The word atheist provokes a strong and negative reaction amongst many of my fellow human beings, so I thought perhaps I should explain why I use that term to describe myself.
This is not a label I picked for myself; it has been thrust upon me by circumstance. I am surrounded by theists, by people who believe in a God or gods. A lot of my family and my fellow countrymen are Christians. There are a lot of powerful Americans who profess Christianity, though we sometimes doubt their sincerity. America also has many people of other religions, and if you consider the entire world and the whole history of humanity, these other religions loom even larger: Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism — to name only a few. These many diverse religions have at least one thing in common: They are all theistic. They all believe in God, or in some cases, in multiple gods.
I don’t. In my heart of hearts I do not believe that there is a God. Certainly I do not believe in a personal creator god of the sort envisioned by these religions. So I am not a theist, by definition.
What do you call such a person? There’s one short and simple word: atheist.
Some will object that this is a negative term. That’s true. It is negative because it defines what a person does not believe. It defines on the basis of a rejection. It says nothing positive. This bothers me to an extent. A Christian living in an Islamic country would probably not go about introducing himself as a non-Muslim. That would seem rude and weird. Instead, we would expect such a person to introduce himself as a Christian. By analogy, as I am surrounded by Christians, it would seem rude and weird to introduce myself as a non-Christian, and so I don’t. As I am surrounded by theists, it would seem weird and rude to introduce myself as an atheist, and so I don’t, as a rule.
But sometimes, religion comes up. Sometimes I find myself talking with my friends about deep and serious things like morality, God, the meaning of life, and so forth. I love those conversations. And when we are baring our souls and talking about what we believe, there’s one word that lets me quickly and easily locate myself on the map of possibilities. I’m an atheist. And I say so. It’s just that simple.