On labels

Photo: Getty Images/DiatoZen
Photo: Getty Images/DiatoZen

Recently, I’ve been less inclined to use labels which serve as a cover-all descriptor of my viewpoints. Here’s why.

In the previous five years, I must say that I have experienced radical changes in thought following some radical experiences in my life – very likely the result of undergraduate education and experiences on a college campus. I’ve identified as an atheist following rejection of Christian belief which was the result of childhood indoctrination that stayed with me through my teenage years. I’ve championed activism for separation of church and state – publicly challenging what I perceived as  local and state violations.

More unsurprisingly, at least for some of my readers, I’ve shed the labels feminist, liberal, progressive, and Democrat because of positions I disagree with and actions of people championing the beforementioned labels.

Rather than assuming a label which allows me to be pigeonholed and people who don’t know me to assume incorrect things, I would prefer not to use labels and instead talk about issues on an issue-by-issue basis.

I am happy to champion the label ‘atheist’ because it only tells a person that I lack belief in any gods; atheism entails no other conclusions. Atheists aren’t even necessarily, to my disappointment, philosophically informed. Other atheists may advance arguments for positions, some of which have nothing to do with their thoughts about religious beliefs, but these people don’t represent me in the same way (or really any way at all) that feminists would represent me if I identified as a feminist.

Still, though, people — particularly non-atheists — have false impressions/stereotypical portrayals of atheists. Simple definitional misunderstandings, too, lead people to believe falsehoods about atheists. The label comes with some baggage, then, but since atheism makes no positive claim, there appears to be far less baggage and — after informing people about definitions — issues can be talked about on an individual basis.

I am happy to champion the label ‘skeptic’ because it describes a mode of thought I use – critically evaluating claims and demanding argument, reason, and evidence to support claims. I affirm that I am willing to change any and all of my beliefs provided good reason. My approach to skepticism is informed by my undergraduate and extra-curricular pursuits in philosophy. I do my best to take a disinterested viewpoint toward beliefs I hold, engage with detractors, make myself available for scrutiny of my own viewpoints, and welcome disagreement.

Perhaps I should also abandon the two labels I use most — atheist and skeptic — because others may make incorrect assumptions, assuming things about me based on actions of others who similarly identify. The online atheist blogosphere, in some sectors, has particularly been a morass in recent years, but I object to being represented by other atheists (except for those in organizations I belong to and lead) — particularly the feminist atheists — who champion nonsense and will do so providing reasons I mention above – that these people do not represent me and that atheism is only an indicator for someone who lacks belief in gods.

Rejecting many labels allows me more freedom and for those who don’t know me to approach conversations with less baggage. While people will make unfair assumptions about me based on the few labels I use, explanation on my behalf can allow for clarity and the situation will hopefully not be as muddied. Perhaps I can forgo the label atheist and skeptic, instead providing definitions, but it might be the case that — in absence of labels — the initial problem appears once again.

As always, feel free to comment below. Should I cease using any label to describe myself? Should I use more? Agree or disagree with my reasoning?