Constructing an Atheist Identity

I recently read Jesse M. Smith’s “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism” which you can read in the journal Sociology of Religion if you have access either through a personal subscription or through your university.

Smith’s article came along at the right time for me as I have been thinking a lot about some of the debates concerning identity construction within the secular community.

Let me catch you up. Sam Harris has expressed his concern with the use of the term atheism:

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

Richard Carrier disagrees:

So we should rally around this identity, use it to find each other, and to create a distinct community, and thereby create an identity and a sense of belonging. It’s not a victim thing (as Harris mistakenly presumes), but a power thing, a freedom thing, a belonging thing.

I think Smith offers an interesting perspective paralleling Carrier’s support of the atheism identity movement. He argues that an atheist identity is an achieved identity and that it’s important for people who have turned away from religion and theist culture.

An achieved identity or status is a sociological concept referring to a type of identity construction associated with accomplishments. It is distinct from an ascribed identity or status, over which you usually have little to no control because it’s determined at birth.

Sex and race are ascribed identities in that you get them without doing much. This is not to say that you don’t add to these identities as you get older, but you don’t initially have much control over them. Other examples might include “daughter” or “teenager.”

Achieved identities are built up through individual experience and interpersonal relationships and they’re assumed voluntarily, reflecting will and skill, such as “university student,” “doctor,” and in this case, “atheist.”

In addition to claiming that atheist identity is an achieved identity, Smith also connects the process of forming a non-religious identity with other rejection-based identities:

atheist identity was only possible in the context of having explicitly rejected religion and the notion of God itself, and then elaborating in this space that which they saw as the more accurate way to view and interpret the world: through the lens of science and secular thinking.”

I don’t think Smith is arguing that atheists replace religion with science, but as atheists distance themselves from religion, constructing their identity in terms of what it is not, science and commitment to a secular value-system increase in importance.