Don’t Label Me: The Atheist Billboard Campaign (or Atheism 101: What is Atheism?)

The final phase of the astonishingly-popular Atheist Bus Campaign launched recently.

First, a little background.  The Atheist Bus Campaign was launched by the lovely Ariane Sherine, the comedy writer and blogger who recently spoke for us at Liverpool Skeptics in the Pub.  After spotting an advert on the side of a London bus proclaiming something along the lines of  “Join the Jesus Fan Club or Burn Forever™” (I may be paraphrasing slightly) Ariane devised a campaign to fund similar ads promoting the slogan “There’s Probably No God”.

Although the campaign slogan was criticised from some quarters for being “wishy-washy” and “indecisive“, the Atheist Bus Campaign took off in a way that nobody really expected, raising enough money to fund the “No God” adverts, not only on London buses, but also on buses up and down the country.  Copycat campaigns sprang up around the world, the Christians got very upset, other ads appeared saying “There Definitely Is A God”… it was loads of fun!  I’ll confess that I’m slightly saddened by the fact that I never got to see an actual bus carrying the slogan, although I understand they did run in central Liverpool.

Even after all this, however, there was money left over.  So with the last of the cash, the British Humanist Association has launched the “Don’t Label Me” campaign, which is now appearing on billboards.  The message of this campaign is one I first heard articulated by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion.  In Chapter 9, Dawkins talks about the absurdity of labelling a child with a religion when that child is actually far too young to have any idea what they believe.

Our society, including the non-religious sector, has accepted the preposterous idea that it is normal and right to indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents, and to slap religious labels on them – ‘Catholic child’, ‘Protestant child’, ‘Jewish child’, ‘Muslim child’, etc. – although no other comparable labels: no conservative children, no liberal children, no Republican children, no Democrat children. Please, please raise your consciousness about this, and raise the roof whenever you hear it happening. A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents.

The sentiment is one which I wholeheartedly endorse.  Unfortunately, I’m unable to extend the same unqualified support to the “Don’t Label Me” billboard campaign.  While I’m in complete agreement with the campaign’s aims, there is a niggling problem (largely semantic) which I find rather bothersome.

Before we get on to that however, I want to look at why – at least in my opinion – it is incorrect and unfair to label a child as “Christian” or “Muslim”; “libertarian” or “communist”.

Active Members

There are about as many different definitions of Christianity as there are Christians, but for the sake of argument I’m going to simplify things a little.  Let us define a “Christian” as “someone who accepts the tenets of Christianity”.  I don’t think the definition is unreasonable, although I understand it’s a bit more complicated than that.

What those tenets actually are is irrelevant to the structure of the argument… my point is that, in order to be a member of the set we call “Christian”, you must accept the tenets of Christianity.  That is a positive step which you must take before you can be considered a member of that set.  The same is true for political ideologies.  To be a member of the set “Communist”, for example, you must accept the tenets of Communism.  The same for Buddhism, Capitalism, Islam, Libertarianism, etc.

The take-home point is that membership of these sets is dependent upon some positive action which you must take.  You cannot fall into one of these sets by default.  You could describe membership of these sets as being “active”.*

For this reason, it makes no sense to label someone as a “Communist child” or a “Christian child”.  The child has not taken the positive steps required to be considered members of those sets.  A three year old boy doesn’t accept the tenets of Christianity – how could he?  Therefore it makes no sense to label him a “Christian child”.

Passive Members

Conversely, there are some sets into which you can fall without having to take any active steps.  Take gender, for example.  I was as much male when I was born as I am today.  No positive steps were required on my part to become a member of the set “Male”, I was just born that way.  There is nothing active to do to become a member of that set.

Arguably nationality is a better example as, unlike gender, national boundaries are arbitrary.  But there were still no positive steps required for me to become a member of the set “British”.  I just happened to be born in Britain.

You could describe membership of this type of set as “passive”.*  Unlike the members of active sets, it is meaningful to describe someone as a “French child”, or a “female child” or even a “blond child”.  It is not unreasonable to identify children as members of passive sets.

What is Atheism?

Perhaps the best way to understand the meaning of “atheism” is to first understand the meaning of “theism”, so I’m going to approach this section backward.

