Monday, September 13, 2004

A loaded word

When you hear the word atheist, what sort of image do you get?

Before you answer, I want you to know I am not asking to know your religious beliefs. I'm not interested in that. I am interested in how this word is 'loaded' - what sort of connotations it has for you, and what sort of connotations it had for you in the culture you grew up in; the culture of your family and the people around you.

I guess the best way to answer this question is to imagine that you are going to meet someone who you have been told is an atheist. This is the only thing you know about the person.

Will you have some image based on this label? What is it? The instant gut reaction, I mean, not the one you get after actually thinking about it.

I am very interested in the way words become loaded. The very closed culture I grew up in used ordinary words in different ways, so that after leaving it took me years to strip some perfectly innocent words of their additional loading. Daily language was a minefield. For example, the word meeting still calls up some very inappropriate images for me. There are many other words like this, for me. This is not a problem now, but for a long time it was disturbing how upon hearing some innocent remark I could suddenly lurch back in time and be overwhelmed with feelings of nostalgia, loss, guilt and fear.

So, like I said, I am not asking you to state your religious preferences. I don't want to know your reasoned reaction to the word, or your actual reaction to the actual, real atheists you know. I am just interested to know what feelings and implications you get from the word. What images has your culture loaded onto atheist?


Pkchukiss said...

I guess I can answer for many people:

Atheist = Free for all preaching.

I guess that's what most people would do to atheists.

"Why don't you get a religion?"

Badaunt said...

You made me laugh with this answer. I think you've just pinpointed the reason why so few atheists like to openly say that they're atheists.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

How delicious is it that someone else named Anonymous would post regarding a theocracy in the middle of a discussion about atheism? Can you imagine - TWO people named Anonymous?

If the only thing you're told about someone is that he/she is an atheist, the only thing you've learned is that the person telling you that isn't. In America, you might be 'warned' that someone you're about to meet is black, which has just told you that the person introducing you isn't that either. But that's my reasoned response to the word. My gut reaction is that the person you're about to introduce me to is my hippie, idiot brother-in-law.

Badaunt said...

I was enchanted by the coincidence, too. My first reaction was COMMENT SPAM! DELETE DELETE DELETE!

And then I thought, hey, it fits. Sort of. Also, it's my first ever comment spam, so it stays. A souvenir of the end of innocence.

You're right about the person telling you about an atheist not being one. I hadn't thought of that. Perhaps I should have phrased the question differently. But are you saying that to you atheists are idiot hippies? Or is it just that one atheist who is an idiot hippy?

Anonymous said...

One specific hippie. I heard the phrase "idiot brother-in-law" once upon a time and it just stuck. He's at least as smart as I am, but it's more fun this way.

Badaunt said...

OK. So, back to the original question... can I put down that for you, anybody who introduces anybody else as an atheist is a rabid and intolerant Bible-basher?

And the word atheist, for you, is perfectly neutral?

(What do you mean I'm putting words in your mouth?)

Anonymous said...


Haha! No wonder no one put up their hand when the teacher asked for the atheist in the class. As a matter of fact, I was the only one. It didn't made me feel weird or threatened by the overwhelming amount of christians, catholics, buddhists and taosists in class.

Well, now that I've been 'identified' as an atheist, maybe I should invest in a pair of earmuffs whenever they start preaching about their religions.

Badaunt said...

To Wulu:

You'll probably find you need the earmuffs.