Labeling The Movement: ‘Atheism’ And ‘Freethought’ As Popular Brands

Poll on Facebook

At the moment there is a poll on the Indian Atheists facebook page asking people to help choose the name (or rather, the taxonomic format) for the regional groups that have been created by us over the past couple of months. The regional coordinators of these groups are working together to decide on a common taxanomy. A number of regional meets have taken place in the major cities of India, thanks to the initiative and work put in by the regional coordinators, as well as the organizational efforts of the coordinators at Nirmukta and Indian Atheists. Also, a number of cities are lining up to join in this network of regional groups around the country.

As we come together to decide what we will call our groups, I would like to present some facts and draw some logical conclusions on the issue of branding the movement.

I see two primary concerns.

  1. Accuracy in description.
  2. Popular reach.

Freethought:

In my opinion, the label that best assuages the first concern is ‘Freethought’. It is an accurate and all-encompassing term that we have already adopted as the ideological focus of Nirmukta (the parent group for Indian Atheists). From here:

“The word ‘Freethought’ does not simply represent the meaning implied in the coming together of the words ‘Free’ and ‘Thought’, contrary to what most people, including many freethinkers, seem to think. It is actually an idea that has been around for about more than 300 years.

The word ‘Freethought’ refers to a set of philosophies that adopt science, reason and logic as tools for understanding the natural world, rejecting sources of authority and tradition, such as religion, that claim infallible truth and require blind allegiance. The Freethinker magazine was first published in England in 1881 and is still around as a website. Today, the word ‘Freethought’ is used as an umbrella term encompassing a number of ideas including skepticism, application of the scientific method (scientific naturalism), philosophical naturalism, atheism, rationalism, humanism etc.

A common misconception is that freethought implies treating all ideas equally. This could not be farther from the truth. Freethinkers are extremely discriminatory of bad ideas, and adopt a refined reasoning process in judging factual claims”

Atheist:

The word ‘Atheist’ has the greatest popular reach of all the ones proposed. However, it is also a lot more contentious. Some of us do not like to be identified as atheists, and the reasons may vary. Please note that I do not necessarily subscribe to the following reasons for why the term ‘Atheist’ is controversial. I am simply presenting popular opinion.

  1. ‘Atheist’ sounds confrontational to some people.
  2. Some of our members are not atheists in the more general sense, although they may be atheists in the sense of rejecting the supernatural personal gods prescribed by the world’s religions.
  3. Some folks think that ‘Atheist’ closes off the group to those who are in the process of coming out.
  4. Atheism, in its purest form, is simply non-belief in god or gods. It offers no inherent value except in contrast to theism.

To counter these claims from a political perspective, all one needs to do is make the accurate observation that ‘Atheist’ is a term that is growing much faster and has a much greater reach than any of the others we have discussed above, at least in the short term. In fact, I would go so far as to state that the term ‘Atheist’ is about as powerful a meme as all the other terms that comprise freethought put together. The reason for this is obvious if you take all of culture into consideration (not just our movement). Most of the new members that we receive into the movement come from religious backgrounds that they have either already rejected or have seriously begun questioning. To these folk, atheism is the first step out of the darkness. It is the guiding light that releases them from the stranglehold of authoritarian dogma, institutionalized superstition, debilitating ritualism and irrational moral servitude. Once people identify themselves as atheists and come forward to be part of an organization of freethinkers, it is easier for the movement to provide them with fulfilling social, cultural and intellectual alternatives to religion and superstition. Atheism is the light at the end of the tunnel that leads believers to reason.

On analysis, I conclude that some combination of the two terms, ‘Atheist’ and ‘Freethinker’, would be most preferable as comprising the naming format of the regional groups. My personal favorite is ‘<city> Atheists & Freethinkers’. As a second choice I think ‘<city> Freethinkers’ is a better choice than ‘<city> Atheists’. The fact that the former is all encompassing and more accurate of all that we believe in and work towards as a group, supersedes the political advantages of the more popular and controversial ‘Atheist’ label.

I do not intend for this post to unfairly bias the choices that everyone makes. All I intend on doing here is providing a logical and evidence-based argument for my preferences. I encourage anyone who disagrees (or agrees) with what I have said to speak up, write another blog post, write a comment, post a comment on the Indian Atheists page on facebook… whatever needs to be done so we can have an educated conversation and make informed choices regarding this very important decision we have in front to us.