The Raving Theist

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Avowed

March 2, 2006 | 29 Comments

A reader of William Safire’s “On Language” column once wondered why every atheist quoted in a news story was identified as an “avowed atheist.” It does seem to me that “atheist” alone would be enough. Reporters don’t generally refer to Christians as “avowed Christians” or to Democrats as “avowed Democrats.” Adding “avowed” implies there’s something hysterical or maybe even unreasonable about the view, or at least that the atheist is making too big a deal about his or her belief. It’s a pejorative, akin to calling someone a village atheist. But generally all the atheist has done is to have revealed the belief to the reporter because it was relevant to the subject matter of the story in question.

The counterpart to “avowed” when labeling religious folk is “devout.” But the connotation isn’t negative — the word usually signifies a form of respect. A “devout Christian” is someone who has attained a deeper, more profound spiritual insight into faith. As opposed to the rest of us, who just casually believe that God martyred and resurrected his only begotten son to cleanse mankind of its sins.

This idea is reinforced by the use of the word “lapsed,” as in “lapsed Catholic.” A lapsed Catholic is someone who no longer takes Catholicism seriously enough. To “lapse” is to fail. You don’t hear about many “lapsed atheists” — usually they’ve just “seen the light” or had a similar positive experience. Atheism is more usually something one “recovers” from, like a drug addition. You might lapse into it, but not out of it.

Comments

29 Responses to “Avowed”

  1. Toxic
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 1:13 pm

    I think it also implies a cult-like mental state. Avowed means, well, vowed. As in I knelt down before the emplty altar and swore my life to serving the non-existence of god. Its a way of hamstrining atheists before they even get a quote into the story.

  2. Thorngod
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 1:32 pm

    Language not only reflects the biases and prejudices of a society; it is formulated (largely unconsciously) to perpetuate the interests of the dominant philosopy. Consider the struggle of feminists against the male-biased constructions in everyday speech, and in the dominant religion. For an enlightening exercise, consider the phrases “falling in love” and “love at first sight”! These phrasings evolved without any conscious motives on the part of users, but they serve a very specific end. What is it? And what do the phrases actually denote?

  3. PHLAF
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 1:57 pm

    These kinds of qualifiers only matter if you care. If you don’t care, they’re meaningless. You can choose to let them mean something to you or not. Your call.

    If someone calls me an ‘avowed atheist’ as opposed to an ‘atheist’, what does this really mean to me? Nothing in my life changes. Not one thing.

  4. bUCKET__
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 2:08 pm

    There is an incredible stigma attached to the term ‘atheist’. Even if you don’t personally mind having assumptions made about your disbelief why would you want such negative stereotypes reinforced? Kids are being brought up to associate atheism with purposelessness. I’m sure every atheist has been told that their life is pointless at some stage, even when it’s quite obvious that there’s no connection whatsoever. I don’t want people to be scared of living without a god because there’s nothing about atheism that makes life scarier.

  5. jahrta
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 2:22 pm

    That’s not entirely true, bucket

    If you are weak-minded,
    If you are weak-willed,
    If you are overly-dependent on others to take care of you,
    If you have low self-esteem,
    If you cannot conceive of a universe that has no “plan” for you,

    Religion is the only thing that would keep you from pulling out your hair and streaking down the aisle of the local Piggly-Wiggly at 3am.

  6. Thorngod
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

    Although, Jahrta, I would bet that most of those who start pulling their hair and finally go screaming into the loony bin are avowed believers. I remember seeing on one of the Sixty Minutes segments a few years ago a woman in a psycho ward who was so full of Jesus she claimed to be having dinner with him every Sunday evening. ‘Just another anecdote, but not too atypical. And I doubt there are proportionally more pre-senility or non-extremis suicides among atheist and agnostics than among believers.

  7. PHLAF
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 2:56 pm

    >>I know just enough about myself to know I cannot settle for one of those simplifications which indignant people seize upon to make understandable a world too complex for their comprehension. Astrology, health food, flag waving, bible thumping, Zen, nudism, nihilism — all of these are grotesque simplifications which small dreary people adopt in the hope of thereby finding The Answer, because the very concept that maybe there is no answer, never has been, never will be, terrifies them.

