one of our basic mental processes, which is why we are prone to categorize any stimulus within our environment automatically or with very little effort. Using a schema helps us organize and interpret the vast amount of information we take in and process it quickly, allowing us to learn and adapt as new information is presented. Think of it as taking a mental shortcut. Without this ability, we’d see everything “as one great blooming, buzzing confusion”, as William James described it, and not an orderly world of separate objects.

Although it may be a quicker method of perception, it’s not always accurate and sometimes it can even be problematic. For instance, an existing schema can prevent us from absorbing new information. Let’s say we have a particular view about a group of people that has developed into a prejudice. Consequently, this view will prevent us from interpreting situations or individuals within that group correctly. Additionally, when that particular view is challenged, we’re more likely to create an alternative explanation to uphold, not modify, the existing schema. In doing so, this tends to actually strengthen the schema and make it all the more unyielding.

Another problem with this framework is that it can be overly generalized. For example, we tend to differentiate between various racial groups with labels based on distinct skin-color categories, such as “Black” and “White”. These categorical labels are social, not biological, and unfortunately, they are often used to determine the status and well-being of people within those groups.

A study conducted by Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford, found that race labeling can affect how we perceive an individual. A control group of white college students were shown a picture of a racially ambiguous man. Half of the students were told that the man was black, while the other half were told he was white. In one of the tasks, the students were asked to spend a few minutes drawing the face of this man as it was presented on a screen in front of them. Although they were all looking at the same face, the students drew the man with stereotypical characteristics respective to the race label they were given. (Example below) The label had shaped their perception of the man, preventing them from clearly seeing the individual.

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An example of the student drawings from the Imaging Race study showing how labels affect perception.

Labels aren’t just words or idle placeholders. They actually determine what we see. The context of the label alters the word so that it is no longer confined to the dictionary definition. It is now defined by the context.

So is using atheist as a label bad?

The label “atheist” has long been seen as a negative. This is mostly a religious misconception about atheism, but it exists nonetheless. As Richard Dawkins noted, “For some reason, people have been brought up to believe that atheists have two horns and a tail. I mean, there are figures that show that atheists are the most mistrusted group in America, which is pretty astonishing, considering, as I say, the innocuousness of what they actually are.”

Some of the figures Dawkins referred to can be found in a set of studies published by Will Gervais of the University of British Columbia showing that atheists are one of the most disliked, distrusted groups in America. For example, participants were presented with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car but then drives off without leaving contact or insurance information. Participants were then asked to choose the probability that the offender was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. The results revealed that people thought it equally probable that the wrongdoer was either an atheist or a rapist, but not likely at all to be either a Christian or a Muslim.

In general, atheists are not bad people. You don’t hear about atheist groups flying planes into buildings or blowing up abortion clinics, but there is a negative social reputation already in place that overrides actual positive behavior. The label is shaping the perception, strengthening the prejudice. It’s a broken schema and one that most likely cannot be repaired.

What should I call myself then?

Nothing. It isn’t necessary. While we are labelers by nature, we don’t need to make a conscious effort to label everything, and that includes ourselves. Aside from feeling validation from like-minded peers, what point is there to applying “atheist” as a label?

If you’re trying to state your position on the matter, it would be more beneficial to simply say, “I do not believe in god.” While the meaning is the same, you’re not having to deal with the additional baggage that comes along with saying, “I’m an atheist.”

Oddly enough, I’ve noticed that avoiding the use of the label “atheist” only seems to anger other atheists. It’s seen as cowardly not to brand yourself and embrace the movement. You must be a zealous and strident supporter in order to be legitimate. Many fail to see that this is the behavior of an ideologue and claiming that atheism is not an ideology is willful ignorance.

The label, not the word, has become an ideology. Many atheists are quick to denounce this because they feel that having an ideology is equivalent to being religious, but they’re mistaken. An ideology, by definition, is an orientation that characterizes the thinking of a group. This is true within the atheist movement. Let me be quick to clarify, I’m not saying atheism is a religion, not yet anyway. I’m saying the label of atheism has developed an ideology by way of a cultural following.

To thine own self be true.

I can tell you this, my decision to move beyond the label has nothing to do with fear. It has everything to do with growing up. I no longer think it is important to label myself as an atheist. I no longer care whether people believe in god or not. What I do care about is being true to myself. I don’t want to be defined by a label that doesn’t wholly represent me, which is the important thing to keep in mind about labels – they aren’t intended to represent an individual fully or accurately.

I’m a human and I respect and value other humans. As long as they return the favor, I have no reason or desire to put myself at odds with anyone. I may not believe in a god, gods or of anything supernatural, but I’m choosing to remove the label.

I am overcoming the A-Word and moving on.

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