“Tell me something about what you believe, not what you don’t believe.” I’m sorry but that strikes me as condescending and patronizing as a “religious” response to someone’s self-description as an atheist. It’s an especially egregious comment when it comes from someone (like a minister) who is supposed to be sensitive to people and have some understanding of the diversity of beliefs out there. It’s another one of those subtle slurs, perpetuating the stereotype that atheists lack positive values and don’t believe much of anything. (Here’s my rebuttal on that.) They might say they are just trying to find out more about an individual’s beliefs, but they are playing with words in order to imply that atheists are lacking when compared to other groups.
First off, how informative is any one word self-description anyway? Let’s be clear that there may be some who identify as “atheist” who are very different than your average mainstream atheist. But that will be true for any self-identification, be it Buddhist, Christian, Pagan, Hindi, Muslim, Jewish, New Age, or even many of the very specific creedal religions. Diversity within a group is not a bad thing and it shouldn’t be quashed so that we can all describe ourselves with one word.
With other groups there is often much greater uncertainty about what beliefs can be assumed based on the one-word self-description. If someone says they are a Christian, what do you know about them? Are they just a fan of the beatitudes and the Christ example, or are they Christians of the hell-fire and damnation variety? What core belief unites all those who identify as Christian? A self-professed Christian may only be someone with a vague understanding that Christ, whether real or mythical, was someone to be admired and possibly emulated and may or may not have had some plan for the salvation of man for either this life or in the next. On top of that, the admiration for Christ among those identifying as Christian spans many opposing and contradictory images of who Christ was and what he may or may not have stood for. Someone telling you only that they are a Christian, has not told you very much about what they believe at all.
When someone tells you are an atheist, they have probably told you a lot about their beliefs, if you’d only listen. If they are using a label that comes with so much discrimination, they have probably given this a bit of thought. For many beliefs there is much more unity among self-identified atheists than self-identified Christians. Self-identified atheists overwhelmingly likely believe in a natural world with natural processes. They probably value and appreciate this life and are seeking to live it to the fullest. Overwhelmingly atheists believe all people are related and are likely to speak out against racism, sexism and homophobia. Likely they understand that this world is billions of years old not thousands, we got here through evolution, there is no guaranteed future and we have to take care of each other and this planet.
Atheist as a description, versus religious descriptions, may provide a better clue as to how a person is likely to feel about a woman’s right to choose, same sex marriage, stem cell research, death with dignity, the bullying of gay youth, as well as other issues where our ethics may be held back by an over-reliance on ancient texts. Barring any evidence to the contrary I can’t believe that the other one word descriptions are superior to the term atheist for telling you quickly what a person might believe.
So treat an atheist like you would anyone else who gives you a brief self-description that leave you wanting to know more: Ask them follow up questions. It’s that easy. But please don’t preface your questions with smug judgmental rebukes like, “Tell me something about what you believe, not what you don’t believe.”