In this post, Ryan Cragun asks if it is time to give nonreligious movements a name. If so, what might this name be? And how, as an academic, can he avoid the pitfalls of labeling a group from the outside – rather than from within.
In the last five years or so, scholars have begun to think about informal and organized atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist, nonreligious, and freethought activity as a social movement (Cimino and Smith 2007, 2011; LeDrew 2013; McAnulla 2012; Smith 2013). All the relevant indicators seem to suggest that this is a social movement and I think there is a need for more research in this area to better understand it as a movement.
However, the focus of this blog post is to develop a rationale for suggesting that it may be time to try to come up with a name for this movement. I don’t have “THE” name nor am I suggesting that there should be a single or correct name. The LGBT movement has suffered from a similar quandary – what to call the movement for equal rights and equal treatment for gender and sexual minorities. The many suggested names (e.g., SGL, MSGI, FABGLITTER, QUILTBAG, LGBTQ+), are a testament to the difficulties that arise when trying to come up with a name for a movement. All I am going to suggest is that there is a coherent and relatively uniform agenda for the various social movement participants – both among organizations and among individual activists – and that the common agenda may hold some promise in determining the name.
Why a name?
Some readers may be wondering why a name for the movement is even worth considering. Perhaps it isn’t. Or perhaps such a name will develop organically and my suggesting that it should be named is either premature or is an effort by an academic to impose a name on an organic movement. But I do have a reason. In some of the research I have been working on that frames these organizations and individuals as a movement, I have run into the problem of what to call the it. Every time I want to refer to this as a social movement, I find myself considering the potential interested parties or movement constituents. As I understand the movement, here are some (most?) of the interested parties:
- Atheists are a movement constituency. There are a number of organizations that include variants of “atheist” in their names: American Atheists, Atheist Alliance International, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, etc.
- Humanists are a movement constituency. Like atheists, there are a number of organizations that include variants of “humanist” in the name: British Humanist Association, International Humanist and Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, etc.
- Freethinkers are a movement constituency. There are organizations that include “freethinker” in the name: Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, Flagstaff Freethinkers, Hispanic American Freethinkers, etc.
- Agnostics are a movement constituency. There are organizations with “agnostic” in the name: The San Diego New Atheists and Agnostics, Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, etc.
- Secularists are also a movement constituency, though, of course, there are complications with what “secular” means (Kosmin 2007; Lee 2012). Some organizations have included variants of “secular” in their names: Secular Student Alliance, The Secular Society, Iran Secular, Scottish Secular Society, National Secular Society, etc.
- Other categories of people who are also likely constituents of this movement but their labels are less likely to appear in the names of groups or are somewhat ambiguous and potentially broader than movement members include: nonreligious individuals, Brights, rationalists, skeptics, ex-Muslims (or “ex” groups in general), ethical culture/society, and infidels.
In my own writing, I find myself debating between two options. First, I could misleadingly call this the “XXXXXX” movement, and simply choose one of the more prominent constituent groups (e.g., atheists or humanists). The problem with this approach is that it then assumes that the movement is just about that group, or the interests of that group, when, in fact, the movement is a coalition of groups, organizations, and categories. The second option is to list all of the constituent groups, as in, “the atheist, humanist, freethinker, agnostic, secularist, Bright, rationalist, skeptic, nonreligious, “Ex-”, ethical culture, and infidel movement.” That, of course, is ridiculously long, overly cumbersome, and to be completely honest, unpublishable. What to do?
Aims of the Organizations
I don’t have an answer as to what to do, precisely, but I thought that looking at the aims of the various organizations involved in the movement might add some light to this discussion. While there are thousands of organizations that would fall under the umbrella of atheist, humanist, secularist, and freethought activism and advocacy (see here and here), there are just a handful that are very large and particularly prominent. Since I’m in the US, I’m going to focus on the US, but I’m guessing a similar analysis of other large organizations in predominantly Christian countries outside the US would find similar results (this might make a good project for a graduate student).
By analyzing the mission statements and self-descriptions of some of the oldest and largest organizations involved in the movement (e.g., American Humanist Association (AHA), American Atheists (AA), Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), and Council for Secular Humanism (CSH)), I think a relatively clear picture of what the organizations have in common is discernible. Additionally, the recent founding of two umbrella-like groups illustrates fairly clear what these groups may have in common: the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) and the United Coalition of Reason (UnitedCoR). While space doesn’t permit a detailed examination of the mission statements and descriptions of each of these organizations, the SCA’s mission statement is a fairly accurate summary of the overall aims of the movement:
The Secular Coalition for America is a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization whose purpose is to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States. We are located in Washington, D.C. for ready access to government, activist partners and the media. Our staff lobbies U.S. Congress on issues of special concern to our constituency. Our member organizations are established 501(c)(3) nonprofits who serve atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans. Their purpose in founding the coalition was to formalize a cooperative structure for visible, unified activism to improve the civic situation of citizens with a naturalistic worldview. A number of additional organizations have endorsed our mission statement.