  8. The No God Boy
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 2:59 pm

    I’d rather be an avowed atheist than a raving one.

  9. kate
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 2:59 pm

    I got asked if I was a “coital Catholic” from a church choir director.

  10. Mister Swill
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 3:16 pm

    Very interesting discussion!

    From Merriam-Webster Online:
    avow
    1: to declare assuredly
    2: to declare openly, bluntly, and without shame (ever ready to avow his reactionary outlook)

    The literal meaning of the word is not pejorative, but I agree that its use does have negative connotations (consider the example sentence used by M-W). And this is an important issue to consider because language is a powerful thing and subtle word choices do affect the discourse.

    I suspect, though, that the main underlying reason that news organizations avoid simply calling someone an “atheist” is an effort to avoid editorializing. If your job is to report on the facts, throwing labels around can be perilous. Calling someone an atheist raises some questions: What, exactly, is an atheist? What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic? Is this person’s beliefs consistent with what most people would call atheism? But if you refer to the person as an “avowed atheist,” the responsibility of accurate labeling no longer falls on your shoulders. You are simply reporting the fact that this person calls him or herself an atheist.

    Sure, you can call someone a Democrat, because her membership in the Democratic party is easily verifiable. And you can call someone a Catholic, because he regularly attends a Catholic church. I’m not so sure about the “lapsed Catholic” moniker. My LexisNexis membership has, uh, lapsed; otherwise I’d search for the phrase. Are people usually described that way by the reporter or by themselves?

  11. sternwallow
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 4:23 pm

    “Avowed” is used in much the same way as “self-proclaimed”, “so-called”. Regardless of what it means to the target individual, it signals to the wider audience that the person may not really be an atheist, “they just think they are”. Elsewhere on this forum is has been acknowledged that atheism gets little to poor media coverage. The general tenor of society keeps many of us in the closet. When the media (without any implied malice) uses the “avowed” tag they are saying that our atheism is a mental abberation and is not quite real (but we are still a threat).

  12. Lancelot Gobbo
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 5:02 pm

    Well, there are no half-hearted atheists; we are all convinced. So I don’t mind the tag. It amuses me though, that it should come out automatically, rather like ‘convicted pedophile’ (actually, I prefer the convicted ones; we know who they are!)

  13. The No God Boy
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 5:49 pm

    I am a devout athiest.

  14. "Q" the Enchanter
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 6:00 pm

    Interesting. I’ve always taken it as a more or less neutral, perhaps even positive, shorthand for “out of the closet,” to wit, as highlighting the unusual fact that this particular atheist has the courage to be open about a set of beliefs that are looked ill-upon by the culture at large.

  15. "Q" the Enchanter
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 6:00 pm

    Interesting. I’ve always taken it as a more or less neutral, perhaps even positive, shorthand for “out of the closet,” to wit, as highlighting the unusual fact that this particular atheist has the courage to be open about a set of beliefs that are looked ill-upon by the culture at large.

  16. "Q" the Enchanter
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 6:00 pm

    Interesting. I’ve always taken it as a more or less neutral, perhaps even positive, shorthand for “out of the closet,” to wit, as highlighting the unusual fact that this particular atheist has the courage to be open about a set of beliefs that are looked ill-upon by the culture at large.

  17. hermesten
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 6:27 pm

    “These kinds of qualifiers only matter if you care. If you don’t care, they’re meaningless. You can choose to let them mean something to you or not.”

    I understand and agree with the sentiment, but I don’t think this is completely true. As Thorngod said, the language “reflects the prejudices and biases of the society.” The fact that this term is used says something about what society thinks of you, as an atheist, so it isn’t meaningless. I generally don’t care what people I don’t care about think, but it would be foolish not to be aware of it. You may or may not be affected personally by what society thinks of you, but it was only 50 years ago that Christians attacked Bertrand Russell to prevent him from teaching in the US –because he was an atheist.

