Why, when atheists explain who we are and what we do and don't believe, do so many people respond by saying, "No, that's not who atheists are -- let me explain to you who you are"?
I recently ran my first Atheist Meme of the Day on Facebook (btw, if you're on Facebook, friend me!), saying, "Atheism doesn't mean being 100% certain that God doesn't exist. It means being certain enough. It means thinking God is hypothetically possible, but unless we see some better evidence for him, we're going to assume he doesn't exist."
And in response, one person wrote: "'atheist' = belief that there is no god. 'agnostic' = don't know if there's a god. Atheist is a belief system as much as any religion is."
This is a frustrating argument to see. It's as frustrating the 34,636th time you see it as it is the first. But it was uniquely frustrating to see it in direct response to an atheist saying, in actual words, "No, that's not what atheism means."
So again, I ask: Why do so many people think they know what atheism is better than atheists do?
I can understand not being familiar with what atheism means in the first place. Heck, for years I myself thought atheism meant 100% certainty, too. But why -- when confronted with an actual atheist saying, "This is what atheism means" -- is the reaction so rarely, "Oh, that's interesting, I didn't know that"? Why, instead, is the reaction, "No, it isn't"? Why is the reaction, "I understand atheism better than you do, and now I'm going to explain it to you"?
Would you say to a gay person, "I understand what 'gay' means better than you do"?
And if you are gay -- how would you feel if someone said that to you?
The word "gay" isn't defined exactly the same way by everybody. Some people call themselves gay or lesbian even though they've had happy and satisfying opposite-sex relationships in the past. Other people call themselves bisexual even though they've had little to no interest in the same sex, or the opposite sex, for years. So, although there are certainly debates and quarrels within the LGBT community about what it means to be gay or lesbian or bisexual, for the most part we get that these lines aren't easy to draw. We get that there's no clear demarcation on the Kinsey scale between gay/lesbian and bisexual. We get that very few gay/lesbian people have been 100% sexually oriented towards the same sex for their entire lives... and that this doesn't make them not gay. And we get that, within reason, people get to define themselves.
We get that gay people get to define for themselves what it means to be gay.
And sympathetic straight people get this, too. Sympathetic straight people don't insist to gay people, "What about those girls you had sex with in college? What about that guy you were married to for three years? I know what being gay is -- and you're not really gay." Sympathetic straight people understand that maybe, just maybe, gay people understand what being gay means better than they do.
I think there are two things going on. (Apart from the more generous interpretation: that the people in questions really just don't know, and that it sometimes takes a few repetitions for the message to get through.)
It's a classic straw man. It's the insistence that we hold extreme and indefensible positions that few of us really hold... so they don't have to wrestle with the reasonable and entirely defensible positions that most of us really do hold.
When gay people started insisting on being called gay; when women started saying, "Please don't call us girls, we're women"; when transgendered people politely but firmly request that people address them by the name and gender they identify as... those are powerful acts. Defining one's self says to the world, "We are not who you say we are. We are who we say we are." It says to the world, "You have to deal with us on our terms -- not just yours." It says this to the world... and it says it to other people in the movement.
Defining one's self is among the most powerful acts a community and a movement can take.
And people who desperately wish for a community and movement to disappear are not voluntarily going to let us have that power.
They are going to keep trying to define us, so they can continue to make us look like rigid, hysterical, unreasonable dogmatists who don't have to be taken seriously. They are going to keep trying to define us, so they don't have to think too closely about who we really are and what we really think. And they are going to keep trying to define us, simply because they can: because defining a marginalized group is a way of saying that your definitions, and not theirs, are the ones that count.
We have to not let them do that.