I frequently encourage people to define themselves – to state who they are with some sort of adjective that describes their position on any given subject; atheist, theist, Christian, Muslim, Humanist, pro-life, pro-choice, straight, gay, liberal, conservative, ad nauseum. We call these adjectives labels.
For reasons that I’m not fully sure I understand many people seem very resistant to being labeled. Perhaps the aversion to labels comes from holding negative associations with others that share a certain label with the objector (which is understandable sometimes) , or perhaps it’s the desire to be free to change one’s position without being accused of flippancy. I remember doing all that I could to remove myself from the label of Christian during the death throes of my time as a believer, and so I told people not to even call me a Christian anymore as it was just too embarrassing a term. I couldn’t handle being associated with the homophobic, racist, ignoramus that were most easily visible and most widely associated with the word – and so I asked to have the label removed, the fact remained that I still believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ – so I was still a Christian, label or no label.
Many people that don’t believe in a god or gods are afraid to embrace the term that best describes their position on god, as if refusing the adjective somehow changes what a person’s position actually is.
Somehow, somewhere, being labeled an atheist has become a bad thing for a lot of people. The same person that will say “I don’t really believe in god” or “I’m not sure if god exists or not” will often also say, “but I’m not an atheist!” in complete denial of what the word actually means. Since when did it become a bad thing to be labeled with an adjective that properly describes your stance on a certain issue?
I come from a world where there are a lot of labels to be had. As an apologist I spent an incredible chunk of my life determining exactly what my position was on a number of religious topics and also determining which positions were objectionable to my theological stance. I had to be able to tell if a person was a Trinitarian pre-trib anabaptist Calvinist innerrantist and then determine what that meant in the scope of the faith all-together. All of those aforementioned labels fall under the Christian name, but they more accurately describe where a person stands. So – is it such a bad thing to be a pro-choice naturalist friendly soft atheist, and if it is does that mean you get to avoid accurate labels just because you want to?
I’ve learned to embrace my labels, and when I’m not happy with the label I’ve been assigned I take the time to change the behavior that brought that on (Jerk). I’ve also learned not to read into labels more than what they describe. If someone wears a Christian label I no longer (most of the time, at least) assume that they are homophobic jerks that want to scare kids into going to heaven with them, I simply know that they believe in and claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ – likewise my experience in the atheist community has taught me that wearing that badge doesn’t mean that an individual is highly intelligent, open minded, or rational as much as I wish that it did.
Being labeled something should describe that one thing and nothing more – for everything else that we might assume there are additional adjectives that we can use for a proper description of that person. The only time that labels might need to be avoided is when someone doesn’t understand the definition of a word – which is far too often the case – and in those cases we should be prepared to define what the words involved mean.
It’s perfectly natural to want to briefly be able to understand where a person you are talking to is coming from – that’s why labels are so necessary. They fulfill the purpose of giving us a brief synopsis of what a person believes to be important so that we can accurately communicate our differences and our similarities without having to read an autobiography on every person we bother to have intelligent discussion with. Not wanting to be labeled screams of apathy…and who wants to be labeled apathetic?
Embrace your labels, fine tune them to describe you as best as possible, and when someone gives you one that you don’t like do what you can to change it. Go ahead. Label me.
Here are a few of mine:
atheist, being labeled, christian, description, discussion, labels