Of particular interest in this quote is the second to last sentence which largely summarizes what I think is the aim of the broader social movement, “to improve the civic situation of citizens with a naturalistic worldview.”
The relatively recent founding of the SCA in 2002 and the UnitedCoR (2009) suggest that the coalescing of effort and interest on the part of the largest advocacy groups has resulted in a collaborative effort among the organizations to pursue a common aim: the normalizing of nonreligion and nonbelief in the US.
Of course, I’ve only looked at six organizations involved in this movement. Someone should look at more organizations to see if I have accurately characterized the common aim of the movement. My point here is just to suggest that the prominent organizations in this movement do seem to have a shared goal. Yet, to date, there is no name for this movement.
What to Call The Movement
As I see it, there are two possibilities when it comes to names for the movement, though I invite feedback and suggestions on different approaches as well. First, the movement could be named based on the shared aims. Given my very rudimentary analysis of mission statements, the common aim seems to be the normalizing of nonreligion and nonbelief, at least in the US. By “normalizing” I mean making it socially acceptable to identify as being nonreligious and to hold nontheistic views (e.g., atheism, agnosticism, etc.). If that is an accurate encapsulation of the movement’s aims, then names could be derived from that shared aim, like was done with the Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Movement, or the Animal Rights Movement. I’m not suggesting any of the following are ideal names for the movement, only that these are the kinds of names that my derive from such an approach:
- Normalizing Nonreligion Movement
- Normalizing Nonbelief Movement
- Normalizing Naturalistic Thinking Movement
The other approach to naming the movement would be to adopt an initialism or acronym, like gender and sexual minorities groups have done (e.g., LGBTQ+). If that approach were taken, the first step would be to figure out the primary constituencies, which I think I did above, and then begin playing with the corresponding letters. If my summary of the relevant groups is accurate, then we have: Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers, Agnostics, Secularists, and potentially any or all of the following as well: Nonreligious (or NR), Brights, Rationalists, Skeptics, Ex-Muslims (or E-M?), Ethical Culture (or EC?), and Infidels. That gives us the following letters: A H F A S (and N/NR, B, R, S, EM/E-M, E/EC, and I). Adding a “+” seems to be de rigueur these days to capture anyone who feels left out, so it should kind of be taken as a given that any acronym/initialism should have a “+” at the end. Again, I’m not suggesting any of the acronyms/initialisms below are ideal or should be adopted, only that these are examples of what could be derived if those interested in the movement decided that it was a good idea to come up with a common name. Here are some possibilities:
One advantage to an initialism/acronym approach would be that, unlike the LGBTQ+ initialism, many of the words that are the source of the initials can be thought of in two ways. For instance, there are “Atheists” and there is “Atheism.” Atheists are those who have adopted Atheism. (I don’t think this works with “Gay” and “Gayism”, but please correct me if I’m wrong.) Thus, a properly constructed acronym/initialism could actually be used in two ways. If, for instance, the acronym that was adopted was SHAF+, it could mean “Secularists, Humanists, Atheists, Freethinkers, and others,” referring to the people, or it could mean “Secularism, Humanism, Atheism, Freethought, and others,” referring to the ideology.
In considering the idea of a name for this movement, I wondered if I shouldn’t write up a paper that I could publish in a journal. A publication in a peer-reviewed journal would always help my C.V., but then I realized that the idea of naming a movement isn’t something that should dictated by an ivory tower academic or suggested in a stagnant journal, where the suggestion can’t be challenged, modified, or reinterpreted. However, a blog is the perfect place for engaging in a discussion like this. I’m hoping that posting the suggestion that this movement needs a name to the NSRN blog will begin a conversation. I’ll monitor the comments below and respond where and when I can, but perhaps this post will raise a wider conversation as to whether or not a name for this movement is appropriate and, if so, what that name should be.
Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. 2007. “Secular Humanism and Atheism beyond Progressive Secularism.” Sociology of Religion 68(4):407–24.
Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. 2011. “The New Atheism and the Formation of the Imagined Secularist Community.” Journal of Media and Religion 10(1):24–38.
Kosmin, Barry A. 2007. “Introduction: Contemporary Secularity and Secularism.” Pp. 1–16 in Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin. Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.
LeDrew, Stephen. 2013. “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity and Activism.” Sociology of Religion srt014.
Lee, Lois. 2012. “Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-Religion Studies.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129–39.
McAnulla, Stuart. 2012. “Radical Atheism and Religious Power: New Atheist Politics.” Approaching Religion 2(1):87–99.
Smith, Jesse M. 2013. “Creating a Godless Community: The Collective Identity Work of Contemporary American Atheists.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52(1):80–99.
Ryan T. Cragun is a sociologist with a primary interest in religion, specifically Mormonism, the nonreligious, and secularization. His research has been published in a variety of journals, books, and magazines, including Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociology of Religion, Journal of Contemporary Religion, and Nova Religio. He is also the author of two books: Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? and What You Don’t Know About Religion (but should). When not working, he is typically spending time with his partner and son, tinkering with computers, cooking, or hiking.