If you want to spare yourself (some) grief, don’t call yourself an atheist.
Humans love labels, but boy can they be confusing.
Take the following terms, for example: freethinker, atheist, sceptic, rationalist. If I were to invest some of my time in detailed research (which these days means viewing the second page of Google search results or clicking a supporting reference in a Wikipedia article) I might establish some hair-breadth differences, but I admit my initial reaction is that they’re all much of a muchness. You could say I’m sceptical about the differences between these terms. Or is it skeptical?
I am godless but I prefer to avoid describing myself as an atheist if I can. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to be godless, an atheist, a heathen or whatever else you might care to call it; it’s just that I don’t particularly like the word atheist, and I have the right to give myself whatever label or labels I want.
Apart from the negative connotation of the word atheist and the ease with which prickly adjectives like militant, aggressive and intolerant find themselves magnetically and magically drawn towards it, and apart from the pathetic charge that atheism is just another belief system no different in principle to a religion, my objection to this label is that it almost assumes there is in fact a god – in whose existence you have actively chosen not to believe.
I see this subtle assumption as one of the many examples of religious arrogance because a religious person will instinctively assume it’s just their god/s I don’t believe in. They won’t be too concerned about any other gods I don’t believe in because no such thing could possibly exist: that would be silly to them on the basis there is no evidence for any other gods.
Although it might be fun to stress there are many gods I don’t believe in by describing myself as a polyatheist, that might just add to everyone’s confusion because it sounds like some winged, non-existent, angelic wonder. Bearing in mind how excitable some religious people can get, there is always the danger that throwing a word or concept like this into the mix could completely overwhelm them – emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.
I see little problem with the simple terms “no religion”, “non-religious” or “not religious” and my preference is to use this terminology when required because it’s more benign and more capable of repelling pejoratives. What’s more, this terminology implies you have been offered something for your personal consumption, such as food (or even a mind-altering, controlled substance which impacts negatively upon your ability to make informed decisions and which is therefore potentially harmful not only to you but to those around you), and for whatever reason which is absolutely no-one else’s business you’ve concluded it’s not in your interests to accept that offer, so you’ve politely declined it (“No thank you, I’ve just had dinner at my mum’s”; “Thank you anyway but I tend to avoid crack pipes – they play havoc with my 5k running times”).
When I describe myself with this terminology, as opposed to atheist, I tend to find I’m not immediately confronted with a question beginning with the word, “why?” (you mean, why don’t I believe in something for which there is no evidence? You really need me to answer that one?). If someone tells me they’re Jewish I do not ask them why and in return for that I expect an identical courtesy. Reasonable, no?
Although I do enjoy a good argument with God’s little helpers, having an easy method for avoiding the word atheist is always handy for those occasions when I just cannot be arsed to argue.
My current response of choice when quizzed if I believe in God is to ask – very matter of factly and as a matter of genuine clarification – “which one?”. And when a member of a death cult whose body contains an everlasting battery backed up by an everlasting warranty smugly asks me what I think happens when humans die, I just murmur something about the answer being in the question and then I get on with my life, because I think I’m lucky to have this life and I don’t want to waste too much of it speaking to idiots unless there’s a reasonable chance one of us might be able to educate the other in some way.