Theism, in the broadest sense of the word, could be said to mean “a belief in the existence of a god or gods”.  As with the other religious positions we’ve talked about, this is a set which requires active membership.  To be a theist, you must accept as true the claim “god exists”.  You do not fall into this set by default, you must have been convinced somehow that such a being is real.

Where would the world be without Venn diagrams?

Where would the world be without Venn diagrams?

“Atheism”, therefore, is everything which does not fall into the set “Theist”.  This is an important point, so I’m going to repeat it.  An atheist is someone who does not accept theism. There are dozens of ways you could exclude yourself from the set “Theist”.  Perhaps you positively assert there is no god; maybe you’ve heard the arguments supporting the existence of a god but do not find them compelling; or perhaps you are a chimpanzee and haven’t the faintest idea what a “god” is.

Now, at risk of complicating things further, I understand that not everyone agrees with this definition of atheism.  Some people would insist that to be an atheist you must be able to positively assert “I believe there is no god”, a position sometimes called Strong Atheism.  This isn’t the position I take, however, because to assert “there is no god” is a positive claim which carries an associated burden of proof – a burden which has not, and perhaps cannot, be met.

Atheism, defined as “lack of theism”, carries no such burden, it is a response to theism only.  It says, “I have not yet been convinced there is such a being as god”.  This is the intellectually honest view, the skeptical view, the “innocent until proven guilty” view.  The burden of proof is with theists to convince me that their god is real.  Until then, I do not accept their position.  I lack their theism.  I am an a-theist.

Get on with it – what’s the problem?

So, there are active sets and there are passive sets.  To be a member of the former you must take steps, the latter is something you can fall into by default.  In which group sits atheism?  Well, it’s obviously the latter.  Membership of the set “Atheist” is passive, there are no positive steps required to be a part of that group.  Quite the contrary, if you haven’t taken the positive steps required to join the active set “Theist”, then you automatically fall into the passive set “Atheist”.

But looking at the “Don’t Label Me” campaign poster, I can see the phrase “Atheist child” alongside Christian child, Marxist child, and the other active sets.  Didn’t we say that identifying children as members of passive sets is okay?

I’m sorry, but I think that child is an atheist child – in the sense that she is not a theist.  The label “atheist” is descriptive, it makes no positive assertions about what the child believes.  She is as much an a-theist as an a-capitalist and an a-marxist.  She lacks acceptance of the tenets of theism as much as she lacks acceptance of the tenets of capitalism.

Now I can see why, politically, putting “Atheist Child” on the campaign poster could be seen as the right thing to do.  Without it, you leave yourself open to accusations of special pleading.  It’s inclusion makes it clear that you aren’t attempting to carve out any special privilege for your own religious position… and on that basis, I have no objection at all to the poster featuring “Humanist child” alongside other inappropriate labels.  Humanism is an active set and no child could be reasonably labelled a humanist, as they have not accepted the tenets of Humanism.

But featuring “Atheist Child” and “Agnostic Child”, both what I would consider passive sets, implicitly endorses the common straw man view of atheism as a position which dogmatically asserts “There is no god”.  While its omission from the campaign poster could have attracted accusations of special pleading, I would have welcomed such accusations as an opportunity for debate.  It could have helped tackle the common false equivocation of “Atheism” = “Strong Atheism”.

Perhaps if more people knew and understood that atheism isn’t about dogmatic denial of god then we could more readily make intellectually honest statements like “There’s Probably No God”, without attracting accusations of “indecisiveness”.

If you would like to donate money to the British Humanist Associations campaign to phase-out state-funded “Faith Schools”, please visit

* I’m aware I may be totally mangling set theory here. But hey. Fuck it. It’s my blog, I’ll mangle what I like.

  1. #1 by AJ on November 26, 2009 - 13:30

    Very interesting.

    I share the same position with you on what it is to be atheist. You are correct, that the “Don’t Label Me” campaign ads are not sound in their misleading equivalence of atheism with theisms, and I agree with your stance intellectually, although I think the aim of the campaign is so fundamental to the future of a rational, cohesive society that I am willing to accept it in order to avoid the inevitable cries of special pleading.

    Let us not forget the sage counsel of Whitney Houston, “I believe the children are our future”.