    Make no mistake, many of those “avowed” Christians hate atheists. Some would even like to see you dead. Where such people have power over you, like, say, a supervisor at work, they will use it against you, and you may never even know, much less be able to prove it. How you get talked about in the media is an indicator of your status in society. As things stand today, it doesn’t make any difference most of the time, except when it does.

  18. Dave
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 7:50 pm

    This reminds me of a parallel. There is, of course, no such thing as a perfect minister, perfect priest, perfect rabbi, etc. But make the suggestion that a minister, priest or rabbi ought to be replaced by (or at least joined by) a free thinker, and almost immediately the objection is made that “there is no such thing as a perfect free thinker”. Why must free thinkers be perfect, while ministers, priests and rabbis are permitted to be flawed?

  19. Lily
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 7:54 pm

    sternwallow has come closest, I think, to getting it completely right. My sense of it is that using the adjective avowed (really, it should be “self-avowed”) is to disclaim responsibility for calling someone an atheist (“See, this is what he calls himself”)which many of us would find seriously insulting.

  20. Rich kraeuter
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 9:48 pm

    Dave: Because God can forgive the imperfection in the catholic, protestant, and jew. But, who will forgive the imperfection in the free thinker?

  21. Thorngod
    March 3rd, 2006 @ 9:04 am

    “Self-avowed” is a redundancy. One can only avow for oneself.

  22. hermesten
    March 3rd, 2006 @ 9:56 am

    “My sense of it is that using the adjective avowed (really, it should be “self-avowed”) is to disclaim responsibility for calling someone an atheist.”

    This makes absolutely no sense. If you write an article for the newspaper and say someone is an “avowed atheist” you’ve just called them an atheist in print. If you are claiming that “avowed” means “they said they were an atheist” or “they think they are an atheist” you’ve still called them an atheist. If the person is an atheist then using “avowed” is somewhat dismissive, condescending, or insulting. If the person is not an atheist you’ve compounded your error by saying not only that the person is an atheist –a statement that could be based on an assertion by someone else– but that he himself said so.

  23. Lily
    March 3rd, 2006 @ 9:58 am

    Redundant? All avowed means is “declared”; “admitted”. He is an avowed atheist–by whom? He is a self-avowed atheist is clearer.

    Avow as a verb means nothing more than “state strongly”, “declare” : we can all use it.

    The government can avow an interest in gulf oil. We can avow a belief in free speech, etc.

    On balance, though, I don’t suppose it matters all that much.

    School’s out.

  24. Thorngod
    March 3rd, 2006 @ 10:31 am

    Lilyschool addendum: The term “avowed atheist” or “avowed” whatever is never understood to allow for a possible avowance by anyone but the subject referred to. “Self” is understood in the phrase.

  25. jahrta
    March 3rd, 2006 @ 11:27 am

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am an orthodox atheist, and have been for ten years now. I recently celebrated a full decade of freedom from the concept of god and organized religion in general with a home-made cupcake. My atheism has brought me closer to my non-god than I ever could have imagined. I highly recommend the orthodox branch for anyone who wishes to free themselves from the shackles of their society of lies and the liars who spread them without compunction.

  26. Mister Swill
    March 3rd, 2006 @ 4:58 pm

    I personally recommend ultra-orthodox atheism.

    Once you have let go of the idea of God, you can begin to let go of other absolutist concepts that “God” is used to justify. Concepts such as:

    • Objective morality (The judgment of others determines right and wrong and of course varies from human to human.)
    • Imperfection (The disparity between reality and an imagined ideal comes from the smaller amount of detail in the ideal.)
    • Life, conscience, free will (These phenomena are born of the fact that our mental processes [and those of most animals] are far too complex for us to understand as mechanical operations.)
    • Nihilism (What is nihilism but bondage to a non-existent absolute?)

