As a community that regularly fights over labels, what we choose to call ourselves is a fluid concept. To us, these dust-ups of semantics represent the stepping-stones in a fledgling movement, but to others I’m not so sure. These labels (atheist, atheism+, skeptic, humanist, freethinker, etc.) serve two important purposes, especially when advertised in social mediums like Twitter. First, they let the world know the likely suite of views of the individual, and second, they help individuals identify those who also belong to the community. It is this second purpose that I think overshadows the first and perhaps is more insulating than we know.
Recently, there have been tousles over labels and how best to describe our community (i.e., “Atheism+”). But before we concern ourselves with just which numerical operator best accentuates our position, we should also think about how we present our labels to others. I will take Twitter as an example. Many of the people who I interact with have something to the effect of “atheist” or “skeptic” explicitly stated in their bios. For me, this amounts to a heuristic cue that the person shares many of the same views or knows many of the same people. But to others outside of the group, I’m sure this seems bizarre or at least off-putting. Imagine the opposite: you search the bio of a prospective “follow” choice and the first word is “Christian” or “Mormon.” Unless this person feels that his or her religion absolutely defines him or her, this labeling seems to me like more of a bouncer. By this I mean that because religion continues to be a tough issue to broach, labels can become a “you’re in” “you’re out” kind of separator. The ever-discerning doorman of dogma surely keeps out a lot of people.
Perhaps this is not a problem for believers, just based on the their sheer numbers, but it could be for those of us without faith or undue credulity. Like it or not, atheists and skeptics are distrusted and vilified. To advertise yourself prominently as an atheist, for example, for no other reason than to make it known that you are not part of the majority, sets you up for derision. How often do you find those outside of this community explicitly putting forth their stance on metaphysics? Would this even be helpful in most contexts? I must stress that I am not advocating that atheists shouldn’t stand up for what they (don’t) believe in. But we have to consider our image. How important is it to you that other people know you are an atheist? Is it truly a defining quality of your life, or is it meant to signal the tribe? This latter signaling is the bouncer guarding our community: as much as it organizes us, it must keep many standing at the door.
You can imagine this for other labels, not just those that are commonly found in our community. If I were to write a Twitter bio like: “Kyle Hill—Democrat, Pro-Choice, Evolutionist,” you can instantly picture how labeling for its own sake could shut the door on many potential interactions. Our obsession with labels spills over into the public sphere, leaving me to wonder if the divides they announce are worth the identification they provide, not to mention the in-fighting.
Impression management, as it is called in the communication literature, is a main motivation for information processing strategies. This motivation is a desire to form judgments that will satisfy current social goals and is dependent upon the perceived interpersonal consequences of expressing a particular judgment in a social context. By heaving labels upon yourself, your judgments may start conforming to the satisfaction of those labels. An atheist or skeptic may then feel compelled to take a certain stance on an issue out of a desire to satisfy the group’s goals, rather than express an honest personal opinion in opposition to them (aptly called the “spiral of silence” in the literature). In effect, by taking the time to intentionally make sure that people know your stances on metaphysics you are coloring any further discussions with them. And we need to make sure that we are not unnecessarily conflating our scientific and skeptical views with atheistic or religious ones.
Labels are convenient ways to draw circles around movements and people, but they can also draw lines in the sand. Because skepticism and especially atheism are labels that inevitably draw criticism from those of different world-views, we have to be careful in our discussions of them. We need to be as inclusive, understanding, and relatable as possible. Inadvertently standing behind the bouncer to advertise group membership may not be the best way to accomplish this.