“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic”
Dumbledore, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
They might not admit it, but atheists agree. Words matter. Words can be a sort of magic. Words add energy to the good … or to the bad … ideas that drive what we do.
I was watching David Silverman’s speech to the Reason Rally on June 4. He spoke of the importance of calling ourselves by the name atheist, even when we more strongly identify with lest controversial labels like Freethinker, Secular Humanist or Agnostic. It never really crossed my mind that it affects more than ourselves how we use words about ourselves, especially when those words also describe them. He made the point as long as we avoid calling ourselves atheist to avoid the stigma it carries, a stigma placed on the word by bigots, we perpetuate and empower that bigotry. In turn, that bigotry affects us all.
It is all well and good that we choose labels that are more accurate, and that better capture who we are as individuals. But there is harm to ourselves and our brethren when we diminish the larger umbrella term that encompasses both of us. It would be like Harry Potter proudly declaring himself of Gryffendor House but avoiding the word Wizard.
The part of Mr. Silverman’s speech that most moved me to agree with him was his analogy with Christianity. Everyone knows that Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists and so on are just different types of Christian. None of them would would hesitate for a second to be known by the larger umbrella term. Yet Freethinkers, agnostics, Secular Humanists and the like all tend to use those labels in place of the larger umbrella term. It is common knowledge that Hasidic is a kind of Judaism and Sunni is a kind of Islam, but no one seems to understand what in the world Humanist or Agnostic means. Again this dovetails nicely with J.K. Rowlings wisdom wrapped in literature…
“The fear of a name only increases the fear of the thing itself”
Atheism is a political “Voldemort” in a way. Not evil, but a name that makes people very uncomfortable – on both sides of the issues. Using the name Atheist works to remove the bigotry, fear and stigma. Avoiding the name serves no real purpose except to identify ourselves to ourselves. Two magic students might have a conversation among themselves whether they are Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw, but all of them claim the name of wizard. We might have conversations among ourselves about agnostic vs secular, but we’d all do well to give full voice to the umbrella term atheist. Saying the name works a sort of magic, dissipating fear and stigma for those outside the term, increasing calm and comfort for those of us within it.