    When we free ourselves from these ideas, we free ourselves to pursue our base desires, including:

    • To function as a part of society and feel civilized
    • To find personal meaning in our lives, our relationships, and the way we express ourselves
    • To find a love partner who will indulge our selfishness by giving him or herself entirely to us (and indulging his or her selfishness in exchange)
    • Alternatively, indulging in multiple affectionate relationships (in exchange for giving up our desire to possess completely the love of another)

    (Note: Obviously, my tongue is in my cheek here in terms of tone, but I really believe that all of this is the logical conclusion not only of atheism, but of any belief system that does not include an omnibenevolent deity.)

  27. Mister Swill
    March 3rd, 2006 @ 5:37 pm

    I personally recommend ultra-orthodox atheism.

    Once you have let go of the idea of God, you can begin to let go of other absolutist concepts that “God” is used to justify. Concepts such as:

    • Objective morality (The judgment of others determines right and wrong and of course varies from human to human.)
    • Imperfection (The disparity between reality and an imagined ideal comes from the smaller amount of detail in the ideal.)
    • Life, conscience, free will (These phenomena are born of the fact that our mental processes [and those of most animals] are far too complex for us to understand as mechanical operations.)
    • Nihilism (What is nihilism but bondage to a non-existent absolute?)

    When we free ourselves from these ideas, we free ourselves to pursue our base desires, including:

    • To function as a part of society and feel civilized
    • To find personal meaning in our lives, our relationships, and the way we express ourselves
    • To find a love partner who will indulge our selfishness by giving him or herself entirely to us (and indulging his or her selfishness in exchange)
    • Alternatively, indulging in multiple affectionate relationships (in exchange for giving up our desire to possess completely the love of another)

    (Note: Obviously, my tongue is in my cheek here in terms of tone, but I really believe that all of this is the logical conclusion not only of atheism, but of any belief system that does not include an omnibenevolent deity.)

  28. Alfredo
    March 6th, 2006 @ 2:56 pm

    Mr. Swill:

    You consider the items in your twice-posted list to be the logical conclusion of atheism only because you are a mental midget, who requires some sort of diety to tell you what is right and what is wrong.

    Some of us form moral strictures for many other reasons, from the deeply practical (don’t shit where you eat) to the deeply humane (one should treat others with kindness and compassion) without leaning on the inane bullshit ravings of a skygod.

  29. Mister Swill
    March 7th, 2006 @ 6:32 pm

    Apologies for the double-post. My first one got eaten by the approval system and then I realized I could use my TypeKey identity to bypass it. I was hoping that the RA would delete the first one when it came up for approval.

    As for your comment, Alfredo, you seem to have missed the word “objective.” Of course we form moral strictures, and our reasons for forming them are often difficult to argue with. But by no means does that make our morals absolute. They do not, to quote the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “hav[e] reality independent of the mind.”

    There’s an irritating attitude I find in a lot of atheists, from Ayn Rand to our glorious host. Their arguments are stated as if right and wrong are absolute values that exist outside of opinion and that the people in question have, through the use of pure logic, discovered the specific content of those values. Well, bullshit. Take any opinion you have of right or wrong and trace it all the way back to its source. No matter how logically constructed, you will always arrive at whim. “Don’t shit where you eat?” The whim to live free of disease; revulsion to foul odors. “Treat others with kindness and compassion?” The whim to be treated well by others; the whim to feel good about oneself. Morality, by its very nature, is a matter of opinion.

    In fact, I believe the desire to describe subjective values as objective is what got us into the whole capital-G-God mess in the first place. Now, I’m not all that well versed in philosophy, so please feel free to correct my history. As I understand it, most Greek philosophers around 2500 years ago believed that the “values” (truth, beauty, goodness, etc.) were ultimately subjective. Along comes Socrates (or Plato, more likely), who argues that the values are objective, and could be arrived at through logical reasoning. In The Republic, Plato has Socrates describing the gods as all good, and therefore responsible for all good things. The ideas of Socrates and his disciples (and his disciples’ disciples) became the dominant philosophy of the western world and had a major influence on the Abrahamic religions. Fast forward to today and we’ve got half the world believing that the God they worship is infallible, and that any statement to the contrary is at best blasphemous, and at worst grounds for war.

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