When I left my religion a little less than a year ago, I quickly gravitated towards atheism. Not passively, because I no longer had belief in God, but actively so. It would seem that after I removed myself from the community of believers, I sought a new community, a community of atheists.
Interestingly, I have met only a few people who will call themselves atheists. Even my most secular friends shy away from the word. Stranger still, my friends who will admit that they don't believe in God, will call themselves non-believers or unbelievers, that is, if they don't avoid any such labels entirely. Thus my community was formed online. Through various social networking sites I was able to attach in some way or another to a a cultural array of thousands of men and women who do identify as atheists. This was comforting for a time, a sort of roadside inn on my ever-bending path.
However comforting having a cause to fight for or having a community may have been, I could not avoid two facts: 1) The word atheist carries with it a negative implication, and 2) It is not how I wish to identify in the long run. It is not, so to speak, "the sword I wish to die on." I began to critically examine the word "atheist" both it's literal understanding, as well as it's colloquial undertone.
The term "atheist" according to the Oxford Dictionary means: "A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods."
However, many people wrongfully define it as: "The belief that there is no God."
Though I am quite certain there are people who believe there is no god, this, in my experience, has not been the true definition of an atheist, nor is it any less illogical than the theist. The religious, ironically, are very quick to point out such hypocrisy. "We are not all that different, you and I," the theist will say to the atheist, "for as I believe there is a God, you believe there is none!" Indeed, he would be right in the case of an atheist who believes there is no God. Disproving that anything exists is an impossibility, as was pointed out, in a mocking sense, by Russel's teapot.
The majority of atheists with whom I have come in contact have identified with the actual definition, that of disbelief or lacking belief in God or gods. An a-theist is simply someone who does not subscribe to any theology. The same is true with words like: apolitical, amoral, and achromatic, the prefix "a" simply means "without." In it's simplest sense "atheist" is a harmless word that describes nothing more then that the individual labeled as such does not have a belief in God. In this literal definition many secular people can be rightly placed. Yet there is resistance, why?
A word's definition has never been set in stone. It flows with the culture, it evolves and morphs with society. This etymological evolution must be respected for words have always been a means to communicating with other people sharing our era, or eras to be, nothing more.
Therefore, it is not the literal definition that will shine a light onto a word's true meaning, but it's implication when used in contemporary dialogue.
In our 21st century society this term seems to come with a sort of negative stench. Moreover, it is received as an attack against theology, against religion, against God himself. Thus, atheism has become synonymous with anti-theist. Though many atheists are troubled by this, is it not at least somewhat the case? When one calls themselves an atheist, identifies as an atheist, is one not standing in direct opposition to religion? This is not necessarily a bad thing, it may at times even be a great thing; however, we should be aware of what we are doing when we use the term. We are making a statement. A statement of rejection, of disagreement with religion, and generally people feel antagonized by those who disagree with them. One cannot help but feel threatened when someone is standing in opposition against what they love, what they hold dear, what they don't want challenged.
Today, calling yourself an atheist sets you apart from the religious, opposite them. This, I will repeat, is not to mean that I condemn in any way its usage, but that one who claims to use it just to define his state of credulity toward religion, is as silly as someone calling himself gay in the 21st century, referring to his happiness.
There are those atheists who are on a mission to correct the definition. They hope to appeal to the masses and change the connotation of "atheist." I salute their valiance. However, I do not know if such a thing is possible. People do not enjoy changing their opinions nor the words they use to express those opinions. Perhaps in this age of tolerance we will yet see this word made into a positive label. Though I suspect, if that day comes, there will be no more use for it anymore.
So, after almost a year of non-belief in God, am I an atheist? Literally speaking, yes, but what of the "definition" as it is perceived today? I suppose that would depend. I think it best to use it as one would a weapon. I will examine the situation, evaluate the effect the word will have on the person listening, and acknowledging it's mighty power, choose to use it, or not. It is not who I am, I am not wholly an opposition to religion. I am a rationalist. What is rational I embrace, what is an insult to reason, I dispose of. I have no enemies. I walk a path beaten with steps of many travelers, both religious and secular, who have come before me. We are all on the same journey, the relentless pursuit of truth, above all else.