Why Does it Have to be “Without?”

The American Humanist Association just unveiled a new website and ad campaign for “the millions of young people around the world who have embraced science, rejected superstition, and are dedicated to being Good Without A God.”  They have set up a difficult task for themselves; by directing their efforts toward children, they are fulfilling the greatest fears and suspicions of much of Christian America.  The claim that children are being indoctrinated into godlessness has usually been hyperbolic at best, so to do exactly that is a bold move.  Their friendly cartoon dog (named, naturally, Darwin) may be a lightning rod for vitriolic accusations of insidious programming.

By focusing on commitment to ethical behavior and rational inquiry, the AHA promotes a positive worldview, one that happens not to incorporate belief in the supernatural or adherence to a religious creed.  But the name of the campaign, “Kids Without God,” is problematic.  Like almost all attempts to describe a non-religious worldview or way of life, it falls into the trap of suggesting the acknowledgement of a god, which the kids are “without.”  If some kids are “without” god, then doesn’t it follow that others are “with” god?  As well, it implies a rebellion against a god, rather than a rebellion against human phenomena and organizations.

This problem of terminology is one that I run into all the time when talking about irreligion–we don’t have the words to describe it except in terms of religion.  When I write for scholars or other adults, I can define my terms and hope that I can overcome the poverty of language to get my point across.  With kids, though, it is trickier.  If the AHA is trying to tell children that it’s ok not to believe in god, is it really best to present this idea as lacking something that someone else has?  How could it be restated to avoid presenting atheism as missing a component?

In the same way that much of monotheistic language implies other gods, much of the language surrounding irreligion, atheism, and agnosticism unintentionally implies a god.  Semantically, the statement “I don’t believe in god” leaves open the possibility that god is out there, but has not convinced the speaker.  Even if it does not mean this to the speaker, it can conveniently be interpreted as such by the hearer.  It also betrays the ambivalence of unbelief, a phenomenon reflected in the small minority of Americans willing to state definitively that there is no god.

The American Humanist Association has a laudable goal of reassuring children that there is nothing wrong with being irreligious, and that morality does not derive solely from transcendent sources.  I don’t think it has found the right way of talking about it yet.  This is not damning criticism; rather, it is recognition that the language of theism is so integrated into how we describe the world and our experience of it.

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