  2. #2 by Stu on November 26, 2009 - 13:55

    It’s one of the things for the fundie faith head to round on whenever debating with the sceptical about religion. “If you’re so sure God doesn’t exist then prove it!” Of course nobody can (can’t be proved he does exist either), but there are people – especially in America – who are looking for a fight with the religious and who do, almost mantra-like, assert “there is no God.” I, for one, would not like to be associated with people of that ilk. They, in my opinion, do the sceptical comminity a disservice and help the religious dig their heels in. The perception, even among the undecided, is that atheists are humourless, dogmatic fundies in the same vein as Jehova’s Witnesses. I’m sorry but “atheist child” is a label to all but the most enlightened and should be included in the campaign. My kids will be making their own minds up when they are old enough – what that age is will be up to them.

  3. #3 by AexMagd on November 26, 2009 - 13:56

    I’ve a feeling – although my views are pretty sketchy at the minute – that it’s a little more complicated than that.

    Maybe, to take the national identity argument it would be the difference between raising a child in Britain and raising a child to recognise itself as British? Both are technically British children but the way they’ve been raised is different. Same with raising a child to fulfill traditional masculine roles I suppose, if you want to go down the gender route.

    There’s a difference between the kind of intrinsic quality (male, British, atheist) you’re describing and the way in which that quality is explained to the child in question that can make all the difference. Granted the children never have to make a choice to be British, or male, or whatever, but they are still being influenced. I know I’d find it hard to raise a child and be unbiased in discussing theology, even though I believe that’s the best way to raise one!

    Of course it could be that they just put it in there because they knew that the campaign would make religious types hopping mad, and the thought of all those angry people unable to accuse the BHA of hypocrisy (thanks to ‘atheist child’ and ‘Humanist child’) is really funny.

  4. #4 by Mike on November 26, 2009 - 21:38

    You have to remember that the poster isn’t aimed at the kind of audience who thinks about these things.

    Personally I would say that ‘atheist’ is both a passive set and an active set. So to avoid confusion between the two just put it up there to cover the bases.

    I personally wouldn’t refer to a child, or a chimpanzee for that matter, as an atheist child. Not because it’s not true, but because it’s useless. They’re only an atheist because they’ve never heard of God. The term atheist implies that you’ve made a decision about it, even if that’s not what it technically means.

  5. #5 by Dave on November 27, 2009 - 01:03

    Great read Mike. My problem is that many of the people I know that describe themselves as “Atheists” also subscribe to the viewpoint that Atheism = “There is no god”. I share your opinion on that belief too and it is for this reason that I describe myself as agnostic when discussing religion even though this is a little wishy washy for my liking!

  6. #6 by Gittins on November 27, 2009 - 09:09

    For me the passive set would be the people who, when asked if they believe in God, would say “I don’t care” or “I haven’t thought about it”. That was my position through childhood, religion simply wasn’t relevant to my life so I never even thought about it.

  7. #7 by AexMagd on November 27, 2009 - 12:40

    When you get right down to it, everyone is agnostic. It’s just not practical to go around saying “It isn’t possible to disprove the existence of a god, but I believe very strongly that there isn’t one”

    Saying “there is no God” is just a functional way of expressing your agnostic viewpoint in the same way that saying “there is a God, and it’s Jesus” is.

    I tend to find that describing myself as an agnostic is interpreted by religious people as a cue to start telling me about their particular deity. On that basis, calling myself an atheist or Humanist is infinitely preferable despite the inevitable assumptions about my views on things unrelated to the existence of god that go with the labels.

  8. #8 by ETRURIA on November 27, 2009 - 23:21

  9. #9 by Red Celt on December 3, 2009 - 17:38

    “The term atheist implies that you’ve made a decision about it, even if that’s not what it technically means.”
    The implication is a theistic viewpoint. How about reclaiming the word (with its negative connotations, warts and all) and educating people as to the differences between strong and weak atheism?

    I most certainly *would* describe a child as being an atheist. We are all born as weak atheists – some become strong atheists once they’re old enough to understand the arguments and counterarguments… whilst others slip under the indoctrination of their parents, community and wider society.

    In hesitating in calling yourself an atheist (because the existence of one or more deities cannot be disproven) is on a par with saying that you refuse to say that fairies, goblins and pixies don’t exist because, after all, we can’t prove that they don’t.

    Must we adopt a position of agnosticism wrt *all* supernatural entities? This strong atheist says “nay, sir!”

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