I recently wrote an article titled On Forfeiting the Word Atheist in which I explored how using the word “atheist” predisposes people to having the least charitable view of me. I’ve gotten so exasperated explaining again and again what the word “atheist” means that I’ve opted for the word “nontheist,” just because it has a different connotation and isn’t as poisoned by anti-atheist propaganda.
To be clear, I like the word atheist, and I see it as identical to the word nontheist. I don’t care if other people use the word atheist, I just find the word a stumbling block when I try to have productive conversations with theists. I have limited patience, and I personally find it more expedient to not use the word.
Along these lines, a reader sent me this question:
“Why then would you self-identify as a satanist when it seems (from your writings at least) that THAT label is also widely misunderstood?”
The irony here is not lost on me: the word “atheist” is tame compared to “Satanist,” so why would I discard the former because it is easily misunderstood while holding on to the latter? This question is helpful, because it gets to some profound misunderstandings about both Satanism and atheism/nontheism.
The word atheism has almost no content. If you hear the word “atheist” or “nontheist” and imagine someone with a particular set of beliefs or positions, then you have fundamentally misunderstood the term. I sometimes hear the question, “What is the atheist position on X?” but this is a silly question, because there is no atheist position on anything except for the existence of God. The word only tells you that belief in God is absent.
You wouldn’t ask the same question of a theist (hopefully.) We all understand that the label of theist tells us nothing about that theist’s beliefs. The whole spectrum of religion, culture, language, and politics can be included in the word. It tells us absolutely nothing about a person other than that they believe in God. We cannot glean their politics, philosophy, attitude, education, culture, etc.
Atheism is similar. There are atheist Quakers, Buddhists, Catholics, pagans, Marxists, socialists, criminals, abusers, human rights crusaders, conservatives, liberals, fascists, anti-natalists, humanists, and nihilists.
(Note: a clever reader might at this point interject and say that you probably can assume a few things about a person if they call themselves an atheist. For example, you could probably assume that they live in a prosperous society, and that that chances are high that they are white. This, of course, would be correct. Belief is connected to material resources and conditions, just like everything else. This does not negate the fact that, in principle, the word atheist indicates nothing but a lack of belief, even though, like everything else, it exists in an ecosystem of material resources and privileges.)
The word “atheist” is an expression of what I’m not, an articulation of what’s absent. Because of this, I don’t have a great attachment to the word. There are any number of ways to describe a lack of belief, and I’m not emotionally invested in any of them. These words are simply tools, and if a word gets in my way (like the word atheist frequently does, because bad-faith apologists have insisted on reducing the word to a crude caricature) then I see no reason to hold on to it.
Satanism, on the other hand, is my religion. It isn’t a troll to upset Christians, it isn’t a politically expedient move to defend the church state divide, and it isn’t a sort of silly, edgy cosplaying. It is my religion, and the Satanic Temple is my church. I’m a Satanist when I’m at home with my cats playing a videogame just as much as when I’m speaking or writing about Satanism. I do Satanic ritual, live by the tenets, have community with other Satanists, and do my best to live as the Romantic Satan. Satanism is a set of positive values and symbols which orient my values, provide community, and creates a narrative structure for my life. Satanism is the best articulation of who I am and what I believe.
Atheism, on the other hand, is an articulation of what I’m not.
All this means I care very deeply about the word Satanist, even if it upsets people, because it is my religion and what I am. In contrast, I don’t care much at all about the word “atheist”, and I’m happy to trade it out for any other expression of my unbelief.
I’m always happy to take questions from bemused readers about Satanism. I believe this to be a healthy enterprise, because in understanding Satanism people can more easily understand the nature of religion, nontheism, and can work through the difficult process of swallowing the disgust response. We live in a multi-cultural world, and the skills learned from understanding Satanism aide us in understanding everyone. Please email via the contact page or leave a comment if you have a question.