Exploring my religious philosophy with friends recently, I have engaged in the ongoing debate over groups of people reclaiming words once deemed pejorative. For instance, “Unitarian” was originally meant as an insult, yet our religious forebears took ownership of the word. Addressing the Boy Scouts, I commented that the song “Yankee Doodle” was written and sung by the British to mock the bumpkin colonists. In my opinion, if African Americans want to reclaim the n-word, and gays want to reclaim the q-word and women want to reclaim the b-word, then I am all for it. I have always loved the quote from the movie 1776, when Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island breaks the tie vote allowing the Continental Congress to debate independence by saying, “I’ve never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yes, I’m for debating anything!” Well, I have never found a word so inherently harmful that it couldn’t be used during intelligent discourse. That does not mean that we must use it, but I reserve for myself and others the right to use it should we choose to do so.
I feel especially possessive about the word “atheist.” According to Wikipedia, atheism “originated as a pejorative epithet applied to any person or belief in conflict with established religion.” The following citation is used to support this statement.
Drachmann, A. B. (1977 (“an unchanged reprint of the 1922 edition”)). Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. Chicago: Ares Publishers. ISBN 0-89005-201-8. “Atheism and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheotēs; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed.”
I believe it imperative that atheists fully reclaim this word and refute the long held association with amorality, which I would contend is still held by many today.
For me, reclaiming “atheist” looms especially large because I seek to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I feel a duty to provide other atheists (as well as agnostics or others questioning their theology) with a role model of an atheist who is also religious — even devoutly religious. I feel an equal duty to help theists understand how someone can live a religious life (and perhaps lead their religious community) whose theology lacks theistic underpinnings. It is important, for instance, for an atheist minister to model respect for and reasonable analysis of others’ sacred texts, interpreting the wisdom of those texts removed from the assumption of an anthropomorphic motive force in the universe.
And, I feel an especially enormous duty to our children and youth, growing up in a predominantly theistic cultural paradigm. If you are an adult, do you remember those early teen years when you began to question the wisdom passed on to you from parents and other elders? Imagine being 13 today in America, questioning the existence of God in a community where nearly everyone you know is Christian and in a world where nearly every major religious movement begins with the premise of an omniscient being that will, in most cases, punish you for such thoughts. Young minds need to know that such thoughts are healthy and reasonable. Young people need to know that giving up the notion of god does not mean giving up meaning in life, or the joy of human community. Children and youth need to hear the voices of adults – theist and atheist – unafraid to worship together, focusing the power and love of the human spirit on their thoughts and feelings and actions.