It Helps to Remember That No Atheist Is Just an Atheist

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It took me some time to learn what an atheist was. The term had been a popular playground insult long before I knew what it meant. It wasn't something I was eager to own. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I went through the "I don't believe in gods, but I'm no atheist" phase.

Things changed once I learned what atheism was. It was nothing more than the lack of belief in gods. Like it or not, that was me. Against my best efforts to cling to it, I had lost my god-belief. Trying to get it back seemed as futile as trying to unlearn my native language. I was an atheist.

I can't recall ever believing that atheists were "just atheists." Before I knew what atheism meant, I equated it with something like "evil." Even then, I realized that people had to be more than that. Once I understood what atheism meant, I realized it was even more limited than I had thought. I was an atheist, but I was so much more than that.

If someone tells you they are an atheist, they are telling you whether they believe in gods. They aren't telling you any more than that. You haven't learned anything about what they might believe.

I suppose the fact that a person tells you they are an atheist might mean something more in some cases. Atheism is still met with such hostility in some places that many of us prefer to keep it quiet. Depending on where you are, a disclosure of atheism could communicate trust in you. I wouldn't want to assume this, but it can be a nice thought at times.

Why does it matter that atheists aren't "just atheists?" It helps us remember what the label means. More important, it helps us remember everything it doesn't mean. This makes it easier to maintain realistic expectations of others.

Some of us know so few atheists that we sometimes forget that they aren't all like us. Their experiences connected to atheism may be very different from ours. They might live somewhere where atheists are plentiful. They might have never faced the anti-atheist bigotry we experience almost every day.

It is hard to unite around not believing in gods. One doesn't see many groups founded on what their members don't believe or do. This is why most of the atheists who unite do so around other issues. The separation of church and state is one common example, but there are others. A variety of humanist issues can bring some atheists together.

What sort of thing most often connects atheists, or at least leads us to want to connect with each other? I've long thought this boils down to how our religious neighbors treat us. Atheists who face regular bigotry seem quicker to recognize the value of support. They seem more motivated to come together. Atheists who don't encounter this stuff may be less likely to see the point.

This is where I often struggle. I don't mean I struggle to see the point of secular activism; I struggle to wrap my head around how many don't. I wish all atheists would have some investment in ending bigotry. I wish all atheists would want to strengthen the separation of church and state.

I recognize that this isn't the case and that wishing it to be different won't change it. I'm not religious, after all. I know that not all atheists are like me, and I have to come to terms with that.

There's at least one more way to look at the reality that no atheist is "just an atheist." Let it be a source of empowerment. I'm an atheist, but I'm so much more than that. Atheism is part of my identity but not a large or defining part. If you are an atheist, you are also much more than that. The role it plays in your life is up to you.

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